Reflecting on RECON

A few weeks ago it was RECON, a festival of experimental art and music in Leeds and Bradford. I attended some of the festival events and since then have been mulling over the question of audience. Specifically how or whether an artist or musician thinks about their relationship to and interaction with an audience.

I know this isn’t a novel question and it’s certainly not particular to this festival, yet my experiences of RECON raised it foremost in my mind. Perhaps this was because Yvonne Carmichael’s silent gig with That Fucking Tank was explicitly concerned with how audiences usually behave at gigs. Or perhaps it was the starkly different approaches shown by David Thomas Broughton and James Yorkston at their gig at the Howard Assembly Rooms. Whatever the reason, here are my reflections.

Yvonne Carmichael & TFT Silent Gig

The set up for the silent gig at Bradford’s Delius Centre (there was another instance of the gig in Leeds that I didn’t go to) had the two members of That Fucking Tank playing their instruments in the centre of the room, surrounded by us, the audience. Interspersed with the audience were some dancers – trained and untrained – who had been to a series of workshops to prepare for this event. Oh, and we were all wearing headphones. The music was unamplified (a la silent disco) so you could tune-out and just watch if you wanted to. The dancing didn’t begin immediately and there was an initial frisson of anticipation about who was a plant and who a regular audience member. Soon though it became quite clear who was who. The dancers formed a kind of circle around the band and, although they flowed in and out of more tightly choreographed moves, they were quite distinct from the head-nodding, drink-holding attendees. I found myself ever-so-slightly taking on the moves of the dancers. My muscles would twitch in line with their actions and I considered throwing caution to the wind and breaking into the circle, but I didn’t. One woman did. Good for her. The rest of us nodded away but with an added awareness of each other. What I liked most about the set up was how enjoyable it was to watch, not just the band and the dancers but also the other audience members. In Bradford the event had a very convivial atmosphere. The audience size was limited by the number of sets of headphones available (25 I believe) and I think that most people attending probably knew the performers or knew someone who did. Audience was explicitly thought about and the event was designed with an audience, although a limited one, in mind.

Frozen Music
The intimacy of this event contrasted with the very public ‘Frozen Music’ by Amorphous Orchestra which happened two nights running outside Leeds Art Gallery. I attended on the first evening when a moderate crowd gathered on Victoria Gardens to watch. I wasn’t sure what to expect, the event was described as a live music and projection event using “the realtime scanning of performer’s brains to melt and morph the architecture of Leeds Art Gallery.” I wondered, how long would it be? Would it be linear, designed to be watched from beginning to end or a looping drop in-drop out affair? There wasn’t the usual framing provided by being in a particular type of venue or by being clearly either a) an art installation or b) improvised music. This was some kind of melding of the two. In the event it seemed to be a linear piece, with the music and projections both building over a period of time. So I was compelled to watch it in its entirety and I found it an enjoyable visual and sonic experience. Yet I remained a bit confused about its structure and about exactly what its purpose was. One thing I noticed was that very few passers by stopped to watch. I expect that to some extent this was due to the time of day, when commuters just wanted to get home. However I also wonder if it was partially because it wasn’t very clear how, as an audience member, you might interact with the work.
I’ll give a brief description. Firstly, you could see a group of men in white coats in a mini poly-tunnel with lots of electronic equipment, laptops and some musical instruments. They were playing some music, combining electronics and live elements. Placed nearby was a kind of dentist/barbers chair (rather Sweeney Todd) in which sat a woman, also in a white coat, with a contraption on her head. She was facing a large projection on the external wall of the art gallery. If you read the festival literature – as per the description above – then you would know that there was a relationship between the music, the woman’s cerebral response to it and the projections. Her brain waves would be used to manipulate the projected images. Was it a performance or was it a science experiment? For me it fell between the two. If it was a science experiment then I wanted more explanation of how the projections related to the subject’s brain activity. If it was a performance, then I wanted more consideration to be given to what the visuals conveyed. I liked the white coats and the look of ‘science’, plus the theatrical chair but was irked that it was always a woman in the chair, whilst men twiddled nobs. At times the projections looked sort of brain shaped, sometimes they looked like graphical representations of electrical activity but at other points there were recognisable images. I wondered, was there a logic and mechanism to this? An occasional electronic voice said things like: “entering phase 2, phase 2 – scanning the [insert a brain area]” which provided some explanation and guidance to the structure of the work, but it was a bit obtuse. The work could have benefited from an introduction or people on hand who were obvious guides. I felt that – in working out how to combine all the visual, acoustic and technical elements – an overall consideration of the audience’s experience was lost. Having said this, the premise of the piece is interesting and I hope there’s potential for its collaboration to further develop.

James Yorkston & David Thomas Broughton
The last event I want to talk about was a gig at the Howard Assembly Rooms, within Leeds’ Grand Theatre. My experience of this began with a similar framing anxiety. I was out for dinner and time was getting tight. At a gig doors usually open way before the music begins, but at the theatre or at a classical concert you’re expected to be there before the stated ticket time. What would the etiquette be here? Luckily our food arrived promptly and we got to the venue 5 minutes before start time. The next dilemma was where to sit. At the back of the room there was raked seating but at the front, cabaret style circular tables with surrounding chairs. Like most people we automatically headed towards the safe distance of the rows. Then in a moment of abandon I said: “let’s sit at the front” and we did. Right at the front. It turned out to be the best viewing spot for the first act David Thomas Broughton but not a great one for the second act James Yorkston, when I wished I could sneak away.

I lack the musical reference points and adequate vocabulary to describe music very well. As with the acts I’ve mentioned earlier in this post you’ll have to search online if you want to hear what these musicians sound like. However I think it’s safe to say that James Yorkston is fairly straight-down-the-middle contemporary folk with a somewhat pop sensibility. He is very competent but I found the songs rather dull. His saving grace was his audience patter. Between songs he told endearing stories. He may well tell the same stories every night but it worked.

Yorkston’s approach was a complete contrast to David Thomas Broughton who had no chit-chat verbal engagement with the audience but whose set was much more of a performance, interacting with the audience and the situation of the particular venue. Broughton’s music is also ‘folk’ but more ramshackle and more interesting. He records and loops sections of his voice, guitar and other noise makers such as an attack alarm and – in this instance – the creaky floorboards of the stage. He had 3 backing singers/performers who contributed not only gorgeous vocals but also interesting visual diversions such as tangling themselves up in microphone wires and wandering off in to the audience. Rather like Yvonne Carmichael’s dancers, I got the impression that they were improvising within certain set rules. Though I am sure that Broughton has tropes that he repeats at different gigs, it felt like a one off and this made it exciting. His attitude to the audience came across as conflictingly a little diffident and a little belligerent (compared to Yorkston’s friendly stories at least). He sang out above our heads and then walked amongst us, he stood on the front of the stage playing a buzzer on his belly (this was very funny) with a scowl and essentially imbued the gig with a whole lot of character.

I was reminded of a section in the film about Nick Cave “20,000 Days On Earth” where Cave talks about being a performer at small gigs where he picks out individuals from the crowd by making direct eye contact with them. The film shows footage of this; a packed, standing audience cram against the stage and are obviously loving the intensity of the encounter even though, to me, it seemed quite aggressive. This is juxtaposed with footage from a much larger concert at the Sidney Opera House. Here the audience is seated and Cave is on stage behind a piano and accompanied by a choir in addition to the band. It is a completely different dynamic yet he finds a way to relate to the audience in each. In the end I guess there’s no right or wrong way for performers to interact with their audience, but it is important for them to think about what works in a particular, given context. RECON’s experimental remit and boundary-crossing between art and music provides and extra challenge for audiences who may be experiencing unfamiliar work in an unusual setting. Hence it raises a challenge also to the performers, to consider and to orchestrate the type of encounter that they want.