The performer acting as a “live installation” has been an idea essential to my recent music. I have always thought of an installation’s defining characteristics as space, duration, and intention.
Space: The location (however specified or unspecified) plays an important role in installations by determining the natural sound world the piece will be surrounded by (nature sounds, urban sounds, etc.). Location will also play a role in how the piece is perceived and who will perceive it. A piece in an art gallery or concert hall will certainly have a different reception/reaction than a piece in a local park or staircase. An audience in a concert hall is anticipating what they will hear, (a program is given in advance with an instrumentation, composer, and sometimes even a duration listed for each work) whereas an installation has the potential to be reactive (the audience may stumble upon the piece and may or may not respond in the moment).
Duration: Installations allow for a chance for extremely long duration. The audience is not confined to remain for the entire piece. This allows for different experiences for each listener. It allows for gradual processes to be created by the composer/artist that various listeners will hear sections of. This can allow for communal experiences among the audience members throughout the event.
Intention: Intention directs the way the piece will be listened to and presented. Busking can be interpreted as a form of installation, (though it is usually closer to a song cycle) however, the intention does not resemble any type of installation. The intention of busking is to play popular music and earn a profit doing so. Installations usually have a more artistic concept, and installations are usually accepting of the natural sound world produced by the surroundings of the piece. Installations usually have an intentional path or plan that may or may not be affected by the world around the piece. A natural occurrence that can be perceived as an installation is in autumn when the leaves of the trees begin to change colors and fall. The leaves are consistent and will fall regardless of the world around them (with some extreme exceptions). They will, however, interact with the surroundings as they fall and touch the ground (they can be blown around by the wind or covered with frost etc.). This synthesis of intentional and natural existence is commonly part of the basis of an installation.
Sound installations are commonly electronic as a method of dealing with the space and duration (they can take very little space and provide an extreme duration without being exhausted like a human performer). While these can be randomized or somewhat indeterminate installations, electronics will always be consistent and perfect. A human performer is naturally imperfect and has his/her own interpretation as well. If these two elements of humanity are focused on, interesting ideas/results can successfully be created in an installation. Stairway Echoes is an example of this. If the bars of the glockenspiel are struck exactly the same each time the “harmonic clouds” may not be as interesting (or may have remained exactly the same throughout). The performers human nature becomes entwined with the installation and fuses with the essence of the piece. This means that the piece will be different with each performer/interpretation and also with each performance even if the performer remains the same. Creating installations based on these “micro-imperfections” adds a spirit to the piece that may or may not otherwise exist.
There are a few pieces in the current musical repertoire that can cause confusion between musical composition and live installation. Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 is an excellent example. If presented in a concert hall is the performance a concert or an installation? Certainly a duration of six hours is long enough to be an installation, (especially when using live performers) but the concert hall has a history and an expectation to it and its audience members. If the space is treated unconventionally (perhaps chairs are replaced with beanbags and the doors are left open to allow people to come and go as they please) does this change the sound world and expectation of the room? This is where intention can further guide us.
These three parameters of an installation all form an approach, which, with a live performer may yield interesting results. By using a person, or people, to perform the installation the piece becomes more reflective of the natural world and life itself. John Cage believed art should relate or become a part of life. Bringing a human element to this type of work is the next natural step in making installations more lifelike.