catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 9 :: 2006.05.05 — 2006.05.19


A concert hall reclaimed

Although there are many rewarding aspects of my job at Calvin College, the one that usually garners the awed gasps of friends and acquaintances is the abundance of concerts I?m able to attend. I have to admit, it?s a perk: in any given year, the Student Activities Office hosts at least 30 live musical performances, usually by celebrated national acts, and I?m fortunate to be in the audience for most of them.

Based on the sheer volume of concerts I have attended in the last three years, I?ve concluded that Calvin?s star-ceilinged Fine Arts Center is my most frequented ?third place? in Grand Rapids. I suspect that it serves the same function for many residents of West Michigan. I?m not sure the FAC qualifies as a third place in the strictest sense of the term, since our shows are rarely free, although far less expensive than most commercial venues (and we don?t slap you with those nasty ?processing fees,? either). Not to mention that we ask you to shut up during our concerts, eliminating opportunities for verbal interaction with one?s neighbors?at least while the musicians are doing their thing on stage. Still, concerts at Calvin?and concerts in general?have the ability to nourish communities and facilitate relationships outside the home and beyond the office, as any third place worth its salt.

Time was that attending a live performance in a public setting was the only way to listen to music, aside from plinking out minuets on a harpsichord in the comfort of your own parlor. With the advent of embedding sounds into grooved surfaces, however, people began to bring pre-recorded music into their daily lives on demand. Now, modern technology allows us to listen anytime, anywhere; Johnny Cash may have gone to be with the Lord several years ago, and I was born long after his Folsom Prison concert, but he still puts on a great show while I?m making dinner thanks to compact discs and stereo systems.

In the last five years, music listening has become an even more fragmented, highly individualized experience due to downloadable mp3s and their players. Full-length albums are going the way of the dodo, with consumers picking and choosing individual songs rather than purchasing entire records. Meanwhile, our earbuds seal us off from the world around us as we ping-pong through the work of dozens?even hundreds, even thousands?of artists.

Contrary to how it may sound, however, I?m no Luddite: I love my iPod as much as the next person caught between Generations X and Y. Recorded technologies provide opportunities for introducing, sharing, and appreciating new music that have enriched our culture and our communities, however virtual some of those may be. But the flip side of such technologies is also worth considering. The fickle nature of privatized listening experiences and on-demand devices has diminished our ability to listen attentively and appreciatively to music live and in person, shoulder to shoulder with others. Even when we do invest the time and money to see our favorite bands, we tend to treat it like yet another exercise in consumerism. For example, many audience members seem to spend most of the show bellowing ?requests? (which actually sound more like demands) at the artist, as though she or he is nothing more than an iPod on shuffle.

Still, live concerts are the best and truest way to experience and interact with music. To me, the single most compelling thing about live shows is that it is virtually impossible to be disconnected from what?s taking place or who you?re with. The audience and the artist share a communion dependent on a unique time and place: what happens on stage and in the room will never, ever happen exactly that same way again. That partly explains the devoted fans who drop out of school or quit their jobs to follow around bands like the Grateful Dead or Phish or U2?unlike recordings, concerts are constantly mutating as a tour barrels along. There is always something new and startling and interesting about each show, whether it?s an extended jam, a new tale from the road, a visual flourish, or a special guest appearance.

Another wonderful element of live performances is that you never know who will show up to watch them. In the era of lifestyle marketing, music taste has become synonymous with the other commoditized accoutrements of one?s existence, but people still find ways to subvert demographic predictability. At most concerts, you will find a bizarre cross-section of folks whose paths wouldn?t intersect otherwise. And for a few hours on a weekend night, they can become colleagues and community. At Calvin, we take that community a step further, too, with artist conversations, giving audience members a chance to dialogue with each other and with the musicians themselves in a way that enhances the musical performance to follow. The tyranny of celebrity worship prohibits most venues from providing meaningful interaction with popular artists in this way, but we?ve found that most musicians appreciate the thoughtful questions of their listeners when we put them in a classroom together.

For these reasons, concert venues are a third place we need to reclaim, in spirit and personal practice if not with the consent of Clear Channel and Ticketmaster. Whether in a seedy bar, on a town green, or at a sedate old music hall, live music draws us out of isolation and places us back in a necessary context, the public square, among friends and strangers alike.

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