I’ve been wondering lately if the audience-development debate in the composition community hasn’t been centered on the wrong issue. My impression is that the way music sounds—dissonant vs. consonant, strident vs. mellifluous—is supposed to assume responsibility for its success or failure among ordinary listeners. Pieces, like teenagers, are more popular if they’re pretty than if they’re ugly, says conventional wisdom.
But most of us—and by “us,” I mean not “composers” but “citizens of the 21st century”—are familiar with weird-sounding music. Between film scores and Radiohead, I bet it’s harder to turn off modern audiences with dissonance and noise than one might think. Not old people, of course (most of whom just want to hear Tchaikovsky or a reasonable Peabody facsimile), but baby boomers, Gen-X-ers, and denizens of Generation Y such as myself. Opera and symphony orchestra audiences seem to skew older, although I don’t have data to support that assertion. I’m willing to accept that these elderly audiences might be afraid that Schoenberg will take the blue right out of their hair, but what about younger people? Besides ignorance, what’s keeping them away?
Maybe it has to do with what the music is about. Early serial pieces, my usual punching bags in discussions of meaningful/meaningless music, may happen to sound angular and uninviting, but their more damning trait yet may be that they are about integral serialism. Integral serialism, like all compositional systems, techniques, and methods, means nothing. You could replace every minor ninth in Kreuzspiel with a perfect fifth, and it would still leave most listeners absolutely cold. (Are there minor ninths in Kreuzspiel? There must be, but I feel like I’m setting myself up for a humbling correction.)
On the other hand, consider the Penderecki Threnody. By virtue of its title, that piece is explicitly about the detonation of a nuclear weapon over Hiroshima; it sounds much more abrasive than, for example, Éclat, but its affective power is far greater. A cheap trick on Penderecki’s part? Perhaps. Nevertheless, the piece seems to have an emotional resonance that keeps ‘em coming back. I’d wager that the ugliest, most ear-splitting piece imaginable could win over a 21st century crowd if it had the perfect title.
Clearly, addressing a particular real-world topic in a piece of music is not simply a matter of coming up with the right title. If I had students, I certainly wouldn’t countenance their taking a provocative name for a nondescript piece as a means of injecting marketability (à la Penderecki). This constitutes a breach of compositional ethics, as far as I’m concerned, and I personally feel that renaming Study for 52 Strings or whatever it was for the victims of an atomic bomb to satisfy one’s publisher is nothing short of immoral. However, we shouldn’t need to be convinced that composing conceptually relevant music is well within our job descriptions. I think we might be surprised how much radical music we can get away with if it tells the audience something they need to hear.