Repeating a Piece on a Concert Programme

Repeating a Piece on a Concert Programme

Repeating a performance of the same work within a concert is an established, while not common, tradition within contemporary classical performance. Sometimes directors plan the repeat; in other cases the repeat is a surprise or at least somewhat unplanned. For instance, in 1968, a Proms audience was invited to vote for which one of three newly commissioned works played in the first half of the concert would be repeated after the interval – Tavener’s In Alium was the winner.  In his later life Stravinsky insisted that his shorter atonal works should always be performed twice in a concert, a practice that has been carried forward and extended by such conductors as Robert Craft and Oliver Knussen.

But what do audiences gain (if anything) from hearing a piece twice? It turns out that no one has really asked them. We are cognitive scientists interested in the study of memory, with three colleagues at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London) who lead ensembles, perform, and compose contemporary music, and together we have tried to find some answers.

Recently, we have asked audience members at two concerts at the Guildhall School to react to the experience of repeated music “in the moment”. The first opportunity was at a performance of Varèse’s Ionisation performed by the Guildhall Percussion Ensemble. Director Richard Benjafield decided to perform the piece twice (with another work in between). In his view, repeating a piece is often a good pragmatic choice, as the performers and equipment are assembled already. In some cases, like Ionisation, the conductor and performer get a chance to vary some musical parameters the second time as the composer gave options for tempos and dynamics. And some pieces are worth hearing twice!

The second opportunity came at a concert of student compositions organized by James Weeks, on the theme of an homage to Gesualdo. He presented two of the pieces twice but this was only announced just prior to the repeat. One pair was played back to back and one was played after some intervening pieces.

In both settings, audiences filled out short questionnaires after each hearing, in which they rated how much they liked the piece, how willing they were to hear it again (“affective responses”), how well they thought they understood the piece and how much of the piece they thought they would remember (“cognitive responses”).

In all cases, on average the audience’s perceived cognitive improved responses after the second hearing. Although we did not measure actual understanding and memory (something we will do in the future), at the least, audiences did think the piece made more sense to them. But somewhat surprisingly to us, audiences were more variable in whether their affective response was higher after a second hearing. They did not always like the piece better: comments returned to us suggested at least two possible reasons.  In some cases, they liked the piece so much the first time, their opinion could not go much higher! But on the other hand, pieces that they did not enjoy were just more annoying the second time around.  These repeated playings were not accompanied by intervening lectures or explanations; adding that component, as is done at festivals such as the UK’s New Music Biennial, might add additional enjoyment and understanding.

Our research shows that cognitive and aesthetic effects of repetition are assessable.   We hope that the research will provide a more solid basis for programming decisions around this still relatively rare practice.   And no group should have a keener interest in the outcomes of this research than living composers whose work might receive such treatment.

But whether a piece is heard involuntarily on a concert program, or voluntarily in self-selected music, composer Julian Anderson has some advice for his composition students: “If the idea is boring the first time, it will be even more boring the second time”.

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