Is it me, or does anyone else sense a slight undercurrent of masochism in new music? Think about it. Surely you’ve found yourself trapped during a performance, glued to your chair by feelings of obligation even though the music was worse than Chinese water torture. Just last week I found myself suffering through a horrible vocal piece. The audience’s collective frustration could be cut with a knife—thankfully there were no sharp objects in the room. My suspicions of communal dissatisfaction were confirmed during some after concert banter. A non-musician friend admitted he had a hard time refraining from laughter during that particular performance.
As audience members, we’re bound by concert hall etiquette to just sit still and be quiet, minus the occasional passive-aggressive unwrapping of cough drops. But how does a composer or performer know when an audience feels dissatisfied if we’re not allowed to say anything? Regardless of merit, a round of boisterous applause for at least the amount of time it takes for the performers to exit the stage is de rigueur. Yet we keep coming back for more—sit in silent pain, applaud, repeat.
Granted, not everybody feels this way. Those enlightened audience members who can enjoy, from start to finish, a piece like Non Stop Flight, a 4 hour and 33 minute spectacle by Pauline Oliveros, have my utmost respect. This isn’t a dig toward Pauline, I actually enjoyed the dancing clown and the throngs of people wandering around conducting impromptu performances of 4′ 33″. I remember someone conducting a very large tree outside the concert hall as I came in—beautifully strange, if not downright weird. However, I find my fatigue level hits a wall at around two hours, no matter what I’m listening to. So rather than sit and suffer, I leave, but not without a pang of guilt stirred by my presumed duty as a card-carrying new music devotee.
Still, ever notice how a lot of new music types avoid standard rep concerts? Maybe we share some strange aversion to standard notions of beauty. I mean, my old roommate used to refer to some of the stuff that I would listen to as “haunted house music.” I understand where she’s coming from. Scary thing is, I consistently choose to go to concerts featuring predominately thorny, dissonant music because I actually enjoy myself, I think. Even if I loathe what I’m hearing, ugly music is easier to endure, whereas the great warhorses tap into the respect-your-elders reserve tank. I’m more than willing to sit through an excruciating hour of amplified paper hole punchers wielded by the S&M-clad group The Haters, and yet cringe at the thought of going to hear anything by Bruckner. I’ve been trapped in both realms of hell. Strangely, the Bruckner, while more beautiful to my ears, was more infuriating. I was caged by concert protocol and a pressure to respect the music. At least if something is ugly, we don’t feel any obligation to perform a gentle breakup.