Designing for mass interaction: an experiment with the Royal Danish Theatre

Why do large-scale interaction designs for stage and audience tend to fail? And how may “mass interaction” support the concert experience in a way that makes the interactivity become a dialogue between artistic intention and audience experience? Through design experiments carried out in collaboration with the Royal Danish Theatre and The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art – The School of Design, interaction design masters students Maja Fagerberg Ranten and Halfdan Hauch Jensen have designed for interaction between the audience and the stage.

“Turn on your light, express yourself through colors, and become a part of the music’s color screen”

The concept developed, and tried out at the Musik2Go concert of May 11, was based on a graphics and colors on a screen and big lanterns spreading the colors from the screen to the whole concert hall. At a limited time during the concert, the audience could – through a small color-selection device – trigger a color on the screen. Each audience member interacting should get the feeling of being represented in the visuals, and through that participate in creating a shared experience and interpretation of the concert, visuals and music together. See video embedded at the top of this post, or here on YouTube.

The experiment was a joint effort between students from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art – The School of Design, Malmö University interaction design master students, teachers and researchers, and the Royal Danish Theatre.

In the report Interaction at a Classical Concert, Maja Fagerberg Ranten and Halfdan Hauch Jensen gives a detailed description of the design process and how it was perceived by the audience. In conclusion, they bring forth four provisional takeaways to, what they call, the design space of mass interaction:

– Reserve interaction for dramaturgically significant moments
– Breaking norms creates social playfulness and disruptive behavior
– Create tight coupling between action and meaning
– Tie the stage to the whole space.

Below is a detailed description of the concert experience, from entering the foyer to leaving the concert hall. How it was perceived by the audience is described from page 128 in the report.

THE CONCERT EXPERIENCE

The Musik2Go concert A Bundle of Brass was performed by the brass section of The Royal Danish Orchestra. In total, 300 people were in the auditorium, and the musical program was four different pieces by four Danish composers.

Arriving at the Opera House
All audience members were invited to come one hour before the concert to participate in activities in the foyer. These were put together like a small exhibition area, blending hands-­on activities with instruments and sound with more explanatory elements where people could read and explore the overall theme of the concert. This was all part of allowing audience members to explore the theme around sound and color, the embodied experience of playing a brass instrument, and getting introduced to the way they could interact during the concert.

INT-CLASS-CONC-MUSICIANS-FOYER

The foyer

Trying out instruments
Two of the activities were to try out brass instruments. One was a table with trumpets and trombones where audience members could try out and feel on one’s own body what it feels like playing the instruments. The trombones were test instruments made in hard plastic, adding yet a colorful element to the color and music theme.

Trying out instruments in the foyer

Trying out instruments in the foyer. Copyright: Ewa Moskala.

The other instrument activity was a setup with a screen and a microphone where people could play into the microphone and a visualisation of circles with different colors would respond. Each color represented a frequency area. The circle of that color would move up and down when notes in that frequency area were played.

Trying instruments into a microphone

Trying instruments into a microphone. Copyright: Ewa Moskala.

In the foyer, some of the musicians that were about to perform at the concert were present. They showed their instruments and were available for people to ask them about their instrument, techniques, or just casual conversation. They also helped instructing people how to try the test instruments, showing them how to blow into the mouthpiece the right way, and demonstrated the sound-to-color visualisation installation.

Color and sound theory
There were two “informative” installations focusing on introducing the audience to the historical perspective on the relation between color and sound. One being a poster board with theoretical information about color and sound, and with samples from the design process for the visuals. The other was a computer with an application where one could explore two different color wheels. One representing Newton’s color theory, the other representing Alexander Scriabin’s. By clicking on a color, a brass instrument playing the corresponding note was played through headphones.

Color and sound theory

Color and sound theory. Copyright: Ewa Moskala.

Preparing for interaction
The last activity in the foyer was a presentation of the interaction objects going to be used during the concert, and showing examples of the graphical representation that the interaction would trigger at the concert. Members of the audience were briefed on what would be going on for the interaction part of the concert. The actual handing out of the objects took place later during the break.

The interaction object

The interaction object. Copyright: Ewa Moskala.

The concert – part 1
Entering the auditorium, the audience was met by an empty stage with chairs set up for the musicians. Four lanterns were lit to a dimming, alluring level on stage, two placed in the back of the stage and two on the edge of the empty orchestra pit – almost within touching range of the audience, opening the room and physically connecting the stage and the audience space.

The concert began as expected in terms of a classical concert with the orchestra entering the stage, followed by applause from the audience, then the conductor entering, followed by applause, and the musicians stood up to honour the conductor, sat down again and then the concert was ready to begin.

The first part of the concert was the three musical pieces: Festklänge for brass and organ by J. P. E. Hartmann, Doing! by Per Nørgaard, and Interference by Kim Helweg. The first piece was written as the opening piece for an event celebrating the 400 years anniversary of the university, originally held and played at Vor Frue Kirke, 1879, in Copenhagen. Here the graphics were simple minimalistic pipe systems with color flowing through them representing the airstream through the instrument pipes becoming music. During this piece, the lantern lamps slowly started reacting in the climax moments, when color filled the screen, as the lantern was following the colors on the screen changing intensity in a fluent transition.

The Hartmann piece

The Hartmann piece

The second piece, Doing!, was in three parts (I’ll do it, You can’t do that, and It’s done). The piece was written in 1968 and is an interpretation of the Beatles song You can’t do that. Compared to the Hartmann piece this one was more experimental. The first part with various themes replacing each other, the visuals were dark with color particles moving upwards from below the screen, as two bubbles in water flowing in two streams, here the speed of the streams changed at various points in the music. The second part, played with high intensity, the visuals here were a big circular disc with color particles entering from the outside. The last part was more calm and atmospheric. Here the visuals were similar to the second, but particles entering the disc while the disc slowly moving away, like a spaceship into the black universe.

The Nørgaard piece

The Nørgaard piece

Throughout this piece the lanterns became more active than with the first one. When a lot of particles filled the screen they would light up, and dim again when only few particles were present. When the speed of the particles flow were high, the colors of the lanterns would change more rapidly, due to faster color change on the screen.

The last piece before the break was Interference in the two parts: Adagio-­Allegro and Scherzo-Finale. In the beginning the piece had various layers of voices and themes floating into each other, after a while replaced by more abrupt sections. Towards the end the music entered parts with a more jazzy feel, where a percussionist played a small jazz drum kit setup. There were no visuals for the entire piece, and during the piece the lanterns were dimmed down without changing.

The Helweg piece

The Helweg piece

Intermission
After the Helweg piece, there was a 20 minute break where audience members could visit the stations in the foyer. Upon re-­entering the concert hall, members of the audience were each handed the little light object for interacting to use during the last part of the concert. Each object had a little note with a message encouraging people to interact: Turn on your light, express yourself through colors, and become a part of the music’s color screen. They were handed out with a short verbal explanation, that they could be used as free play at a given time during the concert, when signaled by employees standing in the aisle on each side.

The concert – part 2
The second part of the concert was Carl Nielsen’s Symphony no. 3, ‘Espansiva’, for brass and organ. It is divided into four parts: Allegro espansivo, Andante pastorale, Allegretto un poco, and Finale Allegro. The second part, Andante pastorale, was the one where the audience could interact with the light object they were given. The music is grand and with long themes weaving in and out of each other. The first part is very energetic, the second more quiet, the third part is changing between quiet passages and energetic ones, with different themes in the music being highlighted, and at last the grand finale of the whole piece.

Carl Nielsen – part 1, 3, 4
With the exception of the second part with the interaction, the visuals are best described as very abstract flows of color replacing each other – most of the time rapidly going from one color to another. During the entire Nielsen piece, there were longer parts without visuals – the screen would momentarily be black and after a while become visible again. There were three such blackouts during part 1. During part 3 and 4, these blackouts were shorter but more frequent.

Visuals during the Nielsen piece

Visuals during the Nielsen piece

During part 1 of the Nielsen piece, some people started playing with the light object. They played with the objects with no feedback, since the technical setup was such that it would only give feedback during part 2.

Carl Nielsen part 2
As the audience applauded, two employees walked down the aisles, held up their objects and turned on the light as the music started again. The audience immediately followed the action and turned on their lights, creating an ocean of light spread all over the auditorium, and spawning particles onto the screen.

The screen had started out black as the lanterns changed to default color. And the colors from the particles triggered by the audience to the screen resulted in the lanterns fast changing colors.

Whenever a new light was lit, or someone flashed it, a new particle would appear, with a slight delay. The particle would spawn from a location on the screen corresponding to the seated position of the audience member triggering the light. From there it moved fast into a cloud of particles, and disappeared again after a few seconds.

Particles spawn onto the screen

Particles spawn onto the screen

In the beginning, the main part of the audience kept the lights lit, and some waved them to the music. When the employees in the aisle started to flash their lights, the main part of the audience reacted by imitating the action and started flashing the lights too. The crowd became a flickering ocean of light, often leaving the screen occupied with loads of particles.

During the last four minutes of the approximately nine minutes long interaction part, the level of activity in the audience became smaller, though still on a level significant enough to be seen and create changes in the overall graphics as well as the changing color of the lanterns. In total the audience triggered 3299 new particles in the graphics during part 2 of the Carl Nielsen piece.

Interaction during the Nielsen piece

Interaction during the Nielsen piece

Leaving
In the final part of the Nielsen piece, the abstract flows of color from the visuals replaced each other faster and faster as the lanterns followed the rapid color changes in a rhythmical way. After applause and encores, the audience left the auditorium.

Unless otherwise noted, all images are published under a CC:BY-NC license (please credit Maja Fagerberg Ranten and Halfdan Hauch Jensen).

Read the full report: Interaction at a Classical Concert here!