The Audience is the Most Important Instrument

Claiming that we don’t care if our music is heard, engaged with, deeply felt is what—most of all—is shrinking audiences for contemporary music. It’s a pernicious idea that contemporary music can only succeed if it bets against itself and pretends that losing was really winning all along.

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[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.