By Jennifer Waring
This piece from the Public Engagement Committee describes a project mounted in Toronto by Continuum in 2011, when I was Artistic Director. It’s not a prescription for others to follow (though anyone is free to take up the idea) but rather a quick sketch of a fairly simple project that broke boundaries and some rules, and for those reasons got some notice. It also illustrates that when you venture outside normal practices you have to communicate clearly, because it seems that people will either remain stubbornly within the old mental territory, or feeling liberated will project onto the project things that aren’t actually there.
Continuum’s OCADU project was an experiment in transferring practiced ways of perceiving from one art form to another. Fourth year students in Criticism and Curatorial Practice at OCAD University, were asked to program a concert and also to write the notes for the works. Fifteen (primarily young) people, intensely involved in visual art, listened to thirteen recordings from Continuum’s repertoire, and then made curatorial decisions about music and wrote notes – guides for other listeners. And they did this through listening alone – they were expressly told not to do any additional research. The pieces collectively chosen were performed on a regular Continuum series concert (a welcome collateral effect being the opportunity to remount works, giving our loyal audience a second hearing, the musicians a second whack, and helping to advance the idea of “repertoire” in new music.) I chose the best “listening notes” of the OCADU students to use as programme notes – and since there were so many interesting notes, there ended up being three different sets of programme notes. These listening notes ranged from meticulous description to surreal stream of consciousness; they all illuminated something about the pieces, much about the connections between music and visual art, and also much about the individual writer. (Check out a concert program – PDF.)
What needed to be communicated better? The fact that it was called “The OCADU Project” primed some people (those who didn’t read beyond the title) to expect music played alongside a display of art. So maybe it needed a different title, or maybe it needed to be described in more ways more often. (There’s nothing wrong with presenting music with visual art. But the aim here was to engage young people in listening and thinking through writing and making programming decisions.) Different programme notes floating around the hall? I had hoped that people would swap programmes, read their neighbour’s, maybe even initiate a little save ‘em, trade ‘em. But, in spite of the directions written in the programme and my instructions from the stage, people mostly just read what they had picked up at the ticket table. If I were to run this project again (Continuum came close to getting funding to run it with a class of 300 philosophy students every year for three years) I would suppress the urge to wade into the audience and swap programmes for people – rather, I would just try to be clearer. Then I would run the project regularly so that people got used to the idea.
In just this one small project, fifteen students wrestled with what they were hearing, committed their thoughts to writing, and then half of them came to the concert. And the rest of us found out how they perceived a musical expression that is so familiar to us that we may be deaf to some of its meaning, or at least its effect. I think it’s worth repeating.
For more details about this initiative, contact Jennifer Waring at email@example.com
We’re always on the lookout for more success stories!
If you have heard of or participated in an initiative you have found particularly inspiring surrounding the issue of public engagement, please contact Louise Campbell — firstname.lastname@example.org