I have been playing and listening to new music around the world for the past 15 years and have come across hundreds of different venues and situations for listening, all of which offer unique advantages and problems for both the player and the listener.
For music involving purely acoustic instruments, I much prefer playing indoors, without amplification, so the instruments can ring truly in a live room. When acoustic instruments are amplified, the sound is always altered, however subtly, and the original beauty can be altered to something more synthetic. I find it ironic that perfectly good acoustic spaces are equipped with amplifying equipment—the aesthetic of making sure music is (more than) loud enough to hear is very frustrating to me.
One dynamic which interests me is that of the typical division of performer and audience. I think of music as a social tool—concerts provide the possibility to forge an instantaneous community. Often at my concerts, people from widely varying backgrounds are in attendance, and together we experience a common beauty (well, what I consider beauty). One of the inherent problems with music in Western culture is that it is often relegated to the realm of specialists—performers and listeners. In this regard, I prefer not to use a stage if there is one, as this is too great a metaphor for the concept of performers as specialists, audience as consumers. I prefer to surround the audience with my music, when possible, and often compose pieces in which the audience is invited to participate.
In my experience, the ideal situation for music is one in which the audience can be totally immersed in the experience of listening, without distraction. My colleague Francisco Lopez produces his acousmatic concerts in darkened rooms, where he is situated in the center, all chairs or cushions are facing outward, towards a ring of speakers which surround the audience. The audience is invited to wear blindfolds, to experience “la belle confusion” of sound immersion. This way, each person has a unique listening experience, while at the same time being part of a larger, anonymous group. In his concerts, usually there are no visual or auditory distractions, and as a result, the experience of hearing his creations is very intense.
I must add, though, that I am a big fan of embracing the chaos of our noisy world and always enjoy non-programmed sounds entering the performance venue. In this regard, music performed in open-air venues can be an invitation to listen to the world.
Shortly after Sun Ra died, my sax quartet was performing at an open-air festival in Ottawa, Canada, and our repertoire included an arrangement of “Mu,” one of his pieces. As soon as Marjorie started her solo, the church across the street began tolling its bells in celebration of a wedding. It was a lovely sonic addition. Several hours later, we performed a different set, but including the same piece. As soon as we started, the bells joined in, but only during “Mu,” and stopped when we did. From then on, whenever we performed “Mu” there was always an extra environmental audio ingredient, no matter where we were. Lovely!