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Reinventing the classics

Sound ExChange incorporates audience engagement to reach younger fans

It doesn’t take much to find great musicians in Rochester, thanks largely to the Eastman School of Music. The prestigious school offers a great deal to the community in terms of public classical performances. But classical music may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and one group within the city’s musical community is re-imagining classical music by putting a modern spin on the medium.

Sound ExChange, a seven-member ensemble, moves the concert experience beyond the high walls of the traditional concert hall. “Our goal is to be more audience centered—sort of go to the people instead of have them come to us by showing up in unexpected places,” says Emily Wozniak, executive director of Sound ExChange. Hospitals, art galleries, and the city’s planetarium are among some of Sound ExChange’s improvised venues.

The “where” of these performances, however, isn’t all that’s interesting about the experience: audience engagement is a big part of what makes this group’s methodology unique. “The goal is to bring the audience as close as possible to the creative process,” says Wozniak. For example, Sound ExChange has asked audience members to produce sounds at certain times during a performance (using instruments provided to them). The group has also accepted recorded sounds or speech sent to them by audience members that they then incorporate into their shows.

The group’s latest idea for engaging the audience is through the use of technology. The Farash Foundation recently awarded Sound ExChange a Creative Collision grant, “and the proposal we constructed for that was to integrate technology with classical music to modernize the experience,” says Wozniak. Currently, Sound ExChange is collaborating with a Rochester Institute of Technology computer scientist and an imaging professor to create a mobile app intended for concert use by audience members. “Different parts of the app go with specific pieces on the program and solicit audience involvement,” says Wozniak. “The goal is to get the audience to use their phones in a way that will contribute to the outcome of the piece.” The group also plans to utilize Microsoft’s motion-sensing device, the Kinect, as an instrument that translates specific motions into various sounds.

Those familiar with Rochester’s many festivals may have witnessed a Sound ExChange performance this past fall. The group made appearances at both Greentopia and the First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festival. Two of the shows played during Fringe took place at the Rochester Contemporary Art Center (RoCo). During these shows, Sound ExChange integrated the theme of the existing art exhibit—found objects—into their performances: the musicians prepared pieces that included, again, audience participation with found objects and were played in different parts of the art center. “There was a vibraphone solo that used things like tinfoil and thimbles,” says Wozniak.

Sound ExChange began in 2011 as a large orchestra composed of Eastman students. Since then, the group has gone through various transformations to become the collective that it is today; one that has the commendable mission of broadening the horizons of classical music and making the art form more accessible—and appealing—to younger generations.

Andrew Jensen-Battaglia is a freelance writer currently living in Rochester. He is a lover of books, gadgets, and all things complex.

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