Monday, June 25, 2012

Singing in the Stands

A while ago on Twitter I had mentioned the need for an encyclopedia of fan rituals, across history and across cultural forms. Fellow Americanist Adam Golub suggested that a wiki-based source would be a means to start, a place where observers could note rituals they've discovered or witnessed and where a team of volunteer editors could sort the information. The social scientist in me would love the opportunities provided by simply gathering all that information in one place.

I'm thinking about this idea again in response to a piece by soccer writer Grant Wahl in the June 25th issue of Sports Illustrated. In "That's So Euro," Wahl recounts the various rites of European soccer fans, from the noble (Irish fans singing a haunting folk ballad in response to a loss; Lech Poznań fans "doing the Poznań, or groundhopping) to the ignoble (brawls, racist chants).

Wahl wonders whether the ways in which exposure to such rites among the growing numbers of English-language viewers for Euro 2012 might alter American sports spectatorship. As he notes, "NFL commissioner Roger Goodell marveled at European soccer, telling SI's Peter King that he would love to replicate the spontaneous songs and chants that are much a hallmark of the stadium experience as blaring music, Kiss Cams and T-shirt cannons are part of the NFL and other artificially enhanced U.S. sports." Wahl quotes a Polish-American Poznań fan, too, who questions whether refined middle-class NFL audiences would take to the expressive rituals of their European counterparts and whether hardcore fans might need some kind of special section in the stadium, where they might be led by a chant organizer.

It's kind of amusing that Goodell makes it sound like it was the fault of increasingly lethargic American audiences that they had to start showing candid audience shots on the jumbotron and playing AC/DC between plays. I'm not even a big sports person, yet even I have noticed how professional events have become more and more packaged for response, with choreographed fan "rituals" presented for consumption, like the brand name fast food that has taken over stadiums. The whole thing feels packaged like a commercial because, well--could it be possible that increased corporate sponsorship has anything to do with it?

Anyway, if you were to take away the packaging, and leave space for fans to organically respond to what's happening before them, I'm certain that Americans, middle-class or not, would be capable of developing and engaging in exuberant and supportive rituals. After all, they did so for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, before professional leagues took over. And elite social status certainly does not preclude chants and singing and other forms of exuberance. Has anyone been to an Ivy League hockey game lately?

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.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Ardent Audience Is Back

Well, that break was a little longer than I expected. Sorry. To get things going again, I thought I would just sort through a few odds and ends: news and pages in the world of audience that I've briefly noticed over the past couple of months while I've been busy wrapping up the academic year.

First--and I'm not sure why I didn't see this before--the Victoria and Albert Museum has put up a wonderful web page titled "A History of a Night at the Theatre." It summarizes the culture of theatre-going from 1500 to the present, including a focus on artifacts from the Museum's collections, from depictions of audiences in paintings and photographs to objects like a "box-renters fan." It's definitely something to which I will return in the future. Please check it out.

Back in February, Henrik Bo Nielsen, CEO of the Danish Film Institute, in a blog post titled "Is The Audience Always Right?," proposed a "reverse audience award" in film. He explained that "the award would go to the movie audience that has the curiosity, courage and energy to seek out challenging movie experiences." He made the proposal while lamenting the apparent boorishness of film audiences, as they follow the latest trend, demand action over substance, and generally think about movies as a quick and pleasurable escape from everyday life. While I think that problem may be due to broader socio-economic pressures more than lack of imagination, his idea of an audience award is something I'd definitely support. Recognizing great audiences (Most Engaged, Longest Applause, Deepest Post-Screening Discussion, Best Heckle, etc.) would be a good way to recognize the crucial participatory role of readers, listeners, and viewers in the arts.

At the beginning of June, the NPR jazz blog, A Blog Supreme, had a guest post, titled "'It Can't Be Done': The Difficulty of Growing a Jazz Audience, from Kurt Ellenberger. There has been considerable hand-wringing about jazz lately (which makes me wonder: is jazz dying any more now than it was after Coltrane died? Or in the 1980s?); it got a lot of attention. Personally, I thought that Ellenberger glaringly ignored the very group he was discussing--there was no engagement with actual audience members, just speculation about how to reach "them." At any rate, a summary of the comments and discussion is here

Have you been following the brouhaha around intern Emily White's post about her music collection at the All Songs Considered blog and the withering response from David Lowery? A summary of the firestorm is here. Maybe it's because I work with students everyday, but the "debate" all seems a little rehashed to me. Is it really news that people are putting together digital music collections from a variety of sources, including file-sharing and legal and illegal downloading? Didn't we have this debate twelve years ago with Napster? At least Robin Hilton wrote, "Let's be clear: The debate over compensation doesn't break down along generational lines, and didn't begin with Emily's essay. We know people have been downloading and sharing music — legally and illegally — for years. The 21st century models for recording music, getting it to fans and compensating everyone involved remain works in progress." Exactly.

Related to the subject of changing models of delivery, there was an interesting post yesterday at NPR on the literal legacy of the e-book, titled "Will Your Children Inherit Your E-Books?" Good article--and I'm not one to disparage the beauty, practicality, and endurance of the physical book--but I think one commenter on Facebook summed up the main criticism: "My child has already inherited my love of reading, which is worth far much more than the actual books." That's a point of view that I can embrace, and it's one, actually, that continues to give me hope.