A concert or a ‘happening’?

This week I attended my very first ‘happening’ at the somewhat unlikely venue of London’s St John’s Smith Square to celebrate the 70th birthday of American-British composer Stephen Montague. A ‘happening’ is generally defined as a spontaneous event where musicians and performers come together, and usually involves audience participation. The friend who joined me at the St John’s event has been to many happenings (at music festivals such as Supernormal) and was able to confirm after the event that it was indeed a “proper” happening. We retired to a greasy spoon caff off Horseferry Road, where, over mugs of steaming, brick-red tea and egg and chips, we discussed the event, which moved into a wider discussion about what makes a concert or performance.

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‘A Dinner Party for John Cage’ at St John’s Smith Square

What I loved about the Stephen Montague event was its sense of spontaneity, how it began without fanfare or announcement (no applause for conductor, leader of the orchestra, etc, for there were none), and seemed to evolve over the space of around 50 minutes (in fact, a very clearly defined time-frame). It was as interesting watching the audience’s reaction as it was observing the performers (singers, string players, three pianists and an organist). There was the sense of several things going on at once, working on several layers and in different time frames, and yet at times, the seemingly disparate groups of musicians and performers came together to form a cohesive whole. The seating was arranged randomly; the audience was integral to the performance, and we were invited to wander around the space and actively participate.

Was it a concert? I thought so, because there was most definitely an audience and performers, and music, and these elements must co-exist to create that perfect circle (music-performer-audience) that is a concert.

The formal concert as we know it today, with all its etiquette and particular modes of behaviour – sitting in silence, knowing when to applaud, dressing up etc – did not really come into existence until the nineteenth century. Before that time people enjoyed music in many different settings, and performances were often a sideline or accompaniment to some other event such as a royal audience, religious ceremony, or banquet. In many ways, the Stephen Montague happening harked back to that earlier time, before we all got so het up about how we should behave at concerts. It was a liberating and instructive experience.

Read my Bachtrack review of A Birthday Happening for Stephen Montague

Supernormal Festival trailer, made by my concert companion, Andy Moore, of Little Matey Productions