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June 15, 2007

Audience as Orchestra?

by Laura Jackson

To Sasha:

I promise to continue marinating on your comments over night but I must say that at the moment....I don't get it.
I agree with you conclusions that we need to respect audiences and see them as partners rather than ignorant consumers. However, when you say the following I am left confused: "I realized that we musicians were most emphatically not the orchestra. The orchestra was plainly those folks in city after town all around the state whose eyeglasses reflected stage light from the darkness of the house night after night. They were the orchestra. We - musicians, managers, stagehands, conductors - were the hired help ....Why is this paradigm important? Because we are always talking about how we can sell what we have to them, but they are not them - they are more us than we ourselves."

Sure we are hired help but we have to be careful about who we identify as "boss." The art we create needs to be intrinsically connected to the community in which we live and our audiences need to be among the constituencies from whom we carefully weigh feedback of all sorts. We mustn't forget, however, that our primary service as artists is to the composers and creators of art moreso than audiences. An audience may hate what we do from time to time, and although this can't be our goal, it can't and shouldn't be completely avoided.

Posted by ljackson at June 15, 2007 9:44 PM


Dear Laura:

It was easy to mistake me for Sasha, I know (and it gave me a fleeting cosmopolitan sort of thrill), but I'm James. And please forgive my tardiness in responding; I generally reserve weekends for computerless pursuits.

I'm happy to see that you find something to ponder in my posting, and I wish to comment upon your remark, "We mustn't forget, however, that our primary service as artists is to the composers and creators of art moreso than audiences. An audience may hate what we do from time to time, and although this can't be our goal, it can't and shouldn't be completely avoided."

I contend we must primarily serve composers AND audiences. Composers known beyond the confines of their attics create art within some shared context, and the sharing implies that at least one other person understands that which is being communicated. "Art for art's sake" is not the professional's creed; professionals create with an economic imperative, seeking compensation for their art from perhaps a single patron, a college music department, an adoring public, or somebody who will pay, and thus make the continued creation of art possible. If composers must be mindful of their audience, how can we not be mindful of ours? Of course our audience may not be their audience, but if I wish to champion a difficult work I need to educate our audience. It does little good to make people sit through something they are not prepared to receive.

There is so much to say on this and related topics, and from so many perspectives...but I won't bore you too much longer. But I do wish to restate the theme of this entire discussion in this way: the ubiquity of electronic communication has empowered the audience with near-infinite choice, and we ignore an empowered audience at our - and our art's - economic peril.

We face not so much an artistic problem as an economic problem, and the grousing about audiences I've read over the past few days tells me it we face an educational problem as well. First, we must educate ourselves to respect and embrace our audience, and then to educate them to develop a deeper appreciation for our art. Dismissing them risks our art's undoing in the long run, or perhaps in a shorter run than we can imagine given the increasing rapidity with which so much vapidity is sold as music to hapless holders of I-Pods and cell phones.

I also suspect some of the dismissive attitude toward our audience stems from fear of "selling out," of cravenly composing or performing music for economic benefit (pops concerts excepted, of course). Several great composers come to mind, however, who wrote simultaneously and successfully for the musical elite, the musical middle, and the musically dull: Bach (chorale preludes, cantatas), Mozart (Die Zauberflöte - who besides he and Frank Loesser has begun a theatrical entertainment with a fugue?) to name but two.

But we are not the great Bach, or Mozart, or even the lesser...okay, I'll spare you the pun. Maybe we need to walk up and down the aisles drawing diagrams and explaining what the heck is going on up in the front. Or maybe we are slogging uphill against a pervasive message repeated through generations that "classical" music is hard, or boring, or fear-inducing.

It's not the case, of course. But it is the case that the mid-20th century audiences that built the orchestras and at least wanted to understand music are about gone. In their place have risen the musically neglected and their offspring, great swaths of whom were given little or no opportunity during their miserably inadequate educations to sing in the chorus, play an instrument, or develop an appreciation for great music. They are now our audience, and God bless them for showing up at all. They need us to embrace them, respect them, teach them, and give them a love for great music both established and new that our orchestras play so well.

That'll be awfully darned difficult, but won't it be worth it?

Posted by: James Hopkins, CFRE at June 18, 2007 9:19 PM

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