Photo courtesy of Third Coast Percussion
by Luis López Levi
The most popular way to make concert music accessible to a wider audience is to take the performers out of the concert hall and into public spaces: schools, hospitals, train stations, parks. These efforts usually mean well, but many of them, especially when meant to be outdoors and more “informal,” meet their limits in one key element. Wittingly or not, they attempt to bring with them the reverence of the concert hall. They try to recreate the controlled environment of their ideal performance space: the silence, the acoustics, an audience familiar with the ritual of a concert. And it doesn’t always work.
It feels different, however, when the music is deliberately meant to be performed outside. On the evening of September 9, Chicago-based ensemble Third Coast Percussion gathered dozens of musicians of varying age ranges, skill levels, and instruments at the Pritzker Pavilion lawn for the world premiere of “The Bell Ringers,” by composer Danny Clay. The performance engaged its audience and venue so uniquely that it resulted in the rare occurrence of a piece that successfully ruptured the traditional concert setting.
The first thing the work accomplished was breaking the barrier between performers and audience members. Musicians who played larger, non-portable instruments such as marimbas, harps, and cellos, formed a wide circle around the lawn (themselves encircled by percussionists playing tom-toms.) The rest of the musicians roamed around the space, playing one note for every step they took. Likewise, the audience was also free to move around, to get as close as they wanted to the musicians and explore the different sounds each instrument made. And there was such a variety that most of the audience’s initial interest in the performance was simply in listening to the different timbres emanating in their midst: everything from common orchestra instruments (violins, flutes, trumpets) to several melodicas, a banjo, a Chinese pipa.
The piece was also successful in its malleability. It did not assume silence as its canvas, but rather blended with the sonic landscape in which it was happening. The notes coincided with sirens, shouts of playing children, horns and stereos from passing cars, and, as the sun went down, a chorus of crickets. This is a key difference with most outdoor performances, where external sounds are occupational hazards. Here, the sounds contributed to the piece, which would sound completely different in any other place and/or at any other time, even if the musicians played the exact same notes every time.
But that, of course, wasn’t how the piece was scored. The performance included a few “scripted” moments with defined melodic passages, including a particularly epic crescendo to a moment where a performer played a large bell in the center of the lawn. But most of the piece consisted of a sui generis kind of improvisation. The musicians at first seemed to be playing notes at random as they walked around the lawn. However, after paying attention to their movements, it soon became clear that the performers were, in fact, playing, and not just in the traditional musical sense.
The musicians organized various musical games with each other. Whenever a roaming musician reached a stationed one, the latter would hit a call bell. At another point in the piece, musicians formed small circles and “passed” the music to each other, playing a note while facing another performer; if the latter got distracted and didn’t see that they received the note, they would step out and the game would continue. Musicians also walked in line, with the person in front playing a note and “handing it” to the person behind, who passed it on until it reached the end of the queue. Some of these games not only included the official performers, but also a few audience members who decided to join in and, having no instrument, resorted to singing or clapping their hands.
Many audiences find contemporary atonal music challenging because they find its logic and structure difficult to grasp, especially in a traditional concert setting where the listener must be silent and remain seated. “The Bell Ringers” ultimately succeeded in removing those restraints from the audience, allowing them to feed their curiosity, occupy the same space as the musicians, and even participate in the performance themselves. The piece undoubtedly made for a fun musical evening for everyone involved, and the greatest takeaway was the fact that there were moments where it wasn’t easy to distinguish the musicians from the audience members. In the end, everyone made music together.
Luis López Levi is a journalist from Monterrey, Mexico, who mostly specializes in popular music and Latin American culture. He is currently pursuing an MA in New Arts Journalism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).