An Orchestra Where You Don’t Have To Read Music? Depends On Who Is Invited To Play

H/T to Artsjournal.com which included an article about the Philadelphia Public Orchestra, (PPO) being billed as the World’s First Public Orchestra. The way the article describes it, this is a pretty radical departure from the Western organizational and operational model.

The PPO will have a bottom up approach where the musicians choose the composers suited to their needs rather than the musicians being chosen to suit the composition. Similarly, the musicians will guide and administer the direction of the organization.

The Philadelphia Public Orchestra’s manifesto, written by Meyers, makes it quite clear that the musicians themselves will eventually and collectively steer the ship: “After the orchestra has been established for at least one season, the orchestra members ideally take control of all decision-making.”

[…]

“So yes, we launch it together, and there can be an advisory board to help it exist, and then the orchestra should take over and let the musicians, the performers, think of who they might like to ask for a commission, what themes are interesting to them. …”

The structure also seems designed for the inclusion of musical styles and instruments outside of the traditional Western orchestra in that its not necessary to read music.

“The bottom line is, this is a public orchestra, where people can come together and participate from their own comfort zone and within their own traditions,” Tidd explains from Rotterdam, where he’s on tour. “People who read music represent a very small percentage of the music happening in the world, including in America. Some people learn stuff by ear. Others use modified forms of written music — chord charts, graphical scores, all kinds of things. Removing the need to read music makes it more universal.”

[…]

To some extent, says Tidd, the application process will prioritize those who have never played in a traditional orchestral setting before and haven’t had access to this kind of project.

“We’re not trying to have 25 members of the Philadelphia Orchestra here,” Tidd emphasizes. “This orchestra will be very diverse.” (As of 2020, the Philadelphia Orchestra had just three Black members.)

It will be interesting to see who applies to play. The Philadelphia area has a plethora of cultural and musical traditions, but I would imagine they will have to continually practice some degree of outreach and invitation to a wide variety of musicians in an attempt to attract the breadth of participation they probably desire.

The ensemble will likely need to also engage in a lot of work to find some common ground upon which to operate. One of the last shows we had prior to Covid was a group of Tuvan throat singers. They mentioned that when a national orchestra was being formed in Tuva one of the issues they ran into was that since everyone’s instrument was made to suit the preference and physical stature of the performer to some degree, there wasn’t a common tuning standard. Now obviously this was only an issue when trying to perform a formal composition. Tuvans have long met and performed their traditional songs in large groups without the difference in instruments being a factor.

The PPO could easily end up being comprised of musicians performing on instruments originating from China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Africa, Oceania, Indigenous people of the Americas, etc. As the article says, some traditions use notation styles that differ from Western music and others don’t use written notations at all.

I don’t have any doubt that the PPO can arrive at some extremely interesting compositions, but there will probably be a continuous, evolving conversation about what the vision of the ensemble and the music is supposed to be. Should every musician perform in at least one piece per concert, for example? Will there be a focus on music and/or instruments from a specific part of the world or demonstrations of cross-cultural works that might surprise audiences? (Do Balinese gamelan and mariachi mix well?)

Actually, Jon Silpayamanant is the person who would know better than I how these negotiations can be accomplished. He has been writing about the music practices of many cultures and bringing them together in performance for a couple decades now.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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