Movements such as Multi-Story Orchestra challenge conceptions of where and what performance ought to be.Ambra Vernuccio

The slippery drips of a saxophone in a railway tunnel, velvety voices bouncing from wall to wall of a mall, or growling Gaga from a beaming yellow Lamborghini are all everyday sounds that form boundaries and collective identities. Think of funeral bell knells, saccharine themes of aeroplane travel, fragments of classical music continuously cycling on the sickly merry-go-round of TV advertisements. They mark particular meanings and functions – but what happens when you take an orchestra out of the concert hall? What happens when streets house a chorus of boom boxes? Music shapes spaces, and spaces shape music.

Busking demonstrates the power of music to change public spaces and create communities. Buskers transform the drudgery of the daily commuter’s grind. Music on street corners creates informal economies and temporary concert venues. Ever since the rise of the opera house and concert hall, space has acted as an important marker of social hierarchy, highlighting the divisions between high and low art. Busking breaks down these barriers, creating areas of cross-cultural exchange: spontaneous musical scenes home to ‘transitory communities’ from all sections of society experiencing the music together. William H. Whyte observed the choreography of ‘pedestrian traffic’ in New York’s Grand Central Terminal as ‘a great dance’, dancing to the rhythm of life.

The Multi-Story Orchestra, founded in 2011, uses the same principles as busking, attempting to break down the bourgeois assumptions that cling to classical music, by presenting it in spaces completely disassociated with music – most recently a disused car park in Peckham. This was an attempted escape from the traditional associations and behaviours attached to the form, trying to attract a revitalised and diversified audience.

Attempts have been made to bring classical music into club culture. The liberating experience of raving, originally occupying empty fields and abandoned warehouses, makes connections to site-specific performance. Gabriel Prokofiev, noted for writing a concerto for Turntables and Orchestra in 2006, developed ‘Nonclassical’ in pursuit of intimate relationships with audiences. Amsterdam pioneered classical music raves straight after work from 6.30pm. These are all attempts to incorporate classical music appreciation into an informal, spontaneous scene in urbanised locales, adopting an ‘underground’ sensibility that might open the form up, but I fear it perpetuates classical music’s distinction from other forms, in a lame attempt to make it ‘cool’.

“Space is at the foreground of musical perception and value judgements”

Space is at the foreground of musical perception and value judgements. Jimi Hendrix’s electrified, self-destructing performance of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock in 1969 made such an impact not just because of what the melody itself symbolised, but because the venue, the distortion, and the political climate all converged into an entire ‘ecology’ of listening experience, as Oxford professor Eric Clarke puts it.

Technological developments of recording, broadcasting and streaming have led to a globalised musical economy, composed of public places filled with fusions of genres and networks of music-making, listening, and appreciating that transcend boundaries and fly across the entire world. Pop music is at the forefront of this transnational river of sound, cascading down the waterfall of culture, sucked into the great whirlpool of sub-genres and hybrid identities. The ‘celestial jukebox’ of all music available instantly, anywhere reduces music’s value as a marker of borders. Instead, virtual spaces are created and the essence of a musical root is blurred.

New York’s annual ‘Unsilent Night’ features a choir of boom boxes, blasting out Phil Kline’s compositions. All participants play one of four parts simultaneously whilst walking through the city’s streets, creating ‘a unique mobile sound sculpture’. Beginning in 1992, this sonic takeover, reverberating off buildings and city streets became a ‘city-block-long stereo system’, now spreading across 101 cities and four continents into a phenomenal Christmas carol enveloping the fabric and soundscape of the city.

Berlin is a prominent hub of musical and spatial experiments. The Love Parade festival that ran from 1989-2010, returning in 2015, transformed the cityscape. Originally a political demonstration, the festival used electronic dance music and techno to reclaim public spaces through collective cultural participation, protesting against past cultural oppression, redefining how historically significant spaces were occupied. The Night of the Singing Balconies aimed to unite neighbours, as concerts formed on people’s balconies ranging from opera to Tibetan music performed in prearranged walking groups. Also found are Cosy Concerts where gigs rock unconventionally private locations, Home Opera concerts, or Live in the Living which accommodates entire bands in living rooms. Using spaces differently from their original purpose alters the way music is experienced. After all, the city’s techno culture was born out of the empty industrial spaces of abandoned warehouses and bunkers after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Yet, all of this isn’t new. Gothic cathedrals were designed to accommodate certain styles of sacred music, and religious music evolved in tandem with the kinds of spaces it was performed in. Concert halls are acoustically structured. The space for a piano in the home was a marker of order and accomplishment, protecting 19th century English middle-class households from the churning mill of mass culture and industrialisation. Local, intimate performances stretch back to the salons of Eric Satie and cabarets of the Weimar period, all ways of reclaiming and reorganising space through music. It’s not surprising that Goethe described architecture as ‘frozen music’, as increasingly fluid walls of sound shape our cities and social spaces

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