The Audience is Not the Only Arbiter

Bernard Holland’s essay, “The Audience as the Arbiter” published last month in The New York Times, has angered practitioners of new music all over the country. Despite his assertion in the article that “composers ought to write anything they want,” his implication is that any composer who lacks broad public acclaim also lacks compositional gifts, and that the audience must always be the ultimate arbiter.

Claiming that the audience should dictate what the composer should write is not worthy of the most minor critic, let alone one in the influential position of being a reviewer for a very influential newspaper. Has Mr. Holland so quickly forgotten that it was already tried in the Soviet Union? The consequences there of a composer not following the people’s representatives, i.e., the “committee,” could be, as you must remember, at least ostracization, and at most “disappearance.” Certainly no need to delve further into that era; there is such an abundance of biographical and historical material.

What is the purpose of the “gift” if the composer doesn’t follow his muse? Where would style and expression be? Mr. Holland speaks of Mozart and Haydn writing for patrons, but then, what to make of Glenn Gould’s statement that because of the patronage system we never got the best of Mozart (as unbelievable as that may be!)? That we have such great works from Mozart, Haydn, and, yes, Shostakovich, is a testament to their genius in creating such masterpieces within such limitations. What makes the music of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, Stravinsky, etc., so great? Certainly not writing for the people.

Perhaps Bernard Holland should re-read Slominsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective, in which he’d discover that his evident fondness for the music of Brahms was not always universally shared. A onetime Boston critic, Philip Hale, even suggested that above the exits in Symphony Hall, there should be added the words, “In case of Brahms.”

At one point in the article, Holland equates the relationship between a composer and the audience to that of a waiter and a customer at a restaurant, and glibly muses: “Do I owe the waiter a good tip, or does he owe me good service?” Certainly composers are not waiters; they are the chefs whose great works are eventually recognized not just by the erudite and sophisticated, but by every listener with even a modicum of sensitivity.

Schoenberg wrote in Style and Idea that a composer composes because he must, not because he can. A composer writes to express himself and his ideas to the best of his ability. He may want to communicate and share those elements with his public. He may not, but odds are that he would like to. The ivory tower is a myth.

In the commercial arena, of course, it is easy to determine the taste of the public, but for the concert hall—even if one wanted to write for the public—how would that be determined, and by what segment of the public? Would it be those who are experienced listeners or those who are new to the game? Consider the many backgrounds that make up the audience.

Esa-Pekka Salonen and Michael Tilson Thomas fill their auditoriums over and over. They have determined the aesthetic of their programming. They have extremely supportive and enthusiastic audiences. Their programming is fresh, stimulating, and evocative. Obviously marketing their message has been no problem. But at the same time one should consider the difference in the compositional scene between New York and the West Coast that could have an affect on Mr. Holland’s thinking. Nevertheless, I don’t think that negates the essence of my argument.

You want to cater to the masses. We have that in pop concerts everywhere, but does that advance the cause of art? Of course, that is not their concern, but should it not be yours?

It is difficult to determine and measure, but whether recognizable or not by composers themselves, composers in the U.S. are affected to various degrees by marketability in our own country. Accessible works receive infinitely more performances than do the others. We usually blame the dismal and tragic lack of decent education in the arts, which is why Mr. Holland’s remarks are so unbelievable. One last quote, this from a person who during his lifetime was simply a member of the audience, John F. Kennedy: “In a democracy…the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and let the chips fall where they may.”

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William Kraft
Photo by Michael Grosswendt
Courtesy Theodore Presser Company

Chicago-born, Los Angeles-based composer, conductor, teacher, and percussionist William Kraft (b. 1923) has composed over 100 works, many of which prominently feature percussion. A member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 26 years: the first 8 years as a percussionist, and the remaining 18 as principal timpanist, Kraft was also the conductor of the orchestra for 3 seasons, and from 1981-85, Kraft served as its Composer-in-Residence.