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Lead artist and composer Ari Benjamin Myers conducts “Duet” in Love Park, Rehearsing Philadelphia, Curtis Institute of Music and Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, 2022. Photo by Conrad Erb.

Composer Ari Benjamin Meyers on Authorship, Collaboration, and Rehearsing Philadelphia

Rehearsing Philadelphia, created and composed by Ari Benjamin Meyers, brought musical performances to public spaces throughout Philadelphia in the spring of 2022. With four performance modules encompassing intimate solos, interactive duets, small ensembles, and orchestra performances, the project culminated in a performance by a Public Orchestra assembled from an open call and inclusive of varied musical practices. The large-scale public art project, co-presented by Curtis Institute of Music and Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, gathered more than 200 performers to explore a central question: How can we be together?

In the videos below, Meyers explains his approach to answering this question, the nuances of connecting strangers through music, and why he asserts his authorship in pieces like this.


Meyers on Rehearsing Philadelphia.

Ari Benjamin Meyers. Filmed at Cherry Street Pier on April 7, 2022.

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Rehearsing Philadelphia is a music-based performative, public art project. It takes place throughout the city of Philadelphia, many different locations. It involves many performers, actually over 200-- I think actually 220 performers. And the central question of Rehearsing Philadelphia is, how can we be together, different ways of being together.

It's not necessarily a proposal to say, let's come together, hold hands, and walk into the sunset. It's not that. It's exploring how can we be together? And how? And what happens when we come together? And it's exploring all the sides of that. And it's using music and performance to frame that question and to work on that question.

The project has four large modules called solo, duet, ensemble, and orchestra. And these are basic, let's say, compositional structures. And each one is then looking at a different relationship. So for instance, in duet, the way these two strangers come together is not by the usual means, which would be, Hi, how are you? What's your name? My name is Bill. What's your name? It's by asking the question, would you like to sing with me?

And then-- and this is very important, and this also goes back to Rehearsing Philadelphia-- a rehearsal takes place. In other words, actual work is done. And that's really, really key because in working together and actually creating something together and working on it together, you're really doing something at that moment. It's the composition doing the work, in the case of Duet, a composition that I wrote and tried to take care to compose something that would do that work.

So that brings me to-- as an answer to the question-- to maybe the other major component of Rehearsing Philadelphia, which is the rehearsing side, which is the idea of rehearsal as a kind of mode-- a performative mode-- that feels, to me, in any case, to be the right mode for the moment. We're living in a time where things are changing, it seems, actually, daily. And by things changing, I mean, really reality changing.

Three or four weeks ago or five weeks ago, there was no war. Then there's suddenly a war. And I live in Berlin. It's a 30-minute drive to Poland. Poland is on the border with Ukraine. That's real. And suddenly, reality changed again after reality having changed through corona and COVID.

And so the idea of, at least to me, as someone who does come originally from the performing arts, this kind of idea of rehearsing and it gets better and better, and then you reach a kind of state of perfection, and once it's in that state, it's unchanging, that's how it is. It's always going to be perfect, it's not going to change. That is something that, for a while now, in my own work has been kind of breaking down. And I think Rehearsing Philadelphia is maybe the largest and most important expression of that for me, to date.


This idea of presenting rehearsal, or saying that we're in the rehearsal mode, the opposite of that is not chaos. In other words, it doesn't imply that anything goes or whatever you want. If that was the case, then you wouldn't need a score, and you wouldn't need to-- but we do work. And we work very hard.

And again, if I think about working with my performers, let's say in Berlin, in fact, it's almost the opposite. We work so hard so that one, then, in performance can be loose, can be flexible, can be what I would consider actually live. Because to my way of thinking, if you have something that's perfect, unchanging then I do question a bit, even if it's physically live in the sense that we're seeing it, what is the liveness of it, really?

Meyers on authorship and collaboration.

Ari Benjamin Meyers. Filmed at Cherry Street Pier on April 7, 2022.

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I have a very particular take on that because on one level, I understand how it could seem. There is a lot of openness in the work. And so, for instance, I was asked by someone about duet.

Why don't you let them choose what they want to sing as a duet? And that's a legitimate question. That's a totally legitimate question. The reason why-- and there's a very, very specific reason, and this is actually the answer to your question and really pertains to Rehearsing Philadelphia-- is I believe very much in doing this kind of work. And by this kind of work I mean work in the public sphere, work in the cityscape, working with reality, I would also say.

I feel a great responsibility. I feel a great responsibility mostly towards the performers that I'm working with but also to the audience and also to the situation. I take it very seriously. And so for me, being-- having a score, in other words, saying that I am the artist of this work is not so much an act of ego or an act of control.

And in fact, if you know me or have worked with me, you know I give up-- there's a lot of control that I give up and a lot of trust, but it's based on a work. And it's important to say that's my work because in doing that, I'm also protecting them. It's also-- it's a frame. And going back to duet, it's very essential that they're singing a composition by me because there is this abstract third party.

They're not saying, well, what's your favorite song? Oh, I like that song, too. I don't like that. There's this kind of I'm inserting myself, but by doing that, I'm also giving them a bit of cover to say, well, let's work on this thing.

You don't have to like it. You don't have to not like it. You don't have to-- and that's really key.

So trust is very important. There is a lot of openness in the work. There are points. There are sort of insertion points where there is improvisation and where things happen that I couldn't plan. But at the basis of it, there's a score. There's a work, and to me, that's extremely important to have that.

Ari Benjamin Meyers is a US-born, Berlin-based composer and artist whose work aims to explore the relationship between performer and audience and the performative, social, and ephemeral nature of music.