When is a museum not a museum?

(5 minutes to read)

Has it ever struck you as odd how many classical concerts consist of a series of completely unrelated pieces? The only thing they have in common is that they are being played by the same performers on the same evening? Even themed recitals are no guarantee that, musically speaking, one piece will relate to the next. We started wondering at Quintus 4 if this model of concert programming was problematic, and if it could be improved upon. 

And now for a seemingly unrelated fact: the biggest art museum in a large North American city typically sells between 3 and 10 times as many tickets as the largest musical organization in the same city.

This got us thinking about how museums and concerts are different, and how they could be the same. Why are museums so much more popular than concerts? And is there some way that by structuring a musical experience more like a museum experience it could appeal to people differently? Admittedly, this is not really comparing apples to apples, but it is interesting to note that museums and concerts are very often showcasing art from exactly the same times and places.

We think that answer to this last question is a resounding yes, and here’s what we want to do about it. Firstly, we decided to organize our programs around one concrete musical idea. This is not just a themed concert; each piece of music is linked to the idea of the program, and helps advance the story we are telling. We promise that our concert will deepen your understanding of our subject, based only on a few comments from the stage and a comparison of the pieces on our programme. 

Further, at a museum you have control over your degree of interaction with the art; you can browse the art at a surface level, or read all of the accompanying text and dive into the historical and cultural context. Obviously music is a temporal art form, and it isn’t possible to replicate this experience exactly in a concert. But by programming a concert in the above way, we have a lot of opportunity to share the context of the art with our public outside of the concert hall. In effect, we are rendering our “accompanying text” in blogs and videos. They will be the subject of our next post, so for now let’s get back to the organization of our programs, which we call:

A horizontal view of history.

The default view of history in our culture is to start at some point and trace it backwards or forward, but not side to side—that is to ignore what was happening with some completely different starting point in a different place or time, even if it was developing somehow similarly. Q4 has somewhat arbitrarily defined this default as vertical. There are probably very good reasons for working like this, especially historically. 

But here’s the thing: large scale globalization happened way earlier in music than in many arenas. All it takes is one sailor whistling a tune to plant the seeds of change in a musical culture on the other side of the world. And the shrinking of the world has’t slowed down. A generation ago, contemporary latin music would have been considered exotic in mainstream North American culture. Today the most viewed video on YouTube, Despacito, is in a Latin genre. So we don’t feel that vertically oriented history is a particularly accurate representation of music anymore. The more recent the music, the more this holds true. We want our programs to reflect the increasingly small and interconnected world of the 21st century. Here’s what that looks like in practice:

Our premiere programme—Tresillo—is based on a rhythm of the same name (123-123-12) that sprang out of sub-Saharan Africa with the slave trade. Over a reasonably short period of time it became a global phenomenon. Our program explores how Tresillo affected France in the 1870’s, Spain in the 1910’s, Brazil in the 1930’s, Mexico in the 1940’s, New York in the 1960’s, Argentina and Italy in the 1970’s, and Montréal today. Given a longer concert, we could move into the Middle East, Asia, and back into Africa as well. There is a recognizable flavour across all of this music, yet each time and place brings a unique character to bear on tresillo. 

When you leave our concert, you will have been introduced to new music, and have gained a new perspective on some you already knew well. You will realize that the rhythm of Carmen’s immensely popular Habanera is also the foundation on which Luis Fonsi’s record-breaking Despacito was written 143 years later. 

If you want to know more about Horizontal History, keep your eye on our blog. Of all the things we’re excited to be learning more about, this is perhaps the big experiment, so we’ll be coming back to it. 

In the meantime, how is your favourite culture (music, movies, literature, even sports) influenced by other cultures? Leave us a comment! We love hearing from you!

Rich CoburnComment