the kölner musiknacht: another performance paradigm

Some time ago, I wrote at length about my ensemble‘s last experiment with the audience-performer relationship through an alternative concert situation, our Unter Vier Ohren project. As I’ve been so focused on developing audience-performer/ensemble relationships, the Kölner Musiknacht seemed the perfect venue to develop some of this thinking!

For the first time since moving to Cologne, I’ve been able to participate as an observer in the Kölner Musiknacht, an evening-long event that takes place once a year in 25 venues across the city, with dozens of musicians/ensembles taking part. Concerts start every hour and each programme is intended to take just 40-minutes, allowing audience members to (quickly!) move between venues. In principle, it’s a perfect concept and a great way to experience a lot of music in one evening while seeing a great deal of the city. The size of Cologne is also ideal: one can be just about anywhere in twenty minutes, so what other cities spend an entire night on, we can do in the course of an evening. (The city doesn’t just apply this to music: the Kölner Theaternacht takes place on October 2.)

As usual, in terms of new music, this year’s Musiknacht had a lot to offer; I only attended three concerts during the course of the evening but was still met with a reasonable variety: from a duo concert in the Antoniterkirche by violist Annegret Mayer-Lindenberg and accordionist Andrea Carola Kiefer, to a portrait concert of Peter Eötvös by Ensemble Garage in the Kölner Philharmonie, to, finally, an improvised set by a tuba/piano/percussion/electronics quartet in the Stadtgarten.

(By the way, before I go any further, if you have never visited the website for Garage, go now. They quite possibly have the most incredible ensemble photograph of any new music ensemble, ever. Its perfection is unrivaled.)

It is, of course, impossible to suggest that I saw enough to make a truly comprehensive statement about the nature of the event. I could have seen, at most, six concerts: I only saw half that number, and only a tiny fraction of what was really available. I only managed to see a few new music concerts, whereas I would have loved the opportunity to get to know ensembles in other fields who are active in the city.

I had no idea in deciding to attend that I would write about it.  However, as usual, what I’m most interested in is opening the blog-space up for discussion about this kind of event, and for that discussion to contribute to the documentation of such events, as and when other cities/venues decide to do something similar.

Programming:

The first issue is length of programme. The system works perfectly, so long as programmes are kept to 40 minutes are less, including changes and applause. The problem is, that didn’t happen. Two of the concerts I saw had programs that would have lasted longer than 40 minutes without changes or applause.

This means that audience members are going to be leaving during your concert in order to get to the next venue, no matter how good your concert is. I had made a plan for the evening, which not only included the concerts I wanted to see, but also took Cologne’s city map into consideration. Moving between venues and seeing a big variety of concerts was part of the spirit of the thing, I think, so making that difficult does not endear individual ensembles to their audience.

Now, the question is, why did this happen? I suspect that applicants either lied about their programme, underestimated, or commissioned works that turned out to be much longer than anticipated.

In the case of the Eötvös programme, this shouldn’t have happened, since the durations of all of his works are stated very clearly on his website. And despite the fact that Intervalles-Intérieurs is one of my favourite pieces (in case you’d like to get to know it, this performance by Ensemble Linea is rather fine), a 30 minute quintet with electronics is definitely going to go over the time limit when there are two other pieces on the programme. I stayed to hear it, missing the opportunity to hear a concert in the next hour slot (though I then was able to make some extra time for a beer, hurrah!), but many of my fellow audience members herded out at some point during the piece: I can’t imagine it felt very nice as one of the musicians on stage to see at least 50 people walk out during your performance, even if you did know that it was simply because of the time. (But did you know? How aware did individual musicians feel of their role in something bigger than their own concert?)

As for 30-minute pieces, I do wonder if such long works are a good idea at all. I suspect they are too difficult for audience focus in this context. In the scope of a normal, two-hour new music concert, a 30-minute work would be perfectly normal. Somehow, however, within the Musiknacht, it doesn’t work as well. Our ability to focus is negatively impacted by a greater attention to the time necessitated by the next concert’s start time. An ensemble would best take advantage of his by picking repertoire that highlights their strengths, draws in audience attention and doesn’t try to hold it for too long. Developing a relationship with a new audience would be the greatest advantage of something like the Kölner Musiknacht.

Perhaps, however, I’ve already stepped on a few toes, as it’s probable that the application process for the evening involved a certain amount of hoop jumping. Wouldn’t it be nice if sometimes we felt we could apply for things like this with programmes that were just really good, rather than those that tick the right boxes.

Now I’ve jumped on some toes.

Venues:

Ensemble-venue matching is obviously important.

I did think it was a shame that beautifully played, and generally rather quiet, duos for viola and accordion were allotted to a church on one of the busiest shopping streets in town, where one could hear buskers and the conversation of shoppers as clearly as if they were in the room with us.

I also wonder if a venue like the Philharmonie is appropriate at all for an evening like this. Would it be better to have more small venues, with each one full? Garage, to their credit, had as full as house as one can manage in the Philharmonie when a new music concert is on the bill. But alas, the hall still ends up looking pretty empty.

Then again, I’m sure a lot of people attended their concert simply because of the venue, giving them a great opportunity to play for an audience they would normally not have access to. That said, if one wanted to attract new audiences for each ensemble and we really knew that certain kinds of audiences were going to concerts in certain venues as a rule, then one could take advantage of this and purposely put ensembles in venues in which they would normally never be seen.

Finally, I thought it was a bit of a shame that quite a few events I wanted to attend were running simultaneously. Two new music concerts at the same time seems like it might divide the audience dangerously. (Though Cologne has, happily, a much bigger new music audience than some other places, so perhaps this wasn’t really a problem. I’m not sure. I don’t know how many people were at the other concert. It sure made things annoying for me, however.)

Web 2.0 (or 2.5, or whatever we are at the moment):

And finally, I want to talk a little about how I planned my evening. The website for the Kölner Musiknacht offers a few options. I can look at a map of the city and choose venues from there, I can peruse an A-Z list of ensembles or venues, or I can choose from one of their four (only four?!) suggested walking routes.

I found this a little bit limited, when one could do so much. For example:

* Why not offer users the ability to select the concerts they want to see, and use the site to plot out a route on Google Maps, printing that out along with a list of the venues. One could go further and have it suggest some nearby watering holes. Even I, with my extremely basic knowledge of computer programming, know in principle how to do this with Python and Google Maps.

* The website could have also guided its users a bit more, by offering suggestions based on the concerts you’ve shown an interest in. Or even some fairly random ways to browse for information. Perhaps featured groups on different days leading up to the event. Or the sharing of recordings or YouTube clips to social media outlets, increasing awareness of lesser known groups. Oh yes, social media…

* There was virtually no social media presence for the evening! Twitter should have been aflame with responses to the concerts! Facebook should have been reeling with posted photographs of ensembles doing their thing. Alas, nothing. (Ahem: Munich’s Musiknacht has their own Twitter account.)

Questions:

I hope it’s clear that the event itself is a fabulous idea and for the most part extremely well-executed. I didn’t write very much about the things that worked well (other than simply describing how they functioned) nor how wonderful the performances were (extremely). I can also imagine that an event like this is an absolute nightmare to organise, so I have a lot of respect for those that do this kind of work, as I would in all likelihood be terrible at it.

That said, I’m definitely curious to know a) how other people experienced the event in Cologne and what their thoughts were and b) how such events work out in other cities. I also wonder if audience members really did discover new things, if they will in the future seek out the ensembles/musicians/composers whose concerts they attended on Musiknacht.

I’d also like to know what it was like for the musicians: did the individual programmes feel rushed? Was it terribly uncomfortable to have people walking in and out or did you feel prepared for that? What kind of feedback did you receive after the evening was finished? Have you noticed an increase or greater diversity in audience following your participation?

As usual, thanks for reading, and for your comments and feedback!

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