Remarks on my experience with Lecture Concerts.

by Filippo Faes

Is the development which the classical concert has taken the form of over the years in an ‘audience crisis’ or is it rather attributed to the communicative and aesthetic demands of a new generation of musicians?

I once read that during a lightning storm an invisible and inverted polarity discharge forms a track in the air, an ionized circuit, and a moment later a lightning bolt actually discharges in this circuit.

I think the word behaves towards music in a similar way and perhaps the reverse is true as well. The adjuratory strength of the voice and the power of storytelling, seduces the listener to be willingly brought into it, paving countless paths between the stage and the audience along which the actual musical communication travels. And while I play I have this almost tangible feeling of “ionized air“ if I have previously had the opportunity to communicate with the audience, that is, if the concert does take place in the form of a Lecture Concert.

Music is a language, which follows semantic rules of any other communication. The first rule requires that the codes which the language is based on are present in the brain of the listener. So, for example, for the understanding and retention of a text, it is necessary that both the author and reader have the same English language vocabulary whose grammar, syntax and a variety of references, assonances and implications of conscious significance have more or less been internalized. When we are aware of this, the act of reading appears to be an ongoing comparison of these reference points with the information transmitted by the written word. And it is evident that the reading turns out to be richer and more fruitful the stronger the ability to interact critically, to move among these reference points and move in the midst of these references and furthermore being able to create their juxtaposition and comparison is developed and trained.

The same occurs to an even greater degree when listening to music. In a concert the critical capacity of a listener play a very active role and involve a great number of intellectual skills. Consider our memory: when we hear a piece in the sonata form and the reprise appears, we can only fully and completely discern the relevance of the second theme in the tonic if we are capable of retrieving a more or less unconscious memory of the dialectic relationship which the same theme (previously in the dominant) has left us.**

This is also true for rhythm, the formal structure, the harmony… When we hear a seventh which dissolves in an unusual manner, the traditional function of the chord becomes even clearer in our minds and therefore we can better recognize the innovative power of the unusual dissolution and thus the composer’s originality and the meaning of his work. Otherwise we would notice absolutely nothing.

I think one problem in listening to classical music these days (and especially contemporary music!) is above all that the audience can no longer recognize a large degree of its codes and references upon which our music was built and to which it constantly refers.

I believe that the current cultural situation is characterized by several new aspects. Never before has anything like globalization forced us into such a simplification of language in order to convey information to the largest audience possible. Never before could a message reach so many people and consequently have such tremendous economic and political power. This power consequently necessitates a further simplification of the message because only then could it create such a pervasive, permanent and efficient impact.**

If we were to test this, we would determine that 99% of commercial music which we hear everywhere – from discothèques and pubs to taxis and airports – contains a frighteningly small number of chords and, with few exceptions, 4/4 time and steady phrases of four bars.***

Since we are almost constantly exposed to this (often rather intrusive) sound, it is only logical that we become conditioned to hearing this type of music. Consequently we become increasingly distracted and so our curiosity as to “how this piece will probably end’’ is definitely reduced. The concept of narration, the ongoing development of diverse formal elements are disappearing more and more and also missing is a dialectical path which attracts interest and a sense of internal contemplation.

It must also be remembered that contemporary music (at least most music of the historical avant-garde twentieth century) is necessarily linked to the antipodes of this globalization trend. Faced with a growing impoverishment and simplification of codes which the audience still understands, twentieth-century composers, motivated to keep up with scientific advances, have developed even more complex codes arising from new composition systems in which the codes were only applied during one of their creative phases and then radically renewed. In the meantime, the audience moved in quite the opposite direction. One of the many consequences of this unresolved chasm is that we perceive everywhere simplifications in new ways within serious music which sometimes take extreme forms (minimalism, New Age…) and lead to various explorations in the crossover genre. The so-called contemporary music has been ghettoized into an environment only for professionals for a while now and risks losing vital contact with the audience and its own time.

I think that such an unprecedented mismatch between the general public’s retention and current production capabilities is the central point of our argumentation; primarily those who are active in this field need to be aware of it for future projects.

We need new ideas in order to overcome this problem. I am convinced that the format of a Lecture Concert, especially its multimedia and perhaps interdisciplinary quality can bring a new vitality into a field that runs the risk of turning into a slightly weary rite devoid of vitality.

In the past years I have brought to life many such projects, for example for the RAI or for some banking foundations dedicated to young people. I am currently working on a recording for a German label which will release a series of my CD’s, each accompanied by an audio booklet in five languages.

This project has developed in a pleasing way for me especially because of eight encounters with students of grammar schools in Vicenza, that could take place thanks to the support of Banca Intensa in Palazzo Leoni Montanari. Each of these concerts took one aspect of the present as point of departure, leading us to a composer or a musical work which forms a relationship to this aspect (for example due to the fact that the composers had to deal with the same problems and questions we have to to this day).

As a point of departure I chose this sentence by Roberto Saviano who wrote, quoting the legendary Beowulf: “The most cunning enemy is not the one who takes everything from you but rather the one who gets you accustomed to having nothing.” This splendid and truthful sentence is unheard of in our present situation (for which I refer not only to Camorra of which Saviano speaks but also to the cultural desert and progressive deterioration of the critical mind which we are experiencing today – the reduction to a minimum of linguistic expression opportunities in consumer music is not an insignificant factor…).

Every encounter with the students was therefore marked by skills which are increasingly being lost and dealt with the possibility of music helping us to become aware, to get back these skills or at least to understand that they are worth fighting for.

I set up the first encounter under the motto of Trust; trust in our ability to create a future society according to our wishes. I dedicated the concert to Beethoven and with that a revolutionary from a social (not only artistic) perspective, who took his destiny into his own hands.

For the second concert I chose Freedom as the theme, and we dealt with Schubert (to what degree do the times of the Restoration in Vienna remind us of certain aspects of our current times?).

The theme of the third concert was the Right to not conform and again we dealt with Schubert whose cycle The Winter Journey was performed.

The forth concert was called ”Dream and Secret” (Schumann). The fifth concert had Desire for a theme (Schumanns “Dichterliebe” was performed), the sixth concert in which works of the Belle Époque could be heard dealt with Biodiversity etc.

Such an approach, supported by multimedia (video projection, joint discovery of paintings, involvement of these young people in discussions about and their general view about the society in which they live) had a very strong impact and students often came to me personally or through their teachers looking for starting points for further immersion into one of the topics.

Surely all this is not sufficient for young people to rebuild an entire code system and knowledge which they have lost or that no one has ever showed them. I still feel that such experiences awaken curiosity in young people, a sense that they are on the threshold of discovering something big, fascinating and of the highest quality. The question of quality is of great importance – also from a political perspective: a habit of demanding it in performances, in entertainment and in the cultural field in general can guarantee participating and attentive future citizens and thereby a healthy democratic society. The awareness that it is worth one’s while to marvel at beauty and to explore it more and more, incessantly – this means to be aware that there are no limits to the ability of man to choose and exchange knowledge. If we maintain these capabilities and develop the appetite for culture, we will live more intensely and take more interest in things. I know from my own experience that in this way a future audience can be raised successfully.

In my opinion in every historical era art has had an important political function which has more or less been recognized, depending on the sensitivities of each time. To be a musician these days means to me first of all to be aware of what this function might entail today and how the interaction between music and society can mutually provide vitality and renewal.


* I have the impression that the decisive role of memory in each phase of man’s learning and comprehension is rather underrated. We only need to think of a child who sits in front of a television for hours; a medium which cannot promote retention of what is being perceived because of the increasingly rapid succession of pictures which are brought to his attention and requires readiness for the next image which always comes too fast. In the face of such imprinting, the child will not be stimulated to train his memory skills and ability to make comparisons in real life.

** When a major label of the Philippine entertainment industry wants to promote a Norwegian artist, it is only logical that those in charge decide on an artist who uses a language with the fewest cultural references depicted by either country. It is just as logical that every effort is made to keep variety to a minimum in order to increase the target audience. Consequently, the aesthetic canon will be dictated by an audience that is content with the minimum (because it is plentiful and promises great profits); and so the process escalates.

Something comparable also occurs in politics. Faced with an increasingly incalculable world situation and because the interactions at stake are becoming more and more numerous and complexly interrelated (today, the credit crisis in USA creates a strong impact on the stock exchange in Shanghai and vice-versa – impossible 100 years ago), in view of this increasing unprecedented complexity, we face the paradox of an ever more simplified political discourse. Recently a friend of mine who teaches History in Washington told me that in Abraham Lincoln’s time, a confrontation between two electoral candidates could last the entire day, took place in a theatre and was only interrupted by very short strengthening breaks so as not to lose concentration. Every argument of the confrontation was rated and considered fom the most diverse perspectives.

And even the contradictions and necessary limits of one’s own position were recognised. In contrast to this, today one wins elections with slogans prefabricated by experts and pollsters, while paying meticulous attention not to exceed the very few minutes are not exceeded at tzhe end of which the audience loses its concentration…

*** If you drive through the countryside of Eastern Europe, even in the most abject villages you will notice right away that most houses are equipped with a parabola antenna for satellite reception. What will become of the typical legacy of these cultures, the extremely subtle rhythmic asymmetries, the scales of quarter-tones and sensitivity towards them, when the younger generation bring themselves into line with MTV?

© Filippo Faes 2008