Part 2 of 4 essays exploring the evolution in classical music concert design by the 1781 Collective. The second installation of the series looks at the evolution from ritual practice to incorporating narrative structure to create a compelling musical experience.
In 2019, the 1781 Collective embarked on a journey of exploration into classical music concert design, with an open-minded approach as to what we would discover along the way. We wanted to understand how the existing rituals inherent within the traditional classical music concert model influenced and effected the audience experience, and how the manipulation of these rituals (or development of new ones) could positively enhance the connection between audience, performer, and of course, the music.
The result was the ‘Ritual Design Series’ run in Berlin throughout 2019, and explored in detail in this article — in short, we trialled concepts such as installing a ‘No Applause Ever’ rule, insisting on an all-white dress code, giving physical tasks for certain works, and crafting the programme around a theme (such as Æther/Quintessence or The Evolution of Attraction) rather than advertising repertoire or performers.
This series was experimental by nature (audiences were invited guests who understood the guinea pig nature of their role, rather than being paying audience members), and it allowed us to develop new performance methods that could be taken into the public sphere. A natural evolution that began to appear throughout this process was the integration of narrative as the most integral element of the performances that followed: in essence, a story or coherent thread would be written for each performance, following a five to seven ‘Chapter’ structure, which then utilised the music for moments of introspection and thought; or in other words, we used the story to create context for the piece of music that would follow, offering the audience one potential interpretation of the musical material they were hearing.
Classical music is exceptionally complex from an emotional point of view, and storytelling is one of our most basic, primal methods of communicating complex material — no surprise then that the two operate fantastically in concert together. Our discoveries here mimic what we’ve seen in other industries also: Heston Blumenthal (one of the most famous chefs in the world) originally made his name in fantastical gimmicks and tricks in the kitchen which mostly highlighted multisensorial aspects, but in 2015 the flagship restaurant under his brand, The Fat Duck, released a new menu which was based on a storytelling model that used each of the thirteen dishes on the set courses that were miniature chapters in a work that recreated the reminiscence of seaside holidays.
As humans we love listening to stories, and we love tales, allegories, and parables that we can connect to our own experiences. Integrating narrative design into concert experiences, allowing the audience to identify themselves within the story is a powerful tool that then encourages the audience to connect deeper with the musical programme. And we don’t have to start from scratch: there are plenty of existing archetypes in storytelling that we can experiment with and utilise, rather than try and reinvent the wheel. Our favourite model is the fairly simple mono-arc story, best illustrated as such:
We’ve been lucky enough to present concerts with this narrative structure in front of hugely diverse audiences outside of the traditional classical music sphere — most notably at large techno festivals in Germany and Poland, where the audience consists mostly of younger people who at best have a tentative relationship with classical music. But the results have been exceptionally positive every time: simply by recontextualising the content — not modifying or bastardising it — we have managed to open a channel to people without existing connections to the music to craft their own understanding of Schubert, Liszt, Wagner, etc.
Not convinced? Try it out yourself: even crafting a programme that is silently modelled on a narrative arc which isn’t necessarily communicated to the audience can be a useful tool when creating your next programme. If you’re stuck for where to start, Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Shape of Stories’ lecture is an excellent resource for both inspiration and education. Music and storytelling are perhaps two of the earliest methods of bringing people together, and the rekindling of the two into the classical music concert could be just the tonic for providing a welcoming atmosphere to potential new followers.