An Enemy of the People
There’s still an extremely lively discussion going on in response to my previous tirade about mid-performance walkouts, and I’ve almost succumbed to the temptation of continuing that discussion instead of posting a new rant. But as I was formulating yet another response to some of the comments, I realized that another topic was emerging that should be addressed in a new thread here.
Peter Gena recounted a classic John Cage comment in response to a student asking him about the role of art:
I could always tell that I was doing something useful if people walked out. Or if critics found the work not good. Then I knew that it was good.
Cage was indeed a masterful provocateur, but he was also a master of contradictions. As a composer he abrogated personal choice, yet most of his music has a distinct and immediately identifiable sound. He advocated indeterminacy despite disliking jazz and other forms of improvisatory music. Most importantly to me, however, was Cage’s final definition of music “sounds heard,” a brilliant, all-encompassing syllogism which also makes the need for an audience very clear and hence seems to negate his comments above which smack a bit of “who cares if you listen.”
For several generations there has been a “bad boy” fixation among many composers, the idea being that if the majority of people don’t like what you’re doing then it’s the right thing to be doing. This has also engendered its contrapositive position: if the majority of people like what you’re doing then it must not be good. This way of thinking is sadly a large part of why contemporary classical music, or whatever we want to call it this week, has become so marginal in our society; it has become “sounds heard by all too few.”
The attention of an audience should be of paramount importance for any music. Returning to issues raised about why people walk out of performances, Dennis Bathory-Kitsz pondered:
[I]f you can’t hold your attention because someone is leaving, or that such a minor distraction actually matters to the experience of gathering together in ritual silence and obeisance to the stage, how compelling is the music?
Sometimes very fragile music can be extremely compelling, but it can still be drowned out by the sounds with which it shares space. In a post-Cage, post-Oliveros listening paradigm, we are missing something if we ignore any of the sounds around us whether those on stage or those which surround us. But there are ways around this. Thanks to the deluge of recordings in recent years, I’m now a huge fan of Morton Feldman. But I couldn’t bear his music when I heard it in live performances many years ago, and still can’t bear most live performances of it nowadays, because the slightest noise does disrupt it for me. Ironically, I also prefer recordings to live performances of Cage’s music to his probable horror (he hated recordings), despite the fact that the random sounds of audience distraction were, at a time, an extremely important part of his aesthetic. (Strangely enough, random noises often sound better to me on live recordings of his music than they do live, but admittedly this is a bias.)
It’s instructive to remember that Cage was disdainful of extremely loud music such as hard rock and rock-inspired experimental music like Glenn Branca’s guitar symphonies, and he once famously called Branca a fascist. Very loud music is frequently unblemished by vagaries of bad audience behavior. Someone in the back row is chatting with his neighbor? No problem. The music is so loud you can’t hear them anyway.
Philip Fried suggested that a public musical experience that is completely free from disturbances might be “mass hypnosis.” Have we come so far away from the ability to listen to each other that the desire to listen and to be listened to with attention and respect is socially suspicious behavior at this point? Isn’t mass hypnosis a phenomenon much more easily perpetrated on a population that has lost its ability to listen and be listened to?