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.


7 Responses to “Participatory Music-Making Part 3: Applying Concepts Meaningfully”

  1. howard A. Cohen Says:

    For the past 15 years or so I’ve been including audience-participatory pieces in concerts I play as a matter of course. While some are exacting works requiring musical decision-making from their participants necessitating an in the intermission conducted rehearsal for volunteers from the audience, others are contrastingly rather simple in their executional demands and require no rehearsal at all. Some pieces require chewing on something cracker-ly – changing each person’s perception of the musical piece individually, or require the person to walk around. Another piece (Eine Kleine Acht Musik 3) has the audience perform vocal sounds with complicated instructions. These sounds last two seconds and repeat eigth times at intervals of 12 subjective seconds before proceeding to the next sound constellation. This piece explores the nature of the disintegration of organized sound.

    One piece I love is “Swarming 5” in which I let my audience stroll on a “carpet” prepared with letters indicating the sounds they must make. For the audience, the piece changes through moveable tone quality – a powerful man’s voice is first here then there. For the one who is milling about, the sounds s/he encounters changes entirely, forming new sound-constellations and -combinations.

    On the whole I feel that audiences like being active like this and even like to be instructed as to what they must do. They feel as though they are being taken seriously (which they are) and that without them, the piece can’t take place (which it can’t). They enjoy being part of the music-making process and hearing sounds they’ve – and most others, too – have never expeienced. I enjoy working like this with listeners immensely.

    I’d love to be able to chat with someone who appreciates audience participational works, so mail me at the given @dress, should you be so inclined. Thank you. Musically yours,

  2. Hi Howard!

    Thanks for the great comment and sorry for my slow response.

    I think your ideas are spot-on, and your substantial experience evidences the diversity of how interactive participatory musical events can be. I wonder those interested in developing participatory programs can navigate the dangers inherent in being prescriptive? For example, from my experience some people don’t respond well to works that require interaction, but perhaps this is a matter of developing effective target demographics and marketing.

    I’d love to hear more about what works for you, and how you’ve developed an interest in these sorts of events.

    I’m curious to learn more about “Swarming 5” and the others your mentioned!

    All best,

    • howard A. Cohen Says:

      26th of October, 2011
      Hi, Jonathan!

      Sorry about the delay in responding, but being on vacation is very stressful – I can’t wait to get back to work and relax a bit. Ostensibly this fall vacation time was originally three weeks of school recess and was deemed the potato vacation: everyone helped in the potato harvest. But now there’s nothing to do and to top it off All Hallows Day falls in this time period. Thankfully it’s been shortened to two weeks. Nevertheless, my kids are very creative in thinking up and creating situations in which I must act, such as breaking a thumb, taking a vacation job that’s a front for some dubious organization and having to be saved in the foggy, deep of night. Doing sudokus is also very taxing, as they are becoming increasingly easy. I’m glad to have the opportunity to respond, in part, to your kind comment.

      First let me say that I never call a work interactive. This term has a social and pedagogical ring to it that I find inappropriate for a concert and wish to avoid. I write works in order to cull forth the sounds I’d like to send into the world and I need people to render these sounds. I’m probably too stingy to actually pay people to perform these works and anybody with a bit of concentration is perfectly capable of performing them while also experiencing the works and that’s why I ask the audience to accommodate me. I don’t think that anyone in the audience feels like they’re participating as much as they are executing their acoustical tasks successfully and being musicians while doing stuff in ways that only musicians do.

      Swarming 5 is a 4m X 4m (16 m²) plastic carpet with varying letters (vowels, half-vowels, air-noise and percussive letters) pasted onto it. This was a response to Dortmund’s artist, Ulla Drechsler’s style of painting back in 1992 by which she formed impressions and reliefs of predefined figures on white cardboard but/and painted other figures independent of these over them (or, sometimes, the other way around). Ulla hired me to perform her work in an aliatoric nature. Instead or rather in addition, I rolled out this carpet in front of her work and invited people to walk on the carpet with me together vocalizing the various letters and letter combinations under our feet. Depending on the many personally determinable variables (walking speed and direction, volume, woman’s or man’s voice, how many on the carpet etc.) a new 3-D acoustical experience takes place for the listener and for the performer. In walking on a carpet of surrounding sound one meets up with an “aaaa” and greets with “krr”, for example. The constellation of sound is ever changing. It is like a party game except that the tones made are new and wonderful and are the main point of it all. Because they all know exactly what to do, all have a good time, even those standing around in the corner drinking and wanting to be skeptical.

      I think prescribed behaviour is necessary for any musical experience. Try to get a four-year-old to stay seated in a concert and you’ll see what I mean. The training we repeat time and time again conditions what we get out of a work. Here, we’re able to shed an uncomfortable, though trusted training (sitting and being quiet) and assume a different one, which allows us to produce and experience something new. If the boundaries are clear and constricting enough AND one says “yes” to them one can immediately begin to explore the freedom the constriction allows; otherwise it’s more or less a prison. The distinction has more to do with the individual than with objective circumstances.

      I wish you all the best, flutistically yours, howie

      • howard A. Cohen Says:

        This year about 50 8-9 year old musicians in three mutually exclusive ensembles worked on a composition of mine under my tutelage: “Ouch!” (That’s the name of the work, not an expression of the pain involved in preparing it.) has two movements – up until now – of “Storm” and “Black Tears”, in which the young musicians must be able to “read” the conductor presenting the material for each piece with a different set of hand signals. “Storm” has six types of sounds for the two groups (group A: Accordian, Keboard and Guitar; group B: Strings and Winds) complimenary and appropriate for each instrument so that when the guitars for example are “klirring” the keyboarders are doing their droplets; while the flutes are hitting their keys the strings are doing col legno spiccato. The wide spectrum of sounds are produced at various volumes, indicated by how high or low the conductor holds his/her hand appropriate for that group. To describe the sounds in depth would take pages and pages but suffice it to say that I spoke with all of the instrumental teachers about how to best get the sounds I wanted. They all had great ideas and incorperated the techniques in their teaching. “Black Tears” uses a different system, whereby the conductor indicates with the right hand the pitches d or e (using the normal Kodaly signals) and with the left hand the dynamic. This is a sad, slow work. Although I have a clear idea of how this all should sound, “Ouch!” is originally concieved of as an acoustical rendition of a painting composed for this piece, read left to right and in full view of the audience as a projection! It doesn’t require acoustical participation from the audience but its aesthetical warewithall (?) is. You can watch an excerpt of a rehearsal:

        Another “piece” with audience participation is called “Eine Kleine Acht Musik 4” and it is meant to beginn a concert. Ostensibly created to encourage the audience to turn off their cell-phones without the normal, boring announcement, I trick them into taking out their cell-phones and turning them on. The instructions for the work are simple: let your ring-tone sound for about 2 seconds and then begin counting to yourself 12 seconds (without looking at your watch and without listening to the persons next to you) before letting you phone ring again. We do this 12 times before turning the phone off and putting it away. The piece – as do the other “Eine Kleine Acht Musik”s – has to do with the natural decay of order. I’ve never heard it played correctly in a concert, but it sounds good, anyway. People LOVE TO PLAY WITH THEIR CELL-PHONES!! so I’ve no trouble getting almost everybody in the audience to play the piece. My first “EKAM 1” was a collaboration with the flute and oboe class of 14 year-olds. The performance for the parents in 1992 was brilliant, intense and beautiful until one of the mothers just couldn’t bear it anymore and began to laugh, which I thought fit in well but which hurt the sensibilities of the young musicians.

        I dream about writing pieces à la Robert Wilson (“The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin) but for audiences to take part in, lasting and stretching over a day’s time or longer. Wouldn’t it be a great contributing achievement to get a whole city perform a work of art? If you’d like to hear of other pieces of mine needing audience participation, I’d love to write more. Musically yours, howie

  3. Howie,

    Thanks for these responses! Wow – such cool concepts in action. I’m curious to know how your audiences reflect on their experiences. how do you record feedback? This is a challenging concern for all engaged in contemporary music, both in terms of recording the trends in audience attitudes to participative arts events, and also as a barometer for trends emerging in our collective artistic/cultural awareness. I enjoy hearing about your practices, keep it up!

    All best,

  4. howard A. Cohen Says:

    In answer to your questions and to satisfy your curiosity, Johnathan, I’d like to write about “Swarming 1” a piece I wrote in 1986 or so for twelve flutists. Inspired by gnat formations under a tree in the waning sun, “Swarming 1” establishes a complete aesthetic transpiring in the same space and time as other independent ones which are also simultaneously occurring. Meant to be performed in the entering hall of a concert house before a concert as the audience straggles in, is hanging up coats, drinking juice, paying for their tickets, talking with one another and doing pretty much what an audience always does, anyway, (making this audience-participation-aspect unproblematic) the flutists enter this area as a swarm milling about – each looking for his/her appropriate spot for his/her sound (à la Casteneda). Each flutist is given a note in the chromatic scale and is required to render this not longer than 2 seconds at a soft volume before walking to a new spot to try it again. Dissonances and consonances occur in relation to space and proximity! A unique experience takes place for each in the audience depending on where the individual stands, walks and behaves. Each of the experiences has its own aesthetical legitimacy and all are of the same quality (sorry, it’s difficult to describe this aspect). The attentive listener, though, is struck by the beauty of not only the flutists’ group-aesthetic but also by the wealth and also lack of sensitivity between the varying aesthetics spotlighted here. Many in the audience, though, are irritated and their first comments usually denounce the swarm of flutists. (I know this, because you can hear this on the videos – real videos with magnetic tape – placed in the halls to record the performances.) Years later, they tend to remember this irritation, which in turn, helps them to recall the art in the work on a deeper level. I am still accosted in the street and people who experienced “Swarming” want to discuss their experience with me, though the piece is seldom played, anymore.

    The flutistical proficiency level necessary for “Swarming 1” varies from beginner to professional, as do the ages of the flutists from small child to stone-old. Nevertheless, each musician must maintain an attentive discipline so as not to speak with the audience and to perform the task at hand, accurately, this for ten minutes until the bell rings and the audience is admitted into the hall.

    Years later, one of the performers contacted me to tell me about a then recent experience of hers while shopping in the city’s mall. She was struck by the sound of the people’s feet on the cobblestone and its beauty, melodic, rhythmic and dynamic variety and stopped to listen for a half an hour. In the course of the ten-year interim, “Swarming” had taken root and grown in her, so that she was now able to recognize and appreciate swarming-situations. Needless to say, I attributed this recognition to her work in the piece years before and was very gratified to learn in this way that the piece works as art regardless of what the betractor or – in this case a participant – superficially thinks about it – I think this a very positive barometer reading telling me that “Swarming 1” is a good work. One performer suggested sequels to this 3-D work, some of which weren’t half bad, though she/we never followed up on them and actually played them. We did enjoy letting them tickle our imagination, though. This generated ten other “Swarming”s – two of them with more than 80 players.

    Composing three-dimensionally – one of the five musical themes I was consumed with back in the 80s and 90s – became popular among “real” composers (I don’t consider myself a “real” composer – I don’t write very much and am satisfied with answering my aesthetical questions in an unpolished manner) and, though they often dislike me and consider me to be a charlatan, I enjoy much of their work.

    One of these days I’ll figure out how to translate old video material to something I can downloyd on vimeo. With lots of musical greeings, howie

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