reinventing the concert paradigm

It’s a pretty easy statement to make that the evolution of technology has contributed greatly to the evolution of entertainment. The video arcade industry crashed once the home console market was able to match and surpass its capabilities. The traveling circus as a unique exotic entertainment show is pretty much extinct now as people can be offered similar or superior entertainment through easier means. And “classical music” (as most people term it) concerts, particularly orchestra concerts, are threatened with a similar state of extinction at least in the US as that music is losing its appeal with the newer generation and less people are inclined to go to those concerts.

As a musician, composer, and educator, i’ve put a lot of thought into the audience of my craft, and recently those thoughts have led me to a radical sort of idea involving audience expectation. Most entertainment contexts these days have either a casual approach to audience protocol or have a more interactive/reactive approach to audience protocol. Sports crowds are a constant chatter of conversation and encourage loud reactions and interactions on big plays. Movie crowds are generally pretty quiet, but it’s still not unusual to get a loud reaction when one is warranted, particularly for comedies. Well-designed marching athletics in all of its forms have “reaction moments” built into the design so that the audience can applaud or whoop and holler if need be. Music concerts, whether big acts in stadiums or small acts in bars are set for a casual atmosphere where people are able to mill about, order drinks, &c.

In contrast, art music concerts have an implied audience expectation and protocol of “sit still and pay attention until we say that it’s okay to clap.” It forces the live concert-goer to completely internalize reaction until protocol dictates the time when it can come out, and to a degree even the manner in which it can come out. While i think that there’s a lot of valid reasons why this is set in place, there’s a part of me that can’t help but think that this rigid structure is part of the reason why these concerts lack appeal for newer audiences. It feels like an old-fashioned aesthetic that lacks context and thus is in its own bubble, which, while once had the strength to stand on its own, is now shrinking and will eventually dissolve into nothing.

Pitched like that, it should be fairly obvious what my idea is: change the protocol. Create a new paradigm for audience expectation for those sorts of concerts to be more casual such as the jazz club bar or the wedding reception band, or more deliberately interactive at times such as the winter drumline/drum corps show, or maybe even completely free such as the big rock concert venue or sports event.

Clearly there are challenges with this sort of shift in audience protocol, particularly as it relates to certain types of concert literature. Some pieces demand a concentrated audience awareness to achieve the maximum effect and would not fare well in a more casual environment, either for the performers or for the audience. I think overall there would have to be some experimentation with different pieces to determine how casual of an atmosphere it could support and the nature of that atmosphere. A couple of years ago the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra did a “concert in the park” deal in honor of a local supermarket opening. The supermarket cooked a huge barbecue and was selling beer/wine/liquor while the LPO played in an ampitheatre area where people could eat and listen casually to the music being played. That worked for that concert because it was free, it was a pops concert, and it was in a large open park area. You wouldn’t be able to pull that off with, say, Adagio for Strings.

More to the point, I’m not necessarily suggesting that the paradigm needs to shift for established works (although i’m not closed to that idea either); it has more to do with new compositions and new composers making an adjustment to how they compose with that paradigm shift in mind, how that changes the nature or character of a piece of music when you plan to write for that sort of environment in the first place. Suppose you have a chamber group of fl, cl, vn, vc, pf, and there’s a section where you highlight an instrument or a duet of the instruments. A jazz club atmosphere would build in them being put more in the spotlight and there potentially being an outro transition moment that could be filled with applause. A large ensemble hit moment could lend to more stage energy from the performers that could support the audience reacting to that moment without it detracting from the music. Thinking about that sort of environment creates a different compositional aesthetic.

Maybe it’s a square-peg-fits-into-the-circle-hole sort of thing, but i think it would be neat to put on series of concerts like that, programmed with a bunch of pieces whether new or old that allows for and encourages the audience to have more freedom, and then gauge its success by the hype, the sales, the reactions. it would surely be awkward at first, but i think it has the potential to gain momentum and change/reinvent the concert paradigm in a way that would resonate more with current audiences and thus maybe provide a context in which the older concert paradigm could generate new life.

Maybe i just need to become a rock star.

Mendel Lee

I'm a composer, musician, and music educator residing in New Orleans, LA.

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