This morning the first performance of Lisa Bielawa’s “Crissy Broadcast,” described by the composer as “A Spatial Symphony for Hundreds of Musicians on Crissy Field,” took place at 10 a.m. The “official word” was that 800 musicians were involved, associated with fifteen amateur and educational groups. Thirteen of those groups were led by members of San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. This all added up to an impressively diverse assortment of players, all of whom gathered on “common ground,” for the sake of a unique approach to making music.
When this project was first announced, I described it as follows:
The basic idea for Bielawa’s composition comes from the semantic interpretation of “broadcast” as “cast or scattered in all directions.” The musicians will begin as a cluster in the center of Crissy Field. Bielawa’s score then provides instructions for how they will disperse, coordinated by both long-distance audible cues and synchronized watches. Listeners are then free to move about at will to experience this dispersion process.
One might think that this amounted to a musical embodiment of the concept of entropy, but this would be a misrepresentation.
Instead, the composition, as such, involved a fully-notated score for each of the participating groups. That score left certain decisions to the performers, but the notation was still quite specific. Just as specific was a timetable, according to which each group had to be following instructions as to when and where it would perform its score on Crissy Field. This music was not aleatoric, in the dictionary sense of the word, to the extent that it was not a result of choices made according the to mathematical definition of “purely random.” However, the score did not fully determine the performance, which was subject to a variety of “human factors” that involved both performers and listeners.
One might thus describe the score as a game in which the performers “make their moves” according to a well-defined set of rules. The listening experience thus depended on the constraints established by the composer as to what those rules would be. These involved the scores for the individual groups and the nature of the choices left to the performers.
This is not a particularly new approach. One of the most popular of previous efforts of this nature would probably be Terry Riley’s “In C.” In this composition every performer had to execute a series of motivic passages but had the liberty to 1) repeat a motif as often as (s)he wished and 2) pause as long as (s)he wished between the end of one motif and the beginning of the next. One may say that one reason that “In C” succeeded was that each motif was clear enough to be recognized, even within the jumble of all the other performers doing something else.
The same could be said of the motivic foundations of Bielawa’s scores. However, she upped the ante (to continue to game metaphor) by adding a spatial dimension. Each of the groups had its own trajectory through the “floor plan” of Crissy Field. The only salient property of those trajectories involved dispersal from an initial central location.
This meant that, for the listener, the experience was more than just awareness of motifs. It was also awareness of where those motifs were situated with respect to where on Crissy Field the listener happed to be standing. One result is that, from a given listening point, one might experience a stretto effect, as a motif would move from one group to another along what sounded like a monotonic trajectory. Another result was the side effect that the listener would acquire a heightened sensitivity to “hearing in the distance.” (I was particularly aware of one solo violin that I know I never actually saw.)
The result was a listening experience based on embedding in a social, as well as auditory space. The physicality of the experience entailed that the listener was not only more sensitive to distant performers but just as sensitive to all the contributing ambient sounds. (The fog had not lifted at 10 a.m., so those sounds included the foghorns on the Golden Gate Bridge.) Consequently, while all the performers found themselves thoroughly engaged in a new approach to making music, listeners were just as thoroughly confronted with new approaches to listening.
This was a delightfully refreshing paradigm shift in listening habits. All the theory behind the scores smoothly emerged through practice with no traces of abstract intellectual exercise. The entire experience lasted one hour, and it was definitely an hour well spent. This is why I feel it important to remind all readers that they can head out to Crissy Field for two more chances, today at 4 p.m. and tomorrow at noon.