Something to Talk About

In May I attended the ElectroMediaWorks ’08 festival in Athens, Greece, which was staged in a working factory that had downsized, allowing half of the ground floor to be turned into a performance space with a bar on the side. The festival organizers presented a diverse array of electroacoustic music and video to an audience that often included families—children, grandparents, and even the occasional dog (overheard from one of the directors: “There is a dog tied to the subwoofer; what else can happen here?”). The immersive sound system was beautifully designed for the space, and I loved hearing my music there amid the mix of all these people. In spite of the high amplitude levels employed throughout most of the festival, the din of conversation was in an almost constant mix with the music itself.

The scene was celebratory, more akin to a club than a concert, and I found myself reflecting on the cultural differences surrounding performance, and what the performance of contemporary music means to a culture. Though this probably was not music that had been composed to inspire conversation, it did. Sometimes the most attentive seemed to be the children and the elderly, though the moments of relative quiet were reserved for the pieces that involved performers. I spoke with some composers who were frustrated by the audience, and others who welcomed the diversity of the crowd and its accompanying unpredictability in terms of attentiveness. And when confronted with hours and hours of non-stop music, the chance to have a coffee or a beer to take a break from it all was a necessity—and maybe the conversation was as well.

Unless we compose orchestral or choral music, composers have little control over the venue in which their works are heard. We are of differing opinions about the need to “connect” with an audience, though for me an audience is always in my mind as I write. There is a true musician’s collaboration between my performers and me, but with my audience, especially since my music tends toward the more experimental end of the continuum, there is always a dual question: What do I feel compelled to say and, in my composing of that, how will I enable my audience to understand?

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