Participatory Gestures

At 7:00pm on Tuesday, October 11, 2011, Fifth House Ensemble members Adam Marks and Melissa Snoza will be joined by composer Jason Charney to perform his Compass at the Apple Store in Lincoln Park.  Jason participated in this past summer's New Music on the Point festival, where Compass was performed.  Below are some words from Jason on the piece and his inspiration.  I hope we see you at the Apple Store on October 11!  

The last time I rode the L train in Chicago, I glanced around while bobbing along to the music in my headphones, noticing the fellow passengers also leashed to their own worlds by earbuds. We were all coming from different places, heading to different destinations, coming together to share the experience of travel for a short time. Yet, we forcibly enclosed ourselves in our private worlds.

I’ve thought about this experience while attending several uninspired concerts since then, as the performers on stage went through the motions–even with utmost technical precision–without really finding the pulse of the music. In the audience, we sat passively and our minds wandered in hundreds of different directions.

What was missing from these performances was clarity of gesture, the element that draws us in and forges that indescribable bond between performer and audience. Gesture is inherent in written music, in the contours of melodies and the shift of colors, though it can’t be truly realized until a musician brings it into being, however ephemerally. A musical gesture is much more than the sum of its parts; it is energy and direction that define a phrase, not its constituent notes and articulations. And, of course, a gesture manifests physically too, not only in the swaying of a performer as they follow the path of a line but in a listener’s instinctual urge to get up and dance!

The energy of gestures flow toward one goal: participation. Participation is at the beginning, middle, and end of any musical endeavor. I learned this lesson this past summer in several different ways working with Fifth House and the other fantastic musicians I met at New Music on the Point. A potent example involves the piece I wrote for Drew and Adam, Blacklight. The first version suffered from an overabundance of ideas and the true heart of the music was obscured. Through collaborative rehearsals and several revisions, we discovered together a better and more communicative piece. Only through dialogue and participation, whether between a performer and audience, or composer and performer, can the gestures of music come out the clearest. And then everyone is experiencing a moment made even more special by the fact it’s shared among us.

Compass is one of my first attempts to bring physical gesture into electronic music. The piece is controlled entirely through movement of an iPhone, a truly powerful gadget many of us carry around. Turning the iPhone makes the built-in compass send a crotales loop around the circular space created by the speakers, while shaking and moving the phone in various ways makes the device’s accelerometer trigger other musical events. Most importantly, audiences can see the link between the gestures of the performer and the gestures of the music.

This is a goal that I try to strive towards in my music–to make gestures in which composer, performer, and listener alike can participate. And next time I ride the L, I’ll do so without headphones, perhaps connecting with a new friend and sharing an experience along the way.


The above photo of Jason (including Fifth House Ensemble members Adam Marks & Drew Williams) was taken by David Gottlieb at New Music on the Point's final performance.