Music That Resists An Audience

Since my previous post, reflecting on a simple reason why audiences are so small for new music concerts, I’ve had a wave of comment come my way, either directly on the blog (you can read for yourself) or via twitter or rebloggings or facebook sharings, even emails sent directly to me.

It was fascinating to see the kaleidoscope of angles taken when referring to the piece. To some it was a piece about the fragmentation of audiences in the 21st century; to others it was about what a venue/artist partnership looks like; to others it was a checklist of great ideas for audience building. And the post has been shared by visual artists, choreographers, jazz musicians and pop producers.

Amongst the positive responses are lines like “I’d kiss you. But then people would talk.” (thanks Rebekah!) and “Well written punchy piece by @ElissaMilne delivers knockout blow to new music narcissism then picks it up off the mat.” (thanks Séan). And “What she said”, “Wow. Yes.”, “This.”, “Just read this.”, and “Duh!” and so forth (thanks to all for your endorsements).

But it’s the people who don’t quite agree, or who profoundly disagree whose comments prompt further teasing out of the issues in any debate; in this case, of the issues implicit in any examination of the slender appeal of new music concerts.

The first such issue to get my attention was this idea that some music resists an audience. Music that’s hard to hear. Complicated. The stuff admired for not rewarding a half-listening listener.

The fundamental idea here being that it’s the audiences that new music rejects that makes it the best.

I’m assuming this is what we’re supposed to leap-frog into understanding through this rhetoric: that some music is so muscular it just won’t cozy up with you on the couch, so serious it can’t have a laugh, and so ascetic it eats its gruel in private.

The irony being that music is anthropomorphised for the very purpose of stating its antipathy to people. And the raising of a discursive eyebrow is always in order when for-purposes-other-than-poetry anthropomorphising is in action.

See, it’s not music that resists audience at all. It’s artists.

One of my favourite stories about how music in and of itself is ever-willing to find an audience, if only the artist will allow it, is the story of Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. Only, it wasn’t called that to start with. It was called 8’37″. But when the composer heard the work he decided to abandon his Cage-like (or possibly Cage-homage) title in favour of something that communicated the human meanings Penderecki experienced on first hearing the work performed. Finally he settled on “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” and dedicated the work to those victims. But the music was not composed for that purpose; the composer found this purpose in the music he had already composed, and then presented his work to his audiences with this narrative and framing attached.

If the artist had wanted his music to resist an audience he would have refused to share his emotional insights and connections with others. But why would you want your music to resist an audience? (ah, that will be the topic of my next post, I believe…)

New art music, notoriously, has its largest audience amongst contemporary dance audiences. Not that the audiences for contemporary dance are massive; but they are gargantuan in comparison to the bedraggled twos and threes who gather in the name of contemporary classical music. The music is fundamental to the aesthetic experience at a contemporary dance event, but the dance frames, explains, illustrates and animates even the most complex compositional experience. And damn it, bodies are involved.

Yep. Bodies.

I know it goes against all classical musicians believe in when they are on stage, but bodies are where it’s at. Bodies tell truths and lies and share stories and reveal secrets.

And new music concerts do their level best to make the bodies disappear. “Just listen”, is the mantra, as if the eye is the doorway to aesthetic damnation, as if the music were only about the experience of the ear. Dame Evelyn Glennie would call you on that.

Performers don’t look at each other (often because they don’t dare look up from the score). The stage is a ramshackle of music stands and extra chairs, abandoned instruments from the last piece and with the instruments for the current piece all set at angles that make it hard for the audience to see what’s going on. Alternatively, the layout is the same as you’d expect for music written in the late 1700s. And if anyone talks it’s either in an unrehearsed mumble or in a haze of faux self-deprecation.

One of the best moments I’ve had as an audience member for a new music concert took place during one of the ISCM World New Music Days concerts held in Sydney in 2010. It’s a concert I loved for so many reasons I blogged about it. It was an Ensemble Offspring concert, and the overworked ensemble were performing an astonishing amount of new music within a week – it was just staggering seeing how much of the performing load they were carrying. This concert featured some of the younger composers selected for the festival, and even when works weren’t completely convincing they really did feel ‘fresh’, which was fabulous.

One of the works really wasn’t resonating with me at all, however, and I was making notes to that effect when the music trailed off; Roland Peelman, the conductor, had dramatically called a halt to proceedings and turned to the audience and apologised with words along the lines of “That was terrible, we’re starting again”, an apology that was met with gasps from the audience and a stentorian “Oh, ROLAND” from Geoffrey Gartner, the group’s cellist. It was funny, and it was honest, and it made the audience sit up and listen to the second play through. And that second play through was a revelation; the same composition, played well, spoke the volumes it had failed to communicate the first time around.

Here’s the thing… The conductor spoke clearly, directly, and almost conspiratorially with the audience: we were part of the success of this work! The performance had gone haywire somewhere along the way and that less-than-well-performed music had begun to resist the audience. The conductor had the courage to identify AND rectify the problem; and the cellist had also communicated a truth of the performance: the work was hard (especially in the context of so many performances, day after day)! And the performers had another gig to get to later that evening! It was context, framing, narrative that cleared the path for that music to be heard well. Nothing to do with quiet or small audiences; everything to do with a desire to connect.

Again, it’s not music that resists an audience; it’s artists who do. Are they shy? Are they unsocialised? Are they high functioning autistics? Are they so focussed on the values of the century that brought us high fidelity that anything that isn’t picked up by the grammaphone needle is considered extraneous? It’s the 20th century equivalent of Brahms saying he’d rather stay home and read the score than go to a (contaminated by humans) concert.

The Bible tells the story of Jonah, sent to Ninevah (reluctantly, and therefore via a whale) to tell its inhabitants to repent. He despises the people, preaches in a cursory manner, and is then disgusted when they all start worshipping his god.

I kind of get the feeling that’s how it would be for some contemporary art music practitioners if they looked up from their music stands and saw the great unwashed taking an interest…

11 thoughts on “Music That Resists An Audience

  1. I was at a conference where the RAAF band was to perform Grainger’s marvelous Linconshire Posy. Most of the conference members were hanging around outside the auditorium when the conductor looked at all the empty seats and said. “This performance will not begin until there are more people in the audience than there is performing.” Electrifying. The audience rapidly appeared and listened with the attention the performance deserved. It was a simple acknowledgement of the link between audience and performers.

  2. I did not know that about Penderecki’s Threnody! Thank you for your intelligent, amusing critique about new music – enjoyed both these posts tremendously.

  3. ‘The music is fundamental to the aesthetic experience at a contemporary dance event, but the dance frames, explains, illustrates and animates even the most complex compositional experience. And damn it, bodies are involved.’
    This piqued my interest. The last dance event I went to (Rambert) had a big, young and noisy audience. They munched their way through the performance. (How can you listen to the music whilst eating? Crunch crunch crunch) And although I could go on about the way that they talked through the music until the dance started (including some terrific music by David Tudor), that was clearly my issue and more or less my issue alone, since the audience’s talking didn’t seem to bother others in the audience.
    It’s the idea that dance might explain or illustrate that gets me thinking. For sure this is the point of some dance. For me, it’s the least interesting dance. The performance I enjoyed most was the Tudor/Cunningham effort: the music and the dance seemed to stand on their own, and because of that the coming together was especially remarkable. There’s lots of music that works like that, and lots of dance, staging, acting and so on… Why should music need explaining in non-musical terms?
    Yet the mimesis that illustrative dance aims for does seem to be more popular. And sometimes that’s fine. But what about art that’s not mimetic? What do we do with that?

    As for bodies, just because musicians are focussed on performing doesn’t mean they one need enter a discourse of the denial of bodily presence (they body’s still there, right?). One of the most riveting performances I have been to was one where the performers was completely focussed – and as it happens focussed on their printed parts – and gave the most intense performance of a 30 minute soprano+ensemble work. No audience eye contact. Everything was going into making an amazing sound, and crafting wonderful phrases etc… And that focus was incredibly exciting. (It was also finely honed and incredibly well rehearsed!) The radio broadcast lacked much of the excitement, because I couldn’t see the performers so engrossed in what they were doing.
    But I’ve also experienced concerts were the performer tries to be as unobtrusive as possible, just there, playing what’s necessary, austere and bare. And that can also be a joy, since sometimes that’s all that’s needed. No histrionics, no trying to connect, just some sound. That’s how I want my Kondo, for example.

    What I’m trying to get at is that I’m all for the approach that you favour, but not all the time. Sometimes it’s not appropriate. Sometimes a performer being illustrative, or talking to an audience seems wrong, distracting, and unnecessary. Sometimes it’s at odds with why the composition was written, and what the composition tries to do. Sometimes I just want my performers to get on with it; sometimes performers are really bad at speaking to an audience, and incredibly persuasive with their instrument/voice. And my questions are: what happens with them? How do they get an audience? (If I were feeling philosophically frisky, I’d ask about the ontological privileging of the performer over their ‘instrument’ and wonder how ‘instrumental’ instruments really are, and I might wonder what that means for a singer, for example.)

    • Michael, you make me smile (“crunch, crunch, crunch”)!

      A couple of quick points:

      *My* favourite kind of contemporary dance is work that is polyphonic (possibly more accurately, fugal) in its construction, and usually in ways that is not at all mimetic as regards the music (or really anything else) – more like a counterpoint of bodies. The dance doesn’t have to be *about* the music to be acting as a frame or illustration and so forth. And I would never consider that a single choreography was anything like the only possible framing of a work! Mimetic choreography, in my opinion, is the epitome of tedium. On a related note, I think your ideas and mine about illustration might have nuanced differences in this regard (good illustration does stuff that the text does not demand or reveal – again, in my opinion).

      The lack of eye contact I was describing in the blog was the failure of the performers to look at *each other*. The fourth wall can be just as effective in a music performance as in a theatre performance. But if there’s no musical reason for the performers to *avoid* eye contact then it’s just weird (and, in fact, will tend to communicate social dislocation). In most new music concerts the performers have given absolutely no thought to physical considerations other than those relevant to sound production; if their performance is austere or flamboyant it’s more likely than not an accident of personality or time of day.

      And regarding ontological privilege: I’d like to see an instrument play itself. No, wait, I didn’t mean I’d *really* like to see an instrument play itself… Um, well…. ;-)

      But yes, this does come down to philosophy. Music is a way of being human, not a way of escaping being human. Disagree with this proposition and you’ll probably be wanting translucence in your instrumentalists.

  4. “And new music concerts do their level best to make the bodies disappear.”

    I haven’t bothered to keep count of the number of young avant garde composers/students who have proudly proclaimed, “Singers hate me!” when they talk about their music. I often think that the tendency to hostility toward singers both in contemporary classical music circles and related genres (70s progressive rock comes to mind back when they shared the “who cares if you listen” attitude) are related to their hostility toward the body. A singer’s instrument is after all, their body.

  5. A colleague posted links to your essay and followup, and I love them both. Thank you!

    Susan McClary’s wonderful article “Terminal Prestige” explains new music’s resistance (I like your way of putting it) to the audience. She says that for American composers after World War II, prestige depended on writing music that an ordinary person couldn’t understand. There was a time when a composer couldn’t get a teaching job without writing serial music. This connection between “difficulty” and prestige is no longer dominant (look at how popular and prestigious Glass, Reich, and Adams are), but it casts a long shadow over the field.

    Thank goodness lots of musicians have escaped the shadow. I like your description of the way forward.

      • Michael, I applaud your robust and articulate commitment to your cause!

        I’m not sure that comparing the work of Susan McLary to phrenology is a sustainable discursive strategy, or that such a comparison is valid in the first place. The writing of histories really doesn’t operate in the same way as medical research, so to say that ‘research’ disputes McLary’s writing is to assume her work is presented as fact rather than as a challenge to the dominant narratives of the 70s and 80s.

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