Be Our Guest!

If you were to measure contemporary music as a socially constitutive quantity, what units would you use? The most obvious unit might be the piece (pc.)—as in, composer x produced y pc. of music over the past year, our national GDP of contemporary music is such and such thousand pc., and so on. But in the absence of performances, how useful is it, really, to know how many pieces are being written? That might be very informative vis à vis the practice of Western composition, but it doesn’t necessarily speak to the volume of contemporary music in production: For that, we’d need another unit—the concert.

The field of performance history is based on this very notion: To know how many, when, where, by whom, and for whom concerts are produced is to know a great deal about the social shape of contemporary music in a particular historical and geographic context. Concerts are where written music becomes music, period; they’re where listeners’ subjectivities can finally regard the objects we devise for them, objects which come to seem almost like subjects themselves. In short, written music is vivified into aesthetic experience by concerts and by concerts only. All of this goes without saying.

Conversely, if you’re in a position to decide when, where, by whom, and for whom a concert might be presented, you hold a great deal of power. You can make it easy or difficult for people to get to. You can make it at the same time as other things (other concerts, appointment TV viewing, Gophers hockey) or not at the same time as those things. You can facilitate dialogue between the musicians and the audience during the concert or prohibit it. You can decide what the space looks like. You can decide how large an audience you want to be able to accommodate. You can, in effect, decide how the people who spend their evening with you will spend their evening (or whatever time of day it is), and by extension you can exert some measure of influence over whether they’ll come back next time.

There is, in other words, no excuse to be careless with concerts—no excuse for unthoughtful programming, no excuse for allowing people to be noisy outside, no excuse for doing anything less than your utmost to make the concert experience competitive with anything else someone might be filling one’s night with. There are plenty of ways to do it right and plenty of ways to do it wrong. Musicians are accustomed to keeping their eyes on the prize—namely, a great performance—but it’s easy to forget that the prize, for the audience, is not having wasted one’s time.

10 thoughts on “Be Our Guest!

  1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    written music is vivified into aesthetic experience by concerts and by concerts only

    How loudly do I get to shout NO!?

    Almost all of my musical experiences come from studio recordings — and all of the best musical (vs. social) ones come that way. Considering the very complaints and recommendations you make, you can understand why I would value my vivification via Victrola.

    Dennis

    Reply
  2. Colin Holter

    all of the best musical (vs. social) ones come that way

    Do you really mean that? Have you really had more profound musical experiences with written music on record than in concerts? If that’s the case, why is it important to you to write pieces rather than simply to make and release records?

    Reply
    1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

      I’ve had great concert experiences, yes. But better musical ones on recording. I write for acoustic players most often, but would much rather have the performance without mistakes, without audience and outside noises, not sandwiched inside an otherwise dull program, etc. Really, it’s your points I’m agreeing to. My ideal is doing a recording and having a concert as the social event where the music is publicly shared.

      Let’s look at what Alex Ross said recently about Götterdämmerung — perhaps, he suggested (I paraphrase from memory), the presentation was devised for the Met Live in HD series rather than an in-person audience. That’s where it’s going … it might even be live but intended for recording. I saw Satyagraha in the Met Live in HD series, and thought it was marvelously done for the screen. I bet it would have been annoying live with an audience all around.

      So yeah, I have given too many concerts to count, but these were, as most seem to be, social occasions. If that’s what music is for you, then okay. For me it’s having a deep personal experience with the music.

      Dennis

      Reply
  3. Colin Holter

    these were, as most seem to be, social occasions. If that’s what music is for you, then okay. For me it’s having a deep personal experience with the music.

    Music is a social phenomenon, though, and I don’t just mean “social” in terms of “getting together with one’s friends:” Its criteria, its production, and its manifestations are socially constructed. To put it another way, if you listen to a CD in your house by yourself, you’re still having a social occasion – it’s just that nobody else showed up.

    It seems to me that what you’re “having a deep personal experience with” is not, in a sense, “the music” – because it excises characteristics of musical practice (being in the same physical space as the performers, for example) that are social. Eliminating mistakes, outside noises, and even dull pieces on the program means eliminating a lot of what makes music a special category of human behavior.

    But listen, nobody’s saying you haven’t paid your dues; if you want to vacuum-pack music into a context you find more agreeable, your right to do so is inalienable.

    Reply
    1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

      You’ve identified the heart of my objection: “Its criteria, its production, and its manifestations are socially constructed.”

      As one who also does electronic, electroacoustic and computer music, as well as installations (including those that exist only for the space and not for any people), I believe that music transcends what you suggest, and written music need not be limited by a definition that “music is vivified into aesthetic experience by concerts and by concerts only.”

      Many (including I) have written electronic music (not merely composed it to devices), and grasp the distinction between a social event and the sonic art. Sure, I think you should make concerts quiet and have integrity — but I know that this is only one manifestation of the composition and, based on your very critique, apparently the weakest one.

      Dennis

      Reply
  4. j103

    I agree with Dennis here, but it goes beyond even the issue of concert vs. recording to the issue of sound vs. notation (the latter being a sort of ‘inner’ or even ‘conceptual’ sound). I remember Charles Rosen describing a passage in the Ricercar a 6 from the Musical Offering that is unintelligible/misleading aurally (even ‘inner’ aurally) and can only be appreciated if one is playing from (or reading mentally from) the score. I just Google-Booked it and it’s on p. 3 and 4 of The Romantic Generation (and can be read for free). He goes on to illustrate similar approaches in Schumann’s music later.

    Frankly, I’ve never had a musically-rewarding concert experience. If not for recordings of music I’d have never even become interested in it. All of my most meaningful musical experiences have either come from recordings or from silently reading a score. The latter, though rewarding less often, is usually more rewarding whenever it is because the delight of the inner ear is accompanied by a visual analogy that only reinforces it.

    “…if you want to vacuum-pack music into a context you find more agreeable, your right to do so is inalienable.”

    “Eliminating mistakes, outside noises, and even dull pieces on the program means eliminating a lot of what makes music a special category of human behavior.”

    So on the one hand, one has the right to put music in any context one wants (surrounded by other human beings or alone in one’s home), but yet one context is somehow more true to the spirit of music than another? This seems to me like empty intellectualizing. Take the example of other art forms, similarly social, communicative, etc. Huge swathes of Picasso’s work remained in his possession throughout his life, plenty of which was probably only seen by him; was this only “vivified into aesthetic experience” when it hit Sotheby’s? Is a posthumously released novel only aesthetically vivified when it’s given a public reading at a cramped and smelly bookstore? Was it not aesthetically alive in the hands of the editor working from the manuscript? Was it not aesthetically alive with the writer as he was writing it?

    Even if many or most of our musical preferences are socially-constructed, how we go about converting those preferences into satisfying experiences is hugely variable and beyond judgment. All that can be said (and this is what Cage demonstrated) is that aesthetic experience is vivified whenever and wherever and in response to whatever someone decides to vivify it.

    Reply
  5. Colin Holter

    Take the example of other art forms, similarly social, communicative, etc.

    But this is an area in which written music is relatively unique among the arts, I’d say: Unlike a Picasso or a novel, you can’t point to a piece of music, only to a score or a performance or a recording or program notes or whatever. Certainly all of those fetish-objects enable us to have aesthetic experiences of one kind or another, but those experiences aren’t coterminous with the concert experience on which Western art music is historically predicated. (Obviously other kinds of music are predicated on all sorts of other things.) You mention Cage, who I think is a great example: Reading the score of 4’33” might bring about a particular reaction, as might listening to a recording – but I doubt anyone would argue that hearing the piece performed by a live person in a real space, even if it’s your kitchen, isn’t the “real” 4’33”.

    I’ll pose the same question to you that I posed to Dennis: If the moment of people in a space interpreting written music for an audience of other people isn’t important to you, why bother producing scores? (I’m assuming here that you produce scores – you may not, but since you haven’t shared your name with us, I have no means of checking.)

    Reply
  6. Reinaldo Moya

    I agree with Colin wholeheartedly on this issue. I have had some of the most profound musical, and emotional experiences during live performances. I also find live theater to be one of my favorite things. While it is true that I experience the bulk of the repertoire through recordings, I still cherish the opportunity to hear those works live. There is just something about being in the same room with the performers, breathing the same air that makes it possible to connect to the performer and the music on a different level.

    I do agree with Dennis, that the setting in a concert hall can sometimes detract significantly from the experience of the music, and the programming is too often predictable and bland. However, I find that I am a better listener at a concert than I am home with a recording. Somehow, the social setting of a concert allows me to focus more closely on the music. If I am at home listening by myself, I can often get distracted by other things. I’ll pause to go get a snack, or do this or that. This might speak more to my own attitude and lack of discipline when listening at home, but when I go to a live concert, I have nothing left to do but to listen to the music as closely as I can. Hence why it is so important (As Colin points out) to present concerts that provide listeners with those golden opportunities to engage with the music on that deeper level. I would like to think of myself as a communicator first and a composer second, and it is only in that fragile, and yes, often frustrating environment of the live concert, that I get to feel like I’ve conveyed a message to an audience. The mere presence of live performers makes us more likely to pay attention and engage in that act of communication that I consider essential in all forms of artistic expression.

    The problem with the concert setting can, on a very broad level be reduced to one of money. Having had some experience presenting concerts in the New York CIty area, I know that the best places for music are often the most expensive. Much music is played in hotel lobbies, and galleries that can sometimes hinder the listening experience, but I think that’s another post.

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  7. j302

    Written notation is in essence no different than the written word. Yes, a painting is a fixed physical object, whether in a closet or a gallery, but you can’t say that about a novel and or any text. I remember reading somewhere that not until at least the Middle Ages did it become the norm to read silently (I think Augustine read aloud). That makes sense because writing at its most primitive is not a direct language of communication but a system for indicating speech sounds, which serve as a natural mode of human communication. Yet, these days, who has not been moved by reading a novel silently at home? Literacy has allowed us to bypass the natural, physical act of human communication and opt for a kind of telepathy via text. This is wholly unnatural and goes way beyond the speech-based foundation of writing; somehow Tolstoy, a guy who has been dead for over a century, whose language I don’t speak, and whose voice I’ve never even heard, can ‘speak’ to me.

    “If the moment of people in a space interpreting written music for an audience of other people isn’t important to you, why bother producing scores?”

    Because a score is not necessarily an indication for someone to make sound around other people in a given space, any more than ‘War and Peace’ is a set of instructions for a massive speech given to an assembled audience. A score CAN be a set of a sound instructions, and in many cases I find it more satisfying that way (as in the case of Berlioz, Xenakis, and many others), just as it can be uniquely satisfying to hear certain writers publicly reading their poetry or prose. But just like I’d rather read ‘War and Peace’ at home silently in terms of a kind of inner speech, so is it more satisfying (to me) to read certain scores (esp. contrapuntal ones) silently in terms of a kind of inner sound.

    Re: 4’33”, I wouldn’t argue that hearing a performance “by a live person in a real space […] isn’t the “real” 4’33”,” but I’d argue that reading the score alone in my apartment is just as “real” a performance (I’m a live person, right? My apartment is a real space, no?). But this is tangential; if you want an example of a score that is (to me) quite resistant to inner listening and points outward to concrete sound experience, again go with someone like Berlioz (the Requiem for instance, or the Ligeti Lux Aeterna). My point is not that such scores don’t exist, but that that’s not all there is. Clearly the Ricercar a 6, as I described above, is a different sort of work (and one that, as originally conceived, cannot be understood except with the help of the notation). The point I was making about Cage is a more general one; that drawing lines and saying ‘aesthetic experience only exists here’ or ‘is most valid here,’ is always arbitrary and based on convention, personal preference, etc. Even in the case of the Berlioz Requiem, to say that one can only truly experience it as real sound waves reverberating in a giant hall is a bit weak. Even if most people (myself included) would prefer experiencing it that way, who’s to say that someone couldn’t differ in that preference? And if so, what would make that person’s preference less valid?

    I’m not trying to suggest my own rigid hierarchy in which inner listening sits on top, I’m just rejecting what I feel is your narrow conception (as articulated in the original article) of what aesthetic experience can be (I don’t say that with any personal vitriol or anything; I’m just arguing a point).

    “(I’m assuming here that you produce scores – you may not, but since you haven’t shared your name with us, I have no means of checking.)”

    If I posted my name here and you Googled it, all you’d find is this comment buried underneath the Facebook and LinkedIn profiles of people who share my name. I’m not a professional composer but I do enjoy writing music and producing scores, some of which are designed as instructions for a sonic occasion (in which case I realize them as such) and some of which I prefer to work out and experience silently.

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  8. David

    for me what is most important ultimately is the memory of the music, how it dissolves into my mind, and how i live with it. I’ve found that sometimes this does indeed happen with a recording. But in general the live situations are the most intense and personally meaningful experiences.

    The most unsettling of experiences is hearing a performance of a work that you feel is inferior to the recording. I’ve had most of these experiences with pop music, and I think that is quite telling. Think about Steely Dan and their whole history, its really backwards. It touches on the simulacra issue of a lot of present day commodities, and since it bothers me, I try to avoid it. For me its all about the live experience. There’s even some works that I’ve purposely not listened to, and only score-read, in the hope that my first listening will be a live one.

    Reply

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