The concert took place in the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ, a modern yet traditional concert hall. In this performance, the separation between stage and auditorium was retained, but the setup on stage significantly reorganized. Instead of placing the orchestra in front of a standing choir, the orchestra musicians were assembled in a semi-circle on the outer stage, leaving enough room for both the soloists and choir members to move around and enact the Passion. In the background, diverse images were projected on a large screen: dead animals, trees, Christ statues, Aleppo in ruins, and so on. Musically, the Passion was enframed by a prologue and epilogue composed by Van Parys, and Odeh-Tamimi's piece L'Apokalypse Arabe was situated as an intermezzo between the two parts of the Passion. The original work was thus accompanied by additional layers of meaning in the form of new music, as well as new visual and theatrical elements.


I was very curious to see how the audience would react to that, taking into account that the majority represented the traditional audience profile of middle-aged, affluent white peopleThrough observation and conversations after the concert, I found out that the multimedia performance was in general highly appreciated. A lot was happening on stage, which stimulated attention to shift continually between the screen, the enactment, and the orchestra. Through the theatrical involvement of the singers, especially, the dramatic aspect of the work came to life, and the story behind the music was emphasized. I was told numerous times that the shifting attention was not perceived to be detrimental to a full experience of the music, since the additional perceptive elements were experienced as underscoring the music rather than distracting from it, amplifying its message. Nonetheless, many people also reacted by occasionally closing their eyes and withdrawing themselves from the influence of the visual input in order to concentrate purely on the auditive experience.


In this example, the theme of a classical work, in this case pain and suffering, was connected to contemporary political and social issues to show how relevant it can be if placed in a new context. This practice revealed that a piece like the Johannes Passion can be more than just a moving musical work from the past – full utilization of its thought-provoking potential and relevance lies in the hands of the performers.


Brainwaves #2 (Leiden)

The LUDWIG ensemble describes itself as a flexible musical collective with “an entrepreneurial spirit and a broad societal vision” (LUDWIGlive). Their goal is to liberate classical music from the barriers that have been constructed around it by approaching, rather than attracting, the public through strategies such as performing in low-threshold public spaces, revising their setup, and collaborating with scientists, artists, and social institutions. During the event Brainwaves, which took place in the Stadsgehoorzaal in Leiden, they connected medical research concerning the effects of music on the brain with music installations and performances.


The Stadsgehoorzaal in Leiden is a “normal” concert building, containing a reception room and a small and large concert hall, but was, contrary to standard practice, used in its entirety during this event as a performance space. Located in eight spaces including the stairs, foyers, and halls a three-hour journey of exploring the connection between music and research was offered to the public. One could listen to presentations regarding ways in which music helps to ease autism, dementia, or pain, whereas in another room, one could recline on pillows on the floor and listen to Arvo Pärt's Silentium; one could join an open discussion about the connection between music and care while musicians of LUDWIG appeared every once in a while as an intermezzo in-between the temporal and physical spaces to play classical pieces or improvisations.


Although a schedule was provided as a framework, the public was welcome to come and go as they wished and move freely between the different spaces. There was plenty of room for conversations and questions, and the contact between performers and visitors was intimate and almost without barrier, as no stage or auditorium separated the two groups spatially. The musicians were continually moving from one space to another, as was the audience; performances and acts “happened” as a direct result of the interactions arising among the group of people who were present at a given moment, but fluidly changed again in the next. No fixed seating arrangements were provided; the audience could move chairs to the spot where they wanted to sit or stand or walk at their own speed and inclination through the acts.


This type of setup allowed for a very flexible, individualized “concert” experience in which everyone could structure the evening as they wished, and the music itself was transformed into an object for discussion and consideration from many different angles, both literally and figuratively.


Het Muzieklokaal (Utrecht)

One popular strategy for bringing classical music closer to the public is the organizing of Concert Cafés. A well-known example is Het Muzieklokaal in Utrecht, where classical music is performed two days per week, mostly by conservatory students. In a familiar and relaxed setting, visitors of the café can listen to live classical music performed by soloists or chamber music ensembles while drinking a glass of tea or wine. The performance is generally set in the middle of the café so that the performers are visible from all angles. The musicians perform two sets of approximately 20 minutes each, preceded by a brief introduction, informing the audience a bit about the pieces as well as about the performers themselves.

When I played in this setting with a colleague, I found it to be quite a challenging endeavor. The public that happens to be there at the moment of playing ranges from people who deliberately came for the music to people who were not expecting a performance, let alone a classical one, and experienced it as a disturbance to their social outing and conversations. It is quite an odd layering of a concert atmosphere and a background music gig for a well-meaning, but otherwise indifferent public. The introductory or intermittent talks of the musicians are highly appreciated and often met with interest, smiles, attention, and clapping. Most people also spend the entire two sets of twenty minutes listening attentively, although concentration tends to drop considerably after 10 to 15 minutes, with the noise level rising. When I finished playing, it was as if the majority of the public had forgotten that there was music and only began to applaud as they noticed that the extraneous sound was not there anymore.


As a classically trained musician, one is not quite prepared for this kind of performing, as the monopoly of audience attention that we are used to is split into multiple directions and only occasionally touches upon the performer. It becomes distracting when people move around or when the background noises increase, which can have clear consequences for the quality of playing. Of course, one could say that this is not that important in such a context, since most people are not “connoisseurs.” However, I cannot completely align with this opinion, since it seems to suggest that in order to make contact with people in their mundane environment, both music and performance must be compromised. But if “making contact” in the form of capturing and absorbing the attention of the audience is not fulfilled, can one say that this performance set-up works? Perhaps it achieves this goal through a leveling of the playing field: allowing musicians to leave their elevated and distant position on stage, thereby moving them spatially closer to the public. Many visitors expressed that they were interested in classical music and would love to learn more about it, but generally miss opportunities for getting in touch with it, which is why being so close to the action is a welcome alternative to a concert visit. In concert cafés, musicians are perceived more as individuals and human as they talk about their pieces, introduce themselves and tell anecdotes, thus significantly lowering the threshold for personal contact.


Nieuw Amsterdams Klarinet Kwartet and Ricciotti

Musicians also make efforts to bring classical music into public spaces. Two ensembles, the Nieuw Amsterdams Klarinet Kwartet (NAKK) and Ricciotti specifically use classical music to surprise people and interrupt the flow of urban everyday life. The NAKK consists of four clarinet players who graduated from the Conservatory of Amsterdam, whereas Ricciotti is a symphony orchestra of younger students who meet for project weeks consisting of rehearsals and a concert tour through either the Netherlands or abroad. Both ensembles stretch the spatial possibilities of performing and move beyond the concert hall and stage.


For the Ricciotti ensemble, the goal is to provide “live symphonic music everywhere and for everyone” (Ricciotti Ensemble). In accordance with its deliberate identification as a street orchestra, the ensemble performs in public spaces or for social institutions in order to make a connection with society as a whole instead of with the limited group who can afford expensive concert tickets and choose to enter concert halls. During their tours, they perform multiple times a day in various locations, both planned or spontaneously, in front of the bus or on their way to a concert venue. Their classical repertoire is presented with energetic choreographies and in close contact to the listeners, occasionally approaching them while playing, talking about the music, or letting them try the instruments afterwards. 

Musical Traffic Jam


Shoreditch Agency, 30 June 2015




Julia Friederike Pank


Research Project “(Re)positioning Modern Concert Music in Contemporary Society”

Research Traineeship Program 2017

Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, Leiden University, the Netherlands


To discover what you've never seen, what you didn't expect, what you didn't imagine. But how to give examples? Not what, over time, has come to be listed among various wonders and surprises of the world; neither the grandiose nor the impressive; nor even the foreign necessarily. But rather the reverse, the familiar rediscovered, a fraternal space. (Perec 1997: 77f.)


When thinking of a classical music concert, most likely a concert hall like the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam or De Doelen in Rotterdam comes to mind with their grandiose design and clearly defined functional spaces such as the reception room, the hall with its fixed chairs and stage, and the backstage area. These buildings are also social constructions that impose certain relationships and behavior on the visitors, creating a microcosm of an ideal society (Small 1998: 27, 36). The governing elites have hereby maintained a monopoly on the definition of civilization and development as well as privileged access to both (35-38). Concert halls are still widely associated with issues such as wealth, power, seriousness, and entitlement – issues that eventually came to be attached to classical music itself. If classical music, as theorized in the crisis-rhetoric, loses touch with contemporary society because it embodies values that no longer appeal to or hold any significance for the contemporary public, the idea of releasing it from the heavy connotations of the “traditional” space of the concert hall is more than reasonable. And indeed, it has become quite a common practice among ensembles to perform classical music in alternative locations or to transform the concert space in some significant way. 


The following case studies constitute a small selection from a wide spectrum of contemporary performance practices that break with (some) traditional conventions of the classical concert. A profound and detailed description of a few instances should serve to give an impression of the complexity and richness of the entire “space of possibles” (Bourdieu 1983) in which musicians operate and seek out strategies for reviving classical music today.

I. Questions Asked and Frameworks Used

If we accept the idea that the emerging “culture of presence” reshapes the interests and desires of contemporary Western society, Gumbrecht's (2004: xiii) definition of presence as “our spatial relationship to the world and its objects” should strike us. He fundamentally links presence, the act of being, to space as the entity in which things exist and take place (xiii, 14). Since the spatial turn in academic thinking and writing, a conscious distinction between space and place has gained popularity, contrasting place as a fixed entity with space as a socialdimension embedded in (power) relations. Conceptions of space are not uncommonly employed when engaging theoretically with artistic and social phenomena. Pierre Bourdieu described the field of cultural production as a “space of possibles,” creating a mental image of mechanisms of artistic production constituted of positions and position-takings (Bourdieu 1983: 313). Whenever one position is altered by a changed position-taking or the entry or presence of a new element, the entire space is transformed as it is composed of the relations and dynamics between them (312, 314). The positions in the field are occupied by actors such as institutions, persons, problems, and ideas that together form “the mood of the age” (314). Although he predominantly refers to the literary world, he invites us to replace this world with any art world, and indeed, his thoughts are no less applicable to the exploration of the musical domain.


In order to give my rather fragmented research findings a framework, I understand the explored performance practices as position-takings within the “space of possibles.” The “repertoire of the field,” that is, the possible positions it offers to the actors within it, designates the playing field of actions that can be performed (Bourdieu 1983: 315). This resonates with the title that Hamel has given his book, Speelruimte, which is quite an appropriate term for directing our attention to the experi-mentalities shaping the contemporary landscape of (classical) music-making. What such a reading of the artistic sphere offers is a break from the simple binary: the internal reading of an artwork, i.e. the isolated interpretation of its content, and an external reading, i.e. its correspondence to surrounding social conditions (Bourdieu 1983: 316). In keeping with Small's concept of “musicking” as the sum of contributions that create a performance, I treat the concerts in my analyses not as fixed products or objects but as processes unfolding in a specific moment at a given place.


During my concert visits, I attempted to make myself more aware of the seemingly self-evident concert spaces and the happenings within them. All too often we enter and dwell in them unthinkingly, as we have become too acquainted with them to, without effort, consciously perceive how they might have come into being. With this in mind, I began to complexify my own perception by paying detailed attention to what I saw, heard, and sensed. Ways of doing this were (1) sketching arrows of my own attention on a sheet of paper during the performance; (2) noting changes of light and images; (3) becoming aware of the material objects, visual and auditive elements, and bodies in the space; and (4) paying close attention to changes in the constellations of people involved.

II. Case Studies

And You Must Suffer (Amsterdam)

The works of Johann Sebastian Bach undoubtedly belong to the established canon of classical music that is performed innumerable times each year. During the Opera Forward Festival 2017 in Amsterdam, Bach's Johannes Passion was reconceptualized through a collaboration of B'rock, Muziektheater Transparantcontemporary composers Samir Odeh-Tamimi and Annelies van Parys, visual artist Miriam Devriendt, and stage director Pierre Audi. With the aim of relaying the message of this work within a contemporary framework, this reinterpretaton was intended to provoke “reflection about the role of religion, suffering and compassion in our times of increasing religious and cultural tensions” (De Nationale Opera).

And You Must Suffer


B’Rock Orchestra, 5 October 2016

Ricciotti Plays for the IMC Weekend School


Frans Boom, 4 May 2017

While I have not been able to witness a live performance, two videos of the Nieuw Amsterdams Klarinet Kwartet show the ensemble playing in a tram and on a congested highway. What these videos demonstrate is how unusual such “concerts” are often perceived: people who are suddenly confronted with classical music do not seem to know how to react to it, as the performances appear as a hybrid form of street music and traditional concert, with the observers not being able to directly access conventional codes of conduct, as they might be in a concert hall.

Bach in the Tram


Bart de Kater, 23 October 2015

In these examples, music is extracted from its usual framework and becomes an unexpected interruption of contemporary life. Relocating classical music to mundane urban spaces - such as parks, train stations, sidewalks, or even supermarkets - removes its extra-ordinary connotations and makes it more tangible and accessible, intra-ordinary so to speak. In such instances, classical music becomes part of everyday life, and “everybody on the street who runs into the event and witnesses it becomes an audience member” (Van Eikels and Brandl-Risi 2011: 20). Thus, the concert is no longer constructed as an event that requires deliberation and entitlement but turns into a momentary, and perhaps even arbitrary, happening. 

Ricciotti in the Supermarket


Frans Boom, 14 June 2015


For their 15th anniversary, the ensemble 7090 organized a birthday celebration concert at the Orgelpark in Amsterdam. The ensemble dedicates their performances primarily to new music, but all members have a classical background in terms of conservatory education. Their goal as an ensemble is to “create spaces that function as free zones where unbridled ideas and dreams about performing arts are subject to experimentation” through multidisciplinary and playful action.


The concert space at the Orgelpark was separated into five different “stages” distributed all over the main performance space, which were set up and decorated in different ways and used for different acts. A film in the background showing moving images of a washing machine, houses, trees, conductor's hands, and so on, accompanied all acts. The performers' attire ranged from traditional black concert dress to flamboyant costumes. The acts themselves were combinations of theater and music-making on classical instruments as well as other objects, such as buckets, vacuum cleaners or electric drills, mostly improvised, but also adapted from classical pieces, and often approximating the absurd. To me, the acts seemed to function as caricatures of music experiencing. So many weird and unexpected things happened that nothing was disturbing; the audience continuously applauded, laughed, and wondered, and everything was accepted as part of the performance, and almost every aspect broke the traditional mold of a concert.


The evening lasted from 20:00 to 1:00, significantly longer than a “normal” concert, and was divided into a series of acts lasting approximately 45 minutes each, followed by short breaks. The set changes and preparations for each following act took place slowly and visibly, becoming an equal part of the performance. The in-between instances, both in terms of time and space, allowed an interesting dynamic to unfold: the audience used those breaks to stand up, move around, and talk to each other and the musicians, as well as to move to different seats in the room in order to experience the next acts from a different perspective.

By means of the fragmented stage, the unconventional instruments, the improvisational character of the performances, and the many breaks, a low-key and anything-goes atmosphere was created, which lowered, if not eliminated, barriers and facilitated a playful personal contact. This concert thus served as a catalyst for interaction and exchange regarding the many noteworthy and caricaturistic aspects of the performance that seemed to demonstrate that nothing is impossible.

Ricciotti at Leidseplein, Amsterdam


Frans Boom, 5 June 2016