Dong Zhou: Site-specific Compositions and Performances as a Contemporary Artform (working title)

The word “site-specific” is often used as a genre of theater since the 1980s. It means in contrast to theatre works which are supposed to be played in various theatre houses, they are designed to be performed at a unique, specially adapted location. This concept is also used by composers and musicians since the 1990s. Although very few of them named their work as a “site-specific” one.


The history of compositions changed by places began no later than Baroque time. At that time, many composers were hired by churches and their works were always played in the same places. They must have noticed how the acoustic of the church acted on the music, and con-sciously or unconsciously altered their music. In the 16th century, Gabrieli composed his choir in St. Mark church and instructed the musicians to form into separate groups and sit in different locations. It is also proved, the different design of architecture in Italy and north and east Ger-many is tightly related to Corelli and Bach’s choice of main instrument.


Later, composers had more freedom to move; it was also easier to exchange music works be-tween cities. The attention of the composers moved thus from the acoustic of a single architecture to a set of general principles of concert hall design. But from the 18th century, the styles of compositions became more personal, composers had again different ideas about the “ideal acoustic”.


Some of the composers even designed architectures for their works: Wagner’s Richard-Wagner- Festspielhaus (1872-1876, Bayreuth, Bavaria, Germany), Iannis Xenakis’ Philips Pavilion in 1958 at Brussels Expo (partly for his own music), Stockhausen’s Spherical Concert Hall at the 1970 Osaka Expo and Water Heaven which commissioned by Tan Dun and designed by architect studio Arata Isosaki (2010, Shanghai, China).

Recording technologies and phonography markets changed the way people consume music3. With the release of the Walkman in 1979, music became portable4; it created a virtual personal hearing environment. It is no longer necessary for audiences to go to the concert hall to listen to music. The Walkman has been the last station of constructing the hearing environment which is the closest to the recipient. Visiting a concert became more and more attractive for its social function5. Today different attributions dominate the way the concert is viewed. It is often regarded as authentic live-communication, high-class, but also as out-of-date and business event, especially for young people.


This situation made composers start questioning for the aesthetic function of a place and over-coming the stereotype connected to the concert hall. As Georg Hajdu pointed out in “Disposable Music”6, the traditional role of the composer was challenged by a lot of new facts. “The prosumers” (producers and consumers) have altered the connection with audiences.” One of the consequences is that the diversity of compositions is higher, and the audience in each genre is less. Instead of composing a piece and let it be performed everywhere to get large audiences, some composers prefer to “cultivate” their special, small group of audience and try to keep them following. So, there is no need to make the piece adapt to all locations, it’s a new option only to perform the piece in one place.


The changes in concert form came not just from composers’ concerns. The early electronic mu-sic enhanced the range of music instruments; soundscape composition made environment sound and geographic features a part of music; sound sculptures brought the connection be-tween sound and object; instrumental theater proposed by Mauricio Kagel and showing strong impact in Helmut Lachenmann’s works combined musical and theatrical performance; and site-specific theater directly provided inspiration for those concerts which not happen in the traditional concert hall.

Research Questions:
• What is the relationship between site and the environment to compositions and performance?
• How is the genealogy of site-specific compositions and performance in the last decades? How did these new approaches develop?
• What are the aesthetic strategies of selected pieces in the context of their site-specific approach?
• How do site-specific concerts influence other art forms?

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