Musical Places in Unusual Spaces

As old steel factories go, the Weststadthalle in Essen actually feels surprisingly intimate. But without doubt one of the challenges with these types of non-traditional spaces is how to make that magical connection with the audience...

In a couple of weeks, ANIMA, an eight-piece classical chamber ensemble, is premiering one of my pieces. The performance will take place 42ft underground in the Brunel tunnel shaft in London. It is becoming almost the norm now for 'traditional' ensembles to present music in non-traditional, site-specific places. I recruited Lizzie Ball and Gabi Swallow, two classical musicians as comfortable inside the concert hall as out, to chat about this phenomenon.

Younger generations have a more open-minded attitude in general to concert-going which previous generations perhaps as a whole did not. For example, mixing genres of music up within one concert, pushing performance and musical boundaries, has become a little more mainstream in comparison to the earlier years of very traditional concerts with a large space between performer and audience, not only spatially but often communicatively. (Lizzie Ball)

Playing in established concert halls such as Purcell and Wigmore has its advantages. There is a sense of history for both performer and audience alike when you walk onto the stage. They are safe, and much that goes hand in hand with them is safe; audience demographic, working toilets...

Attendance at established concert halls is incredibly healthy but they are run by the establishment. Many artists are realising that creating your own opportunities, can include branching out to new venues. As performers this allows us the artistic freedom to find the right space to match the music and not the other way round. (Gabi Swallow)

Lizzie Ball presents Classical Kicks, classical music and artists interweaved with jazz, folk and world music at legendary Ronnie Scott's jazz club in Soho, which "was born out of a desire to show the cream of UK classical talent perform great music in a more down-to-earth environment."

I like to see audiences become more involved in what they watch and I think in this age of crowd funding and social media, it has changed the relationships between audience and musician to a slightly closer one. It encourages loyalty and following which in this day and age, within an industry losing money and funding and unable to support artists in the way it perhaps once did, are the most valuable assets a musician can have. (Lizzie Ball)

What these down-to-earth environments also often have going for them is that absolutely priceless element of newness, mystery & surprise. Admittedly too much is often sacrificed for this, especially where repertoire is concerned. It is relatively easy for example (with strong emphasis on the word relatively) for a composer to secure a one-off world premiere as compared to a second or third performance. But when it comes to location, "the more unusual the space, the more audiences connect, because their expectation is not yet known; when something is taken out of its usual context, it will always be more intriguing. Likewise for the performer!" (Lizzie Ball)

Before my (one-off) world premiere in the tunnel shaft, I am off to Essen in Germany to play at Denovali's Swingfest with my band Piano Interrupted. The venue is another amazing music 'conversion'- originally an industrial space turned to the arts. The Weststadthalle where the performances take place, was part of Alfried Krupp's steel empire. (As an historical aside, Krupp was a key supplier for the Nazi regime. And the Swing Kids, which provides the inspiration for the name Swingfest, was the name of the anti-Nazi youth movement in Germany.)

Being part of an experimental project lurking vaguely on classical music's fringes, I am lucky enough to play in these types of spaces and places quite regularly. It feels (admittedly partly as a result of the promoters that are attracted to them) as if they somehow draw a very open-minded type of concert goer. Indeed audiences can now factor these special locations into their ticket-buying choice, and this potentially creates a win-win situation for the performer-listener axis.

As an audience member now you have the choice as to whether you prefer to experience music in a traditional or non-traditional setting and as a performer you are hopefully then communicating to an audience that feels comfortable with their choice or are deliberately choosing to experience something new to them. (Gabi Swallow)

As old steel factories go, the Weststadthalle in Essen actually feels surprisingly intimate. But without doubt one of the challenges with these types of non-traditional spaces is how to make that magical connection with the audience.

Every concert has its uniqueness and varying size and setting can play a huge factor. Once I played some Xenaxis on a street in Barcelona in front of 2000 people. It was perhaps not the most intimate of settings but what made it intimate was that there were many people who would never have listened to anything so abstract before and they were one of the most quiet, attentive audiences I have ever played for. That is what makes performing so special; you are constantly surprised by the power of music. (Gabi Swallow)

Lizzie recalls a time in downtown Bogota, with piano trio, Classico Latino where they "arranged for a piano to be wheeled into the town square and started to play our own arrangements of Colombian folk music."

A large crowd gathered of such a mixture of people, office workers, lawyers, cleaners, you name it. At the end, a tramp came up to me and said in Spanish, that we had made the composers' music come alive. He knew the name and composer of each song we played and was clearly a highly educated man. It moved me to tears and reminded me that with music, you can connect with people on a level that is otherwise not so common. (Lizzie Ball)

Not surprisingly then 'location, location, location' is not such a compelling argument when it comes to music; "a really great musical performance should essentially be able to work anywhere." (Lizzie Ball) Or as Gabi puts it: "The audience and the performer sharing the music: that is the most important thing."

This is a fundamental truth, and the reason why we as performers strive so hard to communicate and connect.

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