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


These examples comprise only a small fraction of the vivid landscape of possible performance practices that musicians currently explore and develop, yet already offer some interesting points of departure for reflecting on how alternative performance practices affect conceptions of what a classical concert is (not) and can be.


How the concert space is constructed affects what happens within it. Importantly, the production of the concert space goes beyond the material features - such as stage, chairs, balustrades, etc. - as it is entwined with immaterial and social elements like light or the movement of people that are just as much part of its constitution. This affects the visual and auditory engagement of the audience as well as the position-takings of performers and, ultimately, the status of the music. The transforming, merging, or otherwise blurring of spatial boundaries, as touched upon in the case studies, carries interesting implications for the ways in which audience and performers relate to one another, as well as potential interactions that might unfold among them. Small sees a musical performance as “an encounter between human beings through the medium of organized sound production” (Small 1998: 10). Similarly, sociologist Howard Becker understands artistic production in collective terms, namely as “the result of the coordinated activities of all the people whose cooperation is necessary in order that the work should occur as it does” (1976: 703). This brings me to the conclusion that performing classical music does not necessarily require a fixed and organized space like the concert hall, although we have become so acquainted to it that at times, it is even equated with classical music.


Theater scholar John Stevenson points out that efforts aimed at more audience involvement, despite undoubtedly adding a different dynamic to a performance, have so far failed in truly bringing about a “revolution” that would overthrow the basic separation between the audience and the “creative people” (1995: 3). In my observations, many elements considered typical of a classical music performance were still present in the various practices. However “alternative” the performances were, the audience always clearly retained a bystander-role, and mostly remained silent and attentive during the performances, showing their appreciation afterwards with applause. Does this mean that “the fourth wall,” the symbolic separation between audience and performers, cannot be overcome? Actually, I do not think that this should be a goal per se. However, what is certainly a valuable addition is to create spaces for interaction between, before, and after the performances in order to connect to the human beings that take on the roles of musician and performer during the performance.


Small argues that confining music-making to the concert hall is contrary to its social nature, since this space precludes interaction, sociability, and collectivity while signifying opulence and isolation (1998: 25, 27). What performers do when repositioning their music-making in different locations, transforming the setup of the performance space or altering the structure and character of the concert, is in fact a reclamation of the diversity of possible performance spaces and practices that stand at their disposal. Interestingly, the inhabiting of “alternative locations” is by no means a radical break with former musical practices: open performances in gardens, living rooms or coffee houses, where music and socializing went hand in hand, have taken place in baroque times and beyond (Small 1998: 29). Interruptions of prevailing conventions create a critical distance to the discourse in which we find ourselves and are thus an important contribution to challenge unquestioned norms and, in Bourdieu's terms, provoking new position-takings in the field of cultural production, eventually including those of policy-makers, sponsors, and the public. Although each musical performance is a “bounded act” taking place in “conditions of extreme temporality” and tied to the particular constellations and circumstances of the moment (Harris 1999: 116), if a specific performance practice is repeated often enough, as with the concert hall tradition, it can become an (unquestioned) reality, a norm, a musical truth. In turn, when performers break with such established conventions and interrupt the continuity of this norm, it is put into question, and a “space of possibles” opens up which reveals that a classical concert can be far more than what it is often conceived to be, and that the confined understanding of the term “classical concert” does no justice to the vast diversity of performance practices that it seeks to represent.