Open Symphony: Decent Technology, Weak Art

Through the ages, musical performance has both driven technology and been influenced by new technologies and idea.

Nothing is more characteristic of the last few decades than the ritual beginning of art performances, instructing the audience to “turn off your damn phone”. While this is technically important to preserve copyright to the performance, it also means that performances have moved farther and farther from everyday life. Going to the Symphony has long been a special, highly circumscribed social event, and now it is chopped off from the continuous connection that defines contemporary life.

This isn’t just a challenge for snooty old Symphony Orchestras, it is a problem for all performers. If addictive attention to personal devices is a challenge for work, school, and traffic safety, it is also a formidable challenge for artists. How can performers engage the attention of an audience who have the entire Internet in their hand? How can an artist reach people in the age of the selfie?

Fortunately, mobile devices and the means to program them are ubiquitous, so artists have begun to explore what may be done. The results so far aren’t especially impressive (and for that matter, haven’t really broken new ground since the nineties.)

A recent example is described in detail by Mathieu Barthet and colleagues at Queen Mary University of London [1]. “Open Symphony” is “a new participatory music performance system that explores the creativity and spontaneity of reactive interactions between an ensemble of performers and an audience using mobile technology and data visualization.” (p. 48)

First of all, it is crucial to note that the goal here is one specific kind of practice, which they call participatory performance, in which the “the performer-audience distinctions are blurred and where all participants actively contribute to the musical outcome.” (p.48) This is a perfectly valid thing, though obviously not the only way to go. Or even a very popular approach.

The authors make the interesting point that the goals of this type of performance are similar to and likely influenced by goals seen in contemporary media digital media, including:

  • encourage active spectatorship, 

    • “create communities in which participants are equal by developing a sense of closeness between the audience and performers and between audience members themselves, 

    • “undermine the boundaries of traditional expectations and behaviors, and 

    • “reaffirm the “liveness” of a performance (given the ever-increasing number of live acts based on prerecorded media) “ ([1], p. 49)

The last two bullets are pretty much the definition of “art” (versus the “commerce” that dominates the social web), but the first two are key aims of almost every digital media form. In other words, the social assumptions underlying mobile technology have been adopted as aesthetic desiderata. This is either a case of using a tool for its intended purpose, or descending to the lowest common denominator.

In any case, the OS system is particularly interested in distributing control. Instead of a top-down score and single conductor, they seek to have different people in the room make simple directing “moves”, which are integrated in various ways to generate a live performance. The resulting musical piece depends, indirectly, on everyone in the room.

The basic design of OS is for the  inputs from the group to be integrated via a voting mechanism. The participants use a mobile app to make their musical moves, and the overall combined effort is visualized on a large screen. As the piece progresses, everyone sees and hears, and reacts with more inputs.

The paper reports on some analyses of experiments with this set up [1]. The first finding indicated participants seemed to have little problem figuring out this (not especially intuitive) app, and did participate by voting. Not surprisingly, participants spent considerable time looking at and presumably attending to their mobile, though they reported that this did not prevent them from paying attention. (Of course, most people think that dinking with their phone doesn’t interfere with their driving, either.) In addition, the performers needed to attend to the score on the large screen, which limited their attention to the other musicians and the audience.

The initial study also found that the voting mechanism did not always create a sense of agency. With everyone voting, one individual might be outvoted, and consequently not influence the result.  Or it just might not be clear whether one’s opinion was having any effect or not. The researchers suggest that weighted voting schemes might improve this particular aspect.

They also found evidence of individual differences in perceived engagement, voting strategies, and probably many other aspects. Naturally, the participants bring different histories to the event, some have more sophisticated musical training, and some are just in a more ore less serous mood.

For one thing, the control system is based on complex musical parameters, presented in a simplified interface. Participants were given limited instruction, and no guidance about what they should do. Inevitably, different people will have different ideas of what the “moves” mean, and different goals when they “play”.

The authors note that participants varied in how “engaged” they were. This encompasses a certain amount of social context (what does the person expect) and personal taste (do they enjoy this type of music). In addition, it is possible that some people found the interface pleasant and easy, and others had less positive experiences. Either way, paying attention to the interface might well decrease a sense of “engagement” with the music, the audience, and the performers.

This project joins the ranks of many such efforts. To me, this does not seem like a particularly interesting approach, and it is certainly not new.

First of all, it is important to say that I have see this kind of technology a long time ago, back when we had to construct all the pieces ourselves. The implementation is fresh, and uses contemporary consumer gear, but the basic design is the same as has been done decades ago.

One thing that is new, of course, is that not only does the audience bring their own device, they are very skilled at, and amored of, using said device. So there are very few luddites in the sample, everyone has been assimilated. At least in the volunteers for the experiment.

It is great to see artists experimenting with this technology. But I wish they would get past the first obvious and trivial ideas, and create something truly awesome, like this.

It is very noticeable that there is a small but persistent group of people interested in this sort of participatory music. Interest in this practice predates digital systems, but has been attracted to the possibilities of computer interfaces from the beginning. This interest is particularly strong among musicians, who naturally are less inclined to just sit there and listen to other musicians without getting in the game. Practicing musicians also have lot’s of experience listening and making music at the same time, which non-musicians do not. In other words, this style of performance is really geared for expert musicians, which is a small audience.

I have also observed that the same artists are often concerned about power games, about who controls the performance. This is seen as more “democratic” performance style, which blurs the boundaries and obliterates the hierarchy. This probably explains why there is a penchant for voting schemes, which make the most sense if you think of performance as a political process. Otherwise, why would anyone want to either create or experience an improvised, unstructured, musical “argument” among people who have no joint goal or plan?

Finally, I’ll fall back on my own experiences with similar technology. Setting aside the obvious challenge of different tastes, the use of digital media in general and mobile apps in particular is very, very distracting. In general, a person can either pay attention to the performers or to the app, but not both. If the piece requires the audience to attend to the phone or to a screen, then they will not be attending to the artists or the audience.

In my opinion, using mobile devices and screens like this is a really bad idea for the art work.

It is antithetical to all four goals of the performance. Paying attention to the device encourages detachment from the other humans, and creates distance between the performers and the audience. Fiddling with your phone is exactly what people do in everyday life, and something like Open Symphony reinforces these expectations and behaviors. And finally, interposing the screen obscures the liveness of the performance, drawing attention away from here and now.

  • “encourage active spectatorship, 

    • “create communities in which participants are equal by developing a sense of closeness between the audience and performers and between audience members themselves, 

    • “undermine the boundaries of traditional expectations and behaviors, and 

    • “reaffirm the “liveness” of a performance (given the ever-increasing number of live acts based on prerecorded media) “ (p. 49)

Let me be clear. It is great to have this technology in the hands of artists. But we need to get past the easy and trivial concepts, and break some new ground. And that means, among other things, figuring out how to get people to pay attention to everything except their phone.

  1. Yongmeng Wu, Leshao Zhang, Nick Bryan-Kinns, and Mathieu Barthet, Open Symphony: Creative Participation for Audiences of Live Music Performances. IEEE MultiMedia, 24 (1):48-62, 2017.

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