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…

ISCM Thursday May 6 lunchtime (a belated commentary)

Much delayed: my review of the fabulous (but not so fabulously named) “Young and the Restless” concert given by Ensemble Offspring as part of the ISCM World New Music Days.

Middle of the day, middle of the metropolis, this concert was programmed at the Riverside Theatre complex in the smaller sized of the two theatres. This meant that the quite large (by contemporary music standards) crowd really did fill the space, and one found oneself making both eye contact and conversation with fellow audience members – not the norm, by any means, at a new music concert.

The concert was a sampling of music by composers under the age of 35. Once upon a time someone the age of 35 would consider themselves far from young, but for at least the last decade youth has been bureaucratically bestowed upon anyone under the age of 40, so this representation was certainly youthful by these standards.

The first work Item 1, 2, 3, by Braam de Toit (for marimba, cello and bass clarinet) was from South Africa, and sounded like it: the cello evoked a thumb piano (in the best sense) and the whole work was enjoyable listening (and I do hope that that’s no longer considered faint praise). Julian Day was again hosting the event, and before this first performance he wondered aloud at the paucity of music emanating from Africa. I would think a simple demographic analysis (how many music schools are there, how many composition students, what access to African composers have to ISCM, how many African composers are working in this rarefied musical environment, and so forth) might yield some answers on that front.

This first piece was presented in such a way that one might have thought the marimba was to be the featured instrument in the work (the marimba was the visual focal point), but in fact the bass clarinet and cello deserved to be positioned in a manner that reflected their equality in the music-making. This might seem like quibbling, but the meaning of the music is communicated in a myriad of ways, and the physical placement of the instruments contributed a bewildering element to the listening experience.

Mind you, there weren’t a lot of placement choices available to the musicians: the stage was cluttered with chairs and music stands, with no rhyme or reason seeming to apply to where these objects found themselves. The music in this concert emerged from a visually raucous ensemble of gear.

The second piece in this Young and Restless program came from Russia. Weird, but wonderful, Under Construction by Georgy Dorokhov was a 2-hander (violin and piano) in the style of Beckett.  Yes, I know, Beckett is theatre not music, but honestly, this was a radio play begging to be adapted for the stage. Julian Day appeared at the end of the performance to intone that it had been a ‘contemplative’ work, but in fact it was far from that, an active dialogue between the two parties, a series of urges and efforts, throwaway lines and points to ponder. Both instrumentalists engaged with their instruments in what are still desperately non-conventional ways, and while the fascinatingly-named Zubin Kanga created music for both the ear and the eye on the piano, I’m not sure the same can be said for the violinist, who lurched about in a wild effort to snatch her notes from the ether (one felt maybe she didn’t always succeed).

The third work, Shore Leave by Stephan Thorsson (Sweden), incorporated national songs from north east Asia, each one of these national songs naturally unrecognisable to the international and Australian audience and therefore possibly lacking any appropriate semantic depth. This piece was apparently a manifesto regarding politics and pop culture, but it sounded like old-fashioned new music to me. Roland Peelman made a spidery presence conducting this work, although the piece began with the ensemble members tuning under his direction, with the squeaks and tones sliding into a performance; an impressive sleight of musical staging.  This effect may have been amplified by what appeared to be a temporary loss of the cellist; the ensemble members had gathered on stage, admittedly after a change to the order of program, and after some longer than short period Roland wandered off-stage, re-emerging with the tardy cellist, who had apparently been mid-cigarette when the performance was announced. This unexpected narrative thread gained credibility as the performance drew to an end, with Geoffrey Gartner (said cellist) coughing in pleuristic fashion as the final notes sounded and the first applause began.

And then we had an interval.

Now by this point I was feeling as if one more work would do me. The idea of returning to another three brand new works (let alone a barrage of concerts that other audience members would have been up for through the later afternoon and evening) seemed too much. Thankfully the idea of including a work by Philip Glass when he was under 35 had been abandoned (an odd programming notion the more one thought about it), so it was only three more works.

And in the intermission I had two lovely conversations, which made me wish I had been able to participate daily and extensively in these ISCM events: a sense of community was there (if one had just been around long enough to join in).

So the second half began with a work entitled Mnesique by Nicolas Tzortzis, and yes, this piece was ‘about’ short term memory (or maybe that’s just what the title means/refers to). And if the work had been performed the way it started out I am afraid that it would never have made it into my long term memory at all – it seemed like so much blippety blopity music we’ve heard before at these kinds of concerts, a lot of bluster and effort for not much musical result. In pieces like this one starts to monitor the pages left to turn on the performers’ or conductor’s music stands as one wills the work to end.

But a few pages shy of the end Roland Peelman (again conducting this work) suddenly stopped the performance and announced to the ensemble “We have to start again”, explaining to the audience that with the volume of new music the ensemble had performed over the preceding days it was almost inevitable that the wheels would fall off at some stage. “This is the only performance we get to give, and we must start again”, he continued in great earnestness, and I found myself wryly contemplating the prospect of sitting through all those blips and blops again while calculating if I had put enough money in the meter for this now-extended second half.

The members of the ensemble seemed as taken-aback as the audience, turning their pages back to the start as their conductor did the same. “Oh, Roland” issued forth from Geoffry Gartner, his head shaking back and forth. An irrepressible laugh amplified its way around the audience, til everyone was chuckling at the unexpected respect being given to the composition.

And hoo-boy, was Roland right.

The piece we heard the second time around was nothing like the clichéd blips and blops of the first effort; there had been a harmonic moment the first time around that I’d rather fancied, and the second performance was so different that I never even noticed it that time around. Which makes me want to hear it again, and makes me wonder what we don’t get to hear most of the time when we hear new music. Maybe it’s blippety blopity music because that’s the best performance we ever get, not because that’s what the composer had in mind.

Two more pieces to go. And the penultimate performance was of Australian Alex Pozniak’s new work for solo cello, Mercurial, although a work less like Mercury I can hardly conceive of. Although that, I suppose, might come down to one’s perception of mercury (as much as anything else). Gartner has a distinctive physical style, an inimitable glumfulness he wears, and with his serious downturned mouth firmly set he took off through the Mercurial score. I won’t pretend: it’s not my thing; interesting, but for me failing to connect to anything in my daily or interior life.  Apart from that, it was a substantial work running a gamut of cellistic expressions and intentions, but three weeks on I really can’t remember anything beyond a technical ennui.

But the last work really did get my attention. Two Sides by the curious Fabian Svensson was factually named, with the musicians lining up on two sides (marimba, flute [and variants] and violin versus piano, bass clarinet and cello), each side giving a different account of the musical gesture in question – an ascending arc made up of a three-note descending motif; simple and addictive, Seurat for chamber ensemble. I loved it. I want the opening as my ringtone. And the musical gestures still resonate joyously in my memory.

On the other hand, this piece lost its way as it struggled to a conclusion: while the exhilaration of the thing was in the persistence of the motif, the kaleidoscopic treatment didn’t seem to provide a natural end point. The two sides ended up taking their arcs in opposite directions til the instruments ran out of notes, imbuing a sense of inevitability (and interminability) on the final 30 seconds or so of the composition. As much as I want the opening as my ringtone, I want this composition to get a new ending that doesn’t involve the kaleidoscope unwinding and all the bits falling out: when something tastes this good you want the engineering to hold it together til the end.

But I came out of the concert thinking “That’s what I’m talking about” – genuinely new music, being performed by a musicians genuine about making new music. Anything to do with the age of the composers? Maybe. Maybe this was just an excellently programmed event. But I think it also had a lot to do with the performers, who presented this music with glee and intensity and the commitment to play it twice, if that’s what it needed.