1781 Collective: The First Steps.

If you’re reading this post, it is because you have signed up to our mailing list or expressed an interest in our work. The following text was originally written to be sent out as an email body, but the sheer length seemed a bit excessive without the aid of nice formatting.

In the past few months we have been working on two threads simultaneously: Firstly, developing a community of like-minded creators and organisations; secondly, developing performance concepts that can act as an example for those wishing to think of new delivery methods in concert, including elements of something we’ve termed ‘Introspective Experience’. Below will detail a little further, and we wholeheartedly welcome your contributions, comments, and criticisms.

1. Community Development

The long-term goal of the 1781 Collective. Crossmodalism, a movement founded in London by members of 1781 was originally launched to combine science, art, design/tech, and entrepreneurship; encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration to create new research, performances, products etc. When Crossmodalism began in 2013, it started off as a performance series, which fast evolved as we found several organisations and practitioners exploring the same concepts. At this point we made our best move: making the decision to create a community, instead of competition.

Crossmodalism: Photo, Chris Lloyd

Where this was successful was that we as an organisational team, at no point wanted to control, own, or influence the producers and creators who came to us. At it’s high point, Crossmodalism had several hundred active participants around the world, and we were engaged for weird and wonderful festivals and conferences that put artists in the Science Museum (London), ethical pornographers screening films after a Stockhausen performance (Open Senses Festival), and scientists in field festivals dressed as unicorns for a cosmic-themed dining experience (Also Festival). Fun times.

This model is what we hope to achieve with the 1781 Collective: a global organisation of independent musicians, artists, and organisations; working together to create a parallel system to the traditional industry. There are so many talented, hard-working, entrepreneurial artists all aiming for very similar goals — ostensibly the freeing of classical music, the breaking down of barriers etc. — and we believe that in connecting these currently disparate groups, we can make a far bigger impression on our cultural scene; and most importantly, allow us to embrace what we all collectively love most. So, the message here is: not competition, but community. If all we’re aiming to do is realise our individual goals and qualities, then this is something that can never be challenged by another — only strengthened.

2. Performance Ritual Design

Please note two things: a) we’re not claiming any of these techniques as explicitly new or unique, and b) the following is an example, and far from ‘governing rules for 1781 events’.

Photo: Charles Michel

In February, members of the 1781 Collective travelled to Madrid to explore some new performance methods in an attempt to redesign the relationship of the audience and performer. Why Madrid? Paella and churros, mostly.

Our first goal was to explore different aspects of existing ritual in traditional concert experiences. These rituals are rather broad, including: concert selection (generally based on repertoire and artist or venue), ticket purchasing, clothing selection, arrival, pre-concert drinks, entrance into performance space, change of lighting, communication about switching off phones, programme notes, entrance of musicians, applause before and after works, curtain calls, encores, leaving the venue, post-concert reflection, etc.

Applause was the first target. The dialogue around applause is so infuriatingly repetitive these days. On one side you have purist audience/performers who demand absolute silence, with no applause between movements. As ‘educated’ listeners, we come to appreciate this, especially as we are comfortable with these set rituals. There is a fair amount of false pretext here however — anyone who has ever read a book on historical performance practice can easily negate this non-applause argument. Coming to the conclusion that trying to re-instigate historical performance etiquette would be unlikely to succeed, we decided to go even further: completely banning applause throughout the entire evening.

This required us also to adjust several performance concepts, such as having the musicians onstage before the audience entered rather than after, and modifying certain elements of our repertoire to create a seamless narrative flow based on intensity. We discovered that communication is absolutely key here: the audience must understand that the reason we are asking them not to applaud is not because we wish to become even more dogmatic, but because we wanted to a) open an aural space after the piece has completed, b) take away anxiety from new audience members about when and where they should applaud, and c) take away the needless show of affected-affection for the performers.

Moving forward to April in Berlin, we built on these lessons to delve further into Ritual Redesign. Our main target now was the performer-audience relationship: the system currently has a top-down, vertical dynamic, with the performer in control of proceedings, and audience members passive consumers of what is presented. Attempting to create a horizontal balance, we looked at ways to give audience members elements of responsibility for the overall performance through a variety of means.

To start with, we had a maximum audience number of twenty, and sent perfumed invites through postal mail. There was no Facebook event or social media sharing, with the invitation method designed to give the audience an extra sense of value. On the invitation was a series of rules that the audience must follow before and after, including:

  1. Arrival time (between 20:00–20:25h, afterwards the door would be locked);
  2. Dress code (audience must wear exclusively white clothes or won’t be allowed entrance);
  3. If they RSVP’ed as attending, this would be insisted upon or else further invites would not be extended;
  4. The non-applause expectation.

With the vast majority following these rules, it was clear the audience had strong knowledge of what was expected from them; and from an artistic aspect, the visual coherence created by the dress code and aural space created from post-work silence created a very strong atmosphere that allowed them to stay much more in their own thoughts. The venue set up was a gallery with grand piano in the middle, cello facing pianist (as opposed to traditional facing away), and the twenty members sitting on the floor on cushions in a circle formation. In between works we alternated between no break in repertoire, and describing previous/next works. We did not introduce ourselves (until afterwards in a casual manner), or announce repertoire before or after. By not announcing performers (and therefore ensemble make-up) and repertoire, it allowed us to design a strong programme based entirely on their musical/narrative decisions, rather than having to worry about programming works that sell tickets.

1781 Launch Event: White Ritual. Photo by Anya Vero.

Finally, an ongoing target is that of how to source an audience. It seems that for every self-promoted event, one spends at least 50% of their time and energy trying to convince friends and networks to attend. To address this, we took inspiration from the business model of private membership clubs in London and San Francisco, who operate by selling mystique, selection-creating-self-importance, and desirability. Following the performance, every attendee was given two black ‘Invite Cards’, with a link and password to access a secret page on the 1781 website. The idea is that those present (all selected for their diverse and unique networks) would give these two invites to people they think would enjoy the experience, with the goal to create a large audience-sourced pool of engaged and selected audience members for future performances. Unfortunately, this hasn’t proven as effective as planned after one iteration, though we’ll persist for the near future in the hope that the concept will take off.

Whilst the audience responded with an overwhelmingly positive response (even when sent a link to anonymously respond online afterwards in the hope of receiving honest feedback outside of the typical ‘the music was so great’), we felt afterwards that even though all markers were hit, there was something missing in the overall concept. We’re working with a theatre producer and script writer for the second series performance in May, in order to infuse heavier elements of theatre and narrative design, in the hope this will create a better cohesion throughout the entire evening. We will work on both the philosophical content and our communication throughout the evening, as well as other small tweaks in the concept, with the intent of evolving the performance from ‘very good’ to ‘extremely meaningful’.

As our goals include opening up classical music to audiences not currently wishing to engage (mostly on behalf of existing performance formats which are overwhelmingly unwelcoming to newcomers), we won’t only pursue this admittedly elitist and exclusive series — later in summer we are planning on placing a piano in the middle of one of the forests near Berlin and setting up a completely free and open concert performance, following the model of the illegal outdoor rave party scene here — sending geographical co-ordinates, opening up to as many as possible (and using social media to sell the rather eye-catching concept of ‘forest classical concert’), and potentially featuring performances from folk and electronic musicians during the evening.

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And that’s where we’re at! What’s next? We’ll keep developing ideas to share — and would love to integrate your thoughts also — whilst then reaching out to other collectives, organisations, performers, and any interested parties. Short term goals include creating a dialogue between collaborators; medium-term goals include gaining opportunities such as curated spaces within festivals which we open up to our members to perform, or even creating our own ‘Festival of Alternative Classical Music’; long-term goal the development of a strong, parallel alternative system to classical music creation that addresses what we perceive as issues in the traditional system. If you are reading this and have any recommendations — ideas to share, groups to recommend, thoughts about the above content — please don’t hesitate to contact us.

If you’ve read this far, congratulations and many thanks. We’re looking forward to creating with you in the very near future.

The 1781 Collective.

International collective of musicians and interdisciplinary artists. Why play along with their system, when we can just create our own?