Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Elements of Music Participation

In my last blog post, I gave an overview of audience participation in music. Where I am headed with this is developing a framework of techniques that provide everyone at an event the sense that they are part of the event, not just part of an audience watching the event. It's a broad subject which I have been reading about for a number of years, drawing upon academic studies in theater, leisure time consumption, game development, and so on.

The Internet has made us much more aware of the ways people can be engaged in a project. Levels of creative engagement can range from interactivity to crowdsourcing to collaboration. If we think of this as a continuum, at one end, participants can manipulate and play with the creative object, but not fundamentally change it. At the other end, they are responsible for helping to create it.

Some examples of simple interactive elements might be colored squares that light up and play notes when someone steps on them. Or perhaps a slide that plays a song as someone slides down it. Or even having everyone bring a kazoo.

Here's a video of a clever way to incorporate music into a device that everyone can use.

At the other end of the creative participation scale, you may choose to have people adding elements which must fit together in a cohesive fashion to produce a piece of music. The final product doesn't work if they aren't cooperating. To give you a sense of the degrees to which audiences can manipulate music, here is this:
The music for the Melody Easel and Harmonic Driving is all composed, but modifiable by the audience. The Gesture Wall, Rhythm Tree, and Singing Trees are more like improvisation systems, where we set up the sounds and limits, and design the playability of the system, but do not determine the actual music that can be played. For the Speaking Trees, we send out precomposed stimuli; the responses which are recorded are completely up to the audience member. In the Performance, Movement 1 is the most improvisational: my composition is like a piece of swiss cheese with lots of holes - some music and continuity there, but lots of room for new sounds, thoughts, texts, etc. Movement 2 is completely composed, with lots of room for interpretation. Movement 3 is a mix, where I have composed the basic elements, but have left room for all sorts of other ingredients to be added, modified, mixed, leading to wildly different versions of the piece. If I had to quantify, I'd say that 60% of the music is composed or carefully planned, while 40% is open to vast difference (in material or structure) from performance to performance. "The Brain Opera and Active Music."
One of the challenges in engaging people is that you may have groups who may have varying levels of skill and creativity. Unless you have screened everyone before letting them become involved, you've got to find ways to incorporate a variety of inputs.

So I began to make a list of ideal elements for a group musical experience:

  • The event is entertaining enough to get people involved.
  • There is something for everyone to do.
  • There are ways for everyone to contribute.
  • It's a project that won't be destroyed as people add on to it. In other words, it doesn't need to be edited. Everyone can toss something into the mix, they can identify their contribution, and each addition adds to the mass and becomes more pleasing.

  • One issue worth acknowledging is that not everyone wants to participate. This comment reflects how some audience members feel.
    ... I hate audience participation. Nothing annoys me more than cast members making fun of people for coming in late, than being the girl some character serenades, than reluctantly clapping and/or singing along. I can't stand getting splashed, but getting rained on becomes one of my most memorable theater moments? Where's the line? When does audience participation hinder and when does it enhance a theater piece? "Everybody's doing it," Life's a Pitch, 3/29/09.
    The author was saying all that because she went to a performance of Hair and found herself caught up in the experience in spite of herself.
    ... cast members began directing rows of people up the stairs and onto the stage to dance. "Can we go??" I blurted, terrified that the row in front of us would be the last to be invited....

    This production of Hair takes the silver and bronze for best theater experiences of my life: getting soaking wet while the cast adamantly belted for sun this summer, and dancing on stage last night. (Gold goes to seeing Rent in previews. No getting around that.)
    So an audience participation event must also allow for non-participation or it needs to be so compelling that everyone wants to participate.

    As I was researching audience participation, I ran across a number of experiments designed to address some of same issues that I had included on my own list of elements to promote audience participation.

    Jason Freeman reported on an audience participation concert that had some practical limitations, which would apply to other concepts as well:
    Glimmer, a composition for chamber orchestra and audience participation created by the author, uses novelty light sticks, video cameras, computer software, multi-colored stand lights, and projected video animation to create a continuous feedback loop in which audience activities, software algorithms, and orchestral performance together create the music. ...

    The choice of these input and output interfaces was initially motivated by practical concerns; they needed to meet formidable requirements for scalability, reliability, usability, and cost, and the system needed to work with just a few hours of setup, calibration, and rehearsal due to budget limitation and union restrictions. There was no opportunity to rehearse the piece with a large audience before the premiere.
    "Glimmer: Lights, Orchestral Performance,and Audience Participation," Leonardo On-Line, 4/16/08.
    In this interview. Freeman talks about Glimmer and also some of the other interactive projects he has been involved with.

    The biggest challenge is deciding who controls the event (the artist/designer, the audience, or a combination of both). Christopher Dobrian pondered how to involve the audience while ensuring that the final result will be artistically worthwhile.
    In conceiving works that incorporate audience participation, the problem for the composer/programmer is how to create an open form in which the the music or dance can be varied freely within certain parameters, providing a compelling experience of interactivity for the audience, but in a manner that can somehow still be “guaranteed” to work artistically.

    If the audience controls the piece, one might wonder, how can you “guarantee” that it will still be artistically compelling? Composers may be afraid to relenquish full control of a piece by allowing improvisation to play a large role in it, and its difficult to conceive of composing a piece that successfully incorporates interactive control by an unknown audience. But first of all, how certain are we that compositional determinism of form and content is the main reason for the success of a music performance? We have certainly all witnessed bad, lifeless performances of well- written music, and we have also witnessed plenty of compelling improvisations. The conditions that frame a performance, and the expressive and creative input of the performers, can be enough to create good music in a variety of forms and with a wide variety of content. And why should we apply traditional criteria of what constitutes a rewarding artistic experience for an audience, in this new case of audience interaction? The old model is based on the audience as passive observers of music-making. This new model proposes audience members as active participants in the music-making, interacting with intelligent control systems.
    "Aesthetic Considerations in the Use of 'Virtual' Music Instruments," SEAMUS (spring 2003).
    Mark Feldmeier and Joseph A. Paradiso brought up the idea that the instruments/tools given to the "audience" should be intuitive and provide some connection between the user's actions and the result. For example, it's not too hard to figure out how to use a drum. You hit it and then it makes a corresponding sound.
    The main objective of the system, being primarily for entertainment, is to create an engaging and enjoyable musical experience. To accomplish this, the system must be easy and intuitive to use, providing appropriate feedback to participants so that their actions will naturally follow the expected behavior assumed by the mappings. The system should also be causal, giving users knowledge of what outcomes specific actions will create. This responsiveness will allow the users to dictate the experience’s direction, giving them a tool for sonic exploration and encouraging them to continue using the system.
    "An Interactive Music Environment for Large Groups with Giveaway Wireless Motion Sensors," Computer Music Journal. Vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 50-67. Spring 2007.
    Here's an excerpt from another experiment. While it didn't involve music, the parameters were similar:
    – Requires no explanation of the rules – people must be able to pick it up and start playing;
    – Is even more fun than just hitting a beach ball around an auditorium (we already know this is fun);
    – Is fundamentally about motion-capture and takes full advantage of the capabilities of this technology;
    – Can be played by 4,000 people simultaneously using a small number of input devices;
    – Can be played by people standing, sitting or holding a beer in one hand (there was a cash bar in the Electronic Theater); and
    – Involves people hitting balls AND looking at a projection screen.
    "Squidball: An Experiment in Large-Scale Motion Capture and Game Design," Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 2005.
    In their paper about dance clubs, Ryan Ulyate and David Bianciardi addressed the same issues in more detail..

    #1: Interfaces and content should encourage and reward movement
    ... Allow unencumbered interaction. A dance club is geared towards unrestricted movement, social interaction and spontaneity. Don't use restrictive, cumbersome or isolating interfaces involving wires, gloves, goggles, etc. Content designed for the interfaces should encourage the participants to dance.

    #2: Participant's actions get an immediate and identifiable response
    No participant should ever ask "am I controlling this, or not?" Interfaces and content should respond to the participant with the same level of feedback as an automobile responds to a driver.

    #3: No instructions
    Learning to "work" the interactive zones must be intuitive and simple. There should be adequate enough feedback to for the participant to intuit if she is doing it "wrong" or "right".

    #4 People don’t need to be experts to participate
    Participants are encouraged to drop their inhibitions and have fun. Nothing should be designed that intimidates people into feeling they are not good enough to participate. The system can, of course, offer deeper interaction for those that want to go further.

    #5 No thinking allowed
    The goal is to keep the participants in their "body" and not in their “head”. Like a jazz musician, or a dancer, euphoria occurs when the participant gets lost in the moment, focusing on their intuitive nature. Game-like behavior causes participants to focus on their analytical side and is not appropriate in this artistic context.

    #6 Actions get aesthetically coherent responses
    Participants should navigate through and affect several "good" choices. Ensure that all participants' actions cause meaningful responses in the context of the overall performance.

    #7 Keep it simple, immediate and fun
    How long could participants do it without getting bored? Usually simpler is better. Think “Pong”

    #8 Responsiveness is more important than resolution
    In computer graphics this translates to "more speed is better than more polygons". A simple visual object that reacts quickly to participant input is better than a complex visual object that reacts too slowly.

    #9 Think modular
    Everything is a component.

    #10 Just do it... on time!
    The project will never be "finished", so hit your deadline with whatever you have ready. Then watch what it does and watch what the people do with it!
    "The Interactive Dance Club: Avoiding Chaos in a Multi-Participant Environment," Computer Music Journal, Vol. 26, No. 3, New Performance Interfaces (Autumn, 2002), pp. 40-49
    Finally, expanding the elements list to an even bigger view, Dan Maynes-Aminzade, Randy Pausc, and Steve Seitz provided their list.
    5.1 System Design

    •Focus on the activity, not the technology. While people are initially amazed at the technology allowing the interaction to occur, within 30 seconds they lose interest if the activity is not inherently entertaining.
    •You do not need to sense every audience member. What matters is what the audience thinks is going on, not what is really going on. ...
    •Make the control mechanism obvious. Although the underlying technology need not be exposed, it is important that audience members understand how their actions affect the game activity. ... Audience members will not continue to participate in an activity if there is no immediately clear indication that they are affecting the gameplay.

    5.2 Game Design

    •Vary the pacing of the activity. ... The punctuated deadlines give the audience a chance to succeed or fail; the rest periods give them a chance to cheer, applaud themselves, and prepare for the next moment of tension.
    •Ramp up the difficulty of the activity. We found that our games did not require an explicit tutorial if they were presented properly. ... By gracefully scaling up the complexity of the activity presented to the audience, we avoided a tedious training phase.

    5.3 Social Factors

    •Play to the emotional sensibilities of the crowd. Social involvement is more important than technological involvement. When using laser pointers, our best shows were those that generated shouting by audience members without laser pointers, not the shows where everyone had their own laser pointer. With the beach ball, the lottery effect (“I might be next!”) and the cheering or booing of one another fully engages all of the members of the audience, even though technically only one or two out of 500 people were directly participating.
    •Facilitate cooperation between audience members. Laser pointer games are more engaging when they foster a sense of camaraderie between audience members. In a game like Whack-a-Mole, each audience member is involved in the activity for himself ... Connect-the-dots required each audience member to position his laser over a different dot, and since it required the audience to cooperate in order to succeed it was a more social game.

    In 1967, visionary media guru Marshall McLuhan lamented the inactive nature of group entertainment, simultaneously acknowledging the power of audience participation: “Though the mass audience can be used as a creative participating force,” he wrote, “it is, instead, merely given packages of passive entertainment.”
    "Techniques for Interactive Audience Participation," paper presented at ICMI 2002.
    The above list of excerpts is a bit academic for most fans and musicians. But a lot of experimentation starts in the academic and technical communities and then eventually makes its way out into the general population. My interest comes from what I am already seeing in terms of audience and fan interaction, so I'm trying to organize it all into something that might ultimately be useful for everyone. As I have said before, basing the future of the music business on the idea that fans will be passive consumers seems shortsighted.

    Of course, implementing all of this may be more than many artists/bands care to do. You've got to come up with the right music for audience participation and the right tools if you want them to use more than their voices or their bodies. And perhaps you will need develop a repertoire of material so that people won't be tired of the same thing show after show.

    Here are a few more resources that discuss levels of interactivity.
  • On Composing Interactive Music
  • The History of the Interface in Interactive Art
  • The Aesthetics and Practice of Designing Interactive Computer Events

  • Suzanne Lainson
    @slainson on Twitter


    1. hello, thanks for this interesting blog.

      Focus on the activity, not the technology.

      this rule was broken when the CD's replaced the vinyl records; LP's were much more fun to use

    2. I think the reason the researchers were suggesting that you should make the technology invisible is that participants might become more preoccupied with how a project works rather than becoming immersed in it. It's kind of like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's thoughts on "flow." If you are too aware or self-conscious of the mechanics of what you are doing, you don't have those transcendental moments.

    3. I see their intention, but I'm skeptikal about the results.
      by dematerializing the music they actually narrowed the experience.
      I remember that I was literally hypnotized when watching at the turning vinyl, and felt more attached to the records.
      rituals help improving a mystical experience, even when they don't make any sense.
      you don't need to go to a church in order to pray, you don't need a religious symbol either, but rituals, symbols, magical objects, physical places help in reaching the mystical state.

    4. I understand the importance of ritual. And I grew up with the ritual of playing records. Carefully handling the record. Carefully placing the needle. Hearing the hiss and pop. Watching the record turn. I remember it all very well.

      But I think they were talking about technology inhibiting group participation. If it takes skill or training to use something, then not everyone can play along. So something like blowing bubbles or passing a beach ball from person to person is something virtual everyone can do. But if the technology is too complex, then novices and the unskilled are shut out.


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