The Unconcert and the Unconference

Inuksuit is inspired by the stone sentinels constructed over the centuries by the Inuit in the windswept expanses of the Arctic. The Inuktitut word translates literally “to act in the capacity of the human”. This work is haunted by the vision of the melting of the polar ice, the rising of the seas, and what may remain of humanity’s presence after the waters recede.

I read this after hearing John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit on Sunday, and it well describes this haunting and evocative work.

A vast and empty wilderness  of creaking ice, winds, the swell of waves, foghorns, ships’ bells and the cries of creatures – all are conjured  as the sound builds from distant places and mysterious murmurs into an all consuming rhythmic roar and then back down again as the music fades to silence.

Adams wrote Inuksuit to be performed outdoors. The drill hall in NYC’s Park Avenue Armory served as a fine substitute.

It’s a cavernous, unadorned space with exposed girders, grids and ducts. The floorboards are painted, worn and patched. The late afternoon winter light filtering in from windows high up on the sides and to the east gave a greenish, slightly underwater feel. Even the clock stuck at ten past two added to the other-worldly, ethereal experience created by the swelling sound.

But this was no ordinary concert.

There were no rows of seats, there was no perfect vantage point. Percussion instruments, dozens of them – drum sets, snare drums, kettle drums, cymbals –  were stationed throughout the hall. Less conventional instruments – paper cones, sound creators of all kinds – were played by musicians who moved through the crowd or were positioned in the balcony.

Together they created an all-embracing and all-consuming wave that swelled to fill the hall with a haunting, insistent, percussive soundscape. Noises grew from everywhere and moved and changed and blended and clashed and enveloped.

The unformed and informal audience was a part of the performance. Listeners stood still, sat or moved about, took photographs, their feet setting the floorboards slightly acreaking – almost a percussive contribution. Children watched and wanted to touch and sometimes ran. People milled and murmured and then – as they did at the beginning – fell into silence and stillness at the end.

There was no perfect place to be. There was no best seat in the house. It was what you made it. Where you stood or sat or went was your choice. Each vantage point and listening post was unique and self chosen. Sound and meaning came at you from every direction. And you were inside it, a part of it, it was not something  done to you.

Like W.B Yeats Among Schoolchildren you become  lost in memory and thought:

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

It was quite thrilling.

Last Friday we devoted a part of the professional day to an “unconference” format. The professional development unconference is rooted in the notion of self-directed learning and it places the responsibility on the participants. The division heads introduced the concept and shared the principles:


  • Whoever comes is the right person. And if you’re the only one who comes, you might finally have some rich, focused quiet time for thinking and writing on that issue.
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have. Let go of your expectations and work with whatever unfolds.
  • Whenever it starts is the right time. Creativity doesn’t happen on a schedule
  • Whenever it’s over, it’s over. If you find a solution in 20 minutes, move on to the next group. If it takes two hours, it takes two hours.
  • If the conversation doesn’t work for you, find another session. You are responsible for your own learning

How well did it work? It worked as well as the people involved.

Again – there was no perfect place to be, no ideal room or group or topic. The learning was not confined or channeled or directed. It was what it was and it was what each participant made of it.

The unconcert and the unconference – each in its own way -thrilling.

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