Percussion Park: Thoughts on Music and Community
As we composers continue to ponder the relevance and utility of ‘new’ music in today’s mercurial world, a number of forums and pathways have presented themselves for the performance and dissemination of our work. Performances now take place frequently in less formal venues: clubs, salons, galleries, etc. complete with food, drink, chats, overall bonhomie. Documentation is shared over the internet in mp3s, pdfs, file sharing. An artistically healthier climate is the result. Today’s composers, like recent presidents (though in no way comparably exalted), seem more down-to-earth, human, less ‘god-like’.
Another model for experiencing live music is what might be called ‘the landscape model’, which could take the form of a garden, park, or arbor. I have been particularly interested in this format/presentation, as inspired by a John Cage musicircus, or a Toru Takemitsu sonic garden.
My first large-scale work in this genre was “Rose Garden” (1990) for orchestra and audience, written for and premiered by the Hartford Symphony at the Elizabeth Park Rose Garden (the oldest public rose garden in the US) in Hartford, Connecticut.
After an opening procession with musicians on the garden’s perimeter and a select group of audience members processing into the Garden, the symphony players were choreographed to form multiple chamber ensembles amongst the roses, playing short works simultaneously, then reforming in other combinations and repeating the process.
The audience was invited to enter a central gazebo and play unique percussion instrument sculptures, which were amplified over the entire space and whose sounds directly affected the symphony members’ musical decisions and the exact outcome of the piece. While the performance gave people a motivation for coming to the Garden that late afternoon, it was the enjoyment of a picnic supper in an idyllic setting that ‘consumed’ the duration of the performance.
My latest landscape piece is “Percussion Park,” scored for large percussion ensemble and guest instrumentalists. Like “Rose Garden,” the players form a number of smaller groups during the piece, at times playing simultaneously. In addition, the audience is given an approximate timeline of performances of specific pieces, and is invited to freely determine their own personal experience (of the piece). Players may improvise on small instruments or objects while traveling between stations; thus a major part of “Percussion Park” is the spontaneous interaction between players and audience, audience and audience. A closing “Meditation” invites the audience to play with the full ensemble, bringing the communal music-making to an appropriately low-key conclusion.
“Percussion Park” was first performed outdoors by the University of North Carolina Pembroke Percussion Ensemble directed by Tracy Wiggins in April 2010. On a warm, sunny late afternoon situated in a large outdoor plaza complete with a small lake graced by a fountain, audience members gathered around a bell tower at precisely 6 PM and listened to the piece’s opening number, “Autumn,” then purposefully strolled over to the next piece a few hundred feet away. Eventually, the audience dispersed over the entire plaza, as the sounds of pieces gently intermingled in somewhat unpredictable ways, together with the ambience of college campus’ automobile traffic added to the mix.
The second performance of “Percussion Park” recently took place at the Hartt School, University of Hartford, with the Percussion Ensemble (and guest instrumentalists) directed by Benjamin Toth. This performance was indoors and in the evening, a very different atmosphere and acoustical space. Maps and timelines were distributed; an introductory orientation session preceded the performance. Multiple performances of many pieces encouraged audience creativity as to the flow of the evening, and the multi-floor building, complete with a good-sized freight elevator, offered the possibility of a variety of performance spaces, in terms of acoustics and relative intimacy. The audience was encouraged to seek out the music, not only in the prescribed locations, but especially in between the pieces, as the ‘real music’ was the acoustic space of the building itself.
I didn’t know quite what to expect, but was pleased to see an audience of all ages, including unfamiliar faces who must have been curious to see/hear what this was all about. Most gratifying was the lack of traditional audience decorum during the piece. Following the polite applause at the end of the first piece situated in the main concert hall, there was very little clapping the rest of the evening (including at the conclusion) as people were very tuned into the focused listening suggested by continuous nature of the piece. I may be deluding myself as to the lack of applause, but I am reminded of Debussy’s statement about concert audiences clapping at the end of pieces as if they were trained cows (‘do they applaud the sun every time it sets?’). That said, people felt comfortable enough to carry on quiet conversations during the music, indeed one young girl, when led away from the elevator by her mother to make room for others, exclaimed “I wanted to hear the toy piano!”
Having only to perform in one piece the entire evening, my own experience was that of an audience member. I more fully realized that the piece was really not about the music (in this case, my music) but rather the (audience-generated) traveling process, as you might experience in a gallery, or on the street, or as in this case, in a park. Some people checked out the ‘Noise’, many flocked to the elevator, others just hung out in one spot.
The meditative finale reminded me of a ‘be-in’ from my California youth; mostly young people sitting in a semi-circle, playing all manner of instruments/objects, carefully listening and adding their own ingredients to the mix.
As boundaries break down between art forms, between popular and serious, between artists and audiences, we continue to make things and want to share them, lest we feel marginalized and irrelevant. While the internet has opened up infinite possibilities, there is nothing like face-to-face interaction, whether it be a conversation, a party, or a concert.
Anything we can do to demystify the music, especially allowing the audience to become the creators, the first person subject as it were, and not just the consumers, the second person object, will undoubtedly lead to an increased awareness and understanding of our music, which might even lead to an increased appetite and demand for our music as well.
Contributed by David MacBride
David Macbride has composed extensively for percussion, with over 40 works, ranging from solo and chamber music to his Percussion Concerto (One Revolution), for percussion soloist and orchestra, written for Ben Toth. These pieces have been performed at numerous Percussive Arts Society International Conventions and in recital and ensemble programs across the US and abroad. Macbride has written for all manner of percussion instruments, including traditional Western and Eastern instruments, as well as household and found objects. A number of pieces have been recorded on CD, including a solo release titled Conundrum: The Percussion Music of David Macbride featuring Benjamin Toth on Innova Recordings. Publishers of Macbride’s percussion music include Media Press, Pan Press, and Smith Publications. Macbride is on the faculty of the Hartt School, University of Hartford.