Concert Reviews

Thursday 24th November

November 25, 2011

OK, so tonight a rather lovely piece of writing from Simon Reynell, a few candid, amusing and extremely thoughtful observations on attending concerts of live music. Simon has been spending a lot of time this last week at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. He has managed to hear seventy or more performances. I joined him for one day and was exhausted… much credit is due to him for his stamina, driven by a love of music that puts mine to shame… Thanks Simon.


What we do when we listen to live music…. 

by Simon Reynell

For the past five days I’ve been attending the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, a rather mammoth annual event spread across ten days every November, with several concerts each day, as well as occasional talks, films, exhibitions etc.  What follows isn’t an attempt to summarise, review or even pick out the highlights of everything I’ve seen so far, but is simply some reflections that have arisen from five rather intense days of concert-going.

I live near Huddersfield and in the past have gone to a few concerts every year, but this is the first time that I’ve bought a ticket for the whole festival with the intention of attending virtually every event.  In fact I found that I couldn’t do this; though I’ve enjoyed a lot of what I’ve seen – some of it hugely – I reached a kind of saturation point by the end of day three, and decided to give myself a rest by accepting a couple of days work in the middle of the week, and only attending the evening performances on those days.

The reason that I originally wanted to go to as much of the Festival as possible – including events that I would normally avoid because I assumed that I wouldn’t enjoy them – was that I was feeling uneasy about what I’ve begun to perceive as a predictability or exclusivity about the way my own taste is developing.  Over the past couple of years most of the music I listen to has become restricted to two or three very specific areas that could be characterised as snickets off the alleyways of the backstreets of contemporary music.  I’m aware that there are countless other snickets and alleyways, loads more streets, and even a few highways, and I thought it would be good to challenge myself and check out some of the areas that I normally ignore in order to make sure that my listening wasn’t becoming unnecessarily insular or ghettoised.

So far I’ve heard around seventy pieces by about sixty composers (or improvisers), at least a third of whom were completely new names to me.  And – as Richard said in his lovely write-up of the Saturday – the standard of playing has been extraordinarily high.  Many of Europe’s leading contemporary music ensembles come to Huddersfield, and it’s just great to hear instrumentalists of such skill.  Several of the concerts haven’t included any piece that stands out as something I would listen to at home, but watching music being played so well is a joy in itself.  In fact immersing myself in a festival of (mainly) composed music has served to remind me of something that should be blindingly obvious to any fan of improvised music: that any musical performance involves much more than audio, and seeing music ‘live’ brings with it a whole set of experiences which can’t be captured on record.  Ironically, discussions of improvised music often become centred on / obsessed with particular CDs (I’m as guilty of this as anyone), whereas improvised music – in common with almost all other genres of music – is in fact a performative event which engages the ‘listener’ in a multi-sensory experience.

Reflecting on this on the train back home last night I decided to focus on just one of the concerts I had attended that day, and tried to recall as many as possible of the extra-musical factors that I was aware of during the concert.  Some of these were thoughts or feelings that were incited by the performance itself, others were just random thoughts that I remember flitting through my head as I sat there, and aren’t connected to the music at all.  Of course similar random thoughts can (and do) occur when listening to recorded music too, but being in concert situations for so much of the past five days has somehow highlighted for me just how much extra-musical stuff is involved in the actual lived experience when ‘listening to’ a concert.

So here are forty things that I can recall thinking or feeling during last night’s concert:

(1)  it’s frustrating to be below the musicians (who are on a raised stage) and not to be able to see all of them, leading to…

(2)  some thoughts about the various venues used at the Huddersfield Festival, and how – whatever the music – I almost always enjoy concerts at St. Paul’s Hall (a converted church, which is both intimate and comfortable, and has a great acoustic), whereas a couple of the other venues – including tonight’s – usually leave me feeling slightly alienated from the music – however good it is

(3)  I’m aware of an occasional whiff from my socks, and hope that neither of the people sitting next to me are

(4)  I notice that the guy playing electronics has an Apple computer – as they always seem to – and wonder whether (as I suspect) this is down to Apple snobbery, or if they really are better in any way than my old PC

(5)  also the electronics guy has a squeaky chair, and I wonder if he didn’t notice this in rehearsal, or didn’t mind, or if the chairs have been re-arranged since the rehearsal, unknown to him

(6)  I catch a glimpse of the score on the conductor’s stand and notice that some of it

is laid out conventionally, but other parts have swirling lines that look a bit like Treatise, and I wonder how he’ll conduct those parts

(7)  the stage lighting changes slightly at times during the performance for no obvious reason that I can discern, and I wonder whether this was specified in the score, or has it just been agreed with the technician at the venue?  And does the composer know about it?

(8)  I remember that I left my car parked in a side street some way from Sheffield station, and hope that while I’m sitting here some passing yob isn’t smashing the side window to look for valuables

(9)  the musicians are incredibly skilful, and have to play notes with a wide range of extended techniques, sometimes at astonishing speeds.  I enjoy their virtuosity, but at the same time am aware that it is also a kind of distraction from actually hearing the music (as pure audio)

(10)  the cellist is rather attractive

(11)  if I were a dictator, would it be unreasonable of me to ban the use of vibrato in all music?

(12)  and strictly limit the number of trills?

(13)  after ten minutes or so the audience member directly in front of me is showing signs of restlessness, but I don’t think he’ll walk out (I’ve seen him at other concerts over the past few days, and he didn’t then)

(14)  which reminds me of the guy who was sitting next to me the day before, who googled the names of the various composers during the performance while concealing his Blackberry beneath the programme

(15)  I wonder whether the composer recorded all the samples used in the electronics part – or did he take some from libraries?

(16)  both the guitarist and the pianist are using e-bows. I wonder whether musicians who play instruments with strings in contemporary ensembles are expected to supply their own e-bows, or can they ask for them to be provided?

(17)  someone a couple of rows back coughs, and I am immediately and fiercely intolerant.  Other accidental and extraneous sounds often please me, so why my intense dislike of coughing?

(18)  the pianist is using his forearms to play large clusters of notes, and I wonder what his mother would think if she saw him.  Would she rather he earned his living playing ‘proper’ piano music?

(19)  I remember that a couple of the ensemble members are Italians, and wonder whether either of them ever voted for Berlusconi (the bastard).  I try to deduce their politics from their appearance, which leads to…

(20)  a frustration that ‘very smart casual black’ seems to be the dress code for virtually all contemporary music ensembles (how nice it was that the Basel Sinfonietta players all wore everyday clothes of various colours at their concert….but then I’m contradicting myself because I’m always telling my daughter that clothes don’t matter….)

(21)  the seats aren’t very comfortable

(22)  I’m getting worried that – having wolfed down a curry just before the concert – my tummy might start rumbling in one of the quieter bits (leading to memories that I quickly repress of a couple of particularly loud and embarrassing rumbles at other concerts I’ve attended this year)

(23)  I remember that I must put my batteries on charge for work tomorrow as soon as I get back home – must remember this

(24)  and I also remember that there’s some European football matches being played right now, and I vaguely wonder what the scores are

(25)  various technical observations about the microphone placement for the recording of the ensemble, and some attempts to deduce exactly what microphones are being used – is there anything useful that I can learn here?

(26)  the sound of the score pages being turned.  Those sorts of incidental sounds are at the centre of the James Saunders pieces that I loved at other concerts earlier in the week.  At times tonight they sort of fit in, but at other times they seem intrusive and I wonder if the guy recording the concert is frustrated with the violinist (who is a particularly noisy page-turner)

(27)  I wonder what the electronics guy is thinking about during the (relatively) long passage when he’s not doing anything

(28)  yes, the cellist really is attractive  (thought to be repeated ad lib)

(29)  how many of the 100+ audience actually live in Huddersfield?  And how many of them are musicians who are playing at other concerts in the next day or so? (I recognised a couple of musicians as I took my seat)

(30)  how much does it cost to put on this event (musicians’ fees, travel, transport & insurance of instruments, publicity and admin costs, composer’s fee etc etc, as against ticket sales)?  It suits me fine, but is it really a good use of public money in times of economic hardship?  (So many of the shops in Huddersfield town centre are pound shops, pawnbrokers etc)

(31)  I wonder if the guitarist brought his own amp from Germany (it seems pretty quiet and hiss-free, but would be really heavy and expensive to transport).  Or does it belong to the Music Department at Huddersfield University?

(32)  I spot a surreptitious smile pass between the clarinettist and the violinist.  Are they lovers, or are they just colleagues exchanging a private joke at the expense of one of the other players, or perhaps the conductor?  Leading to….

(33)  do musicians tend to resent or dislike conductors in the way that workers resent their bosses?

(34)  the percussionist constantly looks worried, as though he thinks he’s going to mess up on his next entry.  Would I notice if he did?

(35)  also, he’s wearing rather flamboyant designer glasses. I quickly check the style of the glasses worn by other players (about 60% of the ensemble are bespectacled)

(36) are the snatches of melodies that periodically burst into the music meant to be a kind of postmodern pastiche, and is the composer looking down his nose at those other, more popular styles of music?  Or does he really like those popular genres that he’s referencing?  (I don’t, but then I might use lovely fragments of Renaissance music in my compositions if I were a composer – sigh…)

(37) I notice that the clarinettist has just turned to the final page of his score, so we must be getting near the end, leading to….

(38) I wonder how long the conductor will hold the pause at the end before relaxing his posture and permitting us to start applauding

(39)  and I wonder what the guy in the row behind, who expresses his opinion too loudly between each piece, will make of this one.  I’ve rather liked it – though I wouldn’t buy it on disc

(40)  as it approaches the end, the music’s gone much quieter, so I can hear the air-conditioning again

and so on and so on and so on

In a way it’s surprising that I’ve got time to register the music at all with all this going on in my head, but even men can do other things while listening to music in a reasonably concentrated way.  I could probably give a fairly accurate account of the piece (in layman’s terms) if I had to, and I don’t think I was more distracted than usual during the performance.  It’s just that – inside and outside my head – there’s so much more going on than just the sounds, just the music.  If I really want to focus on a piece of music, then I’m much better off listening at home, in the dark while lying on my bed – which is what I do a lot.  But five days of intense concert-going have made me very aware of the extent to which attending a live performance brings with it all kinds of other sensory experiences and responses (some pleasurable, some frustrating, some distracting), and is a quite different (richer??) experience than just listening to CDs.

Comments (5)

  • jkudler

    November 25, 2011 at 8:47 am

    lovely piece, simon.

  • Jacques Oger

    November 25, 2011 at 11:32 am

    nice post Simon, thanks !

  • Jack Harris

    November 25, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Lovely piece Simon. I often feel a horrible guilt and anxiety when listening, and I find myself asking the question “am I listening?”…. how silly.


  • Jesse

    November 26, 2011 at 8:36 am

    really a fantastic report of the constant flow of consciousness that we are generally not attuned to, and that, as you illustrate, informs every listening experience we have. i have, very occasionally, done a similar replay following a meditation period, and it is as you say – the most mundane and [seemingly] compelling ideas and feelings float by like barges of cognitive junk, gone as quickly as they appear. LOL at your saying “…it’s surprising that I’ve got time to register the music at all with all this going on in my head.”

    i think this ordinary experience of extraordinary inner noise is an aspect of what keith rowe was getting at when he said music is not strictly an acoustic phenomenon, as we are always bringing to the listening experience so much we lay to the music itself. nicely done, simon!

  • Jesse

    November 26, 2011 at 8:39 am

    one more thought – one of my favorite meditation teachers, because of the phenomenon you describe so well, simon, calls meditation practice ‘one insult after another.” anyone who thinks they have a modicum of mental discipline should try just sitting for 5 minutes.

Leave a Reply