On Being Irrelevant
Last Thursday night I hit Chelsea—a.k.a. Mecca for art collectors—with a composer friend to catch a couple of gallery openings. Amidst the crowd of glitterati, hipsters, and beautiful people toting plastic cups filled with wine, my companion remarked that new music never gets this sort of enthusiastic turnout. Indeed, some places were filled to the gills, unable to accommodate the sheer number of contemporary art lovers, sparking a block party vibe, which out of necessity spilled out onto the sidewalks and streets. One might be led to believe that folks are merely there to “be seen” while partaking in the consumption of free booze in the process, but considering MoMA’s $20 regular admission fee along with the rise of blockbuster exhibitions and an international art fair circuit, it’s perfectly clear that people love the visual arts—a market that contemporary music types tend to salivate over.
What I don’t understand is why evangelically-inclined new music practitioners feel gipped when the so-called culturally aware non-attender slaps down an Andrew Jackson to look at a bunch of paintings and maybe a urinal, but doesn’t show up at the concert hall. Big deal. Even if you managed to lure a huge crowd of contemporary art aficionados into a contemporary music concert, most if not all will likely emerge from the experience somewhat disheartened by this alien music from, to their ears, an alternate universe. You can’t force anyone to enjoy something. Besides, look at our PR buzz words: challenging, uncompromising, forceful, intense, exuberant… Well, it sounds like that could be entertaining.
Statistically speaking, modern composition fans probably don’t even make a dent percentage-wise in the musical marketplace. Take 100 average Americans, play them some Elliott Carter, you do the math for the conversion ratio. But whatever this fan base lacks in size is compensated for with loyalty, especially considering that a large number of devotees are practitioners themselves. So really, I say there’s no need to proselytize. Let’s try being content with our teeny, tiny, little, itty, bitty niche. Move along, nothing dying here. Hey, I don’t expect my family to like (or even listen to for that matter) the music I’m composing, so why call it candy while shoving it down a complete stranger’s throat? Of course I’m exaggerating, as per usual, but you have to admit we have weird taste in music. And that’s fine. It’s not like we need a 12-step program or anything.
But if you insist upon spreading the word about new music, I always thought it would be a really great idea to do a documentary on contemporary music creation as is, something along the lines of American Movie. The film manages to be compassionate towards its subjects and at the same time play out like a comedy—are these guys for real? Think about it. It could become one of those cult classic documentaries like Grey Gardens. So if you really want to bring a wider awareness to new music, please start pitching this idea to Christopher Guest. I’m ready for my close up, Mr. Guest.