Singers wound their way through the frozen food aisle, followed by musicians trying not to let their instruments topple over any produce. The audience shuffled behind them, occasionally peering through boxes of cereal from the next aisle over to get a good view. Another audience, this one unintentional, hustled by with baskets of milk and other necessities, occasionally raising an eyebrow in concern. The second scene of Robert Ashley’s seminal “television opera”, Perfect Lives, takes place in a supermarket, and it seemed that the shoppers at the Boiceville IGA in upstate New York were a bit surprised to get serenaded while making their Saturday afternoon grocery run. Last summer’s performance by the brilliant Varispeed Collective was spread out amongst several different venues in the Catskills, including a bar, a Methodist church, the lawn in front of a coffeeshop, and of course the IGA. The opera, which ran from 11am until nearly midnight, raised many questions, for me at least, pertaining to place, and how composers and performers incorporate the idea of space or venue into their work.

The finale of <i>Empty Words</i> © Rebecca Lentjes
The finale of Empty Words
© Rebecca Lentjes

I had seen Varispeed Collective “in concert” previously, when in August 2012 they put on John Cage’s Empty Words, which ran from 7 at night till 7 the next morning and took place in various indoor venues before moving outdoors to the Brooklyn Bridge. After processing across the bridge, we all sat in a daze in the grass and read the final sections as the sun rose. Cage’s chance techniques allow performers – and listeners – to experience his music actively rather than passively. During Empty Words, not only could audience members read portions of Cage’s text alongside the performers, they could also wander around the space, come and go at will, or, as I unintentionally did around 4am, take a nap in a lumpy armchair.

Robert Ashley and John Cage are just two examples of composers who have concerned themselves with where and how people listen. Way back in 1917, Erik Satie wrote and put on Musique d’ameublement, or “Furniture Music” (which was later revived by Cage), music that was meant to be heard but not listened to. The French composer tucked musicians away in all corners of the theater, “in order that the music might seem to come from all sides at once”. He then, exasperated, rushed around the audience instructing everybody to stop listening when he realized his well-laid plans had gone awry.

<i>Empty Words</i> © Rebecca Lentjes
Empty Words
© Rebecca Lentjes

The concept of music surrounding you from all sides, whether seen or unseen, brings to mind Karlheinz Stockhausen’s work, particularly Gruppen for three orchestras, not to mention his Helicopter String Quartet! And Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room of 1969 incorporates the acoustics of the venue into each performance. The walls and ceiling of a space act almost as a duet partner as a tape-recorded monologue plays back into the room, recording over and over itself until the words blur and distort into an eerie longwinded drone. (Listening to Mr Lucier perform this work at the Bang on a Can marathon in the cavernous Winter Garden was more than eerie; concert-goer Gil Hova described it as “all about death and loss of identity – chilling but beautiful”).

A much more recent example than Cage or Stockhausen is Nat Evans, a Seattle-based composer working on a site-specific piece called The Tortoise, who described for me his recent experience on the Pacific Crest Trail: “As I walked, I collected field recordings and collaborated with a series of composers nearby where I was making them… for the most part in the United States we are all homeless – that is to say that most of us have only lived in a place for a generation or two at most, and therefore know almost nothing about the land we're inhabiting – the stories, the sense of time, weather over the course of lifetimes.” As opposed to earlier composers, who were more concerned with perception of sound by anybody in any given moment, Mr Evans takes a more longterm approach to the idea of place, incorporating his own response to the landscape with the “overall experience of endurance”. There is also the question of indoor vs. outdoor: Satie was essentially creating an early form of Muzak or elevator music – background music meant to serve a purpose, like a chair or a rug. He and Cage wanted people to think differently about sounds and silence and what music could be.

<i>Sila: Breath of the World</i> © Kevin Yatarola | Lincoln Center
Sila: Breath of the World
© Kevin Yatarola | Lincoln Center

Whereas contemporary composers such as Mr Evans and John Luther Adams are now more concerned with how people think about their environment, both in the short-term and the long run: “By creating a sense of place wherever the sound or music event is happening, people listen differently, and when people do that over time they get to know their community and geographic locale in a new way,” according to Mr Evans. In Mr Adams’ most recent première, vocalists waded through the Lincoln Center reflecting pool, with brass and wind musicians lined up on a hill above them. Sila – titled after the Inuit word for “the spirit that animates all things” – is meant to be heard outside, and audience members are encouraged to meander among the musicians, so that no two people end up hearing it the same way. The powerfully meditative music quickly blended with and then absorbed the sounds of New York City life. Never trapped or amplified as they might have been in a concert hall, the quieter sections of the migrating harmonic clouds sometimes got lost in the wind.

Vibraphone performers Sean Statser, Carson Moody, and Matt Evans in <i>Vexations</i> © Rebecca Lentjes
Vibraphone performers Sean Statser, Carson Moody, and Matt Evans in Vexations
© Rebecca Lentjes

Furniture music, too, can be transported outdoors. Vexations of 1893, another early work by Satie that was later revived by Cage, is a single sheet of music: four lines of notes and the instructions that these four lines should be repeated 840 times. The only time I’ve participated in a performance (and then only as the counter of the 840 repetitions) took place outside the New York Stock Exchange, in the heat of summer, with a series of very talented vibraphonists. For 18 hours, we were scrutinized by parades of tour groups and men who looked like they had walked right out of The Wolf of Wall Street. I’m fairly certain Satie and Cage would have enjoyed the spectacle, and the pause we gave to those tourists and businessmen, even if only for a moment. Site-specific music, music performed in unconventional spaces, music that “comes from all sides at once”. It all has the power to make people think not only about sounds and silence, but about their surroundings, the environment, and the nature of performance itself – whether that performance is taking place on the Pacific Crest Trail or in the bread aisle of a grocery store.