Recently I had the privilege of taking part in the inaugural concert of the Sounds Lyrical Project – a collaborative venture between a group of poets and a small team of classically trained composers who have set our poems to music. I've always loved classical recitals, and for the Project, a full-length evening concert of original work was a "yes we can" moment: it was proof that the concept of Sounds Lyrical has something going for it.
But all of us, composers and poets alike, are aware that the Project won't get very far if we stick to this format.
A number of things struck me about the audience. One, there weren't all that many of them. Okay, fair enough – I've performed poetry to smaller crowds. What matters isn't so much the number of people turning up, but the quality of the experience they have when they do.
More striking than the numbers attending, though, was the proportion wearing what I would describe as "smart dress". Jackets and college scarves were the order of the day. Heck, I wore a jacket and college scarf. There was a practical reason for this (we were performing in a freezing cold chapel – why does this seem to be a recurring theme of my poetry gigs?!). But I was acutely aware that this isn't how I normally dress when I'm performing poetry. Jeans and T-shirt are more my style.
I don't think the audience were any posher than the crowd that used to turn out to hear me MC at Speakers' Corner. But there's clearly a feeling that a classical concert is a "special occasion" and requires a slightly higher standard of decorum than the average open mic. The need to dress smartly, to sit perfectly still for two hours in a cold chapel, not to shuffle feet or to cough, was clearly in evidence. Maybe this is the reason that concerts of this type (not to mention poetry readings of this type) tend not to attract large audiences?
The conversation at the pub afterwards explored this issue. One of the reasons the project was set up in the first place was to tackle an image problem within contemporary classical music. The intellectual elitism of Schoenberg and the European avant-garde, according to my composer friends, have done for modern composition what the pretentious poets of my recent blog post have done for contemporary poetry.
But, in composition at least, intellectualism is now on the wane. Composers these days, by and large, want to collaborate – to fuse genres and styles, to pick and mix from a melting pot that includes rock, jazz and world music as well as the European classical tradition. The opportunity to work with artists across a range of media also presents the chance to bring new music to audiences who wouldn't ever do the wear-a-jacket, sit-in-a-cold-chapel thing.
The ideal venue for our concert might well have been the pub we adjourned to afterwards. Not that we'd have wanted to ambush unsuspecting punters with a resonant baritone and the nifty fingerwork of a skilled professional pianist; but there was actually a piano in that pub, and no particular reason why the Project couldn't make use of it at some unspecified future date.
The advantage of "doing art" in an unconventional venue – a pub, cafe, railway station, or wherever – is that it opens up the art to people who wouldn't otherwise take a chance on it. Effort is needed to put on a jacket and sit in a cold chapel; but if you’re anything like me, you won't need all that much persuading to come along to your regular pub and stump up the price of an extra pint or two to try out something just a bit different. Especially not if beer, conversation and good company can all still be enjoyed into the bargain.
So where now for Sounds Lyrical? Our lead composers have been adventurous with their material, and in choosing to collaborate with an unruly group of poets. We need to be equally adventurous as to how and where we present that material. There are plenty of possibilities. When we lived in Birmingham, my wife and I sang in a choir who did more gigs in pubs than in concert halls. Their repertoire ranged from Britten and Barber to Abba and Queen (not to mention some extraordinary original compositions from members of the choir themselves). Their concerts were fun, accessible, and very different to any recitals I've ever attended.
This is the sort of model I would like Sounds Lyrical to aim at. I love to see poetry invading the public consciousness by showing up in unexpected places. And I'd love to hear modern classical music do the same.