Participatory Music-Making Part 3: Applying Concepts Meaningfully
September 19, 2011
Note: After a long hiatus, I’m happy to announce that I’ll be updating this blog regularly on a monthly basis from September through May, with a few Special Edition posts along the way!
I’ve recently been exploring concepts of audience participation. Specifically, I’m trying to demystify the ubiquitous slogans (how many times have you seen “interactive musical events” slapped on to concert programs lately?) that are too-often misinterpreted or misused, and in doing so discovering ways to design events that engage all stakeholders and add long-term value.
This challenge relates to one of the most common questions I get about NEW MUSE, which is: So how do you decide where to perform?
We don’t always have a quick answer, because for us the selection of each performance site informs all of our collective decisions related to putting an event together. The most obvious example is last year’s 9/11 Memorial Flash Mob at the Dane County Farmer’s Market.
Applying “High Concept”: Obvious or Not?
I’ve argued for more aggressively approaching the notion of participation, and challenging the limits of how we interact with our audiences. I’ve also posited that these efforts result from a need to:
1) Reach new audiences
2) Find new funding channels
3) Move art forward
Today we’re going to focus on the last of these three topics.
In terms of artistic growth and reinvention, the results of participative efforts can be less obvious. We must be patient, because while the results can and should be impactful, they are part of slow-moving shift in expectations that take years to fully develop. For example, NEW MUSE engaged more than five dozen children with movement exercises through “The Story of Babar the Little Elephant” by Francis Poulenc at the Madison Children’s Museum, to great effect. At first glance, though, it doesn’t appear to evoke much more than a K-12 school visit featuring music:
Our idea actually began as “high concept” in one of our coffee-meeting brainstorming sessions. We started, as we usually do, by defining the idea that we wanted to see materialize: A musical event that would combine storytelling, movement exercises, and tap into the creativity of youth. But if we had pitched that nebulous “high concept,” we wouldn’t have gotten very far with the Museum and other partners we needed to create the event.
Parsing down that musing, we got to the following germ: this event should allow our audience to re-connect music with the other creative processes that give wonder to the experiences of childhood. With that presently in mind, we eventually struck upon “Babar” as the perfect vehicle, which led us to look for a space that would invite creativity and offer a flexible array of outlets for audience interaction. When we found out that the new Madison Children’s Museum has regular school visit days, it became clear that could be a crucial advantage for grabbing an audience on a limited marketing budget. NEW MUSE was just one step away from connecting the dots and finalizing logistical details.
In other words, the process of organizing the event filtered our vague idea through the various necessary managerial steps, resulting in a very precise and focused program. Interestingly, we managed to address all three of those primary goals listed above. We reached a “new” audience (one that is often excluded from opportunities for music education) through an inventive funding channel (the in-kind partnership with MCM), and we hope that it will add value to the field (the event’s success holds potential to open doors to other creative program ideas).
The big question is: was the end result still truly interactive? Depends on how you measure interactivity. For us, we continually strike bargains between the goal of making music engaging to our target audience (here, families and especially young children) and reinventing the concert format. For this concert, we structured the music around movement exercises that functioned as prompts for children to react to the story, but we didn’t mandate a particular mode of interaction. Our goal, then, wasn’t to break the norms of concert etiquette, but to explore what it takes to engage a particular audience in a way that makes them absorb and crave more music. In that sense, we can say our audience’s participation within their overall musical experience was highly interactive.
Participating Audiences and Meaningful Events
All the work that goes into creating interactive participation should have some larger goal in mind. Another way of saying this is that when NEW MUSE looks at audience participation, it’s derived from a unique artistic concept, and one that is sometimes very nebulous. We then mediate that concept by a mechanism that seems appropriate to our target audience.
Each project’s inception, then, usually paves unexpected paths towards its realization. This is why each of our concert-events have inevitably included different personnel rosters, combinations of musical styles, and have targeted different demographics.
This can also can create unexpected outcomes. Our use of a variety of concert models often ends up creating friction with the status quo of audience expectations, a common challenge among ensembles who are trying to engage audiences in new ways. This task can be treacherous, but I strongly believe it holds the key to making participative events that lead to long-term changes in audience perception and expectations. My next and final post in this series tackles that issue, and addresses the importance of leveraging feedback to refine and improve event design.