Billy Bao, or an Open Form Concert

Can a concert become a tool for criticism? What sorts of social relations would be practiced at such an event? What would an Open Form concert even look like?

While we take for granted the concert experience and the logic of its organization — both in spatial terms (the clear division between the stage and audience) and in the sensual sense (the silent and passive spectator listening to what the composer or performer has to offer), this doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. As Martin Tröndle explains, the particular concert format with which we are familiar today has certain specific functions and emerged as the hegemonic form at a particular point in history. It dates back to the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, when it began to supplant less formal musical experiences (e.g., a mobile artist performing for an audience gathered in a circle or freely conversing around a table). With the rise of the concert hall came the privileging of the figure of the individual spectator and increasingly limited opportunities for interaction among the audience. According to Tröndle, this concert format was intended to provide the upper classes with a purely aesthetic experience, or, in the words of Pierre Bourdieu, to satisfy their sense of distinction. In the neoliberal order, the stage/audience division and the atomization of the spectators also facilitated the growth of the music industry, which began to hold large-scale concerts at stadiums and other large venues, thus contributing to the performers’ celebrity status and treating the audience as little more than consumers.

Like all grand theories, concert theory is a generalization, and the history of music — including its latest chapter – is replete with examples of performances that have attempted to cross these spatial and mental boundaries. Yet such events rarely question the fundamental rules governing the organization of modern-day concerts, and instead merely offer additional aesthetic and visual sensations. In light of these observations, I find the concert given by the band Billy Bao at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw on May 26, 2018, to be of particular significance. More than just an attempt to renegotiate the social relations circumscribing the conventional concert, this performance constituted a radical critique of our society of individuals. For lack of a better term, I will refer to this event as an Open Form concert (more on that later).

This was the first performance in Poland by the band Billy Bao, founded in 2004 in Bilbao. Its fictitious leader is the eponymous Billy Boa, who hails from Lagos, Nigeria. Alongside the group’s core members — Mattin (vocals, claves), Alberto L. Martin (percussion), and Iñigo Eguillor (percussion), the Warsaw show was co-performed by John Nthakyo, a DJ from Kenya who is studying in Poland, and the audience itself. What we witnessed was a reconfiguration of the artist/audience relationship at two separate levels. First, the musicians invited the DJ who was scheduled to play at the after-party (and was therefore an audience member for most of the evening) to perform with the band. John Nthkayo accepted the invitation and, after introducing himself to the audience, became a full member of the group. Second, the concert began with Mattin inviting the people assembled at the venue that night to talk about the changes occurring in their city. This gesture wasn’t just an expression of the singer’s curiosity about the social and political realities of the place where he was performing, but also a way of granting the audience agency. As Mattin explained, the statements made by the people in the crowd provided the band with a musical score, thus influencing the repertoire of the show. To facilitate this exchange, a microphone was set up on a stand in the middle of the room (with Mattin holding another microphone). The conversation effect was compounded by the lights, which turned on whenever an audience member approached the microphone, and switched off when the band responded with their instruments. As one might expect, this invitation for the audience to share their opinions produced a variety of responses, from jokes to political manifestos, which contributed to the diversity of the repertoire and bridged the gap between the performer (the “author”) and the viewer (the “consumer”). What is particularly noteworthy here is the contribution John Nthakyo made to the concert by injecting contemporary African dance music into Billy Bao’s punk-rock sound. Someone even described it as “dance plunderphonics”; whether or not this is true, one thing is certain: genre classifications and the division between “high” and “low” music are pointless.

Another aspect of the concert that was reconfigured was its spatial arrangement. Instead of the conventional stage/audience division, the drummers spread out into the corners of the venue and the DJ stood opposite the bar, while the singer roamed freely throughout the concert space. This configuration shifted the center of gravity to the public microphone (lit by a spotlight) in the middle of the audience. As the concert went on, the space gradually became a dance floor, and John grew increasingly confident in his role as a band member.

Billy Bao’s Warsaw concert provoked controversy, and not just among audience members, who expressed wildly different opinions about the show (describing it as either “pretentious” and “dumb” or “great”). The (rather experienced) promoter was somewhat perplexed, as well. What had just happened? Was there even a name for it? These questions bounced around my head after the three-hour concert drew to a close. Inspired by Oskar Hansen’s theory, I decided to call it an Open Form concert. How does an Open Form concert work? It is a conversation held through media of audio, in which the instruments and sound system are publicly accessible, and which is regulated by the values of classlessness, egalitarianism, decentralization, and the absence of dogma or hierarchy.

This article is based on conversations with the audience, band members, and the concert theorist Martin Tröndle.

Paweł Nowożycki


Billy Bao:
Mattin (vocal, claves)
Alberto L. Martin (drums)
Iñigo Eguillor (drums)
John Nthakyo (Dj)