The Audience Does Not Exist
In my view, one of the more insidious terms that often crops up in discussions of experimental music is The Audience. People who talk about The Audience generally seek to appease this mysterious beast, with sacrifices of artistic integrity and psalms in a language they believe their deity will find pleasant and simple to comprehend. I strongly believe that they have the right to compose music in whatever style they find most satisfying, and I will fight for their right to do so. But far too often, their artistic mission statements claim that they seek to create music that The Audience might enjoy, in opposition to the harsh, noisy, and/or dissonant music that drove The Audience away from experimental music—in short, in opposition to the music I most cherish. While these composers are all honorable men and women, I come to bury The Audience, not to praise it.
Over the last two weeks in this space, I’ve been working towards a possible definition of beauty, finding a fruitful path in Gardner’s idea of “antecedents to beauty.” For me, one of the better aspects of his postulate is that it allows for differences of taste, for different people to find beauty in different places. My sense that it’s most effective to discuss beauty as an individual experience is bolstered by our knowledge of the Komar and Melamid project on the Most Wanted and Most Unwanted Art, and the related song project they created with the help of David Soldier. Inevitably, the Most Wanted Song turned out to be one that sounded most like every other song with which the audience was familiar and was as moderate and unassuming as possible.
The problem in creating music for The Audience is quite simple: The Audience does not exist. Our music is not heard by a unified mass with a singular taste; instead, it reaches out towards individuals, each of whom perceives the sounds in his or her own way. I’m aware that my taste is remarkably esoteric—others always considered it odd, even before I discovered experimental music. I’m aware that very few people will be drawn to the same sounds that fascinate me. The fact remains that I like the music that I like, and when I write compositions that focus on unusual sounds it’s because that’s where my obsessions lie. Obviously, writing in order to please academic intellectuals or teachers or any other person remains equally problematic, and I recognize that this has been a long-standing problem leading many young composers away from their natural proclivities. It was unhealthy for Boulez (and others) to declare the necessity of a single artistic style. However, by calling for a new Audience-pleasing orthodoxy, composers are not balancing prior errors and thereby returning us to artistic equilibrium. They are replicating the mistakes of the past.
For me, one of the most exciting aspects of being involved in music is that music directly imposes itself on our emotions without any mediating necessity for extra-musical meaning. Concepts like infinite yearning can be embarrassingly difficult to express through words, but can be conveyed surprisingly easily in music. (Imagine the opening of the prelude to Tristan und Isolde.) Conversely, it’s incredibly frustrating to create music that describes any specific scene without resorting to some extra-musical explanation of the intended meaning. Therefore, the ideas that music can best communicate are purely musical ideas, and the people hearing any given piece of music tend to provide wildly varying accounts of the meaning of any musical piece. Despite this disagreement on the meaning itself, most people simultaneously tend to agree that the music conveyed some meaning, that it communicated something.
Since music conveys meaning, and composers often work in isolation to produce scores that can only be brought to life through the concerted efforts of large groups of people, a question arises: If The Audience does not exist, for whom are we writing? Fortunately, there are dozens of answers to this query that can lead composers down unique and fulfilling artistic paths. Most create some mental construct of like-minded listeners open to their aesthetic choices. Others take this concept even further by imagining a theater filled with clones of themselves. Some use specific individuals as representative of their ideal listener. I have one colleague who eschews the whole concept that his music should communicate anything to anyone and who professes not to care if his music is ever heard by anyone other than himself, a stance that has led him to write some of the most original and effective music it’s ever been my honor to hear. (Interestingly, he points out that he is human and that it makes him happy when people say nice things about his music and hurts when they say mean things, but he believes that his music is really for himself. Therefore, he doesn’t seek performances of his music, but he also doesn’t balk when other musicians insist on organizing events that will allow them to hear it.)
In place of considering The Audience, I’d like to propose this: Write the music that you love and that’s honest for you, while enjoying the huge variety of music in the world. Let’s set aside the concept of a massed Audience, replacing that notion with a view of our music being heard by individual persons. Let’s approach the music that we find abhorrent and distasteful with the understanding that it was lovingly created by some other person in order to appeal to his or her innate taste and sensitivities, which differ from ours, and help this music reach like-minded listeners. Let’s embrace the fact that each person sitting in the audience at a concert is experiencing the music in a way that differs from every other person and let’s help each individual find the music that will speak directly to her or him. Let’s talk with those people whose taste differs from our own in order to broaden our horizons. Let’s find beauty in as much music as possible.