Wowing the Audience

Wowing the Audience

The new ensemble that I founded, League of the Unsound Sound (LotUS), presented its first concert in Erie, Pennsylvania, three weeks ago. I’ve waited to write about this debut because I wanted some perspective on the event. I am happy to report that it was a smashing success beyond my highest expectations.

Honestly, as I planned the event, I actually didn’t hold any expectations for how it would be received. I assumed that the audience in Erie would be small (in that way no different from any other new music audience) and relatively conservative. And yet, I designed a program that would make absolutely no concessions to my perception of what they might find comforting. Instead, I tried to create a flow of works that held personal appeal for me.

I also questioned every aspect of classical and new music concerts, in an attempt to strip away the elements that are extraneous to the music and create a barrier between the performer and the audience. With some traditions—walking on and off stage during bows; changing the stage set between pieces—I was able to pinpoint why they disturbed the concert atmosphere. With others—concert-black garb, for example—I simply relied on my personal distaste. I wasn’t attempting to reinvent the wheel, but instead considered the choices of the many excellent ensembles I have been fortunate enough to hear live who have been presenting more audience-friendly concerts without compromising musical integrity: ICE, eighth blackbird, Alarm Will Sound, and Mobtown Modern, among others. I aimed to create a theatric experience with music as the central element.

As I discussed in a previous NewMusicBox post, I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a great deal of time promoting the event. The press representative for Mercyhurst College, our gracious host, wanted to help us to find an audience but also had difficulty conceptualizing what type of concert we would be presenting. During this conversation, I kept returning to three points: 1) the music would be experimental; 2) I guaranteed that audience members would hear something they had never heard before; and 3) that to me as an individual audience member the two previous characteristics are selling points. To my surprise, within hours after the submitting the press release, I was arranging an interview with John Chacona, a freelance writer from Erie who also happens to be a fan of experimental improvisation. This interview turned into a lovely featured preview in the Erie Times under the headline “Tune the Toy Piano!”

LotUS concert stage setup

Before the concert, I roped off about half of the seats in the 300-seat hall so that the audience would be funneled into a tight space, with the hope that this would raise their energy level. I also instructed the ushers to keep the theater closed until we gave them the signal to open the doors. About ten minutes before the scheduled starting time, someone implored me to open the doors, and when I went out to announce that we would not open until five minutes before the concert start, I was surprised to see a huge crowd mobbing the theater atrium. Clearly the publicity had worked!

The audience needed to wait so that the performance would have already started before they entered the theater. And so, at five minutes before eight, Tim Feeney and David Schotzko took their places in the aisles of the theater off the wings of the stage while I sat still at a toy piano in the center of the stage. David began performing Huang Ruo’s Sound of Hand, a movement piece that makes very little noise while on the other side Tim simultaneously presented Georges Aperghis’s Le Corps à corps. Although I sat still and therefore couldn’t see the audience as they entered, I could hear them talking. They clearly thought that the percussionists were just warming up and so they continued talking until Tim reached the spot where he begins narrating a story in English. Once the audience heard recognizable sounds, they immediately fell silent.

As the percussionists ended, I began a brief toy piano improvisation, during which the entire ensemble moved to their places. As I finished, Shirley Yoo sounded the boombox, beginning the concert proper with John Cage’s Credo in Us. I went from the toy piano to turn pages for the pianist Stephen Buck. And the audience remained completely silent. Only after the Cage did we stop and allow for applause.

The rest of the concert flowed in a more traditional manner, but without stage changes between pieces. As one piece ended, the performers accepted the warm wishes of the audience and either exited the stage or moved to their new position. From the Cage, we went to Arlene Sierra’s Of Risk and Memory (in a U.S. premiere), then to a free improvisation with Tim playing a single floor tom and me on toy piano, and finally into Thierry de Mey’s Table Music. Of these, the Sierra was the only one that involved a traditional ensemble (two pianos) making traditional musical noises. And yet, there was a palpable energy from the audience. Even during the very quiet improvisation that seemed to involve every possible mode of creating sounds from those two instruments (except for the traditional technique of hitting the tom and playing the keys of the toy piano), there was complete silence in the hall.

LotUS concert stage setup

For the second half, I was able to sit in the back of the audience. From this vantage point, I realized that the hall was nearly full. Nearly all the tape blocking various rows had been removed and over 200 audience members remained (I still have no idea how many were there for the start). As the last piece, my own Hurricane Charm, ended, I quickly made my way to the stage, where we were greeted by a huge outpouring as the audience rose (nearly) as one.

LotUS concert stage setup

I am reporting on this because I’m proud of our accomplishments, but also because this experience bucks much of the conventional wisdom associated with concert presentations. We made absolutely no concessions to the supposedly delicate sensibilities of the Rust Belt audience. Instead we welcomed them to enjoy the experience of the new. We presented music that we believed in, and in superb performances. (Here I want to mention the incredible performers again: Stephen Buck and Shirley Yoo, pianos; Tim Feeney and David Schotzko, percussion. They are all superlative musicians, and wonderful people as well, and it was a great honor to work with all of them.) And while the audience members probably didn’t like everything on the program (indeed, they might not have liked any of the music), they recognized that they were hearing something special. And they appreciated that opportunity.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

10 thoughts on “Wowing the Audience

  1. Kevin Warren

       Great to hear about such a successful performance, and especially about the ways in which you created it. Both a heartening and informative article – one that I think many could benefit from.

       Much has been said about ways to alter the new music experience from it’s stereotypical, stuffy norm. Drastic changes have their own problems (hosting a concert at a bar, for example), but I think the answer lies in the types of subtle tweaks you suggest in this article.

       The Callithumpian Consort recently gave a concert here in Boston and used some similar strategies to great effect. They transformed the performance into a unique experience not soon to be forgotten (not to mention virtuosic performance of some great pieces).
       When so much of the music we present is extremely unique, it seems illogical to present it in exactly the same, somewhat offputting, way.


  2. smooke

    overrated virtue

    TI’m glad to hear that things are going well with Callithumpian. I’ve been trying to follow your progress from afar and hope to have an opportunity to hear y’all live soon.


    Such a short comment and yet I have several reponses:

    First, I believe that modesty is highly overrated as a virtue and I question as to whether it’s possible to create great art expressing modestly. It appears to me that music composition is inherently immodest, an attempt at one-sided communication from a safe distance. And the greatest artistic statements often require immense resources and the dedication of many people to realize (as with Andriessen’s De Materie).

    Second, as I state above, I’m talking about this concert because I experimented in several ways. I was surprised to find that the experiments proved successful, but I still would have discussed the failure had one occurred.

    Third, you might have noted that I actually withheld from promotion, instead focusing on a description of the event. I didn’t include a link to the ensemble’s website. The irony of accusing someone of immodesty while immediately appending a self-promoting link is rich indeed.

    Thank you both for the comments,

  3. Kevin Warren

          Just to clarify, I was only an audience member (albeit an entranced and thankful one) at the Consort’s performance. My use of ‘we’ referred to presenters of new music in general…not my affiliation with that group.

          And phil – you might be glad to learn that the perpetual link at the bottom of each post is only sometimes the most pretentious and self-serving portion. However, it does remain the clearest misappropriation of this forum for personal promotion.

  4. Alexandra Gardner

    Nothing wrong with horn-tooting
    David, congratulations on the LotUS success! Sharing experiences of this nature provide a view for everyone about how projects come together, which is exactly the sort of helpful information a lot of people want to hear about. That’s a horn that should be tooted! ;-)

  5. philmusic

    that the perpetual link at the bottom of each post is only sometimes the most pretentious and self-serving portion.

    Yes quite true. I know because I’ve been blogging for quite some time now.

    Because of the incredibly low bar for veracity on the net, still true to this day, I still take the trouble of giving my real name and my web page so folks would know for certain who was making the comments.

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s page which was started on aol 1996

  6. Juan Calderon

    …that the perpetual link at the bottom of each post is only sometimes the most pretentious and self-serving portion.

    I always thought that was sort of tacky but I had an uncontrollable desire to do it a couple of days ago… so sorry!

    Anyway, Phil has a point. Some people hide behind pseudonims and rant like nobody’s business, and that’s equally tacky, in a moral sense.


  7. Armando

    Really? That’s what you guys are going with? The guy is out there, in the trenches, forming his own ensemble and putting on a season (there are more LotUs concerts coming) of new music, which is not an easy thing (I should know), programs some challenging music in a challenging way that tries to move the discussion, as it were, of what a “classical” concert experience should be, then posts about the result in as humble and unself-serving a manner as possible hoping to elicit a discussion on the presentation of challenging programs of challenging new music in untraditional places and you go off on his immodesty? Seriously?

    David, well done. We haven’t had much of a chance to talk in our hallowed halls lately, but we need to hang and do some brainstorming. I simply love how you formatted this maiden voyage by LotUS. Congratulations.

  8. Pingback: League of the Unsound Sound | Pittsburgh New Music Net

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.