A site-specific composition and performance does not inevitably mean that you only work with materials and sounds that are part of the concert site. Since the last quarter of the 20th century, artistic concepts and societal opinions have become more ecological; mutual relations and dependencies are valued, as opposed to isolated elements which are only connected by causal relations. To suppose that a landscape or concert location exists independently from yourself, and that, as an artist or member of the audience, you are an outsider that quietly sits down and listens, is an opinion that is becoming rare among artists (myself included). See e.g. the Landscape Quartet.
Therefore, in a site-specific performance the question arises: how and to what extent shall I intervene in the environment and stage it together with the performance? Which choices do I make to design a performance in a specific location? I will explore these questions and possible answers by taking a closer look at my recent compositions.
A site-specific performance requires a choice of a location and a moment at which the audience is invited to come to that place. A location (such as a park) and its character are not static; season, day and time of the day can create large differences. The fundamental choice of a location and moment is related to the general concept of a musical work and also has to be reconciled with organizational restrictions and demands. In my composition Beving several performers play percussion on objects, materials and the architecture of the concert location. Not only present and audible sounds play a role, but also the potential, hidden ones. Thus, the diversity of materials at a location largely defines the choice of a fitting location. If this diversity is too small (for example a park with only grass and a cycling road), the performance will become impossible. Moreover, the acoustics of a location, the size of the expected audience and the number of performers, also play a role in the choice of location, because the performance has to be audible for the whole audience.
Apart from the place and time, other choices and interventions have to be made. A thorough exploration, performed at different moments before the rehearsals and concert, produces a detailed and rich image of the sounds and objects at the site. A choice between all these possibilities has to be made, and sometimes later on in the creative process these explorations and choices need to be further adapted if they are not sufficiently effective. For example, after the exploration and first rehearsal of Plain in the reading room of the library of the Singel, it turned out that there was a lack of diversity and loudness of sounds. A first solution was found in the ‘doubling’ of certain sounds: multiple performers played on (almost) identical objects (such as a book with a hard cover) at the same moment.
(photo: Zena Van den Block)
Second, I started searching for other materials (brushes, foam, etc.) to rub objects at the site and produce louder and more diverse sustained noise sounds. Third, by changing the placement of objects such as books or stands, they could resonate more freely and sound louder. Fourth and last, by indicating or memorizing interesting sound places in detail (for example sweet spots on a wooden floor), we could ensure the diversity and loudness as well.
The friction between the concert location with its character and affordances on the one hand, and the musical and compositional demands on the other, is a recurring phenomenon in the genesis of site-specific performances. This tension enforces you as a composer to search for creative and local solutions to ensure that in the end the performers, audience, plants, animals, materials and architecture can ‘work together’ in a site-specific performance of a composition.
Finally, it is important to think about the role of the audience and to communicate about it. On the one hand, the standard ritual to sit silently and listen, only applies to the concert hall and it is not valid outside such a hall. But on the other hand, a group of walking and talking people can disrupt the (changing) character of a location. Choices have to be made about this role, and ideally, the concert ritual and space are designed in such a way that the audience is seduced to behave in the chosen way.