Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Audience in Performance

When I started playing music in middle and high school I was playing in bands that wanted to "rock" the audience. The music was designed to be audience friendly- though of course, we found it fun to play as well.

In college, when I started to play more difficult music (as in, difficult to listen to), I dismissed the audience as irrelevant. This was useful because when you play difficult music you can't count on an audience to respond positively to what you're doing so convincing yourself that you don't care what they think and that you're playing the music solely for your enjoyment is a practical defense mechanism. Though the music I played at the time was intensely personal in many ways and it was satisfying to play it in rehearsal with my band mates and we could even play shows to no one and still have fun, it was still obviously a lie that the audience was irrelevant.

Now that I play improvised music that is, by definition, different every night, I've started to rethink my ideas about audience. In improvised music, unlike in structured music, the audience can truly change the performance. For instance, if you're playing a structured song and you see that people are enjoying it- singing along, dancing, etc - then you might get excited and play your part more intensely or jump around but the music itself doesn't change much because it's preplanned. However, if you're making it up as you go along, as we do in my bands, and the audience (if we're lucky enough to have one) is visibly or audibly excited, it can literally change the music by affecting the decisions we make about what to play as we're playing. Case in point: when we played a punk show in Salt Lake City, we weren't sure if any one there was going to enjoy it. Five minutes into the first piece people in the audience were yelling encouragement and had their fists up in the air like they would if a punk band was playing. That's a shot of confidence that has to affect to music.

Furthermore, when we play different venues we have a lot of options for how to present the music. For instance, when we play a gallery show, we can assume the audience will probably have more patience and we can take advantage of that by allowing the music to develop more slowly. If we're playing a punk show, we generally plan to present our most intense and chaotic side more quickly. If you have a set of songs you play each night, you don't really have the ability to do this.

The reason I've been rethinking the role of audience is because I don't know whether it's a good thing to consider audience or to allow yourself to be affected by them in performance. Does it make it less honest? Or is it just a lie to attempt to ignore audience? How do we acknowledge the role of audience while still playing music that is true to ourselves?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another side of this: How the players feel has a lot to do with how improvised music sounds and how well it comes together, or not. Since the music is not pre-formed, it is not simply how well you perform it; the audience, lack of an audience, their enthusiasm, openness, apathy, etc. are all things that contribute to the feeling in the room and how the players feel. When people are less attentive, a 20-minute improvisation is harder; when people are mesmerized, you can make a different and longer journey.

In light of all of this, and what you have said, I think that ignoring the audience is a lie, or perhaps just wishful thinking. The audience is there, and also, you have travelled to play precisely BECAUSE it is there. No one packs up their gear to play in an empty room unless it is a recording studio. Honesty? Well, being honest requires acknowledging this. Why would it be more honest to pretend you are playing for no one? We are all social beings. We only exist in isolation in the conext of false illusions.

I agree with you, but in the spirit of collective improv, just add some tone color.