Engaging audiences in new music

On the 5th May 2019, Maja Palser and I co-curated MOVE|MEANT, a performance and installation platform for multidisciplinary and collaborative performance (held in the Stained Glass Centre). The event was initially an opportunity for us to showcase and record pieces for our respective PhDs, but I believe it evolved into something more: a joint statement on the direction we think new music performance should take.

The layout of the space was very deliberate. There were a couple of pews at the back for people who needed to sit or take a break, but the rest stood, or sat on the floor, free to move about as the pleased (or even come and go whenever they wanted to). The audience gathered around the front of the stage (except for the final piece) – perhaps a round would have been more desirable, but this is an idea for a different event in a different space. We also decided not to include programme notes, hoping that the music would speak for itself, though this was met with mixed reception.

The programme opened with Andrew Bolton and Maja Palser’s Linear Expansion, a combination of art/video projections, and ambisonic, electronic music. With two screens perpendicular to each other, and 8 speakers creating a highly immersive experience, the audience were free to wander around, converse with each other, and even play with the projections by casting silhouettes on the screens.

Next on the programme, and beginning the ‘performance’ section was a one person version of my 2017 piece Murphy vs Mr Endon, a retelling of a chess game devised by Samuel Beckett for his debut novel Murphy. It was a fun experiencing relearning the chess game (and practicing the comical asides), and I hope that I engaged the audience with a contemporary story telling; but what excited me the most was that people physically engaged with the chess board. It was left out during the installation, and the audience, unprompted, because to play games on it, completely unprompted. Although the board was ostensibly a prop for a performance, it took on a new dimension as an installation in itself.

Vanessa Grasse then performed our collaborative piece Dance Curves. Both of us created an individual performance based on a series of pictures by Kandinsky, brought together in a single performance. But when we began to plan the performance in the space, we started to think of ways to draw the audience in. The end of the first piece, and the beginning of the second moved behind one of the screens. The audience, who had been focussed on the main performance area, had to move to the side to see the performance – for me, their movement engaged with the piece as much as that of any of the performers. The embodied performance linked with an embodied audience. The third piece began more abruptly, with Vanessa starting at the back of the audience, seemingly taking the audience by surprise. She interacted physically with the audience as she made her way to the main stage.

SAMO© SHIT SONGS (performed by Ella Taylor) involved a more literal degree of interaction between performer and audience, but one which I hope was no less effective. At one part the audience were directly addressed, and helped shape the order that some gestures were played. This performance also garnered the most laughs I have ever received for one of my pieces (a fabulous result, though I hope that the audience grasped the darker implications behind the text).

The performance section concluded with a collaboration between Morag Galloway and Charlotte Watson: Should or Want?. As the duo danced and played their instruments on a red carpet, the audience gathered around them in a circle. The experience was an appropriately intimate experience, as Morag and Charlotte explored their connection to expectation, shame, guilt, and vulnerability. We then restarted the installation as people gradually left, and we began to pack up.

For me, the most delightful part of the whole experience were the audience. I am grateful to everyone from the department who came, and even more so to the people who came in off the street. Some wandered in during rehearsals and asked what was happening. Some came in, and returned later. And some non-musicians came and stayed for the entire 2 hour concert. For me, this is indisputable proof that new music can reach an audience outside of institutions.

One can easily allow a new music performance to become ‘academic’: a sedentary audience, sitting in darkness, spatially and emotionally separated from the performers. This is the way I have experienced music (and theatre, and dance) in almost every concert. Even why I try to eke out some reaction from the audience in my performances (usually laughter), the most I have ever achieved before SAMO© was a small titter here and there. I feel that in some way new music audiences are repressed – the history of avant-garde music is certainly told as a progression of unemotional, white, cis male intellectuals. Perhaps it’s the performance spaces – being trapped in one seat for an hour makes me feel anxious and claustrophobic, and sucks the joy out of what I’m experiencing. I suspect the solution is in addressing both of these problems: undermining our culture of analytical listening, and presenting works in a way that links performers and audience both physically and experientially.

In this, I also see a way to bring in new audiences; non-academic audiences. New music is the music of our time. It is performance shaped equally by its creators and audience, and if presented in the right way (without elitism, without gate-keeping, without pretence) it can reach anyone with an open mind.

“No artist is ahead of his time. He is the time. It is just that others are behind the time.” (Martha Graham)

P.S. I’d like to say a special thank you to the Stained Glass Centre for allowing us to use the building, and Lynette Quek, who managed all the tech, and without who this performance could not have taken place.

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