Tag: listener expectations

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.

The Role of Listeners in a Post-Genre Context

Last week, I spent some time grappling with issues of language in a post-genre musical framework. I was left wondering how we could realistically create a cohesive language to describe, appraise, and promote music in the absence of genre-related terms. Is that even possible? The prevalence of genre in our current characterization of music, as well as the important role of the composer within this framework (which I also delved into in my previous post), led me to another issue that I have yet to fully resolve. Namely, I have been struggling to fully understand the role of the listener in post-genre.

There is no doubt that all listeners have pre-existing connotations surrounding certain types of sounds.

As I described in my previous post, post-genre thinking seeks to move away from objective methods of characterizing music, instead focusing on a more subjective method within which music is viewed piece by piece with an emphasis on the intention and background of the composer. If a composer has no intent of writing within the “classical” genre label, then attempting to understand the piece through a classical lens is irrelevant. But what about the listener? There is no doubt that all listeners have pre-existing connotations surrounding certain types of sounds. Realistically, because we have discussed music in terms of these genre constructions for so long, a listener’s experience is likely to naturally include elements of: “This moment in this piece of music reminds me of X genre, which makes me think of Y connotation.” For example, imagine a situation in which a composer uses strings in a way that reminds a listener of “classical” music. The composer may have had no stylistic/genre-based intent, but that does not stop the listener from making this association. Does this detract from a composer’s intent in any way? What impact do these associations have on a person’s listening experience when it involves a piece written by a composer who has no intent of associating with any element of genre? This issue can be highlighted by taking a look at the piece Otherwise by Brad Wells, founder and conductor of Roomful of Teeth.

Wells’s piece draws on Sardinian cantu a tenore and belting, both of which are vocal techniques that are commonly employed by the group’s composers due to the singers’ vocal training in them. The score for this piece also instructs Dashon Burton, who sings baritone for the group, to sing his lines “bel canto.” The first instance of this bel canto singing happens just past the one-minute mark in the recording.

Wells has talked about his use of these different vocal techniques and styles in a previous interview, mentioning that he views them as different gears and colors for his compositions. While I was visiting the group at MASS MoCA, I had the opportunity to speak with him and was able to dig a bit more into his opinions on the stylistic implications in Otherwise. We talked about his decision to combine bel canto, belting, and Sardinian cantu a tenore, and I asked him whether he was interested in intentionally taking two specific and separate styles and combining them as a means of comparing them, or if his interest was purely in exploring colors and gears. He responded:

It’s purely in color. But for me, I think about it as if you were doing something visual. Say you were making a collage piece and you had some pattern that you got from a particular tradition that is super vibrant, and you wanted to put a stretch of that alongside something else. The origin of it, what it represents, is not at all how I would think about it. But the emotional charge that it brings is very much a part of it… What happens when you bring them together? What emotions are evoked? But speaking to Otherwise—part of it was just about brilliance, too. The belt-y sound that the three women do alongside the high bel canto baritone—they can keep up with him. That’s a pretty balanced spectral range going through both techniques, but they’re very different.

What I take away from Wells’s response is that, when writing using these stylistic influences and vocal techniques, his interest is not necessarily in the styles themselves, but rather in the emotional charge and specific color that each brings to the table, as well as how their combination allows for new colors and emotional charges. This is the individual intent behind the piece he wrote. However, when I hear Dashon singing his bel canto baritone lines, my first response as a listener is, “Wow, listen to that opera singer!” So despite Wells’s emotional charge and color-focused intent, the listener’s experience likely still centers, to some degree, around genre and stylistic labeling.

One of the outside walls of MASS MoCA which is partially covered with posters for exhibitions: Sol Lewitt, Federico Urbe, UNTL.

How do we reconcile the role of the listener, who may naturally use genre and style to label what they hear, within a post-genre framework? Does this confound the entire post-genre concept? In the future of developing a more concrete framework, it will be extremely important to address the role of listeners and how their pre-existing understanding of genre and style may affect their listening experience despite a composer’s intent. The way that I currently imagine the role of the listener working together with the intent of the composer is by emphasizing that post-genre thinking does not seek to entirely eliminate the existence of genre and style distinctions. It would be utopian to imagine a world where genre disappeared in a puff of smoke and no longer impacted how we processed music; currently, these types of associations are pretty intrinsically tied to people’s listening experiences.

Genre can be viewed as something that inherently shapes our liking and disliking of a certain piece of music.

However, perhaps by reframing the implications of genre, we can reconcile the role of listeners without ignoring these elements of their experience. For example, we could begin to think of “genres” as concepts that carry certain emotional or experiential implications on an individual basis. In this way, genre can be viewed as something that inherently shapes our liking and disliking of a certain piece of music, instead of as bins that pieces of music and composers must comment on. Rather than hearing a moment in a piece that reminds us of “classical” music and subsequently filing the piece away under the “classical” label and associating it with the historical classical tradition, we can reframe and think, “The sounds in that moment are reminiscent of what I think of as “classical” music, which makes me feel X feeling, which affects my experience of this piece and how much I like it.” In this scenario, the listener’s association does not involve them placing the piece into a genre categorization. Instead, the focus is on the individual experience of the piece and how the sounds in the piece affect how much they like it. This allows the music to exist on a piece-by-piece basis as opposed to being tied into a tradition or an institution. Of course, there is no way to get into people’s minds and actually change the way that they think about the music they hear; I believe that the more direct shift will come in conjunction with the development of a more cohesive non-genre-focused language. As artists and music critics/promoters shift their conversations about music, this way of thinking will likely seep into the minds of listeners to some degree. But for now, at the very least, this reframing of genre’s role in listening may serve as a way for composers and critics to rationalize the listener’s experience. As we move forward, we cannot disregard the listener’s potential tendencies towards genre-based thinking. We must figure out a way to understand what it means to think about genre in post-genre music.

Fitting In

The summer doesn’t officially end until September 21, but it definitely feels like it’s over immediately after Labor Day. For folks in academia, that’s because classes have already started up. For the rest of us, it’s a tad murkier although a drop in the temperature can help alter one’s perception about the season. This year in NYC, however, the weather remained unbearably hot until last night; thankfully today feels decisively autumnal. Nevertheless, I felt like summer had already passed a few weeks ago because my internal calendar is governed by my concert-going schedule. I don’t mean to imply that tons of concerts do not occur here in July and August, because they do. But usually in the summer months I miss a lot of them because I’m either out of town on vacation, or attending festival concerts elsewhere. This summer, even though I stayed in town, I took a hiatus from my typical weekly concert intake to devote more time to my own composing. Yet a few weeks ago the urge to experience live concert performances again got the better of me—so alas, it’s autumn!

I returned to my usual live listening habits a few days before Labor Day, intrigued by an August 29 concert program at the Duplex Cabaret and Piano Bar in Greenwich Village, which paired the solo piano music of Los Angeles-based Nick Norton with art songs by NYC-based Dennis Tobenski. I had never heard a complete piece of music by either composer live or on recording. But based on what I knew about both of them (culled from hearing snippets, seeing score samples, and various conversations), I had harbored the belief that their music shares little common ground. My suspicions proved to be correct. Most of Norton’s pieces (the concert featured his complete solo piano music to date) are visceral sonic haiku which pair modernist sonorities with clever conceptual underpinnings; one—aptly titled 88—is a collection of all 88 of the pitches possible on a standard piano, played once each. On the other hand, Tobenski’s songs are sensitive, deeply personal, and unabashedly tonal; a formidable tenor, he sang them all himself, accompanied by pianist Marc Peloquin. Steven Beck performed all of Norton’s pieces. The program went back and forth between the two composers and the two pianists but there was never any doubt as to who wrote what. Aside from the clear alternation of instrumental and vocal music and the visual juxtaposition of the piano changing hands, their two compositional voices were disparate to the point of almost being jarring. And yet it somehow worked. The only real cognitive dissonance on the program was a piano sonata conceptualized by Norton and composed by him along with 29 other composers, exquisite corpse-style via Twitter and credited to #Armada. A work involving so many different creators, none of whom was aware of what the others had created, ought not to have held together. Miraculously it did, although it was not exactly a sonata since it would have actually been impossible for 30 composers to develop thematic material they knew nothing about.

From #Armada Piano Sonata

Serendipidous continuity? A portion of the score of the #Armada Piano Sonata, reprinted with the permission of its musical perpetrator Nick Norton.

Why it was able to work at all strikes to the heart both of how we listen to things and how collections of experiences tend to be curated. A slightly different manifestation of the same phenomenon occurred at another concert I attended this past weekend which involved a tiny bit of my own music. My wife, Trudy Chan, is a pianist and she performs in song recitals with a very unusual vocalist named Phillip Cheah who sings in two completely different registers—baritone and male soprano. Most of their concerts to date have focused on art songs from a specific country or linguistic region—France, England, U.S.A., Germany/Austria. Their program this past Saturday, however, was a collection of songs about love from each of these places. As with most classical art song recitals, their program featured a series of song sets meant to be listened to as a whole, and they therefore only elicited applause at the end of each set. As a result, songs by different composers (and frequently different countries and eras) got lumped together and became de facto unified sonic experiences. Two songs of mine from the 1990s (each from larger cycles) were presented like this. One of my E. E. Cummings settings prefaced a Yeats setting by Ned Rorem that was followed by a Jean Cocteau-inspired Kurt Weill song; a movement of my Margaret Atwood cycle was sandwiched between a Walt Whitman setting by Rorem and a song from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. Even though these performers are really close to me and I was delighted to be part of their program, it initially felt a little weird to have my music recontextualized this way. And yet it all worked.

Tiny Greek Church

One of my more memorable cognitive dissonance experience happened this past June when I stumbled upon this tiny 800 year old Greek Orthodox Church in downtown Athens which at some point during the 20th century had a office building constructed around it.

Obviously we don’t create or ultimately listen to anything in isolation; what we make as well as how we experience what others make is always informed by what is around it. I’ve posited before that one of the reasons new music on orchestral concerts can be problematic is that the new piece is often completely different from all the other music on the program so it seems like it doesn’t quite fit in to people who attend these concerts expecting a certain aesthetic trajectory. The occasional anger of these audiences toward new music is really no different from that of the traditionalists who got all bent out of shape (pun perhaps intended) a few decades back when I.M. Pei designed futuristic glass pyramids for the main courtyard of the grandly Baroque-looking Louvre Museum in Paris. Yet at the same time, there are some hard core new music people who complain about new orchestral pieces that do actually fit in sonically, since as a result those pieces don’t match these listeners’ perceptions of what new music ought to sound like. Admittedly I was guilty of the same perceptual framing back in May when I bemoaned a performance of a Beethoven piano trio on an otherwise all new music concert I attended in Hong Kong. Of course when the stylistic gauntlet is thrown to the winds and new music can be whatever we desire it to be and as listeners we can be free to mix the music of any place or any time period however we choose, the notion of fitting in seems quaint and antiquated. Yet, I would dare posit that even among the most open-minded people, certain combinations feel more right than others. Had my two songs involved extensive piano preparations, extended vocal techniques, or an array of electronic processing, they probably could not have convincingly cohabitated with those other composers or any others on the program.

My music could be spliced together successfully with music by others with seemingly different aesthetics from mine because all of our music still shared the same basic parameters. That it came across as seamless as a result got me thinking again about that #Armada Piano Sonata and why it worked even though none of the 30 composers who collectively created it had any idea about what any of the others were composing. The fact that each had the same constraints—solo piano and sonic content of composition fragment which had to be conveyed within 140 characters (since, remember, it was all done via Twitter)—created a framework for at least some degree of consistency. The fact that their 30 contributions were presented together as a unified whole also linked the material together for listeners who were already sympathetic toward the experiment. Whether or not an #Armada Symphony would be appreciated by orchestra subscribers is a completely different question.

Back From The Other Side

I thoroughly enjoyed being in Hong Kong again and reconnecting with my in-laws, though I’m really not enjoying the jetlag right now. No matter how easy traveling there has become, there’s still no way around the fact that Hong Kong is on the opposite side of the planet from New York City and the time difference is a whopping 12 hours. Basically that means you can’t even rely on clocks to re-acclimate, as I remember every time I’m back from Asia and it is, say, 4 o’clock—a.m. or p.m. perfectly flipped. That’s why it feels the weirdest for some reason.

Soho Street

HK, just like NYC, has a neighborhood called Soho which is filled with trendy stores. The HK Soho, however, also has an escalator on one of its streets which makes the uphill journey less exhausting.

Anyway, as far away as HK is from NYC, in many ways the two cities are strangely similar. Both are overcrowded metropolises with tons of skyscrapers whose paces are largely determined by the financial sector. Both are traffic nightmares, but are luckily navigable via commuter rail systems. Both are becoming impossible places to dine on Friday nights without a reservation. And, as I discovered during this last trip, HK is also a place where you can hear a variety of new music thanks to a series started there by Bright Sheng called The Intimacy of Creativity. It was slightly surreal to have intermission conversations in Hong Kong with Joan Tower and Mark O’Connor—both for them and for me. But if this new composer and performer workshop and concert series, now in its second season, continues to grow, it could one day evolve into an East Asian version of the Gaudeamus Festival. Matt Van Brink, one of the emerging composers invited to participate this year, will provide more details about this program in a report for this site in the coming days.

However, there is something about the concert I attended that I feel compelled to write about here. Although The Intimacy of Creativity is a new music program featuring works by important international guest composers (Tower and O’Connor this year) as well as emerging composers from around the world (this year from Portugal, the U.K., HK, and three from the USA), the concert I attended also featured a piece by…Ludwig van Beethoven, specifically his Opus 11 Piano Trio. It was actually extraordinarily jarring. This is not because I don’t appreciate Beethoven. I just completed listening to two complete sets of his 32 piano sonatas. However, the sound world of 1797 (the year that trio was composed) is a further distance from today than New York is from Hong Kong (215 years to be exact), and the seven pieces composed in our own time which preceded it on the concert did not really prepare my ears for it.

It was a bizarre repertoire role reversal. This is sadly the position that new music finds itself in when one new work is included on a concert that otherwise consists of older pieces. In such situations, the new piece usually feels out of place and, as a result, is often not appreciated by the people attending that concert. While the new music prankster in me somehow enjoyed witnessing Beethoven not belonging, it reminded me of something Michael Gordon said in the very first NewMusicBox cover (then called “In The First Person”) which we published exactly 13 years ago:

There’s a story that Frank Zappa, when he first played in Vienna, got this really known quartet to come out, and he put them all in robes and hoods, and they went out and played a Beethoven string quartet. The audience, you know, sat there for a while and then they started booing, by the time the string quartet was over, the entire audience was throwing things and booing. The quartet bowed and walked off the stage, and then Frank Zappa’s band put on these hoods and took the violins and went back out to take a bow, as if they were the quartet, and the whole audience was sitting there booing and throwing things, and Zappa just pulls off the hood, his whole band pulls off the hoods. . . I think the success of the Kronos Quartet, the success of the Philip Glass Ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, and you know, what we’re doing, is basically when someone comes to hear a Bang On A Can concert, they know that they’re going to get weird music. They know they’re not going to get country music. They know they’re not going to get classical music.

For the record, no one in the audience in Hong Kong came anywhere close to booing. And perhaps my feeling that the Beethoven somehow didn’t fit was a minority opinion. But nearly a week later, I’m still thinking about it. I’ve even started listening to all the Beethoven Piano Trios in sequence so I can hear the piece in its own milieu and try to come to terms with it. Since I love both old and new music, I have greatly appreciated programs that combine the two, but perhaps if both are presented there needs to be a more equal balance.