House music and early music, at first, seem like an unlikely pair. House music typically evokes electronic music as crafted by music producers and DJs, while early music refers to music composed in medieval, renaissance and baroque eras. But breaking down the distance between these two discrete musical worlds packs a wealth of potential for Toronto’s hometown early music ensemble. Their Haus Musik project challenges expectations with regards to the experience of classical music; it describes itself as “the classical alternative.” The Haus Musik performances — the fourth of which is taking place at Toronto’s Longboat Hall this Thursday — rethinks just about everything to do with the performance of classical music except for the music itself. With a change of venue, a dismissal of audience conventions, and collaborations with contemporary music producers, sound designers, dancers and videographers, Tafelmusik’s signature product — the performance of early music on period instruments — remains unchanged. The early music is situated alongside new sonic, multimedia and social ideas, but ultimately remains the centerpiece of Haus Musik performances. The packaging is wildly different, but the parcel remains the same.
Earlier this week I spoke with Tafelmusik’s managing director William Norris, who conceived the Haus Musik project. He explained that on Thursday, musicians from Tafelmusik and electronic sound designer SlowPitchSound will create a soundscape that will explore the performance’s central theme of city life versus country life. In line with previous Haus Musik performances, the electronic music and the live early music will largely be sonically separate, alternating throughout the evening, with limited direct interplay. I asked Norris if he thought the trade off between early and electronic music worked well. He responded with a chuckle, saying: “Surprisingly, yes it does. As long as the producer knows what pitch we’re playing at, of course.”
But what I found most interesting from my chat with Norris was how the Haus Musik concept negotiates its relationship with the core classical music product. While Haus Musik is indeed an initiative of a classical music organization, it is very careful to not frame itself as such:
“To be honest, in our classical world, we forget about some of the preconceptions that come up when you say ‘orchestra’ or ‘classical.’ And, they’re often quite negative to be honest. So by calling it Haus Musik we get away from that being the first thing that people think of. We make it something intriguing […] it doesn’t look obviously classical. It looks like something artsy, cultural — a night out.”
By treating Tafelmusik and Haus Musik as separate brands, Norris explains that Tafelmusik is not concerned with engaging their existing audience base with Haus Musik: “we’re starting from scratch,” he said.
And this is the whole point: engaging new audiences with new — or, in this case, quite old — music. Norris recognizes the need for classical music organizations to be more open-minded and experimental in the presentation of their musical product if they are serious about broadening their audience. He described the Haus Musik project as a response to an age where audiences have come to expect more options and customization in their cultural endeavors. Television was cited as an example in our conversation; here, there’s different programming for everyone. But classical music, on the other hand:
“…hasn’t changed. We just all do the two-hour concert that starts at 8:00 p.m. and you have to sit down and be quiet […] We should be looking at ways to diversify our product to appeal to a bigger audience, rather than expecting everyone to come to the same product, which may not be right for them.”
It’s interesting that in order for classical music to move forward, it — in many ways — seems to be distancing itself from itself. While distance from tradition is certainly forged in some ways, this innovative approach to the presentation of early music appears to bring audiences closer to the music in certain ways as well. In transplanting the music into a casual, bar-like setting the proximity and the intimacy between the freely standing, drink-wielding audience and the performers is intensified. This creates a kind of interaction that is lost in a conventional concert hall because of the rigid divide between performer and audience that these settings tend to perpetuate. Norris suggested that perhaps this mode of early music performance is actually more authentic than a performance in a contemporary concert hall.
Given that audiences are not restrained to a seat or bound by certain classical music conventions, I asked Norris how audiences responded to the live early music: do they casually chat and treat the performance like background music, or do they actually listen to the music?
He answered my question with outright optimism: “People mostly get glued […] as soon as the live music starts, people immediately zoom into it.”
In this new kind of performative context, the stakes are raised. In a concert hall, if the audience is unengaged with the music, they’re forced to keep still and be quiet; engagement, in a way, is forced. In a bar context, if the audience is unengaged, they are free to start talking or wander off to a different corner of the room.
“It’s almost a truer test of the performance,” Norris explained. “We know when we’ve got people’s attention in this kind of setting. And it’s nice for us to think about how we can keep people’s attention, because maybe we’ve lost that connection with the audience in the traditional concert hall.”
To follow up on this, I commented that it must be comforting to see audiences that are so new to early music become so captivated by it.
“Absolutely,” he answered. “It’s evidence that there’s nothing wrong with the music, it’s just rethinking how we get it out to people.”
From a certain perspective, it might look like Tafelmusik is bamboozling a perhaps unassuming audience with the historically-informed performance of early music by getting people in the door with a promise of innovative collaborations and a contemporary atmosphere. But confronting tradition and expectation in this way achieves its goal in that it brings quality early music to audiences who may not typically find themselves at Korner Hall on a Saturday at 8 p.m., which is a powerful and promising premise. It lowers the risk for the audience and allows them to experience and understand the same great music in a way that works for them. And besides, what’s a good parcel without fun packaging and a pleasant surprise?