While attending premieres in Berlin and Albany last week I twice had the chance to engage in some audience Q&A. If nothing else, these recent experiences have again confirmed that there are at least three questions (and accompanying misconceptions) that absolutely will not die:
“Do you have perfect pitch?” Not an unreasonable question, of course, but I am always shocked at the disappointment when the questioner is answered in the negative. For some reason perfect pitch continues to be some kind of barometer of skill and/or credibility, and in pre-concert talks I’ve had some people really take the “kick the tires” approach to the extreme. Perhaps perfect pitch has assumed this particular status among those who are not really sure how to evaluate a new composition, and are grasping for some kind of seal of quality? I distinctly remember a student performance in Cleveland many years ago where a gentleman asked me about perfect pitch, then politely excused himself. Maybe he just had some kind of massive bowel attack, but I still puzzle over what his particular issue was.
“Do you use a keyboard/other instrument to compose?” Similarly, everyone always seems to think you must be really cool if you don’t “need” an instrument. (I am reminded of a conductor who didn’t “need” the score of a familiar symphony, but then apparently did need to stop and restart a couple of times). The idea that some composers/pieces/styles might benefit from an instrument and others not is foreign to many people I have encountered; as in perfect pitch, it’s understood as a “feat” of musicianship.
“Do you hear music in your head?” Almost always, people who have asked this question don’t mean “can you imagine music in your head?” but “does music come into your head, unbidden?” So to my understanding, it’s really a question about inspiration. For me at least, it rarely works like that, and when I tell people that I have to think of an idea and try different approaches, just like a novelist, they often feel that the music is not “inspired”. Of course to myself and many readers of this website, that’s ridiculous, but I still marvel at the implication that the most “inspired” work of art is somehow that which the artist understood and interacted with the least. In general, I find that many people have a lot invested in the idea of the artist as someone mysteriously apart—a notion that many artists are all too happy to encourage. Some people seem happy to know about the nuts and bolts of composing, but I have encountered a significant number who somehow derive enjoyment from keeping the whole thing inscrutable.
I hope that these observations aren’t taken as some kind of elitist jab at audiences; it’s just that as a composer, I want to understand where my audience is coming from. Fortunately, last year I ran into a gentleman who let me know exactly that: After the premiere of an orchestra piece, he had taken great exception to the fact that not every instrument had been playing the whole time. (The piece, unremarkably, started small and added mass along the way). Then he said, in essence, “I paid good money for this ticket and you gipped me out of my fair share of notes!” Now that’s some shrewd business sense for you.