Audiences and Openness

Now here’s a contentious topic: the relationship between music and audiences. Cue all kinds of stereotyping, wild generalisations, radical rejections, stalwart traditionalism and utter confusion. I mentioned in my introductory post on openness that three things come to mind instantly at the mention of openness: open notation, open instrumentation and open form. Okay, that’s true for me and lots of people I know. However, open notation, open instrumentation and open form are mostly the concern of composers, performers and analysts. The majority of audiences probably couldn’t give a damn about these things. Audiences do, generally speaking, care about what it is they’re doing with their evening, what they’ve paid for and the experience they’re having. Musicians should be thoroughly concerned with this, too. After all, art is nothing without its audience.

It goes without saying that there are lots of different types of audience. Some are made up of specialists (in whatever area), some are loaded with sets of expectations, some are made up of a random cross-section of the general public, and so on. Each type of audience will react to the same performance in a different way. Much more crucially, every person will react to the same performance in their own way. One of the music industry’s worst sins is forgetting individual listeners and focussing instead on statistical masses of consumers. Commercially speaking this is basically unavoidable – it’s the way our economic system is set-up – but we don’t have to think only in commercial terms.

I’m going to pose lots of questions – implicitly if not explicitly. I’m not sure I have answers to them and, if I do, I’m not sure how long they’ll remain relevant. An audience (and an audience member) is a living breathing thing that’s not just connected to contemporary society but is contemporary society. Audiences and their needs change… constantly.

Opening-up to Openness in Music

Since putting the word ‘openness’ in my Twitter bio I’ve been asked on numerous occasions, online and in person, what I mean by this. In fairness, the idea’s been gathering steam in my compositional practice over the last couple of years, so I’ve been discussing the matter on the back of other mentions, too.

It turns out there’s a lot to say about openness, and it’s really not a new topic. As I sit here now Eco’s 50-year old tome The Open Work stares down at me from a high shelf – a book I really ought to re-read. I’m not going to squeeze all my thoughts on the subject into one blog post – that’d be silly. I’ll write a few of them over the coming months, probably years, especially in relation to individual projects as they take form. There are several in the offing that ought to generate some activity fairly promptly, so watch this space!

This post is a kind of personal introduction/contextualisation for the things I’ll post in future. There are lots of little bits-and-bobs I feel I ought to say that I can’t see fitting easily into posts of a more specific nature. So I’ll post them here, comfortable in the knowledge I’ll always be able to refer back to them at a later date!

Notation and Scoring Ideas (or: Dealing with One-‘Note’ Music)

My compositional approach has shifted in recent years. I use increasing amounts of open notation, open instrumentation and other such things now, which has given me cause to question what certain facets of music-making mean to me; chiefly the score, notation in general, approaches to performance, my relationship with performers, the whole business of rendering ideas, and so on. A short while ago I noticed a call for works with an unusual slant: the music had to be short and for one note only. The idea captivated me (in spite of my personal resolution not to write new works for open calls and competitions any more… ah well). On one hand the idea of music for one note is extremely limiting, but on the other it draws attention to the sheer potential within the concept of a single ‘note’. Undoubtedly, this has a lot to do with ‘note’ being so poorly defined; is a note a pitch, a dot on a page, a sound, a particular kind of tone… what? Most significantly the call made me think carefully about developing features of my work that I simply haven’t got round to scrutinising in any particularly useful way. What follows is, roughly speaking, the mental journey I’ve subsequently taken and, I hasten to add, not finished.

Some thoughts on open notation and late-stage collaboration

Anyone who’s followed this blog (or anyone in the wake of my tirade of shameless self-promotion over the last couple of weeks) will probably be aware that my newest work, Personal Space, receives its premiere this weekend. As you might imagine, the gears have been stepping-up as ‘the big day’ approaches and now we’re in the full throws of final preparations.

Two important things have come out of the final leg of this particular journey – things I will almost certainly have cause to expand on in the future. More than that, these are things I knew from the start would be significant, just not in the way they turned out to be. And I feel much richer for the experience.

Review: Workers Union Ensemble at LSO St Lukes and Michael Bonaventure's Automatronic Concert at St Laurence's, Catford

I had the chance this last weekend to see two very stimulating concerts of new music. Being closer to London these days certainly has its advantages.

On Saturday, the Workers Union Ensemble presented the culmination of their Constructing a Repertoire initiative. The ensemble is an unusual one: oboe, sax, piano, double bass and two percussionists. Not a lot of repertoire exists for that line-up, so the need to find new works is really quite pressing! The LSO Soundhub scheme together with support from the PRS Foundation has provided the backing needed for the Workers Union Ensemble to do just that.

Space for Music

The ever-decreasing space I’ve had for music

Lately I’ve been both fortunate and unfortunate in equal measure. I’ve taken up a new job – an exciting and stimulating job that has me working in the music industry full-time; I’ve managed to find myself a new home; I’m working on a commission from the London Sinfonietta for a solo double bass piece to be premiered at the Southbank Centre in December; and – the cherry on the cake – my partner will be over from Brazil for Christmas. Good times. On the other hand, the mayhem of moving across the country, having to buy white goods that have since spectacularly failed, and finding the people I need to contact aren’t available at useful times has devoured a significant portion of my life recently. Now I’m happy but exhausted, bereft of mental space, and fast approaching my commission deadline with very little to show for the time I’m supposed to have spent working on it. First world problems, I know. Nevertheless, this evening has been the first real opportunity in a month or so that I’ve had to collate my thoughts on the commission, to challenge myself, and to steer myself clear of writing something well-crafted-but-generic with only a couple of weeks to go.

I’ve decided to blog about the process for two reasons. First, I think more composers (and all creative artists) should be open about their creative processes, partly to share ideas and partly to undermine the idea of the genius-composer working secretively in their ivory tower – a view held by too many people (including composers). Secondly, I’ve been able to draw on a number of creative catalysts from a host of sources, almost none of which are related to dots-on-page musical matters.

Review: 'A Whispered Shout' (or Beer, Sandwiches & Experimental Music)

Last weekend (3 August) I had the pleasure of experiencing A Whispered Shout, described by its organiser as ‘an afternoon of contemporary and experimental music featuring a wide variety of different sounds and approaches’. Indeed! Part of my motivation for going was to catch-up with old friends and, I hoped, to meet some musicians in the flesh that I’d only had the chance to meet online in the past. Thankfully the whole day was a huge success on all fronts, especially when it came to the musical stimulation it offered, both aurally and… well, orally.

A B(l)ack Room in South London

I should begin by saying something about the venue. Matthew’sYard is a calm, airy, café-type space in the heart of Croydon built in the converted lower floor of a conference centre (at least that’s what I think it is). Away from the main area there’s a smaller, windowless room painted in black with a low stage running across the width of the space. There are a few stage lights scattered about, there’s a pokey sound engineer’s box and the leaning-post-of-choice was a wooden counter obviously designed to function as a bar should the need arise. It felt like the kind of place you’d go to watch your friend’s band play. You certainly wouldn’t pick it out as somewhere to hear anything ‘classical’. Which brings me to the first major success of the event: artistic neutrality. I mean that in the best way possible. So many experimental music concerts take place in non-standard spaces, or else take their cue from the traditional classical set-up hoping, I imagine, that the audience is more likely to revere the experimentalism if they’re coerced into watching it like a Beethoven performance. A Whispered Shout had no such baggage. Individual seats were set-out across the room, in vague rows but easily moved. There were no programmes or other such formalities. The room was spacious enough for a decent sound, but intimate enough to feel like you were really involved in every performance. And the space wasn’t so obviously wacky that it screamed ‘EXPERIMENTALISM’ like an obnoxious market seller desperately trying to flog his wares. Granted, it’s certainly the kind of space in which you might expect to hear laptop performances, and four artists on the billing were using laptops. That said, two of them sat to one side of the room, away from the stage entirely. In a really non-obvious way, everyone involved managed to subvert the loaded connotations of the most common performance set-ups, which (to my mind at least) helped the audience to relax and enter a neutral interpretative space. By being so comfortable – beers in-hand and sandwiches appearing from all directions – we were able to properly appreciate the artistic statements that were being shared. In short, I can’t think of a more perfect setting.