Third Space © Danny Willems
Third Space © Danny Willems

Bas Wiegers — Some thoughts about diversity and character

A situation

Focussing on what is “contemporary” means being in continuous change. “Now” is always different, fluid. Twenty to forty years ago, the leading forces behind the formation of the ensembles for new music were composers and their direct friends, who had the feeling they needed different organisms and constellations for their music. Of course young composers today write different music than what their colleagues were writing in the Seventies and Eighties. The new generation of listeners has different expectations from their colleagues decades ago. They need different vehicles for their musical experiences.

This is all very obvious, but what does it mean for the established ensembles of contemporary music? Formed decades ago, perfected and institutionalized during the years, the danger is that they are growing old and will stop being contemporary. Just like their predecessors, the symphony orchestras, they then become specialized ensembles for music of another generation.

So the ensembles (and orchestras!) need to keep refreshing their urgency, their necessity, if they still want to be of importance to a future audience and a future generation of composers. Otherwise, sooner or later, their relevance will dry up. And ensembles, even more than symphony orchestras or opera houses, are incredibly vulnerable and seemingly easily discarded by thoughtless politics, as my home country The Netherlands has so sadly demonstrated in the past couple of years.

Key words: diversity and character

This development does not mean that ensembles need to get rid of the repertoire and knowledge that was formed in all those years of existence, quite the contrary. A hybrid situation seems the most interesting and viable option: one where musicians keep giving the audience the opportunity to hear live music from the near and further past, while at the same time keeping the curiosity for the newest developments and shaping the near future of music. For me, the key words on which to focus our actions are diversity and character. [in German: Eigenheit]

Diversity — the importance of being versatile

Whether the discourse is about race, gender, income level, sexual orientation, food, or art: the world of today has clearly embraced the idea of diversity. But what does it mean for us, contemporary musicians? The world of classical music doesn’t really reflect this new diversity. With a canonic symphonic repertoire this can hardly be avoided, as this repertoire represents a past that was simply not as diverse as the world we live in now. But in the contemporary music field our task is bigger. If we want to represent the world around us, and communicate with it, diversity in programming, in the way we communicate, in the way we create, is crucial. Some music needs the focussed concentration of deep listening, some music needs almost scientific attention, some music needs an informal setting, and some music needs a more theatrical presence to reach its full potential. The task of the musicians of today is to realize this and to find ways of being as versatile as the music they want to perform.

Character — the importance of curatorship

When we think about diversity, we also have to think about what is personal, what is our own character. Our own fascination for the music is the only possible beginning. Without that, we cannot do anything meaningful on stage. Horatius´ famous line from Ars Poetica, where he talks about the art of reciting, is crucial: “If you want to see me weep, you will first need to feel the grief yourself.” It is important for musicians, ensembles and programmers to take up the position of a curator: we love this, we think this is extraordinary, and we want to attest to this. It is important, because otherwise, inside this enormous diversity, we will get lost. Someone needs to make choices, feel the necessity to share these choices and create a context for the audience where they can be shared.

The reason why festivals are so popular nowadays has to do with this: they create a social, cultural and artistic environment where the programmer can build a relationship with their audience. When this happens, the audience might come to see things even if they don’t know them, just because they trust the taste of the programmer, or because they enjoy the atmosphere of the festival. In a relatively short festival period this may be easier to achieve than in long term programming for ensembles, performers and conductors. But we also have this ability, and we need to build our curatorship on this.

The composer and their relationship with the musicians

At the beginning of written music, composers were always also performers. During the ages, this has been shifting, settling for a while on the idea of the composer as the creative genius, who delivers the score to the musician, who then faithfully plays the written notes. In the 20th Century there has even been a generation of musicians who liked to proclaim that just playing what was written was enough to do the score justice.

But in our time, the idea of the composer-genius seems to be only one of many ways to create new music. A lot of composers like to work closely together with the musicians, resulting in a much more two-way, collaborative creational process. We have interesting composers who come from a traditional musical background, but also ones who come from improvised music, from film music or even from visual and conceptual arts rather than music. Our scope needs to be wide: On one side of the spectrum we still have composers who deliver a perfectly thought-trough score, and on the other side we find the composer who can barely read notes and needs imaginative performers to bring the musical ideas to life.

Do we want to play this whole bandwidth of musics? And are we capable of it? One thing is clear: if we only play music with technical instrumentation qualities of, say, post-Ravel or post-Lachenmann finesse, we miss out on a whole world of other ways of making music. Importantly, the musician-performer also misses out on the possibility of developing skills on a more co-composing and co-creative level. But this demands a different attitude, a different working process, and a different responsibility from both the composer and the musician-performer.

Let’s be very clear about one thing: this time is not a time for either / or. It is the time for and / and: for inclusive, multi-faceted programming and behaviour. There is nothing wrong with a symphony orchestra playing Bruckner or Grisey for a concentrated hall of quiet listeners. But there is definitely something anachronistic with a group of musicians doing only that.

Form and content: the stage and the audience

The ensembles that have been formed in the Seventies and Eighties were born from the need for a new musical and artistic direction. But weirdly enough, despite the then already omnipresent pop culture, they have held onto quite traditional stage concepts, both in the dramaturgy of the concert experience and in the musicians´ behaviour on stage.

Concerning the dramaturgy, we see more and more differentiation here. Building a concert on the ouverture-solowork-symphony-format (a romantic format that still makes its mark on many contemporary music concerts) is only one possibility. Another of the many options is a concert in one arch, guiding the audience without interruption from experience to experience. This leads to a different concentration and a different message all together. Again, it is about differentiation: not all music is meant or even fit for one or the other approach. Deciding how to program and how to perform, demands a lot of attention to detail. Conceiving a more holistic dramaturgy might even mean integrating ideas about light, sound, or set design in the process. Connecting to other art forms will not only enrich our own ideas about what a performance might be, it will also open doors to audiences who are interested in those other fields of the arts, rather than just in music.

Talking about stage presence in music is not trying to put an extra awareness on the shoulders of the musician. It is simply acknowledging what has always been part of our art, but is quite often ignored or taken for granted. A symphony orchestra dressed in tails is theatre. It may be a very formalized, uniform spectacle, but it is theatre nonetheless. We are never anonymous, all is seen, registered, part of the audience’s experience.

This doesn’t mean that we all need to look fashionable and Instagrammable on stage. A humble violinist on bare feet can be as captivating as a flashy one in an astonishing evening gown. Different situations call for different visual messages, but also different behaviours. Are we relaxed on stage, are we very concentrated? Is there a distance between the performer and the audience, or do we try to keep this distance as small as possible? Do we even communicate directly with the audience? It all depends on whether or not the image, the stage presence and behaviour, are at one with the content. The idea that form and content are one has been discussed to a great extent in other art forms, but this idea is just as valid for music as a performing art.

Addressing the audience directly is often still considered as something that “serious” music would not need and that would belittle the grandness of the art. Here, as in all other aspects of our musicianship, I believe we have to think in more diverse terms. It all depends on how, who, or why one does it. I once conducted a very complex and disturbing Birtwistle piece in an afternoon concert that was freely accessible to whoever wanted to attend. It was a situation where you could easily scare off uninformed audiences with the “harsh” sounds of new music. But I absolutely loved the piece and I really wanted to open some doors to the listeners, to invite them into this world - a world that I had been exploring for months and they had to grasp in 20 minutes! I had to beg the organizers again and again before they allowed me to address a few very simple words to the audience. This fear of contact needs to go. Being on stage doesn’t always need this distance. We can be very serious about the music and still be open and vulnerable about the act of performing it.

Music is a live art

We must never forget the strength of a live performance. I started my journey as a conductor with the Dutch Ricciotti Ensemble. This is a student orchestra, formed. amidst the unrest of the wild Seventies in Amsterdam, with the socialist motto of bringing music to the people: “Music for everyone, everywhere.” The orchestra still exists, playing in public squares, in hospitals, in schools. I am proud to say that I have been inside most prisons in The Netherlands and in many abroad. In one of those prisons, a women’s prison, I vividly remember playing the second movement of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. The atmosphere was tense, and the women didn’t really know how to relate to us. But after we finished the symphony, the atmosphere had changed. And in the silence that followed the music, in that moment before I dropped the tension, a woman right behind me sighed and said quietly: “This is life.” I will be grateful for this moment forever. It was one of those rare occasions when you get a completely honest feedback on what you have just done, on that weird stage. I was made aware of the power of a group of people, in joint concentration, managing to create something together with the audience (yes, we need the audience to do this!) that actually, however briefly, changed someone’s life.

In the era of unlimited internet access to all the recorded music in the world, we need to be aware that the power of live music is still timeless and cannot be replaced by anything virtual.

Conclusion
The present time is a very exciting one. In music, we are amidst an ocean of possibilities and developments. The limits of art music have never been so flexible. There is not “one” avant-garde. There is no ruling aesthetic. There is not one clear direction. On stage our presence can be at once more theatrical and more informal than has ever been possible. It is all wonderfully confusing.

Inside this multi-facetted reality, our task as musician-performers is to take in the vast possibilities of all those various kinds of music around us, to sharpen our love and to find the best way to attest to what we love. Composers can be “monogamous” in their love, in their choices. But performing musicians and programmers need to be polyamorous and versatile. We need to develop ways of dealing with that complexity and to share these loves with the audience, in the hope that some of our own bewilderment and fascination will transfer to them. Every step we take in that direction is one that makes the world more complete, more understanding, better.
—Bas Wiegers, 2018


Bas Wiegers started off as a violinist. His career moved more and more into conducting, and has led him to conduct international orchestras and (mainly contemporary) ensembles. In September 2018 he was appointed Principal Guest Conductor of Klangforum Wien.

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