As artistic programmer, you play a central role in all artistic matters in the orchestra before the musicians enter the stage: the vision, programming, and execution of concerts. Developing participatory or experimental concerts offer new challenges for the programmer. Sharing artistic expertise with other art institutions or artists from different disciplines, can question conventional hierarchies and routines. In experimental or participatory projects, audiences become artistically relevant. And seemingly trivial productional choices can have strong artistic effects.
In the dynamics of artistic collaboration, implicit conventions and hierarchies within the orchestral organisation, or between different art disciplines or between styles of music, can become an obstacle. Examples were offered during the Empty Minds and The People’s Salon projects.
A researcher from the MCICM closely followed the experimental concert Empty Minds, part of the i-Classics series of philharmonie zuidnederland (organised in 2018). For this experimental and participatory concert, the orchestra collaborated with composers Wim Hendricx and Antony Fiumara, with the recorder player Erik Bosgraaf. Other partners involved were 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 new interactions between actors and spectators.
The idea of the Empty Minds concert was to create an interactive performance. The audience would wear colourful hats. A camera would register the movements of the audience, to be visible in real-time on a large video screen. On the floor, a playful set of lines and grids would suggest a page in a score. Thus, the hats would function as moving notes in a musical score, indicating to the conductor what part of the score the audience had ‘decided’ to play next. In this artistic vision, the audience member would become the artist, by participating in the making process: the film would be the art work, the performance the making process. The final concerts, however, did not run entirely according to this original plan.
What happened during the performances? The composer/conductor worried that the concert design would distract from the music itself. But the music ‘itself’ and what that music required, as well as the corresponding role of the audience, were not so simple to delineate: as the audience was projected as an integral part of the musical performance, it became an artistic partner. However, the question if the audience could and should be thought of as external to the music, or as an aesthetically meaningful part of it, proved to be too difficult to answer in the collaboration.
What we can learn here for programming a collaborative, participatory concert, is that experimental concerts can be quite complex. Experimental concerts can challenge the hierarchal pattern from conventional symphonic concerts. In the case of Empty Minds, both technological issues and this conventional hierarchy hampered the realization of the initial artistic idea. The authority and the artistic responsibility of the conductor (and the aesthetics of the performed work) eventually remained unchallenged.
Read more about the experiment Empty Minds.
The Empty Minds concert also shows something else. Next to audiences, also seemingly trivial and material choices became artistically relevant. 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. Rather than an ‘extra’ material element, added to the concert, the video camera became an essential part of the success of the artistic concept. Throughout the process, however, its importance remained ambiguous: it remained unclear whose responsibility the video cameras actually were, how the screen connected to the different parts of the performance, and what (artistic) role they played during the concert.
Read more about the experiment Empty Minds.
Researchers observed something similar in the experiment The People’s Salon. In this experimental concert, developed by the researchers together with musicians, staff and Friends of the orchestra, audiences shared the stage with musicians to talk about their favourite musical works. To create an informal, salon-like situation, the musician-researcher involved had to constantly negotiate between the technical staff from the orchestra and the venue.
Negotiations concerned the position of the smaller ensembles that would perform chamber music, as well as the position of the orchestra. Using coloured lights to change the atmosphere during and between pieces led protests of some of the musicians because they could not read their scores. In a last minute attempt to prevent the staging from falling back into a conventional orchestral performance setting, the musician-researcher made last-minute changes to the stage design by bringing sofas from the foyer to the stage and adding small tables with flowers.
What we can learn from the examples of Empty Minds and The People’s Salon, is that in experimental projects, the artic meaning of material objects can suddenly emerge or change. Objects, stage design or walk-through of audiences can have unanticipated and unexpected artistic effects, and can matter a great deal for the artistic concept and programming of the concert, something that many production leaders are well aware of. As a programmer, it is important to recognise that in an experimental concert situation what matters artistically emerges, which cannot be anticipated fully. What acquires artistic interest, is eventually constituted by musicians, conductors, and audiences, but also by materials and technologies, by the location, and by coincidence.
In participatory projects – such as Empty Minds and The People’s Salon – audiences can become a relevant artistic partner. In the case of The People’s Salon, audiences not only became part of the concert, but participated in the work of programming it. The programmer shared his artistic responsibility for selecting repertoire for the evening with a group Friends of the orchestra: regular and loyal concert-goers. During focus groups these friends (together with researchers and the artistic programmer) selected the repertoire based on their personal memories, stories and anecdotes about favourite musical works.
Eventually, it turned out that the Friends had selected mainly solo and chamber music works whereas a medium size symphony orchestra had been scheduled. The artistic programmer of the orchestra and the researchers decided to artistically intervene by suggesting symphonic repertoire. By doing so, they could also take the friends along in the decision-making process that usually belongs to the artistic programmer: taking into account the instrumentation of the scores and the number of available musicians, the costs of hiring extra musicians (for instruments not available in the orchestra) or adapting an arrangement to fit the instrumentation.
Eventually, the friends, the researchers and the artistic programmer agreed on the final program, that included two symphonic compositions that were feasible in terms of available musicians and rehearsing time, and fitted the themes of the evening.
Read more about the experiment The People’s Salon.
For an artistic programmer of an orchestra, participatory projects can ask of a different kind of involvement. You have to find a fine balance: you have the responsibility over bringing partners and people together, but the final responsibility for the concert lies with the musicians and the conductor. If your voice is too loud, it might limit the conductor, the musicians, or the other involved artists. At same time, collaborative and/or participatory projects require a different artistic involvement of the programmer, taking into account that conventional artistic hierarchies can be a hindrance, that audiences can become artistic partners, and that seemingly trivial productional choices can have far-reaching artistic effects.
Do you want to read more about this theme? It is described in more detail in the following academic articles:
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.
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. (2022) Listen Closely: Innovating Audience Participation in Symphonic Music, PhD dissertation, Maastricht University.
Continue your journey
As a programmer, you are used to evaluate concerts based on artistic criteria, assessing how musicians, the conductor, audiences, and others involved experienced the concert. However, conventional criteria for evaluation cannot easily be applied to participatory or experimental concerts. How to evaluate such concerts, when and with whom?
Practice exercises to learn skills needed for audience participation!