Bamberg, one evening in December. The concert they said would be unlike any other, starts exactly like any other. The audience is seated in the hall. The musicians take their places on stage. The conductor enters, bows and – aha, now the evening takes a subtly different tack – also sits down. That’s new. After all, the concert rulebook says: the conductor is not to sit down. The conductor is supposed to stand, at the very centre of proceedings, an allegory of the music he is conducting. And if he does sit, then not the way Nikolaj Znaider is sitting right now – leaning back, waiting intently for what happens next, and making it clear what this evening isn’t about. At least, not in the usual way.
»Slam Symphony« is the name of the format the Bamberg Symphony is trying out. It involves several other participants joining the conductor on stage – three soloists, but not musicians: poets. “Slam Symphony” goes like this: the Orchestra performs a work from the classical repertoire, invariably programme music, in other words with a narrative set to music – in this instance, excerpts from Sergey Prokofiev’s ballet »Romeo and Juliet«. The poets are each given a theme from the work, prepare a text on it – and compete for the best text in a poetry slam. It’s part of the actual concert: the Orchestra plays the relevant sections of the work, the poet performs, and then, as per the poetry slam rulebook, the loudness of the audience’s applause decides who’s won. Or, recoded into classical concert-speak: concerto for large orchestra and three poets ad libitum. But tonight, nothing matters less than concert-speak.
And then the Orchestra plays the whole piece all the way through, and something remarkable happens, something highly revealing: in your head, you can still hear the words.
The evening gets its own beat, and it gets it from language. And very soon the true magnitude of what’s happening becomes apparent: music is still by far the dominant element tonight. But it’s no longer the decisive element.
Now, it’s all about what’s behind the music.
Because what the concert’s about – a great love story – isn’t just the »Romeo and Juliet« story. It’s also about another love, similarly innocent but by no means so uncomplicated: ours, with music. Framed by words, it strikes you with greater force than usual. At the same time, the texts brazenly challenge the music itself. A battle between art forms, clearly: only a mock one, though, as the real winner was decided long ago, and no one’s about to knock Prokofiev off his pedestal.
But it’s OK to bump him a bit.
And he’s on the move anyway. Not, as it happens, on the beaten track, clearly marked and strictly policed. No: out of control. If it’s true that music knows nothing of past or future, but constantly connects the now with eternity – then tonight’s focus is the here and now.
Which doesn’t mean that the evening doesn’t transcend itself – on the contrary, it has perhaps even more to say about other concerts than about itself.
It’s very tempting to approach music at a concert like a painting in a museum. You know beforehand where it’s on display, more or less which colours are where, and you can sense that behind, beyond, between the colours there’s more, there’s some magic – and it’s only called magic because it’s so easy to reach for that metaphor for an artwork’s indefinable quality, which is far from easy to explain, and which is bigger than you.
This evening helps us find new metaphors. In fact, forces us find them.
And there’s also the sweet scent of danger: every concert is always a cocktail of risk and routine. The more professional an orchestra, the safer, more certain and risk-free the outcome. So, for all the drama composers embody in their music, there can hardly be anything more harmless than a concert. This time, it’s different: tonight’s Slam Symphony really could go horribly wrong. All it would take is a poor text, and the format would lose – here’s that word again – all its magic.
And in the classical music world, where everything is designed to be as predictable and trouble-free as possible, that does feel a bit reckless.
Words shine a light into music’s engine-room, sometimes uncovering something new, often rediscovering something that’s already been found. What emerges isn’t a miniature artwork in its own right, but nor is it not art – at last, something is at stake again, in what’s only a game, but a game everyone wants to win.
This is a concert with the protective packaging torn off.
And there’s something else important about it: the paradoxical way art unfolds in the concert hall. After all, a concert isn’t just musicians, listeners, sounds and attendant thoughts, all coming together at once. No, it’s a minor wonder of the world, ever new, something made to measure by over a hundred players from old blueprints and assembled under the oversight of the conductor, who calibrates the harmonies afresh and recalibrates the gaps between piano and forte and fast and slow. The result: sound. It arises spontaneously in the concert hall, from the precisely correct placement of instruments and surfaces, blends, reaches the listeners, enters the ears and then penetrates your mind and the pit of your stomach, as feelings. So music is nothing less than vibration, engendered by emotion and re-emitted as emotion – sounds which start as an idea, then fill an entire hall, and finally contract back into the smallest imaginable state, as thoughts.
And even if no one can say for sure what that emotion feels like to anyone else, it’s precisely prescribed, like a blueprint, by the score. And it’s the conductor’s responsibility to search for meaning in these prescriptions, to make as much of them as their limits allow – and there’s the rub: he must follow the prescriptions precisely, without departing too far from them, since all feelings are notated – pre-scribed, in the truest sense of the word. Looked at this way, too, there’s almost nothing more reliable, more certain, more harmless than going to a concert: at least, when the audience is left to its own devices.
This evening is different: on a purely emotional level, it’s a leap into the unknown.
A feeling doesn’t only become a feeling when someone defines it as such, but sometimes, when you hear someone talking about feeling, it can help you feel.
It would be wrong to misconceive of Slam Symphony as an experiment, to see if music can be composed using words – a non-starter, obviously. Music no more needs texts than texts need a clef to find their home key.
But it’s great this once to have both.