As the cultural sector adapts to a world where traditional concerts are not possible, Administration and Communications Assistant Tom Foster discusses why relevance should be a priority when devising new formats.
What is relevance?
A quick internet search defines relevance as “the quality or state of being closely connected or appropriate.” When we discuss relevance in the arts, we should take it to mean creative practice that is closely connected or appropriate to the audiences who are experiencing the work and to contemporary life.
My personal turning point came a few years ago when attending a concert. Looking around I soon noticed that the entire audience was made up of the same handful of musicians that I had seen at every other recent concert. How can music possibly progress if it is being held hostage in such a restricted environment?
Large numbers of people are consciously deciding not to attend concerts, even if they enjoy classical music. Classic FM, for example, has 5.7million listeners tuning in every week. In fact, a report by MIDia Research found classical music to be more popular among younger listeners than both R&B and hip hop. It is unsurprising that a large proportion of radio listeners feel no obligation to pay high ticket prices to endure lengthy performances of outdated music, observing strict etiquette from the distant past. Audience Finder data recently discovered that a staggering 67% of bookings resulted in one-time visits to this type of event. A lot of these bookers are likely to be avid radio listeners who are knowingly rejecting being forced into archaic concert formats.
How can music be relevant?
There are many ways to bring this model up to date. Performances of new or recently composed works is one method. Certain artists deliberately exhibit extremely relevant work in a way that historical performances are not capable. Take Laura Bowler’s work as an example. Laura weaves contemporary topics and activism into the heart of her compositions. Laura has even sailed to Antarctica to create a piece about climate change. The result of these actions are performances that provoke an emotional and thoughtful response from audiences. These are topics and ideas that are already on the listener’s mind during their day to day life and Laura’s art invites them to consider such subjects in detail.
Laura has also worked with Orchestras Live in Cumbria as part of our Encountering Wordsworth project in which she worked with local young composers, exploring the landscape and environment where Wordsworth lived to collaboratively create a musical response to his work with the local setting and people embedded in it.
Being relevant doesn’t mean that we can no longer perform historical works, it simply demands that the format is modernised. Refreshed presentation, informal spoken introductions that explain the music in accessible ways that are more accessible, and just about anything that removes the strict social rules of concerts should be considered.
The Multi-Story Orchestra have been setting the example of this ever since their performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in a car park in Peckham. The performance breathed new life into a well-known piece and introduced it to listeners who ordinarily would never attend concerts. Transplanting the orchestra into a fresh space, combining the performance with a DJ set by Gabriel Prokofiev, and opening with the orchestra’s living programme notes all worked to dismantle negative stereotypes and break down barriers that were preventing people from attending concerts. The orchestra has gone on to combine this approach with community engagement work, composing with children in schools across the country.
Last year the orchestra worked with young musicians in East Riding of Yorkshire to produce a local car park performance of Terry Riley’s In C as part of Classically Yours. This performance directly involved local young people with the music and, by using a distinctly different performance venue, managed to shatter the rigid etiquette of concert halls resulting in an overall much more welcoming experience for unfamiliar audiences.
Why should music be relevant?
Relevance is vital to our cultural infrastructure. Currently, concert programmes are dominated by the work of dead white men which is hardly representative of our society and reinforces classical music’s elitist reputation. Relevance is a key tool in creating artistic experiences that inspire larger and more diverse audiences. Innovation and a conscious investment in the development of classical music is fundamental to securing the future of the art form.
Creating relevant work should never be misunderstood to be either a “dumbing down” or an act of charity. Relevant art is a fascinating means of gaining a greater understanding of the world we are living in through creativity. This work is crucial in order for all of us to benefit from as rich a cultural and artistic environment as possible.