by Dany Recio
Photos by Ben Porter
Music, and how we listen to it, has undergone huge changes. From the recording technology to radio and the internet, how we consume music today is vastly different from just a few generations ago. One thing that has for the most part remained is how we experience live music. For decades people have filed in to venues to watch musicians perform laterally, one after the other. Today as a listener you are inundated with choice and with ever greater access to more kinds of music sifting through all of it can become a real challenge. Microsessions and its creator, Paul Schomer, intend to rethink the way we watch live music.
Microsessions is a 90 minute concert that features four acts, all of whom get to perform for the full 90 minutes. If you’re keeping count, there is no way to divide the time up that evenly and unless you have a DeLorean it would be downright impossible. Microsessions solves that problem by approaching the performance like a speed date. The four acts are split into four different performance spaces and then the audience is split into four groups. The audiences, known as “pods,” are rotated between each space every fifteen minutes and at the conclusion of an hour are allowed to choose any artist to watch for the concluding half hour of the show. This gives every artist the opportunity to perform for the entirety of the show, although only performing to the entire audience incrementally.
The idea for Microsessions came to Paul after he attended a house show. He was there to watch some friends. As he recalls there were a number of acts going up and the show lasted well into the night but it was on his way home that Paul thought, “What if each group performed in a separate room in the house? And what if everyone had the choice to watch their favorite groups?” This simple idea is not entirely foreign, if you’ve ever attended a musical festival then you may be accustomed to scheduling out your favorite acts in an attempt to watch them all in a single weekend or day. What separates Microsessions from any music festival is you can make an evening of Microsessions rather than devoting a whole day or entire weekend. It’s hardly reinventing the wheel but it is a shift from both the festival format and the “classic” concert experience.
It is important to note that each act is not an entire ensemble and that they generally tend to be mostly acoustic acts. The short time to play for each pod and the proximity of the performers to one another does create some constraints on how large and loud an artist can be. This adaptive quality to Microsessions could be argued both as a positive or negative for the artists. Some might say artists don’t have the full freedom they would if they performed an independent ninety-minute set but Microsessions encourages the musicians to perhaps embrace the opportunity to experiment and try out new songs or ways of performing material. With a few small audiences in short bursts, artists can have more immediate feedback from the four different pods.
For each musician the format presented both benefits and challenges. When I spoke with Sydney Wright, who performed at the session I attended, for her style she found the format to be fun. She admits she never makes set-lists and for that reason she improvised her sets based on how she felt and on the crowd’s reaction. She opened with the same song but from there it could have been anything. Fifteen minutes is a short time and will go by quickly for musicians who are used to playing for much longer. Sydney though, appreciated that with each pod she got the chance to share the stories behind her songs. She pointed out that Micro-sessions felt very personal and it’s much easier to share the stories behind her songs when you have the audience’s undivided attention.
Curtis McMurty felt differently about the format. He performed the same songs for the first four sets and that presented some new challenges he was not prepared for. For instance, he said some songs went over better and worse at different times— he compared it to a “writers in the round,” where you know what the audience just heard and know how best to follow it. He also was not accustomed to having to sing the same songs again and again and found it could strain his voice, so he’d consider switching up his strategy if he were going to perform at a Microsessions again.
Both Curtis and Sydney conceded that Microsessions did give them the opportunity to perform to people that may not have heard of them or their music before. Artists choose to perform with other artists based on whether that’ll help grow the number of people who will listen. So, traditionally, it’s wise to perform with musicians cut from a similar cloth. At Microsessions that rule doesn’t necessarily apply. It does not feel out of place to have two distinctive styles of music playing at the same session when they are in completely separate rooms. However, with the constraints that this format of performance enforces, it is really hard to see that through and to at least some degree the music will always be in some way related.
For me, Microsessions was enjoyable. It was an evening I shared with friends and I did get to listen to new music and like others who attended this session, I even met the musicians afterwards, which is always a treat if you enjoyed their performance. This might be different from what we are accustomed to but not having to stand in one spot the whole night and watch each artist, one after the other, was a relief. There was a chance to move around the whole venue and meet and mingle with new people. The way I see it, if we treat art galleries this way then we can certainly treat music the same. I definitely wouldn’t want to see a gallery of Picasso’s work one painting at a time in a slideshow. Microsessions won’t replace how we watch live music but in the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World” and a city that keeps “Weird” in its slogan, this is an elegant mix of the two.
The next Microsessions takes place at The Vortex on Wednesday, July 27th with Jonathan Terrell (Not in the Face), Jaimee Harris, Kelly Barnes (Darkbird), and Paul Schomer.
Dany Recio looks like he’d vote for Bernie Sanders but wouldn’t gentrify an entire neighborhood. He’s about as opinionated as your grandfather but never fought a war. Words that have been used to describe him are: young, wears glasses, lost (while not wearing glasses), and hopeful. A couple nights a week he tries to make everyone in Austin like him, one person at a time. (It’s going okay) If you feel like engaging in appropriated rap battles or a couple of twitter feuds you can google him, if you’re into it: @saidthedanny