In the Artful Participation project, researchers observed and intervened in the orchestra philharmonie zuidnederland. Mahler am Tisch was one out of four experiments that the researchers designed together with musicians and staff of philharmonie zuidnederland.
What role does the idea of the audience play in rehearsals? How to deviate from rehearsal and performance routines? These were the key questions of the experiment Mahler am Tisch. Together with researchers, musicians of philharmonie zuidnederland collaborated with amateur musicians in three ensembles. The goal: adapting symphonic music of Gustav Mahler to perform it at local cafés in Maastricht (the Netherlands) where they played “am Tisch” – around the table. The experiment Mahler am Tisch explored the issue of audience participation from a musician’s perspective and explicates what it takes for professional orchestral musicians to rehearse and perform to imagined and emergent audiences.
The beautiful rough-wood floors are scattered with peanut shells. The ceiling houses broken instruments, I see a euphonium and some horns, and the wall behind the band sports a bright red car. Strange, I like it. We’d moved the tables back from that corner to make space for the musicians, which looked like a tough job at first, with the huge crowd that’s here tonight. I see Jose and Eva moving through the crowd, holding their violins over their heads, pushing through the lines of the newly-arrived-by-the-door and the newly-awaiting-drinks-at-the-bar. It’s nice to see their faces and instruments move through the crowd, moving to the space by the windows. The other two-of-the-four arrive, and I watch them setting up.
(Field notes Imogen Eve, musician-researcher 23-11-2019)
It is seven in the evening, a mid-November night in 2019 at café Tribunal in the city centre of Maastricht, the Netherlands. The place is very crowded as always on a normal day like this. People are chatting at the bar and sitting at tables to eat something. As in many old-fashioned Dutch cafés, the floor is covered with peanut shells: the owner offers free nuts with the drinks. There are early Christmas decorations on the walls. At one end of the café, people are sitting around a group of five string players and a harpist. One of the violinists stands up and raises her voice to speak. She says that the musicians will perform a piece by Gustav Mahler, the slow “Adagietto” from his Fifth Symphony. She explains that this music is very soft and invites everyone to be silent for a moment. After some hushing, people stop talking or lower their voice. When the musicians start to play their first notes, they realize that their improvised audience is becoming silent and starts to listen. Emerging from the muffled buzz at the bar, Mahler’s notes seem to create a shared feeling of attention for something that is not often heard in this café.
Playing the “Adagietto” had been the particular wish of the string players when they were asked to participate in the experiment “Mahler am Tisch”. It was designed to experience Gustav Mahler’s music through the folk music and the village songs and dances that inspired him. Musicians from philharmonie zuidnederland and local semi-professional and amateur players formed three bands. The ensembles corresponded to different aspects of Mahler’s music: a klezmer band (focusing on the Jewish roots of Mahler), a brass band (focusing on the Austrian roots of Mahler), and a string quartet (focusing on the popular melodies and waltzes prevalent in Mahler’s time).
Collaborating with a musician-researcher in the project, each group chose the music that they would like to perform. The musicians actively participated in the process of arranging parts of the original orchestral score and of finding other folk music that resonated with Mahler’s musical world. They created a set list that was entirely their own. The ensembles then performed on four subsequent nights at two local cafés in Maastricht. One is a small music café, which regularly features jazz performances. The second is a typical local bar, where (art) students and inhabitants of Maastricht come for a drink after studies or work.
The project started with a clear artistic vision and ideal: to create a band of musicians who would play Mahler-inspired "folk-style" arrangements around a table in a bar, actively engaging with the present audiences and including them in an informal musical situation. The experiment was designed to create a situation in which going back to Mahler’s folk music roots would allow for a convivial interaction between musicians and people in the café. Making music together in an engaged, "folk-style" way of playing was one of the aims rather than a performance that was perfect according to traditional classical music values. The ideal of selecting and re-working arrangements whilst rehearsing with the imagined audience of the local bars in mind, raised quite some concerns for the musicians.
The involved musician-researcher proposed a repertoire of selected excerpts of Mahler. Musicians from the string ensemble expressed concern regarding collaborative hands-on arranging of the pieces. They worried it would take them too much time to do it properly given the busy schedules of their regular orchestral work. The musician-researcher then arranged two themes from the second movement of Mahler’s first symphony – themes that Mahler drew from popular waltzes and folk melodies of his time. These two pieces, called the Mahler Waltz and the Trio, were worked with the musicians, who then proposed suggestions and changes to the score to improve the arrangement.
The musicians negotiated between the artistic freedom of arranging Mahler for bar performance, their own habits and routines of playing, and the ideals of fidelity to the score and faithfulness to the composer’s intent. Eventually, each of the three ensembles worked on re-arranging excerpts from Mahler’s music as well as sourcing and arranging related folk songs to incorporate to their repertoire.
In order to create a more comfortable atmosphere in the café – a bar without a proper stage for musicians to perform on – the researchers encouraged the musicians to learn the arrangement from memory whenever possible. Playing without scores would not only fit the folk-style of playing that we envisioned but would also get rid of the music stands and lights, which often function as a visual barrier between musicians and audience. While some musicians in the klezmer-ensemble did play from memory – the majority of those being semi-professional or amateur musicians – the involved professional musicians of the symphony orchestra refused. It would take them too much time, and they felt uncomfortable in doing so; the musicians were concerned that quick memorisation would detract from performance perfection.
During the arranging and practicing process, the musician-researcher encouraged the musicians to imagine and musically acknowledge their audiences during the concerts in the cafés. The musician-researcher discussed with the musicians the styles of playing and encouraged them to take their body posture and visual performance into account. For example, the musician-researcher asked the musicians to “play out more,” to think about body posture when playing, to physically broaden their posture (broader chest, open arms, lifted head, eye contact with ensemble members, etc..), and to elongate their movements (i.e. a more open and extended bow arm movements of a violinist).
The idea was that this open posture, as opposed to a closed posture, creates a greater sense of communication between the ensemble members. It would make them appear and become more of a team or a band. The musician-researcher also encouraged the musicians to play "expressively" instead of focusing solely on intonation, precision, and articulation. While some musicians were quite comfortable with these suggestions, others felt reluctant towards this approach. Many musicians were more concerned about other performance issues, such as the intended dynamic variations in a piece and whether the acoustics of a crowded bar would allow them to be heard properly.
The musicians of the three ensembles became quite reflexive about the way they were supposed to play. During rehearsals they frequently imagined the setting and acoustic of the bar, the people that would be present, and how the music should sound. They would often create a contrast between a way of playing that is common in the concert hall and a performance style that would suit a busy café on a Saturday evening.
Some musicians relate Mahler am Tisch to a traditional ensemble, while others highlighted the experimental nature of the project itself. For example, in the brass quintet, a trumpet player explained to his fellow brass musicians that “[i]t should sound refined, not sloppy (...) If people recognize it as Mahler, then we shouldn’t play it too loosely.” (Observations brass rehearsal, November 18, 2019). When discussing the tempo of a traditional Austrian dance arrangement, one musician remarked: “It should gather some pace, we are not an orchestra. If there is one moment that we can overplay it, it is here. Not too calculated, not too classical.”. Musicians used adjectives such as “refined”, “articulated”, “precise”, “loose” and “light” to demarcate a familiar (classical, orchestral) way of playing Mahler, and an alternative way of performing for the imagined audience in the bars.
What did we learn from Mahler am Tisch? First, we learnt that imagining audiences of a regular bar throughout the rehearsals influences the self-understanding of the musicians and the kinds of musical choices they make. The contrast that musicians drew between (imagined) concert hall audiences or café audiences, made them and the researchers aware of different ways of playing, and the possible pre-conceptions of (imagined) audiences that these musical choices presuppose; even though the bar was not a concert hall, audiences present could have been (and some were) frequent classical concert visitors.
Second, we learnt how audiences, even unsuspected ones in a café setting, emerge as audience in a non-concert hall situation. Every ensemble created its own musical situation in the café, where its own specific audience emerged. Audiences emerged as a result of the ways musicians performed their music (i.e. how they visually and bodily present themselves on stage, but also through the dynamics of performing), and the specific material environment of the cafés. In turn, the audiences of the ensembles of Mahler am Tisch themselves shaped the musical situation by taking care of it: by attending and being careful of the expensive instruments and equipment in the crowded bar, but also by making sure musicians could be heard. Without clear audience and performance norms, it became observable how audiences and musicians needed each other to make the musical situation work.
Third, Mahler am Tisch made visible routines and habits of rehearsing and performing, how difficult it is to deviate from these routines, and what happens when these routines are broken. The experiment challenged routine ways of working in the orchestral music context that are geared towards creating a predictable and risk-free performance environment, including efficient and perfection-oriented rehearsals (i.e. the amount of time allotted for such rehearsals in the busy schedule of a professional orchestra). During the rehearsals and concerts, the musicians were robbed of their routines; without conductor, without their formal stage costumes, without proper space for their instruments and themselves, and without the self-evident expectation of a silent and attentive audience, they became vulnerable.
The “Mahler am Tisch” experiment taught us and the musicians a lot about the implicit routines in both the musicians’ rehearsal and performance practices. It also made visible what such experiment asked from everyone involved, the musicians, the researchers and the people present in the two cafés. Without conventional props such as a concert costume and a stage, a clear distribution of artistic responsibilities, shared criteria for a good performance, and an attentive and silent audience, the musicians felt vulnerable.
As intervening researchers, we had to balance between the initial artistic ideals of the experiment and the realities of tight concert schedules, planning and communication issues, shifting and contested artistic authority, and last-minute logistic improvisations to get everything and everyone in place at the right time. Making the experimental concerts happen thus required work that led to collaborative learning about what makes a musical performance both vulnerable and valuable.
To read more about audience participation from the perspective of a musician, read about the Journey of the Musician.
Do you want to read more about this experiment? It is described in more detail in the following academic articles:
Van de Werff, T. Eve, I. & Spronck, V. (forthcoming) Experiments in Participation: performing audiences in the symphony orchestra practice. In Dromey, Chris (ed.) The Routledge Companion to Applied Musicology. London: Routledge.
Peters, P., Van de Werff, T., Benschop, R., Eve, I. (2022) Artful innovation: How to experiment in symphonic music practice. In Chaker, Sarah & Petri-Preis, Axel (eds), Tuning Up – Innovative Potentials of Musikvermittlung. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.
Eve, I. (2020) The Same but Differently. Maastricht: Research Centre for Arts, Autonomy & the Public Sphere.
Born, G. (2017) ‘After relational aesthetics: Improvised musics, the social, and (Re)Theorising the aesthetic, in s, ed. G. Born, E. Lewis, & W. Straw. Improvisation and social aesthetic. Durham: Duke University Press.
Litt, E. (2012). ‘Knock, Knock. Who's there? The Imagined Audience’, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 56(3), 330–345.