Wowing the Audience
The new ensemble that I founded, League of the Unsound Sound (LotUS), presented its first concert in Erie, Pennsylvania, three weeks ago. I’ve waited to write about this debut because I wanted some perspective on the event. I am happy to report that it was a smashing success beyond my highest expectations.
Honestly, as I planned the event, I actually didn’t hold any expectations for how it would be received. I assumed that the audience in Erie would be small (in that way no different from any other new music audience) and relatively conservative. And yet, I designed a program that would make absolutely no concessions to my perception of what they might find comforting. Instead, I tried to create a flow of works that held personal appeal for me.
I also questioned every aspect of classical and new music concerts, in an attempt to strip away the elements that are extraneous to the music and create a barrier between the performer and the audience. With some traditions—walking on and off stage during bows; changing the stage set between pieces—I was able to pinpoint why they disturbed the concert atmosphere. With others—concert-black garb, for example—I simply relied on my personal distaste. I wasn’t attempting to reinvent the wheel, but instead considered the choices of the many excellent ensembles I have been fortunate enough to hear live who have been presenting more audience-friendly concerts without compromising musical integrity: ICE, eighth blackbird, Alarm Will Sound, and Mobtown Modern, among others. I aimed to create a theatric experience with music as the central element.
As I discussed in a previous NewMusicBox post, I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a great deal of time promoting the event. The press representative for Mercyhurst College, our gracious host, wanted to help us to find an audience but also had difficulty conceptualizing what type of concert we would be presenting. During this conversation, I kept returning to three points: 1) the music would be experimental; 2) I guaranteed that audience members would hear something they had never heard before; and 3) that to me as an individual audience member the two previous characteristics are selling points. To my surprise, within hours after the submitting the press release, I was arranging an interview with John Chacona, a freelance writer from Erie who also happens to be a fan of experimental improvisation. This interview turned into a lovely featured preview in the Erie Times under the headline “Tune the Toy Piano!”
Before the concert, I roped off about half of the seats in the 300-seat hall so that the audience would be funneled into a tight space, with the hope that this would raise their energy level. I also instructed the ushers to keep the theater closed until we gave them the signal to open the doors. About ten minutes before the scheduled starting time, someone implored me to open the doors, and when I went out to announce that we would not open until five minutes before the concert start, I was surprised to see a huge crowd mobbing the theater atrium. Clearly the publicity had worked!
The audience needed to wait so that the performance would have already started before they entered the theater. And so, at five minutes before eight, Tim Feeney and David Schotzko took their places in the aisles of the theater off the wings of the stage while I sat still at a toy piano in the center of the stage. David began performing Huang Ruo’s Sound of Hand, a movement piece that makes very little noise while on the other side Tim simultaneously presented Georges Aperghis’s Le Corps à corps. Although I sat still and therefore couldn’t see the audience as they entered, I could hear them talking. They clearly thought that the percussionists were just warming up and so they continued talking until Tim reached the spot where he begins narrating a story in English. Once the audience heard recognizable sounds, they immediately fell silent.
As the percussionists ended, I began a brief toy piano improvisation, during which the entire ensemble moved to their places. As I finished, Shirley Yoo sounded the boombox, beginning the concert proper with John Cage’s Credo in Us. I went from the toy piano to turn pages for the pianist Stephen Buck. And the audience remained completely silent. Only after the Cage did we stop and allow for applause.
The rest of the concert flowed in a more traditional manner, but without stage changes between pieces. As one piece ended, the performers accepted the warm wishes of the audience and either exited the stage or moved to their new position. From the Cage, we went to Arlene Sierra’s Of Risk and Memory (in a U.S. premiere), then to a free improvisation with Tim playing a single floor tom and me on toy piano, and finally into Thierry de Mey’s Table Music. Of these, the Sierra was the only one that involved a traditional ensemble (two pianos) making traditional musical noises. And yet, there was a palpable energy from the audience. Even during the very quiet improvisation that seemed to involve every possible mode of creating sounds from those two instruments (except for the traditional technique of hitting the tom and playing the keys of the toy piano), there was complete silence in the hall.
For the second half, I was able to sit in the back of the audience. From this vantage point, I realized that the hall was nearly full. Nearly all the tape blocking various rows had been removed and over 200 audience members remained (I still have no idea how many were there for the start). As the last piece, my own Hurricane Charm, ended, I quickly made my way to the stage, where we were greeted by a huge outpouring as the audience rose (nearly) as one.
I am reporting on this because I’m proud of our accomplishments, but also because this experience bucks much of the conventional wisdom associated with concert presentations. We made absolutely no concessions to the supposedly delicate sensibilities of the Rust Belt audience. Instead we welcomed them to enjoy the experience of the new. We presented music that we believed in, and in superb performances. (Here I want to mention the incredible performers again: Stephen Buck and Shirley Yoo, pianos; Tim Feeney and David Schotzko, percussion. They are all superlative musicians, and wonderful people as well, and it was a great honor to work with all of them.) And while the audience members probably didn’t like everything on the program (indeed, they might not have liked any of the music), they recognized that they were hearing something special. And they appreciated that opportunity.