Last week, I was fortunate to attend a q-and-a with a visiting composer whose music is exceptionally popular (by new music standards, of course). One of his comments on the current state of concert music struck me particularly hard: He felt that lay audiences are discouraged from discussing whether or not they’ve enjoyed a piece of music they’ve just heard, especially in conversation with musicians (or, heaven forbid, the composer himself). In other words, they’re prevented from asserting that they disliked the work. The visiting composer drew a comparison between new music and film and theatre—media which invite amateur criticism. I suppose the same could be said for popular music. You don’t have to write for Pitchforkmedia.com, in other words, to have a strong opinion on which Fall record is the best and to voice that opinion loudly at parties. (Full disclosure: I once called NewMusicBox “the Pitchfork of new music.” Please forgive me.) Two perspectives on this issue came immediately to mind.
On the one hand, an informed opinion is always more valuable than an uninformed opinion. That’s one reason why I recently voted in Maryland instead of Illinois: I know the candidates in the MD races well enough to make educated judgments about how well they might govern. To feel confident about casting a ballot in the Land of Lincoln, I’d have to do extensive homework on local politics, and I’d probably end up voting along party lines in one-sided races anyway. There’s a case to be made that listeners who hesitate to evaluate pieces of new music on grounds of ignorance should follow that instinct. You might like Ives’ “Concord” sonata more if you’ve heard the piano music of Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, and, for that matter, Carter. Or you might not. But either way, you might be able to articulate the why more clearly if you have more canonical points of reference.
On the other hand, we live in America, and our right to express ourselves freely is, by and large, unabridged. Obviously we composers are constitutionally forbidden to impair our audiences’ first-amendment liberties, but we do have the power to relax the social pressure against this open exchange of feelings. Besides, I want to know what people really think of my music. My composer friends and I are neither intellectual ogres, contemptuous of audiences without terminal degrees in composition, nor tuberculitic glass-jaws who will faint at the mildest slight from our listeners. We want to know what you think, and we don’t want to be in some weird awkward situation where you don’t feel like you can level with us.
Ideally, of course, listeners will enter a self-perpetuating cycle of forming opinions and learning more about music. They’ll attend concerts they may not “get,” but be sufficiently intrigued to check some CDs out of the library, and they might “get” more from the future concerts. However, this wheel only turns if listeners feel that they can speak openly about their opinions, informed or un-.