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Corky Siegel takes audience participation to a new level

Chicago blues-rock/classical pioneer Corky Siegel will take audience participation to a new level this week when his Chamber Blues ensemble performs Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 6 and 7, at The Next Picture Show Fine Arts Center in Dixon, Ill.

Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues
Marc Hauser

Siegel will involve his audiences in a newly revised version of “Five Planets in Harmonica Convergence,” a track from the 2005 album Corky Siegel’s Traveling Chamber Blues Show. In a dramatic turnabout from the usual pre-concert admonition, he’ll ask listeners to “please leave your mobile devices on during this performance,” and then provide the means for them to accompany Chamber Blues with their phones as the "Philharmonica Corkestra."

“Someone sent me an email about a book about engaging audiences using mobile devices, and my mind jumped to the Dixon concerts,” says Siegel, by way of explanation. “So I tried to design what you could play on a smartphone and started recording ways that I thought the piece might sound like using them, bouncing ideas around and back and forth and coming up with something a little avant-garde and with good consonance. Then I called an IT [information technology] person, who got really excited and is coming to Dixon--and in one day the whole thing just exploded. I think it’s an amazing idea.”

Specifically, Siegel’s idea is to provide downloads at the shows, with those seated on the left getting one specially-recorded piece (“Corkestra LEFT”), those in the center getting another (“Corkestra CENTER”) and those on the right getting a third (“Corkestra RIGHT").

“The pieces fit together, so they’re actually three parts of one piece,” says Siegel.

"Say there are 90 people with downloads, 30 in each section. At the appropriate time I’ll say ‘Play,’ but I won’t give a really good cue, because I want them to be out of sync!”

The first 30 seconds of the two-minute revised piece is an introduction played by the handhelds.

“At some point we’ll hear a cue and the string quartet will fade in with a small minute-long section of ‘Harmonica Convergence,’ while the handhelds go silent until we get to the middle, when they fade in again to accompany us. Then they fade out and fade in again at the end and it’s very cacophonic but it all ends in a beautiful choral sound that I might improvise with.”

The whole thing, says Siegel, is “an experiment that should be really fun. The many devices will create spontaneous rhythms, rhythm clusters, harmonic and melodic happenings throughout the audience."

Co-founder with guitarist Jim Schwall of Chicago’s legendary blues-rock Siegel-Schwall Band, harmonica and piano player Siegel’s blues-classical music ensemble Chamber Blues also includes violinists Chihsuan Yang and Jaime Gorgojo, violist Dave Moss, tabla player Frank Donaldson, and cellist Jocelyn Butler.

He wants the Philharmonica Corkestra to play out of sync because “it wouldn’t be very interesting otherwise”—though it’s unlikely he could get 90 smartphone “players” in sync had he wanted to.

“There’s no way to tell people to press 'Play' and get them to all do it at the same time or be in sync technically,” says Siegel. “So I wrote the piece with that in mind, that they can’t all play simultaneously. It’s written over a period of six seconds—to span a six-second range of being out of sync.”

This, continues Siegel, required a “whole different consciousness and way of composition.”

“I’d test it and then have to rewrite it many times, because one note becomes 30—or however many people are in the section. Added to that is that each section has a different part. So now you have three different notes, each played 30 times: One on the left, in the center, and on the right. Ninety different notes—written out as three but played out of sync by up to 90 people with 30 in each section. Knowing this, I wrote the piece in a way that would sound interesting when played out of sync by 90 people.”

The “handheldist” players will be able to download their parts—to be designated “Download Left,” “Download Center” and “Download Right,” according to where they’re sitting--from a special website just prior to the performance.

“I’ll make an announcement at the beginning of the show, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please leave your phones on,’” says Siegel, “and if any of the phones ring during the performance, I’ll instruct audience members to answer them and say, ‘Please hold and listen,’ which will just add to the spontaneity of the whole experience!”

He admits to having “no idea” if it will work.

“But with most of my ideas, I have no idea if they will work!” he says. “If I knew for sure that they would work, I would think of a different idea.”

[The Examiner has written liner notes on several Corky Siegel-related CDs.]

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