Audience Research at the Ultima Festival, Oslo

This post originally appeared on the Ulysses Network website.

I’m heading back from my final Ulysses audience research trip to the Ultima Festival in Oslo, Norway’s main annual contemporary music festival. I conducted the very last survey of the project at this installation by German composer Alexander Schubert. Since I’m aiming to explore the reception of different concert formats, I wanted to include at least one event that completely breaks with the standard concert setup. Schubert’s work Control provided ample opportunity to investigate this. Taking on themes of surveillance and manipulation, audience members were let into the installation in groups of four, wearing headsets and VR goggles. Nothing was projected onto the goggles, instead these were used to support a camera and to restrict the participants’ peripheral vision. Once inside, the participants received instructions over the headset from a controller who could view the footage from their participant’s camera. They were told to move through the space and, as far as possible, interact with the performers, who were distributed in different darkened rooms in the sprawling basement of the former Norwegian National Gallery. While the performers never spoke to the participants and also had their faces obscured with goggles, all sorts of different and strange interactions took place, from having to copy yoga-style positions in an eerily lit room to lying down in a gloomy tent with the instruction to close one’s eyes and relax (as happened to me).

In the second part, the participants became the people controlling, giving instructions to the next batch of audience members before emerging from the basement and becoming ‘observers’ – in a room upstairs, the footage from all four participants’ journeys was being relayed on live screens along with the audio from the controllers. It was also possible to buy an observer ticket and just watch the installation from this room, from which, as was probably Schubert’s intention, it would have been hard to tell who was really ‘performing’ and who just ‘participating’.

All in all, a provocative and unsettling work with multiple ways of engaging with it. I handed out the questionnaire to both participants and observers as they exited the venue. From this, I got 88 responses from the 100 audience members who attended across the two days the installation was open, 23 from observers and 65 from participants. The questionnaire had two questions that were asked in addition to the main set I’ve asked at every other survey. The first of these was aimed to investigate the immersive/interactive dimension to the piece and was differently phrased for participants and observers, asking participants whether they’d enjoyed being able to interact with the performers and being a part of the work and asking observers if they would have preferred to participate. At a first glance, the responses seem very mixed, as might be expected for a work that certainly does not shy away from pushing audience members’ comfort zones. On the whole, it looks like most observers wouldn’t have wanted to participate on the basis of what they saw of the work, though some acknowledged they may not have been able to judge this sufficiently (‘Observation does not really give you [an] impression about the piece’). A lot of participants did say that they enjoyed being active in the work (‘unpleasant in a good way’ was one comment on this), which speaks to the possible gains of a format like this one, but others seemed to have reacted negatively to this aspect of this work.

For the second extra question, I wanted to see if the participants would report their experience as being more memorable than the observers (by asking both groups to rate their agreement with the statement ‘I had a memorable experience at Control’). I’ll have to look at this properly once the data is typed up but it seems as if observers were indeed slightly less likely to call their experience memorable. The result of this question will be interesting in discussing further what audiences can get from participatory formats – do they necessarily make more of an impact?

Another aspect that came up a few times in responses was the amount of information available about the work prior to the event. The composer had specifically requested that little information about the piece be released in advance, which made for some false expectations about the work and format. One response mentions expecting that the performers would be playing instruments (I had thought this too!), but this was not the case. Another comment highlighted quite precisely the difficult balance in giving enough information about a piece vs. keeping an artwork’s mystery: ‘I am really sad I didn’t know more about the piece before I came. At the same time, it felt exciting to not know anything. Unfortunately, it felt more like a scary movie than a music piece.’

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#freebrahms: the STEGREIF.orchester at Radialsystem V

Berlin’s STEGREIF.orchester is a collective of 30 young classical musicians with an unusual mission. They compose new versions of classical symphonies and perform them without scores or a conductor, aiming to free them of their baggage and bring them up close to new audiences. Their recent #freebeethoven and #freeschubert projects infused Beethoven’s 4th and Schubert’s 9th symphonies with dance and improvisation, to much acclaim.

On Saturday evening, I caught a performance of their latest work, #freebrahms, a choreographed reimagining of Brahms’ Third Symphony in F major. After being freed firstly of our shoes, the audience entered the smoke-filled (and sweltering) main hall to find the group clustered in the centre of the room, meditatively humming a version of the opening harmonies of the symphony. We were invited to sit in the stands or find a place on the floor around the musicians.

What ensued was a set of 15-minute versions of each of the four movements. Brahms’ themes would swell up every now and then and immediately be used as material for improvisation in a dizzying range of styles: klezmer-tinged clarinet, jazz guitar, a wailing cello and vocal solo. The clarinet melody from the 2nd movement merged into an extended saxophone solo, a clever way of subtly ‘updating’ it. The musicians were almost constantly in motion (cellists and bassist included!), dispersing into the stands, throwing themselves on the floor for sections at a time, the percussionists wheeling around on small platforms. A theatrical cello solo ended in the player tearing and biting his bow hair and then snapping the wood in half.

I found a lot of the choreography effective and in some moments, it brought out the strange and experimental elements in Brahms’ score. For instance, the players began the third movement processing around the small central stage with clunky, zombie-robot movements, emphasising the peculiarity of Brahms’ stop-start waltz.

All of this culminated in a crazy, exhilarating fourth movement, in which Brahms’ Hungarian inflections went through the STEGREIF blender and came out as salsa, complete with conga drums and cowbell. Something happened that has most definitely not occurred at any previous performance of Brahms’ Third Symphony: people got up and danced. They danced, they clapped rhythms back, they cheered. It was infectious.

I’m definitely not a Brahms purist. I think a lot of classical music is pretty danceable and that this repertoire needs to be treated flexibly: it can and should be chopped up and reblended. It’s also helpful to remember that improvisation by performers was often a part of compositions up until roughly the late 18th century and that some composers pre-Brahms did think about how to play with the physical setup of the performance (e.g. the close of Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony, where the players are directed to leave the stage one by one).

But the right balance between enriching reinvention and watering something down is difficult to achieve. At times, STEGREIF’s imaginative performance risked diluting itself into ‘Brahms 3: The Musical’. The close of the first movement, for instance, was celebrated with a kind of ‘We Will Rock You’ bashing out of the main theme, supported exaggeratedly by electric guitar and drum kit. And while Brahms does bring back the opening harmonies at the end of the symphony, he doesn’t quite bring back the main theme like the STEGREIF arrangement did (albeit much more calmly than at the end of the first movement). Maybe less would have been more…

But hey, in many ways a symphony is just a collection of bangin’ tunes. So why not get to the point and present it like that? The STEGREIF performers played their version with such conviction, as if this is something they’d always been itching to do with this old piece of music. You can argue about whether Brahms had been appropriately liberated from tradition, but a dancing, clapping crowd of all ages testifies to one thing: it certainly felt freeing to experience STEGREIF’s performance. And maybe that’s the more important result.

 

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Audience Research at the Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music 2018

This post originally appeared on the Ulysses Network website

My most recent audience research trip took me to Darmstadt for this year’s Summer Course for New Music, one of the best-known and most established new music institutions in Europe. The Darmstadt Summer Course has been running since 1946 and its history and significance for the development of music have frequently been the subject of writings on 20th century music. It is also an institution that reflects a lot on its extensive history. In fact, just a couple of hours before the audience survey was handed out this concert by the Arditti Quartet, a discussion (following Georgina Born’s paper on ‘audiencing’) started up around the nature of the ‘Darmstadt audience’, how they could be encouraged to participate more actively and whether people from the local area do attend the Course’s events. Obviously, some of these questions overlap with mine. In a ‘Summer Course’ setting, where most events are by and intended for the course participants (i.e. composers, musicians and teachers), who is really the audience? Are these practitioners able to fully put themselves in the position of audience members at the course’s public concerts? Do interested members of local population attend and to what degree are they also musical experts?

Out of the 13 surveys I’m conducting across Europe, Darmstadt is most probably the setting with the largest number of new music professionals attending concerts. Since the questionnaire has been designed to capture the responses of audience members with any level of musical background and interest in contemporary classical music, I was concerned that the Darmstadt participants may not feel like the questions apply to them or would find it strange to be asked about their interest in new music in a context that assumes an expert interest in exactly this. But despite these concerns, the questionnaire was met with a strong response, 251 returned forms from the 350-400 audience members in attendance. The concert was the third in a trilogy of performances by the Arditti Quartet at this year’s Summer Course and the programme featured a solo cello piece by Brian Ferneyhough alongside three recent quartet works by Younghi Pagh-Paan, James Clarke and Ashley Fure. Fure’s ‘Anima’ for augmented string quartet  (augmented through mobile transducers that the players explore the surface of their instruments with) seemed to be the most divisive piece on the programme. Some enthusiastically named it as their highlight (‘the electronic mix was great, very focused and intense!’) whereas others found the high frequencies and the intensity of the feedback unpleasant and difficult to listen to.

A number of respondents felt there needed to be more contrast in musical style in the programme (‘everything sounded kind of the same’) and that it should have overall been shorter. Others asked for more context to be provided, with introductory talks from composers and more detailed programme notes being two suggestions for ways of offering this. An interesting comment on the concert format was left by one audience member, who found that the ‘traditional concert hall setup & presentation style feels extremely antiquated for this music – which brings the music down.’ Picking up on the audience participation debate that took place earlier that day, it seems like audiences do often want more opportunities to feel engaged and involved through new formats; in fact, one answer called for there to be surveys after every Darmstadt concert!

As for those who were among the minority of locals attending, I’ll have to get further into the data to see in how far their experience contrasts those of the course participants. Unfortunately, I was not able to offer German questionnaires as it would have been difficult distribute them easily to those who needed them (this was also an issue at Flagey), but at first glance, it does seem that a small number did answer the survey despite this. Some Summer Course participants referenced feeling new at Darmstadt (‘I am new to “New Music” and really enjoyed my time here’), which points to the existence of many possible ‘Darmstadt audiences’, with varying backgrounds and experiences.

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Photos: Kristof Lemp

‘Songs of Wars I Have Seen’ at Time of Music 2018

I attended a couple of concerts at this year’s Time of Music yesterday evening, Finland’s only annual festival dedicated to contemporary classical music. It takes place in Viitasaari, a small town in Central Finland, which provides a scenic backdrop of lakes and pine forests to the week of concerts, workshops and talks.

The main event of the festival’s Saturday night programme was a production of Heiner Goebbels’ Songs of Wars I Have Seen (2007), an hour-long ‘staged concert’ for two ensembles and electronics. This format is the result of Goebbels’ experience as both a composer and theatre director and features lighting and narration around the music. The fifth of Goebbels’ work in this style, Songs of Wars I Have Seen is based around extracts from Gertrude Stein’s WW2 memoir Wars I Have Seen, which are recited by the female members of the ensembles. That one of the two ensembles is typically a Baroque specialist group, in order to meet the demands of the instrumentation, adds yet another layer to the work; in this performance, members of the International Contemporary Ensemble and the Finnish Baroque Orchestra took on these roles.

So, music, lighting, narration, modern and period instruments and electronics… it may appear cluttered. But the result is remarkably unfussy and direct. Partly this is due to the dry, observational style of Stein’s texts, which cut through the instrumental textures and deliver sharp points of focus, whether commenting on Shakespeare, the taste of honey during rationing or on national differences in wartime radio addresses. Another recurring source of focus comes from the snippets of Baroque material, borrowed from Matthew Locke’s 1667 incidental music for ‘The Tempest’. These surfaced every now and then, providing a musical echo of Stein’s reflections on the theme of war in Shakespeare’s plays. Around these 17th-century interjections, the musical material remained unselfconsciously omnivorous, with shades of jazz and military marches alongside angular, uneasy passages, such as the underscore to Stein’s comparisons between the injustices of the World Wars and Medieval lawlessness.

The interplay between text, sound and the staging was simple and well-conceived. At times, the disconnect between everyday life and the horror of war conveyed in Stein’s texts seemed to be underlined by the gendered separation of the musicians. The male players were arranged at the back (and were more often in darkness) with the female musicians/narrators seated front and centre, cosily surrounded by lamps in a kind of 1940s living room ‘set’. This physical separation hinted at the distance between women’s and men’s lived experiences of the war. The ‘set’ also served to transform the sports hall venue (the Viitasaari Arena) into a real performance space, drawing the audience into the work right until the glow of the lamps finally dimmed down.

Click here for an Audience Research version of this post on the Ulysses Network website!

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Photo: Santtu Paananen

Turning audiences into performers: the Divertimento Ensemble at the Fabbrica del Vapore, Milan

Milan’s Ensemble Divertimento ranks as one of Italy’s premier new music institutions, having developed close connections to the city’s composers and beyond over an impressive 41-year lifespan. Yesterday evening, I attended a concert that displayed a distinctive feature of the ensemble’s work, its commitment to bringing new music to a broader audience.

The central work on yesterday’s programme was Gabriele Manca’s Lettres comme á l’envers (‘Like letters in reverse’), a new composition for soprano, ensemble and amateur choir based on a text by Algerian writer Rachid Boudjedra. Founded last year, the choir in question were the ‘New Voices of the Divertimento Ensemble’, roughly 40 singers with little to no musical training. While some of them had previously attended Divertimento concerts, many were new to the field of contemporary music, hearing about the project through local media and word of mouth. I chatted to a few members at their Monday night rehearsal, all of whom had found performing a new work challenging but very rewarding. The group seemed to have built a close-knit community around this music, an inspiring result.

The work itself took up the theme of migration, not with a positive message of inclusivity, but rather through a poignant exploration of disorientation, displacement and host nation hostility. Manca dedicated the work ‘to all those women, men and children who after endless wanderings reach only our distance’. This feeling of conflict and confusion was subtly translated into sound. Manca’s opening passage carried a strong sense of agitation via nervous key-clacking in the woodwind and a rumbling chant performed by the male voices. A persistent whining accordion note added further tension (and appropriately, some noticeable confusion for the audience over where it was coming from). In a later section, shrieks and squeals from the soprano (Beatrice Binda, who also performed a solo work by Manca earlier in the evening) gathered into a eruption of angry responses from the full choir: a brutal, effective climax.

The remaining ensemble works on the programme complemented the darkly toned soundworld of ’Lettres comme…’. Claudio Ambrosini’s Grande fratello (‘Big Brother’) for cello and bass clarinet featured veering microtonal slides and a wailing, sombre clarinet sound. Vittorio Montalti’s Sotteraneo (‘Subterranean’) had a striking forward motion, alternating brighter passages with growling double bass and squelching electronics. Rebecca Saunders’ Fury II fitted seamlessly into this line-up of brooding works, drawing together a range of pulsating and percussive dark timbres.

Click here for the Audience Research version of this post!

Photos: Giovanni Daniotti

Of Sounds in Space: Alvin Lucier at ‘The Long Now’ (MaerzMusik ’17)

This essay was written last year, the event took place at the Kraftwerk Berlin, 25-26th March 2017. 

In 1969, Alvin Lucier sat down in a room. He recorded himself reciting a short text, at once his new work’s performance instructions and its main content: ‘I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice…’. This recording is replayed into the room repeatedly and each time, it is simultaneously re-recorded, ‘until the resonant frequencies of the room’ mount up on the tape, removing the detail of Lucier’s recorded speech. With this procedural, almost clinical act, Lucier uniquely meshed together the worlds of electroacoustic music and performance art. It makes an unremarkable action remarkable, illuminating the rich resonances and sonic opportunities that exist in the everyday world. Various recorded versions of I am sitting in a room have been made since its conception, but these are somewhat flat, stale artefacts, simple ‘postcards’, as John Cage might refer to them. It thrives on live performance.

This year’s edition of Berlin’s Maerzmusik festival had an Alvin Lucier focus, featuring performances of his works and a screening of No Ideas but in Things, a 2012 documentary about the American sound artist. The culmination of this was a performance of I am sitting in a room by Lucier himself as part of the festival’s trademark ‘Long Now’ event, a marathon concert turned hipster pyjama party that runs from sunset on Saturday through to midnight on Sunday. As in past years, it took place at the Kraftwerk Berlin. A former power station converted to a vast events space in the early 2000s, it is one of many such venues in a city in love with exposing concrete walls and reclaiming industrial settings.

At midnight on the Saturday, Lucier seated himself in this altogether different room, now the same one that I happened to be in. He recorded the script stutter-free, unlike in earlier versions, and the repetitions began. We listened as Lucier’s recorded voice decayed gradually into a sweet hum, the undulating remnants of his speech melody pulsating in the air. The cavernous space proved an interesting site for such experiments in resonance, adding thick layers of itself to every rendition. I became acutely aware of the room’s impact on the sound, its active role in the performance. Eventually, we arrived at a shapeless singing, void of delineation.

Lucier is often incorrectly pegged as a minimalist. While works like I am sitting in a room might be low on prescribed material, their dimensions are epic. This lack of specification opens up gulfs of possibility: for following processes into their maximal decay, for being maximally mindful. At a live performance to a large audience, I am sitting in a room’s scoring swells to include everyone present, their every cough, twitch and scuffle feeding into the distortion.

All good things have to come to an end; in this case, it was disappointingly only after 30 minutes. Recordings of I am sitting in a room tend to drift on beyond the 45-minute mark and it seemed bit of an affront to the work’s sense of timelessness to restrict to this degree. Not that everyone was so entranced, the visuals of the performance underwhelmed some audience members: ‘there was this old guy and he just sat there’, my neighbour later recounted to a friend returning from the bar. Well…yes and no.

I decided to pass on the power plant sleepover and returned the following day for a performance of Lucier’s Vespers. This lesser-known 1968 piece originated from his interest in the phenomenon of echolocation. A group of performers are blind-folded and equipped with echolocator devices called Sondols, which produce clicks in patterns controllable by the players. By aiming the Sondols at the surfaces around themselves and listening to the quality of the returning echoes, the players can locate themselves and manoeuvre around obstacles. The work often ends in them meeting at a central point, as occurred at the Kraftwerk. Not that Lucier instructs this; the ‘poet of electronic music’, as Pauline Oliveros aptly described him, simply encourages performers to ‘pay their respects to all living creatures who inhabit dark places’. The audience can join them in this act and trace the clicks and echoes themselves or just observe the unfolding of a bizarre game. In the busy Kraftwerk, Vespers functioned as a gentle provocation, the performers dodging campbeds and dozing people in their quest for acoustic information.

Around the Lucier pieces, the Long Now’s curation felt unfocused, more concerned with filling time rather than exploring it. Live electronic ambient acts dominated the programme; in some ways, this slowburning style fitted the hazy, meditative atmosphere that the Long Now aims for (the programme encourages you to ‘indulge’ in its ‘chronosphere’), but it mostly felt lacking in contour, threatening to prepare you for sleep a little too early on into the thirty-hour event.

When the Long Now’s curators did set up real contrasts in repertoire, these allowed for unexpected echoes between musical times and styles. On the Saturday night, I am sitting in a room was followed by the Dutch vocal group Graindelavoix performing early Renaissance polyphony by Orlando di Lasso, Josquin Desprez and others. Their works, like Lucier’s, were designed in a manner sensitive to physical space, the range of vocal textures chosen to suit the nature of the chapels and cathedrals these composers wrote for. It connected two seemingly disparate points in the centuries of thinking about sounds in space that humans have done, in a multitude of different rooms.

 

Tales from Estonia: the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir at Flagey, Brussels

This ‘Tales from Estonia’ evening in Brussels marked the close of Flagey’s Arvo Pärt weekend, jointly a celebration of Pärt’s music and of the 100th anniversary of Estonian independence. It was my second time hearing the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir showcasing works by Estonian composers live; last year, I conducted an audience survey at their Estonian Music Days performance in Tallinn.

We opened with Ülo Krigul’s Water Is (2015), a rustling reflection on the meeting of land and water with a text drawn from the sound poetry of Ilmar Laaban. The choir’s sustained lines were freely improvised around gong notes that emerged from an atmospheric phonograph accompaniment.  From this deeply meditative beginning, the choir moved on to a selection of four Arvo Pärt works: his 1989 Magnificat setting (in tintinnabuli style), Zwei Beter (1998), his Nunc dimittis from 2001 and Dopo la vittoria (1996/8). I’m not a huge Pärt fan but I savoured the choir’s skill in making this hushed music rise, soar and slip back to silence. Dopo la vittoria featured a number of bright solo passages that were performed with precision and clarity.

Estonia’s younger generation of composers was represented by Liisa Hirsch, who gave the Belgian premiere of her work Lines for choir and electronics. The piece’s tight, microtonal surface was intriguing but I found the relationship of the electronics to the voices unclear, which became a little distracting. The final part of the programme offered some (much-needed) contrast in Veljo Tormis’ compositions. Tormis’ wide-ranging style draws heavily on Estonian-Finnish folklore and musical traditions, representing a very different strand of Estonian choral music to Pärt’s output. The choir performed his St John’s Day Songs (1967) and Curse Upon Iron (1972). This latter piece glowed with a raw energy, propelled forward by shamanic drum. Have a listen to more from these composers below and check out the audience research version of this post!