Crossing the threshold

How often has this happened: you exit a restaurant/concert/art gallery for the first time, having wholly enjoyed your experience, thinking, "Why have I not done this before?" Think about what got you there: were you invited by a friend? Were you attracted by a star chef, or a mystery ingredient? Was a work of art supposedly too outrageous to ignore? Or were you simply curious?

The question of what gets a person to a concert (or art gallery, or restaurant...but music is my context) is always on my mind. Why do people see some concerts but not others? And why does there seem to be such a hesitation when potential concertgoers are encouraged to try something new? Two recent experiences have especially brought these questions to mind.

Last Saturday night (April 9), I had the pleasure of being in the audience for the Barnyard Records triple CD release at 918 Bathurst Street, the third of four TDJ Special Projects. Three ensembles were featured: the quintet of Evan Shaw, Nicole Rampersaud, Jean Martin, Wes Neal and Tomasz Krakowiak; the trio of Evan Parker, Wes Neal and Joe Sorbara; and the 17-piece, mixed instrumentation AimToronto Orchestra, with Evan Parker soloing on a few selections. The music, primarily improvised with some composition, was interesting, exciting, challenging, frustrating - I experienced a full range of musical emotions. And at the end of the night, I was so glad to have been there, along with the rest of the full house. (And since it's unfair to point to any one musician or ensemble as truly standing out, I'll play it safe and refer to the one non-local musician on the gig: if you don't know Evan Parker's playing - and I didn't before Saturday night - I would encourage you to check him out. He is a monster saxophonist.)

I'm not sure exactly who the audience was that night. I certainly recognized a number of faces, but many I didn't. I wonder - were they trying out creative/improvised music for the first time? What got them there? Would they come back?

Two nights later, I was in the Elisabeth Beeton Auditorium at the Toronto Reference Library for the first in a series of four "New Music 101" sessions, presented by the Toronto New Music Alliance in cooperation with the library. As you may know, I've been working since 2007 with Continuum Contemporary Music - one of Canada's top contemporary classical chamber ensembles - and so am keenly aware of the challenges facing the contemporary music community, especially when it comes to audience development. New Music 101 is the community's way of inviting the general public to experience contemporary music in a free, relaxed and welcoming environment.

As a member of the organizing committee, I had no idea how this first session, featuring members of the ArrayMusic ensemble with John Terauds (from the Toronto Star) moderating, would turn out. We were pleasantly surprised: nearly every seat was filled as Array's Artistic Director, Rick Sacks, took us on a journey from early Stravinsky (sounding very classical and not particularly Stravinsky-y) all the way to graphic scores. And, from my point of view, the audience was engaged for the full hour, asking some great questions at the end of the session. As far as I could tell, the event was a great success: the audience was an interesting mix of ages and cultures, each of whom (by show of hands) had a varying degree of experience with contemporary music. So the question is, now, having been exposed to contemporary music, will some of those for whom the style is new take the plunge and pay for a ticket to an upcoming concert?

How do these experiences relate to my work at the festival? In a few ways. Is the New Music 101 model something that could work for jazz - do potential audience members need to experience the music in a free and open environment before they'll commit to a ticketed concert? Should our free concert series, which tend to be more "accessible" music, also include music that will challenge our audience, just to give them a taste of a broader range of jazz? And, feeling confident that someone might leave, say, a Trio M, or Atomic, or Vijay Iyer concert having had an incredible experience, how do we get that person through the door in the first place?

These are questions with no easy answers, but questions that we deal with almost every day. It's part of the fun (I think?) of the job, but can also leave us shaking our heads, wondering why a particular concert didn't sell better.

What do you think - what would get someone to take a chance on some new music? What's convinced you to do so?


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