‘Experimental Music and the Impossible “Audience”’ by Ian Power

Cross-posted from the author’s original post on medium.com:


Earlier this month an article on new music by Dan Visconti appeared on NewMusicBox.com entitled “The Audience is the Most Important Instrument.” The article urges new music practitioners to more carefully and attentively consider their audiences as an element of their musical practice. Visconti offers a number of nebulous suggestions for this, but I am left confused about just of whom or what this “audience” he refers to consists. He also boldly asserts 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.” I say boldly because I do not believe this; I have been in new music for over 10 years and I cannot think of a single person I have met who fits that description. I will briefly respond, not to the article specifically, but to this idea of the audience in new music, and the lack of serious thought about what this concept really means and how it might differ from similar concepts in other forms of art and commerce.

One issue with characterizing the audience as a uniform entity is that so much of it is us, composers and performers. So many pleas for accessibility fail to account for the fact that this space, like other musical spaces, is a community of musicians who are fans and fans who are musicians. While it is imperative to keep our scene welcoming to all who wish to engage, the further a music regards its content as in the service of public approval, the less it participates in an experimental tradition, precisely because it fails to derive its content from the spontaneous activity of some mechanism interior to itself.

I am a composer. What would it mean to compose “with the audience in mind?”[1]

Visconti claims that “audiences for contemporary music are not as large as any of us would like them to be.” How large is this nonexistent audience? Many of us make chamber music suited to a small room. I can personally say that, all access being equal, I would far prefer four performances of my work in front of 15 people to one in front of 60. I had a much better experience with the music of Pierluigi Billone in a dark rehearsal room with a dozen others than I did crammed into the back of Darmstadt’s Orangerie with a few hundred. The Rite of Spring, on the other hand, seems to go better with a crowd. Music, even recorded music, is not separate from its aural situation. When composing chamber music, it is rarely possible to generally strategize for a room, much less an audience. There can only be multiple, diffuse strategies for this, based on a specific music and a specific composer. In this context, writing “with the audience in mind” is meaningless as a precept.

Advising a student to consider an experience of a piece’s unfolding through time hardly represents radical composition pedagogy, though Visconti treats this as some sort of novel praxis of the audience. Anticipating a disposition in one’s audience, however, will only reduce to sameness the diverse reality: different members of even the smallest audiences will think and react very differently to the same music. It is a well-treaded philosophical axiom that one cannot faithfully reproduce even a single other person’s experience in one’s own imagination. Any attempt a composer may make to recreate the experience of another in his thought maps the composer’s experience onto a non-existent, imagined other that is always already a reflection of the composer. Whether it be the imagining of how one specific person will react (a dubious exercise), the monkey on one’s back worrying what a teacher or mentor might think (who among us hasn’t), or the anticipation of a likely general disposition at a particular performance, any such imagining will necessarily fall short of an accurate representation, impossible to extrapolate into either specific or general composition practice. “The audience” is an impossibility—impossible to describe or anticipate.

While Visconti does not thoroughly examine the idea of accessibility, he does (as do many that broach this topic) offer the caveat that “this talk of considering the audience is not some kind of code saying that music should be consonant, or pleasing, or unchallenging […]” Of course—no one thinks this. What, then, would it mean to make music in an attempt to “connect” with as many people as possible, discounting these stereotypical criteria? No composer would complain about a large number of people finding meaning with her work, but what would it mean to attempt that deliberately? Despite the utter necessity of solidarity and community, their explicit pursuit through musical means leads inevitably to homogeneity. I do not mean that any piece that is well-liked necessarily appeals to a lowest common denominator—there are countless examples that refute this. I do mean that a composer who crafts a piece intentionally to the expectation that it be well-liked is in search of homogeneity, of linking people together in a way that is reductive and destructive. It is impossible to strategize for a particular audience; it is anti-experimental folly to strategize for a general one. The composer writing for “the audience” writes not for a community, but a demographic. One uses a demographic, necessarily homogeneous, to ends reductive at best and violent at worst. The discomfort in the distinction between “the audience” and “demographic” leads us to the wholly economic concerns informing this rhetoric.

Commercial art (on a more massive scale) successfully and overtly practices demographics—it needs them to survive. It might at first be difficult to imagine the sound of a “new music” that could be commercially successful to the level of a Taylor Swift song, but the answer of course is that is what it sounds like. We have many examples of what music sounds like that comes out of an industry that cares far more about popularity than anything immanent in the art: there is plenty of great stuff (like Taylor Swift songs), but there is nothing that sounds like new music (except for what accompanies Dexter as he sneaks into another house). The important distinction between these musics is not the sound, though, it is the values and the process. Non-commercial art relies on subsidy, based on the belief that the way non-commercial artists work must remain at least nominally separable from the market. Subsidies take the form of, for example, philanthropy, government assistance, and university positions for students and professors in order to allow for artists to make their next projectsomething buffered from overt market concerns. Someone at some point considered un- or less-mediated creativity an important social value. This is why it so confuses me that new music composers should write “with the audience in mind.” Our very existence is predicated on the idea that we should not.

This is not an argument that any music that comes out of our community is necessarily better than any commercial art. Full disclosure, the music of Taylor Swift does far more for me than that of Pierluigi Billone (and for what it’s worth, I also do not think that when she started writing songs, Taylor Swift was writing with her audience in mind). It is important to also cultivate unprofitable creativities that spread out via a mechanism that is not marketability. None of this is, of course, should result in disdain forsocial engagement with one’s actual, non-rhetorical audience. It is essential to connect with people, to discuss music openly, to share opinions with those of far different backgrounds, to do more for access. But we can fulfill this responsibility while overtly maintaining that public approval is not integral to the music, nor to the experience of any music. New music practitioners must of course meet public approval with humility and gratitude, but must not seek it. What art thrives on approval? Dissent may be art’s greatest product.

The subsidization of our unprofitable music is extremely problematic. New music, though often representative of intellectual spheres that have fought against oppression, receives quite a disproportionately large share of the subsidies of non-commercial arts because of that oppressive mode of thought which privileges traditions resembling European-American colonial hegemony. This is the inherent contradiction: if something is subsidized, does it not have an ethical responsibility to be popular? Not given the stated reasons of non-market-based experimentation. But if the subsidies are worth honoring in their opposition to the colonial market, new music must flout demographic- and publicity-based practice to become a space for truly inclusive, individuated art.

There are many forms of non-commercial music that yet thrive socially, music that you cannot hear if you are not a participant. If someone were to overhear a music like this, approval would be appreciated and hardly needed. This is already present in new music—the relationships and music-making between practitioners are perhaps the most fulfilling parts of it. (And there might be theoretical headway in recasting “the audience” as fully willing participants.) There is also something inherently and socially fulfilling about playing music for oneself at home. Even a music without any potential audience is imbued with ancient practice, and a reaching outside of oneself (even if only as a path back inside).

If new music could no longer survive in the concert hall, or the university, to where would it retreat? I like to imagine a composer sitting at home playing her new music for herself, her experiments borne out in a situation where the kind of exposure and feedback we take for granted is far more difficult to find. No need to imagine, this occurs now. Is this music, written not only without concern for an audience, but without the possibility of an audience, any less for it?

[small][1] Hereafter I will use “we” and “us” to refer to new music practitioners in general, especially composers.[/small]