Field Notes, Vol. 4 no. 1: The Vitalness of Space
Two weeks ago the CU-Boulder College of Music officially opened its new wing to the Warner Imig Music Building, a 50,000 square-foot addition that houses rehearsal spaces, studios, classrooms, a wellness studio...and a new space for the Entrepreneurship Center for Music. The opening was delayed by a year due to the pandemic; for the last twelve months the building had been in a sort of ghost town limbo, gleaming and pristine but mostly empty. My office remained a stack of unpacked boxes and empty bookshelves until we got the "All Clear" to officially move in.
The process of migrating from fully remote work at home to in-person work on campus has carried a surprisingly mixed set of feelings. I know I was not alone in experiencing both anticipation and anxiety, excitement and dread, at the prospect of returning. I put off going into my office to unpack my boxes as long as I could, not quite understanding why at first: shouldn't I be chafing at the bit to settle into my beautiful new digs? What sort of perverse resistance was this? I asked myself.
As I thought about it more, some clarity began to emerge. Moving back to in-person learning was more than a "return to normal." It meant, in the most immediate sense, leaving behind the safety of one's own "nest" and re-entering a world of uncertainty, of danger, even. But even this explanation seemed insufficient to me; I have not, after all, experienced much Covid anxiety: I got my shot, followed the protocols, and figured that was as much as I could do. So what gives? Then I asked myself a more fundamental question: What does "returning to normal" even mean? Is the "normal" we're returning to necessarily the best state of things? Does "returning to normal" mean forgetting the lessons we may have learned during the pandemic? Especially for those of us in the arts, facing serious issues about relevancy and mission even before the pandemic hit, is "normal" even a state worth returning to? Perhaps it was the prospect of "normal" that itself was creating the anxiety.
Meanwhile, my boxes remained unpacked. By the time it was freshmen move-in I knew I couldn't put it off any longer: I needed to go into school and get my office put together. As I unlocked my door and stepped inside I looked around at the furniture, picturing how it might work in the new space. I move a few things around and began to unpack. Sorting books and office supplies, gathering the many knick-knacks that serve to warm up my office and make it a safe space for students, unwrapping stuff for the wall. Bit by bit the room began to take shape, transforming from a sterile room of boxes and bubble wrap into a living space for people to learn, interact, and grow.
By the time I was done, my feelings had changed. I was energized and excited about starting the new school year, and I looked forward to spending time in my new home.
What is it about the simple relocation of an office that has such a profound effect? And might that effect offer insights regarding those larger existential questions still very much present in my head?
On the surface, the importance of space is obvious: a bright, lofty room with natural light is of course more uplifting than the dark and cramped space I'd been in before. This was hardly news to me, as the state of the light in a place has always been absolutely essential to whether or not I feel at home, whether or not my Muse feels comfortable there. If a place feels magical to me, if it has a certain sort of energy, it's always in large part due to the light. Having been in my old, windowless office for 12 years it was never any mystery to me why I wanted to spend as little time there as possible. But moving into this new space amplified this knowledge, and it prompted me to start thinking about the importance of shared space. And with that I got to thinking about just how important space is to us as performing artists.
Back when I was a grad student at Rice, the Shepherd School of Music built an entirely new building, and the whole school moved in at once. The impact of that move was profound: the collective sense of pride, of striving for an excellence worthy of this incredible space, transformed the school, almost overnight, into the world-class institution it is today. All the ingredients for that level of excellence already existed in the incredible faculty and the small, highly selective pool of students, but a key ingredient -- our shared space -- was absent until the building was built.
So as we begin to emerge from the pandemic, what of the many shared spaces of performing arts venues? The lockdown of arts venues forced us to rethink the relationship between space and our art: how would the experience be altered with a theatre at 20% capacity? How was the experience changed when the content had to be delivered remotely? We were forced to experiment with all manner of technology, different approaches to staging, new methods of achieving artistic connection with an audience more distanced than ever. What did we learn?
The challenge of pulling off these things, often on very short notice, was very real. And there's no doubt that everyone will be glad when we can once again gather in theaters and concert halls and amphitheaters to hear and watch live performances. But we also learned some things about space that I hope we won't forget:
We learned that technology opens up avenues for engagement that were previously closed off to audiences due to constraints on access, time, and/or cost. We discovered that, even in the grandest of concert halls, the venue is among the least important aspects of the experience. Said another way, we realized the one of the most important aspects of the performance experience -- the ineffable but unmistakable sense of connection -- can in fact be hindered by the formalities and physical separation between audience and performers we see in most traditional concert settings. Perhaps we need to broaden our definition of what "space" means to live performance. Perhaps it's more about the sum of the world we create than the physical characteristics of a venue.
These are only two lessons, but they're incredibly important ones for us to have learned. As classical music continues to ask itself how to be more relevant, more meaningful, in 21st-century society, the lessons of the pandemic offer some valuable insights. We've been reminded just how much people rely on the arts, in all its forms, to bring meaning to life and to foster community in the face of collective strife--things that perhaps all of us, artists and audience alike, had taken for granted. We've seen first-hand the many ways that technology can enable new artistic possibilities we hadn't considered before. And we have a new appreciation for how technology can be a powerful force to reach audiences we've never reached (and perhaps were too quick to write off).
One of the key tenants of entrepreneurship is that with great disruption comes great opportunity. The performing arts have certainly been through a period of enormous disruption, perhaps the most significant disruption since the inventions of the phonograph and the radio. But there are also opportunities for arts organizations to broaden their artistic horizons, reach a more diverse audience, and build relevance in their communities. All it takes are people, and the organizations they run, who are willing to change, willing to experiment, willing to explore the many new possibilities this moment is offering us. I hope we won't let that moment pass us by.