CONNECT – The Audience as Artist

10 Questions for Catherine Milliken

›CONNECT – The Audience as Artist‹ dissolves hierarchies between audience and performers, focusing particularly on the audience. The pan-European initiative enabled by the Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne began in 2016 as a cooperation between four leading contemporary music ensembles – Ensemble Modern, London Sinfonietta, Asko|Schönberg and Remix Ensemble – and first took place that year. For its third edition in 2021, Catherine Milliken was commissioned to write a new work. The Australian-born composer and oboist, once a founding member of Ensemble Modern, has been composing musical theatre works, instrumental and chamber music, radio plays, installations, theatre and film music since 1990. Her piece ›Night Shift‹, which takes Shakespeare’s ›Midsummer Night’s Dream‹ as its point of departure, playfully involves the audience, an amateur chorus and the instrumental ensemble. The world premiere will take place with Ensemble Modern on September 1, 2021 at Berlin’s Philharmonie as part of the Musikfest Berlin; after that it will be performed by the partner ensembles in London, Amsterdam and Porto as well as in 2022 with Ensemble Modern at the festival ›cresc... – Biennale für aktuelle Musik Frankfurt Rhein Main‹. Ensemble Modern has 10 questions for the composer regarding 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?

Looking at the turn of the 20th Century and the various Dadaist events which challenged the public’s perceptions, then jumping forward to the sixties with Augusto Boal’s exploration of theatre as a participatory space as well as to the work of open scoring and groups such as Cornelius Cardew’s ›Scratch Orchestra‹ we indeed find that the gradual dissolving of borders between interpreter and listener has been happening in almost all forms of performative arts. Inviting public to partake in various musical actions is still in some way a challenge to the states of either listening or performing music and to dissolving the line that traditionally divides them.
As a composer, I enjoy the challenge of creating together, in investigating musical outcomes together. This has meant employing and developing skills such as workshop leading, listening and tuning in to the imagination of others, sharing authorship and facilitating democratic relationships as well as the joy of devising various approaches and new formats.
I began with questions: How to shape participation in a way that seamlessly moved between states of listening and participating, that allowed all to be participators, creators, performers and listeners? How to create a concert piece as a work in itself that could take place in many different stages and contexts? How to create a piece that invited the joy of performing together? Above all, how to create a composition that was open-ended with windows for improvisation, for collaborative composition or unknown outcomes and yet still hold attention and focus by all?
The role of the artisans meeting to rehearse and perform a play in Shakespeare’s ›Midsummer Night’s Dream‹ is, historically, perhaps the first instance where the subject of performing art by laypersons became a focal point. Drawing on this play within a play and together with librettist Patrick Hahn, we had the idea for ›Night Shift‹ which would utilise the situation of a public rehearsal to develop a performance unique to each place and time or presentation. ›Night Shift‹ includes references to characters from ›Midsummer Night’s Dream‹ – such as the artisans, Queen Titania, Puck and the Fairie crowd. Taking part in and creating ›Night Shift‹ are the ensemble musicians, two soloists, the conductor, an amateur choir as well as the audience.

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

Knowing each ensemble beforehand and working with them is certainly a bonus as some of the tasks for musicians are improvisatory. It will be one of the main tasks in the rehearsals with the ensembles to discuss and rehearse these roles with the players. At the same time, the respective amateur choirs in each city will be workshopping and composing their own song with me.

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?

›Night Shift‹ takes place as a scripted rehearsal led by the conductor or musicians or audience members themselves – with intervention opportunities for everyone. As such the audience participation will span improvising with musical instruments and using voice as well as theatrical and creative writing interventions. Thus, the audience will at times align with the amateur choir, sometimes with the musicians, sometimes independently with an own role to play. The soloists and the conductor are both pivotal characters in joining the input of all participants as the work moves fluidly between the flavour of a workshop, a rehearsal and performance.

How do you »prepare« the audience?

In preparation, there will be a short introduction before the performance for the audience which will involve getting to know the instruments, songs or actions involved. Due to Covid restrictions, it has been difficult to foresee which sort of intervention may be allowable: May we use voices? May we distribute instruments and sound objects? May we move in the hall during the performance? Due to the flexibility of the score and the situation of the performance as a rehearsal, I am confident however that we will find a solution for all restrictions that may arise.

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?

The composition of such a piece as ›Night Shift‹ is exciting because of the challenge of facilitating active participation and creation as well as presenting a tough structured piece of music. As I mentioned before, its construction allows all partakers – musicians, soloists, choir, audience alike – to delve into the role of active listener and active interventionist both individually as in a group. So, in a continuous flow between states of activity or reflection all partakers are helping to shape and create the atmosphere and meaning of the moment.

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

Although we have a range of possible ways of intervention for all participators alike in ›Night Shift‹, it is important to respect and anticipate the different perceptions, feelings and reactions of the audience members. ›Night Shift‹ has been so conceived that audience members can elect to actively participate by agreeing to sit at seats where there has been an instrument placed or not. The audience members are of course also free to decide if they participate in other interventions – using voice or creating text or deciding the further course of the piece.

What would happen if the audience refused to interact?

It is every person’s right to decide to take part or not. This has been factored into the dramaturgy of ›Night Shift‹ as it contains moments of reflection, moments of possible actions. Whether listening or doing, both states denote participation as the performance is an imagined scripted performance by all.

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?

In this context the question is not only whether the intention is translatable but also if its form can be translated to suit each city. I tend to think yes! – which has to do with the all-round universality of Shakespeare’s original play as well as the universality of making sound and music and endeavouring to create together.

What do you expect of the performances?

The piece will develop as is directed or determined by the performers and audience members together in real time. I have hopes, that audience members and performers alike will find joy and magic in taking part in ›Night Shift‹.

How important is social media for this project?

In this project, social media offers the possibility to affect accessibility and the potential for connecting. We are still in the development phase, but I welcome the possibility of further action in the social media area in the context of the piece, either before or after the performance.