TAFTO 2005 Contribution: George Hunka

Since we all can’t be professional musicians or veteran orchestra managers with the confidence to take someone to an orchestra concert and show them the ropes it pays to look at things from the eyes of someone on the outside looking in. The average experienced orchestra patron probably believes that they don’t know very much about music (although that’s usually not the case) or at least not enough to give them enough confidence to go out and serve as a guide for someone new to the experience. As such, we are fortunate to have George Hunka (an individual who is not involved with the world of classical music in any professional capacity) offer to share his thoughts.  George is a professional playwright with a degree in Languages and Literature from Bard College. Looking in from the outside is good. ~ Drew McManus

I was a little taken aback last March when Drew contacted me to take part in this online symposium. Unlike most of the other participants you’ll find here, I’m a rank amateur and something of a dilettante when it comes to classical music; as a performer, my musical experience extends no further than six years of piano lessons when I was a kid; as an essayist and writer, my interests lean far more to drama and the theater than they do to the concert hall. But in my nearly two years of writing about theater at my blog, I’ve corresponded with several of the more musically-inclined people in this virtual seminar room, and this provides me with just a thought or two about broadening the appeal of classical music concerts to a wider listenership.

As a playwright I tend to hang about with other theater types, and one of the things I’ve noticed is just how few of them take the time to investigate other art forms that might inform their own. They visit the theater frequently, of course, and they watch television and movies, and they do it because this is part of the job of being an actor or actress, a stage director or designer. What I miss in talking to many of them is a familiarity with contemporary visual art or contemporary concert music. Given the number of qualities they share with musicians, composers and even visual artists (who put themselves on display, after all, in galleries), theater practitioners seem marginal because they don’t consider the other arts as part of their proper concern.

This is a fairly new issue, I think, and part of the blame has to be placed on the increasing specialization and professionalization of the arts. The salon movements in the earlier part of the 20th century led to a spectacular explosion of art of all kinds: Picasso visited Gertrude Stein, who was collaborating with Virgil Thompson; George Grosz was designing sets for Bertolt Brecht, who in turn was collaborating with Kurt Weill and
George Balanchine; and let’s not even start with the Dadaists or the Russian constructivist movement in the years just after the Bolshevik Revolution. In the United States, in the 1950s, the artists generally grouped under the rubric of “Abstract Expressionism” relied on poets like Frank O’Hara to popularize their work, and Morton Feldman was more than open to inspiration from both the visual arts (“Rothko Chapel” and Feldman’s music for a contemporary film on Jackson Pollock spring to mind) and the verbal (“For Frank O’Hara” and his music for texts by Samuel Beckett).

Maybe our professionalization as artists and performers means that we find ourselves spending more time meditating on our own disciplines than on others, but there are no fewer hours in the day now than there were in the past. Opening our experience as concert music enthusiasts to practitioners of other art forms doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to enter into collaborative projects with them. But if we’re going to broaden the appeal of concert music, one clear avenue for that effort is to bring artists from different disciplines into our conversations. And one of the first places to start is with the visit to a concert hall.

So this month I suggest that you find a friend who has a passionate attachment to another art form–photography, say, or sculpture, or any kind of visual art; the theater; literature–and invite them along to a concert featuring some 20th century piece. Tell them a little bit about what the piece represents to you, and if you’re familiar with it already, take the time to mention why you like it or why you don’t; ask them to listen carefully, as an audience member in a group in a dark room, not as an iPod-equipped commuter on a subway train. Certainly some modernist and post-modernist trends in prose writing, or in visual art, constitute the same kind of formal iconoclasm as some 20th century music; ask your friend about them, try to relate them to what you know about musical history. And, most especially, listen to what they have to say; respond to them from your own perspective.

I doubt this will save the concert hall, frankly. But the chance always exists that, exposed to this music in this context, your friend might be willing to investigate concert music further, to draw parallels between different art forms, to relate them to the culture that produced them both. And hell, maybe you’ll find yourself visiting a gallery or two in your off hours. In trying to broaden the audience for the art form in which we have so much of our lives invested, it’s only fair that we ourselves broaden the audience for another art form as well.

– George Hunka