Since the 20th century contemporary classical music and site-specific sound art are deeply related to each other and I am convinced that in the future the influence of site-specific arts on music will grow. Some themes common to both, are well-known: for example the attention for popular and non-western culture or the fascination for silence, noise and (environmental) sound. But in this post I want to focus on three other themes which also disclose parallels between site-specific and contemporary music: the many-sided character of sound perception, its multi-sensorial nature and the artists’ call for sustainable, local solutions to global social and ecological problems.
The many-sided nature of environmental sound is much more than just the spatialization of sounds. For example, on a market place, there is not just one central sound (on a stage) but many sources. People listen from changing positions to different things and they do so by integrating their own ideas, habits, feelings and history. At the same time these people have the experience that they are sharing a space – the market – and they are part of a common soundscape. The raise of portable technologies has added a digital, virtual dimension to this many-sided character: in a market place people use their mobile phone or search on the internet with a smartphone or tablet. They partly move in a virtual world which is connected to the common market place.
In our daily world the experience of sound is also multi-sensorial. Together with visual and tactile experiences it forms a holistic experience at one specific location. For example, hearing the wind blow is usually coupled to feeling it in your face or seeing trees and objects move. The different simultaneous sensorial experiences create a complex and diverse array of unified experiences of which the auditory experience is only one part. Music and sound are not isolated, independent experiences.
In the past decades an increasing number of composers and performers became fascinated by this many-sided and multi-sensorial character of the sound experience. Within the (isolated) concert hall, technology has been used to recreate this experience. In contemporary classical music the number of productions and compositions which not only involve multimedia (video, sensors,…) but also produce sound and image from many perspectives (as in the work of Michael Beil) continues to raise. Site-specific arts have a major trump card in this respect: they do not need to reconstruct the many-sidedness and multi-sensoriality with a lot of technological devices, it is often an inextricable part of a specific outside location. Moreover, the artist can focus on the interaction of the new digital worlds and the real, local place, in contrast with the concert hall in which the isolated, technological, virtual world is often placed in the foreground.
A next theme is sustainability. In recent years more artists began to tackle questions such as: “How can my art help to realize a more sustainable and equitable world? How can I enforce the local power of people and not of international economic and political institutions?” This convergence of artistic and societal concerns is noticeable in festivals such as (im)Possible Futures in Vooruit (2015, Belgium), the international conference Culture(s) in sustainable futures (2015) or the recent term sustainable art. Art critics use this term to describe artistic practices operating in harmony with principles of ecology, social justice, non-violence and grassroots democracy. Already in the seventies site-specific composers such as David Dunn stressed the local elements in their outdoor performances, and the work of Chester Schultz shows that site-specific music can develop into sustainable art. In the intersection between site-specific and sustainable art it is necessary to mention community music, a concept that stresses and fosters the social and relational aspects of performing music for all people. Community music encompasses a wide array of practices, some with a long history. But in the past decades the attention for community music has grown, specifically in the English-speaking countries such as the UK or Australia. In some site-specific music projects (a.e. Kathy Kennedy or Het Geluid van Hasselt en Genk with compositions of Wim Henderickx) both listeners and amateur musicians participate, which blurs the borders between site-specific and community music.
The previous three themes and relations indicate that a movement ‘outwards’ is likely to appear in contemporary music because it is outside the concert hall that these relevant and topical themes can be fully exploited. I also think that in contemporary classical music there is a complex and fundamental contradiction between the music and the expressed ideas on the one hand, and the closed, isolated hall with its related social rituals (between audience and performers, audience and composer) in which it is caught. I hope that moving performances to other locations, in a dialogue with the surroundings, breathes new life to contemporary classical and experimental music…