Audiences and Openness

Now here’s a contentious topic: the relationship between music and audiences. Cue all kinds of stereotyping, wild generalisations, radical rejections, stalwart traditionalism and utter confusion. I mentioned in my introductory post on openness that three things come to mind instantly at the mention of openness: open notation, open instrumentation and open form. Okay, that’s true for me and lots of people I know. However, open notation, open instrumentation and open form are mostly the concern of composers, performers and analysts. The majority of audiences probably couldn’t give a damn about these things. Audiences do, generally speaking, care about what it is they’re doing with their evening, what they’ve paid for and the experience they’re having. Musicians should be thoroughly concerned with this, too. After all, art is nothing without its audience.

It goes without saying that there are lots of different types of audience. Some are made up of specialists (in whatever area), some are loaded with sets of expectations, some are made up of a random cross-section of the general public, and so on. Each type of audience will react to the same performance in a different way. Much more crucially, every person will react to the same performance in their own way. One of the music industry’s worst sins is forgetting individual listeners and focussing instead on statistical masses of consumers. Commercially speaking this is basically unavoidable – it’s the way our economic system is set-up – but we don’t have to think only in commercial terms.

I’m going to pose lots of questions – implicitly if not explicitly. I’m not sure I have answers to them and, if I do, I’m not sure how long they’ll remain relevant. An audience (and an audience member) is a living breathing thing that’s not just connected to contemporary society but is contemporary society. Audiences and their needs change… constantly.

The Industry and its Institutions

It’s interesting to compare new music for acoustic instruments (mainly associated with ‘classical music’) and new music for electronic media. The relationship of each with its audiences, modes of presentation and relative openness is remarkable. They’re not treated at all equally. There are far more installations and interesting modes of presentation for electronic music than there are for instrumental music. We could be forgiven for thinking that’s down to practicality – electronic music comes ‘pre-packaged’ and doesn’t mean paying for lots of musicians. But that’s a narrow view of both formats. For starters, acoustic pieces don’t have to use lots of musicians; electronic music’s technicians and diffusers are musicians who need paying, too; every kind of musician needs rehearsal and/or set-up time; while electronic music can be ‘piped’ into a space in a way that acoustic instruments can’t replicate, acoustic pieces can be played in far more places (i.e. where there’s no electricity supply). They’re not the same, but neither format is obviously more cost effective or more practical than the other, speaking in general terms. Specific pieces and performances will, of course, have their own practical and financial issues.

I’d argue that what really causes this distinction between electronic and acoustic new music is the institutions they’re associated with. To me the links between new electronic music and various forms of dance, electronica, ambient, glitch and so on, is healthier and less culturally obstructive than acoustic new music’s links with the preservationist classical industry. As the classical music business slowly implodes (dwindling audiences, bankrupt institutions, desperate record labels and increasing irrelevant publishing houses) I wonder whether new music would be better off as an industry in itself without the political and financial ties to all things ‘classical’. That question perhaps seems most relevant to acoustic works, but the electronic medium isn’t free from the same classical association – just look at some of the names in the electronic music hall of fame (Stockhausen, Xenakis, Schaeffer, etc.) and notable institutions whose perceived allegiance has always been with high-art and therefore the classical industry (IRCAM, Experimentalstudio Frieberg, etc.).

I’m not here to critique the whole music business – as fascinating and cathartic as that is – I’m here to talk about openness and audiences. However, there’s a point to be made before I move on; it might seem like an obvious point, but it’s so frequently taken for granted that it suffers from neglect: new music is new and in being new occupies a unique position in our culture long-since lost by older music. That unique position is down to it being contemporary and therefore holding a special kind of relevance, not to mention a potential connection with its audiences that older music cannot achieve. Older music achieves something else entirely, which has its own worth. Nevertheless, the institutionalised connection between classical music and new music is potentially very damaging. The damaging thing is not the older music itself, which is basically a harmless artefact of times past, but the accepted codes for performing and experiencing that music, which are extremely limited. In fact, people interested in performing old music today could do with thinking more openly about their relationship with their audiences, rather than blindly adopting the industry’s dictums.

There’s also a point to be made about ‘style’ in new music: a lot of contemporary composers are infatuated with the classical set-up, whether they admit it or not. There are lots of pieces around (including some of my own) that rely on the classical industry’s assumptions and behavioural codes – some even glorify it. Of course, people are free to write what they want. Nevertheless, I’d ask whether or not it’s worth tying oneself to a sinking ship. Experimental music is all too often maligned for being difficult, pretentious, unpopular and even irrelevant. But experimental new music constantly regenerates itself, tries new things, rejects itself and looks for ways of being relevant that the classical industry has failed to do for decades. Experimentalism, in one form or another, has always existed. On the other hand, infatuation with the 18th and 19th centuries hasn’t. If the classical industry is the sinking Titanic, experimentalism is a one of those not-so-irrelevant and ever-so-precious lifeboats. Tragically, the classical industry needn’t sink at all, but those in a position to save it are too preoccupied with largely irrelevant etiquette.

The Experience of Music (and Sitting in Rows)

Okay, so it’s about time I was more upbeat. The experience of music is a great thing. Arguably, music is the artform most cherished in western society (perhaps in others too but I’m in no position to comment on that). It’s everywhere, it’s powerful, we love it! We’re happy to experience music in lots of ways, both passively and actively. When we use mp3 players to music-up our commute, dance around like demented idiots at nightclubs, embarrass relatives with renditions of Happy Birthday, sing around a campfire, whistle to ourselves in the street, cry at a movie, make political protests and a thousand other things, we let music occupy a special place in our lives. Crucially, we’re extremely open to music and to lots of ways of experiencing music. All art is about the experience. Music, however, is perhaps the one artform we’re most open to in terms of the diversity of that experience.

 Experiencing music by sitting in rows and obeying stringent behavioural and interpretative codes baffles me. Not in itself – it’s as valid an experience as any other – but we seem obsessed with it as a default position, particularly if there’s the slightest perceived connection with the ‘high arts’. It reminds me of two things: strict religious ceremonies and school assemblies. Both are fine, but they’re structured around reverence. Is it any wonder that lots of people – people who enjoy classical music when they hear it – don’t go to classical concerts, don’t read pages and pages of programme notes and are generally put-off by a culture of veneration? Why revere something and idolise someone you know nothing about – something and someone apparently disconnected from your own life?

There’s a saying about experiencing music: ‘close your eyes and let it wash over you’. Sitting in rows and being on your best behaviour certainly plays into that particular method of listening. But that’s just listening. A live performance is an amazing thing full of sights, sounds, smells and intangible things like interactions, human connections, and so on. Sitting at the back of your local town hall watching a bored orchestra play Mozart’s Symphony No 40 (again!) precludes lots of those extra experiences, however nice the sounds might be. Give me a good installation over a Prom any day.

Performers, Composers and being Open with an Audience

On the face of it the problem of opening-up the live performance experience lies with those staging the performance. That’s not entirely true, although event organisers obviously play an important part. Performers and composers can do a lot, too. There’s a really obvious example here: almost every rock band I’ve ever come across has, at live events, invited their audience to scream, shout, enter into whatever personal rituals help them to enjoy the performance and join in the chorus of the biggest hits. Simplistic? Maybe. Effective? Definitely. I’m not suggesting for a moment that every performance of every kind of music works to the same template, but it goes to show how the slightest and simplest of changes can make huge differences. You occasionally see the same thing in the classical world – the last night of the BBC Proms for example – but you have to admit it usually seems awkward, jarring with the codes of the concert hall. Proof that one size really does not fit all. But at least it shows a bit of effort.

People all over the world are trying lots of new ideas, lots of new performance strategies and trying to reach audiences in new ways, which is absolutely brilliant. We could do with hearing more about them! Immediately I’m thinking of last year’s collaboration between ensembles hand werk and chronophonie in the Unter Vier Ohren project. Handily, Heather Roche has provided an overview of the project and its benefits so I don’t have to! Basically, the performances were one-on-one - one performer and one audience member. Fascinating.

What I’ve Learned from My Own Practice

I’ve written a few pieces already that deal with different kinds of openness in different ways and I’ll continue to do so. When I talk to people about the openness in these pieces I tend to find the discussion leaning towards notation or performance practice and less towards the audience’s relationship with the performance or with the music itself.

I’ve learned a lot from two pieces in particular: for solo piano and Personal Space. I’ve talked about both pieces before in various places so I won’t ramble on and on about them. Instead I’ll try to distill exactly what it was I learned in each case.

for solo piano

This is a piece I knew would be performed in a traditional concert setting. At the time I wasn’t really aware of my interest in openness – I was dealing with research into narrative instead (see introductory post). However, faced with the concert setting and having to write for pianist alone, something I find very awkward, I came up with an idea that stands apart from most of the music I’d written previously. I decided to make the ‘contract’ between performer and audience the focal point of the performance experience. The notes the pianist plays are more or less immaterial in terms of ‘musical language’ – I could’ve picked any others and the basic premise of the piece would remain the same. I opted for notes that were interesting to my ears, not immediately ‘offensive’, not completely familiar and stripped of any linear harmonic continuity (it was only later I would discover the music of Laurence Crane, who does this much better than I did here). The plan was to make the sounds intriguing but to focus on individual moments rather than functional phrases, transformative cells or any of the other mechanisms for spinning-out streams of music. In essence, the piece works because the pianist performs very very quietly, which introduces a high level of risk – will the notes even sound?

I wish I’d taken official survey of audience reactions, not that they can be trusted, because the responses I’ve received essentially catalysed my belief in the value of openness. Those responses have come from some very unexpected quarters, including people I know are resistant to new music. People described the piece as ‘tense’, ‘dramatic’ and ‘engaging’, speaking with zeal and fiery excitement in their eyes. The same people in the same conversations would describe other pieces more reservedly, calling them beautiful, lyrical or ugly. Both kinds of response are utterly subjective, of course, but the second feigns objectivity: ‘on reflection my view of the piece is this’. The responses to for solo piano continue to be more impulsive and, crucially, triggered by an experience. It really does seem to be the experience rather than the notes that excites people. I hadn’t set out to be this ‘exciting’ at all – I simply thought the idea was interesting! – but the very fact that so many people have reacted so favourably and diversely made me look again at the piece, my practice and performance generally. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now without for solo piano, which is not something I can say for every piece I’ve written!

You can listen to a performance of the piece here, although it’s nowhere near as effective on a recording as it is in live performance.

Personal Space

At the end of last year I decided to launch headlong into a new piece that would deal directly with openness and the relationship between the performance and the audience. The idea fitted together quite nicely for many reasons, chief among which was the context under which the work was created. I blogged about this at the time and again shortly afterwards. To summarise: this wasn’t a straightforward commission, but a part of a commissioning block under a wider scheme that would become part of a daylong festival. The project had to involve collaboration and had to run to an extremely strict timetable. The matter wasn’t helped by changing jobs, moving house and going through personal crises at the same time! Composers, performers and installation designers were all very separate entities until quite late in the whole process. The temptation is for the composer to do ‘their bit’, pass this onto the performer to learn and for the designers to react to the performance. This is not true collaboration, but a series of reactions. With my newfound interest in openness, I decided to enter into every stage of the process with an open attitude and to build a truly collaborative work around that experience.

The piece in its final form uses a set of ‘instructions’ for the performer(s), who react specifically to the position of the audience and the apparent attitude of individual audience members. It’s a piece that really can’t be performed with the audience sitting in rows! The installation was in situ for a whole day with eight performances across the day. Every performance was effective in its own way, but some stood out as particularly exciting. After each one the performer, the designers and I would have a brief chat about how well things had gone. By the third performance we were talking in terms of engagement, of atmosphere, mentioning the reactions of individuals (the kid that got really excited, the bloke that took a page of the score away with him). This was not conversation about how seriously people took the music, whether they ‘understood’ or anything like that. As the day went on we managed to get more responses from audience members, including those who had seen earlier performances. The feedback was not only positive, but people were discussing their interpretations and feelings in much the same way we were doing. Every one of us, audience members included, was reacting to the performance on our own terms but in relation to a shared performance experience that we felt was equally open to all involved.

Regrettably we were unable to record the premiere performance due to contractual issues (which have financial implications). We do have these nice pictures, though:

[click here to see the gallery]

On reflection I think I should have put more thought into the relationship between the performer and the score (in the end time was just too scarce). The piece works in performance very well, but the notation is definitely the most clunky part. We developed a ‘prompt score’ to accompany the instructions, which certainly helped, but I learned how much more important the role of the score becomes in these circumstances. I don’t really want to revise the notation; I think it will end up transforming the piece into something else entirely. It is what it is, warts and all. It would certainly be interesting to see it done again with different collaborators – I can’t imagine the result being anything like the same. And that’s what’s exciting about it: knowing this potential exists and that its openness is part of its success.