Tag: audience participation

For Our Courageous Workers

A screen shot of a video depicting frames of 29 different individual musicians performing on various instruments in front of their windows.

For Our Courageous Workers is a 4-movement, 11-minute long graphic piece I conceived which was composed together with Hajnal Pivnick and Dorian Wallace, realized by musicians of all levels in New York City and beyond, and performed at 7pm—the time of the daily “Cheer for Front-Line Workers”—on April 29, 2020, during the period of our COVID-19 virus “stay-at-home quarantine”.

It was intended to fulfill many purposes. To call attention to the risks that front-line essential workers face, doing the jobs that allow us to live and survive through this virus period, and to celebrate them and their work. To inspire the people of the city, isolated by necessity and decree, and bring them together through music. And to allow musicians to do what we do—make music! (For many New York musicians, accustomed to playing with others on an almost daily basis, this was the first time they had played live with others in almost two months.) Hajnal Pivnick, Dorian Wallace, and I saw our roles as being both composers and directors of a ritual, spectacle performance.

The composition presented a number of challenges. We had to ensure that it was not only playable by all levels of performers, from amateurs, students, and rank beginners to the world’s finest professional, performing musicians, but would also be enjoyable to perform. To this end, we chose instructions that anyone could achieve at their own level.

It needed to both grow out of and function as an extension of the daily “Cheer for Front-Line Workers” ritual that takes place in NYC. Michael Brodeur, in the Washington Post described it as follows:

New Yorkers have established their own socially distanced approach to celebrating the efforts of health-care workers—cheering them every evening at 7 from their windows and rooftops with a clamor of pots, pans, songs and applause.

We began the piece with this clamor of pots, pans and applause, and added a jubilant major fanfare. The drummers used only cymbals, reminiscent of the explosive percussion in Chinese New Year’s celebrations. Then, instead of ending at around the time the cheer would normally subside, we went into a contrasting section.

We chose a four-section structure to give it both musical shape and a narrative focus:

1) CHEERING (for the workers);
2) REFLECTING (on the devastation and loss);
3) CATHARSIS (“a full-blown play anything, glorious, jubilant, ecstatic, cacophonic, sonic catharsis” to release pent in feelings, be they anger, grief, rage, frustration); and
4) GRATITUDE (for the workers, for our lives, families, loved ones, health, community).

Any attempt to have a synchronized rhythm or pulse would have failed, as would having the length determined by a number of bars. We defined the four movements through clock time not metronomic time. (Although, in order to give a sense of slowness, the 2nd movement has the instruction to the drummers: “Quarter note pulse = 60 bpm”. This was meant to be taken either literally or figuratively.)

A hypothetical listener hovering above the city would hear 3 minutes of Bb major, with an emphasis on the Bb major seventh chord (Bb-D-F-A), fast and explosive; morphing into 3 minutes of slow pensive D minor; a sudden eruption of 3 minutes of total noise and chaos; and a final coming together into one unified pitch and sound. E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one. In determining the home pitch for the fourth section, we debated using D (easy for the string player) or Bb (for the winds). Bb was chosen because I remembered reading somewhere that New York City vibrated to a fundamental bass tone of Bb (possibly from the electrical grid or subway vibrations).

Limiting the pitch sets for the 1st, 2nd, and 4th movements ensured that it would work as an ensemble piece (if the performer heard others playing it), while allowing players to treat it as a solo performance (if they did not).

Courageous Workers poster

My personal performance went thus: 3 minutes of free blowing Bb major jubilant energy, reminiscent of Albert Ayler’s “Bells,” accompanied by Tony Geballe’s Frithian guitar feedback drones on the next roof. 3 minutes of spiritual, meditative D minor melodies reflecting the sadness of losing so many greats to this virus. Then chaos and release! Allowing myself to vent the frustration of being led through this crisis by a mendacious, self-serving national leader, I ended up screaming uncontrollably while playing the ratchet as fast and loudly as possible—my personal catharsis. The last few minutes of unison brought me down to earth, and I realized that dozens of people in adjacent buildings, hungry for live music, were applauding.

We don’t know exactly how many people participated, but we have received almost 100 performance videos of For Our Courageous Workers. Weaving these together videos affirms that our compositional choices play out: it is a coherent work performed by musicians who for the most part could not hear each other.

I suspect that we will create a number of iterations of For Our Courageous Workers using the submitted material. But it’s going to be a while before we have something complete to share with the world. In the meanwhile, here’s a sneak peek at the first 30 seconds.

For Our Courageous Workers could not have been successful without having many participants. As the entire project went from its initial conceptualization to the performance in 10 days, we relied upon our co-sponsoring organizations—each with a wide reach into diverse New York musical communities—to get the word out to the public. We feel a deep gratitude. All of them, along with the hundreds of people who performed the piece, brought together undzer kleyn shtetl New York (our ‘little village of New York’) through sound.

[Ed. Note: To access the single-page, text-based score for the composition For Our Courageous Workers, click here.]

There’s This Thing Happening: The New York Avant Garde Festival and Its Audience

I started this NewMusicBox series on experimental music festivals of the 1960s with an article about critical reactions to the New York Avant Garde Festival; I trawled the newspaper reviews and promotional materials to find you facts. Next, we looked at the realities of composing and producing the Tudorfest; interviews and secondary sources carried the day. Then Ian Power gave us insight into what it was like to perform pieces from FluxFest Kit 2; in this case, personal and physical experience guided our understanding. And now I’d like to come back around full circle, to reinterpret what we think we know—the New York Avant Garde Festival again, but this time through the eyes of the audience.

Composers, performers—they’re relatively easy to find and talk to if you want to track them down. After all, many of them went on to established careers in the arts, and they have gigs and websites and email addresses. But audience members? People who just wandered in off the street and experienced what the New York Avant Garde Festival had to offer? That’s a little more difficult. Where do you even start?

I started by writing that first NewMusicBox article, hoping that the readers of this website might have been there, might be able to tell me something more about what the festivals felt like. I wasn’t disappointed. A comment on my March 5 article led me to contact information—which inspired me to send out an email and then schedule a Skype interview.

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz wandered into the 10th Annual New York Avant Garde Festival at Grand Central Station in 1973 and—instantly, magically, organically—became part of the event.

The original poster for NYAGF 10th Annual Avant Garde Festival consiting of multiple texts in different directions superimposed on one another.

Poster for NYAGF 10th Annual Avant Garde Festival at Grand Central Station, 1973.

There’s a catch, a small caveat to this audience member’s experience. Báthory-Kitsz is, in fact, a composer, a musician, the former host of the award-winning Kalvos & Damian. (He’s also an author, an instrument maker, a teacher, a librarian, and an archivist if you want the full picture.) He ended up becoming a good friend of NYAGF producer Charlotte Moorman, and went on to attend (and perform his music at) all of the New York Avant Garde festivals in the 1970s that followed—even the much-maligned Cambridge River edition. But at his first 1973 festival, Báthory-Kitsz really didn’t have any idea what he was in for. “I don’t really know how I heard about it,” he said during our interview. “Somebody must have told me there was this thing happening in New York—I don’t think I read it, because I certainly couldn’t have afforded to buy a New York Times. I heard it from somebody.” He was young, he was full of curiosity; he found a friend, took the bus from Trenton, New Jersey to New York City ($2.25 round trip), and made his way to the festival-occupied train tracks.

It was like a huge party, he told me. There were events happening everywhere, and he got to meet people. People like Jackson Mac Low, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Yoko Ono—people who were making names for themselves in the experimental milieu, who were doing the very thing Báthory-Kitsz hoped to one day do himself.

“That’s cool. I love this,” he thought. And so he found ways to participate further, to get in deeper. He called ahead of the next festival—dialing a number that turned out to be Charlotte Moorman’s direct line—and found himself heading to her apartment to help fold promotional materials and talk experimental composition. The thing about the New York Avant Garde Festival was that there was no application to fill out, no credentials to present. There were no obstacles to you (yes, you) participating if you felt so moved. All you had to do was inform Moorman that you wanted in—so your name could be put on posters and so you could be counted in the official tally of participants—and then you were in. That’s all there was to it.

The way Báthory-Kitsz remembers it, the New York Avant Garde festival was completely non-exclusive, totally welcoming. There was no need for traditional musical virtuosity to perform these pieces; there were no great skills to show off except for a willingness to jump in and do, to take an idea and run with it as far as you were able. It was a “that-sounds-really-exciting-let’s-do-it!” culture, as Báthory-Kitsz calls it. In some ways, that made the whole avant-garde an outsider to the musical establishment. And if that was true, if everyone was an outsider, it paradoxically meant that everyone was an insider—even the audience, should they so choose.

An historic photo of a group of people playing outdoors on invented instruments

Dashuki Music Theatre performing at the New York Avant-Garde Festival World Trade Center June 19, 1977; from L to R: Shirley Strock Albright; Jannet Passow Gillock; David Gunn; Dennis Bathory-Kitsz; Linda Kaye. (From the Dashuki Music Theatre page of the Trans/Media Arts Cooperative website.)

The distinction between audience and performers wasn’t important, because there was always the potential for the one to become the other. It was 1977 at the 13th Annual New York Avant Garde Festival held at the World Trade Center, and Báthory-Kitsz brought his own ensemble to perform a chamber opera he had written for instruments he’d built himself, including the geometrically tuned “Hharp” and the wood and glass “Uncello.” (I have a copy of the poster for this festival, by the way. Báthory-Kitsz’s name appears at exactly the halfway point in the list of 237 participants.) “I know we had an audience, because I have photographs showing we had an audience,” he told me. The question of who exactly that audience was…not so clear. Báthory-Kitsz remembers walking around the festival, going to see other friends and acquaintances perform—so there were festival performer-spectators at any given event. Then, there were people who had come to see his opera specifically, and so he assumes there were people who had come to see other particular performers. And then “at one point I know that somebody wanted to play my ‘Uncello,’ and so sure they were in it.” The audience member turned performer. “It was so crowded,” Báthory-Kitsz said, “the vast majority of the people there must have been audience.”

A photo of Báthory-Kitsz's uncello which is shaped like a giant bow with a clear glass sphere in the cavity

Báthory-Kitsz’s Uncello (From the page devoted to his instruments on his website.)

Must have been, but who knows. All that really mattered was that it was exciting, that it was this huge event with many people and many performances, that there was an experimental electricity in the air. In any case, it clearly made an impression. Báthory-Kitsz went on to organize his own Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde in ’74, ’76, and ’78. “We were inspired by [Moorman’s] festivals because we had no gathering like that south of New York and we didn’t know if any were going on elsewhere in the country. But we knew one was not happening in Philadelphia, and certainly not in Trenton.” That sounds really exciting, so let’s do it! Báthory-Kitsz et al. contacted Trenton’s city council in the fall of 1973, rounded up 60 artists—some with name recognition (once heard, who could ever forget the moniker of sculptor Woofy Bubbles?), some with only the experimental love in their hearts—and put on a festival. Hundreds of people showed up. It was a great success. So great, that they put on an encore two years later and then another two years after that.

The original poster for the 1978 Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde featuring text and drawings

The poster for the 1978 edition of the Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde (From the website of the Trans/Media Arts Cooperative.)

Báthory-Kitsz has photographs from the Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde—and from the New York Avant Garde Festivals, too. Photographs, and also negatives, slides, posters and playbills, bits and pieces of handmade instruments, thousands of hours of audio on reels and cassettes, and even a few 8mm films. All of these things live in a storage unit (if they’re not temperature sensitive) and his studio (if they are)—because no museum or university will take them. Archival media is expensive to maintain, and Báthory-Kitsz is (quite reasonably) unwilling to split up his collection, to skew the representation of these events. Here I am, a historian who can’t find archival materials about these festivals in any of the usual places; there he is, a participant and a documentarian, with mountains of archival materials that he just can’t reliably get to the historians. But these photos and those reel-to-reel tapes are our history nonetheless, and they tell a story about festivals in general as surely as they do about any one festival in particular.

“So, you went up to New York for the New York Avant Garde Festivals, and then you produced your own festivals—what was it about the festival medium?” I finally asked him. “Well, it’s where you met people,” he told me. “There was no occasion to meet anybody if there was not a large event to meet them at.” It was a time before the internet, it was a time of exorbitant long-distance phone bills—“we were really disconnected from each other,” Báthory-Kitsz noted. Tudorfest? The ONCE Festival? Fluxfest? They might have been happening, but you had to know someone who was in the know in order to know about them. And even if you did hear about a concert now and again, it was always hard to tell if it was going to be worth it. You needed a good reason to travel to hear something new and interesting—and what could be better than an event where you were guaranteed to hear not just one new thing, but hundreds, where you could meet not just one new composer, but dozens?

For critics, the experimental music festivals of the 1960s and ‘70s were a departure—and sometimes an escape—from the highbrow world of classical concerts. For composers, they were a risk, a gamble of time and money and energy—and also a chance to put their work out there, to show the world just what they were doing. For performers, they were the chance to reach a more general audience and to commit to the uncanniness, the empowerment, and the fun of the experimental ethos. And for audience members, they were an opportunity to participate, to live in the experimental world for a day or two—to hear some new things and make some new contacts. When Báthory-Kitsz went to the festivals, he met people; when he offered to help fold posters, he met people. When he decided to produce his own festival, he got in touch with all those people he had met at the festivals and the poster folding marathons. When he started his radio show Kalvos & Damian, he pooled those contacts. Each new contact led to more contacts with more people—critics, composers, performers, audience, some combination of the above, it didn’t really matter. They were all interested in experimental music.

“I have one last question,” I told Báthory-Kitsz. “Do you have any plans for future festivals?” “Well no,” he said, but he is planning a huge party in August 2015 to celebrate all of the people who contributed to the Kalvos & Damian radio show during its years on the air. The long list of past interviewees consists of composers of every stripe, including Laurie Anderson, Pauline Oliveros, James Tenney, Larry Austin, Frederic Rzewski, and David Behrman—avant-garde festival goers and doers every one. This party, then, is a celebration of the radio show, but I also like to think of it as a celebration of the way we meet people and the way that a community of experimental musicians produces so much more than a single event. It is, in its own way, a festival of festivals, and I for one hope that Báthory-Kitsz documents every last detail.

If Elton John Sings But Everyone Else Does Too, Does It Make a Sound?

I spent my adolescence doing musical theater. As teenagers, my friends and I went through life singing and dancing—in hallways, parking lots, cars, and kitchens. Our friend Nick was a harsh critic of this practice.

Whenever someone launched into a melody, he’d ask, “Hey, who sings that song?” And regardless of our enthusiastic answer, his grim punchline was always the same: “Yeah—let’s keep it that way.”

I thought of Nick this past Saturday night, as I sat in an unnervingly large crowd at the Allstate Arena to hear Elton John. Because the problem was, sometimes I couldn’t hear Sir Elton over the other eighteen thousand people in the room.

Scene from an Elton John concert in Cincinnati, Ohio, 2009

Scene from an Elton John concert in Cincinnati, Ohio, 2009
Photo by Sean Biehle on Flickr

As a performer myself, I found it deeply unsettling to see someone as legendary as Elton John get sonically engulfed by the voices of his adoring fans. These people had paid hard-earned money and traveled on a cold night to hear one of the great heroes of pop music perform live. That’s really him up there! It’s not your stereo this time! I argued silently. John sounds fantastic, and to hear the way he delivers these melodies as a man in his sixties is fascinating. Yet at the climactic moments of “Rocketman,” or “Your Song,” or “Yellow Brick Road,” it was their own unremarkable voices the audience apparently wanted to hear.

Today, I will put on the mantle of the classically trained elitist curmudgeon and inquire: what is it with people and singing along? No really, what is it? Here, I offer four possible explanations for a phenomenon that, for anyone who celebrates live performance, doesn’t make much sense.

1. Let’s start with the most compassionate explanation—the one that assumes that human beings are good people who don’t want to endlessly aggravate each other. This explanation goes as follows: audiences sing along at concert because singing is fun, and it feels good. Singing your favorite songs with a big group of people, being close to all those bodies breathing and resonating, can be a joyous expression of togetherness. Most adults haven’t been part of a singing community since they were thirteen years old. On some primal level, they miss it. They crave the experience of merging with and becoming part of their favorite music. And then one evening, they come face to face with one of the greatest songwriters of all time. They get excited. And when human beings get excited, they sing.

2. If we’re not feeling so generous towards our fellow human beings as they drink Miller Lite under a giant dome and drown out Sir Elton’s subtle melismas and timbre changes (seriously!), it may be time for a slightly less warm-and-fuzzy explanation: they’re blithely singing along because they do not acknowledge the humanity of the live performer. To these singers-along, what Elton John decides to do with this spontaneous vocal moment is irrelevant. What matters to them is the melody they’ve heard, memorized, and sung along with for the past three decades. Trying to convince them to pay attention to a live vocalist is like trying to present a homemade bechamel sauce to someone who loves Kraft macaroni and cheese too much to care. (I know—ouch.)
3. Still angry about the sing-along, but don’t want to hate everyone around you? Consider the possibility that, plain and simple, the hegemony of the recorded “hit” is to blame. It’s hard to imagine a piece of music whose recording feels more definitive, more final and complete, than “Tiny Dancer.” The way that a typical listener relates to these recordings—via some speakers, an iPhone, and the American open road—has obliterated the song’s possibility of existing as a live, changing, in-the-moment experience. I mean, even the cast of Almost Famous couldn’t resist singing.

4. Not convinced by any of the above? There’s one final, sobering possibility, which is that the singers-along aren’t the problemI am. Maybe there’s nothing offensive about belting along to music that, after all, seems custom-made for exactly that. “Bennie and the Jets” can survive the senile humming of the man next door in a way that a Mozart string quartet cannot. The massively powerful sound system of the Allstate Arena made it possible (most of the time) for me to hear Elton over the crowd. Instead of casting sidelong glances at my neighbor, perhaps I ought to have remembered the all-important adage for surviving a crowd: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Join The Chorus


“A Microphone on The Voice” by jlaytarts2090 on Flickr.

The first time I ever truly enjoyed a concert at Carnegie Hall was when I attended a choral concert featuring Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana as a teenager. Since the concert also featured a performance of Kurt Weill’s Der Berliner Requiem, I bought a cheap seat in the upper balcony (an area that, at the time, had limited leg room). I was a Weill obsessive at the time. I constantly played through a book of sheet music of songs from his latter-day American musicals, and I had just discovered his earlier German music theatre pieces—I went to a free production of The Threepenny Opera at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park (which was normally reserved only for Shakespeare), and I luckily managed to see (far from free but when Broadway was still relatively affordable) the New York debut of Happy End (starring Meryl Streep!). I couldn’t get past my discomfort in that narrow seat during the brief Berliner Requiem (as a teenager I was already somewhat ADD challenged), but Carmina transported me to another realm for nearly an hour. So much so, that I had to relive the experience as soon as possible. I saved up money for a vocal score at Patelson’s, bought an LP, and also immersed myself in other Orff pieces. It was the beginning of my conversion from Broadway composer wannabe to new music nut. Anyway, that’s why when the New York Choral Society presented a public sing-along of Carmina at Symphony Space last week, I was there with my faded score raring to go. (Full disclosure: It also helped that the NYCS’s guest conductor was Phillip Cheah, whom my wife accompanies and who has premiered several pieces of mine.)

Despite the fact that once upon a time I sang regularly (even priding myself on my vocal prowess) and that some 35 years ago I had practically memorized Carmina Burana (having repeatedly banged my way through the entire piano reduction in order to mine all its secrets), I was completely out of my league singing it last week. While Cheah’s beat was always clear, it was next to impossible to pay requisite attention to him and keep my eye glued to the score, which I had to do in order to read all the words. Plus, those words race by so fast that it’s very challenging to properly ennunciate them, the vocal range for each part goes both higher and lower than a comfortable tessitura (I attempted singing both tenor and bass), and there were many long held notes that I did not have enough of a breath span to execute. Luckily there were ample opportunities for breaks; Carmina has lots of solos, and those were admirably dispatched by seasoned professionals—baritone Peter Walker and soprano Mary Thorne, plus Cheah himself who made the notorious solo tenor aria, which is really a countertenor aria, seem like child’s play. As for when the rest of us had to sing, some parts turned out to be more than respectable—with enough people singing, my own frequent drop outs probably had little aural impact. (Although I could not help but listen to folks who were singing in my immediate vicinity and therefore I know I was not the only person having difficulties.) But ultimately we all managed to get through the whole piece without any train wrecks and everyone was euphoric afterwards. Virtuosity is not what a public sing is about; rather, it’s about having fun with a piece of music that you love.

And, strangely, it was fun. It was a thrill to be a part of something, even if that part was extremely imperfect. It also was a rare opportunity for me to experience an aspect of community music making that I have never partaken in. When I was younger, I played piano for singers as well as instrumentalists. I also sang in my high school chorus and, nine years ago, I got talked into participating in a chorus for a concert a friend put together. Nowadays, if I perform at all, it’s for a performance of my own music, but I usually prefer letting others who are more proficient on their instruments or with their voices take the stage. None of these performance activities is remotely like a public choral sing, since each involves an immense amount of rehearsal before exposing the music to the audience. In a public sing, the performer/audience dichotomy gets turned upside down. The audience, with some guidance, is responsible for its own performance which—despite the inevitable imperfections that result from sight reading a piece cold in a group with varied abilities—creates a truly uplifting experience.

Of course the more I thought about it, the more I tried to imagine how new music could be part of such a paradigm. Public choral singing experiences usually involve standard repertoire. The rest of the New York Choral Society’s Summer Sing series—they do this every week, who knew?—is devoted to works like the Verdi Requiem and the choral movement from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Carmina Burana, from 1936, is the sole piece of music on their schedule that was written less than a century ago. This, of course, is a practical matter. Standard repertoire pieces are in the public domain and are easily obtainable. For Carmina Burana, the NYCS had to buy or rent enough choral materials to provide to singers who didn’t have their own scores; this is not a small expense. But even if there was a bottomless budget for these things, in order to convince enough people to attend the event, most would have to already be familiar with a piece enough to want to participate in a run-through of it.

Or would they? I chose to participate in Carmina Burana because of a decades-long attachment to it. I don’t have as deep a personal attachment to the Verdi Requiem or Beethoven’s 9th. But I do have a meaningful relationship to the Penderecki St. Luke Passion (a much harder piece, granted), Meredith Monk’s Dolmen Music, and the John Cage number pieces for chorus. If a public sing of any of these were scheduled and I was in town, I’d be there. But would there be enough other people to make it viable? Or what about a public sing of Caroline Shaw’s 2013 Pultzer Prize-winning Partita? It would certainly be extremely timely. Better yet, might people show up to a public sing of completely new works, commissioned explicitly for such a presentation? It could be a viable way for members of the general public to participate in the actual first performances of pieces of music, which could be an extremely exciting prospect.

Singing Along

After six months of workshopping five new experimental orchestral works through public readings, collaborative feedback, and laboratory performances, the American Composers Orchestra presented them in a formal concert entitled “coLABoratory: Playing It Unsafe” at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall this past Friday evening. It was one of the most exciting ACO concerts I have attended in quite some time, in large part because of the added layers of vulnerability in most of the pieces.

Raymond J. Lustig’s Latency Canons involved off-stage musicians performing alongside the ones on-stage via a Google Hangout, exploiting the aesthetic possibilities of the medium’s requisite lag-time to create an interactive and very 21st-century simulacrum of Frippertronics or Terry Riley’s Time Lag Accumulator. Two works required the orchestra to be completely synchronized with accompanying video that was projected above them. Composer/filmmaker Troy Herion’s New York: A City Symphony, which pitted his fast-paced and often hysterically funny film about contemporary NYC life against similarly quirky music. Du Yun’s Slow Portraits, created in collaboration with videographer David Michalek, was something of its polar opposite—both film and music were hyper-slow. Our own Dan Visconti’s Glitchscape featured vintage Speak & Spell and Speak & Read toys in the orchestration. Judith Sainte Croix’s Vision V included passages of audience participation, albeit relatively circumscribed.

Based on conversations during the post-concert party, all of the composers were extremely pleased with the results, and to judge from the ecstatic applause—particularly following Troy Herion’s New York Symphony, which concluded the concert—so was the audience. Would that there could be this much innovation and excitement in many more orchestral performances! So, should more orchestral performances feature video, some kind of technological enhancement, or opportunities for the audience to share in performing the music? I’m not sure on any of those fronts. Many of the video components I have seen in other performances over the years don’t really enhance the musical experience and sometimes they are an annoying distraction. Technology tends to age poorly, and if it’s really cutting edge, more often than not the performance venues as well as the musicians seem uncomfortable or are ill-equipped to deal with the logistics that such elements require.
As for audience participation… I must confess that I find few things more irritating than being asked to sing along during a performance that I did not anticipate being a part of. It is truly embarrassing, not quite as bad as that scene in the film About a Boy, but still! And I have no problem with pitch, can sight read well, and have sung most of my life in a variety of contexts. Still, there’s something about the joining in with a group that reeks of “Kumbaya.” Maybe that’s why I have such an aversion to “Happy Birthday”.
Luckily Sainte Croix’s Vision V did not quite use the audience that way. Rather than sing a specific melody line in unison, the audience was asked to quietly annunciate three specific sounds either once or over and over again in any rhythmic pattern they desired; the fourth and final time around, audience members were allowed to freely combine the previous three sounds. Rather than creating a garish non-unison (which is what usually happens when large groups of people are asked to sing something together when not completely prepared to do so), the result was akin to the micropolyphony that is a hallmark of Ligeti’s middle period. Of course it worked because it was somewhat unexpected. If every concert included something along these lines, it would get tired pretty quickly. But that’s why each concert should offer a different new idea. Undoubtedly some of those new ideas will be on display whenever ACO mounts its next coLABoratory project.

Rehearsing the Audience

Judith Sainte Croix rehearses the audience during one of the public performance “laboratories” in the months leading up to the April 5 concert at Zankel. (Photo courtesy American Composers Orchestra.)

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.

More on Including and Excluding the Listening Class

Last week’s blog was a great example of reflexivity in the editorial process. I had originally used a non-word, disincluded, to describe listener participation in certain Eurocentric American performance traditions, which NMB’s editorial staff questioned my use of, since it is not technically a word. In my rush to get back to setting up my equipment at work, I acquiesced to replacing the non-word with a real one: “excluded,” but, missed the part of the phone conversation where the entry’s title would be changed from “Yet Another Night On The Town” (or something like that) to “Including vs. Excluding the Listener.” To be clear, I’m not complaining about the decision, which was a great improvement on the title I had tossed out. But I think the replacement word isn’t what I meant, that I probably should have taken Father Williams’ “bill-and-the-bones” approach and argued about how to describe negation of inclusion.

While not included in Webster, “disinclude” is a term used in common speech that has a slightly differing semiotic shading from “exclude.” The latter suggests a condition where something is prevented from occurring while the former suggests that something is expected to occur. So, in my thinking, the exclusion of audience participation means that measures have been taken to keep it from happening, but its disinclusion merely means that it was never taken up for consideration. In the time I’ve spent attending orchestra concerts and the like, I’ve never seen any set of rules banning audiences from applauding a passage of a violin concerto they might find particularly spectacular (although I have seen programmatic requests that applause be held until the end of a multi-movement piece), so the idea that audience participation is traditionally forbidden at orchestra concerts is not what I intended to convey, but rather that it’s not considered as essential to the music’s performance. But the new title has also shifted the blog’s direction from the intended discussion of how the jam session might be becoming supplanted by the academic institution as the principle proving ground of jazz pedagogy towards one about the necessity of audience participation in American music.

I see such a discussion as touching on the heart and soul of what American music is about. Thinking of Antonin Dvořák’s edict on what should be the basis for American music: slave songs, African-American spirituals, and Native American melodies, one sees the inclusion of audience participation, even if Dvořák never saw this salient feature as pertinent. When these musics were performed—whether in the field, the church, or the tribe—the audience was actively part of the music making. We might think of everyone as performing simultaneously, like at a Southern gospel service, but a round-robin approach was also employed, like in the Native American (peyote) Church. Like their ancestor, the ring shout, jam sessions have soloists featured against a group of accompanists, so both approaches occur at the same time. Ideally, a jam session is comprised of musicians who come to play, whether or not they actually do so, and the sense of communal music making is in full swing. Because the audience includes (sometimes exclusively) musicians who are there to play, there exists a potential for immediate critical and creative input that is absent from more Eurocentric musical traditions. Audience members might talk to a performer to offer support or suggest a musical direction to take. An audience member might become inspired and begin to play before it’s his or her turn even get up and replace one of the performers who are playing. There is a lot of laughing, sometimes yelling, and, occasionally, fights break out. And while this might sound like the audience isn’t listening to the music being played, rest assured that this isn’t the case. The focus of the jam session is the peer-to-peer interaction of best-effort music making between relatively inexperienced and more experienced performers.

Jam sessions exist primarily to service the imaginations of the musicians who attend them. This might be something that some people might find questionable or even improper, but consider that the social playing field that gave rise to the jam session was one that traditionally saw the culture of the jam session as comprised of less-than-human beings, as incapable of playing music of worth. The opportunities for artistic development and expression that these musicians were offered were none, they had to make their opportunities. Those who played professionally were often playing for dance bands that performed for audiences they would never know or associate with outside of the job. Society was segregated. Jam sessions were a place where these pros could demonstrate their playing skills without having to entertain an, at best, tacitly hostile audience. It was also a place where new artists could demonstrate their burgeoning skills so that they might become employed by these groups.

There’s a story about how tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins was playing at a jam session in Kansas City and became engaged in a cutting contest with the then relatively unknown Lester Young. The session went on so long that Hawkins nearly missed his next engagement with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. When Hawkins left Henderson to pursue a solo career, Henderson called for and hired Lester Young sight unseen. Young didn’t last in Henderson’s prestigious group because his sound was too “sweet” for Henderson (but not for Count Basie). But Young’s ability to hold Hawkins captive at a jam session opened the doors for a career that left an indelible mark on American music. At another session in the same city, a young alto saxophonist experimented with sets of alternate chord changes during his solo. The drummer, Jo Jones of the Count Basie Orchestra, couldn’t stand what he heard and is said to have taken one of his cymbals and thrown it at the feet of the soloist, a certain Charles Parker, Jr., to dissuade him from continuing, proof that the adage “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger” has some merit. These tales were told by people who attended these sessions. Recordings that were available at the time weren’t very long. A 78-rpm record only held around 3 minutes of music on each of its sides, so extended solos could only be heard at live concerts or jam sessions.

One can see how jam sessions could attract a non-musician audience in the same way that powwows attract non-Indian audiences who are appreciatively curious about an art flourishing primarily outside of mainstream culture. The inclusion of musicians at varying stages of artistic development is what makes the jam session a learning environment that existed—if one includes the root ring shout and Native American circle dance as part of the ancestry of American music—outside of the Eurocentric American academic community for several centuries. (Even if only considering the jam session culture of jazz music the period is one-hundred years old—the first recording of a jazz band was in 1917 and the first written use of the word was in 1912.) And although some American academic institutions offered a smattering of jazz concerts as part of their humanities programs since 1932 (1928 in Germany), it wasn’t until 1941 that the New School for Social Research offered courses in jazz history and 1947 that a degree in jazz performance was offered at the University of North Texas. (The Berklee College of Music, founded in 1945 as the Schillinger House of Music in Boston, didn’t grant a degree until 1966.) It wasn’t until the first jazz-focused summer camps were founded by Stan Kenton (in affiliation with Ken Morris, founder of the National Stage Band Camps) in 1959 that anything like an academic institution-style learning environment included the jam session as part of its curriculum. I’ll be teaching three courses in bass playing at Jazz CampWest this summer and am very interested in how jam sessions are treated there.

Now that jazz-studies programs are nearly ubiquitous in American academic institutions, my discussion of jam sessions includes a concern that institutional-based jazz-studies programs have the potential for disincluding the relatively experienced performer from their learning environment. This is part of a shift in how education is viewed and carried out in recent years. The idea is that expertise in a given field is unessential to teaching any part of that field. I wish I were exaggerating this, or that I could say that I’m merely paraphrasing someone’s interpretation of the situation, but I took a course in “effective” higher education that stressed this not only in the classroom, but in the course’s written hand-outs and published study materials. It is worth noting that non-performance-based courses offered in these programs can be and are often taught by instructors who are not jazz musicians and sometimes not musicians at all. While it is possible that one can teach a college level course in algebra without being a mathematician, I think I would not want to study composition from someone who doesn’t compose. It’s like letting bartenders with degrees in phys-ed who like collecting records run jam sessions. While they might know what they like, they probably don’t know much about playing music. There might be an overlap of interest between this bartender and the musicians who, after spending years studying and practicing, came in to show their best, but there’s no real affinity because they come to music with different goals and tools.

I would (and always have) studied improvisation with the best improvisers I could find. I also think this would hold true for anyone engaged in studying the plastic arts, but the current trend in education for making larger classes taught for less money disagrees. So, revisiting my last thought from last week, I think that this trend will ensure the necessity of the jam session as a proving ground and learning environment for emerging talent.