Participatory Music-Making Part 1: An Introduction to the Discussion

April 15, 2011

Do you ever have that “active audience” conversation? The one about the pros and cons of transforming classical music events that focus on audience participation? It seems like a buzzing topic these days, what with groups like Knight Arts “Random Acts of Culture” and Elizabeth Streb’s Brooklyn-based STREB making splashes by touching ad hoc performances and surprising feats of artistic daredevilry. I was first drawn into such an experience through NEW MUSE’s launch event, the surprise flash-mob performance at the Dane County Farmer’s Market on 9/11/2010:



Our event was not merely an exercise in bringing music to unconventional places. We did not simply invite our audience to become agents of musical action. NEW MUSE designed a project that was in essence part of a larger goal – to refresh the cultural and social significance of classical music. In fact, the notion of participation is not so cut and dry, yet it often serves as a front for largely economic agendi.

Take for example, The Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD Sunday cinemacasts, which grew out of financial needs but have been advertised as a beacon for attracting and involving new audiences. Heralded as a massive success, these weekend broadcasts now serve audiences in 1,500 venues in more than 40 countries, while tripling attendance figures, and in 2009 earned a whopping $48 million in revenue. But do they reach new constituencies? The jury’s out on that one. I’ve seen a few, and it seems to me as if most of the audience represents the same older demographic as traditional in-person opera performances.

That is not to say this idea is a failure! In fact, I’d suggest that The Met’s Live in HD project has been a success, but I would caution that the idea of these cinematic events reaching out to a newly-engaged audiences is limited both by content and approach. The use of technology to democratize the opera house may be a huge boost to business, but seeing an opera in a movie theater is not drastically different than seeing it in person. The lower price-point, ease of accessibility, and behind the scenes extras must add value, but they don’t fundamentally change the relationship between audience and performer.

Negotiating that change is one of the most challenging issues for arts organizations in the 21st century, because younger audiences wish to consume art differently (and are willing to pay less) than those a generation older. So how do arts organizations address, or re-address those relationships? We must pursue avenues that are fresh, relevant, and sustainable, and yet we cannot afford to alienate our current constituency. What are the challenges and opportunities to such an enterprise, and how do they relate to organizational strategy?

The next three posts in this series will explore those points and more. Stay tuned!

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4 Responses to “Participatory Music-Making Part 1: An Introduction to the Discussion”


  1. […] Participatory Music-Making Part 1: An Introduction to the Discussion by Jonathan Kuuskoski on April 15, 2011 […]


  2. […] my previous blog, I pondered the question of how one makes music participatory. I was implying that perhaps the […]


  3. […] chat with Fifth Ho… on Participatory Music-Making Par…A chat with Fifth Ho… on Participatory Music-Making Par…A chat with Fifth Ho… on The Art-Career TangoA chat with Fifth Ho… on House music […]


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