Feeling free to be themselves

6th August 2009 | Concerts, Musings | 4 comments

I’ve been thinking about Charles Hazlewood’s article in Monday’s Guardian. He wrote about some open-air orchestral concerts he’s going to conduct in a field in Somerset, explaining that he wants to bring great music out of the intimidating concert hall and into a fun relaxing space. Good for him. I started my professional career doing something just like that with Domus in its geodesic tent, so in some ways I felt completely sympathetic to Charles’s views – until I came to the sentence:

‘I want people to hear really exciting music played by the best, but in a context where they can clap when they want to, chase their toddlers, drink beer, take photos, get lost in the music and generally be themselves.’

And this is where I have to differ. I’ve tried playing music in this kind of setting, and I don’t believe it works. For a start, the kind of music I play is not amplified. A performance of acoustic music can’t thrive when there are competing sound sources.

Secondly, and more importantly, I feel strongly that music is designed to draw us out of ourselves and let us enter another imaginative realm. Where that’s possible, listening to music can be a profound experience. But nobody can be drawn out of themselves if other members of the audience feel free to ‘chase their toddlers, drink beer, take photos and generally be themselves’. There’s so much of that going on all around us as it is. It’s an old paradox: feeling free to behave as you like often means that other people can’t behave as they like. If some people feel free to run about and be noisy, they deny others the possibility of falling silent, forgetting their surroundings and being drawn out of themselves by music. And I can’t believe that those who run about are going to get much out of it either.


  1. carola beecham

    There’s a somewhat similar problem in church: do you make it a welcoming and accepting place where people can come and bring children who may be noisy, etc, or do you make it a place of quiet and contemplation where people can be drawn to that which is beyond themselves? Two very good and – it seems -incompatible aims. Does the difference lie in people themselves, whether they are introverts or extroverts, what their deepest wishes are?

  2. Susan Tomes

    That’s a very good point. No doubt you’re right.

    It often seems to me that television has had a very bad influence on the way people behave at live events. It’s as though they feel they’re watching something on screen – something that can’t be disturbed by their antics. It often doesn’t seem to occur to them that their coughing (or whatever) might actually affect the concentration of the people playing music live in front of them.

  3. Imogen

    If you have never been to a classical music concert before, it’s incredibly intimidating – whatever your age. It’s a private members club, where everyone else knows the rules except you. And that’s just the audience.

    Perhaps what he is advocating is the opportunity to be introduced to live classical music in an informal atmosphere. I would love the chance to take my 4 and half year old to a concert that we can both enjoy. If he’s introduced to it in a relaxed situation, where he isn’t going to be glared at for tapping his hands in time to the music or asking a question, isn’t that better than waiting til he’s ‘old enough’ [which is when exactly] to attend a ‘proper’ concert, when it might be the last thing on earth that he would want to do?

    I think it would be wonderful if classical music was played in as many different situations as possible, so that people could find the right listening environment for them. And that what might be ‘right’ one year, might be different the next.

    And if the musicians know what to expect – and presumably having accepted the gig they do – then isn’t it a win-win situation all round?

    • Susan Tomes

      You’re right; classical music should definitely be played in as many settings and to as many types of audience as possible. Building the audiences of the future is a crucial task.

      However, I do wonder about the ‘intimidating’ atmosphere. When I was a child going to my first concerts, I don’t remember feeling intimidated by the quietness, any more than I was by the silence in the theatre, or in the cinema, or in a church, or when a teacher was talking to us. It does puzzle me that people single out classical concerts for having an ‘intimidating’ silence when they feel quite comfortable in other places where silence is the rule.


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