An Audience of Performers, Part 2

An Audience of Performers, Part 2

Simply making “good music” in our idiom(s) of choice is not enough, when many people simply may not have the footholds to grasp our intended meanings.

Written By

Isaac Schankler

Last week I talked about how the traditional role of the performer as the interpreter between composer and audience was upended in the 20th century, culminating in the composer becoming a barrier between performer and audience, at least in the estimation of Cornelius Cardew. This was also the crux of a presentation I gave at last week’s Ends of Audience symposium in London, and while I was there I couldn’t resist the temptation to do a small, very unscientific experiment with my audience. The symposium was attended by artists and academics in a variety of fields, with most possessing backgrounds in theatre. In other words, very few had the same kind of musical background as me (or your typical NewMusicBox reader, for that matter). At the beginning of the talk I played this video for the crowd, devoid of any context:

From “On the Edge: Improvisation in Music” (1992)
Some of you may recognize the video as a performance of John Zorn’s Cobra, a game piece for improvising musicians that takes many of its cues from John Cage, Earle Brown, Cardew—those same composers who re-imagined the composer-performer-audience relationship in the past. Like the works of those composers, Cobra is music for musicians first:

My particular thrust in writing the game pieces—as with all of my music—is to engage, inspire and enthrall a group of musicians into doing music that they are excited about, so that that excitement is passed on to the audience. It’s crucial that there’s a close relationship and a dialogue between performer and composer.[i]

I asked the audience if they felt like they understood what was going on in the video, or if they were mystified by it. (This wasn’t a binary; “both” was also a valid option.) Nearly everyone, except 2 or 3 people, admitted to being confused.[ii] Then, near the end of the presentation, I led the audience in an a capella performance of “outlaw”[iii] Cobra, after teaching them a few basic cards and hand gestures. The contrast between the bemusement while watching Cobra and the excitement and enthusiasm while playing Cobra was palpable and even more striking than I had imagined. Suddenly, upon learning the rules and properties of the game, the aura of confusion around the music was dispelled, and became infused with meaning and life.

This little imprecise, impromptu experiment goes a long way towards confirming something I’ve suspected for a long time—that as composers, simply making “good music” in our idiom(s) of choice is not enough, when many people simply may not have the footholds to grasp our intended meanings.

It may be possible to embed some educational information in the music itself, and it’s a new music cliché—I forget where I first heard it—to say that a piece that invents its own rules must first establish those rules for the listener. Mimimalist/process-based music often excels at this (see Andriessen’s Hoketus), which might account for some of its relative popularity, but it also risks becoming exasperatingly didactic (see Andriessen’s Hoketus, again).

In the end, education and cultivating a sense of participation may be the only way forward if we want new music to be a living, self-sustaining art form. We also need good data; what are audiences actually thinking and feeling? Thankfully, this need is at least starting to be acknowledged within academia. At the symposium, I was thrilled to find out about the research efforts of Professor John Sloboda and Dr. Helena Gaunt at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s Understanding Audiences Programme, and I hope others follow their lead.


i. Zorn, John (2004), “The Game Pieces”, in C. Cox, D. Warner, Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, New York: Continuum, p. 197

ii. Granted, the editing of the video adds to this confusion. Within the rules of the game, many of the cards held up by Zorn do not correspond to the actions or sounds produced by the musicians onscreen, giving the impression that the video has been stitched together from unconnected takes.

iii.Zorn has never published Cobra, but allows it to be passed down through oral tradition. However, he is quite adamant that a performance is “official” if and only if he is present, making all other versions of Cobra “outlaw” or “renegade” by default.