Tag: audience

The Performer, the Audience, and the Measure of Success

John Zorn quote
Do we really care if they listen? In new music, we are constantly aware of the criticism that our performances seem to be for a niche participant community rather than for a wider general audience. Well, our little sub rosa is that all performers know that we do it for ourselves—and that is how it should be…at least in part. The audience and series patrons argue that they supply the financial backing that makes our craft possible, and we should not only respect their place in our performance but consider them when making stylistic and programming choices. Does the new music performance belong to the performer, the audience, or both? This series will examine why both points of view, though conflicting, are necessary to uplift the other party and elevate both the artistic achievement and commercial viability of our community.

We are the creators, composers, and interpreters, and as much as we respect the audience and want to immerse them in our creation, the work itself is inherently an intentional act that we are creating and they are consuming. Any comprehensive performing musician enthusiastically promotes the creation of compositions, the displaying of sound in performance, and the experience of the music being made. But, should the attention be paid equally?

As performers, we have devoted our careers to issues of musical virtuosity, technique, the interpretation of the composer’s work, and how the variations of each specific performance expresses different facets of the composition. We have studied the historical, theoretical, and often personal context of the composition’s creation. When I’m performing, I know that everyone in the audience “owns” my instrument—the voice—but they are not there to use it as an instrument, and the vast majority cannot or will not have the ability and training to use it in the way that I am while on stage.

This ability, training, and study are privileges, and while I am honored that I have been entrusted to communicate these ideas, I am also (selfishly) receiving the richest experience of anyone in that venue. Not only do we as performers have the most knowledge of the piece and have often even collaborated in some way with the composer, but we absorb the visceral excitement of the crowd. I get the physical joy of stretching my skills to their utmost—and in new music I have material that is always exciting and challenging.

While performing, I use all of my senses to create an experience that is for myself even more than it is for the audience. When reading the score, I can see the interconnectivity of the musical lines take shape visually while listening to them happen in real time—I watch the act of creation from abstraction to fruition. I use body language to communicate with other performers and understand the communication in their subtle changes. And not only can I see it and hear it, but I have the sensation of making sound in my entire being, from the intake of breath to the internal vibrations to the pursing of my lips. It is physical, it is sensual, and clearly this aspect of the performance is for me.

Of course, this is hardly reserved for singers. In Avant-garde Jazz Musicians: Performing “Out There” by David Such, saxophonist and composer John Zorn describes a similar reaction:

After a performance, some people come up and say it’s very visual…Some people say that they didn’t know what was going on…Everybody gets something different and everybody experiences it in a different way. As far as the audience is concerned, I have nothing to do with them whatsoever when we’re performing…I’m concerned with the music itself.

Zorn isn’t suggesting that we all ignore the audience, but rather that there is a useful separation between his role as an interpreter and the audience’s role as perceivers. If a performer tries to alter his performance to manipulate the audience into a specific and universal response, then he has done a disservice to the music and the individuality of each audience member. Zorn may be discussing avant-garde jazz, but would there be any difference from a broader new music perspective? If we view each performance as being for us and allow the audience the space to create their own reactions, then we can ensure that our role in the performance achieves the performance that is most artistically true to ourselves and to the work.
In this case, there is a strong indication that because the performer gets the most out of the experience, the performance event is a heightened moment in the musician’s life and less so for the audience member.

The problem arrives when we try and measure our success. Being personally satisfied and artistically actualized as a musician does not pay the bills. Tickets sales pay the bills. Commissions pay the bills. The audience’s presence is vital to our ability to continue to program and perform new music. That suggests that parity between the performer’s and audience’s experience is necessary. However, when the performance is for the performer, perhaps the model we use for measuring success changes as well. Enjoying our communion with other performers and staying true to our own vision is delightful, but if it so alienates the audience that we turn off our support base, could it possibly be considered a successful performance?


Megan Ihnen
Mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen is a tireless promoter of contemporary classical music for the voice. She was invited as the only voice fellow to Fifth House Ensemble’s Fresh Inc. program in 2013 as well as at the 2012 Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival at MASS MoCA. She has been a featured soloist at both SICPP (’14) and MusicX (’11). She returns to Graz, Austria in February for IMPULS 2015. Megan is also the author behind the popular classical voice blog, The Sybaritic Singer. She reviews classical music performances and writes about musical entrepreneurship during her “28 Days to Diva” series each February.

Music in a Time of Snapchat: Ephemeral Contexts


Photo by Damien D. via Flickr

Early in the evenin’ just about supper time
Over by the courthouse they’re starting to unwind.
Four kids on the corner trying to bring you up.
Willy picks a tune out and he blows it on the harp.
Down on the corner, out in the street
Willy and the poor boys are playin’.
Bring a nickel, tap your feet.
—“Down on the Corner,” John Fogerty

If Lorde wants us to recognize our desire to be royalty, John Fogerty, I think it’s fair to say, engages with the image of the wandering everyman. Not only is the music of “Willy and the poor boys” the cheapest kind of music to consume—later in the song he refers to paying pennies, which even in 1969 would have been a bargain—but it’s happening outside, at the most ephemeral kind of venue. You don’t wear your ball gown to hear music on the street, and you certainly don’t need to shut up to listen. You don’t get a ticket, and that nickel’s going in a hat.

And yet how many of our listening experiences are truly ephemeral? Is Fogerty’s vision a rare bird in the current musical landscape? Let’s examine disposable music and its settings more closely.
ephemeral music settings
So many fun venues, so many question marks. I consider settings to be ephemeral if they allow for a flexible set-up, places where the experience is changeable, both from day to day and within a given performance. The music may or may not be made in the same area of the room—if there is a room—for every group, and the audience is free to circulate around the space and to talk, sometimes oriented towards the music and sometimes not. These spaces are often functional, the music often occasional.
Weddings might be easy to overlook as musical events, despite the fact that almost every individual who considers herself a musician has played at least one. (In fact, I’d venture to guess that many people earn more from weddings than from new music gigs.) A wedding is one of the few types of events everyone encounters that regularly involves live music, whether it’s the typical Wagner and Mendelssohn (a compositional odd couple if there ever was one) or adaptations of Harry Potter and Star Wars themes. (Yes, I’ve really experienced that.)

So, weddings are ephemeral musical occasions (despite the swarm of cameras aiming to capture the experience for posterity). The other ephemeral spaces might be the most obvious examples, and yet are problematic on close inspection. As far as the listening experience is concerned, places like bars and fairs have the distinct advantage that a spectator can go to the bathroom instead of being confined to her seat while someone wails for four hours about magic jewelry. The current paragon for the ephemeral and everyday is perhaps Le Poisson Rouge, a space in New York City that uniquely embodies flexibility both in its physical layout and in its offerings.

But again, as with the monumental, I’m not confident about most examples of this lower right category. Bars are typically not all that flexible; LPR is the exception. Partly because of how bars are constructed, there’s usually a designated performance and seating area. It can take a large capital investment to create a flexible set-up; at most bars, you’re happy if you encounter a Manhattan bathroom’s worth of performance space. Moreover, I suspect that what many hope to hear at bar concerts is the next big thing; they want to get in on the ground floor of a lasting, valuable, potentially monumental trend. Either that or they want to drink.

Whether an outgrowth of Romanticism or changes in dominant musical venues themselves (from sacred to secular, first of all), attentive, “philosophical” listening reigns hegemonic in the popular conception of musical listening. These ephemeral spaces are not only flexible in their use of space and freedom for the audience; they redefine listening itself. One can still have a valuable musical experience, these venues suggest, while ordering a drink, chewing an hors d’oeuvre, or making conversation. Ironically, listeners in these contexts have just as much in common with pre-19th-century listeners as those in some monumental contexts discussed before: they experience music, like Beethoven’s Serenade or Mozart’s divertimenti—or even operas and masses—as occasional ornament. We often forget, when we bring such works into the concert hall, how fundamentally occasional they were.
It’s possible, then, that the reason why ephemeral spaces are difficult to pinpoint is that they are spaces largely without repertoire. Some of the music originally written to be read (rather than performed) in flexible spaces—Lieder, 18th- and early 19th-century chamber music, a great deal of keyboard music—has disappeared. (When was the last time you heard early Mozart violin sonatas or Zumsteeg songs other than on recordings?) Other repertoire of these spaces has been stolen by the monumental, transplanted to larger, more formal arenas.

While it might not be immediately clear what music, aside from that of Willy’s band and similar, works in a place where your audience might not pay full attention, a number of groups and associated composers have, whether consciously or not, begun to fill this gap. This is a list that many of us know: first, Bang on a Can, then the NOW Ensemble, Victoire, and others.
It’s fair to say that we yearn for more opportunities to enjoy music in these less formal spaces—the critical attention that these groups have gotten implies that kind of yearning at least to me. In order to create these opportunities, we may need to become more comfortable with the non-serious listening associated with those places. Give out crinkly candies at the door, with stern reminders about “no shushing” during the performance. We might just be thanked for our heedless hearing with a more vibrant musical landscape.

Dave Malloy: Singing for His Soul (Not His Supper)

At the composer’s Brooklyn apartment
March 26, 2014—11 a.m.
Interview and video presentation edited and condensed by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Under the gaze of Broadway’s bright lights and imposing marquees, musical theater seems an especially tough game to play in New York City. Yet it also made the elaborate canvas tent erected in an empty lot on 45th Street to house the Off-Broadway production of Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 all the more magical. Here was a show that had beaten the odds without following the rules.

This was actually the show’s third location after a premiere run at Ars Nova and a transfer to the Meatpacking district. Inside, the audience got cozy around communal tables while gawking at the staged Russian cabaret setting, ordered drinks and food, and then sat center stage as the action of the show unfurled all around them. Its composer (who also played Pierre through much of the run) carried us through this story, a sliver of the weighty War and Peace, on rowdy ensemble numbers and heart-breaking sung soliloquies. The borscht was complimentary, but the critics were in love.

I actually first met Malloy not in this fantasy slice of 18th-century Russia, but in a small Ohio town sometime in the late ’90s, both of us financing our summers by playing in the pit orchestra for a production of West Side Story. It made the success he was now enjoying—including a 2013 OBIE Award, a 2013 Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater, and numerous “Best of” listings—personally exciting to see. But I was also curious to find out how the Dave Malloy I had known then, who was composing complicated chamber music for small university audiences, had grown into the performer before me. Dave, still as warm and open as I remembered, told me to come on over.


Molly Sheridan: Even though you took NYC musical theater by storm with Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, you didn’t actually start out as a composer with Broadway dreams, right? I get the impression that your back story is a little more convoluted.
Dave Malloy: I definitely grew up loving musical theater and watching the old films. I remember PBS would show The Music Man twice a year during their pledge drive, so my family would all huddle in front of the TV and watch that. I even did a couple in high school, but I was in the pit orchestra being a jazz pianist. Then, when I went to college, I was a composer, so I was writing serious, academic, classical, avant-garde music. I didn’t touch theater writing in college at all—I did summer stock, but that was just a gig. But looking back on it, I now realize that some of the pieces I was doing had theatrical elements. I was writing chamber pieces that had, like, a live chess game on stage. George Crumb was a big influence for me. A lot of his pieces have these theatrical elements. I did his Voice of the Whale—the performers are all masked and there’s the blue lighting. So I was definitely writing music with theatrical things in mind, but still not thinking about musicals at all.
I didn’t really get involved in theater until I moved to San Francisco and I was working at Amoeba Music, the giant, independent music store there. A colleague had heard that I played keyboard and he needed a keyboard player for some show he was doing at a small black box theater called the Exit Theater. So he asked me to do it, I said sure. I had just moved to San Francisco, so it seemed like a good way to meet some people. And basically through that one show, I made every connection that has brought me to where I am now. From there, I met the artistic directors of Banana Bag & Bodice, who I went on to write Beowulf with. And then Beowulf was seen by the people at Ars Nova and so then Ars Nova commissioned Great Comet. So the lineage all goes back to there.
MS: I was going to ask you about that move to the West Coast and its impact on your career, because the theater you did out there felt very relationship based, almost like a family. If you had come to New York versus going to San Francisco, things might have turned out quite differently.
DM: For sure. The theater scene in New York is so much more compartmentalized in one aspect and institutionalized in another way. I hear about young musical theater composers going through these lab programs and workshop programs and going to school for it. That just wasn’t my career path at all. In San Francisco, it was basically all centered around the San Francisco Fringe Festival, which we really don’t have an equivalent of in New York. The New York Fringe is very scattered, and there’s not really a community that builds around it. The San Francisco Fringe is a very tight-knit community. Or at least it was when I was there. You would do a show, and then people would come see your show, and then they would say, “Oh, I like you. Will you do our next show?” And I would say, “Sure.” When I was starting out in theater, I basically said yes to everything—every show that was offered to me, I said, “Sure, I’ll do that.” And even though some of the shows weren’t quite in line with my aesthetic vision, I was meeting people through that and just making those kind of networking connections. But in a very informal, casual, San Francisco way.
MS: Was there a defining moment when you realized, okay, this is where I’m going to focus as a composer?
DM: There were two of those. When I started out doing theater, I started out doing mostly sound design, and I was writing music for pretty experimental theater pieces. So it was mostly soundscape, electronic stuff, or stuff on piano. Then, little by little, I would write a song. In college when I was composing music, I didn’t really write songs at all. I wrote very much, you know, serious concert music. So I just started writing more and more songs.
The first watershed moment: I was with this theater company called Ten Red Hen, and our first show together was {The 99-Cent} Miss Saigon. We had done this literally zero budget version of Miss Saigon, but very non-ironically—embracing the material and telling the story, but we had a GI Joe [toy] helicopter [for the set]. Then for our next show, the artistic director wanted to do Bible stories through clowns. We started talking more and more that I should write more songs for this, and that was kind of the first time that I said out loud, “Oh, maybe I’ll write a musical.”

Malloy as Job in Clown Bible.

Malloy as Job in Clown Bible.

So Clown Bible was my first proper musical. There had been a couple other shows which could be called musicals, but in a very downtown, experimental theater way. But this was a really proper musical. There was a big first song, and everyone had a showstopper—all that kind of stuff. Then from that, I think that led to getting commissioned to do Beowulf with Shotgun Players. And that was the first big, big show for me. So that was the watershed moment, I would say, from Clown Bible to Beowulf.
MS: You are kind of a jack of all trades: composer, performer, sound designer. I would not be at all surprised to learn you ran the copies of the program at Kinkos right before curtain.
DM: I’ve definitely done that.
MS: That might be the nature of the type of theater that you are doing—when the budget is tight, all skills are on deck. But at this point, are you ready to give some of that multi-tasking away or is it hard to let go of having a hand in so many areas?
DM: It’s been harder and harder to hold onto that. As you start working with larger institutions, the work does get more doled out. One thing I’ve been trying really hard to hold onto is just doing all my own orchestrations, because that is something that is not at all commonplace in musical theater. Pretty much everyone farms out the orchestrations, which to me as a classically trained composer is mind-boggling. I completely object to that because I grew up studying Stravinsky and Bartók, where orchestration is half the battle—that’s where all the juice is. But I think in general, I am very hands on. I run my own website, and I’m constantly talking to the PR people about copy editing things in the blurbs. It’s just my nature. A lot of it is from starting out doing really low budget theater, where yeah, everyone does pitch in. I mean, the very first shows I did, we didn’t even have designers. There were five of us who did the show, and we ran all the lighting design, and all the sound design, and the costume design—we just created it all ourselves. So even that was a shift. There’s a lighting designer. I’m like, “So you just do the lights? Oh, that’s interesting.” When I was first doing theater, I didn’t realize that that was a separate person.
MS: Have you been in a situation where you have had to fight to hold onto the orchestration yet, either because of time or who you were working with, or does the nature of the shows you’re doing mean you can still call the shots?
DM: I haven’t really had to fight, but I have had to justify it. With new commissions when people ask about orchestrations, I’ve had to explain, no, this is something I feel very strongly about. I should be doing this. I think again, because I started out doing really low budget black box theater, I’ve always thought very economically. What is the smallest number of people that I can make this amazing with? So I tend not to think about big, 40-person orchestras, just because I feel like if you can do it with 20 people, that’s more economical, and therefore, better.
MS: Speaking of economy, as you were going through that list of shows, there was Beowulf, Clown Bible, and then we have plotlines about Rasputin and taken from War and Peace. It seems like you’re really attracted to these incredibly complex plotlines.
DM: I can trace that directly to Les Miz, which I totally grew up on and to this day absolutely love and adore. That’s a pretty complicated story—multiple threads, multiple characters. Also, when I was in school, I was a composition major and an English lit major, so I was studying literature and fell in love with Russian novels early on. I do love that complexity in weaving different stories together. I also love classics, things written 200-plus years ago. There’s always that really surprising moment in reading stuff and thinking, “Oh, my god. That’s exactly a thought that I had yesterday!” Just recognizing that the classics are modern in a way.
MS: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is actually based on just a small section of War and Peace, so you could develop other chapters and make it kind of your Ring cycle, but actually you’re now on to Moby Dick. You just can’t seem to let these epics go.
DM: I think Great Comet will be a part of two separate trilogies. So one is the Russian trilogy, which will be Beardo, which was a show about Rasputin, and then Comet, and then I’m doing a show about Rachmaninoff coming up in the spring. Rachmaninoff and hypnosis and how he wrote his second piano concerto under hypnosis. So that’s the first, the Russian trilogy. But then there’s also the great, impossible uber-long novels trilogy, which will be War and Peace, Moby Dick, and Ulysses. Ulysses is way, way down the road. But I’m working on Moby Dick now. I just really love the challenge of taking some mammoth piece of literature that has a bit of a reputation for being something that’s very difficult and that a lot of people are afraid to read, or people lie about reading.
MS: How do you approach a project of such scope? Do you have a “process” or is each project somewhat unique?
DM: In adapting War and Peace, or now I’m adapting Moby Dick, I start with the original text. So starting with Tolstoy, Melville. In both cases I found the complete text online and transferred that all into a Word document and then the writing of the text becomes this gigantic editing process down to an hour or two-hour long musical.

Malloy as Pierre in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Photo by Chad Batka

Malloy as Pierre in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.
Photo by Chad Batka

Then I tend to just think a lot while walking. I take walks in the park and listen to music and just think a lot about theatrical things—what would be a cool theatrical thing to do with this section? I’m definitely thinking of the musicality and the theatricality at the same time. With Comet, it was very clear to me from the beginning that Pierre should be playing accordion, that’s the way that we’re going to know that Pierre is kind of in charge of the evening, and that ultimately it’s going to become his story because he’s the band leader and is kind of welcoming people in as the host. That’s a good example of something being both musical and theatrical. Then I’ll go to either the piano or the laptop. I tend to trade off; if I get stuck, then I move. I’m on the laptop programming beats and improvising on top of those beats, and at the piano, it’s a more traditional, looking for interesting chord changes and melodies and things like that.
MS: How do you deliver the scores to performers? Since you’re probably accommodating a variety of backgrounds and levels of training, are you giving them scores? Handing out recordings?
DM: I typically do both, and the demo always comes first, so if there’s time pressure or if I’m working with people who don’t read music then I know the demo is going be the more important thing to them. So I give a demo to them, and then eventually I’ll start writing out the music.
I definitely find writing out the music to be a bit of a tedious task because I write so improvisationally. A lot of times I’ll sing melodic lines, and then I have the hour of trying to figure out the rhythm of this one two-bar phrase. I’m finding out that I tend to actually write in a lot of polyrhythms, so I tend to write like three against two, and five against two, and seven against four, and that just like naturally comes out when I sing. But then, when I have to actually notate it, it’s quite irritating.
MS: As I was going through the tracks on your website, I definitely noticed that you’re often dancing the audience through much of these shows, to a certain extent.
DM: That kind of came about right after I moved from college to San Francisco. In college I was really absorbed in classical music and jazz and, like, ‘60s pop. And that was it. I actually didn’t know anything that was coming out at that time, so I had no idea what was going on in modern music. Then when I moved to San Francisco, I started working at this record store and just started hearing things that people were playing. That was when I finally started listening to drum and bass music, and that was the first time I heard Radiohead and things like that.
It reawakened in me that I love pop music. I love rock and roll. I love dance music. I love soul. That’s something that’s kind of missing from a lot of classical, avant-garde music—there’s no sense of beat. It’s often very sound scape-y. Here’s some orchestral colors and interesting harmonies, but there’s not that driving sense of something that you can groove to underneath it all. And so that’s when I started to get interested in ideas like, “What if you did take the harmonic language of Schoenberg, but made it dance a little?” So yeah, that’s definitely been a driving force in my music, to keep that dance beat going on.
MS: Your shows have been categorized with labels such as “rock opera” or reviewers make comments about the mayhem and the manic action. Point being, there is a lot of in-your-face energy to these productions.
DM: I think a lot of that comes from just loving the vibe of being at a rock show. And I think San Francisco has a lot to do with it because when I was in my early 20s, I was going to a lot of performances that were kind of coming out of Burning Man—these very communal performances in shitty loft spaces in the Mission, and so people were crammed together and there was very little division between performer and audience. That was something that was always very exciting to me. And I do love that sense of spectacle and the feeling of having some drinks with friends and breaking out into song. All that stuff is very important to me. I hate the experience of going to the theater and being very proper and being quiet and being in the dark. That wall that goes up is not so interesting to me. Sometimes it’s fine, but in terms of what I make, it’s not as interesting.

The audience for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is seated in the middle of the action. Photo by Chad Batka

The audience for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is seated in the middle of the action surrounding Lucas Steele.
Photo by Chad Batka

MS: You seem to devote a lot of time to sitting in the position of the hypothetical audience member. Ars Nova’s artistic director, Jason Eagan, told the Times that’s why he let you run a little wild while developing Comet, because he knew you were carefully considering that at each step.
DM: Right. That’s another theory, that you don’t worry about the audience and that the audience will come to you if it’s honest. Yeah, I totally don’t believe in that. I definitely believe I am there to entertain people. I am creating these shows so that people have a good time when they go out at night. I mean, hopefully they’re also thinking and feeling—so you’re talking about big issues and having cathartic moments. But I feel if something is just purely an intellectual exercise, to me, that’s something I listen to at home on headphones by myself. If I’m going out, I want to have a more communal experience. I’m going out into public for a reason, so I want to be engaging with those people, and that means both the performers and the rest of the audience. So I want to have experiences where I can be smiling at my neighbor and maybe clapping my hands and singing along with them in non-cheesy ways.
MS: There’s a lot of alcohol in your works, both consumed in the shows and present in the lyrics. But also sometimes the audience is served as well.
DM: The alcohol I think just goes back to that communal experience and wanting to have an experience with both the performers and the audience. Alcohol is a social lubricant; it’s why people meet in bars and go to parties and have drinks. I just love breaking that stuffy convention of what the theater is and instead making it more like a bar room, more like a beer hall. I’ve joked, too, that I need to do a show for every alcohol, so Beowulf was a mead and beer show, and then Three Pianos was red wine and Comet was vodka. So actually in the fall, I’m doing a show about bourbon, called Ghost Quartet at the Bushwick Starr, which will be kind of a ghost story involving moonshine and whisky. But yeah, then I’ll have to write a tequila show and a gin show, etcetera, etcetera.

Sharing a drink during Three Pianos. Photo by Ryan Jensen

Sharing a drink during Three Pianos, Malloy with Alec Duffy.
Photo by Ryan Jensen

MS: It’s an awesome show sponsorship opportunity, as well!
DM: Right. We hope so.
MS: Do you have a core group that you always go to when you set to work on a new show at this point—a think tank of sorts? Theater is so complicated, like opera, in that there are so many creative people at the table and those relationships can be complex and challenging, but also really inspirational.
DM: Over the years, I’ve definitely amassed a kind of collective of people that I love working with, the strongest being my director Rachel Chavkin. We are now developing four new shows together. So, she was the director on Comet and also on Three Pianos, and she and I just see so eye to eye on all of these things. And then performers, so many people came through Comet and so many of them were so amazing. So this Ghost show is all with people who are from Comet; they’re like old friends. There’s definitely a community that’s been developing, but it’s a pretty broad range of people that come in and out.
MS: Does it develop a sort of family dynamic then, and you have to go to group therapy with your disagreements?
DM: (laughs) No. I mean, honestly one of the great things about Comet, and I think this is one of the great things about Rachel, as a director, is that Comet was such a loving family. There was such an amazing vibe backstage, and there was not a lot of, or really any drama amongst the cast or amongst the crew. Rachel definitely fosters that—she thinks of her role as director as: I’m in charge of the vibe of this room. I’m in charge of how these people feel towards each other. And so making it a comfortable place for people to work and to be able to be open to each other is her mentality, which I love because I’ve worked with directors who don’t think that way. I’ve worked with directors who really just think about what’s going on on stage, and that’s all they really care about. Then you do get weirdness backstage, and you don’t get that communal sense.
MS: What are the pros and cons of you being the author of the show, but then also one of the principal performers? That seems like it might set up some challenges, a little like the boss being at the party. You’re one of the team, but you’re also running the show.
DM: I definitely try to keep a sense of humor about it. I really do value everyone’s input and feedback at all times. Because I’m not acting like a dictator, I think it tends to work. It’s difficult. If I’m in performer mode, then it’s harder for me to hear what the strings are doing. One thing that was really useful in Comet was we actually had understudies, so during rehearsal I could sit out and listen to things and put my composer hat back on and think, “Oh yeah, I really need to fix that oboe line,” which I wouldn’t necessarily have heard if I was singing at the same time. So that can be a tricky thing to balance for sure.

I think it actually drives my directors crazy, too, because it takes me a while to actually become a performer. In rehearsal, I’m typically acting more as the composer and orchestrator and co-music director in ways, so its takes me a while before I actually start acting. Acting does not really come to me naturally, so Rachel’s really good about pushing me to put all that to rest and to just become the character and do all those acting things that people talk about.
MS: I love the honesty of the resume on your website where you lay out what each show has taught you. And then the blog you kept through the early days while forming your music theater ideas—it was really insightful.
DM: So you read all of that? Or some of it? Shit. I do have this very old blog, as a part of my website. There are more contemporary posts as well, but there are definitely posts from 2004, 2005, when I was very much a young artist being very scrappy and starting out in San Francisco. I’ve looked back on some of those blog entries and some of them are quite embarrassing, and some of them are very much about being so poor and just having wild, romantic artistic visions, but not actually being able to execute them. There’s part of me that’s thought, “Oh, I should take that down. Now I’m more professional.” But then another part of me thinks, “Oh, this is actually like very honest. This was who I was and where I came from,” and I feel like that might be helpful to someone else.
There’s one particular post in there, which I remember I got a phone call from my parents about because it was about running out of money. I literally was so poor I had negative money in my bank account, and I was trying to submit a grant application and I was at the post office and I didn’t have enough money for stamps, and—yeah, it was just a fiasco. But I decided to keep it all up.
MS: Oh, I think you should! That particular post says so much.
In another post you mention getting theater critics out to your shows, but wishing music critics would come hear these pieces. Is there music that you’re not writing because of the path that you’re on now?
DM: I’m curiously not all that interested in music that exists without theater for myself. Obviously I listen to tons of music that is not theatrical at all, but when I’m writing things, I don’t have a lot of interest in just writing a stand-alone song or a symphony or something. It just isn’t where my mind goes. I feel like anything that I want to do musically, I can do it in the context of a theater piece and it will be even that much more exciting, because there’s all this other stuff going on with it.
Every now and then, I like to sit down at the piano and try to write just a love song or something, and those exercises are pretty futile. It doesn’t really work because I feel like I need to have the bigger picture in my head to make something compelling. The larger theatrical vision is what makes this exciting to watch, not just to listen to.
MS: Do those scraps of things end up in your other pieces, or do you really need the big, over-arching vision before you can begin?
DM: Sometimes interesting chord progressions or something that started out as just me fiddling around on the piano will work their way into bigger things. But I’ve never thought of a string quartet and then turned it into a piece. It’s always been the other way around. It’s very much always coming at it from the theater first.

MS: So I want to ask this question with a caveat that I read the post you wrote about making theater and making money, so don’t throw any rocks or anything. But as you well know, these questions about making experimental work while keeping the lights on in the hall are of course ongoing and worrying people in the field. Since you’ve had success in this area, how do you find that room and that confidence to be experimental inside the challenges of current economics?
DM: I guess a lot of what helps is that I’m not coming at it from an economic point at all. I’ve never written anything thinking this is how I’m going to make money; I’ve always just written things that I’ve wanted to write. Fortunately, some of those things have ended up having some kind of monetizable qualities and some of those things have turned out to be commercial in some ways. But some of them definitely have not. There are shows that I’ve written that will never transfer to an Off Broadway or Broadway run. I feel like if you’re going into it thinking, “I’m going to write a Broadway musical,” then, yeah, you might feel a lot of weight, that “it has to be this, this, and this. And it can’t be this, this, and this. If I’m going to write a Broadway musical, I’m going to make a lot of money off of it, so I need to do something that’s going to make a lot of money.” I just never think about it like that. That just happens, and has happened on a couple of pieces, fortunately, but it wasn’t the intent for writing them.
MS: Is that harder now, though, since you’ve had the success with Comet? Do you find yourself answering creative questions certain ways because of what you know now and what you’ve experienced?
DM: Whether subconsciously or not, I think all the pieces I’m working on right now, none of them could possibly be Broadway musicals. I’ve very deliberately chosen a bunch of new shows that are way more experimental and way stranger than what Comet was—probably in some senses to protect myself from attempting to write another Comet and failing. Instead, I’m attempting to write things that are the polar opposites of Comet. If I fail at those, it won’t be as bad.
MS: So you set yourself up intentionally?
DM: Well, I think I’ve not set myself up, intentionally.
MS: Well put. But you’ve removed that pressure then a little bit?
DM: Exactly. If I started adapting Anna Karenina next, that would be just such a colossal mistake, you know, because it would be too similar. So instead, I’m doing this chamber ghost story piece with just four people—that’s going to be super weird, and probably mostly in the dark.
I feel that the success of Comet has allowed me the room to be more experimental, and the room to try out things that I’ve always wanted to do because people have more trust in me now—I guess because I have a reputation from this one show. So that’s been nice. But I’ve definitely gotten calls from shows that were looking at Broadway runs and shows with big producers behind them, but none of them have been things that I’ve been very interested in. So I’ve said no to a bunch of things which could have gone on to be Broadway things, but it just felt artistically dishonest to say yes to them.
MS: That’s interesting because we began this conversation chatting about how you used to say yes to everything in order to build your career. So there’s a certain point where that switches over to actually learning to say no?
DM: Absolutely. That was a hard lesson to hear. It was only in the last few years that I have started saying no to things, just because now there are enough opportunities that I can only say yes to the things that I really, really want to do, or I can make up the things myself, instead of doing what other people are asking me to do. So that’s been a really nice shift.
MS: Are you still doing the GMAT teaching on the side?
DM: Sure am. I’m teaching this Saturday.
MS: Do they know about your double life?
DM: I try not to tell the students. Some of the other teachers have seen my shows. But yeah, I think it’s important to keep one foot in that door, you know. In case all this does fall apart, then at least I’ve got this teaching thing. I can still pay the rent.
MS: We touched on your published resume before and how you list some of the individual lessons of the productions you’ve been in, which I found really insightful, so what have some of the more formative lessons been for you as you went from saying “yes” to saying “no”?
DM: The first big thing I learned from Beowulf is always have a bass. At first I wrote Beowulf, and there was no bass. I thought the trombones would cover it, and that didn’t work at all. So we had to add a bass at the last minute.

But I have thought more about the forms of the traditional musical. That has been interesting to actually analyze that stuff and realize really good musicals typically do start with a certain kind of song that sets up where and when we are. The prologue song of Comet originally wasn’t in the show. The first song was just Pierre’s first song. Then we did two workshops with that version, and the constant piece of feedback was, “It took me awhile to figure out who everyone was.” I got so sick of that comment that I wrote the prologue out of spite. Like, fuck you, here’s everything laid out as basically as I can.

It ended up being a big hit. So that was a lesson—that these conventional Broadway musicals actually do have lessons to teach. There really is a lot of wisdom in those pieces. You can look at those structures and you can play with those forms, of course, but at the end of the day, probably Act I does want to end with everyone in a moment of jeopardy, so people are excited to come back after intermission.
MS: You once said that {The 99-cent} Miss Saigon was your favorite thing you’ve ever done. That may no longer be true, but what was it about that piece that meant so much to you at the time?
DM: What was fun about doing {The 99-cent} Miss Saigon—and I think this is a theme that’s come up through a lot of my work—is we were simultaneously completely embodying the story, and at the same time, ironically commenting on it. We are walking that really delicate balance of actually telling the story, and in some ways, slightly making fun of it, but really actually loving the story and really wanting to tell the story. That was a really important discovery. I feel like that happens in Beowulf, and that happens in Three Pianos, that happens in Great Comet—we’re loving this thing that we’re talking about, but at the same time, we’re viewing it from a contemporary point of view. It’s a little ridiculous that Sonya bursts into tears every five pages in War and Peace. That’s funny, and so we can comment on that, but at the same time, still love and treasure her as a character and treat her as a human being and not a caricature.

{The 99-Cent} Miss Saigon

{The 99-Cent} Miss Saigon

MS: I think what was fun about reading through a lot of those blog posts was that look back to when you were first getting started. You followed your own path, and you’ve produced great stories as a result of that. We’ve already established that cash and a Broadway dream are not the driving motivator for you, so what is?
DM: I think for me, creating musical theater is the closest thing I have to a spiritual practice. I think that when I’m performing something live, or even when I’m rehearsing something, or developing something, or even just sitting in the audience watching something that I’ve had a hand in, that’s the moment in my life when I experience the sublime. I experience transcending beyond worrying about rent checks and health insurance and dry cleaners and all that. I love those sublime, transcendent moments, and I find that they come to me through music and theater. They definitely come through the community, through performing with other people. Sitting at the piano by myself is nice, but it doesn’t give me the same kind of spiritual satisfaction of really communing with other people and bonding with them. That’s the thing I guess that drives me.
And it’s nice if money comes out of that, because then it allows me to live and do more of it. But at the same time, working a day job is a completely viable thing as well. It’s fine to have the two separate things: I’m going to make my money this way, and I’m going to have spiritual enlightenment this way. If they happen to end up coinciding, that’s amazing, but I don’t think that it has to.

The Audience is the Most Important Instrument

[Author’s note: I’ve been a regular contributor to NewMusicBox since 2008, and I’ve had an absolute blast writing for the site and getting to know the Box’s wonderful staff, readers, and commenters on these pages. With some other writing projects and a TED talk on the horizon, I’ll be contributing less frequently from now on to make room for some new voices on these pages. This is my last post on the site for a while. Thanks so much to everyone for all their support, comments, and emails over the past six years—you’ve really helped me find my own voice. I’ll be back later in 2014 with the occasional post, as well as some longer essays; in the meantime, any readers who’d like to connect should feel free to get in touch via my website or Facebook. I look forward to reading this site as it continues to grow and evolve like any good piece of music. –DV]

Today I want to talk about a notion that is killing contemporary music. It’s an idea that is not confined to any one location, social group, or stylistic camp, and one that occasionally rears its head in both the halls of academia and the hippest coffee shops. It’s by no means the dominant way of thinking in the contemporary music world, but it is an idea so ubiquitous that it has become difficult to escape: that the audience does not matter as much as “the music,” and that considering the audience as an essential part of music composition is tantamount to pandering.

The attitude that there is something unsavory and inartistic about considering the audience does not come from a bad place; in fact, I’d agree with those who feel this way on a great many points. Of course it’s pandering to try to guess what people want to hear rather than sharing the truth of one’s own artistic voice. A great part of what people want to hear is something that engages them in a way that other music doesn’t. Audiences want artists to share part of themselves, something authentic rather than something put on. Favor must be earned and not curried.

Perhaps in part as defense of these perfectly valid points (and in reaction to the eager-to-please tone of so much current music from all genres), somewhere along the way much of the contemporary music community has overstated the alternative to the point where an urge to connect with audiences is seen as a sign of weakness, commercialization, and “softness”—as if softness was always a bad thing, and inflexibility and lack of willingness to compromise always surefire signs of nobility.

Please note that this talk of considering the audience is not some kind of code saying that music should be consonant, or pleasing, or unchallenging, or that there’s any reason why an experimental approach to music composition can’t also be tempered by an awareness of what effect compositional choices might have on a listener; there’s great and accessible music reflected in every style and approach, and there’s no way of thinking about music that can’t be marvelous and communicative and successful in its own right.
I recently worked with a student who put on a performance art piece involving self-mummification in duct-tape, melting guitar strings with torch lighter, and long periods of stasis where the performers appeared to take naps. All along the way, I urged the student to go for anything she could imagine, while all the while considering what effect her decisions might have on audience members: “How many times does this event need to happen to establish a pattern? Might it be more shocking if this last instance happened in a different way? What do you want people to feel when this happens? If you want to lull them into a state where they stop paying attention for a bit, about how long might that take? What might they expect to happen when the stepladder is brought onto the stage?” It’s this same consideration of the effect of musical decisions on the listener that makes Bach’s Goldberg’s Variations, John Cage’s 4’33”, and John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit so effective and affecting—because in each case, the composer pursued a desired effect in partnership with (and not independently from) a thoughtful inquiry into the psychology of listening to sound unfold in time.

Alfred Hitchcock used to say that he wanted to play the audience of his films “like a piano.” He did not compose his great works in a vacuum, but rather with a careful and shrewd understanding of how each creative decision helped to shape a different experience for the viewer. To update this idea to a mantra that composers can call their own, it’s worth remembering that the most worthy and challenging instrument of all to master is the inner experience of the listeners themselves: of all the tools in the composer’s arsenal, the audience is the most important instrument.

I recently attended a lecture in Italy by a well-respected composer and sound artist who flat out claimed: “I try not the think about the audience and whether my music is satisfying to listeners; if the idea of it is satisfying, it does not matter what the aural experience is on the listener.” I then attended a performance of this composer’s newest work in which I was one of seven audience members—which the composer in question remarked was a sign of the truly prestigious nature of the event. We’ve been so beat down with Justin Bieber and commercial radio, and also with handpicked “flavor-of-the-month” composers and art movements, that many of us have come to equate music with a broad appeal—and the very desire to connect with audiences—as deserving of only suspicion and derision. The most successful concert of all, to some minds, might be the one that isn’t attended by anyone; imagine what an elite club that would be—so elite that it contained only emptiness.

And therein lies the paradox of contemporary music: music exists to be heard or not at all, yet it’s true that audiences for contemporary music are not as large as any of us would like them to be. It won’t do to try and resolve the paradox by claiming that we don’t care if our music is heard, engaged with, and deeply felt, thus absolving ourselves of our responsibilities to others as well as ourselves. Because that is what, most of all, is shrinking audiences for contemporary music: not any particular musicians, stylistic approaches, or programming, but rather a pernicious idea that contemporary music can only succeed if it bets against itself, and pretends that losing was really winning all along.
So many brilliant musicians have been fighting against this attitude in their own way, with their own solutions. Claire Chase and the fantastic International Contemporary Ensemble have been making some of the most challenging and experimental music fun and accessible, and have earned a spot on nearly every critic’s “best of” list in the process. Producer Beth Morrison is busy reinventing opera for a new generation and in so doing has helped countless young composers find their voices and passions for the lyric stage. Los Angeles ensemble wild UP is performing both new and old music in innovative presentations that re-establish contemporary music as part of a continuum, making it exciting for audiences of all ages to tune into classical music again. There’s no formula for success, as every artist must find his or her own voice and, along the way, new and personal ways of establishing a kind of rapport with listeners.
It’s a great era for the music of our time; one could not ask for more diversity, talent, and discipline than the crop of musicians active today at the beginning of what is sure to be a wonderful year for music. Don’t try to see yourself the way others do; it’s no use. But at the same time, don’t stop trying to see others, to consider their experiences and to feel what they feel with the fullness of your musical being. Reaching out to understand and consider others is the way that we truly come to understand ourselves; doing so does not make us weaker but stronger, and requires not abandoning our sense of self, but a kind of inner confidence that we can go beyond ourselves without fear of losing our identity. Don’t stop; go on and on and on until your own musical self becomes larger, kinder, more tolerant, and more whole.

Happy 2014 and thanks, as always, for reading.

An Audience of Performers, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Lie of Exposure

I didn’t intend to keep hammering away at last week’s already thoroughly beaten theme, but a recent performance at an Eagles Aerie (#34, if you must know) here in Minneapolis sent me right back to the surprisingly controversial topic of concerts. I don’t know how many of
you have set foot in an Eagles Aerie before, but it is by no means a conventional contemporary music performance space: A bar, but not the kind of bar new music usually happens in; a ballroom, but not the kind of ballroom classical music is usually played in; art hanging on the walls, but not the kind of art that usually hangs on the walls of galleries where a sound installation is taking place. In fact, this Aerie featured not one but three (four?) large rooms with stages. Last night’s bill, which included not only new pieces but also a Schubert quartet, some free improv from yours truly and friends, and a DJ, was presented one room away from a slightly larger room in which a zydeco band was keeping the dance floor densely trafficked.

I’m not sure what prompted master of ceremonies Colin Hacklander, a composer and percussionist who splits his time between the Twin Cities and Berlin, to pursue Eagles #34 as a venue for experimental music, but I’m glad he did it: for one thing, a ballroom with tables and chairs lends itself nicely to a bill with several acts that can be distributed among the room’s corners. For another, the material was suited a to a relatively informal context in which listeners were free to wander about and get some beer between sets. And the fraternal
decor suffused the proceedings with an aura that you won’t find at King’s Place or the Ordway.

The only disappointment was that (except for in the bar, that great equalizer) there seemed to be virtually no overlap between the regulars and the new music listeners. The Eagles’ hospitality was unimpeachable, but not a one of them, to the best of my knowledge, joined us dorks and hipsters. It’s often floated as an article of received wisdom that the spoils of moving shows outside of the concert hall consist in the outsiders we can bring in; if that’s so, the process surely isn’t as simple as throwing a concert of new music in a building frequented by people who wouldn’t ordinarily go. What, then, besides Coors Light, is the silver bullet?

Voice or Schtick?

Recent articles on the Damien Hirst “Spot Paintings”, a series of works that he has been exploring for the past 25 years, started me thinking about how different the expectations are for composers than for artists. Once an artist has an idea that gains recognition from galleries, the expectation is that they will continue to produce that work or work in a similar vein for the foreseeable future. We expect that Matthew Barney will produce films focusing on distortions of his body within petroleum-based sculptures, that Andreas Gursky will continue to provide us with giant photographs of public spaces, and that Anselm Kiefer will exhibit more dark paintings based within German mythology. It’s extraordinarily rare to find protean artists like Gerhard Richter, whose entire modality of expression appears to change from one work or era to the next.

Certainly, we can cite examples of composers who appear similarly obsessed with a singular sound or philosophical approach to music-making. While the music of Steve Reich has evolved over time, we know what to expect from a concert featuring his music. Similarly, the mere sight of the name Jacob Ter Veldhuis on a program gives us a very clear picture of what we are about to hear. From piece to piece, these composers focus on ensembles of similar size (within a range) with favorite instruments appearing throughout their works, their perceived tempos and harmonic rhythms tend to stay within a prescribed range, and the surface musical details derive from a clear aesthetic bent. In the case of Reich, I find the style characteristics that I associate with his music to be quite comforting—I can predict with great confidence that I personally will enjoy any new piece of his that I encounter.

However, music differs from art in that many of the most well-regarded composers write music in wildly differing styles from piece to piece, or even from movement to movement. Even within a single piece, our music’s rhythmic profile might vary from pure stasis to exciting rhythmic drive. Our harmonies might move from thick microtonal cluster chords to simple open triads. Our instrumentation might range from kazoo and toy piano, to bassoon quintet, to string quartet, to full orchestra. The question that often arises as we assess new music by a single composer is: Where is the voice?

Oddly enough, it tends to be most difficult to answer this question for our own music. As we compose, we get caught up in answering all the questions that arise as we go from moment to moment, as we fill in the details and sculpt the piece itself. Even when we step back and try to take a full view of our artistic trajectory, we tend to consider questions of what worked and what didn’t, what sounds we would like to pursue further and what aspects of our earlier pieces seem played out. We find that over time our sense of time changes, as do other aspects of what we value aesthetically. And we get caught up in these differences—in those things that make each of our works unique—rather than in the commonalities of expression within our oeuvre.


When we have a specific schtick—for example, if we paint unicorns and rainbows—it can be comforting to those people who enjoy our art. From piece to piece they know what to expect, greatly reducing the chances of disappointing a commissioner or viewer. But I prefer the aspect of the music world that allows me to create work in a range of different media with a variety of expressive focus. I hope that outsiders view my music as expressing a voice, emanating from a single perspective, but I accept the risk that they might not. For me, this is one of the great joys of being a composer.