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?

7 thoughts on “An Enemy of the People

  1. pgblu

    mass hyp
    I’m not Philip Fried, but I am the one who mentioned mass hypnosis on your last thread. You’ve either misidentified me or you’re referring to someone else who happened to mention mass hypnosis.

    In case of the former scenario, let me clarify what I meant. Dennis Kitzsch posited that if a listener is bothered by someone leaving, then perhaps the music wasn’t compelling enough in the first place.

    I can be very interested in a piece of music and concentrate on it with all my spirit, yet not be so enthralled that I forget the entire world around me. If anything, that kind of music makes me MORE aware of the world around me. My attention to the music is complete, yet fragile.

    I can be fully engaged without being enthralled. In fact, if music “enthralls” me, it usually has nothing to do with engagement, but on some important level with disengagement of my sensory faculties.

    Reply
  2. philmusic

    My point was not about hypnosis but about those folks who come to concerts and disturb others because they have their mind elsewhere for the duration. Not as an escape from the music mind you, but because of short attention spans.

    So look deep into my blog, look deeper, deeper, your mind is getting focused …so focused; you are in a state of utter relaxation yet awareness. You want, no need, to go to a new music concert pay cash and listen attentively. You will not leave even if the music make you sleepy so sleepy. At the final applause you will applaud politely, find the composers and give them each $10,000 dollars.

    You will then wake up refreshed and remember everything.
    Phil’s page

    Reply
  3. Frank J. Oteri

    Sorry for the unintentional conflation of Philip(p) Blume and Fried above. When folks post comments and fail to include their complete names along with them, sometimes it’s difficult to keep things clear. I always like to know whose words I’m reading, which I guess is just another manifestation of the attentive listening paradigm I’ve been harping on recently in these posts.

    However, both made very good points above. I particularly like the idea of finding the composers and giving them each $10,000. Can I move to your world? :) FJO

    Reply
  4. philmusic

    “When folks post comments and fail to include their complete names along with them, sometimes it’s difficult to keep things clear.”

    I was going to say that I don’t use my real name because I’m a wanted man. Since I happen to be a composer who is going to buy that excuse?

    Phil’s page

    Reply
  5. Kyle Gann

    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.

    I think this is an appropriate insight for periods, like the 1950s, in which the public has a stereotypical and limiting view of what the arts are, and artists need to break out into a wider perspective. For a period like today, when the public is out of touch with what’s going on artistically and vaguely imagines that it is probably self-indulgent and esoteric, the attitude would be an unfortunate anachronism. “Bad boy” behavior might serve a constructive purpose at a garden party, and no good purpose at all during a shipwreck.

    Reply
  6. Frank J. Oteri

    Post-Oliveros
    Indeed Pauline Oliveros is thankfully very much alive and continuing to create important work. But to describe the totality of today’s listening environment as only post-Cage and not acknowledge the importance of Pauline Oliveros’s deep listening would paint an incomplete picture. And since I believe that both Cage and Oliveros established new listening paradigms, everything since those paradigms were set forth would have to be described as post-Cage and post-Oliveros. Sorry for the confusion.

    Reply

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