Hallowed music in hallowed halls: thinking outside the (musical) box

Music is usually with us most of the time; on streaming platforms whilst we work, on the radio or mp3 player while in the car, running, cycling; it announces the mood of the film we’re about to watch (usually in the cinema: more likely, on Netflix these days…), or draws the programme we’re watching on television to a close. It identifies particular brands or products in adverts; it accompanies times of celebration, of mourning, enhancing public pageants and private moments.

Image: Larisa Birta via Unsplash

In the current climate of various states of lockdown and social distancing, many of us are finding we need music now more than ever; being deprived of the opportunities to either perform or experience live music is affecting musicians and listeners everywhere. The recent resumption of tiny live concerts from the Wigmore Hall – delivered from behind closed doors with only one or two performers and a skeleton technical staff – and performances from the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra have come as a reviving musical burst of oxygen for many.

We’re all looking for solutions at the moment, that will allow us to keep performing and experiencing music during the current pandemic. We look for models, for ways in which others are responding to the challenge in different, creative ways, to see what we might learn from them; what might work, what might offer the possibility of keeping music alive.

Kate Romano: image by Bella West

It’s easy to be afraid; traditional models of classical music, in particular, rely on delivering hallowed music in suitable venues. As musician, producer and creative whirlwind Kate Romano put it recently in an impassioned article by Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian, we cling to “the idea that music of high stature has to be performed in buildings of high stature,” a concept that “closes things down and prevents people from thinking about different ways of people hearing music.”

If we can, for a moment, relinquish the idea that audiences need to experience music in traditional venues (a concept looking increasingly untenable as concert-halls, churches and clubs look to be least suited to allowing live musicians and audiences to occupy the same space), and look instead to other spaces that might allow performers and listeners to come together, in whatever shape or form may be possible, things start to get a little more positive. Think, for instance, of the Proms in the Car Park series that began a few years ago, bringing exciting music to a multi-storey car park in Peckham.

Of course, performances benefit from taking place in ideal, purpose-built venues, in concert-halls and opera houses that have been designed especially to enhance acoustic properties, lines of sight, managing people and instruments and all the trappings of concert-giving. And this is not to undermine their importance, especially when they engage and support their local communities. But these venues rely on packing people together – musicians and audience alike – in order to enhance the electricity that derives from (and is necessary to) live performance – and also to maximise ticket sales, to keep venues operating, and musicians, box office, front of house and technical staff paid. And whilst repertoire benefits from being experienced in exactly the right conditions for the ears and (sometimes) the spirit – sacred polyphony in resonant churches, symphonic repertoire in concert halls, jazz quartets on club stages – the current climate is forcing us to consider the need to move outside of these places, if social distancing requires more space between the players and more seats between the audience.

Rather than trying to realise traditional music in spaces that aren’t designed for it, necessitating amplification or the imposition of ways to improve the configuration to avoid a disappointing experience for the audience, composers would instead write more pieces with non-traditional venues in mind.

Most music is written expressly to be performed in dedicated venues (I recall watching a broadcast of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s About Time in which the sonorous opening brass-call came from the players spaced around the tower of Ely Cathedral, in dialogue with the period-instrument orchestra and modern ensemble below). What happens if organisations started commissioning new works especially for performance in unusual spaces; for car-parks, libraries, art galleries ? Rather than trying to realise traditional music in spaces that aren’t designed for it, necessitating amplification or the imposition of ways to improve the configuration to avoid a disappointing experience for the audience, composers would instead write more pieces with non-traditional venues in mind. Initially, it would be about working on the smaller-scale; using different ensembles, spaced to exploit a venue’s characteristics and draw directly upon them rather than trying to get around them.

I realise of course that this isn’t a short-term solution to the problems we’re facing. And some communities are doing this already. But drawing on this approach particularly at this moment might wed musicians, artists, composers and curators closer to their local communities, encouraging collaboration between artists, the places and the communities in which they live in the way that some festivals already work, resulting in a closer creative dialogue between people and place. The danger, of course, of successfully engaging the local community is that the focus of creative groups and organisations becomes somewhat more inward-looking, or locally focused; but it would be important to keep being aspirational, challenging, and with a view to building towards a return to the concert-hall but wielding a new, imaginatively different approach to programming. Having established a loyal, local audience, what you would then aim to do is to take your community audience with you when the time came that those traditional venues reopen. “You enjoyed listening to us HERE; now listen to us HERE as well!” Building up a faithful, local listenership that then follows you into the concert-hall or opera house might help also reassure those involved that the classical canon in general, and the contemporary scene in particular, isn’t always something of which to be afraid. Those local followers might well be the open-minded, open-eared listeners happy to take the risk, especially if they were engaged enough to have come with you through odd venues, unusual spaces with quirky acoustics and perhaps unusual (or even non-existent) seating…

Now’s the time to think about looking to those imaginative ways of presenting music as models for the future, rather than as Novel But Ultimately Forgettable Sidesteps from the Traditional Ways of Doing Things. There is room for both opportunities: for traditional repertoire in customary spaces, and for traditional and imaginative (and new) repertoire capitalising on the novel possibilities afforded by unorthodox spaces. We need to support and develop organisations prepared to take on the challenge.

And, as Kate dryly tweeted in response: ‘Yes. And channel funding into them.’

Even though a rescue package of £1.57bn towards the arts was announced yesterday (and there are still concerns about how that will be implemented, and whether it will support freelancers and grass-roots venues…), the conversation is still intricate, fascinating – and urgent. We need to keep it going.

Coming home: Laura Osswald reflects on music-making and the impact of lockdown

Erasmus-student, cellist and singer, Laura Osswald, looks back on her time as part of extra-curricular music-making, and how she continues to be involved all the way from her home Germany during lockdown.

More than two months have passed since I have left the University of Kent. But the connection with the Music Department is still strong and will continue to be.

Card on the table: Laura (left) backstage in Colyer-Fergusson

Looking back on my Erasmus semester in Canterbury, music and the amazing people I got to know through it were a huge part of what turned this time into a great, enriching experience. Music allowed me to develop friendships not just based on the common fate of going to the same lecture or living in the same flat, but based on the shared passion of making music, especially making music together with others.

Within the music department, I never felt like a stranger – instead, going into the Colyer-Fergusson building more and more felt like coming home.

Being part of the Symphony Orchestra, the Cecilian Choir and the String Sinfonia and several small groups, I was very involved in the Music Department from the start. In my blogpost from November, I could only look back on the first concerts, but many more have followed. Christmas time had started wonderfully with the Advent Breathing Space with the Cecilian Choir in the medieval St Michael’s Church in Hernhill. My first term then ended with the fantastic concert with the Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. 2020 continued to be full of various musical activities. For Alice in Wonderland, I got the chance of not only singing in a choir, but also dancing as a playing-card which I enjoyed very much!

On the cards: the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ chorus in rehearsal

With the amazing University Camerata, we had a nice family concert of Peter and the Wolf where I was leading the cello section – so exciting and a great experience! I also continued to make chamber music: I joined a string quartet that performed at the Law Ball and a piano trio. With the Symphony Orchestra and String Sinfonia, we worked hard on our repertoire for the concerts in the end of March and I loved our rehearsals – but unfortunately, Covid-19 came in the way. Particularly the cancellation of the Cathedral Concert was very sad for me as it would have offered the unique opportunity to play in the impressive Canterbury Cathedral – I even would have had a small solo in Duruflé’s Requiem. It would have been a great finale for my musical time in Kent.

Laura (second from left) with the chamber group

But then, we found an alternative ending: a Facebook livestream concert with a piano quintet playing the beautiful music of Ólafur Arnalds. This was actually a dream of mine coming true, since I have loved his music for years and always wanted to play it myself – and now I could, together with four amazing musicians. I am very thankful that this happened, giving me a perfect ending to my Erasmus semester and bringing a bit of calm and peace into a troubled world.

When I think of all the music-making and concerts I have been part of, I am incredibly grateful that I had this opportunity and I am so happy I could experience all of this before the coronavirus started to change our lives so much. However, a positive side-effect is the emergence of the virtual music projects! Thanks to the great commitment of Dan Harding and the wonders of technology, I can continue playing with the people I love and miss. Of course, this is very different from making music together face-to-face and it can’t quite replace it, but nevertheless it is a beautiful opportunity to maintain my connection to Canterbury, the Music Department and joint music-making in general.

Social distant-strings; Laura recording as part of the Virtual Music Project from her home in Germany

The music, the memories and the people will stay in my heart. Thank you for welcoming me in Canterbury with open arms, I hope I can come back one day.

Show your working: now is the time to be spoiling the illusion behind creating performances

Lights, camera – action.

Or, currently, more likely: lighting (pulling curtain, adjusting angle-poise lamp), camera-phone (or webcam) – tripod (or dodgy pile of precariously-balanced books) – internet signal (strength variable but should suffice) – crossed fingers – Go Live / Start Stream.

Photo by Claudia Wolff on Unsplash

The lifting of the curtain, the hushed expectancy of the audience as the music begins or the first words are uttered on the stage. The first moments of what, hopefully, is a magical, captivating, challenging performance, created after hours of endless work in crafting a flawless experience that hides well the hours spent in making it. At the moment, that’s all gone.

Whilst lockdown has afforded new ways of realising creative ideas, it also underlines how hard it is to bring about a ‘traditional’ live event. Performers can’t engage with live listeners in the same way, with a packed house, an eager audience.

Continue reading Show your working: now is the time to be spoiling the illusion behind creating performances

Are the performing arts more accessible in lockdown? A reflection on accessing live music in lockdown, shielding and solitude.

As part of our occasional guest series, a reflection on the arts in lockdown by Dr Francesca Bernardi, RSA Fellow and independent researcher into children’s rights, dis/abilities and the arts.

Sometimes people like to use the phrase ‘wearing different hats’ as an expression of versatility, in different contexts or in a single space that requires one to assume different guises to get through the day (at the very least). I suppose that might be a good way to start a brief introduction of my own different hats. I would describe my self as a children’s rights and dis/ability activist, but then feel I am neglecting the very medium of such activism: the arts, visual and performing.

Francesca Bernardi

In this time of crisis I have worn a new guise which has been with me always (unnoticed) and has positioned me in a place of vulnerability and, consequently, I am shielding. Responding to this heightened vulnerable self, has caused me to look at personal ideas, hopes and ambitions in a very different light. I have also been hit financially by the changing shape of academia and my potential role within that space. An added sense of displacement comes from my inability to return to Italy (my home) where I would like to continue my research with communities that are seldom heard, in research, the media and their own social spheres.

Continue reading Are the performing arts more accessible in lockdown? A reflection on accessing live music in lockdown, shielding and solitude.

Rewriting the dimensions of the world: the arts in lockdown and a global audience of one

In the current climate of getting your cultural fix online – music, theatre, dance – I’ve found myself, like many, watching pre-recorded and streamed live performances of musicians and actors from around the world. I’ve written elsewhere of witnessing the courage of cellist and composer Anne Müller’s livestreamed Wohnzimmerkonzert (pictured below); I’ve also watched the troubling Frankenstein from the National Theatre, Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III from the Nottingham Playhouse, and last night’s broadcast of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa from Glyndebourne, a compelling blend of Erwartung, Bluebeard’s Castle and the more menacing waltzes of Ravel.

Continue reading Rewriting the dimensions of the world: the arts in lockdown and a global audience of one

Zoom with a View: awards ceremony with a difference to recognise outstanding contributions to University music

Well, we’ve never had a Music Prizes awards ceremony quite like it before – a sign of the times – but it was still lovely to be able to ‘see’ this year’s prize-winning students, and to be able to thank them for their various outstanding contributions to music-making this past, slightly shorter than normal, academic year.

Stars of the small screen…

The Music Prize Committee has the unenviable task of recognising particular students whose involvement in the extra-curricular musical life of the University, from amongst all those who give up their time in order to participate. The deliberations eventually resulted in prizes this year being awarded to:

Canterbury Festival Music Prize: awarded jointly to Sophia Lyons (Drama and Theatre Studies) and Tom Wust (Business and Management)

Colyer-Fergusson Prize: awarded to Owen Kerry (Physics)

University of Kent Music Prize: Megan Daniel (Law)

David Humphreys Prize: awarded jointly to Matthew Cooke (French and Business Administration) and Melody Brooks (Forensic Psychology)

Sophia Lyons in the title role of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ performing in February
Tom Wust and Meg Daniel performing a Lunchtime Concert at the Historic Dockyard in March
Owen Kerry (top left) among the woodwind section of the Orchestra backstage in December
Matthew Cooke in the role of the Hatter in the production of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ back in February
Melody Brooks (right) performing as part of a chamber ensemble in March

The highly unusual award ceremony, expertly and virtually chaired by Professor Dan Lloyd, was a way both to thank them and also to acknowledge their impressive contributions to a curtailed but still nonetheless excellent period of music-making.

Now for a virtual glass of champagne…


Different risks for the New Normal: a concert by Anne Müller

In an era when musicians (and in fact artists generally) are adapting to the current climate by presenting and performing online, I had the fortune recently to watch a streamed Wohnzimmer performance by cellist, composer and music-and-electronics exponent, Anne Müller.

Continue reading Different risks for the New Normal: a concert by Anne Müller

Music Department Recommends: a listening companion on Spotify

As a means of keeping you entertained / amused / company during lockdown, we’re delighted to present the Music Department Recommends playlist on Spotify this week – your essential guide to differing soundworlds during the current climate.

Each day, we’ve been adding a new piece for your listening pleasure, ranging from laid-back jazz to joyful Baroque, contemporary pop, big band swing or classic tunes. At the moment, Stevie Wonder’s ebullient Did I Hear You Say You Love Me is rubbing shoulders with tracks from Billie Eilish and The 1975, a tranquil summer garden-of-sound from Debussy, a track from Miles Davis’ legendary Kind of Blue album, a beautiful piece by Olafur Arnalds and more – today’s recommendation is the lyrical and mesmerising Strange Birds Passing for flute ensemble by John Luther Adams.

Wherever you’re listening, make sure you Follow our growing playlist as we share songs to entertain, relax, move or transport you somewhere new – the Music Department Recommends playlist is here for you!