Hottinen, Merja: What is the role of the audience at contemporary art music festivals?

The question of audience is one of the main topics the media discuss when reporting about contemporary art music festivals. When compared to the public image of the genre, often associated with very small, academic niche audiences and elite attitude, the amount of audience seems high. But on the other hand, in relation to the perceived importance of the new artistic creation presented at the festivals, the audiences may seem small.

In this presentation, I will discuss the role of audience at contemporary art music festivals. Drawing from my research about the media representation and cultural significance of three Finnish contemporary art music festivals, I will take a look at the ways the festivals approach the audience as well as the ways the media depict the music listeners.

The three festivals in my study show interesting differences regarding audience. Time of Music festival in rural Viitasaari (est. 1982) has attracted both locals and travelers despite its inclination to the avant-garde, whereas the Helsinki based Musica nova Helsinki (formerly Helsinki Biennale, est. 1981) has turned regular concertgoers to enthuse about contemporary composing. Tampere Biennale (est. 1986) has spread out in the city space of Tampere to bring the music closer to the local community. Yet with all the differences, there are also significant similarities in the rhetoric of audience in all cases.

The festival case studies evoke interesting questions about the social and cultural meanings of audience in the institution of contemporary music. The festival setting can shake up the conventional roles as they engage with local communities, allow diverse possibilities for interaction, or use art projects and performances to transform the meanings of places. In the process, the audience can surpass the passive role traditionally given to them and open their ears to new kinds of music and sound worlds.