When In Bruges

When In Bruges

I hopped the Eurostar to Brussels this weekend to catch a concert in Bruges—part of the Ars Musica festival—featuring pieces by Varèse, Stravinsky, and Dillon. The Concertgebouw Brugge, built in 2002, is a stunning facility on the edge of a medieval plaza. The anachronism of the Concertgebouw in its ancient surroundings prompted me to consider that quirk of the relationship between human geography and cultural consumption that causes new music to be played in old places.

In the United States, most new places are suburban (although as principles of New Urbanism continue to inform urban development, this may change). The suburban pattern of cultural consumption is not especially welcoming to contemporary music: The high concentration of venues in old places like city centers (the very places to which many suburb-dwellers commute every day) and the ubiquity of mass media like television that coincided roughly with the cultivation of suburbs collude to keep suburban populations at home in the evenings. This gravity is even stronger in the more distant and affluent exurbs, where travel time to the city is measured in hours rather than minutes.

Contemporary music—one aspect of which, of course, is the continual revitalization of an archaic Western art music tradition—would be entirely alien in Chanhassen or Leesburg. But it seems to fit like a glove in a venerable city like Bruges, a place whose historical hue complements concert music beautifully even though the Calvinists and Anabaptists who used to run the show would have had nothing to do with it. (Even Leesburg is probably more receptive to new music than was Reformation-era Flanders.) But it’s not just the region or nation: It’s the salable quaintness, the notion that a piece of history can be bought, whether the history of Bruges or Back Bay. It just feels right to hear new music in old places because it cements the feeling that we are acquiring historically validated cachet, investing ourselves in a blue-chip tradition with a record of high cultural dividends.

This is disgusting. It makes me want to start a concert series in a strip mall. In fact, it makes me want to attend concerts of new music in strip malls to the exclusion of all others (slim pickings, I know). Am I alone in this ideological pathology, or does anyone else feel the same way? Maybe it’s totally cool to hang out in old places and listen to classical music, which sounds like an activity custom-made for stuffwhitepeoplelike.com to self-consciously lambaste. But I think it’s symptomatic of a big sociocultural problem, and it would make me feel saner if someone else agreed.

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3 thoughts on “When In Bruges

  1. Lisa X

    Next time you are in LA you might want to stop by the Knitting Factory in Hollywood. It will cure you once and for all. It is the only venue in a strip mall that I have ever hear of and it is a absolutely terrible place.

  2. micahelx

    new music in strip malls
    there’s thousands in the states — I’ll contribute a piece — we’ll have to ask them to turn off the Muzak for a while…

  3. jbunch

    mi dispiace, ma non sono in accordo…
    “It’s the salable quaintness, the notion that a piece of history can be bought, whether the history of Bruges or Back Bay. It just feels right to hear new music in old places because it cements the feeling that we are acquiring historically validated cachet, investing ourselves in a blue-chip tradition with a record of high cultural dividends.”

    On the one hand, people host new music in old places (rather than strip malls), because the cultural apparatuses that we have developed for the delivery of new music performances are found in those places. In this respect, I very much support the idea of creating adventurous and unusual new venues for the performance of new music. I like the idea of a facility dedicated to the works of our own time. But only as a function of trying to increase the availability of alternative experiences, not just moving the same old audience into a new room.

    But part of your commentary sounds like someone pining to get their hair cut at the butchers because the hairstyles we don nowadays are so different than the hairstyles our fathers donned and so therefore they aren’t really “haircuts.” Rhetorical flourish aside, the thought that our music doesn’t take part in some of the very same discourses that older music avails itself of is clearly not accurate. What you are objecting to seems to be circumstantial elements (material, style, composition date). These things are results of their time and place – yes – but they are only the veneer, the bi-products, or perhaps the accidental form that is taken by the act, or the parts, but not the sum… I would agree with you for those works that are so radically different (that so successfully escape the narrow experiential boundaries we call music) but those works are the minority, and that purpose is not the purpose of many composers. From another perspective, I find the superimposition of such dissonant cultural and aesthetic modalities such as are found in new music and old architecture to be stimulating in its transgressive sense of disproportion. Prepared and understood in the right light, nothing could induce listeners to confront their assumptions and aesthetic prejudices as effectively as being exposed to differences acknowledged and embraced. We work this way socially. It’s harder to bash a gay person that sits at your dinner table every night… Isn’t it thus possible that cultural hegemony can be convinced to destroy itself if the flavor of the public discourse can be steered in a direction that reveals its inadequacy? You lead someone to the conclusion that they should never passively accept the conclusions they are lead to.

    If on the other hand you intend to say that the architecture or the particular concatenation of cultural rituals associated with the venue (wearing tuxedos, not being able to bring your white russian into the performance space…) then there are still some problems with your sentiments. The architecture of most newer orchestral spaces tends to be far less conservative in design than much of the music being played there. When I think of the Harris Theater, or the Detroit Symphony’s Fisher Center, the design is a kind of mediated post-modernism. So many of the performance spaces are actually closer in visual aesthetic to the music that we want played there (because it is roughly contemporaneous with it). I get the feeling that if we start having concerts in strip malls, either the rituals will just come right along, or there will be this hand-crafted, PR-motivated rejection of it. I’m sure you’ve experienced this phenomenon before, and understood immediately when you had that you were being marketed to.


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