Empty Minds

In the Artful Participation project, researchers observed and intervened in the orchestra philharmonie zuidnederland. Empty Minds was an experimental concert developed by philharmonie zuidnederland in which researchers closely participated as observers, to learn what it takes to do things differently in the orchestra, and to draw lessons for other experiments.

What does it take to experiment with audience participation? A researcher from the MCICM closely followed the experimental concert Empty Minds, part of the i-Classics series of philharmonie zuidnederland (organised in 2018). In the i-Classics series, the orchestra set up collaborations across arts disciplines to innovate its traditional ways of performing and the ways in which audiences participate in concerts, whilst at the same time trying to reach a broader and younger audience. The researcher interviewed the involved partners and observed during the set-up of the concerts, and during concert nights. What lessons did we learn?

Key lessons

  • When organising experimental, participatory concerts with artistic partners, artistic responsibilities are shared, which can challenge existing artistic hierarchies within the orchestra and between artistic partners
  • What matters artistically cannot be separated from the ways the performance is organised
  • The desirability of audience participation is not a given: it needs to be questioned and articulated throughout the process of organising a participatory concert

Empty Minds: Observing Participation in Practice

Tonight, philharmonie zuidnederland is not playing in a regular concert venue. Instead, the orchestra plays in the refurbished industrial building of Strijp S, Eindhoven, and tomorrow in pop music venue Complex in Maastricht. When I, as researcher and audience member, enter the Klokgebouw of Strijp S, I receive a yellow paper hat. Other people get a blue one. On a video screen above the entrance of the venue, a looped instruction video was played. As if we are watching safety instructions on board a plane, the video asked us to put the hats on our heads before we enter the performance space. I follow the instructions and enter the space. Musicians are already there. There are no chairs to sit on: not for us, nor for the orchestra. Instead, the musicians stand on low platforms, divided into small instrumental groups over the large, refurbished factory hall. As an audience member, you can walk around in between the musicians. The unfamiliarity of the situation triggers reactions: people laugh, make selfies with the coloured hats on, or look around curiously. The floor of the performance space is covered with an intricate web of blue lines, yellow dots, lists of instruments, and a grid of white tape. This visual pattern, audience members learn from the programme leaflet, is a visual representation of the score of one of the compositions that will be played: Empty Mind I (Fieldnotes Veerle Spronck, 11.10.2018).

On 11 and 12 October 2018, the i-Classics Empty Minds concerts took place. These concerts were part of the orchestra’s i-Classics series.

In 2014, philharmonie zuidnederland started its experimental i-Classics series, at the time still named Spicy Classics. The orchestra wanted to make a concert series for a younger audience and started programming one-hour concerts outside of the concert hall in collaboration with other, often young, artistic partners.

The i-Classics Empty Minds project was meant to increase the possibilities for the audience to participate during the concert. Philharmonie zuidnederland phrased the ideas behind the concerts as follows:

Experience live classical music in a completely new way! More than 50 musicians are following your movement through the concert venue, enabling you and the rest of the audience to reorder and shape the music being played. Feel the vibration of the strings, hear the breathing of the brass players and free your mind during i-Classics Empty Minds. Rather than leaning back you will become a part of a complete experience of music, fashion and video in collaboration with the South Netherlands Philharmonic, art collective playField, and FASHIONCLASH.

Program for Empty Minds

The two concerts took place in a pop music venue in Maastricht, and in a refurbished industrial building in Eindhoven. The orchestra collaborated with the Maastricht-based fashion collective FashionClash and the Flemish arts collective playfield, who have expertise in creating interactive theatre plays or installations in which they explore the boundaries between actors and spectators. Two new compositions were the musical basis of the concert: a composition by Dutch composer Anthony Fiumara called Desprez XL, and an orchestra-version of Wim Henderickx’s Empty Mind I (with recorder soloist Erik Bosgraaf). The composition had six parts and uses an alternative spatial set-up. The orchestra was not positioned on a central stage, but spread throughout the concert venue in smaller groups, with the conductor in the middle. This spatial layout became the starting point for playField:

The idea that we started out with, was that audience members would have an influence on the order in which the music was played. Empty Minds consists of six parts which can be played in any order. We wanted to trigger the audience to decide the order during the concert through their walking on the floor painting. (Interview playField)

By wearing hats with two different colours, yellow and blue, audience members would function as moving notes in the musical score that was painted on the floor. During the concert, a video camera would register the movements from above, and audience members could see what was going on in real-time on a large video screen on one side of the space. Via this screen, it would become visible to the conductor what part of the score the audience decided to play next. The audience members thus would be given a responsibility that is usually the conductor’s They would have a say in some of the artistic decisions taken during the concert.

The final concerts, however, did not run according to this original plan. The floor drawing was there. The real-time video was there. The hats were there. But the conductor decided on the order of the music. What had happened?

Empty Minds design

Lessons learnt

As the concert organisers tried to break with conventional concert rules, expertise had to be organised differently. Traditionally, the conductor is the one who makes the artistic decisions towards and during the concert. Here, however, this appeared more complex. Next to the composer and the recorder soloist (who also acted as conductors), FashionClash and playField brought their own expertise to the design of the concert experience. They had to negotiate which decisions were taken by whom.

Sharing artistic responsibilities in practice

In practice, this proved to be difficult. The tasks of playField and of the composer and the soloist could not be easily separated. Take for instance the spatial set-up during the concert. Henderickx’s composition implied a spatial set-up of the orchestra, playField designed a floor painting and had their plans for how the audience would contribute to the performance in this spatial set-up. The music ‘itself’ and what that music required as well as the role of the audience were not so simple to delineate.

In the negotiations about the possibilities to give an active role to the audience in directing the order of the music to be performed by the orchestra, the hierarchal pattern of conventional symphonic concerts was reproduced: the aesthetics of the performed work were thought to conflict with an active role for the audience. Perhaps it would distract from the music, the conductor/composer wondered.

During the preparation process, the authority and the artistic responsibility of the conductor eventually remained unchallenged. The question that proved too difficult to answer in practice, was if the audience could and should be thought of as external to the music, or as an aesthetically meaningful part of it. The initial idea that audience members would influence the order of the music through their movements in the performance space was therefore abolished.

Artful Participation researchers at event.

What matters artistically?

Although the hats did longer enable the audience to influence the order of the music performed during the concert, they remained a part of the concert. The hats could still invite audience members to experiment with different positions in space through their walking: audience members could walk freely and listen from various perspectives.

For the hats to trigger audience members to walk around and reflect on how that changed their experience of the music, it was important to establish a relationship between the floor painting and the hats. Here, the real-time video turned out to be key. Via the screens, audience members could actually see themselves move around. At least, that was the idea. Unfortunately, the cameras were not of high enough quality for visitors to track themselves during the concert.

Rather than an ‘extra’ material element added to the concert, the video camera turned out to be an essential part of the artistic concept. Throughout the process, however, its important remained ambiguous: it remained unclear whose responsibility the video cameras actually were, how the screen connected the different parts of the performance, and what (artistic) role they played during the concert.

The Empty Minds concert challenged the routinised ways of working of the orchestra in which the material setting is already in place, and it is clear upfront who is responsible for what. Some things remained the same (musicians need to see the conductor), but other things (the video camera) turn out to be core actors. They are not just details of separate elements. Instead, it becomes visible that the concert is constituted by a network of human, material, and technological actors. It is only through their interrelations that the concert situation can, or cannot, acquire artistic interest.

Performing for (Un)ruly Audiences

The spatial set-up of the concerts invited audiences to walk around, stand still, and choose a position close to the different instrumental sections of the orchestra as they liked. During the concerts, an interesting paradox emerged: when audience members actually ‘took’ the freedom that they were given during the experimental concert, the resulted behaviour was not necessarily planned or envisioned as ideal by the artistic team. In fact, many audience members did the opposite of what the artistic team had imagined: they tried to experience the experimental concert in a more traditional way.

As there were no instructions for the audience about their role, except for the video that told us to put on the paper hats, we had to figure out ourselves what to do in the midst of all the elements of the concert (from conductor to video screen and floor painting) and this caused confusion. One way to deal with this confusion was by repairing the situation and going into listening modes that are ‘normal’ during a concert of a symphonic orchestra, going back to ways of being an audience member that you are familiar with.

While the audience was invited to challenge traditional concert conventions, in practice many audience members used this freedom to reproduce traditional concert conventions where they could: they took off their hats that made them part of the installation, sat down, and went up to the balcony to hear the orchestra as a whole, rather than taking different positions amongst the musicians. They used their freedom to turn the innovative concert into a more traditional symphonic music concert situation. Observing this discrepancy between the imagined audience participation and the actual audience participation, it became clear the audience’s desires were assumed by the organisers, but never actively questioned throughout the process.


Nowadays, many orchestras offer innovative concert formats by experimenting with crossovers and collaborations with other art genres, or by using apps, visuals, or virtual reality (VR) to create a sensory spectacle of the concert. Doing such an innovative concert, asks for learning and reflection, first and foremost by the orchestra itself. The Empty Minds project challenged the intricate ways in which the South Netherlands Philharmonic usually balances its many tasks and aims.

In Empty Minds, the orchestra was trying to find a balance between changing the audience’s role in the concert, organising the concert successfully (both financially and practically) and safeguarding the artistic quality of the concert. The orchestra tried to safeguard this quality by implementing the safety nets that they usually have in place for regular concerts: (artistic) tasks need to be clearly delineated, time should be used efficiently, tickets should be sold, evaluations happen after the concert and are focused on the music. But these organisational routines do not work for an experimental concert such as Empty Minds: they did not allow participation to be done differently.

The desirability of a type of participation other than silent listening – whether artistically motivated or not – is not given, and needs to be articulated, negotiated, and performed in practice. Traditional conventions, rules and habits, knowledge and expertise, legitimations and criteria continue to structure the expectations and repertoires of action in practice. When this situation unfolds in real time, people fall back on pre-existing criteria, simply because there is nothing else in place, and no space for reflection left in the tightly organised machine.

To read more about audience participation from the perspective of a programmer, read about the Journey of the Programmer.


Do you want to read more about this experiment? It is described in more detail in the following academic articles:

Spronck, V., Peters, P., van de Werff, T. (2021) Empty Minds: Innovating Audience Participation in Symphonic Practice, Science as Culture, DOI: 10.1080/09505431.2021.1893681

Spronck, V. (forthcoming) “Squeaking and Grinding Orchestras: The practice of doing participation differently”. In: Listen Closely: Innovating Audience Participation in Symphonic Music, PhD dissertation, Maastricht University.