I arrived at the stillness like most of us. It was as if I had clattered into an empty room carrying far too many things, dropping most of them hard on the floor. I think it’s the suddenness of the quiet which has been most shocking. What even is this new place? Any promise of restoration, of slumber, of tranquility is tempered by the confused shock of this weighty silence. The preceding years and decades have been a thrilling, dazzling blur. They were defined by harmony and tone, by accent and pitch, by the exquisite and fascinating possibilities of music. And now we have arrived at this great fermata – a pause of unspecified length with no clear promise of what is to follow. Even the sound of a live orchestra, that enduring symbol of collaborative human potential, has been subdued.
We musicians are currently prevented from giving live concerts. Many of us have been active in producing online performances which have been a way to remain connected with each other and to our audiences. They have been greatly appreciated. It’s a timeless truth that human beings find immeasurable meaning, comfort and inspiration through the act of listening to the performance of music. I see it in their faces when I look to them after a special performance. I can often feel it in the atmosphere of a space in which great music is being performed. The mysterious shared experience of these sound waves can be mesmerising, transportive, unifying. I’ve been interested to observe that when asked what is now most keenly missed, musicians feel it is the absence of other people, whether they be fellow performers or audience members. It’s the unifying power of the live musical experience we all miss most.
This interaction with each other and especially listeners, the receivers of our art, is where the real richness lies. It’s why audiences crave an unpretentious direct connection with performers. They love to hear us speak to them from our heart using both words and music. They seek to know us through our performances, to share in our creative world. In many ways the listener shares our own experience of performing. For the time in which they are solely focussed on receiving, we are bound together in concert.
Given this time to ponder, to reassess and reimagine, it’s worth re-examining our relationship with our audiences. The uncertain and slow path back to something resembling ‘normal’ concert giving has highlighted the extreme vulnerability musicians face when confronted with a potential change in audience behaviours. In our more recent pursuit of the golden ‘new audience’ for main stage concerts, it’s always struck me that we often set our goals purely in artistic terms, expecting an inevitable uptake in audience interest when they are met. This has proven to be far too simplistic an approach. Without being a part of a broader engagement driven mission, it will never be enough by itself to attract and hold a healthy level of audience participation and engagement. For many musicians and industry professionals this fact is very difficult to reconcile.
It’s only natural that we all strive for the highest artistic outcomes. This is nearly always the thing that most motivates and drives us. We have spent the vast majority of our lives working relentlessly at improvement and we often find our sense of self in our artistic achievements. It’s in our DNA. The ubiquitous concept of ‘artistic excellence’ is absolutely intrinsic to the worth of our endeavours, yet it should not be interpreted as the ultimate value of what we do. Where once I would meditate on the processes of music at the exclusion of all things, I’ve gradually transferred more of these mental energies to the idea of communion.
Communion is primarily the act of sharing thoughts and emotions, of experiencing intimate communication. Communion requires togetherness, it necessitates contact. It is aided by artistic excellence, but ultimately transcends it. I have come to the conclusion that this idea of communion with listeners, with our audiences, should be at the front of our minds. It demands that we as musicians and creators adjust our traditional priorities, understanding that our own artistic needs cannot be the sole arbiters of decision making. Responding to the needs of the audience, and even those of the wider community, must come first. If artistic self-indulgence was something able to be tolerated in the pre COVID-19 world, I guarantee that in a future governed by even harsher economic and social realities, it will not be.
The audience, both existing and potential, is now at the front of my mind. These are the kinds of questions I now find myself pondering more. Are we responding to the immediate needs of our audience and of our community? How can we best connect this performance with their imaginations? What are we trying to communicate? To what purpose can the abstract art of music be best employed? Are we presenting this concert in the most engaging way? It’s not enough simply to say that great music is essential in the lives of people. It’s up to us as musicians to make it essential.
My first conducting teacher John Hopkins left the world some years ago preaching that ‘music is the medium’. I can still hear him say it. To John music was a means of change, of empathy and of love. His lesson was that music can and should be used to serve something greater than itself.
My experience with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra after the devastating earthquakes of 2011 showed that medium of music is optimally adapted for the management of situations of social uncertainty such as these. As we all experience and absorb the shock of this formidable global event, which is itself a deeply unifying experience, for many of us our relationship with the world may begin to dissolve. This is why it is so crucial that we musicians continue to reach out to our audiences, to connect with people and help them navigate a path.
Nothing can replace the experience of a live musical interaction between performer and listener. However whilst that remains out of reach for now, we must continue to find ways to provide people with the experience of great music. Whether ready or not, we are now more than ever the stewards of this wondrous art form. Its immediate and long-term future is in our hands. I’m optimistic that this moment can help us discover a renewed focus on music’s relationship with people – specifically our localised audiences and broader communities. History tells us that music will be needed more than ever in the post COVID world – a new world which will eventually emerge from this stillness and quiet, like all of us, transformed.
VIEW AND LISTEN
Benjamin Northey conducts the premiere performance of Eumeralla by Australian Indigenous composer Deborah Cheetham This sold-out performance, recorded in 2019, features Deborah Cheetham AO, soprano (Yorta Yorta); Linda Barcan, mezzo soprano; Don Bemrose, baritone (Gungarri); MSO, MSO Chorus; Dhungala Children’s Choir; Masters students from Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and young talent from Melbourne Youth Orchestras.
Benjamin Northey is Chief Conductor of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and Principal Conductor in Residence of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. A graduate of the University of Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and Finland’s Sibelius Academy, he is a regular guest conductor with orchestras and opera companies in Australia and the Asia Pacific region.