Audience members in a concert hall applauding
Talking About Contemporary Music in a Helpful Way

Talking About Contemporary Music in a Helpful Way

Audience members in a concert hall applauding

Photo by Josh Randell

Over the years I have learned the importance of being able to speak to general audiences. It doesn’t matter if you are presenting your own work or if you are a director of an ensemble or a passionate board member of a new music organization. New audiences can only benefit from getting to know you and your vision of the music. In words, not just notes. Starting the music from beautiful silence is all well and good for a concert in our music departments or for audiences used to contemporary works, but I’m talking here about presenting to groups where most instrumental music is a discovery, especially anything after Britten or Shostakovich. This kind of audience won’t find you, you have to find them. I believe that by skillfully connecting new listeners to contemporary music, we can bring more challenging works to a much wider audience without sacrificing a single note of music.

HOW TO BE

The best communicators are doing one of two things. They are either communicating their ideas or they are making it safe to communicate.

1. Make it safe.

You are the host, so you are in charge of making the audience feel comfortable. I’m often surprised by how after a concert people will come up and make a point of saying “when you explained the music, it was totally non-patronizing” as if they were expecting it to be snobby. For some reason people have in their minds that classical music audiences wear monocles and fur coats. Maybe we’ve all seen too many ‘80s videos of electric guitarists bursting through walls to the outrage of the classical music people on the other side. Either way, for our purposes, making it safe means going way out of our way to check any sense of entitlement at the door.

Remember that colleague during your grad program with the I’m-More-Modernist-Than-You attitude? Not that you would, but be sure you are not channelling that person in any way.

Or, if you have composers in the audience there to cheer you on and feel pressured to use an academic tone to impress them, don’t do that either. They’ll understand that you are reaching out to curious folks who are discovering this music, maybe their music, for the first time.

Instead, be two things: enthusiastic and genuine. If you are enthusiastic and genuine, you will have them, and they’ll hang on your every word.

2. Memorize bullet points.

Here’s a secret: when you have seen those seemingly amazing people who speak to audiences as if it’s off the top of their heads, it’s not off the top of their heads. They’ve memorized the bullet points of their ideas. It’s easy and you can do it too. Before each show I’ll write down something like:

  • Hello and welcome
  • Exciting program
  • Challenging (Beethoven’s time etc.)
  • Texture
  • Gesture
  • Color/Spectralism
  • Introduce composer X

The day or so before, I might mentally practice going from one idea to the next. While you are up there and the public speaking headspace kicks in, these bullet points become a lifeline and you always know what you will be speaking about next.

3. Memorize your first sentence.

You’ll be nervous when you first start to talk. Then after a few seconds you’ll relax and understand that it’s all going to be okay and you will actually start having fun. Until that point you want to be fully scripted.

Speaking of being nervous: if you pretend not to be nervous, they will never know that you are. (Friendly tip: whatever you do, don’t say that you’re nervous. Believe me: it does not make the awkwardness go away. This goes for wedding speeches, too.)

4. Give yourself time afterwards to get into the zone.

If you are conducting or playing in the first piece, you will want to plan a bit of time to go from public speaking brain to music making brain. I’ll usually ask a visiting composer to talk about their piece for a few minutes right before we start, not as a discussion with me, but as a talk to the audience. I’ll pretend to listen (sorry guys) while mentally getting into the zone to conduct the work. Or alternatively, it’s okay to go off stage briefly, get your head together, and come back on to perform.

WHAT TO SAY

Now that you are the perfect host and the audience is relaxed and hanging on your every word, what do you actually say?

When working this out, for me the most important thing I can do is try to think back to the time when I couldn’t make heads or tails of contemporary music and ask: what key pieces of information would have been most helpful for me to know then?

To the audience I’ll say things like this:

Composers are trying to share what it feels like to be alive at this time and place in history. This is going to sound different from music written at other times and places in history, like in Vienna in 1800 or Paris in 1900. The pieces we’ll be playing were written in San Diego in 2012 or Montreal in 1994 so the music will sound quite different from the music of those other times and places.

or

Many composers are trying to build music that withstands the tests of time and that doesn’t crumble away easily. They are taking a long view that will give the world a body of music one hundred years from now and beyond. Therefore it might take many listenings before we become acquainted with it.

If it’s a younger audience I’ll address the myth that concert music is intended to be relaxing:

We hear all the time that classical music is supposed to be relaxing. But we all know that the history of music is a history of ideas, where one composer reacts to the ideas of the composers who came before him or her. So if we have our brains turned off rather than turned on, we might miss some of those ideas.

If the pieces we are playing are mostly about texture, color, and gesture, I’ll address the elephant in the room, which is that most audiences come in listening for a melody that they will walk away singing and are frustrated that there isn’t one. No judgement here: that’s how most of us are taught to approach music and if you don’t have a music degree, that’s what you do.

I’ll say something like: When I first listened to contemporary music I tried to listen for a melody that I could walk away singing and it was a bit of a frustrating experience because the music was really about other things.

If the piece you are playing is textural, you can say something such as:

Instead of listening for a big main melody, we can listen for texture. You can think of texture as 2 or 5 or 100 hundred melodies all on top of one another and we listen to the character of all of them together.

and:

We often think of texture in terms of density, so we can listen for textures that are very sparse, or very dense.

If the music is very gestural:

To listen for gesture, you can ask yourself: what shapes are being created by the music, and how do they unfold over time?

If there are lots of irregular rhythms in music, I’ve said:

When we hear a steady beat, we actually want to move our bodies to it. It’s one of the miracles that music gives to us. But there are many other kinds of rhythms. When you think about it, nothing in nature is really a steady beat. Our heartbeats, our pulse, the rhythms of the tides, the seasons, everything is just a bit…off. And when you think of other rhythms in nature, like insects or birds, or emotions as they arise, these are all irregular. So instead of thinking of rhythms as only steady beats, we can think about them as they occur in nature, which are just events over time.

If the piece you are playing is a premiere, here is something I have fun with:

Historians will move mountains to find out what the audience of the day thought of a new piece. They will go through trunks in attics, letters, and journal entries, all to find out what the audience of the day thought of a new piece of music. Well, ladies and gentlemen, this is a world premiere, which makes YOU the audience of the day. Future historians will thank you if you go home after the performance and tweet about it or record in some way how you feel.

You get the idea. Obviously what you say will depend on the kind of music you are presenting. What is important here is the tone. We’re going for right down the middle: not too smartypants, but also not too dumbed down. Above all, be authentic. And have fun with it!

[Full disclosure: much of the text above is from my A Young Person’s Guide to New Music, for narrator and orchestra where these concepts like texture, color and gesture are introduced while the orchestra demonstrates in real time. There are versions in English, French and Mandarin. (They don’t let me narrate the Mandarin version; I wish they did.) If you like, please feel free to use that last one about the future historians. My gift to you. However for all the other texts in italics in this blog, I’d appreciate a citation. Thanks folks.]

Next week we’ll talk about advocating on behalf of contemporary music to institutions: arts foundations, donors, boards of education, even politicians. How to do it, what to say, and why this is a good idea.

*

Brian Current with arms folded standing in front of a brick wall

Brian Current, photo courtesy Latitude 45/Arts

Brian Current studied music at McGill University and UC Berkeley (PhD 2002). His music, lauded and broadcast in over 35 countries, has been awarded the Barlow Prize for Orchestral Music, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Italian Premio Fedora for Chamber Opera and a Selected Work (under 30) at the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris. Brian Current’s pieces have been consistently programmed by professional orchestras, ensembles and opera companies both across North America and abroad. His opera, Airline Icarus, was released on Naxos Canadian Classics in November 2014. Current is in demand as a guest conductor and regularly leads programs of contemporary music. He is on faculty at The Royal Conservatory in Toronto where he directs the graduate-level GGS Ensemble.

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One thought on “Talking About Contemporary Music in a Helpful Way

  1. Pingback: ARCO-PDX & Cascadia Composers review: Ready for Prime Time | Oregon ArtsWatch

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