What is a concert: awork, an argument, an experience, a history

Spotlights 31.05.2023

What do we retain from a concert? What different forms can it take without ceasing to be a concert? Is it a moment dedicated to the works and their relationships, or an aesthetic and social experience? Is it a place where listeners confront one another, or a confrontation of eras and styles? How is it constructed, and according to what criteria? As these open-ended questions show, the concert is the object of a plurality of perspectives. We'll try to explore a few of them here.

What do we retain from a concert when we don't try to remember it, when the memory resurfaces by chance years later? The singular emotion aroused by a work or an interpretation, the presence of which refuses to pass away: the look on Alfred Brendel's face when, in 2008, after playing the Sonata D960 at the Théâtre du Châtelet, he faced the audience: the surprise that one could read that there were ears there to hear and surprise the intimacy of his tête-à-tête with Schubert; the perpetually expanding form of Wolfgang Rihm 's Jagden und Formen drawn with such finesse and energy by the Ensemble Modern under the direction of Dominique My, in the middle of the 1999 edition of the Festival d'Automne; the fusional transparency of the timbres of the instruments of Ensemble Recherche performing Hugues Dufourt 's L'Afrique d'après Tiepolo at Witten in 2005; the epiphanic emergence of the sounds of viola, tuba, bass clarinet, birbyne and harp in the works ofEliane Radigue 's Occam cycle that I heard at the Collège des Bernardins in 2013; and so on.
Sometimes the performer makes you forget the work, or the work resists his or her interpretation; just as often, a work or a performer makes you forget those who accompanied him or her that evening. Sometimes, however, we remember something else, a confrontation, the singular link forged between several works and several interpretations, the way they illuminated each other, enhanced or contradicted each other. I'm thinking, for example, of the relationship forged between two works by Luigi Nono and two works by Rebecca Saunders at the opening of the Archipel Festival 2003, Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica (1951) and Canti per 13 for the former, Quartet (1998) and Cinnabar for the latter. On the face of it, nothing seemed to link these works, created more than forty-five years apart, in stylistic traditions that could hardly be more different. And yet, something did and did happen, particularly between Canti per 13 (1955) and Cinnabar (1999), composed at roughly the same age - 31 for him, 32 for her - works of relative youth, in which forms are still being sought, but in which the nascent power of two styles emerges all the more clearly.

Canti per 13 is a serial song for thirteen instruments, voiceless, with a strange, almost impossible lyricism that takes refuge in sound, Nono's use of serialism allowing him to singularize its outbursts and, at certain rare moments, already produce admirable suspensions of his material. This lyricism is found again in Cinnabar, a double concerto for violin and trumpet, small ensemble and music boxes. The serial style gives way to a work on timbres and modes of play that both fragments the musical form and produces new and singular sonic alloys. A single gesture emerged beyond the opposition of musical languages - on the one hand fragmenting and spacing out, on the other stopping and suspending - a gesture whose unexpected proximity was underlined by the performance of the Ensemble Contrechamps, directed by Peter Hirsch.

The concert form

With the exception of the first concert I've mentioned since the beginning of this text, the concert of contemporary written music, is just one concert genre among many, now rare and largely in the minority. But it hasn't always been so. In fact, it was for a long time the dominant form of music creation and dissemination: the first public concerts date back to the end of the 17th century in England (from 1678, Thomas Britton organized paying concerts in a London loft, where Handel and Pepusch performed) and to the 1720s in France (the Concert spirituel, founded by composer Anne Danican Philidor, gave its first concerts in 1725 in a hall in the Tuileries Palace).
The concert form and the ways in which music is listened to have obviously evolved considerably since the 18th century, but its general purpose remains the same: to bring works that can be listened to for their own sake to an audience likely to appreciate them. The concert in this restricted, "modern" sense was a way of emancipating music from its court and church functions. After praising the powerful and accompanying the faithful, it learned to celebrate itself, to become its own liturgy, to turn its venues into new temples. This does not mean that music gave up all function, but its nature changed. It became aesthetic: that of producing beauty for those who had no other right to music than their ability to listen to it; and social in a new sense: that of a class that had only two things at its disposal to assert itself: money and taste.
The concert form as we know it today, however, took some time to take shape. Its three main coordinates are the work, the silence and the place. A listener to a concert of written music (baroque, classical, modern or contemporary) listens in silence to works in halls designed to host their performance. When the first concerts were organized, the concept of the work was still in the process of stabilization, silence was relative if not exceptional, and venues were more often than not occasional. From the end of the eighteenth century onwards, concert halls were built(1), behaviours became more standardized, and the performance of works in their entirety became the main purpose of the concert. It was around the figure of Beethoven, at the beginning of the 19th century, that the concept of the work and the type of listening associated with it - respectful and silent - crystallized: fidelity to the work became the regulating idea of the concert and proved decisive in the evolution of listening and interpreting attitudes.

The experience

In recent years, however, another perspective seems to be guiding the theory and history of the concert, that of the "experience". According to German musicologist and media theorist Martin Tröndle, all aspects of the concert - not only the seating arrangements, the ritualization of behavior, the acoustics and lighting of halls, but also the duration, the professionalization of musicians and the dramaturgy of programs - can be seen as factors in increasing the audience's attention and thus enhancing an "experience" that is both social and aesthetic. Our first draft of a theory of the concert," he writes, "must therefore be completed as follows: the audience chooses those variations of (the form of) the concert that are capable of enhancing its aesthetic and social experience. The theory of the concert presented here implies, on the one hand, that the variations chosen in (the form) concert intensify the 'presence of the music' and, on the other, that behaviors have emerged that makethe'experience of self within the community' more visible and intense. "(2) This emphasis on "experience" is not the sole work of theorists; more and more works today take the form of polysensory and multimedia environments that substitute for the traditional concert. Two recent examples among many: Fosse by Franck Krawczyk, Christian Boltanski and Jean Kalman, for 55 musicians and four cars scattered across the Centre Pompidou parking lot, an iterable 50-minute loop during which listeners-spectators were free to wander at will, follow the soprano, attach themselves to a percussionist or sit on one of the few chairs available (2020); Asterism byAlexander Schubert, an installation-performance lasting 35 hours and 34 minutes (from sunset to sunrise) in Strasbourg's Théâtre du Maillon, where, in a bath of light and sound, we crossed a forest, met an oracle, followed dancing bodies, watched the rain fall, fell asleep in a dark corner, etc. (Festival Musica, 2021).

The dispute

However, the fact that today's concert is predominantly a sensory and cognitive "experience" should not blind us to the fact that, throughout the 19th and up to the mid-20th century, it was also a battlefield where camps and tastes clashed, with the help of clappers and clackers. As Peter Szendy writes: " It's not just a place to hear works (although it is undoubtedly the field where the very notion of a work was conquered). It is also a theater where the audience observes itself. Itself. It's a space where we come to watch those who are listening. It's a place where we go to see and listen, or even to listen and listen. (S')écouter écouter, in fact, means turning the work into a battlefield where different camps clash. But this battlefield (which opened up with the birth of the public concert, the critic, the specialized music press...), this polemical space where we listen to each other, sometimes in the mode of complacency, sometimes of surveillance, in short, this theater where listeners expose themselves is also, without waiting, the object of a movement of interiorizing reappropriation, of which I could exhume a thousand clues and testimonies. "(3) Although today's concert is no longer a place of public confrontation between listeners, who prefer to argue after the applause has died down, it can still be contested. The recent cancellation of composer and organist Kali Malone 's concert scheduled for May 13, 2023 in the church of Saint-Cornély, Carnac, under pressure from a group of traditionalist Catholics, however despairing, reminds us that, for a concert, the choice of venue is never neutral.  

Between works

This gives us three possible perspectives, depending on whether we choose to focus on fidelity to the works, aesthetic and social experience, or the confrontation of listening and tastes. There is yet a fourth perspective, the one theorized by François Nicolas in the late 1990s under the name of "between-works". The concert is not only the place where works are heard, but also and above all the place where they meet, relate to, comment on and criticize each other. This presupposes that the concert is more than a concatenation of works, that it possesses form (that a program constructs) and consistency (that it is one). I will presuppose," he writes, " not only that there are concerts (in the strong sense I give to the word), but that there must be concerts . Il faut means: it is musically necessary for there to be concerts, i.e. musical places where different works enter into a sensitive (audible) relationship with each other, and compose what I'll call an entre-œuvres. I posit that the vocation of the musical work is to enter into a relationship with other works, and not to shut itself away in its finitude. "(4)
In François Nicolas' strong sense, the concert is rare and unpredictable. Indeed, it is difficult to know before actually hearing them whether and how the chosen works will relate to each other. No program, no matter how well thought-out, can predict its sensitive outcome. A concert is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Theone I experienced on March 30, 2003 in Geneva could have never happened. Nor did it for everyone. Some listeners heard nothing but disparity and unrelatedness in this concert. However, it is possible to understand this "between" in a weak sense: that of the generic link that will determine the choice of works programmed. It can be historical, thematic, instrumental, genealogical, formal, national, generational, monographic, etc. As programmers' imaginations run wild, it's difficult to list all the types of concert that have been tried out since the 18th century. Even if the "between" doesn't take place in the strict sense, works will have been heard, and each in its own way will have affected the bodies and enriched the minds of the listeners present.

The musical domain and historical perspective

However, we must beware of considering a concert as an isolated event. Programming should be considered on the scale of a season or festival. It's its coherence and consistency over the long term that needs to be assessed. A good example of consistent, well-thought-out programming was that of Domaine musical, which Pierre Boulez founded in 1953, and which remained active until 1973. One of the principles of his programming was the constitution of three distinct plans, which designated both temporal strata and varying degrees of proximity: "a reference plan" for early works likely to have "current resonance"; "a knowledge plan" comprising "contemporary works that are still poorly known" but deemed important in "the evolution of music"; and "a research plan" devoted to new or recent works by active composers(5). This tripartition is obviously not unrelated to the historical situation of what was still known as the avant-garde, i.e. a separation, which would only increase, between musical creation and the potential audience of its listeners. The idea was to compensate for the paradoxical distance between the contemporary and the new, by creating a twofold proximity: that of a one-off encounter with older works, certain features of which might be similar to those of the present ("isorhythm in the motets of Machaut and Dufay", "Gesualdo's chromaticism", "formal inspiration in Bach's L'Offrande musicale ", etc.), and that of a more recent work, to be built upon, which would provide a foundation for listening to those that were still in the process of being written. In other words, a proximity made up of fruitful exceptions with the distant past and a historically situated proximity with a more recent past constituting a repertoire. Discontinuity on the one hand, continuity on the other.
Such programming is not without its prerequisites. It presupposes 1/ the ability to perform in the same concert works that everything (except the salient feature) opposes, 2/ the long-term construction of a contemporary repertoire, sufficiently open to avoid the dominance of a single writing tradition, 3/ new works capable of withstanding this double confrontation, without being assigned to any stylistic imperative. It's easy to see the potential pitfalls of this tripartite principle, which would only become apparent later on. However, it was far from being completely applied. An examination by Jésus Aguila of the seasons programmed by Pierre Boulez (1954-1966) reveals that only 6% of the works played belonged to the reference plan, compared with 43% for the knowledge plan and 51% for the research plan(6).
The first concert, on January 13, 1954, featured an early work(L'Offrande musicale), two works from the contemporary repertoire (Webern's Concerto op. 24 and Stravinsky's Renard ) and two recent works, including a premiere( Luigi Nono'sPolifonica-Monodia-Ritmica and Kontra-Punkte by Karlheinz Stockhausen, performed for the first time in its entirety).(7) In this completely different context, Nono's work must certainly have sounded different. Framed by the stylistically similar but aesthetically very different work of Stockhausen, and that of Webern from which it inherits, it would have seemed difficult to listen to it other than from its serial anchorage. The relationship with Bach and Stravinsky is far more intriguing. Were these two antipodean works capable of forcing the stylistic island, of bringing out differences between Nono and Stockhausen that only the future, then inaccessible, would have fully revealed? Did L'Offrande musicale remain isolated from the others, or was it on the contrary enlightened by these unforeseen proximities? These are all questions that cannot be answered today.

A fifth perspective, that of history, should be added to those already mentioned. As music's present never ceases to replay and reinvent its past, the concert must also be a place for confronting different times. This can be done, as we've just seen, in at least two ways: 1/ by discerning heritages or genealogies, obvious borrowings or formal similarities, 2/ by provoking transhistorical encounters between works that only the concert can bring together. These five perspectives are obviously not exclusive. Rather, they are dimensions specific to the concert in general. A concert can be at once an aesthetic experience, the object of dispute, the site of inter-workings and the fruitful confrontation of a present with disparate strata of the past. I'd even go so far as to say that the more of these aspects it encompasses, the richer it becomes.

Bastien Gallet

1. The Alte Gewandhaus in Leipzig, where listeners were seated facing each other rather than facing the stage, was inaugurated in 1781; the Salle de Concert Pleyel in Paris, where the seats were movable, in 1839; the Canterbury Music Hall in London, where listeners sat around large tables with a glass in hand, in 1852; and the Musikverein in Vienna, which became the model for all subsequent halls, in 1870.
2. "A Concert Theory", in Classical Concert Studies. A Companion to Contemporary Research and Performance, Martin Tröndle (ed.), New York, Routledge, 2021, pp. 11-28, my translation.
3. "L'art de la claque ou: s'écouter écouter au concert", in Le Concert: enjeux, fonctions, modalités, F. Escal et F. Nicolas (dir.), Paris, L'Harmattan, 2000, pp. 109-110.
4. "L'analyse musicale du concert: quelles catégories?", ibidem, p. 9.
5. "Dépliant de présentation des premiers concerts du Domaine musical", quoted in Jésus Aguila, Le Domaine musical, Pierre Boulez et vingt ans de création contemporaine, Paris, Fayard, 1992, p. 139-140.
6. Ibidem, p. 142-143.
7. Ibidem, p. 55.

Photo © Christophe Abramovitz


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