In Search of an Audience: Outside the Bubble

(Journal SEAMUS, Vo. 11, #1, April 1996, pp. 4-7) by Barton McLean

As Priscilla and I travel throughout the US performing community concerts and residencies and working with university students and faculty, I increasingly sense that we in SEAMUS are becoming marginalized in our chosen arena of music technology, as the arts in general come under increasing financial and philosophical pressure from society, and as our field in particular bends to the ubiquitous commercialization of our creative outlets. This is particularly distressing to me since I grew up in an era during the 70's and early 80's where it appeared that we were encased in a sea of support with almost unlimited funding available if only we could invent pieces fast enough. We, along with our colleagues, regularly appeared in Keyboard and Electronic Musician (then "Polyphony" magazine), our recordings were reviewed in Musical America and Audio, and the larger community was eager to hear and participate in our wonderful adventure of developing new ideas. Collectively, our work mattered to the larger artistic/media/community complex. Personally, I remember our first paid concert in 1974, one we shared with a group called "The Mix" consisting of Priscilla, myself, and Dave Cope (Burt Beerman was also part of the ensemble but wisely opted out of this concert!), at the University of Akron, where our presentation was so outrageous (at least it seemed so at the time) that 300 people walked out during the first half. And yet, after all the fumbles and mistakes we made during that night (these were the days of the "hundred patch cord concert"!), fully 400 people were still seated ready for more as we sheepishly crept back on the stage after intermission, and we received angry epithets from the audience and an enthusiastic review from the press. I choose this example to illustrate how things have changed. If we were to hold this concert today, we would have superior technology which would allow for a smoother tech capability, the music would be more elegant, in fact everything would be improved except the audience, which would be only a relatively passive shadow of its former self. We (collectively) took more risks in those early days. Lots of terrible music was composed, a necessary result of a period and a time when the wheat and the chaff needed to coexist with equal support in order to advance the vital new music concepts we were experimenting with--concepts we were sure would eventually take us into paths that would revolutionize music, make Beethoven obsolete, solve society's problems, and cure the common cold.

If our technical advances are producing better music today (and this issue is certainly debatable)), why are we receiving less support from publishers, record companies, concert venues, and the media? Part of the answer lies in the old supply-demand equation, "too many composers chasing too little an audience." Unfortunately, dealing with audiences has become irrelevant to many of us who would rather chase the latest Max module. This looking inward to the exclusion of audience considerations has, more than any other single factor, marginalized our work in the eyes of the larger society we should be invigorating as creators.

The sea of acceptance may have looked like a sea back then, but now it looks more and more like a bubble, which may not have exactly burst, but may still be holding us prisoner in its thin and delicate walls as the average electroacoustic music concert goer of yesterday is replaced by a World Wide Web browser more concerned with (seemingly) being in control of the outcome. The new audience member doesn't sit still, but needs to be directing the course of events for him/herself. And this new restless audience is existing largely outside the university, which, due to changing societal values, political conditions, and budget restrictions, is regressing to a more traditional and conservative stance, mitigating against the kind of high level support for the arts and for the elitist composer like me. This will continue as budgets unravel. Thus, as artists we will often have no choice but to increasingly consider the university support system as a secondary, supplemental one and look outside this nurturing womb for our audience.

The audience is so powerful a force today that it is no exaggeration to say that it ultimately determines in large measure what gets played, who acquires grants, and what institutions and venues receive funding. As I talk with potential sponsors of our own performances in and out of the university they increasingly are principally interested in attracting audience, and this one criteria alone will often determine whether or not our proposal is accepted. Venues do not have the luxury now, as they once enjoyed two decades ago, of going out on a limb because they personally feel the proposal is conceptually interesting in its own right.

At this point I would like to take you on a personal journey to illustrate how Priscilla and I have used some innovative strategies to deal with the situation we faced of the shrinking traditional audience during the past 12 years of full-time touring as multimedia composer-performers, keeping in mind that, unlike many of the university situations where the audience and the job is somewhat guaranteed, we had to create an audience for our music or go out of business.

When we began our independent composer career full-time back in 1983, our early model for presentations naturally grew out of the traditional concert recital format utilized while at the university. This is still an important component of our touring today. Our gradual realization that university music department concerts alone would not sustain us on a full-time basis propelled us into a decade -long exploration of audience development, initially concerned with crafting other programs, still in the concert/recital mode but targeted to different venues. Consequently, by 1987 our repertoire of offerings expanded to ten different programs as diverse as orchestral, nature/environmental, experimental hi-tech, community and metropolitan concert series, and alternate spaces, as well as the traditional university recitals. The rationale behind this shift was that there is not just one audience, but there are many audiences, and it is essential to speak to each audience's concerns within the constraints of keeping one's own inner integrity.

But even with this expansion, all of the offerings still connoted the traditional concert format, and we were beginning to be intrigued by how other types of institutions bring in huge masses of audience, people who are actively engaged in the processes and who are self-directed in the selection and timing of their explorations. I am referring to museums, art galleries, exploratoria such as the Exploratorium in San Francisco, citywide festivals, and even zoos. Now, here is a huge audience! What these venues posses that the recital hall does not? The audience is moving, walking through and relating to an exhibit on its own time frame and terms. If the participants in these venues can not relate to a particular exhibit, they move on to something else, and therefore are constantly engaged. They also have the capability of spending a great deal of time in depth in one area. If we could only duplicate this audience condition in the context of experimental new music, then we just might have a solution to attracting more audience.

Coincidentally, by the winter of 1989, we happened to take a vacation in Puerto Rico, where we were profoundly inspired by a trip to the El Yunque Rainforest, where, as we walked down the park road at night we entered successive zones of differing sound mixes of insects, birds, and amphibians, all sounding like a walk through an electroacoustic symphony encased in a tropical night ambiance; not unlike a huge electronic music fresco. We, the audience, were walking through the music! On our return home, we began to formulate some new questions about what a composition is and how the traditional composer-performer-audience equation could be created anew along with the music.

Thus, our audience-interactive composition Rainforest was gradually and tentatively developed, first premiered at the art gallery under the auspices of the music department of the Univ. of Wyoming in Laramie in the spring of 1989. As the visitor entered the gallery, an evocative drone would be present. The visitor would then proceed to one of five creative stations where he/she would improvise with processed microphones, or perform on keyboards sampled with electronic and rainforest-like sounds, or on acoustic instruments such as a bicycle wheel amplified and processed. They could move around from station to station at will. The tropical theme, along with some of the atmospheric sounds sampled as well as the everpresent drone, all sufficed to create a powerful creative context in which normally traditional uptight students and faculty in the department would shed their hangups and create elegant and experimental improvisations. We later learned that this would be equally successful in its own way with audiences with no musical training at all. This was the hope and the realization of that first successful implementation of the concept--that the audience participants would, without any improvisatory training and without any notational guidance, be guided only by the music context to create and perform the piece.

The following winter, the city of Stamford, Connecticut invited us to set up Rainforest as part of its New Year's Eve "First Night" celebration in a downtown bank lobby. As city residents would browse from one venue to another during the evening, we saw over 1000 people participate in the installation during the five hours of operation. Where the first experiment in Wyoming was carefully-controlled under the auspices of the music department and faculty with trained musicians, this New Year's plunge was directly into the jaws of the masses! Imagine, for example, dozens of people coming out of the cold (with frozen wool mittens shedding hairs all over the place) trying to play your new $2500 keyboard! Although they at times overwhelmed the system by their sheer numbers, we knew then that we had a springboard for that larger audience we were seeking, and subsequently incorporated Rainforest into our regular touring schedule where it currently remains. During the years, of course, we continued its development, adding multiple slide projection visuals and constantly refining and redefining the sounds and instruments. We now regularly perform Rainforest in venues such as museums, exploratoria, art galleries, and community concert series, as well as in university residencies. At the university level, we seemed to have stumbled onto a powerful audience-reaching vehicle in the mini-residency, where we will install Rainforest for two days and give a concert the third, as we did this year as guests of the New Music Festival at Western Illinois University in Macomb. We set it up in the auditorium there, with a running stream of participants, first in class format, and finally by sheer word of mouth getting around, so by the end of the second day retaining massive groups of students and musicians all jamming with us in a continuous five-hour concert. An unanticipated side effect of this mini-residency format has been the garnering of a large audience for a our concert the third day as the student population comes to know us through working and improvising with us. We are currently developing a brand new installation which utilizes some elegant technological solutions to how the audience relates to the instrument before it--for example utilizing a buffalo skull embedded with sensors which are translated into MIDI information via intelligent interfaces, and using layers of infrared light to enable hands to articulate complex and meaningful relationships through space.

The danger in all this, of course, is the tendency to let audience considerations dominate to the detriment of the integrity of the work. We formulated Rainforest primarily out of our love for nature sounds and textures as compositional building blocks, and to pose some different models for the composer-performer-audience relationship. In fact, audience considerations only gradually dawned on us as the work evolved through several presentations.

Often in our travels we have the opportunity to observe attitudes and curricula in the university music departments, and I am sometimes saddened to find a tendency to ignore the composer's relation to audience and the community-at-large in the quest for matters that seem more pedantic. Whatever happens in the future, I think it is a truism that eventually the community-at-large will find its music, whether or not we in SEAMUS become a part of this quest. To put it bluntly, and as one who has sat through decades of electronic music concerts at conferences, much of what I hear is not designed for an audience, but is rather a personal working out of some models which have a different posit than to project music for people. If we, as trained in the classical, non-commercial traditional of artistic integrity do not collectively compose works that project outward to audiences, rather than inward to a chosen few, then we will continue to allow the commercial rock, pop, and rappers to usurp the outlets of media technology, outlets we once dominated.

The future is not bleak by any means. Actually, I see the trained classical/media composer and the larger community audience on parallel but somewhat separate courses. At times, they intersect and interact, and in so doing enrich and stimulate one another. In our collective quest for a larger audience, many opportunities will arise in the years ahead for these fortuitous intersections, and when they occur, often a new audience is born. We in SEAMUS are uniquely blessed with the technological means to explore these new relationships between composer and audience, through ever more elegant interactive systems which allow people to excersize meaningful control over the experience. In this brief statement I hoped to afford a glimpse of how two independent composers are attempting to seize one of these moments. All I can say is that in doing so with Rainforest over the past five years and soon with our new installation, our personal creative lives have been changed and enriched beyond measure as we continually interact closely with the people who have chosen us for, have entrusted us with their artistic and entertainment requirements. Each of us must venture outside the fragile bubble to discover his/her own solution to these right moments of intersection between creator and audience. I wish all of us a lot of luck.

C 1996 Barton McLean.


Permission for copying and use in normal university class work granted.

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