making music matter

Contemporary music has always been an integral, vital part of music-making in every age. Yet the challenge of how to present new music to the world – both conveying its importance as well as reaching out, making meaningful contact and then communicating with audiences – is a unique and considerable one. In this interview, the director of Nordic Music Days festival team, Martin Q Larsson, and Nordic Music Days curator Jenny Hettne discuss with Simon Cummings their experiences with audiences and the approach they have taken in Nordic Music Days 2017. 

Martin Q Larsson. Photo: Melker Dahlstrand

Martin Q Larsson. Photo: Melker Dahlstrand

What do you think are the challenges facing a contemporary music festival, from the perspective of audience engagement?

Martin Q: Every festival has the challenge to attract new audiences, and to keep them coming back. As contemporary music is unusual to come across for most people, a danger is that only the super nerds will attend the concerts. That’s why we felt Nordic Music Days had to make extra efforts to invite, engage and actively welcome the British audience to the festival.

Jenny Hettne: Contemporary music is always facing difficulties with audiences, simply because it’s harder to reach people with something they are not familiar with, something they don’t yet know that they might actually love! For some reason, this is more obvious with music than, for example, contemporary art, theatre or dance. In a way, a festival is a statement, and I think it’s a better way to reach a new audience than through a single contemporary music concert. A person who has just discovered that they love it can then experience some more in a few hours, the next day and the day after! 

Across the Nordic countries, are audiences open to new music? Do you think they see it as something different from more conventional ‘classical’ music or part of the same ongoing developing tradition?

Martin Q: Generally in the Nordic countries, if you ask people about contemporary classical music, they look like question marks. But if you bring the same people to a concert of contemporary music, they are always positively surprised by the experience. The link to ‘classical’ music (i.e. by dead people) may or may not be obvious to the audience, with regard to the actual sound of the music. However, the concert format for contemporary music – the rituals around the performance, what the audience and performers believe they are supposed to do or not do – is usually quite close to the format of classical music performances.

Jenny Hettne: Once they are introduced and exposed to it, Nordic audiences are generally open to new music. You can see this, for example, at the yearly Stockholm International Composer Festival, a week focusing on a contemporary composer, which is always fully booked. I think it’s seen as something different from conventional classical music, and whether it’s part of an ongoing development, that depends on who you talk to. Also, there are endless different sorts of contemporary music. 


Jenny Hettne. Photo: Anna Rut Fridholm

Jenny Hettne. Photo: Anna Rut Fridholm

Are there any problems in the relationship between new music and audiences that you would like to challenge with Nordic Music Days?

Jenny Hettne: To get rid of the idea of new music being difficult, strange, stiff, or exclusive.

Martin Q: First and foremost, Nordic Music Days wants to put focus on the composer, the person who created the piece and wants to communicate with the rest of the world. We want to reduce the distance between musicians and listeners, for the listeners to be intimate with the music. Audiences today are not interested in going to a concert, they want to be part of an experience. And they want it to start when they walk through the door to Southbank Centre (or even sooner). That’s what we want to achieve.

Why do you believe new music matters?

Jenny Hettne: Very simply – without new music this art form would eventually become extinct.

Martin Q: Because today is unique! The time we live in has never been so interesting as right now, and Kandinski’s idea that the Artist is an interpreter of his/her world is still very valid. Also, biologically speaking, music has a way of going direct from the ear to the emotion centre of the brain, and after this to the cerebral cortex. Which means that new music is able to awake feelings deeply rooted in today’s society, and then make people think about it. 

What are you hoping to achieve with the workshops and seminars included in this year’s Nordic Music Days – what would be the ideal outcomes?

Martin Q: To achieve these high-set goals, you need to find new ways of communicating: one-way communication must be replaced by multifaceted communication. Individual audience members must feel they are heard in order to be engaged. This applies even more to the younger members of the audience. The workshop format, where everyone gets to speak/sing/listen is therefore ideal for a festival like this. It’s often in the encounter between professionals and amateurs that the truly amazing can occur.

What has been the best response you have ever experienced from an audience?

Jenny Hettne: Watching a Stockholm Saxophone Quartet workshop with children followed by a concert together. The excitement, concentration and enthusiasm is hard to describe in words – but it makes you realise how much new music matters.

Martin Q: Why has nobody told me about this before?! This is the most amazing music I have ever heard, and until tonight I had no idea it even existed. I have so much catching up to do.

What are your hopes, expectations (or fears!) about bringing the festival to British audiences for the first time?

Martin Q: Hopes: that the British audience will be as thrilled about Nordic contemporary music as it is already thrilled about Nordic design, food and noir. Expectations: that Nordic Music Days will not only be a firework display of contemporary Nordic music, but also a starting point of increased music collaboration between the Nordic and British countries. Fears: that nobody will show up (always a danger with live music), and we will only play this fantastic music for each other.

Jenny Hettne: We hope and expect to reach a much bigger audience than we would have in, for example, Stockholm, making Nordic Music Days an open and welcoming festival that many people can enjoy. That’s why so many events are taking place in public spaces – concerts as well as workshops and seminars – and the open spaces and atmosphere of Southbank Centre is perfect for that.

Simon Cummings