6 Unusual classical music concerts

Rosie Pentreath

From a concert performed underwater to a string quartet played in four helicopters, here are some of the weirdest concerts to have ever taken place

A string quartet performed from four helicopters

On 26 June 1995 four helicopters ascended from a field at Holland Festival, each carrying one pilot and one member of the Arditti Quartet. The four passengers were playing a part from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helikopter Streichquartett or “Helicopter String Quartet”—a piece inspired by different dreams the composer had of floating above helicopters carrying string players and of bees swarming. 

As well as the quartet, the piece required a “moderator” to introduce and explain the work’s progress, and audio visual technicians to control the final audience experience. The concert divided people: opposition came from the Austrian Green Party who were worried about pollution and the New York Times’s Alex Ross who called it “a grandiose absurdist entertainment” that proved “German experimentalism in its classic form has evidently run its course”, while The Guardian’s Andrew Clements praised the piece for “the technological complexities of making such a thing work almost flawlessly” and its significance within “the context of Stockhausen's achievement as a composer”. 

 

A premiere with no music

When John Cage’s 4’33’’ was premiered by pianist David Tudor on August 29 1952 at Woodstock in New York, it sparked debate, ridicule and respect in almost equal measure. Tudor took a seat at the piano in front of him, closed the lid, then opened the lid before closing it again, and repeated the same thing one more time in accordance with an apparently set time frame (the performer was using a stopwatch).

Not a note was played and the only “music” heard doing the piece were ambient and accidental sounds inside the concert hall, proving Cage’s important point that there is no such thing as silence, especially if you know how to listen to and appreciate the space around you. “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement,” Cage himself said of the premiere. “During the second, raindrops began patterning the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

 

Read more: 7 Most controversial pieces of classical music

 

An other-worldly underwater performance

The 2018 Sydney Festival programme included performances from Aquasonic, the world’s first underwater band. Their offering was a series of other-worldly underwater concerts featuring five musicians performing on custom instruments while submerged in aquariums.  

The unique concert was researched and developed by Danish avant-garde ensemble, Between Music, who worked with scientists, deep sea divers and other creatives to develop modified instruments that could be played underwater as well as a safe way for performers to play them. Vice called the concerts “Eerie, unsettling and beautifully fragile” and Dutch newspaper Volksrant described them as “Spectacular and boundary-pushing”.
 

 

Music for man’s best friend 

On a freezing January day in 2016, dogs and their owners assembled in New York’s Times Square for a performance by Laurie Anderson of original music composed at optimal frequencies for canine ears. Despite the biting cold, about 50 dogs and a hundred humans gathered to hear Anderson perform on her tape-bow violin. 

“Oh, it was lovely,” the performance artist said afterwards. “There were so many types of dogs, I really hadn’t imagined that many would show up [so] I was really impressed.” The on-stage music was accompanied by a cacophony of off-stage barks and when the crowd dispersed the usual concert debris of discarded cups was substituted by crumbled-up dog biscuits and one little accident left by a long-gone furry friend, by now scampering beside its owner towards a place to warm up.
 

 

Swapping the concert hall for a carpark

In 2011, Peckham-based Multi-Story started taking orchestras out of concert halls and bringing them to the public by way of disused carparks. If it’s hard to get young people to attend a classical concert, why not bring the concert to them? Concerts have taken place in carparks and outdoor spaces all over the country since the project got off the ground, and the Multi-Story Orchestra now performs as an ensemble in its own right at venues like Kings Place in London. 

As well as hosting concerts in a novel environment, Multi-Story enlists young and amateur players and singers, including local school children, to perform and has carved out a more accessible route into the world of classical music for lots of people.
 

 

Swapping the concert hall for the pub

What better way to experience quality music than by heading down to your local pub, grabbing a pint and wrapping your ears around a bit of Purcell? Since 2006, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has been ingeniously combining pub crawls with chamber concerts all over the country. 

OAE's Night Shift concerts eschew the traditional concert rules of total silence, pure concentration and clapping in all the socially-acceptable places in favour of relaxed seating, respectful chatter and the scrape of heavy bar stools scored with the thump of pints on sodden beer mats. As well as pubs, other unusual Night Shift concert locations include festivals and alternative arts spaces.