Members of “Social Art Project” hope to use music and collective participation to foster community.
The music group, composed of UCLA students and alumni, will perform Wednesday as part of the Fowler Museum’s ongoing Fowler Out Loud series. Singer and guitarist Matthew Gilbert, a fourth-year musicology student, said its name is influenced by real-life social art projects that invite audience participation.
Gilbert was partially inspired by installations such as large chalkboards asking people to write their biggest fears – people’s participation is integral to the final art piece. Gilbert said “Social Art Project” follows this format as it hopes audiences participate in the musical performance by dancing or singing along.
“I’m a big fan of … trying to obscure who’s the writer and who’s the audience, and make it more community-oriented,” Gilbert said.
More than 30 people have been a part of “Social Art Project,” Gilbert said, as it consists of unfixed members who vary with each performance. At the show Wednesday, performers of the group will mostly cover folk songs – like “Indiana” by Adrianne Lenker and “Wildfire” by Mandolin Orange – as well as a few original songs, Gilbert said.
Through music and songwriting, Gilbert said he is able to convey beliefs he wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Gilbert lived in San Francisco for two years, and he said he used songwriting to reach out to people he knew in the area. When writing original songs, Gilbert said he considers how he can make something special to one person, such as one of his friends, instead of making them more generalized.
“I think most people could listen to my songs and make sense of them, but they are only going to mean something in the way I want them to mean to another person,” Gilbert said.
Musicians at the Wednesday performance will carry out cast rotation, Gilbert said. During the performance, when a musician isn’t playing, they will quietly sit down and listen to the other group members before jumping into their next planned song, he said. Not every song requires each instrument, and Gilbert said this practice makes their performance feel more authentic.
Gilbert created the project, and it then expanded to additional members, including fourth-year financial actuarial mathematics student Alena Abella. Performing vocals in the group and being an avid listener of Gilbert’s songs, Abella said the descriptive lyrics of his music allow the listener to experience his personal stories. Abella said Gilbert often involves his friends in his music, inviting them to sing with him during performances.
“Whenever I listen to (the songs), I can picture the narrative that’s happening,” Abella said. “So even though I don’t fully understand the unique experiences that he’s writing about, I can kind of get a glimpse and image in my head to where I feel like I’m a part of that relationship.”
Making music has traditionally been somewhat informal and unorganized, such as passing down oral traditions, said alumna violinist Jennifer Cho. The concept of rotating performers adds a level of variety to each show, she said.
“Each particular piece requires a certain texture and a certain ambiance and not all instruments will fit into that final result you try to present to the audience,” Cho said.
Cho said “Social Art Project” is liberating for her because she performs without a score, by ear, in order to fit into the folk music. “Social Art Project” provides performers an environment to experiment and engage with other artists from contrasting musical backgrounds, Cho said.
Without “Social Art Project,” Cho said members of the group – with differing musical backgrounds – may have never performed with each other. Its performers come from diverse musical and school backgrounds, Cho said – she had a Western art music background while Gilbert played music with a folk influence.
Having so many members allows “Social Art Project” to build its own community, as people come together to create music, Cho said.
“Music-making can be really individual and people can indulge in it by themselves,” Cho said. “Inevitably, you do end up engaging with (the) community and this (is) a very forward way to do that.”