the importance of Venue

Over the last few months, we have been preparing for our inaugural Treefalls concert here in the upstate of South Carolina. The community has been wonderfully supportive, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the amount of positive feedback regarding contemporary chamber music. The fact that so many are passionate about the project, are actively and thoughtfully engaged in the development of a New Music series, is exciting.

Because our group is neither linked to a particular college/university nor an existing arts organization, during the course of preparations, one conversation has been repeated more than any other: The Recommendation of the Venues.

We do not have a hall in hand. We are not directly connected to an art center or a school auditorium. So inevitably, people ask, “Have you thought of [enter location here] for the concert?” which is typically followed by various reasons why this or that particular spot would be “perfect” for the show. Although it’s encouraging that people want to be involved, I’ve instantly rejected almost every proposal.

It is not out of some sort of egotistical pride that I do little more than nod my head and smile.  I love the input and relish their enthusiasm.  But there are dozens of aspects of performance that must be considered when choosing a location, and most appear neglected when people offer their thoughts on “a nice place to play.”  For example:

Night clubs are cool and hip, but cramming six percussionists into a shoe-box sized room where dinner & drinks are being served would make performance practically impossible.

Coffee shops are pleasantly relaxed, but an amplified brass sextet in such a place would be downright deafening (not to mention the constant interruptions from the coffee grinder).

Grand concert halls are gorgeous and rich with history, but a viola and ukulele duo standing on a massive and mostly empty stage would look funny, sound worse, and do some serious damage to a budget.

Community outreach is key, but a double bass solo playing in the town square with traffic whizzing by would be nearly inaudible.

Artistic directors consider each program carefully, scrutinizing the extraordinarily wide range of contemporary works available, selecting only a few for each concert.  Equal, thoughtful regard should be given to the room in which the music is presented as well.

Here are some common topics/questions (in no order):

  • size – How many people can fit in the room/area? How many are expected to attend?
  • cost – How much is rent? Is it free? Does the house get a % of the door?
  • geographical location – Where is this place in relation to the target audience?
  • lighting – Can the musicians see their music? Can the lights be dimmed, colored, moved, etc.?
  • instrumentation – What instruments are being used? Can they all fit?
    • acoustics – Can the instruments used be heard without amplification?
    • piano – Is one available?  Is it tuned?
    • percussion – Do they need to be brought in?  Will they all fit?
    • electro-acoustic – Does the place have amplification? How many channels?

…and the list goes on and on.

Can’t music be created anywhere?

Yes. (and often is)

For this, I am eternally grateful. Music is not contained within the concert halls, or the walls of academia, or the church, or even the night-clubs and blues bars. A wonderful example from earlier this year shows members of the Philadelphia Orchestra performing on a crowded plane that is stuck on the tarmac:

However, it is important to remember that live music is not only heard, it is experienced. Ambiance is an extremely important part of the event. The environment in which it is presented, which includes everything from lighting to historical/religious connotations to the very people in the audience, helps to create a distinct package in which the new music arrives.

Unfortunately, ambiance is often overlooked.  Directors tend to focus on “more practical” considerations of concert presentation like cost, availability, whether or not there is a piano, etc. In smaller cities with few/fewer venue options, artistic directors fall prey to the allure of the proverbial Box, thinking of nothing outside the customary concert spaces (which includes academic, religious, and “the usual” music centers).

Troy Herion, in his article “Music and its Visual Alter-Ego: Michel van der Aa at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival,” neatly sums it up by saying:

What we see affects what we hear. And while classical music concerts are no exception to this rule, most composers and musicians downplay the phenomenon. This is understandable – after all, music is a discipline unto itself with centuries devoted to purely aural technique. But on the other hand, by incorporating visuals, composers create profound opportunities to contextualize their music changing what we hear, how we hear it, and what we expect to happen next.

Festival Theater

Integrating, altering, or controlling the visual environment is not a new idea. Richard Wagner, a master of marketing, felt that the performance venue for his works was of utmost importance. In the 1870s, aiming to control every possible facet of the presentation, he designed and built his own opera house in Bayreuth, Germany, solely dedicated to his music.

Gustav MahlerThe ambiance of a venue was key to artistic directors even then, as indicated by the remarkably strict concert etiquette that had developed by the late 19th century. Finely dressed concert-goers were to sit in reverent silence as waves of uninterrupted music washed over them. All lights were dimmed but those on the stage, drawing full attention to the performers. Reinforced by the austerity of conductors like Gustav Mahler, the atmosphere of deference pervaded the musical experience.

Now, heavily laden with dogmatic ceremony, there is no room for progress in the traditional concert spaces.  No matter what music is presented in these settings, the inflexible formalities of the past are present.

Such rigidity allows little expansion of the repertoire.  For, in this ultraconservative environment, there is little room for the digestion of anything but the established liturgy. As J. Peter Burkholder’s writes in his article, Museum Pieces: The Historicist Mainstream in Music of the Last Hundred Years:

…the concert hall became a museum, the only works appropriate to be performed there were museum pieces – either pieces which were already old and revered or pieces which served exactly the same function, as musical works of lasting value which proclaimed a distinctive musical personality, which rewarded study, and which became loved as they became familiar. (p.119)

Reception of New Music in such a setting, especially those pieces written by young and adventurous composers, is virtually impossible.

Thirty years later, Burholder’s article still holds true in all but the largest metropolitan areas in this country.  So it is not surprising that the vast majority of New Music is not presented in conventional spaces.  Instead – in an interesting twist – many New Music concerts are now being held in contemporary art galleries/museums.

The museum/gallery as a concert hall is an excellent option; pairing contemporary music with modern/avant-garde art makes a great deal of sense. Galleries and modern museums are well lit, acoustics are often (though not inevitably) good, and the audience is more receptive to non-traditional sounds. The variety of exhibits and galleries available offers directors several options when matching the visual with the aural.

But again, there are dozens of aspects to be factored into any decision about a location, and its important for directors to carefully consider each before making decisions. Art galleries are only one solution; there are many options outside of the established halls that should be evaluated evenly.  After all, the early 21st century is a time of multitasking and multimedia, which creates an increasing importance on the value the venue.

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