October 6, 2018

Music and shared experience

Music and shared experience

Troels Andersen Kjær
BACKSTAGE

Troels Andersen Kjær
BACKSTAGE

Screen Shot 2018-10-04 at 11.30.13 AM

This week on Backstage we are welcoming a new contributor, take a bow, Troels! We are excited to have him and we thought what better way to kick it off than to ask Troels to reminisce on his earliest memories of collective musical experiences. Having gone to a school that practice the Danish tradition of morning singing, Troels has some very interesting points to make about the collective responsibility of audiences and performers, and how our engagement with music is affected by the setting where the musical experience takes place.

Every morning everyone would gather in the common room. Children otherwise sizzling with untamed energy and enthusiasm would find their seats one by one, each sitting with a closed red book in their laps. An atmosphere of anticipation filled this shared space as a teacher took a seat in front of the piano, and the headmistress stepped in front of the gathering of children. A wide chalkboard behind her was bare except for two numbers written large enough for everyone to see. As the first notes of each song were played, the room underwent a temporary transformation as dozens of voices sang in unison.

My school had a strong narrative tradition, and the songs ranged from pious hymns to old folk songs, evoking biblical tales and ancient mythology. At first there was a sense of mystery as books were opened and the first song found, then as days, weeks, months and years passed, this turned into familiarity as I learned to recognise the numbers. This ritual of singing every morning made me feel like I was part of something greater than myself, that I felt connected to those around me.

There was the sense of vague discomfort of being faced with a song I had never sung before, and then over time and with repetition starting to appreciate it. On the other hand I recall the excitement I felt every time I recognised the number of one of my favourite songs, becoming the anthems of my childhood, and whenever a song that was popular among everyone came on, the entire room could barely contain their excitement as we roared the lyrics at the top of our tiny lungs.

I admit that these experiences are made more charming and transformative when viewed through the rose-tinted goggles of nostalgia. As a child I did not always appreciate the mandatory nature of this ritual, but as I’ve grown older I’ve learned to appreciate what an impact it had on me in terms of shaping my consciousness and defining my relationship with music and storytelling, and taught me what it means for music to come alive in the moment.

A recording of a song is a defined, packaged experience. Although my perception of it might change as I listen to it on repeat, the song itself does not change. There is a soothing sense of familiarity in knowing exactly what I will get; being able to put on my favourite song and give myself that experience. But what made our morning gatherings at school or any other live performance special to me is that in the performance itself the song both transforms and is transformed by the space it fills. Even though a song might be a familiar favourite, each rendition was different whether due to the way it was played or the energy of the people that sang it. It required a collective channeling of energy into it in and a willingness to be vulnerable and share our individual voices with the rest of the room. When a group of people are simply listening to a live rendition and not singing along, they are still part of the experience by the way they let themselves be affected by and react to the music.

I’ve been to some large concerts in my life. I understand why many people love these electrifying experiences as people bond in a collective consciousness. Perhaps partly because of my specific background and personality, I’ve always found these events to be overwhelming and disconnecting. I feel they often create a distance between artist and audience, the former being almost an object of worship. The performer becomes almost a figure of myth, a persona on which the listener projects their anticipation. There’s often an unspoken contract; a set of rules and behaviours that audience and performer follow. I’m not arguing that smaller concerts are inherently better, but I do feel they are a very different experience with a different kind of potential. At such an event there might still be a similar unspoken contract, but its terms are different. At a concert with thousands of people I can be a passive spectator - on the other hand if I’m in a crowd of just a handful or a few dozen people, like the morning gatherings of my childhood, there’s a different level of intimacy and exposure. I start noticing each individual person in the audience with me rather than consigning them to the anonymity of the masses. The artist has the opportunity to see each and every one of us, and there tends to be a raw, untamed quality to the performance. In a small audience we each have a larger proportional share of and responsibility for the experience. Whether we are disinterested, enthusiastic or something else entirely, it will be visible to everyone and play an active part in shaping the shared space. 

Want to try for yourself what Troels is talking about? Low-Fi has a lot of intimate concerts coming up.

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