Tag: audience

Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Music

People sitting in a restaurant watching a violinist perform center stage

“Something’s wrong!” my mom cried. “My headphones malfunctioned! My video sounds blurry!”

I put on her new, fancy headphones and watched the video. It was the singer in the plaza. It sounded crystal clear. I had been there.

“What do you mean it’s blurry?” I asked.

“There’s a lot of noise! It didn’t sound like that in real life!”

“Um, that’s exactly what it sounded like in real life,” I retorted, frustrated with her imaginary tech issue. My mom looked hurt by my dismissal of her problem. This wasn’t going well.

And then it dawned on me: Perhaps arguing was futile, because we hadn’t heard the same thing in the first place. In real life, my mom had experienced a soulful musician playing her favorite songs amidst an ambient backdrop. I, on the other hand, experienced a cacophonous soundscape of live music plus wind, laughter, chimes, talking, traffic, footsteps, car engines, drive-by radios, overlapping accents, multiple languages, paper cups and plastic spoons colliding with metal trash cans, and more.

Thanks to high-quality headphones, my mom could now hear the noisy background, too. But her rude awakening was my realtime reality, and likely that of many other autistic folks.

Hi again, colleague, I’m glad you’re here. In my last post, “An Open Letter From Your Autistic Colleague,” I referred to the music world’s “unacceptable, overwhelming status quo of autistic inaccessibility,” gave you a primer on autistic etiquette, and introduced this four-part series as a “no-bullshit guide to upping your autistic accessibility game as a musician or arts presenter.” I alluded to my fear of asserting my own needs and declared it time for all arts professionals to improve autistic accessibility in our concerts, rehearsals, and interactions.

Today, I present you with the heart of this series: an organized, actionable reference guide to help you enact a permanent framework for autistic accessibility in your musical efforts. These tips aren’t just for organizations and presenters; they are also for musicians, students, teachers, and other music-adjacent allies. If you are not autistic, consider this required coursework.

The reason I began this post with an anecdote is twofold: 1) It nicely illustrates some of the sensory processing discrepancies between allistic and autistic people, and 2) It prioritizes autistic stories. As a conscientious ally, it is critical to listen to autistic stories, learn about our diverse lived experiences, and consider how our needs may coincide with or differ from your own. Without that context, even the best list of tips couldn’t help you.

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My own guide will be rife with gaps and even contradictory information that another autistic person may not agree with. As I mentioned in the last post, “if you know an autistic person, you know ONE autistic person.” I bring my own set of experiences, identities, and privileges to the table (queer, non-binary, second-generation, biracial person of color, Cambodian, Chinese, and Greek, American citizen, thin, able to drive, sighted, hearing, physically able, financially secure family, elite college education, etc.), and you will have to adjust to your audience’s particular needs. I am not an autism expert; I am merely a student of my own autistic experience.

The Guide:

I came up with the acronym SCALE to help you remember the five main themes in this guide to improving autistic accessibility. You will eventually forget most of the tips, but if you can remember the main themes (SCALE), you may have an easier time filling in the blanks and adding your own points.

S – sensory needs

Sensory needs are one of the most discussed hallmarks of the autistic experience. Many autistic people experience sensory hypersensitivity, resulting in the magnified perception of sound, smell, touch, taste, and other senses. This overstimulation can be not only painful but dangerous, causing disorientation, loss of balance, shutdown, meltdown, and other cognitive or physical impairments. On the flip side, many autistic folks experience hyposensitivity, which may cause us to seek extreme, additional sensory inputs for stimulation.

Given that it is neither practical nor feasible to simultaneously accommodate all autistic sensory needs at the same time, what, then should you do? In my experience, err on the side of reducing sensory input. As the writer of the Autisticality blog says: “It’s worse to have too much input than not enough. If you don’t have enough input, you might be bored, restless, or uncomfortable…In contrast, having too much input can be actively dangerous.”

  • Be conscious of the venue’s lighting, temperature, acoustics, seating, and restrooms. Any of the following could be devastating for an autistic person:
    • Fluorescent lights, strobe lights, very bright or very dim lights.
    • A reverberant, cavernous space, which can make sound bounce off the walls, especially when there’s a crowd or amplified sound. I feel physically sick from being in spaces like this and certainly cannot handle conversation.
    • Restrooms with extremely loud flushes or hand dryers.
    • Loud music, bass, and people. Be mindful of appropriate sound levels.
    • Air conditioning and heating. Not just the temperature but also the noise of the units, the blowing sensation, and the way that impacts the room, sound, and individual seats.
    • While it’s best to provide a scent-free space whenever possible, at least take care not to spray or otherwise adorn the space with scents. If there is a critical, artistic reason to include a scent, make sure guests receive a warning in advance.
  • Specific musical sounds and extended techniques can be jarring for an autistic person—including high-pitched registers (violin, coloratura soprano, etc), harsh static, sound walls, and crunchy attacks. However, I am not advocating for the removal or banning of these sounds in your composition, programming, performing, and classroom efforts! As with everything discussed here, we autistic people do not agree on what bothers us, and removing one thing can be taking away another’s greatest pleasure. As a violinist and 21st-century composer myself, I understand how tricky these needs are to negotiate, and rest assured that you’ll never manage it perfectly. But if you can provide warnings to audience members in advance, that communication can go a long way.
  • Limit competing noise. If we are watching a concert and meant to focus our attention on the performer, be mindful of additional sonic inputs as much as possible. These can distract an autistic person. Examples:
    • Outside conversations
    • Music from other rooms bleeding in
    • Loud A/C, slamming doors
    • Buzzing speakers.
    • The same rule applies to classrooms, meetings, and even social interactions. I have skipped class and left concerts many times due to jarring, competing noise making me anxious.
  • List the potential sensory triggers in advance. If I know one part of the program will be too loud for me, I can step out for that part, rather than suffering in my seat with no way out and possibly experiencing a meltdown.
  • On the flip side, consider offerings things to stoke sensory pleasure! Not only can this increase an autistic person’s enjoyment, but it may also help to soothe us. Stimming is a term used to describe the “self-stimulating” things autistic people do to cope with external stimuli. I recently went to an event that offered fuzzy pipe cleaners and Play-Doh for people to use in their seats as wanted or needed. It was delightful, and certainly helped soothe my anxiety during the intense discussion.

C – cognitive needs, clarity, and communication

Cognitive differences—that is, differences in mental processes that encompass skills like attention, memory, executive functioning, decision making, and awareness—are another predominant marker of the autistic vs. allistic experience. Cognitive needs are tricky to illustrate but still require devoted attention and effort from allies. Because it can be hard or inappropriately taxing for an autistic person to explain why a particular aspect of something is difficult, allistic people are often left to either take our word for it or dismiss it. This puts us in the position of having to prove our impairment or the severity of our need to an allistic gatekeeper. Don’t do that. It’s dehumanizing, embarrassing, and ableist. Never make assumptions about another person’s cognitive needs.

So how can you validate the cognitive needs of autistic people and make your efforts more autistic-friendly? Communication and clarity are your friends! Here are some basics:

  • WE LOVE (and need) DETAILS! Include as many details as you can, whenever you can. This goes for your concert invitations, announcements, and interactions. Information that’s extraneous or obvious to you may be crucial or non-obvious to an autistic person, and clarifying details can help us feel safer.
  • Location: Share not only the address or name of the venue, but also directions, a map, parking instructions (including the cost), directions to the entrance, where the wheelchair-accessible entrance is, and how to find the specific room. The more photos and visual descriptions of the building, entrance, and room you can include, the better.
  • Venue Specifics: Tell us what to expect.
    • Is it wheelchair-accessible, both inside and out? Include whether some parts of the venue are accessible but not others, so folks can plan accordingly. It is incredibly important to communicate this info in advance.
    • Will there be seating for fat people? Couches, benches, and other forms of sturdy, wide, armless seating can be more accommodating for fat people than flimsy fold-up chairs. Note: “fat” is not an insult, but these 11 fat-shaming phrases are. (Source: Nakeisha Campbell for The Body Is Not An Apology blog.)
    • Restrooms: Provide gender-neutral restrooms. If the venue doesn’t have any, write “All-Gender Restroom” on a piece of paper and stick it to the door. Make sure that at least one gender-neutral bathroom is wheelchair accessible. Whatever the bathroom situation is, though, make sure to communicate in advance.
    • Is anything banned, like food, drinks, or selfie sticks? Who can we contact if we need an exception? Will anything be for sale?
  • Basic Protocol: Autistic folks do not always follow the same social conventions as others, nor do we innately understand the same “rules” as allistics. Try to provide any rules, implied rules, guidelines, dress code, and any other relevant information in advance.
    • Examples of less-obvious things to communicate: Expected arrival time, how long parking usually takes, if we’ll be expected to check our coats or take off shoes, if seating is assigned or first-come-first-serve, if we are not supposed to clap between pieces, etc. (You will get better at learning what details are relevant as you practice.)
  • Detailed schedule: For concerts, provide a program or communicate what the run of the show is. Include information about any pre or post-concert talks, break lengths, meet and greets, places for refreshments, etc. If you don’t know at the time of program printing, try offering a separate insert as guests enter.
  • Tell us, for better or for worse: Is this a scent-free space with quiet areas, soft light, moderate temperature, and comfy seating? Great, please let us know in advance! We won’t know about all these good things if you don’t tell us. On the other hand, will there be harsh fluorescent lights? Does the room get hot and stuffy? Is there a part of the concert that gets extremely loud? Then, you must also let us know.
    • Never omit information for fear of people not showing up. Every autistic person has a different concoction of needs and sensitivities, and while the information you share may cause one person to decline, it may cause another to attend. For example, I’m not bothered by most heat, so if I knew an event would get hot, I actually wouldn’t be deterred. But without factual, detailed information, we are left to our own guesswork, and I usually default to expecting the worst and skipping out.
    • Being upfront about both positive and negative details can also help autistic people plan accordingly—i.e. bring earplugs, sunglasses, or dress in layers.
  • A Complex Chain of Steps: Keep in mind that the cognitive processing of autistic people may cause us to consider each event or action as a complicated chain of micro-steps. For me, something as simple as getting a drink of water can send me in a stressful spiral, as I consider the potential aspects of the water, the steps I must navigate in order to get it, the short-term effects of hydration, whether I will bother other guests, whether it will impact my seat comfort or exit time, and more.
  • When in doubt, make an announcement. If there any changes, do your best to communicate. Don’t take any understanding for granted.
  • The cognitive (and sensory) barriers add up. It is not uncommon for autistic people to feel relaxed at the beginning of an event and utterly discombobulated by the end.
  • Check in with us. Autistic folks may not always speak up for themselves, due to hurdles with cognitive processing or fear of drawing negative attention.
  • Just because someone hasn’t complained doesn’t mean you’re being accessible. Many autistic people feel uncomfortable complaining, have trouble explaining their needs, or are used to being brushed off. Moreover, if you haven’t put effort into your autistic accessibility, autistic folks may not have experienced one of your events in the first place.

A – aids, accommodation, and assistance

No event will exist with perfect conditions for every autistic person, but something you can always do to help is provide assistance and aids. The more you know about autistic pain points, the better you will be able to anticipate needs.

  • If the event will be loud or crowded, consider offering disposable earplugs. My music school provided earplug dispensers in all of the classrooms.
  • Whenever you have aids to offer (earplugs, etc.), make sure these are either publicly or very obviously and easily available upon request. You could even try offering them to guests upon entering the building.
  • Designate a space in the venue as a “quiet room,” “escape room,” or “sensory-friendly room.” An autistic person may get overstimulated, anxious, or experience other challenges during a concert, and it would be a relief to have a safe place to take a break.
  • Provide language and communication aids. When screening a video, turn on closed captions. Many autistic people have trouble processing auditory language.
  • If applicable, consider providing name tags — some autistic people struggle with reading and recognizing faces
  • Many theme parks provide attraction and accessibility guides that list rides with sensory warnings, wheelchair accessible areas, baby-changing stations, and more. You could do a similar thing for your events, including gender-neutral bathrooms and other information.
  • Offer (compassionate) personal assistance: Provide and make sure guests know of a compassionate, designated point person they can speak with if they have a concern. If your event can manage, consider having the point person check in with special guests throughout to offer anything or see how they’re doing. To be clear, I am not advocating that organizers visually pick out guests with “probably special needs.” But if someone has designated themselves as needing special assistance, or if they have already sought help at the event, then it may be nice.

L – language

Never underestimate the importance of affirming language. Our words and the mediums we use can signal (explicitly and implicitly) who is welcome in our presence and at our events.

  • Do use affirming language. Autistic, autistic person, on the autistic spectrum, and uses a wheelchair are examples of generally appreciated terms.
  • Avoid ableist language, including: handicapped, handicapable, confined to a wheelchair, crippled, gimp, stupid, dumb, weak, idiot, mentally challenged, mental problems.
  • Avoid the phrase “differently abled.” Your intentions may be good, but many autistic and other disabled folks find it condescending. Unless a disabled person specifically requests otherwise, default to “disabled.”
  • Ensure that you, your materials, announcements, and staff never use derogatory language, whether autism-specific or otherwise. This can immediately signal that your space isn’t aware, safe, or welcoming. But if you use affirming, inclusive language in most areas but aren’t great with autistic language yet, someone like me may give you a chance, as your overall inclusion gives me hope that you are willing to learn.
  • Let go of the slurs and condescending phrases you’ve unknowingly grown used to (as many of us have) and learn affirming alternatives. This post on the Autistic Hoya blog about Ableist Terms and Alternatives is a good place to start on the ableism side of things.
  • As mentioned in the “A” section, provide closed captions and other language aids when screening videos.
  • Explicitly normalize the welcoming of autistic people and behaviors. This may seem small, but it can make a huge impact. It’s one thing to privately do things to make autistic folks feel safe, but if an autistic person feels like a secret exception in the larger context, it can be alienating. Example: If you have a sensory-friendly room available, tell everyone, and don’t make it awkward. Instead of saying “We have a sensory-friendly room available for guests with autism or other people in need of escaping this concert [insert audience chuckles], but seriously, most of the concert will be fine, unless you’re really sensitive,” try “We have a sensory-friendly room available in the back of this hall, which includes beanbags, toys, and quiet space. If you’d like to go in at any point, just go straight there, and a volunteer in a red vest will provide any assistance.”

E – expression and embodiment

One aspect of autism that cannot be erased is our unique way of embodied expression. As mentioned earlier, stimming is a natural response to emotions and other stimuli. It manifests in infinite ways, including waving arms, flapping hands, pacing, spinning, clapping, rubbing things, repeating words over and over, making noises, wiggling eyebrows up and down, and more.

Unfortunately, many autistic people are taught that their stimming is unacceptable, either explicitly (via behavior-changing “therapies,” admonishments, being teased,) or implicitly (being praised for “normal” behavior, etc.). This results in massive amounts of shame among some autistic individuals. The irony is, stimming is far from unhealthy, and stifling an autistic person’s ability to stim can actively harm us or lead us to meltdown. Stimming is a beautiful thing, as long as it’s not harming anyone else, and we often use it to show excitement or cope with stress, negative emotions, cognitive dissonance, and sensory discomforts.

To accept an autistic person, you must accept stimming.

But it goes without saying: It is not always possible to encourage all forms of stimming simultaneously at every event. There will have to be some balance and negotiation. Here are some ideas:

  • Can you allow areas for freer motion? Consider designating spaces for this, if not already available. The sensory-friendly room could be such a place. If your event is outdoors, or if it is casual, stimming should be acceptable regardless.
  • Consider holding a special, dedicated event for autistic folks that includes ample space to move freely.
    • This is NOT a substitute for making your regular events more accessible. In fact, many autistic people prefer to attend the general events.
    • Many organizations already hold sensory-friendly events, but most of them are tailored toward children. While this is certainly valuable, keep in mind that autistic adults want welcoming programming too. When every “autism-friendly” concert, event, or activity is for kids, it sends a message that 1. You don’t see autistic adults or validate our existence, 2. We should have grown out of it, or 3. You don’t think we are monetizable.
  • Do not ban or draw attention to specific behaviors that you may consider unusual, distracting, or rude. Not everyone will like this, but I do not recommend banning cell phones, fidget spinners, notebooks, or other things like that. If you do so, you may be removing a person’s accessibility aid, stimming aid, or self-soothing mechanism.
  • Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that you absolutely must allow jumping jacks and cell phone use in the front row of your audience or classroom. After all, what would you do if an autistic person’s front-row jumping jacks were causing sensory distress for another autistic person? Point is, needs and civilities are a constant negotiation, and it will never be perfect. However, I’m willing to bet that autistic folks compensate and negotiate on behalf of neurotypical and allistic folks significantly more than the other way around. I highly recommend reading Nick Walker’s Guiding Principles for a Course on Autism post on his Neurocosmopolitanism blog for further ideas on how to negotiate a variety of conflicting needs.

Recap:

S – sensory needs
C – cognitive needs and communication
A – aids, accommodation, and assistance
L – language
E – expression and embodiment

I hope this guide points you in the right direction as you develop your framework for autistic accessibility. But it is far from complete. Though I spent over fifty hours drafting this guide and incorporated both my own experiences and those of various peers, online friends, and blogs, I am still coming across experiences I left out, glossed over, or contradicted.

So colleagues, please promise me the following:

  1. That you will continue listening to a diverse range of autistic experiences.
  2. That you will humbly accept critique from autistic people without being defensive.
  3. That you will start somewhere. I do not expect you to immediately apply everything tomorrow. Don’t let that stop you from taking small steps, starting conversations, and paving the way for future accessible possibilities.
  4. That you will apply this guide not only to your music world but also to the other aspects of your life.
  5. That you will send this guide to your collaborators, co-workers, teachers, peers, and/or anyone else whom you think needs to read it.

Really, please share, and most of all, please use this.

Come back for Part 3 next week, in which I will do a Q&A and troubleshoot case studies.

PS: If you share this guide and have the energy, I would appreciate credit! I’m Chrysanthe Tan (@chrysanthetan), and you are reading this on NewMusicBox (@NewMusicBox).

An Open Letter From Your Autistic Colleague

A sideways photo of an audience in a concert hall

Musicians, arts administrators, colleagues: It’s time we talk about autism.

No, we’re not talking about autism charity efforts, nor once-a-year concerts for autistic children, and goodness, no, not inspirational stories. Autistic people exist at all ages, all times of the year, and in rather ordinary aspects of life. We’re everywhere: We are fellow musicians, collaborators, and artists. We are enthusiastic audience members, patrons, and guests. And so it’s time you adapted a permanent framework for improving autistic accessibility in your concerts, rehearsals, and other music organization efforts.

Allow me to introduce myself: I’m Chrysanthe Tan, a real-life, autistic violinist, composer, and recording artist, and in my near-decade of working in many music spheres, I’ve noticed an unacceptable, overwhelming status quo of autistic inaccessibility. I have sat through rehearsals while on the verge of vomiting from sensory discomfort, cradled my head and rocked back and forth in my chair when rooms got too loud, and skipped many concerts due to the panicked embarrassment of not knowing attire or protocol.

While certainly upsetting, unfortunate, and uncomfortable, the lack of autistic awareness in the music world is not intentional, nor is it purposely aggressive. I know this. Ironically, that makes it even harder for me to discuss it with people. I don’t want to be too accusatory, don’t want to cause misinterpretation, don’t want to deal with defensiveness, and definitely don’t want to feel bad for requesting fairer access. It’s a whole thing. But the time has come.

I’m ready, and you’re ready too.

Over the next few weeks, I will be laying out a compassionate, no-bullshit guide to upping your autistic accessibility game as a musician or arts presenter. This information — separated into four parts — is geared toward anyone who works in or otherwise takes part in the making or presentation of music. This includes students, teachers, administrators, conductors, soloists, ensembles, producers, contractors, classical artists, pop musicians, and, well, you get the point. The information presented will be applicable to numerous contexts. It will help you increase your understanding of autistic colleagues and concertgoers–hopefully in a way that enables you to make better future judgment calls. The information will be actionable.

Here’s what to expect in this four-part series:

  • Part 1 (this post): This article serves as the introduction to the column and includes a basic primer on autism and how to treat autistic people. Having these basics down will make it easier to internalize the information in the following three parts. We only have this short time together, so it’s off to the races!
  • Part 2: Master Guide to Improving Autistic Accessibility in Concerts (and rehearsal spaces). I’ll tell you what autistic-friendly considerations to keep in mind, give pointers making event invitations more accessible, and cite things to avoid in your planning. I’ll also offer tips on making collaborative spaces and relationships more autistic-welcoming.
  • Part 3: Q&A and Case Studies – In this post, I will answer specific questions pertaining to autistic accessibility in music spaces. Thus, I’ll need your questions in advance — by March 10! Please take advantage of this opportunity to ask nitty gritty, embarrassing questions and even submit detailed examples of what autistic accessibility questions you’re struggling with. Should you choose an indoor or outdoor venue? Assigned or unassigned seating? Is your event invitation missing any crucial information for autistic people? I look forward to answering and helping to troubleshoot these questions. NewMusicBox has kindly set up this form, which you can use to anonymously submit.
  • Part 4: Pro-Tips and Sample Scripts – This last post will be filled with ideas for how to be a more powerful advocate for autistic people. I’ll also include sample language for more inclusive programs, invitations, emails, interactions, and more.

A Primer on Autism and Autistic People

You’ll want to familiarize yourself with these terms and concepts before reading the rest of the series.

  1. Autism is a neurological, developmental, and pervasive way of being that can manifest in a variety of ways, including but not limited to: sensory sensitivity, communication impairments, atypical social skills, and atypical information processing and learning styles. Autism is generally referred to as a disability or disorder, though some autistics prefer not to identify it as such. Selective use of the “disabled” term is also common, depending on the context and company.
  2. Allistic refers to a person without autism. It can be used as a noun (i.e. an allistic) or an adjective (i.e. allistic people). Some people use the word neurotypical to mean the same thing, though allistic is more precise these days.
  3. Autistic Person vs. Person with Autism – You’ve probably noticed that I’ve referred to “autistic people” rather than “people with autism.” While there’s no hard and fast rule on this, autistic self-advocates tend to favor identity-first language (i.e. “autistic person”) over person-first language (i.e. “person with autism.” Calling someone a “person with autism” distances the person from the identity, implying a separation between the individual and the disability. However, many autistics consider their autism an important part of their identity and wish to embrace it in the same way that I also call myself Cambodian, Greek, and queer. If you’re truly not sure what label to use with a person, you may also default to “person on the autism spectrum.” But when in doubt, simply ask the person, and always use what they desire for themselves. You can read more about identity-first vs. person-first semantics on Lydia X.Z. Brown’s Autistic Hoya blog.
  4. Don’t brush it under the rug! – If you have an autistic friend, family member, or colleague, your instinct may be to politely ignore their autism, not treat the person any differently, and offer seemingly comforting phrases like “I see past your disability,” “Your condition doesn’t define you,” and “I hardly even notice your autism.” However, for many autistic people — myself included — this can be harmful, as it reinforces the internalized shame autistic people have learned. If you’re awkward about my autism, I’m awkward about it in turn. And if you claim not to “see it,” then I wonder if you are in denial, whether you accept me despite rather than wholeheartedly including my autism, or whether I’m inconveniencing you if I dare bring up the “A” word or state my special needs. It sucks. Please don’t default to this unless your autistic colleague or loved one specifically tells you not to acknowledge it.
  5. Autistic people are *not* the same as “everyone else” – Forget what you learned in elementary school; we are not all the same. Yes, we are all human beings who deserve love and respect, but autistic people do have unique needs and often do need special accommodations that allistic people must learn about. Acknowledging our different realities isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it can help you learn how to interact with us better, deepen our relationships with you, and increase our comfort and accessibility.
  6. Autism vs. Asperger Syndrome – A lot of people wonder if these are the same thing. Truth is, it’s confusing, so here’s the quick sum-up: Asperger syndrome used to be in the DSM-IV as a diagnosis nearly identical to autism, except with “no clinically significant delay in development of language.” In 2013, the DSM-5 removed Asperger syndrome and introduced autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a unified umbrella term to include all of the various autistic disorders instead. Thus, a person diagnosed with Asperger syndrome pre-2013 would simply be diagnosed with autism today. Because many people originally diagnosed with Asperger’s choose to maintain their given label (as is their right), it is still common to hear the Asperger label today. This whole terminology hullaballoo is quite controversial in the autism community.
  7. If you know an autistic person, you know ONE autistic person. Autism is a big spectrum, and no two presentations of it are exactly alike. One autistic person’s biggest impairment may be another’s greatest skill. Moreover, the popular media representations of autistic people tend to favor a shockingly limited set of looks and behaviors (think the main characters in Rain Man, Atypical, or The Good Doctor). All of these examples portray white, cis, straight young men. It wasn’t until more recently that professionals started to notice the signs of autism in girls and non-binary people; turns out, we often have more hidden or subtle characteristics, potentially as a result of more intense social pressures growing up. To top it all off, autistic people tend toward extremes, which often lie in direct opposition to those of other autistic individuals. For example, some autistic people are incredibly sensitive to the cold, while others cannot stand heat.

This is where I shall stop, for now. Thank you for sticking with me and for making a commitment to improving autistic accessibility in your music world. Next week, we’re getting right down to the specifics.

But in the meantime, here’s what I need from you: As I mentioned above, Part 3 in this series will be a Q&A with your submitted questions and conundrums. Thus, I need your questions! The deadline to submit is Sunday, March 10, and you can do so anonymously by using this form or by sending an email directly to survey@newmusicusa.org. The more context you can provide about your situation, organization, or concert, the better!

This Is Why Your Audience Building Fails

How do we increase the audience for new music? This is a never-ending debate, but virtually all of the standard answers assume that we need to be more inclusive, breaking down barriers for newcomers. From “people should be allowed to clap between movements” to “our next concert celebrates the work of composers from Latin America,” the common thread is evangelical: if we make the culture of new music welcoming to a broader range of people, new audiences will be won over by the universal artistic truth of our music.

This attitude is more or less unique to new music. Sure, every struggling indie band wants to play to larger houses, but the default boundaries of the audience are predefined, usually along class or ethnic lines. Country music has never seriously attempted to break into the African-American market (despite some important black roots). Norteño music does not worry about its lack of Asian American artists. Arcade Fire has probably never tried to partner with the AARP. Even Christian rock, which is fundamentally about evangelism, flips the relationship around: music to spread belief, versus belief to spread music.

So why do we put inclusivity at the center of our audience building? I suspect it is largely a reaction to our upper-class heritage: after all, our genre wouldn’t exist without the 19th-century bourgeoisie and 20th-century academia. Through openness, we hope to convince people that we’re really not that stuffy, that our music can have a meaningful place in people’s lives even if they aren’t conservatory-trained musicians or white upper-middle-class professionals.

Greater inclusivity isn’t an audience-building strategy—it’s an audience-building outcome. For most musical genres, it is the exclusivity of the community that is the selling point.

Working toward greater diversity in new music is necessary and right. The problem is that we’re putting the cart before the horse. Greater inclusivity isn’t an audience-building strategy—it’s an audience-building outcome. Making inclusivity the focus of strategy actually hurts our efforts. All we do is muddle classical music exceptionalism with easily disproven assumptions about musical taste, in the process blinkering ourselves to certain truths about how people use music in pretty much any other context.

And what do we get for our efforts? The same small audiences of mostly white, highly educated music connoisseurs. If we truly want to cultivate both meaningful growth and meaningful diversity in new music audiences, we need to take a step back and examine how people choose the music they listen to.

Communities and Outsiders

For the vast majority of people, music is—whether for better or worse—strongly connected to tribalism. It’s sometimes hard for us to see this as musicians because we treat sounds and genres the way a chef explores varietals and cuisines, each with unique properties that can be appreciated on their own merits.

Yet very few non-musicians relate to music in this way. Usually, musical taste is intertwined with how the listener sees him- or herself in the world. People choose their music the same way they choose their favorite sports teams or their political affiliations: as a reflection of who they want to be, the beliefs they hold, where they feel they belong, and the people they associate with.

In other words, musical taste is about community building—an inclusive activity. But whenever you build a community, you also implicitly decide who isn’t welcome. Those boundaries are actually the thing that defines the community. We see this clearly in variations in average tastes along racial or ethnic lines, but it’s just as important elsewhere: comparing grey-haired orchestra donors to bluegrass festival attendees, or teenagers to their parents, for example.

For most musical genres, it is the exclusivity of the community that is the selling point. Early punk musicians weren’t trying to welcome pop music fans—they actively ridiculed them. Similarly, nobody involved in the ‘90s rave scene would have suggested toning down the bold fashion choices, drug culture, and extreme event durations in order to make the genre more accessible.

Or consider the R&B family of genres: soul, funk, Motown, hip-hop, old-school, contemporary, etcetera. These are the most popular genres in the African-American community, at least partially because these genres are theirs. They made this music, for themselves, to address the unique experiences of being black in America. Sure, other people can (and do) enjoy it, make it, and transform it to their purposes. But only because everyone acknowledges that this is fundamentally black music. When Keny Arkana raps about the struggles of the poor in Marseilles, we don’t hear the legacy of Édith Piaf or Georges Brassens or modern French pop stars. We don’t hear the Argentine roots of her parents or other South American musical traditions. What we hear is an African-American genre performed in French translation.

The video for Keny Arkana’s “La Rage,” clearly influenced by African-American music videos.

In contrast, when genres get co-opted, like rock ‘n’ roll was, like EDM was, they lose their original communities. When we hear Skrillex, we think white college kids, bro-y sales reps, or mainstream festivals like Coachella—not the queer and black house DJs from Chicago and Detroit who pioneered EDM. Similarly, when we hear Nirvana or the Grateful Dead, we don’t hear the legacy of Chuck Berry or Little Richard. As exclusivity disappears, the music ceases to be a signifier for the original group, and that group moves on to something else. Community trumps genre every time.

Expanding the Circle

Things aren’t completely that clear cut, of course. There are black opera singers, white rappers, farmers who hate country music, grandmothers who like (and perform) death metal, and suburban American teenagers who would rather listen to Alcione than Taylor Swift. In addition, a lot of people like many kinds of music, or prefer specific music in certain contexts. We thus need a portrait of musical taste that goes beyond the neolithic sense of tribalism.

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The first point to note is that communities of taste, like other communities, are not mutually exclusive. There are friends you would go to the gym with, friends you’d invite over for dinner, work friends you only see at the office, and so on. Some of these groups might overlap, but they don’t need to.

Similarly with music, there is music you’d listen to in the car, music you’d make an effort to see live, dinner music, workout music, wedding music, and millions of other combinations. Again, sometimes the music for one context overlaps with another, but it doesn’t necessarily need to. As such, while people make musical taste decisions based on tribe, we all belong to many overlapping tribes, some of which use different music depending on the context.

Film is one of the clearest examples of this contextual taste at work. Why is it, for instance, that most people don’t bat an eyelash when film scores use dissonant, contemporary sounds? Because for many people, their predominant association with orchestral music is film. As I’ve written before, when uninitiated audiences describe new music with comments like “it sounds like a horror movie,” they’re not wrong: for many, that’s the only place they’ve heard these sounds. Film is where this type of music has a place in their lives, and they hear atonality as an “appropriate” musical vocabulary for the context.

In addition, film gives us—by design—a bird’s-eye view into other communities, both real and imaginary. It’s a fundamentally voyeuristic, out-of-tribe medium. We as an audience expect what we hear to be coherent with the characters on the screen or the story being told, not necessarily with our own tribal affiliations. Sure, we definitely have communities of taste when it comes to choosing which films and TV shows we watch. But once we’re watching something, we suspend our musical tastes for the sake of the narrative.

Thus, when the scenario is “generic background music,” film offers something in line with our broad societal expectations of what is appropriate for the moment—usually orchestral tropes or synthy minimalism. However, when the music is part of the story, or part of a character’s development, or otherwise meant to be a foreground element, there’s a bewildering variety of choices. From Bernard Herrmann’s memorable Hitchcock scores, to Seu Jorge’s Brazilian-inspired David Bowie covers in The Life Aquatic, to Raphael Saadiq’s “all West Coast” R&B scoring of HBO’s Insecure—anything is possible as long as it makes sense for the taste-world of the narrative.

Dealing with Outliers

Lots of people have tastes that deviate from societal norms and tribal defaults, including (obviously) most of us in new music.

All that aside, we still need to explain the outliers: the death metal grandma, the young American Brazilophile, the black opera singer… Lots of people have tastes that deviate from societal norms and tribal defaults, including (obviously) most of us in new music.

In a case like the suburban teenager, it might be as simple as curiosity and the thrill of exoticism. But when we turn to examples like the black opera singer, things get more complicated. Making a career in European classical music is incredibly hard, no matter where your ancestors come from. But black people in America also face structural challenges like systemic racism and the high cost of a good classical music education in a country where the average black family has only one-thirteenth the net worth of the average white family. Making a career in music is never easy, and it doesn’t get any easier when you try to do it outside of your tribe’s genre defaults. Yet despite the challenges, there are clearly many black musicians who have persevered and made careers for themselves in classical music. Why did they choose this path through music?

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The standard explanation leans on exceptionalism: classical music is a special, universal art form that has transcended racial lines to become a shared heritage of humanity, so of course it will be attractive to black people, too. That doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, though. Rock ‘n’ roll is at least as universal. If it weren’t, Elvis Presley wouldn’t have been able to appropriate and popularize it among white Americans, and rock-based American pop wouldn’t have inspired localized versions in basically every other country in the world.

Jazz also has a stronger claim at universalism than classical music. Multiracial from its beginnings, incorporating both black and white music and musicians, then gradually broadening its reach to meaningfully include Latin American traditions and the 20th-century avant-garde—if there is any musical tradition that can claim to have transcended tribal barriers, it is jazz, not classical music. No, musical exceptionalism is not the answer.

Maybe this is an affirmative action success story then? I doubt that’s the whole explanation. Black Americans have been involved in classical music at least since the birth of the nation—a time when slavery was legal, diversity was considered detrimental to society, and polite society thought freedmen, poor rural hillbillies, and “clay eaters” were a sub-human caste of waste people not capable of culture. That environment makes for some strong barriers to overcome, and to what benefit? It would be one thing if there were no alternatives, but there have always been deep, rich African-American musical traditions—arguably deeper and richer than those of white Americans, who mostly copied Europeans until recent decades (after which they copied black Americans instead).

I asked a handful of black classical musicians for their perspectives, and their answers shed some light. Their paths through music varied, but everyone had mentors who encouraged their passion for classical music at key stages, whether a family member, a private instructor, a school teacher, or someone else. In addition, they all got deeply involved in classical music at a young age, before they had the maturity and self-awareness to fully comprehend how racism might play a role in their careers. By the time they were cognizant of these challenges, classical music was already a big part of who they were. They felt compelled to find their place within it.

W. Kamau Bell recently shared a similar story about his path into comedy in this Atlantic video.

These anecdotes provide a partial answer, but we still don’t know where the initial inspiration comes from, that generative spark that leads to an interest in a specific instrument or type of music. For example, cellist Seth Parker Woods tells me that he picked the cello because he saw it in a movie when he was five. Something about the cello and the music it made struck him powerfully enough that a couple of years later, when everyone was picking their instrument at school (he attended an arts-focused school in Houston), he thought of the movie and went straight to the cello. To this day, he remembers the film and the specific scene that inspired him. I was similarly drawn to percussion at a young age, begging my parents for a drumset, acquiescing to their bargain that “you have to do three years of piano lessons first,” and then demanding my drums as soon as I got home from the last lesson of the third year.

Nature or Nurture

There is something fundamental within certain people that leads us to specific instruments or types of music. And thanks to science, we now know pretty conclusively that part of the reason for this is genetic, although we don’t yet know a whole lot about the mechanics involved.

Now, before we go further, let’s be very clear about what genetics doesn’t do. It doesn’t preordain us biologically to become musicians, and it doesn’t say anything about differences in musical preference or ability between genders or ethnic groups. Simplistic mischaracterizations of that sort have been responsible for lots of evil in the world, and I don’t want to add to that ignominious tradition. What genetics does do, however, is provide a plausible theory for some of the musical outliers. It’s that extra nudge in what is otherwise a predominantly cultural story.

A major contributor to our understanding of music genetics is the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart. Started in the late 1970s and still going today, it has tracked thousands of sets of twins who were separated at birth and raised without knowledge of each other. The goal of the study and similar ongoing efforts is to identify factors that are likely to have a genetic component. Since identical twins have identical genomes, we can rule out non-genetic factors by looking at twins who have been raised in completely different social and environmental situations.

Most twin-study findings relate to physical traits and susceptibility to disease, but the list of personality traits with a genetic component is truly jaw-dropping: the kinds of music a person finds inspiring, how likely someone is to be religious, whether s/he leans conservative or liberal, even what names a person prefers for their children and pets.

And we’re not talking about, “Oh hey, these two boomers both like classic rock, must be genetics!” No, the degree of specificity is down to the level of separated twins having the same obscure favorite songs, or the same favorite symphonies and same favorite movements within those. In the case of naming, there are multiple instances of separated twins giving their kids or pets the same exact names. Moreover, it’s not just one twin pair here and there, the occurrence of these personality overlaps is frequent enough to be statistically significant. (For more in-depth reading, I recommend Siddhartha Mukherjee’s fascinating history of genetic research.)

It would seem that our genome has a fairly powerful influence on our musical tastes. That said, the key word here is influence—scientists talk about penetrance and probability in genetics. It’s unlikely that composers have a specific gene that encodes for enjoying angular, atonal melodies. However, some combination of genes makes us more or less likely to be attracted to certain types of musical experiences, to a greater or lesser degree. That combination can act as a thumb on the scale, either reinforcing or undermining the stimuli we get from the world around us and the pressures of tribal selection.

The genetics of sexual orientation and gender identity are much better understood than those of musical taste, and we can use those to deduce what is likely going on with our musical outliers. Researchers have now definitively located gene combinations that control for sexual orientation and gender, measured their correlation in human populations, and used those insights to create gay and trans mice in the lab, on demand. In other words, science has conclusively put to rest the nonsense that LGBTQ individuals somehow “choose” to be the way they are. Variations in sexual orientation and gender identity are normal, natural, and a fundamental part of the mammalian genome, just like variations in hair color and body shape.

When it comes to homosexuality in men, the expression of a single gene called Xq28 plays the determining role in many (though not all) cases. When it comes to being trans, however, there is no single gene that dominates. Rather, a wide range of genes that control many traits can, in concert, create a spectrum of trans or nonbinary gender identities. This makes for a blurry continuum that might potentially explain everything from otherwise-cis tomboys and girly men to completely non-gender-conforming individuals and all others in between.

When it comes to the genetics of musical taste, we’re likely to be facing something similar to the trans situation, in that individuals are predisposed both toward a stronger or weaker passion for music and a more or less specific sense of what kind of musical sounds they crave. All professional musicians clearly have a greater than average predisposition for music, since nobody becomes a composer or bassoonist because they think it’s an easy way to earn a living. Likewise, certain people will be drawn strongly enough to specific sounds that they’re willing to look outside of their tribal defaults, both as listeners and performers.

Let’s reiterate, however, that genetics plays second fiddle. One hundred years ago, classical music enjoyed a much broader base of support than it does today, which suggests that tribalism is the bigger motivating factor by far. If things were otherwise, after all, musical tastes would be largely unchanging over the centuries, and I wouldn’t need to write this article.

musical-taste-diagram

A theory of musical taste

Mason Bates’s Mercury Soul

Enough with the theorizing. Let’s turn to two specific new music events that make sense when viewed through a tribalist lens. Both are events that I attended here in San Francisco over the past year or so, and both were explicitly designed to draw new crowds to new music.

Mason Bates’s Mercury Soul series is at one end of the spectrum. Taking place at San Francisco nightclubs, the Mercury Soul format is an evening of DJ sets interspersed with live performance by classical and new music ensembles, all curated by Mason. These types of crossover concerts were instrumental to his early career successes and led to a number of commissions, many with a similar genre fusion twist. He is now one of the most performed living American composers.

A promo video for Mercury Soul.

When Mason’s work comes up in conversation, there is often reference to blending genres, breaking down barriers, and building audiences for new music. Yet Mercury Soul is a textbook example of the evangelical trope: bringing classical music into the nightclub with the assumption that clubbers will be won over by the inherent artistic truth of our music. Given the arguments presented above, you can see that I might be skeptical.

Let’s start with even just getting into the venue. As I was paying for admission, I witnessed a group of 20-somethings in clubbing apparel peer in with confused looks. Once the bouncer explained what was happening, they left abruptly. People come to nightclubs to dance, so when these clubbers saw that the context of the nightclub was going to be taken over by some kind of classical music thing, their reaction was, “Let’s go somewhere else.” Maybe they thought the concept was weird or off-putting. Or maybe they didn’t really get it. Or maybe they thought it was a cool idea but they just wanted to go dancing that night. It doesn’t really matter, because if you can’t get them in the door, you’re not building audiences.

Wandering into the venue, I saw something I’ve never seen at a nightclub before: multiple groups of grey-haired seniors milling around. Of the younger crowd, many were people I know from the Bay Area new music scene. There were obviously attendees who were there because they were regulars, but more than half the room of what looked like 200-300 people were clearly there either for Mason or one of the ensembles who were playing.

The evening unfolded as a kind of call and response between Mason’s DJing and performances by the ensembles, often amplified. During the live music segments, people stood and watched. During the electronic music segments, they mostly did the same. People did dance, but the floor remained tame by clubbing standards, and the lengthy transitional sections between DJing and instrumentalists gave the evening a feeling of always waiting for the next thing to happen. The DJ portion lacked the non-stop, trance-inducing relentlessness that I loved back in my youthful clubbing days, yet the live music portion felt small in comparison—and low-fidelity, as it was coming through house speakers designed for recorded music. As is often the case with fusion, both experiences were diluted for the sake of putting them together. The end result didn’t feel like audiences coming together, it felt more like classical music colonizing another genre’s space.

That was my experience, but maybe it was just me? I attempted to interview Mason to get his take on the impact of Mercury Soul, but we weren’t able to coordinate schedules. However, in speaking to people who have been involved as performers, what I experienced was typical. Mercury Soul has gotten some positive buzz from the classical music press, but reactions from the non-classical press have been tepid at best, and interest in the project remains firmly rooted within traditional new music circles.

Communities of musical taste are not particularly concerned with what the actual music is, so why couldn’t a community develop around genre mashups in a nightclub?

To be fair, this doesn’t imply that the concept is doomed to failure. I could certainly see Mercury Soul evolving into a unique musical experience that has appeal beyond the simple act of genre fusion. As I’ve argued above, communities of musical taste are not particularly concerned with what the actual music is, so why couldn’t a community develop around genre mashups in a nightclub?

In other words, the music is not Mercury Soul’s problem. Rather, the problem is that Mercury Soul hasn’t tried to foster a community. Instead, it makes all the standard assumptions about audience building, which means that, best case scenario, members of the taste communities being thrown together might perceive the experience as an odd curiosity worth checking out once or twice. In the end, therefore, Mercury Soul’s true community is neither clubbers nor new music aficionados—it’s arts administrators and philanthropists desperate to attract younger audiences.

SoundBox

In contrast, let’s look at the San Francisco Symphony’s (SFS) SoundBox series. These events take place in one of the rehearsal rooms at Davies Symphony Hall, which is converted into a sort of warehouse party space, with multiple elevated stages, video projection screens, lounge-style seating, and a bar. The entrance is from a small rehearsal door on the back side of the building, and the room is not used for any other public performances, so everyone who is there has to come specifically for SoundBox. Initially, SFS also made a conscious decision to omit its brand entirely from the events, so most attendees were not aware of the SFS connection before they arrived.

Each program is curated by a prominent musician, many composers among them, and the repertoire is almost entirely new music, performed acoustically (or with live electronics) from a stage, as it normally would be, and accompanied by custom video projections. The performers are drawn from the SFS roster, and they present multiple short sets throughout the evening. During the sets, people sit or stand quietly and listen to the music. The rest of the time, they mill about, chat, and get drinks from the bar. When I went, there were about a dozen or two of my colleagues from the new music scene present, but the rest were people I didn’t recognize, most of them in their 20s and 30s.

Two thirds of SoundBox attendees are new each time, the vast majority are under 40, and very few are SFS subscribers.

In terms of reception, SoundBox could not be more successful. There are two performances of each show, with a maximum capacity of 400 people per evening. I spoke with a friend who works for the Symphony, and he told me that SoundBox always sells out—in one case, within 20 minutes of the tickets going on sale. And this with no marketing budget: low-cost online promotions and word of mouth are the only way they promote the events. Two thirds of SoundBox attendees are new each time, the vast majority are under 40, and very few are SFS subscribers.

Contrast the messaging of SoundBox’s promo video to that of Mercury Soul.

Unlike Mercury Soul, SoundBox starts out by defining a community: it’s a place for culturally inclined music lovers to discover new, stimulating experiences. SoundBox then presents its music as a sort of rare gem worth expending a bit of effort to unravel, in the same way a winery might offer guided tastings of rare vintages. As a result, the event ends up feeling exclusive and mysterious, as if you are part of an elite group of in-the-know art connoisseurs. Whereas so many new music events give off the desperate air of trying too hard to be cool—“Look, we perform in jeans! We don’t mind if you clap between movements!”—SoundBox doesn’t have to try. It just is cool, appealing to the same type of confident cosmopolitanism that has allowed modern art museums to draw enthusiastic crowds far in excess of most new music events.

Despite its successes in building new music audiences, however, SoundBox has failed to meet SFS’s objectives—ironically, for the same reasons as Mercury Soul. The Symphony wants SoundBox to be a sort of gateway drug, encouraging a younger crowd to attend its regular programming. Yet despite an aggressive push to market to SoundBox attendees, my contact tells me there has been virtually zero crossover from SoundBox to SFS’s other programs. To further complicate things, SoundBox is a big money loser. An audience of 800 people paying $45/ticket and buying drinks seems like a new music dream, but it doesn’t pencil out against the Symphony’s union labor commitments, which were negotiated with a much bigger orchestral venue in mind.

This is not a failure on a musical level, but it is a failure in SFS’s understanding of audience building. SoundBox met a strong and untapped demand for a sophisticated, unconventional musical experience, and it created a community of musical taste around it, quite by accident. But it’s a different community from that of the orchestral subscriber, focused on different repertoire, different people, and a different experience. The fact that it is presented by SFS is inconsequential.

It’s more than a bit ridiculous to assume that the same people who come to hear Meredith Monk in a warehouse space will be automagically attracted to a Wednesday night concert subscription of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart.

To recap, then, Mercury Soul fails to encourage 20-something clubbers to seek out new music because it doesn’t create a community of taste. On the other hand, SoundBox does create a community of taste, but it’s one that is interested in coming to hear Ashley Fure or Meredith Monk in a warehouse space. More importantly, it’s a community that has no preconceptions about how this music is supposed to fit into their lives, which allows them to deal with it on its own terms. With that context in mind, it’s more than a bit ridiculous to assume that those same people will be automagically attracted to a Wednesday night concert subscription of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart. That is a music most SoundBox attendees associate with their grandparent’s generation, performed in a venue that has strong pre-existing associations that don’t help.

Lessons Learned

We live at a time that is not especially attuned to musical creativity. All the energy spent on audience building is a reaction to that. I have a couple of friends who are professional chefs, working in our era of widespread interest in culinary innovation. When I ask them about the SF restaurant scene, they complain that too many chefs chase fame, recognition, and Michelin stars instead of developing a unique artistic voice.

As a composer, I only wish we had that problem. Yet the situation was reversed in the mid-20th century, when works like Ligeti’s Poème symphonique could get reviews in Time Magazine but culinary culture was being taken over by TV dinners, fast food, artificial flavoring, processed ingredients, and industrialized agriculture.

Whatever the reasons for the subsequent shift, our task is to find ways to bring musical creativity back to the mainstream. Looking at the problem through the lens of communities of taste offers some insights into what we might do better:

Community Before Music

People will always prioritize their taste communities ahead of your artistic innovation. That means you either need to work within an existing community, or you need to fill a need for a new community that people have been craving.

The first solution is how innovation happens in most pop genres: musicians build careers on more mainstream tastes, and some of the more successful among them eventually push the artistic envelope.

With new music, this doesn’t really work. On the one hand, the classical canon is not an ever-changing collection of new hit songs but rather an ossified catalog of standard works. On the other, the more premiere-focused world of new music is a small community—that’s the problem to begin with.

So we are left with finding untapped needs and creating new communities around them. SoundBox proves that this is possible. It’s up to us to be creative enough to uncover the solutions that work in other contexts.

Forget Universalism

Despite my critiques of classical music exceptionalism, there are good reasons why new music should endeavor to become a truly post-tribal, universal genre. Those reasons have little to do with the music itself and everything to do with the people making it.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of new music is that we attract an extremely diverse range of practitioners who are interested in synthesizing the world’s musical creativity and pushing its boundaries. What better context in which to develop a music that can engage people on an intertribal level?

That said, this is not our audience-building strategy, it’s the outcome. The way we get to universalism is to create exclusive taste communities that gradually change people’s relationships with sound. First we get them excited about the community, then we guide the community toward deeper listening.

This is similar to what is known about how to reduce racial bias in individuals. Tactics like shaming racists or extolling the virtues of diversity don’t work and can even further entrench racist attitudes in some cases. However, social science research shows that a racist’s heart can be changed on the long-term by having a meaningful, one-on-one conversation with a minority about that person’s individual experiences of racism. By the same token, to get to an inclusive, universal new music, first we need to get people to connect with our music on the personal level through exclusive taste communities that they feel a kinship with.

The MAYA Principle

Problems similar to new music’s lack of audience have been solved in the past. Famed 20th-century industrial designer Raymond Loewy provides a potential way forward through his concept of MAYA: “most advanced yet acceptable”. Loewy became famous for radically transforming the look of American industrial design, yet he was successful not just because he had good ideas, but rather because he knew how to get people warmed up to them.

One of the most famous examples is how he changed the look of trains. The locomotives of the 19th-century were not very aerodynamic, and they needed to be updated to keep up with technological advancements elsewhere in train design. In the 1930s, he began pitching ideas similar to the sleek train designs we know today, but these were very poorly received. People thought they looked too weird, and manufacturers weren’t willing to take a chance on them.

Therefore, he started creating hybrid models that resembled what people knew but with a couple of novel features added. These were successful, and he eventually transitioned back to his original concept, bit by bit, over a period of years. By that time, people had gotten used to the intermediary versions and were totally fine with his original. He repeated this process many times in his career and coined MAYA to describe it.

I think the accessibility movement in classical music has been one of the biggest arts marketing disasters of all time.

What I like most about MAYA is that the last letter stands for acceptable, not accessible. I think the accessibility movement in classical music has been one of the biggest arts marketing disasters of all time. It gives nobody what they want, dilutes the value of what we offer, and associates our music with unpleasant experiences.

Loewy got it right with acceptable. He was willing to challenge his audiences, but he realized that they needed some guidance to grapple with the concepts he was presenting. We in new music similarly need to provide guidance. That doesn’t mean we dumb down the art, it means we help people understand it, in manageable doses, while gradually bringing them deeper.

Hard is not Bad

Often in new music we are afraid to ask our audiences to push themselves. That’s a mistake. People like meaningful experiences that they have to work for. The trick is convincing them to expend the effort in the first place.

To get there, we start with the advice above: build communities, then guide people into greater depth using MAYA techniques. Miles Davis’s career illustrates this process beautifully. He didn’t start out playing hour-long, freeform trumpet solos through a wah-wah pedal; he started out identifying the need for a taste community that wasn’t bebop and wasn’t the schlocky commercialism of the big band scene. This led him toward cool jazz, where he developed a musical voice that propelled him to stardom.

After Miles had won over his community, however, he didn’t stop exploring. He expected the audience to grow along with him, and many of them did. Sure, plenty of jazz fans were critical of Miles’s forays into fusion and atonality, but he was still pulling enough of a crowd to book stadium shows. There’s no reason new music can’t do the same, but we have to be unapologetic about the artistic value of our music and demand that audiences rise to meet it.

Define Boundaries

Since new music is trying to build audiences that transcend racial and class boundaries, we need to be super clear about who we’re making music for and who we aren’t. “This music is for everybody” is not a real answer. We must explicitly exclude groups of people in order to be successful community-makers. It is my sincere hope, however, that we can find ways to be effectively exclusive without resorting to toxic historical divisions along racial and class lines.

Here’s one potential example, among many, of how that could work. I’ve argued before that the “eat your vegetables” approach to programming is dumb. There is rarely any good reason to sandwich an orchestral premiere between a Mozart symphony and a Tchaikovsky concerto. Conservative classical audiences don’t gradually come to love these new works, they just get annoyed at being tricked into sitting through a “weird” contemporary piece. New music audiences for their part are forced to sit through standard rep that they may not be particularly passionate about. Nor does this schizophrenic setup help build any new audiences—you have to be invested on one side or the other for the experience to make any sense to begin with.

So instead of trying to lump all this music together, a new music presenter might decide that audiences for common practice period music are fundamentally not the same as those drawn to Stockhausen or Glass or premieres by local composers. Armed with that definition, the presenter might then choose to create an event that would be repulsive to most orchestra subscribers but appealing to someone else, using that point of exclusion as a selling point. Thus, an exclusive community of taste is created, but without appealing to racism or other corrosive base impulses.


Big-picture questions like how people develop musical taste tend to get glossed over because they are so nebulous. But that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.

To close, I want to say a brief word about my motivations for writing this piece. Even though this is a fairly lengthy article, I’ve obviously only scratched the surface. The writing process was also lengthy and convoluted, dealing as we are with such a broad and opaque issue, and at many points I wondered if it was even possible to say something meaningful without a book-length narrative. Yet I feel that this subject is something we collectively need to wrap our heads around.

Big-picture questions like how people develop musical taste tend to get glossed over because they are so nebulous. But that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. As musicians and presenters, we make decisions based on theories of musical taste every day, whether or not we articulate our beliefs. Taste is, in a sense, the musical equivalent of macroeconomics: hard to pin down, but the foundation of everything else we do.

My hope with this piece is that we can start talking about these issues more openly, drop some of the empty rhetoric, and stop spinning our wheels on the dysfunctional approaches of the last 40 or 50 years. Paying lip service to inclusivity is not enough. If you’ve read this far, then chances are you believe like I do that new music offers the world something unique that is worth sharing as broadly as possible. We desperately need to get better at sharing it.

Building Audiences for Post-Genre Artists

Over the past two weeks, I have outlined a post-genre framework for characterizing music and posed questions that I have been grappling with in my own thinking. In my first post, my focus was on language and how we could realistically create a cohesive vocabulary to describe and discuss music in the absence of genre-based terms. In my second post, I dug into the role of listeners and how their pre-existing associations surrounding genre may or may not confound post-genre thinking. With these questions in mind, what I am left wondering about the most is how to build audiences for post-genre artists.

The main issue regarding audience-building centers around sources of funding. While conducting research on a vocal group called Roomful of Teeth this past summer, I was able to discuss this issue at length with Bill Brittelle. Brittelle, a strong proponent of post-genre thinking, is a commissioned composer for Roomful of Teeth and a co-founder of New Amsterdam Records.

There are a number of similarities between the music I have explored in my research by composers such as Brittelle and Missy Mazzoli, who are often lumped into the “classical” category, and the music that I listen to outside of my research, much of which is lumped into the “indie” or “alternative” category. One of my favorite bands, Dirty Projectors, comes to mind as a group that is unafraid to make new sounds and experiment with their music-making in a way that I connect with the music of some of my favorite “new music” composers. The difference between them, aside from the genre that their music is labeled under, lies in the way that it’s monetized. In our conversation, Brittelle described the following scenario:

We’ve talked about this a lot at New Amsterdam. There are two separate worlds of monetization, and there are these cliffs around what is monetized through the commercial marketplace versus what is monetized through the nonprofit world. Everything I do is essentially supported by a nonprofit. Anytime I’m presented at a performing arts center or I’m commissioned, there’s a nonprofit source somewhere back there. But let’s take David Longstreth [of Dirty Projectors] as another example—almost everything he does is supported by some kind of commercial entity. The volume of people he’s able to reach is very different because of that network.

We discussed his frustration that while post-genre music existing on the nonprofit model often struggles to find its audience, equally innovative and experimental bands are able to develop devoted audiences on the commercial model. He described it like this:

We look at the music and it’s not that different. I analyzed “Useful Chamber” by Dirty Projectors in a post-genre class that I taught. It’s an incredible piece of composed music, but it also has to do with the way that it lives out in the world and who it reaches through commercial channels instead of nonprofit channels.

Would shifting the way that post-genre music is funded actually build its listener base?

So not only does genre-based language mislead listeners about post-genre music, but it also affects how the music itself is monetized and thus how artists make their living and find their audiences. This presents a double loss for composers of post-genre music that are assigned a “classical” label, as the system of monetization they are engaged with may not be the right option for their music. The connection between systems of monetization and audience-building has to do with the types of people who engage with the music being funded by the two systems. Part of it may have to do with age; the nonprofit system is a donor-based model, and older people are typically the people with the money. The commercial model is based more on consumption, which is arguably more relevant to younger audiences. These two groups are on opposite ends of the age spectrum. But it also certainly has to do with the network and the types of publicity that result depending on which system of monetization the music is placed under. When it comes to the type of music that Brittelle is writing, much of which draws on synthesizers and drum machines, the ideal audience would likely be those listening to more commercially produced music that also draws on these types of sounds, rather than the types of audiences that read the classical music section of The New York Times and frequently attend performances put on by nonprofit organizations like opera houses and symphony orchestras. Therefore, perhaps a way to build audiences for music like Brittelle’s is to shift it over to a for-profit commercial system of monetization. The network that this would provide him and his music, along with the base of listeners that would be more accessible as a result, would certainly be beneficial. But then the questions become: How do we go about taking genre out of the way music is monetized? And moreover, would shifting the way that post-genre music is funded actually build its listener base?

We have already seen that this is a difficult shift to make. New Amsterdam Records, founded by Brittelle, Judd Greenstein, and Sarah Kirkland Snider, has aimed to do essentially this. They founded a record label whose aim was to promote classically trained musicians who fall between traditional genre boundaries on a for-profit model. An article in the Wall Street Journal last year described how, despite creating a much-needed outlet for post-genre music, operating on a for-profit model has proved to be difficult. A record that sells well for New Amsterdam will still only sell around 5,000 copies, which they explained is barely enough to cover the cost of production.

NewAm Founders

New Amsterdam Co-Founders Judd Greenstein, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and Bill Brittelle.

While the minimal monetary success that New Amsterdam has had despite the switch to a for-profit model is discouraging, I believe that it does not mean that such an operation will not be more widely successful in the future. This issue is intrinsically tied to genre being central in musical criticism and promotion; even if the music that New Amsterdam is pumping out is accessible and innovative and could potentially appeal to a large number of listeners throughout the world, the fact that many of its recorded artists are still tied into the “classical” label to some degree will still deter people from listening and hinder efforts to create opportunities for post-genre artists to build their audiences and lead more sustainable lifestyles. Thus, the process of finding a fitting place for post-genre music and artists will be a multi-step process. Once we are able to create a cohesive language and fully understand how to discuss music in the absence of genre-based language, we can begin to shift the way that music is promoted and critiqued. Once the shift occurs in music promotion and critique, I hope that post-genre thinking will slowly begin to spread to audiences and listeners. And once this way of thinking about music gains some traction, I hope that listeners will begin to explore the music that they would have separated themselves from back when we labeled it as “classical.” These shifts could create the draw that post-genre composers need to build their audiences and create a fully successful for-profit post-genre label.

An Open Response to “… But I Hate Modern Music”

Cartoon of bolts striking a reddened ear

As a composer, performer, and lover of almost every stripe of music, I feel it’s important that “…But I Hate Modern Music,” the recent article by Maia Jasper White that was published in NewMusicBox, receive a thorough and thoughtful response.

As a composer I rely on the good will and enthusiasm of musicians such as Jasper White for the effective performance of my music. As a performer, I sit in the same ensembles, and I most certainly am part of the same audiences. Perhaps this is why I was so disappointed by the dismissive tone of her article, and I feel compelled to set the record at least a bit straighter, from a composer’s point of view.

So first off, let’s talk about the opening disclaimer that all art is subjective. All art is definitely NOT subjective. For example, the stick figure drawings of a two-year-old may be heartwarming and worthy of a spot on the fridge, but we can all objectively agree on their relative quality and value within a very narrow range. When art reaches a high level of professional accomplishment that requires peer review for funding and curation for its production, the objective measures are very often already in place.

What the article refers to in terms of subjectivity isn’t actually a matter of taste. It’s a matter of expectation. When it comes to art and artistic renderings, there is, unfortunately, often a disconnect between what an artist is presenting and what an audience believes their price of admission is buying. For example, I once knew a very lovely and open-minded army veteran who loathed hearing pop artists sing the national anthem. Yes, he even hated Whitney Houston’s Super Bowl version—and he otherwise loved Whitney Houston’s singing. He hated her rendition because he believed the purpose of singing the national anthem before sporting events was so that we could all take a moment to collectively show our respect for our country. In his mind, Whitney was showing disrespect through her (in his mind) self-serving reinterpretation of the song. There was nothing subjective when considering the quality of the performance, only in the expectation of the way it should serve its audience.

As for the further disclaimer that art is too often shielded from criticism, it’s off base even in its sarcasm. While I do believe that art—through its attempt to reflect and challenge the norms of our culture and society, to express the inner working of the mind, and to inspire contemplation in those who engage with it—does hold intrinsic value, I’ve never experienced or even witnessed that aura of social value sparing it from criticism. Note that within the article I’m responding to here, the author confesses that she walked out on the performance she was attending. Criticism of contemporary art is alive and well and thriving in the hearts of every person who engages with it. Isn’t that half the fun? Isn’t that, at least in some part, the point? When you go to the movies, you don’t walk home talking about the weather; you dissect your experience. Sometimes ruthlessly. Sometimes you walk out. When you walk out, you can blame the filmmaker for letting you down, or you can kick yourself for not having gone to Rotten Tomatoes to see what the critics and other audience members thought, for not watching the trailer ahead of time, for not having checked out what your favorite reviewer thought, maybe even checking out other films by the same director, screenwriter, lead actors, etc.

I simply don’t believe that the author is attempting to soothe the collective consciences of concertgoers who have been traumatized by their new music experiences. No, there is no hostage taking being perpetrated by composers today.

Here’s why I don’t believe it: while the author claims to “love and respect” composition, and to be a champion of contemporary music, the entirety of the article is an explication of what a single concert programmer expects contemporary music to do for her. Remember what I wrote above about expectations?  I do not think that’s what a champion of art does.

Champions of art seek connections. They seek connections between themselves and the artists, between the work of those artists and other works they’ve experienced, between the works of art and the lives of their constituents, between the motivations of the artist and the world in which we live. A champion of art is a translator, a cheerleader, an ambassador, a confidante, and sometimes a guru. A champion feels an obligation equally to the constituents who have placed their trust in them, and to the composers who they are ushering to the ears of the public. At least from what I can infer from this article, the model being presented is not of a new music champion.

When the author writes about bearing the brunt of concertgoers’ complaints toward contemporary offerings, she seems to be blaming composers for putting her in the awkward position of having a career as a professional performer. When she brushes off her parents’ negative response as a fact of human nature, she makes the concept of swaying their opinions seem akin to climbing Mt. Everest. In fact it’s much more liking visiting the summit of Mt. Washington. Yes the climb can be taxing, but there’s a road that goes up the back side of the mountain, in case you’d rather drive.

Remember what I said about being a champion of new music in the previous paragraph?  When people seek you out with negative opinions, champions of new music don’t take it as a complaint. They take it as a plea for your ambassadorial acumen. They don’t want their confusion to be validated—and if they do, that’s not your job, thank you very much. They want their confusion to be alleviated. Give them a map for the road up the back side of the mountain. Hell, ride along with them.

Champions of living artists are indeed an endangered species. We have far too few models. There is no critical mass of new music champions inspiring a next generation of impresarios, patrons, and yes, musician/curators to take up the torch.

To that end, it’s not helpful to acknowledge experiences with new music ranging from “profound to insufferable” without examining deeply what it is that creates that distinction for a given listener. It’s not helpful to deflect one’s own responsibility for that experience or especially to simply imply that…. what? All music should be pretty? That concertgoers are incapable of new experiences? Perpetuating false stereotypes (“grant money and music critics favor the avant-garde”) further confuses what ought to be a deep sense of responsibility for our community as a vibrant incubator of art with a fortitude and integrity to rival any other time in musical history.

Hyperbole? I don’t think so. It’s been my experience that over the past 15 years or so there’s been a dramatic shift in both the number and quality of submissions that grant panels are asked to review. Earlier in my career 100 composer submissions would in many cases have been considered an extraordinary number for a panel to review. They would be heard by a panel of 3-5 members and 10-12 of those submissions could be expected to be competitive. New Music USA now empanels 30-50 members of our professional community twice a year, just to be able to handle the immense number of submissions they receive. And even a cursory review of the funded projects will speak to the quality of the work being produced.

I’ve sat on any number of these panels and have never experienced a style-based bias deep enough to effect the outcome of the selections. The avant-garde (however we’re defining that term here) is favored when it represents the highest quality submission with the clearest and most distinctive voice. Period.

I’m not going to respond directly to the article’s review of a single illustrative concert experience, other than to point out that the composer seems not to have misrepresented the type of meditative experience being presented. Didn’t he deserve an informed, open-minded audience, capable of being in their seats ahead of time and in an appropriate frame of mind?  As I detailed above, I prepare at least this thoroughly to go to the movies. Don’t we owe our living composers more than that?

My purpose here is not to disparage the author of the article. It’s to point out the sometimes-destructive disconnect between those who would represent the broader community of professional musicians and the music of living composers, and the reality of our endeavors as artists. To that end, one last point. Jasper White presents her contention that there’s an “avant-gardist’s implicit credo” that is both arrogantly self-directed and completely dismissive of all our forebears. Leonard Bernstein is quoted to support the premise. So let me be clear. Leonard Bernstein is dead. The comments quoted from him are 50 years old now and at least 50 years behind the times. No composer of any merit is anything less than expert on the evolution of the craft of the last 300 years that informs our work, even those who come to the conclusion that the creation of new sonic approaches is essential to the expression they seek.

[Deep breath]

Perhaps finally on the last, and most important point of the article, we can agree.

The article finishes with a rejection of the conceit that there are two inevitable options when presenting contemporary music: to acknowledge our preference for “pretty” or “intelligible” music over music that is less so (which is also the preference of the audience); or to present anything that composers write whether we like it or not, honoring their First Amendment rights, and run the risk of forever alienating the audience. Thankfully, we’re in agreement that, of the contrived choices presented, neither feels good. Neither feels good because neither is necessary and neither serves artists, audiences, musicians, or anyone else.

More importantly, we can also agree that the litmus test of inspiration and the excitement of sharing ought to be the goal of the performers when presenting new music. That is, assuming they’re doing their homework. Assuming they truly are intending to be champions of that new music. Assuming they’re willing to be open minded and forward thinking. Assuming they’re truly willing to bring their audience along for the ride, unapologetically and fiercely, with a dedication to communication, and a willingness to find that common human ground that they share with the composer and their audience alike.

…But I Hate Modern Music

Disclaimer: The opinions that follow are my own. I do not wish to offend or belittle those who feel otherwise. Feel free to file what follows under “Truism: All Art Is Subjective,” and read no further. Just bear in mind—that same file tab could read instead: “Cliché: Art’s Alleged Intrinsic Value Spares It From Criticism.”

So you hate modern music. I hate it sometimes, too. The purpose of this post is to validate the discomfort so many listeners feel towards much new music.

My intent is not to descend into gross overgeneralizations. Nor is it to tell you to swallow new music because it’s good for you—like musical cod liver oil. My hope is that this post will give you a sense of the kind of new music I will (and won’t) present as the co-director of a concert series and how I came to that position.

Salastina will always champion contemporary music. This is vital to our art, and a huge part of what we are about. I am a musician precisely because of my love and respect for composition, and my drive to share its beauty with others.

But I really hate modern music sometimes. I hate it not in spite of, but because of, what makes me love music the rest of the time.


THE PRESENTER’S CHALLENGE: WHOM, OR WHAT, DO WE SERVE?

If, while at a museum, you happen upon an offensive or meaningless piece of art, you can just walk away. A live performance, on the other hand, holds you hostage. You can’t walk away until it’s over.

And that’s to say nothing of a unique quality of hearing itself: we never habituate to jarring sounds. Imagine living next door to the construction of a skyscraper. No amount of time and exposure can render the aural assault of a relentless jackhammer into white noise. Ugly wallpaper, on the other hand, recedes from awareness with relative speed.

If, while at a museum, you happen upon an offensive or meaningless piece of art, you can just walk away. A live performance, on the other hand, holds you hostage.

I can’t tell you how many times concert goers approach me and share their distaste for the modern. Even my own parents have avoided our new music concerts. They’ll give excuses like: “We’re going to pass on this one. That’s just not the sort of music we’re interested in.”

While this kind of categoric dismissal disappoints me, I can’t say I don’t get it. For better and for worse, making generalizations and stereotyping is how human beings navigate the world. Suffer through enough incomprehensible new music, and you very well may dismiss the genre altogether.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, an early 20th-century philanthropist, made a case for new music that still carries weight today:

My plan for modern music is not that we should like it, not necessarily that we should even understand it, but that we should exhibit it as a significant human document.

This noble sentiment puts taste and comprehension aside out of a sense of duty to the generation of new art. Many of the orchestras and chamber series in which I make my living adhere to this belief. As a result, I’ve played countless “challenging” pieces over the years. They’ve ranged from profound to insufferable.

Posterity is a far better judge than I could ever hope to be. And Coolidge’s Musical First Amendment is self-evident.

But duty calls me in other ways, too. As a presenter, my primary concern is the audience experience. Seeing to it that audiences understand and are moved by music is precisely what Salastina stands for. If we aren’t communicating something most could find beautiful and meaningful, then what’s the point?

Grant money and music critics favor the avant-garde. Most audiences don’t. Salastina’s answer to this musical double-bind is simple. We only play new music we love and believe in. And if we do decide to take a risk, we hope you’ll trust us.


THE KIND OF THING WE’LL NEVER DO

To illustrate, what follows is an experience I had at a recent concert. (Spoiler Alert: it was mind-bendingly aggravating.)

I don’t want to disparage anyone. Whatever I may think of a particular piece, I respect that a human being poured blood, sweat, and tears into its creation. For these reasons, I will not share specifics.

Several months ago, my husband and I left L.A. for a weekend getaway in a major U.S. cultural center. At our hotel, I happened upon a concert advertisement for a performance by a local contemporary music ensemble. It featured the music of a composer whose name I knew, but whose work I did not. We decided to attend.

Being tourists, we underestimated how much time it would take to Uber to the venue. We were a few minutes late. We tip toed into a warehouse—replete with concrete floors, string lights, and artisanal muffins. This Instagram-worthy backdrop had been designed to attract a crowd that never came.

Because we’d arrived late, we weren’t able to read the programs before the concert began. Blank slates, we had no idea what was up next.

A small string chamber orchestra entered the stage. Each musician began to play a distinct musical gesture. Changes in these gestures were so subtle that they were imperceptible. The chord progression, while pleasant, was static.

Meanwhile, an abstract film played on a screen behind the orchestra. It was clear after a few minutes that this was a slow-moving audio-visual meditation. I was curious to see where this primordial ooze of sound and color might evolve. I admit: I felt a bit of a lift for “getting” something avant-garde. It appealed to my intellectual vanity.

About five minutes in, I began to feel restless. The more mature part of me gently persuaded me to give it a chance.

Twenty static minutes later, my irritation was mounting. If anything in the piece had evolved, it was imperceptible to me. I was beginning to resent the monotony.

All I was left with was the frustration of being gaslit by institutional arrogance.

Twenty tedious minutes after that, my patience was wearing thinner and thinner. My heart bled for the poor cellists. They’d been playing the same pattern over and over again for over 45 minutes. (“Oppress’d so hard they could not stand…Let my people go!“)

Eyes bulging, I looked at my husband. It was clear he shared my feelings. We got up and left after a few more interminable minutes. Thankfully, we were sitting near enough to the back that no one noticed.

During a considerably more entertaining activity (dinner), we read the composer’s program notes. In them, he’d shared something to the effect of:

Throughout history, human art has focused on the dramatic. In this piece, I intend to convey how my emotions change throughout the course of an hour in a more lifelike way.

To pit one’s work against the entirety of art is as pompous as it is absurd. One need not bother making the claim that it is better for it. The comparison alone betrays an important implication: different is better. No wonder the piece was the sonic equivalent of watching paint dry.

The program notes continued:

In the end, my piece is like life. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to go a very short distance.

This is a thoughtful and sobering sentiment. And to be fair, it was far more beautifully stated by the composer in his original program notes. But did it have to become a tedious hour-long sonic experiment? This was pretentious self-indulgence taking cover behind superficial depth. All I was left with was the frustration of being gaslit by institutionalized arrogance.


AN INFINITE VARIETY OF MUSIC

A few months ago, I listened to a fantastic course on iTunes U: Yale’s Introduction to Psychology. One of my favorite lectures was about language. It gave me a new way to make sense of why so much contemporary music communicates nothing meaningful to me.

Inherent to all languages are three fundamentals: phonemes, morphemes, and syntax. Phonemes are the most basic differences between sounds. Morphemes are the smallest units of words that have meaning to us. (If you speak English, you know tens of thousands of them.) And syntax is the structure that strings words together. Thanks to syntax, sequences of words become intelligible thoughts, feelings, and ideas.

All languages contain a finite number of phonemes and morphemes. Likewise, languages are bound by the governing rules of syntax. But within these constraints, the possibility for expression and understanding is endless. This is the miracle of language.

I realized that musical language has its own phonemes, morphemes, and syntax. Phonemes could be timbre, articulation, and dynamic differences. Morphemes could be pitches and chords. Syntax could be the structure that brings meaning to these things. Chord progressions, rhythm, voice leading, counterpoint, form.

Like English, Urdu, and Korean, musical language is limitless. Not in spite of, but because of, the finiteness of its fundamentals.

In An Infinite Variety of Music (1966), Leonard Bernstein writes:

[Music] is abstract to start with; it deals directly with the emotions, through a transparent medium of tones which are unrelated to any representational aspects of living. The only reality these tones can have is form—that is, the precise way in which these tones interconnect… One cannot “abstract” musical tones; on the contrary they have to be given their reality through form…The moment a composer tries to “abstract” musical tones by denying them their tonal implications, he has left the world of communication.

In other words, abstracting music—which is, by definition, already abstract—castrates it. Like language, music relies on form to mean anything to us at all. When overly distorted, all we hear is gibberish.

I have long rejected the avant-gardist’s implicit credo:

Certain building blocks of music have played themselves out. They are no longer meaningful or relevant. Above all else, each artist must create something original for and of himself. Only this is worthy of respect. It doesn’t matter if people don’t understand it.

There’s a lot right and a lot wrong with this. Every artist must be true to himself. To what he wants to share with others. To take what has come before, and run with it.

But to value rugged individualism above communication is to pervert these noble pursuits. Does an author need to invent a new language to tell an original story? Is the organic evolution of any wide-spoken language ever dictated by one person?

Self-anointed visionaries willing to alienate themselves from the vast majority of other people as a point of ideological pride have, by definition, little of interest to share with anyone else.

I do not mean to discourage the beautiful and inevitable flowering of musical language over time. Nothing is static—not the words we use, the notes we play, nor the world in which each resonate. I am simply not convinced that authentic, rich self-expression depends upon the continual invention of a priori languages. Self-anointed visionaries willing to alienate themselves from the vast majority of other people as a point of ideological pride have, by definition, little of interest to share with anyone else.

For better or for worse, we humans have a few immutable aesthetic preferences. Here’s Bernstein:

It can be no mere coincidence that after half a century of radical experiment the best and best-loved works in atonal or 12-tone or serial idioms are those works which seem to have preserved, against all odds, some backdrop of tonality…

It has occasionally occurred to me that music could conceivably exist, some distant day, ultimately detached from tonality…Perhaps we are some day to be freed from the tyranny of time, the dictatorship of the harmonic series. Perhaps. But meanwhile we are still earth-based, earth-bound, far from any Omega point, caught up in such old-fashioned things as human relationships, ideological, international, and interracial strife…

No, we are still earth creatures, still needful of human warmth and the need to communicate among ourselves. For which the Lord be praised. And as long as there is reaching out of one of us to another, there will be the healing comfort of tonal response.

I am not advocating that art music plummet to the lowest common denominator. But why should “accessible” remain a bad word as it pertains to art music? When will a natural preference for beauty and heart not merit condescension?


A PROMISE

A few weeks ago, Salastina’s resident violist Meredith Crawford and I discussed this topic before a performance at the Hollywood Bowl. She expressed the discomfort she feels when contemporary music comes up in conversation with other musicians.

When it comes to taking a stand on contemporary music, we have two choices:

  1. Admit to a preference for “intelligible” or—gasp—“pretty” music, and risk silent derision. Accept the possibility that we are shallow and missing an intellectual chip. Live with icky, ungenerous feelings of contempt for self-indulgent composers. Risk the embarrassment of not appreciating something posterity will know to be genius. Judge ourselves for all of the above.
  2. Overstate our belief in Coolidge’s Musical First Amendment. Accept that in so doing, we are distancing ourselves from the audiences we purport to serve. Live with icky feelings of insincerity, elitism, and fraudulence. Risk the embarrassment of failing to realize that the emperor has no clothes. Judge ourselves for all of the above.

Neither choice feels good. The awkward limbo between them isn’t any better. (Even writing this post was difficult thanks to this polarization, and the awkward spot it puts me in.)

As musicians, all we need to do is ask ourselves: do I feel genuinely inspired by this piece, and excited to share it with others?

Happily, there does exist a bulletproof litmus test. One that transcends both over-generalizations.

Like meeting a person or drinking a glass of wine, meaningful opinions are best made on a case-by-case basis. As musicians, all we need to do is ask ourselves: do I feel genuinely inspired by this piece, and excited to share it with others?

Again, Bernstein:

I wish there were a better word for communication; I mean by it the tenderness we feel when we recognize and share with another human being a deep, unnameable, elusive emotional shape or shade. That is really what a composer is saying in his music: has this ever happened to you? Haven’t you experienced this same tone, insight, shock, anxiety, release? And when you react to (“like”) a piece of music, you are simply replying to the composer, yes…

If we don’t say yes, then no—we won’t make you listen.


Maia Jasper White

Maia Jasper White

Maia Jasper White is a chamber musician, teacher, orchestral and studio musician, and musical entrepreneur. A dedicated teacher, she is on faculty at the Colburn School of Performing Arts and Chapman University. She is a member of the first violin sections of both the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Pacific Symphony, and twice served as concertmaster of the Crested Butte Music Festival in Colorado.

Maia studied English and musicology at Yale, and continued her violin studies at USC and the Paris Conservatory. She is a recent graduate of the Center for Nonprofit Management.

Courting the “Lay” Listener

dating music

I am on a date, and he asks me, “What do you do?” I tell him, and if he is not scared away, we go to my car and I play him select recordings of my music. I am notably vulnerable, and he is just calm. Then, I ask him what he thinks. The reaction is routine.

Whether it’s him, a family member I have not seen in a while, or an old friend from high school, upon hearing my work, they may describe my music as “beautiful” or “relaxing.” These are not bad terms, but my heart cries that they cannot fully digest what I and my collaborators have made—the inspiration, the obsession, the hours of self-doubt, the days of rehearsal, and the anticipation. And what they experience is just, “Mmm.”

Do they hear the intricacies? Do they experience the seduction of a modulation or harmonic parenthesis? Do they feel the tension created by suspension or sense the folding of time created by contrapuntal rhythms or melodic heterophony?

I fear not. They may not have learned how to listen to this genre of music.

Maybe it’s my failure as a composer to be plain enough. It’s conjecture, but they probably listen to music organized by regular beats and loops and jams. Or perhaps, they would appreciate it more deeply if my music were delivered in timbres to which they were accustomed, i.e., electronics.

Declassifying “Classical”

My dates commonly make the comment, “All of my friends that listen to ‘classical’ music, are those who have formally studied music.” And there’s the rub!

It is a little disheartening that everybody, including “classical” musicians, has the need to grasp for terms like “classical,” “concert,” or worse, “art” music. Is there not a tacit air of aristocracy or bourgeoisie to the concert-going community? I know that what I do and with whom I do it are privileges, but our products ought to be more publicly digestible.

“Classical” is a problematic blanket term for Baroque, Renaissance, Romantic, and contemporary music performed by choral, symphonic, wind band, and chamber ensembles. What is more, these classifications are blanket terms in themselves! And, I understand that we credit composers, not “artists,” for creation, but why is there so much compartmentalization?

Overwhelmingly, I prefer music on acoustic media. Of course, it is a matter of taste, and my taste is influenced by classically oriented ears. It is not to say that I do not appreciate more mainstream genres of music, but I certainly have an affinity for artists with some classical background, e.g., Regina Spektor, Sara Bareilles, and the Québecoise Béatrice Martin of Cœur de pirate.

Bridging the Gap

On a personal note, until grad school, my background was predominantly choral and vocal, and my listening was limited. I had only a moderate appreciation for symphonic music. But after a year of orchestration seminar, a semester on the history of orchestral “masterworks,” and a semester on Mozart’s string quartets, my ears were utterly transformed. I discovered colors, layers, and movement that I did not acknowledge before. How had I gone all these years not truly hearing the music?

Very plainly put, this is yet another push for music education as core curriculum because the study of music is fundamentally the study of listening. And we are all missing out when children are neither readily exposed to nor invited to participate in musicmaking.

Two years ago, I met the director of choral activities at the University of Washington, Dr. Geoffrey Boers, when he came to Texas to clinic the All-State Choir, and I was fortunate to hear him speak on choral music programming. He suggested, and I paraphrase, that folk and pop music is in fact contemporary “classical” music—that it is as appropriate for an ensemble to sing an arrangement of the Beatles or Elton John as it is for them to sing Brahms or Britten.

Months later, I attended a choral convention in Seattle, in which his Chamber Choir performed. Their program, themed “Stars,” consisted of works from a variety of eras: a Monteverdi madrigal, a 20th-century avant-garde piece by Ingvar Lidholm, and a contemporary work by Eric Barnum. But the most memorable song was their finale, Boers’s choral arrangement of “Lippy Kids” by the British artist Elbow. The director withdrew from the podium, and the choir, dispersed around the stage, revealed a tenor at the mic and another chorus member at the piano. As their soulful singing built, the choir raised their hands, holding reflective stars, and became a full portrait of the night sky.

The addition of a non-“classical” arrangement was deeply moving. Having witnessed others in tears, I know the singers connected with the listeners. Perhaps the solution we seek is such programming, which offers a fusion of genres to inhabit the same time and space. So, all of us can appreciate the music a little more deeply.

What musicians create serves many purposes, but it is all in vain if we are not genuinely connecting with the listeners. We owe it to ourselves to deepen their listening and to maximize our communication.

New Music and Globalization 4: Archipelagos

Norway islets

Photo by Sigfrid Lundberg, via Flickr.

In this series of posts, I have considered various models of globalization and how they might have influenced, or be read in, the aesthetics and techniques of various contemporary music practices. Having considered hybridization, networks, and flow, I would like to finish in more speculative territory, inspired by the late post-colonial theorist Édouard Glissant.

Born in Martinique in 1928, Glissant was one of the most important and original of Caribbean thinkers. (He died in 2011.) Drawing on the legacy of slavery, the experience of colonialism, and the geography of the Caribbean, he developed a theory of globality that not only celebrated diversity, but also emphasized the inevitable and desirable opacity of human and community interactions. Globality, in Glissant’s terms, was the contemporary experience of the world as “both multiple and single,” distinct from globalization, which he described as “uniformity from below,” driven by “multinationals, standardization, [and] the unchecked ultra-liberalism of world markets.”[1] Such a world prefers unpredictable heterogeneity to homogenizing synthesis.

Glissant refers to the Caribbean archipelago, a melting pot of local cultures within a wider shared identity, as a model for understanding this new global reality. The concept of the archipelago has subsequently been taken up within the visual arts to describe the phenomenon of works or exhibitions that exceed the bounds of a singular presentation. Tim Griffin, art critic and executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen, gives the example of Molly Nesbit, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Utopia Station.[2] Although originating at the Venice Biennale, where it was first shown in 2003, Utopia Station also consisted of interlinked yet isolated presentations that took place around the world and over subsequent years. It is an example, too, of the nomadic practices I mentioned in my previous post—the idea of the archipelago is closely tied to the idea of mobility. Comprised of such numerous iterations, each of them only partial, it was unlikely that any individual (other than the artists themselves) would ever experience the complete Utopia Station, giving the whole a structure comprised of isolated fragments that are not designed to form a complete whole. This, the artists suggest, reflects Glissant’s concept of globality not as a unifying force, but as a marker of plurality and difference that resists standardization and homogenization.

As well as plurality, then, the archipelago concept refers to a world that is too large and too multiple to be comprehended in its entirety. The idea suits the biennial and exhibition structures of the visual arts well, yet a trend within music in the late 20th and early 21st centuries towards works that are similarly large and/or multi-part in scale and form suggests that some of the same concepts are spilling over.[3] Robert Ashley’s operatic cycles (the only comparison in terms of scale I know of to Stockhausen’s much more commonly discussed LICHT cycle) are an example. The seven parts of Perfect Lives—themselves part of a trilogy of opera cycles that also includes the trilogy Atalanta, and the tetralogy Now Eleanor’s Idea—are structured somewhat like an archipelago in that each is self-contained, but also relates to a larger whole. When the New York City-based performance collective Varispeed gave site-specific restagings of Perfect Lives in Brooklyn and Manhattan in 2011, they highlighted this dimension of the work. The cycle’s fundamental unity as a series of TV broadcasts was broken by relocating each episode to a different site around New York, with the associated ruptures in continuity, audience, and so on.[4]

Varispeed’s Perfect Lives adaptation connects its multiple sites along a linear—even narrative—trajectory. As with Utopia Station, the expectation is that few audience members will follow that path from beginning to end, but this does not affect the coherence of the work. Craig Shepard’s On Foot takes the same principle, but puts the journey closer to the heart of the conception. Between July 17 and August 17, 2005, Shepard hiked across Switzerland, walking for between two and nine hours a day for a total of 250 miles. Each day he wrote a new piece, which he performed outdoors at 6 p.m. wherever he was on a pocket trumpet he carried throughout the journey. Shepard’s walk was a wholly personal, private one: there is no expectation with a work like this of any continuous audience, even between two consecutive days’ pieces. In this way the world of the work is even more internally fragmented, even as its form as a journey from point A to point B is entirely coherent.[5]

Seth Kim Cohen’s Brevity is a Sol Le Witt (2007) takes the union of time and space one step further. It is described by the composer as “possibly the longest composition ever written for continuous performance by live players.”[6] During a concert, one member of the ensemble must play a single note of their devising. This note is then “transcribed” by another player according to a structured form. A postcard description is also sent to the composer. For the next concert, the previous player of the single note becomes the transcriber, and someone else plays a single note. This process continues until 99 notes have been performed and transcribed. For the 100th concert the transcriptions are to be distributed among the players and then played simultaneously. Built into this fantastically rich concept is a conflation of space and time (as the 99 geographically and temporally distinct notes are compressed into a single performance event) and an acknowledgement of the impossibility of truly knowing the experiences of others through the bureaucratic yet inherently imperfect transcription process. It stands therefore as an ideal, if somewhat abstracted, representation of Glissant’s concept.

Seth Kim Cohen’s Brevity is a Sol Le Witt (2007)

Seth Kim Cohen’s Brevity is a Sol Le Witt (2007): form for transcription.

Lisa Bielawa’s two Airfield Broadcasts work more like geographical archipelagos, with things happening in the same moment but dispersed spatially. The two pieces were written for disused airfields that are now public parks: Tempelhof in Berlin, the site of the Berlin airlift; and Crissy airfield in San Francisco. Each used hundreds of musicians, who moved around the spaces—both of them very large—according to Bielawa’s compositional plan, grouping and re-grouping as subsidiary ensembles throughout the course of the work. Both pieces used audibility, spatial distance, and ensemble coordination as parameters, elements that Bielawa has explored before in smaller site-specific works such as The Right Weather (2003–4), for members of the American Composers Orchestra distributed around Zankel Hall in New York, and Chance Encounter (2007), for 12 musicians in “a transient public space.”

In one section of Tempelhof Broadcast, for example, two groups of ensembles are arranged such that the ensembles within each group can hear one another, but far enough apart that they can’t hear the other group. From onsite experiments Bielawa calculated this distance to be about 250 meters, although this varied depending on the prevailing wind direction and whether the instrumental sounds were high or low. Both parameters extended into her compositional design. Each ensemble group had a lead ensemble, which gave audible cues for when the other ensembles should enter with their material (assigned from a list of possibilities according to the players’ proficiency). Although the two ensemble groups could not hear each other, anyone standing between them could listen to their antiphony, uncoordinated between the two groups. This is where a final ensemble stood, a group of trumpets, which gave a signal to both group leaders for the end of this section. Space, therefore, directly influenced temporal form.[7]

In between such sections, the hundreds of musicians followed Bielawa’s carefully pre-planned choreography, gradually spreading further apart and finally leaving Tempelhof park altogether and continuing to play in the surrounding streets. As they did so, the aural unity of the work gradually dissolved. The composer suggested at the time that one way to listen to the work would be to take to a bike and cycle around the park, like many of its day-to-day users, either following a single ensemble or sampling several in sequence.

Bielawa’s movement plan

Bielawa’s movement plan: Each dot is an ensemble, color coded by type. Screenshot from “Tempelhof Broadcast Animation.”

In all of these examples, our experience of contemporary globality is figured through the balance of the work’s internal heterogeneity and overall wholeness, the relationship between multiplicity and singularity, the diagonal intersection of time and space, and the state of continuous transition between spaces. Few such works can be experienced in their entirety, but that is partly the point; they act as a corrective to our uniquely modern assumption that—given advances in travel, communications, and media technology—we can know the whole world.

***
[1] Édouard Glissant, trans. J. Michael Dash, untitled fragment, part of Les périphériques vous parlent, available at http://www.pointdironie.com/in/31/english/edouard.swf; this quotation at http://www.pointdironie.com/in/31/french/anglais.html. Quoted in Tim Griffin, “Worlds Apart: Contemporary Art, Globalization, and the Rise of Biennials,” Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, ed. Alexander Dumbadze and Suzanne Hudson (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), p. 11.

[2] Griffin, “Worlds Apart,” pp. 11–13.

[3] It may also be found in architecture, in Rem Koolhaas’s notion of “bigness”.

[4] Varispeed’s performances are detailed in Gelsey Bell, “The Story of the Huge Face of an Arrangement: Varispeed’s Adaptation of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives,” Tempo, no.268 (2014), pp. 6–19.

[5] Shepard revived the idea for On Foot: Brooklyn in 2012. Here, however, the walks took place weekly between February and May, and Shepard invited others to walk with him. The relationship between space, time, and reception is therefore different in this case.

[6] See: http://www.kim-cohen.com/projects/brevity_home.html.

[7] Bielawa explains this section in a short video produced as part of the supporting documentation for Tempelhof Broadcast: http://vimeo.com/57372658.

Everything is real. There is no audience.

Mark Titchner - 'EVERYTHING IS REAL, THERE IS NO AUDIENCE', 2010.

Mark Titchner – “EVERYTHING IS REAL, THERE IS NO AUDIENCE,” 2010.

Contrary to annual fundraising-letter wisdom, I do not believe that music is a universal language. The immense variety of musical styles, systems, and genres performed around the world challenge our belief in a universal aesthetic. Do you immediately understand the use of Indian ragas? If you really stop to think about it, do you truly understand the complexity of Brian Ferneyhough’s music?

Music is a learned language, and it is a language that even as composers and musicians we must continue learning in order to stay literate. Even within the European “art” music tradition, can each music student write a fugue for transposing instruments? Furthermore, performing is a learned behavior. The understanding of music written and performed is not gifted to us at birth—otherwise music schools would have a much harder time collecting tuition!
Many in our community might argue, “Even if I don’t understand how to write a fugue, it doesn’t mean that I don’t understand music.” That is where we are making the distinction. Music performance isn’t just for those who understand the mechanics of music composition. Music and performance are relational. The fact is not that one understands the music but rather that one understands how the sounds heard, or produced, or written relate back to us. Music professionals are called to know more and that is why we endeavor to understand more of the language. Why is the sound organized in that fashion? Why does that chord make me feel that way? Performance is for all of us because it is generative not only for our own human capabilities but for our cultural system.

In my series of posts so far, I have argued that music performance is entirely for the performer and then alternately for the audience. What if music performance isn’t an either/or situation but really a both/and? It is both for the performer and the audience. In fact, it is larger than both because it is for the composer, the performer, and the audience member alike. Here’s the best part: the “and.” The act of performance is a special kind of social action—even at its most basic levels.
As Shakespeare’s famous line reminds us, we each have a part to play. When, at the end of a performance the conductor turns to the audience to gush, “You’ve been really great tonight!” I think we’ve all rolled our eyes at some point thinking, “Really?” Yes. You were there. You showed up. You actively listened and thus participated in this dialogue between musician and listener—a dialogue that is an inextricable aspect of the musical performance. You played your part.

The art object by itself is neither art nor non-art: it becomes one or the other only because of the attitudes and feelings of human beings towards it. Art lives in men and women… the processes of sharing become as crucial to the semiotics of music as the sonic product.
—from Music, Culture, and Experience: Selected Papers of John Blacking

We each have a reason for going to a performance. The terror of classical music marketers everywhere is that more audience members forget why they go to these performances in the face of all of their other options. It is true that some people go to a performance quite literally just to be seen. But we must consider the multitude of other reasons. Composers go to hear their musical ideas come to life. Musicians perform on stage to realize the fullest expression of their craft. Listeners go for escapism, for education, and possibly even for epiphany. The fact remains that each person in the performance space has a personal reason to be there. The very reason that performance is both/and instead of either/or is because we are all there to play our own parts.
Finally, there is no truer act of civil society than for all of the parties involved to voluntarily show up to a concert hall and exchange in ideas that are broader than the facts and figures of commerce. Music expresses the experience of individuals in society. Yes, there are examples of music performance bringing about social change. But, on an even more basic level, the act of presenting an idea through the arts that is being actively considered by another listening human is extremely valuable. At a time when polite discourse seems threatened at every turn, musical performance is an event wherein conflicting ideas can be corporately considered. Musical performance is an opportunity for each of us to further shape our own ideas and the society in which we live.

It was absolutely reductive to think of music being solely either for the performer or for the audience. This is a both/and situation because we all get something different out of it. We are all there to play our own parts: performer, listener, and composer. The essential thought of this argument is that there should never be two groups: the music-makers and the listeners. There are simply participants in the musical performance. Everything is real. There is no audience.

The Audience: More Than Money and Applause

Paulnack quote
I don’t want to go it alone. Do you? As I described in my column last week, I prepare for my performances by focusing on serving the music in a pure way instead of worrying how the audience will respond and if they will like me enough. But then, I hit the stage with a stark realization—of course I want to be liked. We are relational. Performance is relational. My performance is incomplete without the audience. You’re about to read the most important advice I’ve received about performing: It’s not about you. It’s about the audience.

If our venues are empty we have failed.

The truth is that I didn’t work myself through two expensive degrees to play to empty rooms and wrap myself in a blanket of integrity. I understand that part of my profession is not just mastering technique, but mastering the art of translating those human emotions and grand ideas that are easily overwhelmed by music that can be obscure, esoteric, and–let’s be honest–sometimes bizarre. As much as we, in the solitary spaces of our practice rooms, can throw ourselves into a piece, we must remember that if the performance hall is as empty as that practice space then we have clearly not achieved connection with our audience. That is our responsibility.

Our audience deserves our respect.

In my experience as a reviewer, one of the biggest mistakes that performers and presenters can make is not respecting their audience. They make it a show all about themselves instead of seeing themselves as a vehicle of interpretation. The new music audience is a highly sophisticated, highly educated community of people who have devoted themselves enough to our field to learn our conventions and who have taken time out of their own work, home, and family schedules to drive to venues that can be as small and out of the way as they can be crowded and grand. Regardless of how harried their day has been, how difficult parking always is, even if they arrive late, or cough during the ppp sub ponticello section, each person attends hoping to experience music as a profound connection to themselves, their past, to an idea, to emotions that are timeless and universal. As a performer, it is our responsibility to trigger that experience. This is why musical performance is and always has been for the audience.
They want experiences that only we can provide them. Tickets sales reflect how popular we and/or the repertoire are, and how well we market our mission for the event. Audience attendance goes beyond applause, gratitude, and money. Performances are not for the audience solely because they pay for tickets. It would still be for the audience if the monetary obligations were fulfilled by other means.

Financial accessibility is not the same as emotional accessibility.

In the current climate of worrying about declining ticket sales, board meetings are rife with the weary cliché that begins “if we just lower ticket prices…” and usually ends with a complaint about the decay of American culture. Wake up. Our audiences don’t need to be lured with free candy to come eat their vegetables. Frankly, if that’s your approach to programming, you’re doing it wrong.
Although certain concert events with their $100+ tickets can definitely be prohibitively expensive for many, the average classical contemporary prices of $10 to $25 are hardly bank-breakers. As I overheard one audience member laughing after a self-indulgent yet totally wooden and robotic show, “I wouldn’t come back for that if they were passing out $100 bills and a pedicure.” Although our community should make our art as accessible as possible, we must remember that being accessible isn’t limited to being financially accessible.

Performance is a holistic experience.

Yes, I know, you didn’t go to Oberlin to calculate wine-per-guest and you didn’t mortgage your life in student loans to worry about how long a bathroom line at intermission will last. But you know what? A little knowledge of catering and adequate restrooms could improve your performance, however, because your audience will be in a position to be more receptive. We want our music to resonate through and reach deeply into the hearts of the audience members, but first we have to make sure that they are well cared for.

We want to focus on our art, of course, and so when it’s possible performers need to know that we can count on the concert organizers.   We need to ask questions and make sure that our audience is being respected by the venue, and request the help of people who we know are good and not work with people we know are bad. And, when you are in charge of the overall performance, you must think about all of these elements. There needs to be some measure of self-regulation in our community and we cannot simply overlook the enjoyment of the audience because we are too busy with the notes and rhythms.
Even though the audience might be uncomfortable because of somebody’s else’s incompetence, we are the ones they are connecting with, we are the ones they are trusting, and we are the ones who they will associate with their bad time. Therefore, it is imperative to think through audience experience from start to finish, which includes the logistical details along with the musical ones.

Next time you attend performances at your favorite venues, seek out things to complain about. Think about the physical amount of space between the performers and the audience. Is that optimal? Think about the heat or air conditioning. Think about the bar. Think about ticket and bathroom lines. Make a mental list of the times that you didn’t feel embraced by the whole venue. Try and remember every criticism and every little remark you hear around you. Put that into your audience experience homework. Then, try opening your next performance by saying, “I made this for you.” How does that change your connection with the audience?

We are servants to the audience; not slaves to their judgments.

Finally, we are performing a service for our audiences. In a recent conversation with devoted new music patrons Larry and Arlene Dunn, Arlene said, “What I think is really important is to get audience members invested. If they’re feeling intellectually invested, emotionally invested, and aesthetically invested, they’re going to be monetarily invested.” The Dunns repeated emphatically that audience members don’t ask or want you to mold yourself to fit what you imagine they might want, that the audience is often more excited by what challenges them than by what they expect or think they want going into a performance. Music patrons—especially new music patrons—understand that they are sometimes going to hear music they don’t like, but they don’t want you to stop doing it—in fact, often quite the opposite. These performances offer your audiences the chance to discover, to become more educated, to have a deeper emotional experience, to transcend everyday existence.

There is a tremendous space to make your interpretation all about you, but that space exists after we have considered with care and generosity the needs of the audience.

Musical performance is for the audience because it is something they need. They seek out these experiences and pay for it with their own earned income. We, as musicians, come to the stage with a performance ready-made for their attention. We are responsible not only to the art but to our audience and their experience. The audience is not only the ticket buyer but a cherished receiver. They are the ultimate beneficiaries of the performance.