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Sep 10

Turn it up: Jonathan Harvey on concert audiences and amplification

In a recent article, composer Jonathan Harvey proposes abandoning the idea of conventional audience behaviour at concert halls, in a bid to attract younger audiences.

Jonathan HarveyI’ve written previously about expected audience behaviour, as it’s important to make music accessible to everyone without burying it beneath all manner of stultifying conventions that will almost certainly put people off, especially younger audiences who are potentially the Ticket-buyers of Tomorrow. The almost religious state of obeisance required to sit still and attentively through classical repertoire is alien to those who attend jazz gigs and rock concerts. Clap in the wrong place during a symphony, and you’re greeted with icy stares or patronising glances: clap after a particularly fine instrumental improvisation at a jazz gig, the musicians will nod their thanks.                      

Harvey advocates amplifying music in performance, standard practice in rock and jazz gigs but greeted with a sharp intake of breath at classical concerts.

“There is a big divide between amplified and non-amplified music. The future must bring things that are considered blasphemous, like amplifying classical music in an atmosphere where people can come and go … and certainly leave in the middle of a movement if they feel like it.”

Leave in the middle if they feel like it ? Blasphemous indeed, perhaps – to some. But precisely this premise was part of Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson – written in 1976, the opera lasts for around five hours, and consists of nine scenes linked by short interludes known as ‘Knee Plays;’ there is no plot, and the audience members are free to enter and leave when they wish.

Harvey has composed in the electro-acoustic field as well as traditional choral and instrumental works: Le Tombeau de Messiaen is composed for piano and tape;  Mortuos Plango, Vivos Vocos whizzes the tenor bell of Winchester Cathedral and voice of a boy soprano (Harvey’s son) around in space, whilst Speakings portrays the birth, development and establishment of language and is written for orchestra and live electronics.  His choral compositions range from the dancing Virgo Virginum to the beguiling mesmerism of The Angels. 

There is of course a divide between audiences for classical concert repertoire and jazz and rock lovers: but as composers such as Mark-Anthony Turnage and Tansy Davies are proving, it’s not an insurmountable one. (Frank Zappa’s The Yellow Shark, anyone ?) And if you go to a concert given by groups like Icebreaker or to hear music by Steve Reich, amplification is almost de rigeur.

Harvey makes the prediction that “if orchestras and conductors hang on to the orthodox method of performance they will end up playing to empty halls.” Whilst one hopes fervently that this will not be the case, there is surely some room to accommodate new ways of listening to music, in a way that will attract younger audiences: isn’t there ?

1 comment

  1. Colin

    The live sound of an orchestra, band or even a 4 piece rock band in a small venue comes from having multiple points of sound blending in the room.
    Amplification of such bands for big venues is normally achieved by mixing down to stereo and running the mix the sound engineer has produced to 2 points. Even with extra tweeters and woofers split at an arbitrary frequency level (device dependent) the resulting output is not the same as sitting in front of (and nowhere near the impact of sitting within) the live no amplified ensemble.
    Digital mixing degrades the signal. Stereo and Quad are not enough.
    Development work needs to be done to create a multi point amplification system which puts the listener inside the orchestra in large venues.
    Disney and Stokowski attempted to do this with Fantasia in the late ’30s but only two cinemas were fitted out. 72 speakers I seem to remember.
    Sound like a great PhD project to me. I’m sure we could get some speaker/amplifier manufacturer to fund the kit………………

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