Hypothetical Concert for People My Own Age
It occurred to me that one of the ways musicians try to encourage audiences to find relevance in Classical music is by bringing the composers of that music to life. Program notes, pre-concert talks, informal explanations during concerts – whatever the method – musicians often provide biographical information about the composers who wrote the pieces and the circumstances of these compositions. Ours is a narrative society; we like to hear and tell stories. Accordingly, both performers and audiences like to know the backstory of the music. If the audience begins to care about the story behind a piece, the story of the person who wrote it, then they become even more interested in hearing the piece itself. On this principle, what better way to get audiences to care about any composition than to let them write the music themselves?
Now this may sound like a crazy idea, and I certainly haven’t figured out all of the ins and outs of what this process may entail. Or maybe someone somewhere has already done this; I don’t know. Please forgive the mess of ideas, but this is a definitely a brainstorm-in-progress. This is how I imagine a Democratic Composition Project:
The basic premise is that a system is set up in which potential audience members from the general public are encouraged to submit ideas which can be turned into music. These musical ideas, in whatever form they are gathered, are then compiled and condensed by a musician (or composer) into some sort of coherent notation, whether a file on Sibelius or some sort of graphic notation by hand, in which case the musicians would improvise according to the images in their parts. Preferably the final piece would be about fifteen minutes in length – something not so short as to seem insubstantial, but not too long either. Within the shortest amount of time possible (the closer to the deadline of submissions the better, so people’s interest doesn’t wane), this piece would be performed at a concert. The people who submitted ideas would naturally be curious to hear what their piece sounds like. This performance would be their chance!
I imagine this project would work very well through the internet. The organizers of this Democratic Composition Project would create a website where people can deposit their ideas. The site can explain the concept of the project and the performing resources available (your ideas will be incorporated into a piece about yea minutes long and performed and recorded live. This is the available instrumentation….or whatever). I imagine people could submit an idea in whatever form inspires them: perhaps a jpg image of something, or a fragment of text that could become a lyric, or maybe even a sound file of a groove they wrote on Garageband. We could advertise on Facebook, or even send announcements of this project to other universities around the country. On a local level (so we could fill the seats at the concert), the organizers of the project would make classroom visits to local schools or organizations (since we’re gearing towards people my age, I’d suggest we start with other university students in Rochester, at the UofR or RIT perhaps). They could post flyers at popular university locations, within the music schools, or at Java’s or Boulder Coffee, all of which would direct people to the website. Any online submission would also require the submission of a functional email address. This way we could directly contact the people who submitted in order to announce the performance date, time, and place, and – especially for those who are not in the Rochester area – the release of a recording of this piece that would be available for purchase. I like the idea of the “pay what you can policy” where people could download the recording for free, but have the option to pay if they so choose.
I feel that the DCP would be a great gateway piece to introduce audience members to other music on the concert program. Maybe it will turn out as a fantastically interesting work, or maybe it will just sound awful. But either way, the audience that comes to hear it will bring a curiosity and enthusiasm to the concert and would be especially receptive to hearing other compositions in a new light. The audience would be encouraged to listen to the creative output of the other compositions on the program, to try to imagine what creative ideas sparked these works.
It seems to me that the DCP could be a concert program in itself – it really depends on the scale of the project, of how many submissions are received, and how easily they can be compiled into some coherent form. But I propose that the Democratic Composition Project be performed at the beginning of the program and be followed by other compositions with the same spirit of improvisation and creativity. If, during the course of rehearsals, it becomes apparent that the DCP bears any strong resemblance to the works of any other specific composer (maybe it sounds aleatoric, for instance, or expressionistic) the concert can include a similar composition on the program. The rest of the program could be an homage to improvisatory creative work, and could include such pieces as Bill Dobbins’ Preludes and Predilections for piano, compositions based on Classical works such as a Chopin mazurka that include an open section in the middle for improvisation. The program might also include a Mozart piano concerto with improvised cadenzas (or, if time is an issue, just one movement), a string quartet playing a theme and variations, a jazz combo improvising over a standard or pop tune, or…? This is a tremendously flexible program, so long as the unifying theme of creative nexus of ideas is emphasized throughout.
Leah wondered if this idea might be too crazy to make sense, but she can trust her instincts. It’s workable. On a similar tip, Jon Deak, associate principal bass of the NY Philharmonic, has been doing workshops for years in which he teaches children and adults to compose, whether they’ve had musical training or not. I took part in one of those workshops once, and the results were astonishing. Anyone can compose, given the right encouragement (plus sympathetic musicians to play the compositions, which when people don’t know how to read and write music might use graphic notation).
I don’t know if the audience will need to be encouraged to listen for the creativity in other compositions on the program. I have a feeling they’ll be primed to do that, after taking part in a composition of their own. It might be interesting to have several shorter audience-written compositions, in place of a longer one, or in addition to it, so the people who contribute can see more than one way in which their musical ideas take flight.
And, of course, using Jon Deak’s methods (or something else that produces the same result), Leah could have pieces on this concert that were completely written by members of the audience. The concert could be streamed all over the world, which would make it better known, and of course encourage participation from people everywhere. Finally, a concert like this shouldn’t be given just once! The more you did it, the more the idea would spread, and you’d get more and more people both taking part and listening.