This piece is about composers imposing their will on both players and audience. I made this by shouting instructions at both players and audience with a large acoustic megaphone. It highlights the fact that musical scores are a set of instructions to be followed during a performance. I achieved this by making the delivery of the instructions (my shouting) the focus of the piece.

In this piece I feel like I am actually ‘performing the compositional act’ in a very direct way. I physically put things together with my voice, pointing to people and telling them where I want them and what I want them to do.

***SURPRISE PERFORMANCE*** has been presented twice. The first performance was at an event to mark the launch of the Collaborations in Place-based Creative Practice: Birmingham’s Public Art Strategy 2015 – 2019 document at The Nest @ Glenn Howells Architects in Birmingham on 24th November 2015. This document (2015, p. 5) states the need for public art to “act as a catalyst for collective thinking about what we want from our society” (Councillor Ian Ward, Deputy Leader of Birmingham City Council). On page 8 it states that public art should “encourage everyone to be creative”. This is tied to Christopher Small’s idea about music being a projection of an ideal society, where he suggests that a person taking part in a musical performance is doing three things:

“1. He or she is exploring, affirming and celebrating a sense of identity;
2. He or she is taking part in an ideal society which the participants between them have
brought into existence for the duration of the performance;
3. He or she is modelling, in the relationships between the sounds he or she is making,
listening to or dancing to, the relationships of that ideal society.” (Small, 1987/1994, p. 74)

***SURPRISE PERFORMANCE*** makes this collaborative participation explicit, but rather than between performers and listeners, it is between myself (as composer-performer) and both the instrumentalists and the audience together. Both instrumentalists and audience have very little idea of what is going to take place until they are in the performance, which puts the instrumentalists in the same position as the audience, and vice versa.

At first glance my authority figure is not conducive to an “ideal society”. However, the ideal situation is reached when my voice is eventually drowned out by the sound of the music, and everyone is playing together.

There are four sonic elements that make up this piece: me shouting, violin tremolos, trumpets blasting, and balloons popping. I explain the piece to the audience as I shout instructions to them, and as the instruments are introduced they serve as an accompaniment to my speech, akin to recitative in opera. The piece gradually builds up in texture as the sonic elements are introduced one by one.

In Adam Harper’s 2009 blogpost ‘What is a Classical Composer’ about established practices in contemporary classical music, he reiterates that:

“All agency is turned over to [the composer] if possible, a constant dialogue is maintained and the absurd reifications of ‘what s/he was trying to do or say’, or the ‘sounds in her/his head’ have to be fully ‘realised’, especially concerning a premiere.” (Harper, 2009)

In this piece my intentions are made explicit. I am responsible for telling the performers and audience how to carry out the piece. I bark instructions at them, encouraging them to perform the piece in a certain way. I harangue people into doing what I want. My spoken text is improvised but always follows the same pattern. By not having a fixed text I am free to respond to the different reactions of audience members. I tend not to ‘pick on’ individual audience members like a standup comic might do, preferring to treat the audience as an anonymous mass so that they become aware that they are actually free to contribute as much or as little as they choose. Some members of the audience choose to observe the piece from a distance and not actively participate in hitting the balloons. This can be seen in the video at 05:50.

The concerns of the concert organisers about adhering to the health and safety regulations were incorporated into my speech. I warned the audience to watch out for the pins on the bows of the violinists, and also not to block any of the emergency exits (01:11).

The text was improvised because I had no opportunity to rehearse the piece. A balloon drop is expensive to install, and I had no way of knowing how an audience would react. Returning to Christopher Small again: “There is not much point in practising alone what can only be done in a group.” (Small, 1987/1994, p. 464)

24 November 2015, The Nest @ Glenn Howells Architects, Birmingham
13 March 2016, Birmingham Conservatoire
4 May 2018, A.P.T. Gallery, London