Audience Rights

In his final definition of music—”sounds heard”—John Cage put the responsibility for the existence of a musical experience not on composers or interpreters, but on the audience. But Cage’s elevation of the listener to a primary position of musical power above and beyond the people on stage or in the studio has taken on perhaps many unintentional ironies, particularly now that we live in a world with buzzwords like “audience friendly” and where musicians have even been castigated for discouraging the use of mobile recorders at concerts. However, if indeed music results more from the audience than the folks supplying what the audience is listening to, what should the role of the audience be and what rights does an audience have?

Last week I finally caught up with audiophile Steve Guttenberg’s provocative essay, “Why can’t you listen to music?” for the CNET Blog Network. Guttenberg laments that we’ve become so attached to multitasking, as well as using music as a personal soundtrack to block out other information as we go about our lives, that focused listening (an activity that can only occur while doing nothing else) is becoming a lost skill. I got so worked up reading this that I tweeted about it—yeah, I got sucked in, too—which soon prompted a retort from pianist Bruce Brubaker: “What? You mean music can be useful in differing ways to various people?” But I needed a lot more than 140 characters to respond to that, so here goes.

To this day I can’t bring myself to walk around with earbuds in my head. Either the music is too much of a distraction from paying attention to traffic lights, etc. or the quotidian chores that occur going about one’s day are too much of a distraction for a fulfilling listening experience. And there are things I could never do while listening to music, such as reading a book, an activity which should be equally engrossing. But I confess that I do listen to music at home while engaged in certain other less intellectually taxing activities—e.g. frequently while dressing or doing household chores, often during meals, and sometimes while washing dishes. There’s just too much stuff I want to hear and otherwise I wouldn’t have enough time to listen to all of it.

Yet listening has remained just about the most important thing I can think of doing. In fact, I spend way more time listening to music than composing or performing it. And while I frequently feel enormously frustrated that I have so little time these days for fleshing out my own compositional ideas, I would not want to skew the equation in the other direction. I would probably never perform or create anything of my own at all if not spurred on by engaged listening to what other people have done. Not that I’m looking for models to emulate, but rather the actual process of listening is powerful creative fuel. I’ve long believed that if we could harness that fuel more effectively in our society, the world would be a better place. A world where people are unable to listen to each other is a dangerous world indeed. Sadly, it is a world we all too frequently inhabit.

So back to those questions: what should the role of the audience be and what rights does an audience have? As a composer, I am usually quite flexible with how interpreters perform what I’ve written and I am so happy that people show up to performances when they occur. As a listener, however, I strive to totally submit to what I’m hearing—without intrusion and without personal judgment. I don’t always succeed, but I try.

While Cage gave audiences the deciding role in what constitutes music by declaring it to be “sounds heard,” he also created unprecedented challenges for listeners. Cage perhaps most famously asked people to listen to whatever sound occurs during a 4’33″ timespan in which no sound is intentionally made by interpreters. But he also subjected listeners on multiple occasions to the full audio spectrum, from the most ravishingly beautiful sonorities to the most horrific shrieks, as well as long stretches of seeming stasis that some people continue to find relentlessly tedious. In response, he famously quipped, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

I would argue that paying attention to others rather than yourself, which focused listening makes possible, is music’s ultimate use. And if music exists in your life solely as an accompaniment for other activities, then you are not really listening to it. Indeed, if these sounds are not really heard, they are not really music. The role of the audience must be to make the experience of listening to sound into music, and the audience has the right to be able to listen unencumbered by experiences that distract from doing that and only that.

7 thoughts on “Audience Rights

  1. jgrobelny

    i think it might do well to look outside of the sphere of composers and musicians for inspiration on the audience’s rights.

    while the cage quote is funny, it still belies the fact that cage was likely more patient than most audience members, and he had a pretty ripe sense of humor!

    i come from a rock and roll background, and frankly, it seems like cage has it backward. if you produce a terrible experience for someone, especially they have paid you to sit in a seat, they’ve got every right to kick up a fuss, excuse themselves mid-concert without fear of dirty looks, have a drink, or check their text messages. sure, it’s bad to be disruptive to your fellow concert goers, but some slack would be nice.

    i think cage still thought about the audience from a performer/composer perspective. he wants you to understand him. i think the audience should continue to be in central control. if we’re boring or annoying them, and their attention wanders, it’s our fault, not theirs.

    Reply
  2. Frank J. Oteri

    jgrobelny writes: if we’re boring or annoying them, and their attention wanders, it’s our fault, not theirs.

    Really? Then how does that account for my liking something you dislike and vice versa? You seem to imply that there are perceptual universals. This is provably false and perhaps a somewhat, dare I say, arrogant way to approach the listening experience. I get the most from something I’m exposed to that I was not at all aware I would find interesting. If I already know I’m going to like something before I hear it, I’m already somewhat less interested. But admittedly, that’s a bit overly judgmental since it superimposes my own experience on listening in ways that are perhaps in conflict with the ability to listen to something on its own terms.

    it’s bad to be disruptive to your fellow concert goers, but some slack would be nice.

    Therein lies the rub, being disruptive to fellow concert-goers is far worse than being disruptive to the folks on stage, who frequently aren’t even aware of all the distractions happening out in the audience. My dander at lack of attention rises from my perspective as a listener, not from my perspective as a composer.

    Reply
  3. Armando

    I’m with you, Frank, but, aren’t there different types of listening just as there are different types of uses for music? I share your passion for listening and regret that I don’t have as much time for it as I used to (although finding new and engaging pieces of music are stimulating to the process of creating my own music too). That said, does all musical engagement need to be deep listening? As I type this I am listening to music. This music is taken from the soundtrack to a (rather cinematic) beloved television show that recently went off the air. I don’t feel particularly guilty about having this music on in the background as I read and type, perhaps, because the original function of this music, was, indeed, as background.

    In a concert, that’s another matter, I would say. If I go to a concert, regardless of how uncomfortable the music might make me feel (I’m pretty open minded, but there is some music out there I really don’t like), I want to listen. To cut a bored or disengaged listener some slack at the expense of my own engagement doesn’t seem fair to me.

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  4. jgrobelny

    I don’t think there are any implied universals of taste (that’d be a mess!), but I do think it is presumptuous of any creator to assume that people will take in their art “on it’s own terms.” Some folks will, and that is fine, but I believe that the audience, being the folks who take time and/or resources out of their life to participate in art, deserve to be met halfway. I think it’s reasonable for an audience to respond to an artist if they are being confronted by a work of art.

    The idea of “on it’s own terms” still assumes that the art (or its creator) is the one who sets the terms. From my perspective, the people who show up should get some credit. Finally, yes, if we put our works out in public, or on a stage, or in a blog, then I feel like it is their right to comment. Different listening environments come with their own social norms, but I think a lot of these stifle critical reactions from an audience by dictating what is “allowed.” The result is a critical echo chamber for the performer.

    Sure, that makes being a listener tougher. There might be more distractions. Its annoying, but at the end of the night, if the point of the performance was to communicate with an audience, at least there was one. I still feel like we all could give any listener a little more credit for their support, even if they take a call mid-piece, whether or not we are performer or listener. We’re patient with performers, and often hear them out, why be so demanding of the audience?

    Reply
  5. Frank J. Oteri

    From my perspective, the people who show up should get some credit. I believe that the audience, being the folks who take time and/or resources out of their life to participate in art, deserve to be met halfway.

    Ah, but which members of the audience? Is it the ones who are attempting to attentively listen to the performers or the ones who think it’s O.K. to respond to a call mid piece, which you seem to imply is O.K.? As I argued before, I think the folks who chat on cellphones or to each other during a performance are even ruder to the folks in the audience who want to listen to the music and not someone’s intrusive conversation than they are to the musicians on stage who are frequently thankfully so engrossed in what they are doing as to be oblivious to the distraction.

    Sure, that makes being a listener tougher. [...] We’re patient with performers, and often hear them out, why be so demanding of the audience?

    Again what audience? You seem to be contradicting yourself here. On the one hand you want to make it harder for audiences to actually pay attention and on the other you want to make it easier for folks to be, well, rude.

    Different listening environments come with their own social norms, but I think a lot of these stifle critical reactions from an audience by dictating what is “allowed.” The result is a critical echo chamber for the performer.

    Every social situation comes with protocols. And it is not insensitive to individual personal expression to encourage following protocols which make experiences more fulfilling for a plurality. For example, putting your feet on an empty seat on a train or a bus might give you greater personal comfort, but it will dirty the pants of the next person who sits there. Which means you should not do it. Ever.

    It’s annoying when folks stand in front of a painting at a museum, not looking at it and casually chatting, sometimes at length, blocking it from folks who actually want to look at it. But at least they eventually go away and seeing the painting becomes possible. Live music exists in real time. You can’t press rewind to rehear what was interrupted by the cellphone call.

    Of course, you might take a deeper listening perspective and contend that the listening experience requires being attuned to every sonic event that is going on around you, the music being performed on stage as well as the random traffic sounds outside, an overly loud heating pipe or air conditioner, and, yes, even the coughs and intrusive conversations from some members of the audience. If that is the case, you have transcended the need to listen to any specific music and therefore have no need to attend concerts, listen to recordings, etc. The entire flow of life is music. (Although if you are the one listening that deeply, you’re certainly not the one interrupting things around you with your own ego.) Cage advocated such listening and people like Pauline Oliveros have refined such listening strategies transforming them back into a profoundly musical performance practices.

    I think it’s reasonable for an audience to respond to an artist if they are being confronted by a work of art.

    Is it reasonable for someone else in the audience to respond to that response? If so, it could be more like the beginning of a riot than any concert I would want to attend. There’s a famous anecdote about Charles Mingus playing a set in a jazz club during which two women would not stop talking. At one point, he motioned for everyone in his group to stop playing and just stand there. Someone shouted at him to continue and he said, “I’m waiting for them to finish their solo.” Now that’s an interactive performance I would have wanted to have been at!

    Reply
  6. fwwscout

    Glenn Gould defined ECSTASY as: “a delicate thread binding together music, performance, performer and listener in a web of shared awareness, of “innerness”"

    Perhaps the idea of listening being a transcendent experience ought to be more fully considered in this discussion.

    Reply
  7. vishrant

    listening.
    Constance Lambert spoke to this in his book in the 30′s. Psychological studies and my own experience say you do 2 things badly when u do 2 things simultaneously.tia

    Reply

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