The Audience is the Most Important Instrument

[Author’s note: I’ve been a regular contributor to NewMusicBox since 2008, and I’ve had an absolute blast writing for the site and getting to know the Box’s wonderful staff, readers, and commenters on these pages. With some other writing projects and a TED talk on the horizon, I’ll be contributing less frequently from now on to make room for some new voices on these pages. This is my last post on the site for a while. Thanks so much to everyone for all their support, comments, and emails over the past six years—you’ve really helped me find my own voice. I’ll be back later in 2014 with the occasional post, as well as some longer essays; in the meantime, any readers who’d like to connect should feel free to get in touch via my website or Facebook. I look forward to reading this site as it continues to grow and evolve like any good piece of music. –DV]

Today I want to talk about a notion that is killing contemporary music. It’s an idea that is not confined to any one location, social group, or stylistic camp, and one that occasionally rears its head in both the halls of academia and the hippest coffee shops. It’s by no means the dominant way of thinking in the contemporary music world, but it is an idea so ubiquitous that it has become difficult to escape: that the audience does not matter as much as “the music,” and that considering the audience as an essential part of music composition is tantamount to pandering.

The attitude that there is something unsavory and inartistic about considering the audience does not come from a bad place; in fact, I’d agree with those who feel this way on a great many points. Of course it’s pandering to try to guess what people want to hear rather than sharing the truth of one’s own artistic voice. A great part of what people want to hear is something that engages them in a way that other music doesn’t. Audiences want artists to share part of themselves, something authentic rather than something put on. Favor must be earned and not curried.

Perhaps in part as defense of these perfectly valid points (and in reaction to the eager-to-please tone of so much current music from all genres), somewhere along the way much of the contemporary music community has overstated the alternative to the point where an urge to connect with audiences is seen as a sign of weakness, commercialization, and “softness”—as if softness was always a bad thing, and inflexibility and lack of willingness to compromise always surefire signs of nobility.

Please note that this talk of considering the audience is not some kind of code saying that music should be consonant, or pleasing, or unchallenging, or that there’s any reason why an experimental approach to music composition can’t also be tempered by an awareness of what effect compositional choices might have on a listener; there’s great and accessible music reflected in every style and approach, and there’s no way of thinking about music that can’t be marvelous and communicative and successful in its own right.

I recently worked with a student who put on a performance art piece involving self-mummification in duct-tape, melting guitar strings with torch lighter, and long periods of stasis where the performers appeared to take naps. All along the way, I urged the student to go for anything she could imagine, while all the while considering what effect her decisions might have on audience members: “How many times does this event need to happen to establish a pattern? Might it be more shocking if this last instance happened in a different way? What do you want people to feel when this happens? If you want to lull them into a state where they stop paying attention for a bit, about how long might that take? What might they expect to happen when the stepladder is brought onto the stage?” It’s this same consideration of the effect of musical decisions on the listener that makes Bach’s Goldberg’s Variations, John Cage’s 4’33”, and John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit so effective and affecting—because in each case, the composer pursued a desired effect in partnership with (and not independently from) a thoughtful inquiry into the psychology of listening to sound unfold in time.

Alfred Hitchcock used to say that he wanted to play the audience of his films “like a piano.” He did not compose his great works in a vacuum, but rather with a careful and shrewd understanding of how each creative decision helped to shape a different experience for the viewer. To update this idea to a mantra that composers can call their own, it’s worth remembering that the most worthy and challenging instrument of all to master is the inner experience of the listeners themselves: of all the tools in the composer’s arsenal, the audience is the most important instrument.

I recently attended a lecture in Italy by a well-respected composer and sound artist who flat out claimed: “I try not the think about the audience and whether my music is satisfying to listeners; if the idea of it is satisfying, it does not matter what the aural experience is on the listener.” I then attended a performance of this composer’s newest work in which I was one of seven audience members—which the composer in question remarked was a sign of the truly prestigious nature of the event. We’ve been so beat down with Justin Bieber and commercial radio, and also with handpicked “flavor-of-the-month” composers and art movements, that many of us have come to equate music with a broad appeal—and the very desire to connect with audiences—as deserving of only suspicion and derision. The most successful concert of all, to some minds, might be the one that isn’t attended by anyone; imagine what an elite club that would be—so elite that it contained only emptiness.

And therein lies the paradox of contemporary music: music exists to be heard or not at all, yet it’s true that audiences for contemporary music are not as large as any of us would like them to be. It won’t do to try and resolve the paradox by claiming that we don’t care if our music is heard, engaged with, and deeply felt, thus absolving ourselves of our responsibilities to others as well as ourselves. Because that is what, most of all, is shrinking audiences for contemporary music: not any particular musicians, stylistic approaches, or programming, but rather a pernicious idea that contemporary music can only succeed if it bets against itself, and pretends that losing was really winning all along.

So many brilliant musicians have been fighting against this attitude in their own way, with their own solutions. Claire Chase and the fantastic International Contemporary Ensemble have been making some of the most challenging and experimental music fun and accessible, and have earned a spot on nearly every critic’s “best of” list in the process. Producer Beth Morrison is busy reinventing opera for a new generation and in so doing has helped countless young composers find their voices and passions for the lyric stage. Los Angeles ensemble wild UP is performing both new and old music in innovative presentations that re-establish contemporary music as part of a continuum, making it exciting for audiences of all ages to tune into classical music again. There’s no formula for success, as every artist must find his or her own voice and, along the way, new and personal ways of establishing a kind of rapport with listeners.

It’s a great era for the music of our time; one could not ask for more diversity, talent, and discipline than the crop of musicians active today at the beginning of what is sure to be a wonderful year for music. Don’t try to see yourself the way others do; it’s no use. But at the same time, don’t stop trying to see others, to consider their experiences and to feel what they feel with the fullness of your musical being. Reaching out to understand and consider others is the way that we truly come to understand ourselves; doing so does not make us weaker but stronger, and requires not abandoning our sense of self, but a kind of inner confidence that we can go beyond ourselves without fear of losing our identity. Don’t stop; go on and on and on until your own musical self becomes larger, kinder, more tolerant, and more whole.

Happy 2014 and thanks, as always, for reading.

18 thoughts on “The Audience is the Most Important Instrument

  1. Neal Goren

    This is a very important article, and something I think about frequently, as a producer and conductor. A few years ago, I proposed an opera by a prominent young American composer to a major European summer festival (clearly not dependent on ticket sales or donations.) Their response to my proposal was that said composer’s music was “too audience-friendly” for them! For once, I was speechless.

    Reply
    1. Sara Penny

      The Orchestra of Southern Utah supports local composers and commissions music. When the audience is happy then the musicians and administrators are happy. Melody is not a dirty word. It is the lifeblood of music. Audience friendly is not selling out. It is serving your musical community. We need more beauty in the world and music is a place where composers can give beauty to the musicians and to the audience. Some of the contemporary music is wonderful and exciting, but if you’re going for “assault the audience and then whine because no one thinks you are a genius” you may want to rethink the purpose of your composition.

      Reply
  2. Lanier

    Very nice, Dan – sorry to see you scaling back at NMB, but congrats on the other success.

    As somebody who does a lot of audience-interactive music, I’m often thinking about the audience extremely directly, and I’ve enjoyed the ways that method of thinking has spilled over to my non a-i writing. In that light, thanks especially for including the caveat re: consonant, pleasing, and unchallenging. Acknowledging our audiences certainly also means not underestimating them.

    Reply
  3. Kevin Ernste

    Two thoughts:

    First (Re: “tempering experimentalism”), in my experience, the days of “experimental”(or electronic, etc) being an oppositional, confounding force for audiences are (mostly) gone, perhaps because other, more familiar genres–like pop, jazz, DJ’s, dance music, etc–have become more adventurous. In fact, that new piece for amplified coffee cans with bowed rubber bands may feel more “accessible” than your latest tonal orchestra piece. Audiences seem to be more directly responsive to this kind of work, feeling entitled to comment, criticize, and engage, all of which presumes they are actually listening. In other words, consider that it may be your job to give your audience something they had no idea they wanted.

    Second, I think “knowing your audience” also includes knowing when you are *simply performing for the wrong one*, when, in fact, the audience of your peers may not be appropriate for your work. Consider that even your teachers and directly colleagues, fellow artists, may be in an entirely different business. There are, these days, so many ways to be an artist/musician in the world (thank god!), and there are many audiences and sub-audiences out there…new ones every day. If you find yourself constantly beating your head against the “fourth wall”, maybe you should try another room!

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  5. Phil Fried

    Dan, I don’t know. I’ve been around a bit and I don’t know of any composers who don’t care about their listeners (that would include Milton Babbitt). I know of some artists who are still finding their audience, or some who feel that their audience is not yet of age. They look to the future not to the “now” but they are still looking aren’t they? Besides that composers are audiences themselves. Nothing is killing contemporary music as far as I can see. Why does the size of an audience constitute its essence? Should poets quit writing poetry because its audience is so small? Dan you seem to be suggesting that one has to chose between being Edgar Varese or Reginald de Koven.

    We don’t.

    That’s the great thing about being an American composer today. Reginald was a winner he had more performances of his music then either you or I will ever have. He was a composer of the moment. So its not out of the realm of possibility that the composers of the moment will also disappear leaving room for others. As for the differences between European and American views on new music my experience is that there is the music and then there is the official rhetoric about said music. We can take that with a grain of salt.

    Reply
  6. Michael Karman

    As soon as I see “the” audience, a nerve in my right eye starts to twitch. There are many audiences. Contemporary composers, while certainly very happy if members of other audiences want to join in, are not aiming at audiences for Justin Bieber or at audiences for Heinrich Biber, either one. And “aiming” at an audience can take many forms, too. The most important audience of which I consider myself a part wants its composers to surprise them, to give them something they do not already like. We want our listening skills to be stretched. We don’t want what we already know; we want something to learn to love.

    The first thing to do is to stop seeing “audience” as some sort of monolith. Each audience in each hall for each concert is made up of many individuals. There is no guessing how each of those people is going to react, though generally one can expect that some will hate things, some will like things, some will be bored, and some will be ecstatic. (These are categories that Berlioz identified in 1850, just by the way. Nothing much has really changed in that regard.)

    We need second of all a sense of history. I don’t see even a glimmer of a sense of history in Dan’s article, even though it’s ostensibly about a trend, i.e., a thing that happens over time. And the first thing that history tells us is that the anti-modernist reaction in classical music audiences dates from the early 19th century. 19th, not 20th. Perhaps the most important ideological debate–for this topic, anyway–of the 19th century was the one between whether new is better than old or old is better than new. It was a debate that was never even possible before the 19th century. And it took most of the century for the “old is better” contingent to win. Or “win.”

    It is taken for granted that audiences for classical concert music began abandoning concert halls when Schoenberg and Stravinsky first perpetrated their avant gardisms in the early teens of the 20th century. No wonder audiences turned their backs on this stuff! It’s horrible!! Only problem with this view is that audiences had started to turn their backs on “modern” music over a hundred years before Schoenberg and Stravinsky, over a hundred years before “atonality,” that mighty misnomer. Over a hundred years before the infamous “avant garde” began turning its back, so the common notion goes, on “the” audience.

    “The” audience started turning its back on modern music in the early part of the 19th century, and new music has struggled to create its own audiences ever since. It’s a struggle that has paid off pretty well, too, for some modern music. Chopin, for instance. Tchaikovsky. Debussy. So there’s hope, even for Karkowski and Amacher. But even if Karkowski and Amacher never become as popular as Chopin, so what? They have both inspired their own audiences, growing audiences, by the way, with their musics.

    I’d like to see a genuine, philosophical look at the complex and dynamic relationships between creators and auditors, even if I have to do it myself. Hopefully, I can just refer to someone like Herbert Brün and evade my own responsibility in the matter. I’ll only point out that Dan’s article is not really about audience but about the composers. It is about the composer’s responsibilities. I’d like suggest that listeners have their own responsibilities, the most important of which is to listen, carefully and without prejudice, to whatever the composers see fit to offer them. The rewards of fulfilling that responsibility, I might add, are immeasurably pleasurable.

    Reply
  7. Paulo Costa Lima

    Yes, it is a significant theme and proposition.And yes it should be discussed by many, because it is a backbone question of our times, perhaps even a turning point. The examples given of ‘good practices’ were well thought. But several dimensions of the question remained unsaid or, at least, little acknowledged. Things that Herbert Brün insisted in proposing as themes for composition. Composition as an opposition to fascism, or the fascist ideal of a total communication with the listener (…in the general direction of Adorno). Well, modernism has to be abandonned. Has it (see Jameson)? How to abandon modernism without adhering to the fascist (or late capitalist) premise of total communication, or more communication? If the idea of ‘writing the music that you do not like yet’ (it is the only one that you may develop a taste for…) proves to be inadequate for these post-modern times, what should be thought instead? Is this a possible description of a distinction between note paradigm (serialism) and sound paradigm (spectralism)? What kind of relationship with those who listen? All these are not simply artistic concerns, just because there are no such a thing as an artistic question isolated from life, from society and politics. Are we still capable of proposing significant ’causes’ that may also be listened to, for instance in the form of music? A good one: post-colonialism, significant deviations of the international (avantgarde) code, instead of a fixed direction of what is trendy and what is oldie (should be an important concern for all the composers of the south of the world, even those in the north).Well, even a ‘kind of english’ such as mine, results necessary in this regard. Congratulations for the motivating article. We should talk more about these paradoxs. For more about north/south relations in music see http://www.revista-art.com

    Reply
  8. Joel Levine

    Arthur Fiedler, of all people, covered this. When asked if there was any kind of music he didn’t like, he replied “The boring kind”

    Reply
  9. Andrew Balio

    Speaking from a vantage point of an orchestral player on the artistic advisory committee that chooses repertoire, I hope I can supply a little bit more to what has already been said.
    We can’t afford to piss-off our audience. We are clear now that we are in the pleasure business, not the condescending “We Know Better” business. Additionally, musicians aren’t going to lobby for their friend who is “innovative” when it means their institution will suffer reprisals and losses.
    I am not surprised that composers are perplexed that new music performances in the better venues are at an all-time low. We have brilliantly trained our audiences for the last 40 years to deeply fear unknown composers listed on programs or even worse, the phrases “Commissioned” or “World Premier”. What their experience has taught them is that they will suffer tedium, disorientation and witness “The Emperors New Clothes” paraded in front of them. Even the most widely performed living composers feel obliged to drop giant noise bombs on our audiences, on occasion, after we already paid them up front,after it’s too late to get our money back.
    The excesses of a few insane decades has left ensembles and audiences with “battered wife syndrome”, unable to trust any living composer again. I know very well that the concept and practice of beauty has not escaped many living composers, but earning back everyone’s trust will be a slow process. We orchestras would be far better off with a beautiful, newish work on every program, but until then, we can make due quite fine with “The Canon”.

    Reply
    1. Michael Karman

      Wow. History. It’s just not going to be allowed into this conversation at all, is it?

      All the things Andrew mentions as “experience,” all the things that supposedly have happened within the last 40 years, are old things.

      These were the identical complaints in the 19th century, long before the 1970s. These were the identical complaints in 1900, for that matter, before Schoenberg’s “atonal” experiments or his subsequent dodecaphony, which were themselves long before the 1970s.

      The attitude that Andrew picturesquely refers to as the “battered wife syndrome” pre-date not only the last 40 years but the entire century in which all the bad things supposedly happened to music. That is, the “syndrome” existed long before the marriage, long before the wife was even born herself.

      “We” have not brilliantly trained anyone in anything. The attitude Andrew refers to, which accounts for his and his colleague’s fears, is already by now over two hundred years old.

      This attitude is powerful and irrational, powerful because irrational. It was able to feed off of Chopin and Berlioz and Schumann. It was able to feed off of Beethoven and even off of Mozart before him. (That is, you can find some precursors of what is a largely 19th century phenomenon even in the 18th century, at a time when it was taken for granted that new music was superior to old.) That is, this attitude doesn’t need atonality or “noise bombs” (what a provocative accusation that is, to be sure!) to exist and to thrive. It apparently needs nothing in the real world.

      This attitude should be the focus of our efforts, not whatever music happens to be new in whatever year we are living in. History shows over and over again that the actual music can be practically anything, Beethoven’s piano sonatas, Chopin’s nocturnes, Liszt’s symphonies, Wagner’s operas, Stravinsky’s ballets. The music has changed, radically, in the past two hundred years, but remarkably, the criticisms of whatever is recent in any particular year are exactly the same. That should have clued somebody somewhere in to what’s really going on, and that is that it’s not the music that has caused the attitude.

      If that is true, then it’s not some chimerical “beautiful, newish work”–with beauty being silently (and mendaciously) defined as “what the majority of classical audiences will find to be pretty”–that will turn this situation around. There are more than a few members (still members, miraculously) of the classical music audience who find Schoenberg and Varese and Cage and Stockhausen and Xenakis and Lachenmann to be beautiful. Sadly, orchestral management does think that it can afford to piss those people off. In the meantime, pieces that used to be blamed for the attitude will continue, slowly, to become items of the canon that Andrew and his colleagues rely on. Ironically.

      In the meantime, the attitude that “new” music has been blamed for for two centuries will continue to persist unless we can find a way to account for its true sources. And we haven’t even started to do that.

      Reply
    2. Phil Fried

      “..The excesses of a few insane decades has left ensembles and audiences with “battered wife syndrome”, unable to trust any living composer again…”

      On the other hand Andrew you seek to “protect” the audience and to insulate them. You have decided whats best for them. In other words you propose censorship. Isn’t that the very same procedure you and Dan are complaining about? Being insular?

      Oddly I can’t seem to find this procedure in use in any major orchestra or opera house. Further the claim that many musical institutions recent financial problems are caused by programing is false.

      If you want to create an ensemble that exclude certain composers, well, doesn’t everyone?

      No sonic prejudice
      Phil Fried

      Reply
  10. Tom

    The author of this article is so very right about many things. But comparing Cage’s 4.33″ with Bach’s Goldberg Variations is misplaced, and shows how out of touch the contemporary music establishment is with not only audiences, but the very concept of music. It is bad enough that classical music is losing audiences, but it’s long been patently clear that the “contemporary” music – i.e., serialism, Darmstadtism, Balinese gongs, etc. – has made audiences in regular concert halls run for their lives (or auditory senses perhaps more aptly).

    The contemporary academic establishment has long been able to hide behind “contemporary music” festivals or special events, which made the many academic composers feel warm and fuzzy and the few audiences who actually liked their compositions raving with being able to feel “special” for their superior understanding of genius. Not too different from heavy metal and punk groupies in the 70′s and 80′s of the past century. What used to be a fringe in classical music in the 70′s and 80′s, period instrument performance, has overtaken contemporary music by far. How strange it is that music written 250-400 years ago has appeared on the scene and completely outstripped contemporary academic music in popularity and record sales. It is interesting that tonal cadences, rhythm and melody is what listeners have to turn to for musical innovation by formerly unknown composers instead of the composers who live and work today. 400 to 250 years ago, audiences threw out manuscripts and scores by composers like Monteverdi and Bach because they were “old-fashioned” and because new music was more pleasing to audiences’ developing tastes than the old stuff. Contemporary composers of our days: Feel free to compose unintelligible and thoroughly assonant music as much as you want. It is thanks to you that we are getting acquainted with composers of the past like Zelenka, Telemann, Piccini, Mayr, Meyerbeer, D’Indy, Svendsen, Jolivet, Martinu, etc. etc. etc. through excellent CD recordings, often recorded from live performances. If today won’t deliver good music, the past certainly can!

    While respect for older composers became a phenomenon of the romantic movement, audiences still enthusiastically listened predominantly to the composers of their own generation, with a few developing audience favorites like Mozart and Mendelssohn thrown in for variety. While Stravinskian and Dadaist excesses shocked many, they still had a following in the 20s and 30s (Stranvinsky himself reverting to a neoclassical style after Le Sacre du printemps) because the music utilized influences from jazz and the music halls popular in that era. After WW II, when the world was reeling perhaps even more than in 1918-19, European composers suddenly felt an urge to throw everything traditional and European overboard.

    And they eventually won the battle for academic positions and prestige over the neoclacissists and neoromantics. This might not have been a bad thing had they not decided to exercise berufsverbot against composer who wouldn’t conform to their ideology. America held out a bit longer against the “-ists” than Europe since government money didn’t play a role in taste arbitration to the degree it does in Europe, but eventually they won control even there by virtue of exercising a large degree of control over the well-paying academic jobs.

    I am not advocating some return to a musical arcadia. That is clearly not possible. However, the renaissance of period music as well as the undeniable popularity of – generally – schlock music composed by Carl Jenkins and John Williams as well as performances by und(er)ressed female violinists, little girls singing “Nessun dorma” and tenors singing into microphones or real talent forced into hyper-marketed romantic concerti recorded for the 150th time over shows that today’s audiences want something contemporary academic composers aren’t delivering.

    For these reasons, I find the above article somewhat pontificating and misleading. Certainly, young composers should find their own voices. But this they are not being taught in music programs at colleges and universities, where serial-Darmstadtian-gong-and-tonecluster compositions from graduating students still abound. What the author should perhaps have done – as opposed to proudly heralding his involvement in the performance of a student “art piece involving self-mummification in duct-tape, melting guitar strings with torch lighter, and long periods of stasis where the performers appeared to take naps” – would have been to point to the contemporary composers who have not bought into the Boulez-inspired cacophony so favored at most educational institutions or contemporary music “events.”

    The Finnish-Estonian school has done particularly well in our times, producing such highly original composers as Sallinen, Kokkonen, Aho, Part, etc. Perhaps he should have pointed out these composers as neither catering to specific tastes but still attracting audiences by virtue of building the new on the pillars of the past. It seems to work for them. Innovation for its own sake, imitating serialist, minimalist and Darmstadtian ideals or mind-games turned out by composers to please themselves and a few groupies has not worked for composers of academic contemporary music.

    Reply
  11. Andrew Balio

    @ Michael Karman: Yes, I am indeed familiar with the argument that mine is an old argument and as history has showed us, it isn’t a valid one. Many of our most beloved composers were opposed in their day, at least to a certain extent.
    However, this time it’s different.
    I cited only the last 40 years as, at least to my knowledge, a certain school of composition, one that made Bartok seem quite accessible, became known to the larger audiences of NYC, LA, London. You mentioned Cage, Stockhausen and Xenakis and I would add Boulez to that group as being emblematic of a language that is not only alien to audiences, but to many musicians who perform at a very high level. They seem to write to appeal to other composers and an ideology of progressivism, a rejection of the past.
    When I wrote “We”, I only meant my own orchestra and patrons, who number four concerts a week with 1700 at each. I didn’t meant to attempt to speak for the profession.
    I do like the practice of “New Music Festivals” that provide the segment of very adventurous listeners a great display of the previously unheard coupled with a community experience of like-minded people. Academic environments are also a great place to present experimental music without financial risk for a population that desires newness and being challenged. Like the Early-Music movement, there seems to be sustainable viability in specialization and segmentation.

    Michael, I see that you performed a great service through creating Asymmetry Magazine, a vital element in bringing new music to the world’s attention. There is a man in DC area, a enthusiast audience member named Robert Reilly, who wrote one book about the overlooked composers of yesteryear and he is even writing a new edition this year. As Tom mentioned, it’s high time we give new consideration to many compositions of the past who’s music could fortify our repertoire and satisfy our audiences desire for the new. In Russia and EU, Moishe Weinberg is having a huge resurgence, nearly 20 years after his passing. I hope we can find more Weinbergs.

    Reply
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    1. Michael Karman

      Nice one, Aaron!

      Definitely a part of the historical background that undercuts Dan’s assertions.

      Another is the scrupulously detailed work of William Weber.

      http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/31bVkeoEVJL.jpg

      If there is a problem, it is most certainly not caused by any music. Beethoven’s music could not have caused the same reaction as Stravinsky’s. Or Xenakis’. Yet the comments about them by people who don’t like them are remarkably the same. Leads one to at least suspect that the root cause lies somewhere else. We’ll certainly never solve any problems whose root causes we do not know and do not consider.

      Reply

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