In the context of my highly amateurish exposition of Chris Anderson’s “long tail” last week, a reader suggested that recordings of new music can grant access to listeners who are located far from active ensembles and presenters. Although I think that the former is a pale imitation of the latter under ideal circumstances, the reader makes a good point. I’m writing this from Fargo, ND, where new music offerings seem fairly slim, and the same is certainly true of western Maryland; I don’t know how an aspiring aficionado in Hagerstown, for instance, would ever get the chance to hear Cage unless it’s being transduced to him 44,100 times a second. If he does, though, and he really digs, maybe he’ll start trying to recreate the experiments that led to the pieces he’s hearing. Maybe he’ll even stage a happening or two. And if they’re not quite like the ones that took place in Manhattan in the ’50s, so much the better.
The more I think about this idea, the more excited I get. As a composer, helping people understand new music is necessarily part of my agenda—but if it’s done creatively and open-mindedly, misunderstanding new music could be almost as productive. Look what happened after the Sex Pistols shows at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester—the half-formed impressions of punk taken away by the audience hardened into a range of variously close and far-flung endeavors from the Buzzcocks to the Smiths. It’s endlessly tantalizing to wonder what would happen if a recording of Le Marteau—to take a piece which presents itself very well on CD—fell into the hands of some kid who has no idea what to make of it but loves the way it sounds. I suspect a lot of composers got their start this way, in fact (although Stravinsky seems, anecdotally, to be the catalyst more often than Boulez).
In my response to the aforementioned reader comment, I said that I like to think of music as a service rather than a product. That’s all well and good, but the nice thing about products is that you can put them in boxes and send them all over the place. The challenge, as I see it, is using “music the product” to make “music the service” more available.