Guest post by Cheyney Kent (originally published in a shortened form on medium.com)
Twelve years ago I stood opposite a sculpture by the American abstract artist Donald Judd at Tate Modern. The sculpture was a box. A lime green perspex box, the size of a large domestic water tank, but simply a box nonetheless.
It seemed rather disappointing — until I began to feel myself falling into it.
Nothing violent had happened. I’d not slipped, or been pushed. Instead, I’d tried putting my cynicism aside. The result wasn’t revelation or enlightenment. Instead I discovered a different relationship to the piece (and the exhibition – and sculpture in general).
Last week I hovered on all sorts of thresholds. I had been attending the Southwell Music Festival, a classical music festival in the East Midlands. I was there as both a performer and also social media liaison.
Having two roles means that I occupy different spaces. I can be in the centre of the room as a performer. I can be in the centre of the room as the audience. I can be inside the room but with a liaison’s – a functionary’s – purpose; taking notes, turning pages, operating a camera. I can be outside the room, looking in; and occasionally in a different room listening to a relay or watching on a screen.
There are so many proximities or grades of engagement. The threshold – the often arbitrary or imaginary demarcation between them – is a nice idea to scratch at.
You get thresholds inside the music you’re listening to as well. There is an evanescent but substantial one in Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (performed as the central event of this year’s Southwell Music Festival). Approaching the denouement, a narrating Angel tells the eponymous Soul
And now the threshold, as we traverse it utters aloud its glad responsive chant
and the music changes, with dynamic and harmonic doors opened (not unlike the theatrically labelled ‘Transformation Music’ in the parallel passage of Wagner’s theosophical drama Parsifal). The music introduces a different space, with a concomitant change of view, and perhaps even of energy or temperature. It is a physical change. Of course, we’re all still sitting in our seats or standing to sing. We’ve not gone anywhere.
Being in the same space as the musician to whom you are listening is a remarkable, elastic experience. It’s typical to breathe at the same time as a good performer and to feel their rolling with the camber of the music, as they perform it.
Volume is neither here nor there: you can have the same experience of being oppressed or beckoned by a musical gesture from row Z.
But this experience isn’t available behind a certain threshold. Perhaps that’s a smartphone screen. Maybe you’re standing outside the room, where performer and audience alike are like goldfish at a fair, commodified in a venue-bag where the acquisition of the memory negates the experience that won it.
I have my own experience from the same week to share.
Early during the Festival I’d walked close up to a performance of Strauss’ Metamorphosen to take a couple of photographs for social sharing. I was concentrating on my job. As I turned to leave however, I began to hear – to engage with – the music. The physical connection to this acoustically unmediated sound, this fine playing of fine music actually stopped me from walking away, as if I were tethered. I hadn’t followed the drama or narrative of the music (as I would with Elgar the following evening) as I wandered inside the notional and actual extremities of the performance space. In a moment I was reminded that I had passed these topographical thresholds to get my pictures: my intent – and relationship to the performance – had changed as I put down the camera.
All of this is representative of my experience of being in different places, and different roles, in a performance space.
I really like and value the potential of socially-shared media to create a platform and context for performance. I like that there’s a way to create an opportunity to discuss an experience. There’s value in capturing images or sounds that trigger the stored physical experience of being in the audience.
They’re slippery though. They can also offend – that’s not too strong a term – other people who occupy the same physical space but don’t share your intent. The complex physical manifestation between physicality and acoustic sound in an aesthetic context, which is the spaghetti of thought I’m trying to hold in the inadequate ‘threshold’ idea, means that not everyone has the same sensation at the same time. As performers are listen to one another in ensemble, so we have to be kind to one another in audiences!
The point about thresholds is that they are real but they are not obvious. Distance is no threshold in itself. It’s the authenticity and intent of our apprehension that dictates whether we’re really present for the performance or not. It’s OK to stand in a room opposite a perspex box asking what the point is, if that is the only authentic thought you can grab hold of. If you snap it on a phone to try and work it out later, you may have missed the point.
(Photo credit: Nick Rutter)
Cheyney Kent works in singing and social media for arts: cheyneykent.co.uk
You can read Cheyney’s blog at songstageandstory.blogspot.co.uk