Playing With The Audience

Playing With The Audience

Over the years I’ve heard so many comments from various pundits that the so-called concert music community (whether it’s classical, opera, or new music) needs to more effectively engage audiences. Yet I can think of few experiences that are more engaging than completely focusing on listening as a foreground experience. Nevertheless, it does seem a tremendous waste of a resource to have a large group of people in attendance for a concert performance and for the only desired sound they make to be their applause at the end of individual pieces of music. Clapping is undeniably a tremendous sonic phenomenon—a spatial microphony of non-aligned irregular rhythms which can be as complex as anything in a Henry Brant or György Ligeti score. But imagine if there could be other viable ways to use everyone in attendance as part of the performance.

Playwrights and directors have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to tear down the so-called fourth wall between performers and audience members for generations at this point, directly engaging spectators to varying degrees, even on television. Presumably, however, the participation of a television viewer in his or her own home has no impact on other viewers watching in their own homes unless such a program could be experienced on an elaborate Web 2.0 open-ended simulacrum of a video chat. Where it has the possibility of really making a difference is in a live theatrical experience. Molly attended Third Rail Projects’ performance of a fourth-wall shattering theatrical experience based on Alice in Wonderland called Then She Fell and described being directly spoken to by the actors and being expected to respond as part of the mise-en-scène.

How could such a thing work in a musical composition? When I was a rebellious undergrad in college, I had an idea for a piece that would involve my playing a fixed chord progression over and over again with some musicians on stage with me creating their own musical lines that harmonized with what I was doing and gradually for everyone in the audience to sing along and harmonize with it, creating a gigantic spatial environment of indeterminate yet consonant counterpoint. It worked wonderfully when it was done in a small room with a group of 10-20 people, but when I attempted to do it in a larger concert hall it was complete and utter chaos, a fiasco culminating with people riding bicycles down the aisles. Perhaps having such a freeform format yet expecting such a controlled result was ultimately a tad naïve and somewhat misguided.

Audience Participation

The audience gets in on the act during a lecture/demonstration of Vivian Fung’s piano concerto Dreamscapes conducted by Andrew Cyr at the America’s Society.

A couple of weeks ago, to celebrate the release of Vivian Fung’s new CD on Naxos Canadian Classics (though currently based in New York City, she grew up in Edmonton), she, together with disc’s soloists—violinist Kristen Lee and pianist Conor Hanick—and conductor Andrew Cyr (who leads the Metropolis Ensemble on the recording) presented a lecture-demonstration at the America’s Society. In the opening of Fung’s piano concerto, entitled Dreamscapes, members of the orchestra are scattered around the hall equipped with a variety of traditional Vietnamese bird whistles. At the end of the piece the musicians put down their instruments and pick up wine glasses, rubbing their rims to produce various pitches. Since the orchestra was not on hand for this lecture-demonstration, Cyr passed out the bird whistles and wine glasses (though without wine, unfortunately, until the post-event reception) to audience members in various places of the room, asking them to make the required sounds upon his conducting commands to illustrate how these sounds were made. It was a magical moment that was perhaps even more magical than it is on the recording, because it was so vulnerable and at the same time all encompassing. (Full disclosure: I was there because I had written the disc’s booklet notes.)

The following night I attended an extremely moving memorial for the composer William Duckworth (1943-2012) at Le Poisson Rouge that contained selections from pieces he wrote spanning nearly a half century. The program concluded with a few songs from Their Song, an extremely beautiful 1991 song cycle performed by the people he composed it for: baritone Thomas Buckner and pianist Joseph Kubera. The text for the final song was a series of words meaning goodbye in various languages which Duckworth set with an instantly memorable melody. At the very end, the audience was encouraged to and did in fact sing along as a final goodbye. It was an extraordinarily meaningful experience.

In order for an audience participatory component to be effective and not just be a gimmick, I think it does have to actually have a significant meaning. Otherwise there are fewer experiences more rewarding than attentively listening.

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6 thoughts on “Playing With The Audience

  1. Jon

    I think the biggest obstacle for audience participation in the “concert music” community is that it simply clashes with deeply rooted ideas in Western culture regarding art. Art in Western culture is generally considered to be the product of of solitude. Composers write alone, before a musician can perform in a concert they are expected to spend years practicing alone (and people tend to be hesitant about saying they can play an instrument or sing unless they’re really good), and audiences are expected to process and interpret the work inside their own heads.

    Additionally, we have a strong focus on making new things that are different from the things that came before it. In music, that makes it very hard for anyone who didn’t create the work to grasp it to the point where they felt comfortable participating.

    So I think my suggestion is, if you want more audience participation you’d probably have to go out there and create a new sub culture. Which I think could be done, but as for how? I don’t know, start small I guess. You could probably find a good amount of like minded people within the fractured new music community

  2. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Performance audience interaction really isn’t a new engagement. It’s been going on for my entire life, and likely much longer than that. Going back 50-plus years, the Fluxus artists did, performance artists did, plays from “Marat/Sade” to the Joe Papp “Hamlet” did, and so did my own pieces such as “Stoneworld/Grey” and “Rando’s Poetic License” (the latter using audience-generated content as well as participation during the concert).

    It requires, as Jon says, a rethinking of where it applies, and whether it can retroactively inform performance tradition. The ‘fourth wall’ makes perfect sense where a specialty — any specialty where years of training are brought to the creation and recreation — cannot effectively welcome the unanticipated and the unskilled. It is rare where the wall can be knocked down and those outside integrated without gimmickry and with artistic meaning (rather than condescension).

    Ultimately, though, what is the point? Does the focus group improve the ending of a film? Does the call-and-response in a religious service contribute to involvement or merely make it another rote experience? Does someone go to any event — save perhaps a karaoke bar or an open mic night — to stand up and be part of the creative action?

    “It does seem a tremendous waste of a resource to have a large group of people in attendance for a concert performance and for the only desired sound they make to be their applause at the end of individual pieces of music” … if you’ll pardon the comment, “wasted resources” is almost a Romney-esque attitude toward an engaged group of human beings.


  3. Alvaro Gallegos

    You said something very important here, Frank. It should’nt be done just for fun, or for trying to be different, as you said “it does have to actually have a significant meaning”.

    The other day I was discussing with a composer friend of mine a piece of him, that it is based on a ritual of the Mapuche people (Natives of southern Chile), and it contains “audience participation”, but it is totally justified for its “ceremonial” nature.

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