Public vs. individuals

Reviews 31.05.2023

The evolution of concert forms not only reflects new cultural practices, but also the invention of a new relationship with the audience. A challenge that concerns cultural institutions at least as much as artists.

The emergence of immersion - or the concert as a "total" experience

In parallel with the transformations that artists have brought to the concert form, particularly since the post-war period, there has been a profound change in "cultural practices" and listening habits, largely correlated with technological developments (whether in music recording or in its mediatization) that have multiplied the capacity to disseminate works and the ways in which they can be encountered. Over the last few years, for example, the notion of immersion seems to have become the new pie in the sky for cultural institutions, and music institutions in particular, anxious both to capture the digibornic generations and to capitalize on the rise of digital technologies. In 2019, a study published by the CNC entitled "Virtual reality and immersive experiences in France" revealed that, for 93% of those surveyed, immersive experiences were "a new way of approaching culture and leisure". A result which, in 2022, led to the replacement of the DICRéAM (Device for Multimedia and Digital Artistic Creation run by the CNC) by an "immersive creation aid fund" that has caused many to cringe, seeming to impose immersion as the new sesame for artistic emergence.

More generally, the aim is increasingly to turn the concert into a genuine "experience", calling on all the spectator's senses - after Wagner's "total work of art", are we on the way to the "total artistic experience"? We could cynically limit ourselves to pointing out the inevitable appropriation of the notion of experience by the marketing sphere ("customer experience", "traveler experience", "visitor experience") in a generalized context of "instagramization" of the world. We could also point out that, as Jacques Rancière's work(1) has shown, the position of seated spectator is not necessarily synonymous with passivity. Finally, we might choose to hold our noses and declare that music is too serious a business to turn concert halls into amusement parks.

But we can also choose to rejoice, and see in immersive devices one of the ways, for "classical" music in general, and for contemporary music in particular (even if the latter is less confronted than the former with the phenomenon of aging audiences), of renewing its audience, and attracting people not usually inclined to push open the doors of concert halls. From the many adventures offered by Ircam's Espace de projection in the field of 3D sound(2) to the works of François Sarhan (Éphémère enchainé2015) or Alexander Schubert 's Asterism (2021); from the headset-based rereadings of Bach Suites recently imagined by cellist Soizic Lebrat (Bach to 3D2023) to the new production of the opera Einstein On The Beach by Susanne Kennedy and Markus Selg at the forthcoming Festival d'Automne à Paris, a growing number of artistic proposals bear witness to a desire to make the listening experience more complex. Often, as we've said, it's a question of summoning all the spectator's senses, to the point of bringing him or her into a trance-like state, perhaps reconnecting with the most archaic of practices (see the return to favor currently enjoyed by the term "shamanism" in concert hall programs and artists' discourse); of making the spectator lose his or her bearings, or at the very least proposing other ones than that of frontal confrontation with the work and its performers.

Frontality is not inevitable

After all, as I reminded you in a previous column on this very site, the form of the public concert "is only two centuries old, and it took the emergence of the Romantic version of the artist (followed by the invention of electricity, which made it possible to black out the hall), the triumph around 1820 of the German taste for attentive listening, which gave pre-eminence to the aesthetic function of music, for the frontal and silent form of this interplay between a performer, a listener and a work to become ritualized in its turn. " It wasn't until 1945, for example, that the practice of applauding between movements of a work(3) ceased - a practice that today has become excessively divisive, distinguishing the good grain of music lovers - in the Bourdieusian sense of the term - from the chaff of neophytes. Today, we have to admit that these outdated rituals need to be reinvented if "great" music, and creative music as a whole, is to win over a new audience - and that, year in, year out, more and more musical institutions are doing just that. Whether it's a question of frontage or the way a program is presented, whether it's the length of a program or the excessively codified way in which performers present themselves, there are still many parameters to play with if a concert is to have its full effect on the audiences of 2023 - even if with some of these parameters, such as the silence of listening, it certainly seems difficult to compromise.

As a spectator, I was deeply impressed, for example, by a concert by the]h[iatus trioensemble I attended in 2007 at the Sonorités festival in Montpellier, which featured a seamless succession of pieces by James Tenney, Helmuth Lachenmann and Salvatore Sciarrino, apart from the musicians' improvisations, which enabled me to move from one to the next. Rarely have I listened to a concert of contemporary music with such sustained, present attention as on this evening - to which I'll return in 2021 in another column, "From recital to playlist".

As a programmer, I have modestly tried, as far as possible, to propose other concert formats, other ways of presenting concerts: Whether by insisting on the importance of communicating with the audience, or by playing on the duration of the event, either via river programs, or by programming works of unusual proportions, such as Dennis Johnson's November cycles (1959) orAlvin Curran 's Inner Cities (1996-2010) - a composer who has never ceased to invent alternatives to the traditional concert. It's true that music affiliated with minimalism presents a singularly fertile playground for imagining other listening conditions and other experiences of live music - whether we're thinking of the compositions of La Monte Young or the "All-Night Concerts" once given by Terry Riley.
Whether listening is wandering or static, intermittent or constant, it seems to me that in all cases the aim is to give the listener an active role, to stimulate his or her attention, to involve him or her more closely in what is being played.

In praise of participation

The creation, at the end of 2020, of a "Délégation générale à la transmission, aux territoires, et à la démocratie culturelle" within the Ministry of Culture is a clear indication of the urgent need to work on these issues (and of the delay in doing so). It was time, in fact, to take note of the failure of what has been called "cultural democratization", and above all of the advances opened up in 2007 by the Fribourg Declaration on cultural rights. By insisting on the fundamentally diverse (and not univocal) nature of the notion of "culture", this text underlines the extent to which the latter is the primary condition of emancipation, and as such the leaven of democracy and citizenship.

One of the great merits of the Fribourg Declaration is that it substitutes the notion of "people" for that of the public. This substitution is infinitely fruitful if we take the trouble to reflect on all that it implies, for cultural institutions, in the way they open up to other cultural expressions and address the people they welcome. In this respect, the rise of participatory concerts seems to suggest one of the most significant developments of recent years.

Of course, participation is not a guarantee of success in itself, as there are many criteria involved in the success of such actions - starting with the way in which they are addressed to the people concerned, whether artists or participants(4). And we mustn't allow participation to join immersion as a contemporary institutional cream pie, just because it allows us to "tick a lot of boxes" in grant applications. It does, however, appear to be a particularly interesting form of form renewal, enabling professional artists to develop their practice and their way of looking at their discipline and presenting it to "spect-actors" - in short, to break down the "fourth wall" of sound.

David Sanson

1. See Le Spectateur émancipé, Paris, La Fabrique, 2009.
2. See the article "1977-2023: l'odyssée de l'Espace de projection" recently published in issue 23 of L'Étincelle, "le journal de la création à l'Ircam", pp. 26-36.

On Metaclassique, Hémisphère son's partner, you'll find the program Voter autour de Music of Choices by Alexandros Markéas :


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