I recently attended a lecture on the music of several up-and-coming German composers whose work had been presented at Darmstadt this summer. After the speaker finished playing a recording of one of the pieces, an audience member raised her hand to ask a question about the composer’s treatment of harmony. When the speaker suggested that “pitch centers,” to use the audience member’s term, were not central to the composer’s thinking, the listener asserted, presumably by way of criticism, that “an unintended message is still a message.” This statement seems to raise an interesting question of coercion: No composer has the power to force a listener to approach his or her piece in a particular manner. On the other hand, how can a composer write for an audience with a potential infinitude of ways to listen? Certainly we can hold composers accountable for their unintended messages, but should we? Maybe it’s our mistake to intercept them and devote attention to their interpretation.
I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon in discussing pop music with “serious” composers. On more than one occasion, they’ve chalked their ambivalence toward rock and roll up to the music’s harmonic limitations. Fair accusation—most pop music doesn’t rely on harmonic progress to make its argument, at least not in the same way that Western classical music has. But the first Dexys Midnight Runners LP isn’t going to spontaneously develop counterpoint. If you want to enjoy it, you’d better get over your hang-up about harmony and start listening closely to the quality of Kevin Rowland’s vocal delivery, for instance. Still searching for that satz? Tough cookies.
I would propose that the burden of understanding rests as heavily on the listener, the reader, as on the composer, the writer. If you don’t read Italian, then of course the untranslated Divina Commedia sucks. As I’ve said before, those of us who are professional musicians are likely to hear a lot of music in our lifetimes. The bottom line is that if we want to appreciate as much of it as possible, we’ll adapt our listening to correspond to each piece. The composer can’t make us do this—we have to make ourselves do it.