Participatory performance in classical music

How does the post-modern world’s culture of participation and interaction transfer to the world of orchestral music? In recent training workshops I led with one of Australia’s symphony orchestras, we examined the concept of the fourth wall in order to prepare the ground for developing more flexible, interactive, connecting performances.

The ‘fourth wall’ is the invisible wall between artists and audiences, creating a sense of a separate world in which the performance exists. It is created by way the environment is organised – audience seating, the lay-out of the performance space, and presence (or not) of a stage – and the performance style – including the amount of interaction between performers and audience (such as speaking, introducing, eye contact, smiles, etc), the performance dress, and even the behaviour of performers and venue staff. In orchestral concerts, we can see how every aspect of the performance environment and style communicates that the music is the focus.

Photo Credit: roomman via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: roomman via Compfight cc

Such an intensely formal and distancing approach to performance can jar or distract when transferred to community contexts. In community performances, the music is not the only focus. It is the musicians and the music, and the people who are there, and the relationships that form when music is the medium and the reason everyone is there in that space at that time. Of course, the music is the primary attraction for the audience (they probably wouldn’t be there without it), but they are also attracted by the opportunity for proximity, or intimacy, or insights, or the chance to feed an interest and learn new things, or to access something different in their local environment.

Many musicians have told me that interactive performances and workshops feel less important for them as performers than main-stage concert hall performances. The music may be less technically or intellectually demanding. A less formal environment can imply that the qualities of musical performance matter less. Audience interest in the person behind the instrument in some way undermines the importance of the music for the performer. These are important challenges to overcome if the inherent value and quality of what you do is one of the primary ways you derive satisfaction from your work.

Thomas Turino’s distinction between ‘presentational’ and ‘participatory’ performance approaches is useful to consider at this point. In his book Music as Social Life, Turino suggests performances should be understood as existing on a spectrum between ‘presentational’ and ‘participatory’. Orchestral concerts – indeed, most concerts – typically fit into a ‘presentational’ approach to performing. ‘Participatory’ approaches are more interactive. The following table sets out some of the primary characteristics:

Presentational Participatory
Clearly-defined artist-audience distinction No distinction – all are participating or are potential participants
Highly skilled group, and assumption that audience does not share similar skills and is not supposed to join in Core group of skilled leaders, but inclusion of wide range of abilities. People participate without judgement
Artist skill and ability determines performance content Inclusion of all abilities can constrain what may take place musically
The music has a set form, which the artists know and work to. Notation and the through-composed nature of the work allows for increased musical complexity. Music is often cyclic or repeated as many times as suits the group. Reliance on memory and direction from within the group rather than notation limits musical complexity.

Turino also argues that the two approaches to performance are so different, they should be considered on their own merits and according to their own values, rather than compared to each other. Therefore, a key step in developing more interactive, or responsive performance formats is one of adjusting mindset and understanding the different values that support these different approaches to performance. Participatory performance is not ‘lesser’ than presentational performance. It is a different approach to performance entirely (even if the musical content remains the same).

There are clear trade-offs that take place when developing a participatory approach to performance. The presentational model allows for lots of predictability, little improvisation, and little risk. The participatory model is more unpredictable, more improvised (although with an overall intention and framework about how the participation will be managed), and riskier.

In other words, by increasing participation and participant-led content, you deepen audience engagement with the music and musicians; however, there will be a corresponding increase in unpredictability (in terms of musical outcomes) that you will want to manage, and an increase in constraints on what can take place musically.

A ‘participatory’ model of musical performance suggests music is more of an activity than an autonomous thing. The way that participatory music practice is enacted implies a belief that musical participation is something that everyone can do (therefore a human behaviour, rather than a special talent), and that participation is an entitlement, or a right. This suggests a belief in the importance of music participation to individual (and collective) thriving and flourishing. Translated into performance contexts, this belief necessitates a level of reflexivity, so that the performance work evolves in response to the participants as they are on that particular day. The emphasis on people and experiences means that process is often as important as the finished ‘product’, even more important sometimes.

Why is it useful to unpack and discuss the values that underpin performance traditions? It’s important for musicians to feel good about the work they do in community settings. If they don’t, they will be less inclined to initiate or take part in these performances, and our communities will be far poorer as a result! Furthermore, many orchestras and classical music organisations are under pressure from funding bodies to engage more directly and meaningfully with communities – that means being responsive to what communities would like from them. Putting on a free concert in your normal venue then shrugging and saying, “well, we’ve done our bit” doesn’t really cut it any more.

Examination of underpinning values helps performers to position the meaning of the work in a larger social context. Armed with this understanding, and of the different elements that make up a perception of a ‘fourth wall’, performers can begin considering and playing with these, making them less rigid or less distinct. In this way, performances become an invitation to connect and share in something in which everyone has a stake.

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2 comments so far

  1. Anthony K Chng on

    Hey Gillian

    You are absolutely right on some of these points. Most of the time when I try to have community participation, I have found it most critical to roster the musicians with the appropriate mindset.

    There are musicians who play for the sole purpose of achieving godlike mastery of their craft and there are other who do that WHILE enjoying the process of bringing the audience in to their journey.

    While the former prefers to be worshipped in some way, the latter lives and thrives from the participative energy from the audience and from knowing that their music is touching lives AND perhaps encouraging others to pursue music as well.

    We are evolving here as well and trying to bring more meaning into our community concert beyond a performance so would be nice to share ideas.

  2. Gillian Howell on

    I think it takes time. The mindset is the result of enculturation that starts right back when people begin learning their instruments. Those who you find to be more open are probably people who are that bit more open and curious in their everyday lives too. I’d focus the attention and energy on those that, as you say, thrive on the energy of the exchange with the audience. Create a bit of positive internal promotion through their informal conversations with their bandmates! I think that it is also important to introduce greater levels of risk very gradually – from what I remember us talking about when we met last year, you guys at SSO are already doing this. You don’t want anyone to have a negative experience doing a community-based workshop or concert, because the repercussions of that can ripple through the rest of the orchestra and maybe mean that you lose support of players who are currently ‘sitting on the fence’, toying with the idea of getting involved in the community program.

    Having said that, I remember that at the MSO, the projects that created the strongest ‘buzz’ across the orchestra in general were those that were the ‘riskiest’, and that took the players furthest from their comfort zones. The work we did in the Melbourne Assessment Prison and the Royal Children’s Hospital, and the collaboration with a theatre company of performers with and without disabilities – these were the projects that generated a lot of interest across the whole organisation.

    I found that the better I got to know my players, the better I could devise projects that were a good match for particular people. I found the post-concert informal socialising that I did was invaluable in giving me insights into people’s lives and priorities beyond their orchestral job.


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