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Peter Gregson: Making Traditional Audiences Think Differently

img  Tobias

Why do you feel it important to bring the outside world into the classical concert space just a little more?
I don't like the notion that a concert is a lone island in a sea of despair. I really believe the work we present must be relevant and responsive to what is going on outside those hallowed walls, and that the music I perform is relevant to peoples lives. In a pretentiously conceptual way, we should absolutely be bringing the outside world's influences into every performance, and the issue here is whether it should be visualised or not.

What stepping stones in particular do you see as important right now in bringing people back into classical concert halls?
I think the biggest obstacles to overcome is that we, as performers, need to really have a sense of ownership over what we do; I'm of the opinion that if I don't give a damn, I don't see that the audience should. I can't think of the number of times I've been to a concert and really wondered why the players were there; the feeling that they were simply going through the motions and would rather have been somewhere else... lacking vitality or any sense of passion. Watching Yo-Yo Ma, you get the feeling that every phrase, every movement and every piece is absolutely essential to him, and he's there to tell you why. It's the same with Coldplay, Steve Jobs and other natural leaders: they have the conviction to lead you on a journey. I think we've lost, to some degree, the art of communication, and that's what I strive for every time I perform

Has it been hard convincing concert organisers that you are genuinely interested in technology rather than regarding it as a novelty thing?

To begin with, I started by booking venues myself for these things - Galleries, warehouses, offices... places where there isn't the same associative boundry to overcome. This allows me to see if concepts stand up, or whether they're redundant. I suppose the overriding point here is "do traditional concert venues see value in what you do"? There's a part of me that wants to ask the same of them; my career hinges on my ability to develop concept and make them public quickly, programming concerts and events that are relevant at that moment. To some extent, the infrastructure and institutional baggage that a 200 year old venue brings can get in the way of that mobility. With that same gesture, the formalities and traditions that are in place aren't necessarily inviting to a future, exciting audience. What I'm finding is that the mindset of "concert in the concert hall, film in the cinema and books on the shelf" is shifting; we will consume this stuff where it is convenient, where the mood takes us, and pushing an audience into an  intimidating or (socially) uncomfortable concert hall isn't, to my mind, the way to integrate into society. We have to remember that people's lives revolve around life, not music. It's easy to forget, but it's our job to be relevant to them, not the other way around.

What have you learned from using these communicational technologies?
I continue to be amazed by audiences' responses, but not only online. What I am finding is that it encourages more people to come backstage afterwards and express their opinion - one guy told me at great length exactly why he hadn't enjoyed Britten's 2nd Cello Suite or Sculthorpe's Requiem for Cello Alone - but not once did he refer to musicological language. His response was really his, and it was marked by it's complete lack of snobbery or exclusive language. There's nothing wrong with not liking classical music, I'm just fascinated in encouraging people to express what they like and dislike. The other thing we all too often forget is that these tools are connecting people. It's a comfortable platform that, ultimately, won't necessarily be there in 5 months, 5 years or whatever, but the audience will be, and it's them we need to connect with.

Doesn't the constant stream of messages distract the performance?

What I sometimes find is that the people who express disdain at the distraction are coming to a concert for the social function it can perform: to see and be seen. In real terms, the visual noise isn't distracting if you're involved in the experience. I often wonder how many people question the potential distraction of the mural in the Wigmore Hall, or of stained glass windows in churches... They serve a function which works with the overall experience, not excluded from it in some way overpowering it.

How do live streams, right now, compare to the physical concert situation in your opinion?

The Berlin Phil thing (Peter is referring to the Digital Concert Hall – tokafi) is amazing to watch from a tech and music point of view, but I'm not sure that it's sustainable as a business model right now... How does a CD compare to a live concert? It doesn't, it's different. I love that location is no longer the barrier to attention, and with compressed formats like YouTube or mp3 and amazing distribution platforms like the iPhone or even a home computer, what we're learning is that my generation want to watch, hear and learn all of this stuff and that fidelity is an acceptable offset. Is it bad that the majority of people who have heard me perform have done so on their phones or computer screens? I don't think so. Do people in the cheap seats with terrible views and bad sound have less involvement? I don't think they do - one of the core excitements is precisely that it is a developing platform; we don't have the answers yet but it's really exciting to be involved in its development... who knows where it will lead!?

Multimedia is, of course, often open to a certain degree of arbitrariness ...
I would suggest that we shouldn't demonise the term before it is understood enough to stand on its own two feet; Period Performance is now accepted as only being appropriate if executed in an authentic way, but there was a rampant period of experimentation and trial and error. I always strive for an appropriate use of tools, asking whether they answer a question or make a problem. Of course we don't get it right all of the time, but I always like the quote "the world didn't know it needed Beethoven's 5th until it had it". Visualisers are important in this regard of mixed media performance: are they visualising something that requires representation or are they simply amplifying noise? I've been lucky to work with some of the worlds leading engineering minds through the MIT Media Lab, and this level of questioning is key to their process, and has great resonance with our world, too.

Where would you still like to go in terms of your stage-performance?

I am really excited by a few projects I have coming up, both in the UK and the US - one of them is at Kings Place, London in October and is called "Listen to my World". It's part of an experimental series they host called "Out:Hear". I'm not performing experimental music, rather, I'm playing with the concert concept and experience. I've geo-programmed the concert, meaning I chose pieces from pre-determined cities (London, Berlin, Paris, Tokyo, New York, San Francisco) and am working from there. I became fascinated with inspiration; I travel quite a lot, and often find myself hearing music differently in different cities (as I write this, I'm in New York and listening to some early Steve Reich. It feels so appropriate and vital here, somehow...) I wanted to experiment with how we, in the audience, perceive music when presented outside of its natural habitat. I'm keeping the details quiet for now, but I'm looking forward to going public with it all soon!

People often forget that the history of classical music has always been closely connected to technology as well, through improvements in instrument design, for example. Do you feel as though you're merely carrying on a tradition that has been going for a long time?
I think it's important to look at it as evolution, not a revolution. There was a time where someone thought "we need a bit more sustain on that chord", and so now we have pedals on the piano. Need more volume from the strings? Let's get some steel strings in there! I'm not for a second saying I have the answers, but I think there are some very exciting questions being asked right now, and the technology I'm using and developing is only ever used to cope with the complexities of the music I'm playing.

Do you still see a future for the „traditional“ concert experience, in which an artist plays to a passive audience?
I have no issue with people not doing things during concerts, but I don't think I'm alone in preferring an engaged audience. The platforms I've used recently have reached a totally different audience, but they've also made traditional audiences think differently.

Homepage: Peter Gregson

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