CONNECT – The Audience as Artist

10 Questions for Philip Venables and Osar Bianchi

The audience as artist? ›CONNECT‹ turns the audience into an essential part of the musical action; hierarchies between audience and performers are questioned and dissolved. The pan-European initiative CONNECT, enabled by the Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne, was initiated and first implemented in 2016 as a cooperation between four leading contemporary music ensembles – Ensemble Modern, London Sinfonietta, Asko | Schönberg and Remix Ensemble. In 2018, for the project’s second edition, works were commissioned from the British composer Philip Venables and the Italian-Swiss composer Oscar Bianchi. In Frankfurt, the interactive commissioned compositions will be performed by Ensemble Modern as German resp. world premieres at the Frankfurt LAB on April 22, 2018. While Philip Venables turns the audience into candidates of a TV show and countermands traditional gender roles with his politically charged piece ›The Gender Agenda‹, Oscar Bianchi includes the audience among the sound producers for his piece. Ensemble Modern asked the two composers ten questions about their approach to these commissions, audience participation and their expectations of this extraordinary project.

›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, and how did you approach your commission?

Venables: My approach has been to think of the tagline as »the audience as subject« rather than »artist«. l've long been a fan of devised theatre that interacts with the audience, making theatre using members of the audience as players in the drama. l'm also very interested in politically engaged music/theatre, so I bring elements from both areas together here. I want to know what the audience thinks about the issue of gender in today's society, and make a fun, engaging, interactive piece out of it.

Bianchi: I have recently worked, among other projects, on musical theatre works involving not only professional musicians (e.g. dancers or actors). Here l have been exposed to the necessity of requiring »non-professionals« to produce sounds and music content which had to be both valuable (in keeping with my own standards as a contemporary composer) and dramaturgically worthy. Thus, the project ›connect‹ came exactly at a moment when I would like to further explore and redefine my role as a composer – within such performative spaces in which the protagonists producing sound are not only professional musicians, but also the general audience – and in turn being inspired by it.

Are you working with the four ensembles during the composition process? And if so, how?
V: At the moment l've mainly been working with the London Sinfonietta to nail down the technical side of the project. I hope soon to be working in collaboration with the »hosts« for each ensemble, so that we can create texts that suit them. Each host should have enough room to bring their own personality and humour to the piece.

B: Yes, definitely. Although all four ensembles ultimately perform the same piece, several factors will make it a very different experience. It is not irrelevant in this context that the locations will be very different: from »black boxes« (Frankfurt Lab) via hybrid spaces (Muziekgebouw Amsterdam) to traditional concert halls (Casa da Musica, Porto). Each ensemble has in fact its own way of approaching special projects like this. One ensemble, for instance, proposed to work with a visual artist in order to put further emphasis on the visual and material elements of such a performance.

In addition to exchange with the ensembles, the main focus is on communication and interaction with the audience. How is the audience involved in the stage action in your work?
V: ›The Gender Agenda‹ is essentially a TV game show or »talk show«. So we will be inviting members of the audience to participate in activities, quizzes, or interviews on stage. We might also do some voxpop with the audience in their seats. We will also involve a »sprechchor« of volunteers, which will have a special role during the performance in reaching out to the audience and getting it to participate.

B: In order to avoid giving the audience any kind of ornamental function, I decided to make the audience itself the centrepiece of the performance. Both musical content and structures will be the audience’s responsibility at times. Together with the musicians, the audience will also be physically part of a larger body of performers which will articulate different phases of the event, so that the two main instances (musicians and audience members) will be part of each other’s universe, both through the means of »triggering« musical material and by articulating such material, whether alone, as an individual group or together.

How do you »prepare« the audience?
V: Before the performance we will have some workshops with the sprechchor volunteers. During these we will rehearse the sprechchor part in the music, and we will also workshop some volunteers on techniques to recruit audience members for various activities during the show. We will also have an audience warm-up with the host, just like a warm-up for a TV show in the studio.

B: Within the pre-performance workshops, the audience will have the chance to learn and practice different ways of making music with the ensemble: from using the voice (not in a strictly vocal sense) to playing with everyday objects or »fooling around« with recorder heads. Besides practicing and preparing the piece, we will share with the audience that music-making is, in fact, much more than dealing with pitches and dynamics, but a performative act, a life dimension that occasionally moves from tactile experience to »inward« dimensions, involving strength, rootedness as well as humour or lightness.

How much can the audience influence the work [before and during the performance]? What is the ratio between predetermined elements and those the audience may influence?
V: This will be much like a TV talk show too, in that the framework of the piece/game show is fixed in advance, but the content – what is discussed, what opinions emerge, etc – will very much come from the audience. The musical material will be relatively fixed during the show, but we will use live video feeds which will show the audience as they are in the room on the night – again, just like a TV show.

B: l'm working on a compositional and formal model that aims to embrace and celebrate all the protagonists, audience and ensemble. Throughout a quasi-continuous performance, Ensemble musicians will be also part of the audience in performing what the audience has been asked to, while punctually »emancipating« towards more instrumental and/or individual play, both cross-fading the audience and fully emancipated from it. This way both the sound material, whose origin is often to be found in the audience's doings (or audience and ensemble playing the same material), and the formal apparatus will be organically interwoven with instrumental play and ensemble performance.

How do you deal with the factor of the unknown – the unpredictability of the audience – in your composition?
V: I think the unknown element is the most exciting part of it. You never know how a particular audience member is going to react to a given question or task: sometimes the reaction might not be that interesting, sometimes it might be very entertaining or surprising. The exciting part is that it is live, it is unknown, and everyone watching knows that. lt really increases the tension and expectation in the audience during the piece, which is really exciting to watch.

B: Unpredictability and the standard definition of a musical score form somewhat of an antithesis. l'm therefore working on a notational system that will take all of this into account. Some parts will be notated as they would be in a script, e.g. for a play.

What would happen if the audience refused to interact?
V: We will have strategies to make sure that we can get some interaction out of the audience, and a lot of it is to do with how we encourage the audience to come up on stage, etc. In this area I am consulting with Sarah Thom from the excellent Anglo-German theatre company Gobsquad, who are experts in working with audiences and making interactive pieces.

B: There would be no piece, this work being based on the participation of the audience.

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?
V: Yes, I expect so, to some extent. I think this really depends on exactly what we decide on for the final set of questions or tasks for the audience. lt will also depend somewhat on the host person for each performance, since their manner and style will very much set the tone of the performances. We hope to have hosts with lots of energy and humour to bring to the stage.

B: Absolutely, I expect that what in one country might seem hilarious might be perceived as hideous in others, and vice versa. But that's the interesting part of it, isn't it?

What do you expect of the performances? Do your expectations differ from those you would have of a traditional concert?
V: No, I think my expectations are similar to my more conventional work. I have always been seeking to make my work engaging, gripping, full of suspense – whether it is interactive or not. In some ways, aII music should be »engaging« to the audience, otherwise how does it communicate? My goal for each piece is that I would like the audience to be involved in the drama of the piece.

B: I certainly wish to experience something on the order of the unexpected, but mostly within the realm of energies and interactions. A vivid experience, yes, but also deliberately chaotic, joyous (possibly) and hopefully very lively.

How important are new media for this project?
V: Social media doesn't play a direct role in this piece, but we may use some historic social media as data sources for the content of the piece. I hope that people are sufficiently entertained and provoked by the piece that they want to tweet about it during, or afterwards, of course!

B: As important as they can be in order to share and broadcast how playful and liberating it is to make music today.