Go Deeper

Thinking About The Asphalt Orchestra

Posted September 11th, 2010

Imagine for a second that you get off at 30th Steet Station and are greeted by a live, marching band rendition of a Frank Zappa tune where the band members are running in step around the crowd. That’s Asphalt Orchestra, and they’re only one of the many groups performing at the Bang on a Can Marathon taking place tomorrow at World Cafe Live. (For details and tickets, click here.)

Asphalt Orchestra is a 12-piece musical group and social experiment that brings unique arrangements directly to the unsuspecting public. They explore every imaginable genre, performing renditions of pieces from musicians including Björk, Charles Mingus, Frank Zappa, David Byrne, Annie Clark, and Yoko Ono.

The orchestra struggles against the traditional performance paradigm, which can create a barrier between performers and the crowd. The raised stage is physical representation of this separation. But Asphalt Orchestra approaches the public—on their level, in-person—and tries to interact with audiences as much as possible. The group’s underlying goal and mission is to bring new music outside of traditional venues and surprise people with unexpected musical experiences.

In doing so, the audience feels like part of the performance, breaking away from the old performance paradigm. Together, the Asphalt Orchestra and the audience can see a street concert turn into excitement and happiness on every face in the crowd.

Merely performing music on the street isn’t quite enough for the Asphalt Orchestra; the members also incorporate choreography. For these musicians—none of whom are experienced dancers—this is often the hardest part of the performances. The members need to remember where they have to be at a particular time and then have to navigate the crowd, all while playing their instruments.

This inter-audience navigation is exactly what Asphalt Orchestra strives to incorporate. Band members circle and interact with the crowd in ways that are so uncommon in traditional performance experiences. Sometimes audiences are open to the interaction; sometimes they are confused. In the latter cases, the crowd itself creates the barrier that Asphalt Orchestra wants to eradicate, so the group cultivates an environment where the crowd and musicians are both physically and symbolically side-by-side. And when the crowd gets involved and really starts having fun and letting loose, the experience is magical.

At World Cafe Live, the group plans to stay off stage as much as possible and move throughout the crowd. The group has different dance moves for different kinds of venues, so they’ll offer choreography appropriate to the space. Staying true to its mission, they plan an organic show, ever changing and evolving around the degree of audience participation, while urging the crowd to release inhibitions and run wild.

In the future, Asphalt Orchestra hopes to develop a more regular indoor performance routine, so it can bringing this experience to audiences more sustainably and painlessly through the cold months. One can only imagine the difficulty in playing a sousaphone in New York City’s November chill.

Luckily, tomorrow’s temperatures will be reasonable for Bang on a Can Marathon: Philadelphia at World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut Street, University City. Sunday, September 12, 2:00 pm to midnight (but you can come and go as you please). $25.

–Bobby Szafranski