Inside the Outside Music

The music started quietly, almost imperceptibly, evocative of soft winds blowing across a vast open expanse. Musicians gathered at the center of the Park Avenue Armory’s Drill Hall began to pick up and play paper megaphones, sand blocks, stones, sound hoses and bullroarers, then slowly moved outward toward percussion stations arrayed around the space. As they shifted to drums, cymbals, conch shells and sirens, the music grew in force and intensity, building to a mass of swirling sound with the visceral force of being inside a thundercloud (or at its peak, like reliving the tornado that swept through my Brooklyn neighborhood last summer) before eventually settling back down and coming to a resolution with the birdlike twittering of piccolos and a shimmer of triangles.

Seventy-eight musicians were employed for the performance of John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit during the Tune-In Music Festival last weekend. It was, by all means, an EVENT. And all the cool kids were there, the ones who wear lots of black and follow new-music composers like Adams. The Alaska-based Adams shares the name of a Founding Father but also, more problematically, of another more well-known contemporary composer of about the same age. His music is well-respected but not widely known. This was the New York premiere of Inuksuit.

Yet unlike most new-music events, Inuksuit drew a crowd large enough to comfortably populate the Drill Hall. The audience of about 1,200 included a relative cross-section of ages, from students to families with children to older adults. There was no seating for the 85-minute piece. Audience members were encouraged to wander about the space and experience the music from different angles on the main floor, the balconies, stairwells and hallways.  They did so freely, getting up close to the musicians, looking over their shoulders at the music stands and taking too many photos (an all-too common occurrence these days).

Inuksuit was written for outdoor performance and this was the first time it had been done inside. Even the composer himself had never heard his own work this way and Adams could be seen at times standing quietly, anonymously, in the center of the hall, with head down and eyes closed. Listeners around him adopted the same pose. As the music worked its way through different moods, more and more took a seat on the floor or stretched out completely, using their jackets for pillows and closing their eyes to take in the sound environment. The scattered groups looked like so many picnickers who, tired a bit after walking around Central Park, have stretched out on the grass for a nap. Altogether, a quite different experience from the usual concert format and environment, and one that encouraged an entirely personal way of experiencing the music.

Which makes this performance of Inuksuit an unexpectedly good example of just how much concertgoers can be affected by their experience. Research by orchestras has shown that ticketholders’ perception of a performance is tied directly to their overall experience, which includes everything from their enjoyment of the music to their comfort level with concert etiquette to the line at the bar during intermission. The casual setting of the Armory on a Sunday afternoon gave these listeners permission to like the work or not, with no pressure about what they were supposed to know or do. They could literally immerse themselves in the music, take a good look at the instruments, and even feel free to sit down and close their eyes without feeling like they were breaking the rules.

It’s hard to know what drew individuals to this performance, or where they’d heard about it. The grand scale of this performance got more than the usual share of media attention, but it’s easy to overlook a story or web post on an event that’s part of a new-music festival, with composers and music you’ve never heard of. My companion surmised that many in attendance were probably family and friends of the musicians involved. Perhaps they were attracted by the unusual nature of the performance or the chance to check out the latest avant-garde event at the Armory. The Inuksuit/Armory experience may not be replicable, but classical and contemporary concerts of all types share certain characteristics. Central among them is the question of how to attract audiences through an understanding that their tickets will buy a satisfyingly full experience and not just, as they might fear, a boring exercise in etiquette and incomprehensible music. And for this day, everyone seemed engaged, at their own level and their own pace.

2.23.2011

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