There Is No Right Experience

Who is to say that my interpretation is best, or that a best interpretation even exists? And why should we limit ourselves, as composers, performers, or listeners, to just one option? We’re the creative ones, right?

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String Quartet

“All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.”
—David Bowie, album notes, 1995

A few weeks ago I was discussing an idea for an interactive piece with a friend. The idea involved the audience making decisions about what the musicians would play next, a sort of musical “choose your own adventure.” He was intrigued, and enthusiastic, but ultimately the conversation turned to whether that was “it”—whether creative staging and presentation were the things that would come to define music for our generation. I don’t think they are because I believe the thing that defines our current musical era is that no one thing can possibly define it.

Berating the traditional ritual of classical concerts is very much in vogue today. In a recent BBC interview, composer Jonny Greenwood spoke about how the “reverence and silence with which most classical concerts are done now” has squeezed the excitement out of the musical experience. And while their music itself tends to hold up (and even succeed wildly), groups like LA’s wild Up and The Industry have built reputations largely on their breaking of—or willful, useful, and joyous ignorance of—classical boundaries.

I love creative concerts like this, be they Gnarwhallaby playing contemporary repertoire in bathrooms during parties or the elaborately choreographed, intensely personal experience of Chris Cerrone’s Invisible Cities at Union Station. The question that such events beg, however, is whether the concerts distract from the music.
While my friend, on the other hand, is happy to encourage creativity, he enjoys the traditional silence of the concert hall where you’re inherently assigned the role of listener. You know when the concert starts because the conductor walks out. You know when it ends because the performers bow. You know who the performers are, because (if you’re me) they’re probably dressed classier than you. Because everything is set, you can just sit back and focus completely on the music. There are no wild costumes or lighting or dancing or clinking drinks and clapping between (or—GASP—during!) movements to consider, just what’s being played.

Let’s call these two modes of presenting music the “traditional” and the “alternative,” and skip the discussion on how the “alternative” is actually the norm in most musical traditions outside of Western classical music. Music, for the most part, doesn’t compete with other music for an audience. Attending an alternative concert one night doesn’t stop you from attending a traditional one the next in the way that, say, buying an iPhone would stop most people from buying a Galaxy. An unplanned tangent: the elite of the tech world often have both anyway, so why don’t we who consider ourselves informed, perhaps even elite, concertgoers seem excited to take advantage of both models? We don’t have to pick a side.

Chris Cerrone’s <em>Invisible Cities</em> at Union Station

Chris Cerrone’s Invisible Cities at Union Station

Moving on, it’s clear that the concert experience affects a listener/receiver’s experience of the music, sometimes greatly. To use the Invisible Cities example again (sorry Chris, it’s an easy target for this discussion), did I hear the opera that Chris Cerrone committed to the page, or experience director Yuval Sharon’s interpretation of it? And how does Yuval’s presentation affect the work? In this case, I’m pretty sure I really, really like the music Chris wrote, but I’m not sure how much of it I heard clearly while my attention was on the dancers and the setting. The question that such an issue brings up then, in my mind, is “what is the work?” What, as an artist, am I creating? If I’m making something, shouldn’t I be clear on what that something is?
There are two answers here. One (the one that follows from Cage’s thinking, which I’m a fan of) is that the work is whatever the listener decides it is, whether consciously or unconsciously. In this case, to me, Invisible Cities is the amazing collaboration that happened at Union Station. To Yuval, it might be the score he started from. To someone purchasing the recording (which is out this week), the audio coming through their speakers is likely the work. Although the recording comes in a lovely boxed set with postcards from the opera’s setting…surely that must be considered as well. All of this leads us to being able to say that each receiver’s definition and conception of the work will be unique. And that’s awesome. That’s part of why I love experiencing art almost as much as I love making it—because experiencing it is a form of making it, via what happens in your own head as you receive it. Take that, fourth wall.

The other answer, and one I sometimes lean on for my own internal life-narrative as a composer, is that the work is what the creator intends the work to be. There may be a greater work that comes out of collaboration, presentation, reinterpretation, and so forth, but the work that I made is whole when I take my hands off of it and send it out into the world, and anything that happens to it after that is an often-positive transformation. The logical conclusion of this is that, before the 1890s, the work (from a composer’s point of view) was the score and performance. Since we now have this whole “recorded medium” thing, I believe that my work, if it happens live, is the score along with any performance coaching or performing that I’ve been involved in, and if it happens on record, everything included in the package—the mix, the album art, potentially even the performances. Obviously there are collaborators every step of the way, but when someone asks me what I’ve made, handing them a CD feels like a good answer.
Of course, that person’s speakers and room will have something to contribute, be it additional reverb or some lovely (or not very lovely) distortion. So we’re back to answer one.
It’s possible that this belief—that the listener controls the work—is the reason I enjoy writing “choose your own adventure” pieces, or works with open scoring or that are extremely open to interpretation. I’m making the relationship between art and receiver explicit. Sometimes I have something incredibly clear to say with my art. Then I use traditional, precise notation. Sometimes I have an idea that I could be excited about in many forms, or am working with performers who I know will bring things to the table that I hadn’t even considered. In those cases, I largely prefer to leave things open.

Who is to say that my interpretation is best, or that a best interpretation even exists? And why should we limit ourselves, as composers, performers, or listeners, to just one option? We’re the creative ones, right?

This is one of the rare cases where I’m excited that there’s no good answer. It means that you and I are both free to make our own.


Nick Norton
Nick Norton is a composer and guitarist from Los Angeles. He grew up playing in rock bands and formally studied composition in college at UC San Diego, then at L’ecole Normale de Musique de Paris, then in graduate school at King’s College, London, and UC Santa Barbara—and in a whole bunch of garages, studios, apartments, backyards, beaches, mountains, bars, libraries, clubs, restaurants, and deserts. The LA Times describes his music as crazy, and NewMusicBox referred to his pieces as “visceral sonic haiku” after a show in New York. Nick really liked that description. Recent projects include a commission for guitar and electronics from Worldwide Guitar Connections, new works for Gnarwhallaby and Synchromy, an orchestral arrangement of Brahms’s complete Piano Quintet in F Minor, and an album and singles with his band, Better Looking People With Superior Ideas.