Over the last week I have watched with fascination this odd-looking structure taking form outside the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Basel:
Today it finally became clear what it was all about.
A few years ago, after a visit to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, I railed against the lack of parity between contemporary artists and composers. Why could an exhibition of obscure modern art gain such a wide and appreciative audience, and yet a disdainful public leaves contemporary music to its tiny coterie of initiates? I tentatively suggested that we need to get out of stuffy music halls, accommodate ourselves more to the needs of audiences.
Of course others have successfully attempted just this. What I saw today, however, struck me as a particularly elegant solution to the problem. The curious construction is the >reinhören pavilion – a mobile concert hall. Over the course of this month there will be a number of performances in it, but today we were treated to a series of works played by pianist Marino Formenti.
The interior has beautifully minimalist wood panelling with various levels, including a little area only reachable by a ladder. Strewn all around are enormous red beanbags. At the entrance there is a table of apple juice to which you can help yourself.
The pianist was already mid-piece as I entered so I waited respectfully at the entrance for a suitable pause. I needn’t have bothered – the whole idea, I soon discovered as I settled into one of the beanbags, was to come and go as you pleased, entirely removing that feeling of being forced to stay in your chair, no matter whether the piece that was being played was to your taste or not. The prevailing attitude was summed up by this instruction on the wall:
The repertoire was astonishingly varied but focused especially on works by Satie, Cage and Feldman, the pianist stopping after each piece to scribble the next work on the wall:
What was most gratifying was the variety of people who came and went, including families with young children, some of whom had to be reluctantly prised out of their beanbags by their parents when they had to go. Perhaps the biggest triumph came at the end of my three-hour stay, when Formenti played the 70-minute For Bunita Marcus by Feldman. The composer is not my thing on the best of days – I very rarely have the patience to sit through any of his works, let alone the epically static ones that came towards the end of his life. Today it was different. Possibly because there was no pressure to stay, I was happy to. So, too, did almost everyone else. Some sat and read books, one man painted, others lay back with their eyes closed. Outside the ambient sounds added interesting punctuations to the performance – the rain on the roof, the bells and organ of the Münster, a distant roll of thunder. It was entrancing.
So there it is. Contemporary music can do exactly what contemporary art does. It is all a matter of presentation and especially of prioritising the needs of the audience. After all, when people listen to music at home they slouch in the most comfortable chair, check their smartphones when their attention wavers, get up to stretch their legs or have a drink. And they certainly don’t dress up. Why should they behave so differently in a concert?
To find more information about this concert venue, or perhaps to pay it a visit in Basel, you can visit the >reinhören webpage here.