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The Memphis Music Magnet is arts-based neighborhood revitalization with a Memphis twist, designed to augment the redevelopment of the Soulsville USA neighborhood by making it a community of choice for musicians, music-related creatives, and other artists. ArtPlace spoke with Joseph Nelson, Symphony Soul Project Manager with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, about the challenges of creative placemaking from an arts organization’s perspective.

ARTPLACE: Is there a new challenge that engaging in creative placemaking presents for you, your organization and the artists who work with you? Are there new skills required?

NELSON: Yes to both questions. There are some challenges for us, an arts organization, as we begin creative placemaking, and new skills are certainly required as well. Generally speaking, most people think about the artistic performance of an orchestra without ever considering how the space itself should perform. But for classical music, which has a wide range of dynamics in a concert hall or in any other place, acoustic quality is a big deal. If you’re in the audience, you get a full listening experience when the music is accurately projected. This happens routinely in acoustically excellent halls like Memphis’ Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. Regardless of the hall, however, orchestra musicians have a different relationship with sound, and for them quality begins with their ability to hear themselves. As individual players, musicians constantly monitor their own sounds and they must precisely hear their own instruments and each other to interact and adjust for good timing and balance. These interactive processes – listening and correcting – are at the heart of classical music. For the professional orchestra, no field of physical dynamics is more important than acoustics.

Creating a new space for musical performance will always present a number of challenges, but creating a performance space that is acceptable for classical music can take those same challenges to a whole new level. Right now we’re working closely with Community LIFT, our partner in supporting the Memphis Music Magnet at Soulsville USA, to repurpose an empty building into a performance space that will provide an excellent musical experience not only for the listener, but for the musician as well. Preparing for the performance aspects of creative placemaking in Soulsville USA is pushing all of us to acquire lots of new skills, but we’re working together to solve acoustical problems and develop new and creative acoustical treatments that will result in the quality concert product our community deserves.

In the MSO experience, performance spaces that pose little or no acoustical challenges are preferred, and when problems do come up, they can be solved with minimal adjustments from the production crew or even the musicians. However, at the Memphis Music Magnet facility, we’re experimenting with different combinations of carpeting, acoustical draping and other treatments to improve sound retention and projection. And at the same time we’re trying to anticipate the sound effect of warm bodies in the same space. It’s hard, but we’re committed to finding just the right formula. Starting with an empty shell to create a performance space that is sufficient enough acoustically to allow minimal changes between first rehearsal and sound check is an experience we hope to be able to share with others in the performing arts.

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