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…