The Importance of Venues to Music – Part 1: Opera

It is impossible to untangle the importance of location from a piece of music. It’s subtle, and it can be deceptive, but it is always there. Just to prove it, we can perform a brief thought experiment: Imagine an early music ensemble playing unamplified in your favourite night club. The sounds wouldn’t carry throughout the space and it is likely to sound very dry and flat with little reverberation to fill out the sound. Then imagine a EDM producer playing a set in a cathedral, with the melody lines and the rhythms becoming mushy and indistinct in the echoing space, and you can start to see that nowhere is the musical blank canvas that it first appears. The term “good acoustics” becomes meaningless, the acoustics of a place can only be suitable to what’s being performed. Not that that’ll stop people, especially me, from discussing how good the acoustics of a place are.

Before I continue I would like to mention a lecture given by David Byrne that effectively summarises everything I’m saying here and even discusses how even more abstract notions of venues such as personal music devices, radio and even the inside of a car have shaped the music written for these spaces. However, considering said lecture is a quarter of an hour long it’s worth me summarising and elaborating on some of the examples he gives.

The orchestra pit of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. The wooden platform above the musicians forms part of the stage

The design by Richard Wagner of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus demonstrates this relationship. The expanded orchestra pit enables an expanded range of instruments as well as an expanded dynamic range (by which I mean: Wagner could be louder). Unlike earlier Italian opera houses with emphasis placed on nobility in boxes and stalls surrounding the stage, the Festspielhaus enables each member of the audience to have pretty much the same listening experience as everyone else. The Festspielhaus is also small relative to rival opera houses, meaning singers on stage are no longer forced to compete with the orchestra to project to the audience. The seating arrangement based on the ancient greek theatron also takes advantage of how sympathetic this design is to the projection of the human voice to enable a singer to be perfectly intelligible over an orchestra even to the back row.

Seating at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Note the resemblance to a Greek Amphitheatre

This is what must be remembered about the Festspielhaus: Wagner wanted to push the boundaries of the music he wrote, so he commissioned a new space to enable it to be performed. He expanded the orchestra pit to accommodate more bass instruments and to increase the volume the orchestra could reach. It was deliberately smaller than would be expected so that the performers on stage could be heard more clearly during the quiet moments and to emphasise the tome of their voices. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus is integral to the performance of a Wagnerian opera.

This is just the start. As time goes on I will discuss further case studies and examples of the close link between music and space, talking about everything from Punk to the Palaeolithic (And a bit in between).

Further reading:

Byrne, D. (2012) How Music Works

Garai, M., Ito, K., D’Orazio, D., De Cesaris, S. and Morandi, D. (2015) The acoustics of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus



Venues, Regeneration and Identity

Something approximately current this time, I’m sorry about the lack of recent updates but university’s been getting in the way slightly.

The recent opening of the Victoria Gate shopping centre shopping centre has prompted fresh concerns over the future of artists who make their living there. This is certainly not a unique phenomenon to Leeds, indeed it’s a story that’s being repeated up and down the country (Not to mention elsewhere around the world). Everywhere you look, gentrification is the word on people’s lips.

The cycle usually goes something like this: Up and coming artists/writers/musicians/students, etc. move to areas in a city  where rents are cheap and there is plentiful space available to paint/write/rehearse/drink, etc. and to develop ideas and concepts. If they are reasonably successful, they begin to attract interest and footfall and they begin to give the area a reputation for creativity and excitement. This draws more people to live there, attracts investment and retailers keen to take advantage of this atmosphere, pushing rents ever higher. The council may even step in and attempt to develop the area. The increasing rents drive all of the people who worked to give the area its reputation away and the cycle begins anew.

Artist’s impression of Tottenham Court Road Underground Station development, Soho

This is a scene being played out everywhere from Shoreditch to Manchester’s Northern Quarter to Soho to Mabgate and the Victoria Gate in Leeds. The amount that’s being written on gentrification is amazing and far more eloquent writers than I have written volumes on it. What I want to talk about here is how music as a badge of identity factors into this.

Because venues often find themselves to be at the front line in arguments surrounding gentrification. In January 2014 the Night and Day Cafe in Manchester was given a noise abatement notice that risked the removal of the venue’s license to play live music. The petition created to prevent that attracted over 74,000 signatures and even drew the attention of Johnny Marr of the Smiths and Guy Garvey of Elbow. The strength of feeling even resulted in the resident whose complaint was linked to the abatement notice receiving death threats. In a similar vein, the threats of closure of Tin Pan Alley venues in London due to the Crossrail development have inspired petitions and interventions from musicians to attempt to prevent it.

So how does this happen? As I have already discussed on this blog, venues are tied to personal identity through the music they’ve hosted. Between this, the increasing threats to music venues from council noise abatement notices and the tensions felt about gentrification and it’s easy to see how feelings become strained. In this light the signing of petitions to try and halt development are as much declarations of identity and solidarity with the musical heritage of a place as they are calls for political action.

A bit of a stretch? Possibly. Please let me know you thoughts on anything I’ve discussed here in the comments below and I will be happy to discuss them.

The Curation of Venues

How can the renovation of a venue be used to curate it?

This is not the most obvious way to look at a music venue so will take a little explanation, so first things first, what do I mean by curation?

In the context of a museum exhibit it’s the organisation of the content in order to communicate ideas. It’s an almost editorial control over what information is expressed, which objects are and aren’t suitable for inclusion, all for the purpose of asking the attendee to believe what the collection is saying; whether it’s a narrative to be invested in, or some dry facts to be remembered.

So if we think about a venue like a museum collection, what can we take away from this?

To begin with, different aspects of the history of a venue can be emphasised or diminished by the owners. For instance, the number of bands that have played at the Cavern Club in Liverpool is a comprehensive cross-section of the evolution of British popular music from the 1950’s onwards with everything from post-war jazz to post-punk being performed there. But, let’s be frank, they are not the reason why the Cavern Club is a household name. Despite the number of musicians that made up the Merseybeat scene in the late ’60’s it is the Beatles that have been the group emphasised by subsequent developments of the site.

Likewise, the Free Trade Hall in Manchester has been remembered for its fateful Sex Pistols gig, yet before that it played a major role in the development of Bob Dylan’s musical career with the infamous “Judas” moment. Once again hundreds of bands have played in this venue over the years but, outside of the Classical music world, it is rarely discussed outside of the contexts of these two bands. In the case of the Free Trade Hall, this management of the venues legacy is almost entirely done by agents beyond the venue’s control as the venue is now a hotel. The significance of the Free Trade Hall is now curated by the wider musical world.

The Importance of Venues to Bands

What can a venue mean to the bands and musicians that play there?

There’s an interesting relationship between the bands and the venues, especially considering the relationship between bands that have reached their fame through recorded music and the venues early in their career. The Doors residency at the Whisky a Go Go in California lasted a mere four months and yet has become central to the mythology of the band. Likewise, the Pink Floyd’s residency at the UFO club in London lasts a mere two months before being signed to EMI records and yet any biography of the band automatically references it.

The other side of this is that bands that are most known for their live performances, such as Phish or the Grateful Dead, rarely have specific venues feature heavily in their canon. Bob Dylan’s relationship to the Gaslight cafe and the Greenwich village folk scene in the early sixties is well documented, but by the time of the Neverending tour later on in his career, few venues are ever mentioned.

So clearly the importance of particular venues to particular musicians is one of them honing their craft (certainly in terms of performance, if not necessarily musically) before their appeal is mainstream. It should be noted however that these are not hard and fast rules, and very often there is mutually beneficial arrangement between band and venue to cultivate their importance early in the career. Very often the significance of a single band or even performance can cement a venue’s importance to the wider culture, the most notable example in Manchester being that of the Sex Pistol’s infamous gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4th of June 1976.

The significance of this performance has been exaggerated to the point that an entire book has been published on one single performance; but how does this happen, and what does it say about how these buildings can form parts of a shared identity? I’ll describe how this happens next time here on this blog.