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…

A Simple Reason Why Audiences Are So Small For New Music Concerts

Discussions about the small audiences new music attracts have been a constant of my life as a musician since I first entered university as a 16 year old to study composition.

I have to confess I’m getting a bit sick of the topic, mostly because there’s no mystery to these matters whatsoever, and the whole ‘debate’ ends up in the field of deliberate self-delusion almost as soon as it begins.

Last night someone said to me that audiences are small for ‘this kind of thing’ because, and I quote, “Australia is so backward”.

Something in my head finally broke after all the years, and I found myself struggling to hold back the waves of derision engulfing me. I may not have won that struggle.

I’m not going to waste my breath explaining the multitude of ways in which Australia fails to demonstrate backwardness. And before I don’t do that I’m not going to waste my time deconstructing the idea of backwardness itself. Instead, let’s begin from the beginning.

Of all the possible reasons for a concert to have a microscopic audience the most likely of them all is this one: the music has no fans.

Live concerts (or any live events) are built on a fan-base, so if you have no fans you have a limited chance of attracting an audience. This holds true for a pub band as much as it does for a purveyor of experimental sound art. Any performer needs to build an audience if they want to have an audience.

Now I do appreciate that there has been an aesthetic of writing with no thought for connection with listeners, but seriously people, if you write with no consideration of how you are building your audience you can hardly be surprised when you don’t have one.

And yeah, it’s your audience. It’s not the audience for “new music” or “experimental music” or “art music”. It’s the group of people in your neighbourhood, community, workplace, internet forums, facebook groups and twitterfeed who are interested in what you do. That’s what an audience is: it’s a bunch of people who care about your work so much that they want to participate. By being there. By being close to the action. By giving you money so you’ll keep doing what you do.

For about 8 months in pre-social media days I once programmed cabaret for a new, small but growing-in-prominence Sydney music/art venue. We had some of Australia’s finest musical theatre and cabaret talent on that fabulous, small stage, and the experience got me wised up to some fundamental truths about audiences.

The most important lesson was this: there is no general public. Even when you are an institution with a subscriber base. Even when you are a producer of a Broadway hit musical. Even when you are a decades-old rock band. The audiences you connect with are specific, and have vested interests in participating in your event, even when there are tens of thousands of them.

Some performers would tell me an hour before going on “I haven’t told any of my friends about this – I want to see what the general public looks like” and my heart would sink. “There is no general public,” I would whisper to myself as I pulled out my phone to track down even two or three extra friends prepared to drop everything right then and there to come in and bulk out the “crowd”.

Even with advertisements in the right places at the right times (including feature stories, sometimes, in the Sydney Morning Herald Metro section), the audiences for these uniformly stunning performances were invariably friends, family, colleagues, and their friends, family and colleagues. Walk-ups were rare.

Some of these shows went on to be performed in RSLs around the city/region/state/country. But RSLs have their own audiences, their own loyal fan base, their own communities with vested interests in participating. The performer is the detail. The performer has to persuade the RSL to host the performance, not the audience to attend. And so the performer experiences the delusion that the public at the RSL is ‘general’, when in fact it has been carefully inculcated over many years.

This is what a festival can bring to a performer/composer – a focussed, committed audience that is engaged in participating in the event of the festival primarily, and interested in the performer/composer as a by-product of that primary engagement.

Established venues (such as the Sydney Opera House) have in the past decade or so attempted to build this same kind of audience loyalty and invested-ness.

But the best way for an exponent of new music to ensure there is an audience for their music is to take responsibility themselves, particularly as festivals and venues who work hard at building their audiences will want to see a partnership with an artist as being mutually advantageous. And that means the performer needs to attract an audience. And if the performer can’t attract an audience without the festival/venue, then…. You see the circularity we’re dealing with here.

What can new art music musicians do? Try these seven suggestions for a start:

  1. Stop blaming the people who stay away. If there’s no one in Australia ‘forward’ enough for your music then travel until you find a sympathetic community in which you can thrive.
  2. Start thinking about who you want to connect with from the inception of the creative process. So you’re composing a 90 minute work about sewer pipes – who might find that interesting? Why are you wanting to compose a work about sewer pipes? Why do you think people will be interested for 90 minutes? Answering questions of this ilk will improve your composing. It helps you edit, to synthesise. But it also helps you gear up for connecting with your audience right from the get-go.
  3. Stop thinking that the audience doesn’t matter. If you’re talking to thin air then you’re talking to thin air. If that’s your point, that’s sensational, but no one is hearing your point, so your artistic practice is probably more like a spiritual or psychological praxis. Which is fine. But now you’re not being an artist, you’re just engaging in growth. And no one other than your family and close friends care about that. See what I did there?
  4. Stop being a narcissist. Seriously, you think random strangers care about your personal growth?
  5. Start connecting with people. Whether you have a concert coming up or not. Connect via conversation, shared interests, real life dilemmas. Connect by sharing recipes, local knowledge, book recommendations, travel tips. For one thing, having people in your life who trust you and feel connected to you will be incredibly life-enhancing no matter what, but you’ll also start building an audience who really *are* interested in your discoveries and performances. Because they know you and they trust you.
  6. Use social media. You don’t need an organisation to build a platform for you – get on twitter, set up a facebook page, make a video blog. The gatekeepers of culture are no more. Start finding yourself an audience in the global village.
  7. Know who you are. Easier said than done. And really hard when ethical artistic engagement involves change as much as it does consistency. But the more you know who you are the more clarity you will have in shaping engaging music/performances and in building an audience for your work. And the less you will find yourself taking on projects that go nowhere and have no one listening.

Having something to say is somewhere between unsatisfying and stultifying without having someone who wants to hear it. Stop composing, rehearsing and performing for audiences you could have brought with you in a family vehicle. And start changing your/the world.

Bach v Handel v Scarlatti v Telemann (and so on)

My most advanced student and I sat down the other day to decide exactly which works would go into his diploma program (exam in November/December) and which would get the flick. My student had been working on the Bach C minor Partita, but as much as we both loved the Capriccio we were struggling with the notion of turning the other required movements into part of his performance program. It all just seemed so turgid, with a displeasing noise to signal ratio.

Could we get away with dispensing with this major work from his program? How would the balance of the recital be affected by taking this out of the equation? We pulled out the syllabus and thought about replacing this selection with a Prelude and Fugue. And we had no trouble identifying some Preludes on the list that would show off this student’s strengths and sensitivities to best advantage. It’s just that when we came to think about him learning a Fugue it just didn’t seem right. For him.

Now, I usually find that fugues are a bit of an IQ test – it doesn’t really matter what the personality of a student, a very clever student will find joy and beauty in a fugue. But this student is as smart as they come, and fugues simply aren’t his thing. I can see that quite clearly, even though we’ve only been working together for a couple of years. His insistence that he doesn’t like fugues is also not immaterial to this judgment.

So back to the drawing board.

A lone Handel Suite (No. 8 in F minor) sat on the list, pretty much the only alternative if we were to include a Baroque presence in the program. I pulled out the Henle collection and to our mutual delight we found that the spirit of this suite exactly suited the student. The suite still has a fugue in it, and has pretty much the same kinds of forms and movements that we’d been working on with the Bach, but the mood, the tone, the energy of the music was of a completely different nature, and we happily agreed that this was the new direction needed.

I’ve been practicing the suite since that lesson (I had only a passing familiarity with the various movements) and discovering that while there are plenty of tricky passages and technical challenges the music feels ‘easier’ – not so much easier to learn as easier to relate to. I’m kind of a Bachophile (or Bach maniac, if you will), so this discovery is challenging my sense of musical identity in a fairly substantial way.

Meantime, I’ve (finally) been reading Charles Rosen’s Piano Notes, a book that was published in 2002 and that I first came across in a massive chain bookshop in a London shopping mall in 2006 when I should have been collecting some groceries. Having gone out of my way to buy the book in unlikely circumstances (and delaying dinner for a group of 4 to boot) one might think I’d have read it without delay. Of course, it’s just this week I’ve plunged into this profound and refreshing book about playing the piano.

Right there in the first chapter Charles Rosen talks about the ‘gymnastics’ of Scarlatti. ‘Gymnastics’. Never a truer word spoken, about Scarlatti at least – his music is the absolute embodiment of the gymnastic spirit. Many a gesture in a Scarlatti sonata feels as if one is performing a complicated tumble with the ambition of landing again on the balance beam once the skillful leap is complete. I’ve always loved playing Scarlatti. His music resonates with the larrikin in me.

But if given a choice I would generally choose Telemann over Scarlatti. So very many of his keyboard works feel natural to me, like meeting someone whose sense of humour, taste in movies or political orientation exactly matches your own. Telemann moves the way I like to move, physically (the gestures required to perform the music) and harmonically/rhythmically and structurally. Scarlatti feels more like quirky friend.

Meantime, Rameau mostly seems like a complete alien*.

Bach brings tears to my eyes while Handel induces my lips to smile. I feel happy delight with both Telemann and Scarlatti, one because he does what I would do, the other because he does what I would not.

Can it all be explained by a Myers Briggs assessment? By the times in which we live? By the teachers we’ve had along the way? By our star signs?

All theories welcome…

*Disclaimer: I have not played a fair percentage of Rameau’s keyboard music, so I would be very excited to be dissuaded from this current position. Please share your Rameau favourites with me!

POST-SCRIPT: Yes, I know. I start talking about Charles Rosen’s fabulous book and then just leave it at that. I will certainly be talking about Piano Notes some more in the weeks to come.

The Making of Lists: An Alternative 100

This is a post about lists, and it’s going to get specific about making lists about music. If you are not of the High Fidelity school of music discourse this post may irritate. Discontinue use if irritation persists.

Lists reflect those who make them, but they also reflect the list-making process. A To-Do list might be broken down into things to do before lunchtime, things to do before the weekend and things to do before Christmas, as a way of managing different priorities. A shopping list might be organised according to retail establishments, or even by way of supermarket aisles. Even books list contents by chapter, by title, alphabetically or by author name. There are all kinds of ways of organising the lists we make.

A radio station I rarely listen to recently compiled a list, as voted by its listeners (and me), of the 20th century pieces of classical music most cherished by its listeners (and me).

The enthusiasm for lists seeming to be universal, particularly amongst readers of blogs and consumers of music (see High Fidelity link above, and cf Rage programming, any hit parade/countdown music presentation format, and hints for bloggers), this appears to be a winner of a broadcasting idea. Lists are a starting point for debate and discussion, and all curation is (at heart) sophisticated list-making, so there seems little to lose in such an endeavour.

But a great list needs clear definition. Favourite Compositions for Viola in Quintuple Time. Favourite Compositions for Piano by South American-born-and-raised composers. Favourite Art Music Compositions for non-orchestral instruments composed 1996-2000. And so forth. Generally speaking, the more specific the confines of the list the more intriguing the results.

And this ABC Classic FM top 100 20th century classical music pieces featured an unhelpful looseness of definition in two key ways.

1. Time Constraints. So the 20th century either began on January 1, 1900, or on January 1, 1901. Decide which and be brutal at excluding works not within the arbitrarily decided starting point. Yes, this means that works composed in 1899 were not, in fact, 20th century works at all. And a century lasts 100 years, not 110 or 111. So works composed after December 31, 1999, or after December 31, 2000 (keep it consistent with the decided-upon starting date) shouldn’t have been included either. Unless you change the name of the list.

2. Intention/Reception/Production. The 20th century saw a diffusion of musical styles and consumption, and the term ‘classic’ or ‘classical’ has come to represent a particular subset of styles and consumption models. The final list included works composed for film/performed by orchestra: an interesting cross-roads of what constitutes classical music. Brilliant and demonstrably popular film scores were not included, one assumes because of their unsymphonic approach. TV themes of similar popularity and interest also went unnominated. Musical theatre entries told the same story, the scored-for-symphonic-orchestra-and-composed-by-legitimate-classical-conductor West Side Story featured in the list, but nothing else from this genre. In fact, the moral of the story seems to be that if it’s symphonic in ambition it probably counts as classical music in this list-making process.

So what if we made some different parameters for the construction of a 20th Century Classic 100? What if we broke it down a little in the voting process, and then compiled an über-list from the results?

How about this: vote for up to 3 in each of the following categories; the same composition can be included in as many categories as you please; dates of composition are strictly from January 1, 1901 through to December 31, 2000.

1. Astonishing

2. Beautiful

3. Ground-breaking

4. Orchestral for the Concert Hall

5. Small Ensemble/Chamber

6. Non-orchestral instrumentation/forces/media

7. Keyboard

8. Opera/Music Theatre

9. Film/TV/Games

10. Vocal/Choral

You can vote for as few pieces as you like, or for as many as 30. The most voted-for pieces will make it into the top 100, irrespective of category.

Who’s in?


 

Top Classical 20th Century Pieces: ABC Classic FM Edition

Fabulous concept, fabulous consequences: you’re a radio station that broadcasts classical music exclusively and you ask your listeners to vote on their absolute favourite classical pieces from the 20th century. Each listener gets 10 votes and they can nominate whichever piece of music they fancy. The top 100 pieces are then broadcast over the space of a week, concluding with a concert featuring the top 5 pieces, live-broadcast to conclude the event. And since it’s 2011, the whole broadcast event comes replete with facebook discussions and a twitter hashtag. Go.

The countdown began at number 100, naturally, and John Adam’s The Chairman Dances from Nixon in China seemed about right. But over the course of the next 10 or so entries things began to unravel. Schmaltzy and ersatz contributions were mixing it with works commonly regarded as masterworks, and straight-out film scores even got a look-in. We all knew this was a popularity contest, but even so it felt as if voters hadn’t known the rules (even though there actually weren’t any rules, apart from the oddity of ABC Classic FM declaring the 20th century to have lasted til 2010).

Social media and outrage make excellent companions, and it didn’t take more than a day for the ABC Classic FM facebook page to feature a post requesting that those contributing to the debate take a positive tone; in addition, facebook’s quirks meant that some posts were marked as spam and required moderation to be included, so there was some confusion regarding exactly what was being moderated away.

Listeners could also call a talk-back line to pre-record their responses to the broadcasts, and the choices of listeners in the countdown. This was the most amusing aspect of the week-long broadcast. Many positive comments along the lines of “I’m hearing so much wonderful music I’ve never heard before” were interspersed with “this rubbish is a disgrace”, this negative comment uttered as frequently about the schmaltzy works as it was about the inclusions that were distinctly ’20th century’ in their aesthetic. Contributing to the entertainment was the experience of hearing the accents and intonations of Classic FM’s listenership, then inferring the listening demographic from phonetics alone.

Twitter is, of course, beyond moderation, so comments posted there were both pithy and unforgiving, and tended toward a more academic conception of the 20th Century: the notion that the century should last only 100 years and not include works originating in 1899 or post-2000, for instance, was taken for granted; the inclusion of works composed outside an art music intention was poorly received, and the inclusion of works that were largely lifted from the 19th century (whether we are talking late-century plagiarism or composers in the earliest parts of the century composing in anachronistic musical languages) met with broad disdain.

Particularly fascinating was the way the ABC Classic FM broadcasting team dealt with these various kinds of feedback: pre-recorded phone messages were regularly played, representing a wide spectrum of views; facebook comments were increasingly incorporated into the broadcast as the week went on; the twitter conversation went almost entirely unreported, and only tweets free of critique made it into the broadcast hours I heard. Many broadcasters were clearly unfamiliar with the whole concept of social media, another interesting demographic reality.

Those of us conversing via #classic100 on twitter found ourselves quite dispirited by the time we came to the final 20. It was clear that important works weren’t going to make it onto the list at all, and many immensely popular composers from the past few decades were also going without representation.

In a superb stroke of programming the concert broadcast of the top 5 pieces was immediately followed by a two hour broadcast discussing some of the works that didn’t make the top 100, but were in the 101-200 tranche of nominations/votes. This was beautifully done, and many listeners commented via facebook that they enjoyed this broadcast even more than they’d enjoyed the concert prior. Of course, this review of what wasn’t included had the benefit of curation in a way that the listener/voter-determined top 100 had not; the two hour broadcast was able to highlight ideas, genres, and stylistic directions from the 100 pieces in such a way as to tell a story, and this narrative arc contributed to the sensation that the post-countdown show was (in many ways) the best part of the whole week of 20th century broadcasting.

Musicians from outside Australia following my conversations about this #classic100 countdown via twitter were able to stream the radio broadcast via the net, so I ended up having fascinating conversations about this music with listeners in the Americas. They were amazed to see the final list; the inclusion of Australian composers they’d barely heard of and the dominance of English composers from the earliest reaches of the century being the most remarked-upon features of the countdown.This turned into a social history of Australia lesson for them, and a reminder to me that ‘classical music’ in Australia skews Anglo in ways that are unsustainable and undesirable.

One of my favourite tweeps, @gigglyfriday, did a running score of the Classic 100 countdown – by country. She hashtagged this #liketheOlympics, and right from the start those of us on twitter discussed the chances of the Russians taking out more places than the Brits. We thought the Brits would punch above their weight, but many of us were genuinely astonished to see the final countdown having Russia in 2nd place. I mean, even with just Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff you’d think the Russians would have it in the bag. But no, Britannia ruled.

Someone on twitter objected to the #liketheOlympics hashtag on the basis that if this were truly like the Olympics the Chinese would be in serious contention, and of course not a Chinese composer was within cooee of this list. It reminded me of a concert I attended in 2002 – a prominent Chinese orchestra was playing the Sydney Opera House, with something from the orchestral canon, a few pieces from Chinese composers, and something commissioned especially for the tour from an Australian composer. It was a great night out, but startling to me: the Opera House Concert Hall was filled with Australians of Chinese heritage, a demographic I’d never seen in any numbers at orchestral concerts before. That event, and the omission of particular kinds of musical voices from this countdown, remind me that our society is much broader than the pop v art music debates often allow.

Did I agree with the top 100 20th century pieces as voted by ABC Classic FM’s listeners? Well, no. But I absolutely agree with making 2oth century music something that is listened to and talked about, and not just in enclaves of aficionados (most of us with some kind of tertiary training in music), and not just within the narrow confines of self-defined classical music lovers or Classic FM listeners. A list such as this top 20th Century countdown provides a starting point – a place for disagreement, debate, delight and discovery, and from this point of view I agree very heartily indeed. May the conversations long continue….