CONNECT - The Audience as artist

10 Questions for Christian Mason

›CONNECT – the audience as artist‹, such is the project’s title. The boundaries between artist and listener are blurred. What does that mean for your role as a composer? What element of the project interested you?

I am always interested in the question of what it means to listen, and how our way of listening changes if we are also involved in making the sound. The kind of experience available to us if we listen as »outsiders«, watching as professional musicians perform on a stage which also acts as a physical boundary – separating the ensemble and the audience – is completely different to the experience of being surrounded by the sound and also contributing to it. My intuition tells me that when we concentrate on making our own sound, we also (hopefully!) listen more carefully to the sounds that others are making around us. So I was attracted by the possibility that this project offered for starting to dissolve that boundary between players and listeners by inviting the entire audience to participate in making the sounds which define the nature of the piece.

Are you working with the four ensembles during the composition process? And if
so, how?

I have had contact with all four ensembles, visiting their halls, meeting their players and management, attending rehearsals and concerts, and it has been a real pleasure and inspiration to do so. At the early stages of the project we discussed how I might use workshops as part of the process of devising the piece. There were two key areas that I felt required experimentation and fine-tuning through the workshops: firstly, approaches to interaction and relationship between the audience and professional musicians; secondly, communication within the ensemble, given that many players will be playing off-stage in the midst of the audience. I have just had the first workshop in May, hosted by London Sinfonietta, testing the use of percussion cues for audience actions. In June I will visit Frankfurt for a second workshop with Ensemble Modern where I hope to continue my experiments with audience textures as well as working out how best to synchronise the off-stage »soloists« with the on-stage ensemble.

In addition to exchange with the ensembles, the main focus is on communication and I interaction with the audience. How is the audience involved in the stage action in your work?

Every member of the audience will be invited (not forced, of course) to participate in the piece. I have decided on five »audience sounds« which will be introduced gradually as the music evolves: tin foil, Baoding balls (Chinese stress balls with little bells inside), metal chains, glass bottles, harmonicas. Each sound will have a role in the unfolding form of the piece, and audience members will need to pay special attention to the ensemble percussionist, who will play different instruments and gestures to cue the start and stop of every audience sound. There will be no projections or visual cues, so very careful listening will be required at every moment. In addition, I hope to define textural processes in order to sculpt the density of the audience material. My hope is that the entire audience will come to feel like some kind of strange shimmering organism or forest-like environment.

How do you »prepare« the audience?

The audience preparation is relatively straightforward. Whenever the piece is being performed we will have an audience training workshop before the concert to teach specific instrumental techniques, gestures and musical processes to people who want to play harmonicas and, glass bottles. Tin foil, metal chains and Baoding balls will be given to everyone as they arrive at the concert. The technical explanations and cues for joining in with these instruments will be given at the start of the concert.

How much can the audience influence the work? What is the ratio between predetermined elements and those the audience may influence?

The musical elements are largely predetermined: where each sound should occur in the form, what type of gesture and intensity to use, will have a fixed point in the score and will be related to precise cues from the percussionist. But none of the actual details of the audience music are notated, so the way in which each audience plays the piece is likely to create quite a different overall sound on each occasion.
There are also other variables, for example, I am not specifying the pitches of the glass bottles and I expect there will be different bottles used for each event depending on the local beer/wine/water. So that will make a completely different sound each time, even though the bottles will always occur at the same point in the musical structure.

How do you deal with the factor of the unknown – the unpredictability of the audience – in your composition?

All of the audience sounds are intended to be made by large numbers of people at the same time, blending into a global sound. That means that no individual audience member has too much personal responsibility for the musical outcome. But at the same time, every contribution is vital to the overall quality and intensity of sound, like the dots of a Georges Seurat painting. I have also been careful to select sounds that won't make people feel self-conscious during the performance. I have noticed on other occasions that many people feel uncomfortable with singing or making vocal sounds. Maybe these sounds say too much about our personal identity, drawing attention to us as individuals? In any case, I don't think there is any need to feel embarrassed about waving a sheet of tin foil. And even if someone was to play at the wrong time, it wouldn't ruin the piece. Except during a few moments of carefully composed 'silence'!

What would happen if the audience refused to interact?

There is enough music written for the ensemble that there would still be something to listen to. But a vital layer of the piece would be lost and the overall idea wouldn't quite make sense. It would be something like a photograph of some birds, the sea and the sky with the sky edited out. We would lose the sense of perspective. That said, there's no such thing as silence, so even if they don't make the sounds that I have requested there might still be an interesting sense of space surrounding the ensemble music. But I hope this doesn't happen.

Your piece will be performed in four European cities in quick succession. Do you suspect that because of different cultural backgrounds and listening experiences, the audiences will also act and react differently?

That seems quite likely, but I'd rather wait and see what happens than try to predict ... Hopefully anyone who decides to come to the concert also wants to be there!

What do you expect of the performances?
Do your expectations differ from those you would have of a traditional concert?

Not really, apart from the need to explain the audience playing techniques and percussion cues at the start of the concert. My ideal concert is one where everybody is concentrating and focusing their attention on the moment of music they are in. You can feel it when it happens like that, and it's a wonderful sensation. I suppose most of the time the traditional concert tends to have more coughs and shuffling than that, and not such perfect concentration.
Hopefully if everyone is making sound as part of the piece anyway, then there will be no need to add coughs. But now it seems like I am making an invitation...

How important are new media for this project?

Not very important, except that maybe more people could hear about the opportunity to join in. And the more the merrier! But hopefully we can forget about Facebook for a few minutes during the concert...