Over the last two weeks, my ensemble has collaborated with ensemble chronophonie on a fairly unusual concert presentation. Called Unter Vier Ohren (literally “under four ears” – “unter vier Augen” means “between the two of us”), we installed 7 musicians in 7 small rooms with room for one audience member at a time. The idea was to create an intimate space in which audience members could have an unique experience of new music.
While it’s a very simple idea, there are a number of ways that one could approach it as a group of performers. We’ve presented the project twice so far, in two very different venues, and the differences between them (as well as the audience/performer reaction/experience) was inspiration enough to write about the endeavour. The bottom line, however, is this: try it. It was, all in all, one of the most rewarding, interesting and engaging concert experiences of my career, gave me a new lease on my feelings of connectedness to new music, and would be a much more fulfilled musician if I had such experiences more often. The response of our audience was also overwhelmingly positive. That said, I’d like to share my experience of both performances, in order to facilitate a kind of ‘recipe’ for a great Unter Vier Ohren experience!
First of all, we all picked very short pieces and also presented a number of premieres created especially for the event. Cathy van Eck‘s piece, for example, Square Head, puts two small speakers in the hand of the performer, which are then manipulated in terms of their proximity to the audience member: the piece can only be performed in this situation. I think this kind of thing works very well, partly because the audience member knows they are experiencing something that they won’t be able to experience in any other concert situation.
I think we should have been more specific about the length of pieces. I suspect some of my colleagues went over the limit, as occasionally an audience member would complain that one of the pieces I played was too short. Audience expectation is rather important and on this front, is only worth toying with if you’re going to do something extreme, as in the case of Evan Johnson‘s piece for clarinet and film, Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, January 7, 1894, which lasted a grand total of 4.5 seconds (amusingly, the title of the piece takes longer to say than the work does to perform).
As they audience will probably do a fair amount of waiting, it’s extremely important that they have a good space to do that in. In fact, this is probably the most important point of the evening. In Cologne there was a foyer, where one could buy a glass of (excellent) wine and mill around speaking to other members of the audience. I know this was successful as I started to have more requests for specific pieces (indicating that they were being talked about), and people were increasingly free with their comments and questions (indicating that the wine was going down nicely). We had some chips such available for snacking, but I think we could have gone further, perhaps more in the direction of what some New Yorkers do with their New Music Bake Sale. What Unter 4 Ohren really needed was vegan cupcakes.
In Freiburg, there was no such space for waiting and we all felt the difference. For example, I had no requests, except for a piece by Carlos Cotallo Solares, whose friends and family were all there (pretty cute to hear, “I’d like to hear the piece by my son, please”). The wine wasn’t quite as nice (obviously I made tests for the purpose of making this blog post as thorough as possible) and there was nowhere to sit, so people weren’t as comfortable. It also meant that they were in more of a hurry to hear more pieces. I had the feeling people came to hear as much as they could, and then went home again.
In Cologne we were based at raum13, an old industrial space that has been converted into a gallery and concert space. The foyer where people drank opened up onto a courtyard. Along one side of the building were seven doors, behind which were seven small cells. The rooms were only 2m x 2m, the brick walls were crumbling a little, and they were otherwise empty.
(the very green courtyard at raum13, where cellist Niklas Seidl is about to enter his room)
It is very important that one picks a space wherein one is free from the context of normal concert/musical life. In Freiburg we were in practice rooms: an upright sat at one end of my room, some amps and a drum set at the other. The room was much bigger, but extremely cluttered with references to music and objects that cluttered the public’s experience of the space and of the works. The ceilings were low and the space was warm and humid. It just didn’t have the same oompf.
Actually, I can’t really imagine a better space than the one we used in Cologne. There was some bleeding between the rooms, but again I think this worked: one constantly had the feeling of working with one’s colleagues, despite the fact that we didn’t perform together at all that evening. In Freiburg, on the other hand, we were all around different corners in the school, most of my colleagues I didn’t even see that evening, never mind hearing what they were up to. (Actually, having said that, there were a few complaints about the amount of sound that was bleeding in Cologne: I guess a little is probably okay, but too much means it’s distracting for the audience member, if not for me.)
Someone suggested at some point that it would be nice if, in the middle of the evening, we all performed something as an ensemble. That this would build the feeling of ensemble, and provide a kind of shape to the evening. I think it’s a fantastic idea.
One of the really nice things about our space in Cologne was the doors. They were visible from the foyer and they stayed open unassisted. Therefore, if my door was open, I was “open for business,” so to speak. Our helpful assistant (one of our excellent colleagues from ON), who has been handing out numbers at the door, can easily see that I’m free and can call the next number. It also took a little time for that person to walk over, but I found this minute very useful in terms of taking a rest, having a drink of water, cleaning my instruments and having a casual listen through the walls to how my colleagues were doing.
In order to help the public keep track of what they heard, we had two strategies. I had individual sheets of paper with the programme note for each piece I’d play written on it. Whichever piece they chose, they’d receive their programme note, which they could clip into the little folder they’d received as their ticket. On the back of this folder was a table, with all our pieces listed. After the performance, we used our beautiful “unter 4 ohren” stamps to mark the place. I still have ink on my fingers after all that stamping, but I thought it was brilliant. I was practically running after people, “you forgot to get your stamp!” as though nothing could be more important.
What wasn’t listed was who was playing what, or for what instrument each piece was for. I think for the most part this worked. It meant that whenever someone came into the room, we had no choice but to have a conversation about what they might like to hear. I think this initial conversation is really important in terms of making the audience member feel comfortable and more able to ask questions afterwards. And these questions were, for me, one of the most rewarding aspects of the gig: I spent about 10 minutes, for example, discussing the notation for Evan’s piece with a young man who had very little experience with notated music. On the other hand, one visiting member of the public told me that there were specific composers he wanted to hear, but unless he already knew which instrument they were for, he had no way of knowing which room to go in to.
Most of us had around four pieces to choose from. This was probably too many. In total there were 33 pieces in the table, but absolutely no chance that any one audience member could possibly hear everything. In fact, in Cologne I think the average was six pieces per person. I would suggest then that one should prepare a maximum of three pieces. I think this would make things seem a little less overwhelming for the public and one could at least have the illusion of being able to “collect them all”.
What one plays is also really important. In fact, even the names of pieces are important: if you give the audience the chance to choose, sometimes they’ll pick the one with the most interesting sounding name. Furthermore, when it comes to people recommending pieces in the foyer, unfortunately it’s going to be “the one with the…”. A lot of my colleagues had pieces with audience interaction: these went down extremely well. Something a bit theatrical or with video also worked nicely.
I do think, however, one should be careful that the event doesn’t fall into the trap of relying on “gimmicks” (for want of a less negative sounding word). Balance is important and actually some of the nicest conversations I had on a given evening were about Patricia Alessandrini‘s piece, which was “only” for clarinet solo, as we talked about gesture, breath and the wealth of possibilities that the clarinet can offer: some of my favourite topics, as you can well imagine.
One can also find ways to guide the audience member’s listening experience. Occasionally I would have a look at the other composers they’d already heard and try to suggest something based on that. In fact, I wish I’d spent more time doing that kind of thing, as that usually worked out very well and led to some nice conversations.
What was also nice is how many of the composers were actually present. For example, Harald Muenz was not only present, but seemed to be chatting up everyone in the foyer as I had a huge number of requests for his piece while we were in Cologne. (He’ll forgive me for teasing him, I hope!) But being able to say to someone who perhaps doesn’t have a lot of experience with new music, “the composer of this piece is here, I can point him out to you if you want to say hello or talk to him about his piece,” is rather special, even if people are too shy to actually say hello.
Of course it’s also just interesting to perform the same piece a number of times over the course of an evening. Things change and develop, and somehow I had the feeling there was a different quality of adrenaline with such an evening.
I really hope this post inspires other groups to try similar things. Perhaps it sounds a bit kitschy, I can just imagine sarcastic voices “oh, here’s another young ensemble, trying to be innovative“. But really, it worked! Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most effective, I suppose.
One other thing I would love to try in the future is to design a similar kind of project but with young children (and their parent). To commission works specifically with young children in mind, to have only one piece per room and stamps specifically matched to that room (so then one really could complete a collection). If anyone fancies employing hand werk for such an event…
update: I should say that while I’ve written extensively about this, the idea for the concert was not mine. ensemble chronophonie did this project a number of years ago and have apparently been trying to repeat it ever since!