The Audience Research branch of the ULYSSES Network was established in late 2016 with the aim of investigating the audience for contemporary classical music in Europe. Newly composed classical music has long held a reputation for challenging audiences and for provoking a wide range of responses and experiences. This image of the genre has often held it back from reaching a larger, more diverse audience base. By learning more about what attracts existing attendees to new music and the demographic profile of this audience, the project aims to identify ways to open up this contemporary art form to a wider public. I’m responsible for conducting a large-scale survey of audiences at events across the ULYSSES Network. This will take place in a total of ten countries, the first study of its kind on a European level. As well as comparing institutional and national differences, I’ll be comparing the results of this main survey with a smaller dataset from classical music audiences, collected at three of the ULYSSES partners.
What do we already know about contemporary classical music audiences? Prior research suggests a typical attendee is likely to be highly educated, roughly middle-aged (35-50 years) and to have a professional or expert interest in new music, echoing Milton Babbitt’s statement that it is music ‘for, of, and by specialists’. That said, more recent data points to the existence of a younger (under 35), ‘experience-seeking’ public for contemporary classical music, especially in larger cities. It seems like the genre might be caught between demographics, an idea I will explore further in the study. On the one hand, it can demand a lot of prior musical knowledge and a more reflective mode of listening that might be acquired with age and experience (i.e. the ‘classical’ side) but on the other hand, its novelty and the perception of it as often provocative and political in nature (i.e. its ‘contemporaneity’) could attract the attention of younger audience members.
Impuls: The pilot survey at Impuls in February 2017
What value does attending contemporary classical music concerts seem to have for audiences? In a lot of cases, this educated public appears to use it as a means of ‘furthering’ themselves. Audience members have stated in existing studies that it encourages them to reflect and that it promotes ‘education and development’, rather than choosing to attend for entertainment, relaxation or to socialise. But this is probably not the full picture. This 2016 study of visitors to contemporary arts events in Birmingham, UK (not just music but also theatre, dance and visuals arts) reports the value that some audience members place on the sense of community around a certain venue or institution and on discussing responses to contemporary art with others.
Aside from these insights, there remains much to explore about audience experiences of new music. Some open questions that I will be looking into include the ways in which audience members combine their interest in contemporary classical music with interests in other genres (do they tend to be ‘omnivore’ listeners or more narrow in their tastes?), whether particular types of new music are received more positively and with a greater emotional reaction than others and what contributes to a particular ‘new music culture’ at a certain institutions (e.g. openness to different concert formats/outreach initiatives, amount of information provided to attendees, ideas of new music as a ‘subculture’). Comparing classical music attendees’ perceptions of the genre and looking at the experiences of first-time audience members versus regulars will provide additional angles on this topic.
Getting ready for the survey at Flagey’s Studio 4, January 2018
So far, the survey has been handed out at eight of the fourteen ULYSSES partners and it’s been getting a great response. The concerts chosen for the survey cover a range of different musical styles and types of event (including audiovisual works, concerts with accompanying lectures and concerts that mix new works with 20th century repertoire). While it’s early days yet, my first analyses seem to show that new music audiences aren’t always expert musicians, there is often a larger proportion of non-musicians and amateurs attending. Also, a lot of varied responses to the works and the concert experience are coming through, alongside diverse associations with the term ‘contemporary classical music’. Respondents range from finding that new music ‘captures something of the current time’ and is ‘of vital importance’ to considering it to be ‘only understandable with an introduction’ and even a ‘dissonant cacophony, pretentious’.
I hope that the study will be able to offer useful insights not just to music sociology and to the institutions involved, but that it will also be of interest to others working in this area, including composers, performers and curators. Thanks go to all the audience members that have participated so far and to the institutions for their help in organising the surveys. Stay updated with the project by following the blog on the ULYSSES timeline!
- Gina Emerson