With the generous support of the Paul R. Judy Center for Applied Research at the Eastman School of Music, 2017 has been a critical period of development for on|off, an audience-collaborative work performed by the public on homemade musical synthesizers, developed by Peter Ferry (BM ‘13), video artist Xuan (BM ‘14) and composer Danny Clay.
on|off is designed around our collective hunger to engage audiences as participants in musical experiences, relying on their willingness to observe, absorb, react and alter content throughout an evolving process. In an era of social and political divisiveness, this new work reframes the concert experience to remind ourselves that respectful participation and active reflection is vital to healthy communities.
on|off creates a meeting place for diverse crowds, using these unique instruments to sonically hear each other’s contributions, communicate together and create effective exchange. As with other practices of “contact theory,” we’re aiming for a neutral space (non-verbal setting) and equal power balance (each instrument is identical) to enable new bonds and a lasting shift in participants’ default perceptions of others.
The artistic team combines Peter Ferry’s experience of producing inventive multimedia performances, videographer Xuan’s avant-garde aesthetic (using concrete and abstract imagery) and Danny Clay’s creative game-based compositional practice to explore, together, an alternative to the traditionally static concert-going frameworks that assume a passive audience.
Since these simple tone generators — each consisting of only an on/off switch, a volume knob, a frequency knob and a speaker fixed within an enclosure — are at the center of our research, we used this opportunity to develop the DIY instrument. Beyond our technical improvements in constructing the electronic components, we partnered with artist Simon Pyle to prototype then converge on a design for the enclosure. We’re thrilled with our final result which is easy to hold and use, creates a warm and powerful sound, fits the character of the piece and is a beautiful art object in itself. Over the course of the year, we’ve gradually scaled from 2 instruments to 40!
In residence at Mana Contemporary’s High Concept Laboratory, we explored the social possibilities of an audience performing on these instruments. Drawing on composer Danny Clay’s experience with game-based works (rooted in his elementary classroom music teaching) and our brief residency at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, we experimented with multiple strategies to influence an amateur audience’s performance. The learning was tremendous, particularly as the social dynamic and possible solutions completely shifted every time we added a newly created instrument. Besides our deepening understanding of working with audience-participants, the biggest breakthrough was in the use of projected prompts by video artist Xuan, which allowed for unobtrusive guidance of the audience.
Guided by these video projections, the attendees together navigate their own decisions from the moment they enter a space and choose to pick up a synthesizer. By offering our audience agency and autonomy, we eliminate the barriers between listeners and creators of sound to offer a deeper musical experience. We asked: How do we move participants from solo exploration to duet collaboration to unity of purpose? How do we best motivate participants to collectively respond to projected games, puzzles, rituals, challenges, or meditations?
Each diverse, unassociated crowd brought a wide swath of experiences, comfort levels and perspectives which mixed and melded in new ways throughout the piece. We found attendees began focused on their own instruments before widening their view to see what can be created together.
In the current development phase, we are simultaneously planning for the next stages of the central work while also researching the sub-areas that we’ve opened up this Spring. This Summer, we researched fixed installation possibilities while in residence at the Avaloch Farm Music Institute. This Fall, we have begun experimentation with introducing acoustic percussion instruments into the sound world of the synthesizers with a performance at Chicago’s Hairpin Arts Center and mass audience at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester. This Spring, over a ten-week period, we will be exploring the educational possibilities of the project in San Francisco’s Zion Lutheran School. These explorations will inform the continuing evolution of on|off, as lessons are applied to the central work in 2018-19.
The on|off project aims to provide an innovative interaction amongst participants, creating a shared experience that empowers the audience to create together. Our hope is that the attendees will leave with an expanded perspective on listening and an appreciation for the unique contributions of others.
This project’s new terrain and radical public-inclusivity has been an incredible experience for us to share with the first hundreds of audience-participants with whom we have worked in these early stages. We are grateful for the Center’s support of our research, learning and the advancing of this socially-grounded musical project.