Saturday, June 23, 2012

Audiencing, Spontaneous and Chosen

Last night, while my son and his friends attended a concert by Passion Pit at the Bank of America Pavilion in Boston, I went to the Institute of Contemporary Art and, finding it closed due to an electrical outage, decided to sit outside and read a book. The ICA has a spectacular set of illuminated wood bleachers built into the rear of the building, overlooking Boston Harbor, and it was a great relief to just relax with Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists, watch the boats pass by, and chill.


To my surprise, though, the evening quickly changed, when about fifty or so people, men and women, in various forms of performance wear (black leotards, loose-fitting tops, ballet flats, hair in buns, etc.) gathered below me on the steps. Apparently, there was a performance planned at the ICA that evening, and it was delayed due to the electrical problems. I watched as they chatted and waited; some did vocal exercises, while others practiced steps. I watched, too, when someone--apparently the director--came out, gathered them into a circle on the pier at the base of the bleachers and offered what sounded like instructions and encouragement.

The performers finally left to go inside the building, and then an audience started to arrive: young hipsters, people on dates, finely-dressed groups of friends out for a night. There's such an interesting energy among an audience before a performance: excitement, expectation, new moments of interaction between strangers and friends. Whatever the performance, there is always a negotiation in these moments--a slightly nervous sharing of purpose and a making sense of the event. This one seemed to present some difficulties for those attending--I heard snippets of conversations about the "avant garde," about the performers as "ninjas"(?), and about "the media."

Then new things started to happen. One young man emerged from the building with a music stand, a chair, and a large plastic bag filled with shoes, which he casually distributed around an area on the walkway just to the side of the bleachers. A young woman in sun dress, moving dramatically like a dancer, carefully placed tea cups at different points on the pier: on a railing, on a trash can, on a step. Then someone started playing the piano in the plaza on the other side of the bleachers. A representative from the Institute came out, apologized to the audience for the late start, and indicated that a queue had already begun on the other side of the building, so we were all to move there.

I wasn't a ticket-holder, so I didn't queue up. Instead I lingered on the bleachers as crew members continued to run back and forth, setting up some lights and more cables.  After a few minutes, the crew suspended a rope (it looked like a noose) from a balcony above the walkway with the shoes. A classical guitarist sat at the chair and music stand and started playing. A man in vaguely Japanese-style clothing started hanging from the rope and swinging himself this way and that, crying out in some sort of anguish. A group of about 20 dancers, each with a tiny spotlight held to the face, ran up through the bleachers to a side balcony, where, in a line, they danced against the railing, emerging and then receding. A large group of dancers came down to the walkway and applauded another dancer above. This went on for about 15 minutes; it was apparently some kind of preview for the people in line. I stood nearby, not sure whether I was supposed to be there or not; the dancers ran right by me several times and I wasn't removed by security, so I just watched. When the dancing and dangling ended, a man wearing a suitcase on his back (which seemed to be equipped with a speaker that fuzzily amplified dance music playing from another source) ran by. The queuing audience for the performance started to filter into the Institute, and I finally decided it was time for me to go sit in the car.

How splendid it was to spontaneously witness this bit of performance! It made me wonder about my experience, as an innocent bystander, and the experience of the paying ticket-holders. Obviously, the latter had a more immersive engagement, based on their investment of money and time, but that doesn't mean that my experience simply ought to be dismissed or forgotten. The entertainment industry has encouraged us to think of "audience" as a formal and defined role, a designation afforded by the purchase of a ticket or being located in auditorium seats. But, of course, audiences can form outside of that framework. Avant garde theater is one place where the audience role is explored and played with; many directors deliberately work against the formality of the proscenium and the imaginary fourth wall separating audiences and performers. Working against normal frameworks of audiencing is also the idea behind, say, the modern flash mob, in which a performance spectacle erupts in an everyday space, and everyone and anyone can suddenly find themselves "at the theater."

What's so interesting for me, after having done the research for Listening and Longing, is that for many people living in early 19th-century America cities, the situation was opposite. Inadvertently finding oneself audiencing music, for example, was a common occurrence. It was easy to stumble on a political rally or parade with band music, or passed by a church while its choir was making "a joyful noise unto the Lord,"or suddenly heard a neighbor in the next apartment practicing piano. Otherwise, street musicians and criers created an almost continuous sonic landscape of speech and chant. For most people, this kind of "surprise audiencing" was the primary way they heard music; more formal performances in halls were few and far between and beyond the financial reach of many. In that context, increasing opportunities to engage in formal audiencing--through the purchase of a ticket for a theater production, a minstrel show, or an opera virtuoso on tour--was marked with special meaning. It was a means to control and refine what one would hear and witness. For those among the middle- and aspiring-middle class who could afford such concerts, the excitement and anticipation about one's choice of musical experience created new kinds of enthusiasm and social power.


“Man With the Musical Ear.” Arthur’s Home Magazine (September 1853): 167.

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