As a classical musician, composer and concert-goer, I often get a sense that something important is missing in the shows I attend. The music can be exquisite, the performers flawless, the venue charming, and yet I can still leave these concerts feeling lukewarm. What is this? Why do these events no longer speak or communicate with audiences? Maybe it’s the old-fashioned concert etiquette and distance established between the performers and listeners. Maybe it’s the fact that we hear the same pieces, “classics”, cycled through year after year by orchestras. Christopher Small, the author of Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening, suggests that part of being an active audience member is being aware of one’s surroundings, of everything that constitutes the act of making or being involved in music. How then can we stimulate such awareness and involvement?
Although by no means the answer to this dilemma, I have found a renewed sense of interest in going to concerts by exploring contemporary mixed-means works. The term, coined by Richard Kostelanetz, depicts performances that actively incorporate other presentational means such as sound and light, objects and scenery, and/or the movement of people and props, as well as film and electronics. Perhaps these multi-faceted performances might present a welcome alternative for audiences that are ready for something different, and are eager to truly engage in the creative experience.
Here are a few mixed-means masters that I believe have or are cutting through traditional concert formalities, and are connecting with audiences in exciting new ways…
1) Harry Partch (1901-1974)
Harry Partch stretched the envelope to include both the physical and visual aspects of performance. Partch was an eccentric and relatively unknown theorist, composer, instrument inventor, and performer from California. He lived an alternative life-style, often struggling with extreme poverty, and spending years at a time as a hobo. Partch took inspiration from non-western musical traditions and ancient rituals of magic, creating elaborate imaginative scenarios for his performance works.
He believed that to engage an audience, an artist must awaken in the viewer a sense of curiosity and wonder. To do so, Partch focused on what he called “corporeal music”: dramatic and eclectic performances that have the instruments and performers in full view of the audience. The audience is drawn into Partch’s unique works, due to the fact that the shapes and playing techniques of his instruments are so radically different from the average concert experience. His invented instruments can be appreciated both for their unique sound and visually striking character. Check out this video about Harry Partch’s music, which features performances using his instruments, interviews & explanations of his musical theories. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOHBqFevy0k)
2) John Cage (1912-1992)
The American avant-garde composer John Cage achieved his stature as perhaps one of the most influential composers of the 20th century for his aesthetic ideas and innovative use of sound. Deeply influenced by Eastern philosophy, Cage’s music explored the value of silence and chance procedures. Cage collaborated with many important artists from different disciplines, including pianist David Tudor, visual artist Robert Rauschenberg, video/performance artist Nam June Paik, and dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham.
Cage was very interested in incorporating the everyday into his performances. All sounds become part of the musical act of performance, including the coughing and shifting of audience members, the sound of sirens outside the concert venue, as well as the squeaks of the chairs and floorboards. He believed that “pieces are not boring, only the spectator is bored”, thus placing the responsibility in the audience’s hands, encouraging active participation in the creative act. Instead of approaching a concert rationally, judging its success or failure based on a critical judgment of the work, he proposed that an openness was needed in order to learn from the experience. I find that Cage’s music and writings have the power to make you rethink what it is you do expect from a concert, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing. Check out his 4’33’’ performed here by David Tudor. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HypmW4Yd7SY&feature=related)
Cage also explored the idea of art as an activity. Many of his scores resemble games in which the performer is able to choose his/her own path. By assigning time brackets to certain musical or theatrical activities in the score, Cage allows a certain indeterminacy in the execution of his ideas. I found a rather hilarious video of him performing Water Walk on a TV broadcast that is well worth the watch. The host and the audience’s reactions are a bit ridiculous, but it nevertheless shows Cage doing what he does best. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSulycqZH-U)
3) Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008)
While Cage remained at the forefront of the avant-garde scene in America, Mauricio Kagel occupied a similar position in Europe over the second half of the 20th century. Kagel is well known for his talents as a composer, filmmaker, playwright, and visual artist. Born in Argentina, Kagel left for Germany in 1957 where he delivered lectures, taught, and explored the electronic music studio in Cologne.
Kagel’s instrumental theatre requires musicians to perform sound with a presentational dramatic meaning. In his music, the performers must often speak and act, bringing a more theatrical and engaging nature to the performance. Often his pieces strive to critique the outdated aspects of artistic institutions. His opera Staatstheater (1967-70), is the most distinctly anti-institutional of his works and represents his attempt to revolutionize opera from the inside out.
What is most characteristic of Kagel’s music is his undeniable humor. As an audience member, it is fun to revel in his antics, discover the sonic results of unusual physical-musical gestures, and enjoy watching the performers really let loose. To get a taste of his wit and genius, watch this video of Oberlin students performing Dressur. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVNvNbzcnQc)
4) Meredith Monk (b.1942-)
Another more current artist, who is active in New York, is jack-of-all-trades Meredith Monk: composer, singer, dancer, filmmaker, performance artist, director and choreographer. As a solo vocalist, she has developed an outstanding repertoire of extended techniques and has performed around the world. In 1986, she founded The House, a company dedicated to interdisciplinary approaches of performance involving music, movement, film, and lighting amongst other things.
Movement is for Monk an essential and entirely natural part of all performance. Often taking advantage of workshop situations, Monk intuitively develops her pieces in rehearsal, rather than pre-notating a score. In an interview with William Duckworth, Monk described her experimentation in new genres as being motivated by wanting to offer to audiences “new ways of seeing, of hearing things that they might take for granted.” In this way, “when you leave, you might go out in the street and experience it in a new way because you’ve opened up certain kinds of perceptions or feelings in the concert.”
This video shows excerpts of her piece, Dolmen Music, for vocal sextet, cello, and percussion. The work is abstract, lacking a clearly distinguishable text, but explores the subtleties of vocal timbre, taking us through various emotions and textures. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MwnuNyOkB2Q&feature=related)
So these are just a few examples of artists working with mixed-means to rejuvenate the concert experience and draw in the audience in new ways. This music might not be for everyone, but it does present a few imaginative alternatives that can be admired, at the very least, for their pure outrageousness!