Ask Not What Your Culture Can Do For You…

The guys (and the occasional gal) over at Sequenza 21 had their liveliest conversation ever this week, racking up 143 comments before spilling into another thread that went to 71. It was mostly young guys, balanced by house curmudgeon Jeff Harrington and official instigator Jerry Bowles, enthusing about the return of complexity to music – gnarliosity became the operative word – and morphing into a discussion (the same one my friends and I had all through the 1980s, to little effect) about how to market the music to get it out there. Finally Lawrence Dillon, social conscience of Sequenza 21, brought the thread to a dead, unanswerable halt with a simple-seeming question:

What will listeners gain that they don’t currently have?

It was a sharper form of a line of questioning he had begun a few posts earlier:

1. What is the goal of marketing new music? Is it personal, i.e. I want more people to love me, I want enough money to live comfortably so I can create, etc. Or is it cultural, i.e., the world would be a better place if more people listened to the music of living composers, the world would be a better place if all living composers could just write music instead of having to hold down other jobs, etc. Or is there some other reason?…

2. What do you imagine people will replace in their lives to make more room for new music? Should they watch less television? Read less? Listen to less pop music? Blog less frequently? Spend less time lying around doing nothing? You can’t expect to add something more to anyone’s plate without acknowledging what they are giving up.

What are we giving people in our music? What’s in it for the audience? How can we write our music to make the world a better place, perhaps even fulfilling needs that people didn’t realize they had until hearing it? Excellent questions. The central holidays of a season of giving seem like the perfect time to stop and think about them. I’m grateful for the reminder to do so.

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Comments

  1. Tom Hamilton says

    Lawrence Dillon asks “What will listeners gain that they don’t currently have?”

    I guess that question lurks in the air for anyone who has tried to make a commerical product out of their music. I worry that answering those kinds of questions becomes incorporated into the creative process itself, rather than as part of a marketing campaign for a finished work.

    It just seems to me (and I’ve harped on this before) that when you start shaping a piece by second-guessing the audience, you risk limiting the possibilites for the work to “be itself.” Better to ask “What will the composer gain that s/he doesn’t currently have?”

    I believe that if an artist is truly happy with their work, it radiates its own authenticity; Dillon’s question will be answered uniquely for every piece.

  2. says

    amen, tom! you have to write for you: it’s not selfish – you only have yourself to give and if you’re not developing you, growing you, enriching you, then what do you have to offer anyone else? i suspect, say, death metal has about the same size audience as new classical music, but i wonder if they have the existential/financial crises the latter seems to have.

  3. says

    I agree, Tom and Andrea. My questions were for those who believe that we should market our work better – which is fine with me, but I think one has to have specific goals in mind in order to market effectively – you can’t just market without an understanding of the audience for your product in mind.
    But I have a hard time composing with an external audience in mind – my music is written for my enjoyment, with the assumption that I’m not unique in my interests and tastes.

  4. says

    Well, andrea, we’re all pretty lazy compared to the death metal scene. They tour endlessly. And have a fanatical fan base that goes to every show of their favorite groups. Did you guys see the article, BTW about the recent Coltrane/Monk Carnegie Hall CD set? Can’t find the URL right now (NY Times makes it hard it seems).

    The cool thing about the article, and it relates to the Death Metal scene liveliness is that the author suggested that the reason scenes peak in such fantabulous greatness is because the musicians play every night in front of the same people.

    Now if we wrote music that was compelling enough to be heard night after night in the same venue, and had a few performer/composers that were willing to do that and had a venue with cheap beer/wine I think we would develop a killer scene.
    But we don’t. Our scene is really quite pathetic compared to the popular musicians’ scenes.

  5. says

    we’re not pretty lazy. there’s work on the classical scene going on. it is hard to tour, even with a small group (it’s just not very cost effective), but ASM and AWS, among others, are dipping their toes in the waters outside NYC — including museums and punk clubs, not just ‘normal’ concert halls. the music most certainly holds up to repeated performances; it is, in fact, compelling. like the death metal musicians, we know who our audience is: it’s people like us. we like coltrane/ligeti/ashley/radiohead/bauhaus/neil diamond/meshuggah. there’s more than just us. think about what you want to see and work to make it happen. that’s DIY, that’s punk, and that’s what’s happening in classical music right now. the ‘establishment’ isn’t paying attention yet, but the kids are.

  6. says

    Well, Andrea, I don’t see many of us working at record store jobs all day long and then roaring our lungs out until 3AM every night. That’s what I was trying to get at. One problem is there is no payoff. Why do that? So I can win the Pultizer? So I can get tenure? That’s never going to gen a scene.

    Also, the reason I think it’s not cost effective is BECAUSE our music isn’t compelling enough to get people out. The dwindling audience size indicates to me a basic truth. People are not being blown away by the music.

    With metal, one MP3, one club date, and a buzz and you can launch a career. In new music? Totally different situation. We’re spoiled by cronyism and used to people giving us money, not going out there and blowing away an audience and scooping up the chicks and the dough.

    For one thing, our music isn’t visceral enough to connect to large audiences. And that’s one of its strengths. Can non-visceral music generate a scene? Other genres have proven that non-visceral musics can produce scenes. The Miles Davis thoughtful cool scene could be a paradigm, I’m not saying its impossible. I’m saying its hopeless. There’s a difference. ;)

  7. Tom Hamilton says

    Jeff says: “With metal, one MP3, one club date, and a buzz and you can launch a career. In new music? Totally different situation. We’re spoiled by cronyism and used to people giving us money, not going out there and blowing away an audience and scooping up the chicks and the dough. “

    We’re now comparing new music to death metal? I don’t think my work (or that of anyone I admire) is diminished in any way not having been subjected to the same criteria as any form of entertainment one might suggest. Or for not striving for those same goals. I can’t control the response to the work, but I can be responsible for what it is.

  8. says

    Andrea started this line of discussion by comparing scenes. I thought it was an interesting thought experiment. Why don’t people go out and hear our music? Why don’t we have clubs that play our music every night that grow and grow? Why don’t we have records that sell tens of thousands of units instead of just a few hundred?

    Our tendency, as a community is to blame the listener. As a thought experiment, I propose we blame the composer. I suggest that an active and vital new music scene would develop on its own without any sponsorship, if it was generating an interest comparable to other genres.

    And Tom, you’re just reducing my arguments to omparison between musics stylistically. I’m comparing the successes of other music scenes to our failures. If we can’t get people in the door, or get them to buy a CD, maybe the music is the problem.

    FWIW, I don’t think that wearing sunglasses or standing up to play the cello or rocking out on stage or playing video on stage are the answers. I don’t think we need to become another genre, or emulate another genre. And now lots of us are just writing music of other genres and calling it ‘contemporary classical’ and thinking that’ll save the day. And please, enough with the improv.

    I think we need to recognize internal limiters on our scene and come up with something new and amazing. A new scene that’s not like any other (with lots of alcohol and coffee for sure).

    FWIW, I don’t think it will happen. I think online is our only hope. And developing virtual communities has been my focus for 20 years now. Public spaces and quiet reflective musics don’t seem compatible anymore in our decadence. And cutting through the cronyism and the academic circles is just impossible. But online, we have them by the ears. And that’s what really matters.

  9. says

    Can you be as artsy as you want, and still make people care so that they will actually seek you out? I think that’s what Jeff’s asking for. And if he’s saying that composers have been far too defensive, not sufficiently willing to make claims for their work, I’m with him. It’s not a question of ‘authenticity vs entertainment’. It’s a question of being willing to stand for something.

    The “I’m writing only for myself”-line I’ve always regarded as cynical and defensive. It’s the art composer accepting his marginalisation by capitalist society, or even trying to pass it off as a great and heroic thing. Nonsense! Even Schoenberg couldn’t stomach that. Yes, our art may come out of some sort of composerly ascesis, but it’s not meant to stay there!

    I do wonder, though, when a scene is a scene. Most ‘underground’ scenes I know, of whatever type, consist of exactly 35 persons. This seems to be a sociological constant. And that can be more than you need for a healthy culture, provided they’re enthusiastic and vocal and openminded. Then things might eventually roll a bit further, which is enough to aim for.

    (Does anyone here know how big Schuppanzigh’s scene was?)

  10. Tom Hamilton says

    Jeff says: “And Tom, you’re just reducing my arguments to omparison between musics stylistically. I’m comparing the successes of other music scenes to our failures. If we can’t get people in the door, or get them to buy a CD, maybe the music is the problem.”

    I didn’t intend to do that, but I tried to suggest that – to me – the goals of art and entertainment can be different.

    Samuel said: “The “I’m writing only for myself”-line I’ve always regarded as cynical and defensive. It’s the art composer accepting his marginalisation by capitalist society, or even trying to pass it off as a great and heroic thing. “

    Again, I can only speak for myself, but I “write for myself” in order to create a unique artifact, tempered only by my own experience. It has nothing to do with any feelings about how I might be regarded or rewarded, and everything to do with what the piece can become.

    But I am gladdened by all these comments that are directed inwardly towards the art form. An early harbinger of change, I hope.

  11. says

    Following up on Jeff’s remarks, what death metal and any other form of high energy rock music posses that the vast majority of concert music does not, is a regular pulse. Remember “it’s got a good beat and I can dance to it”? (ok, some of you ain’t old enough). Of course Tom’s comment is right, in that we can’t control the reaction others have to our personal musical truths. But it’s worth stating that as mammals with a (fairly) regular heartbeat, our DNA makes us inherently driven to respond to music with a steady beat. Our bodies move, it feels like a great release, and under some circumstances it makes us hot, sweaty, and sometimes susceptible to adult beverages and sex with people we should know just a tad better. There is a primal, beautiful, sensual aspect to what is commonly called “popular” music. And it’s popular because damn, it feels good! It make us dance, or writhe around in a mosh pit, or bob our heads until we’re dizzy. Tell me: when is the last time your body did that during a concert?

    Many of us compose rhythmic music, but we’re moved by another form of pulse interpretation. In the context of “art music” we get bored by too regular a thud-thud-thud, so we change meters a lot, keep folks on their toes as to where, if anywhere, the downbeat is, resist turning our amps up to eleven, and basically create very wonderful music that is, alas, un-danceable. This doesn’t mean it’s not brilliant, fabulous, worthy stuff, but what it does mean is that given a choice between something that’s going to make people’s bodies feel good, versus something that may make their souls, minds and spirits feel good, audiences are probably going to blow their next 45 bucks on a ticket to a rock concert rather than to an art music concert.

    So comparing what we artsy arteestes do to what rockers are doing is ultimately pointless. It’s all cool. It’s just different.

  12. says

    what i’m saying is that there IS a scene in new chamber music with visceral music and alcohol (as well as non-alcoholic alternatives, of course), people are coming through the door. it’s not huge, of course, but it’s there and it’s growing. this is happening because people saw a need for this kind of scene as an alternative to sending scores out into the void. there are clubs (galapagos, AS220, hamilton st. cafe…) that are open to a variety of music. the scene that you’re looking for, jeff, is in fact happening in new york city.

  13. says

    Tom – if you really don’t care about how what you do might be ‘regarded’, I think you’re missing out and not even primarily on social status but on form.
    Nothing has forced me to think about my music and my form as much as the audience. And I don’t mean any compromising here. It’s rather that I want to write a music that is very special, precious, and without any compromise – I just don’t want there to be any confusion about what this music is. I want the enigma of my music to be completely clear.
    That makes me study accessibility: how you guide the ear, which requires what I regard as imagination – not the ability to think up things, but the ability to know the effect of things.

  14. Tom Hamilton says

    Samuel – You seem get to where you want by your own means, so good for you. But I don’t think that what you say you regard as good intentions is so different than what I deal with.

    Regardless of what you think I may be “missing out” on (and thank you for the lecture), in the end, it is music, and what counts is what it sounds like, not what my intentions or process might be. And that’s (ideally) where I’d like the listener to start from: something that sounds good to me.

    As almost an aside, I jumped into this debate because I detected a “lack of cash – blame the music” theme, and just wanted to keep holding out for the idea that the music (and its creation) originates with the musician, not the ticketholder. I’d like to believe that at least some music can keep renewing itself this way for both musicians and audience. And when it’s so, I’m usually first in line for a ticket.

  15. says

    Tom,
    Sure – for me it’s not about cash.
    However, I’ve found that “what sounds good to me” has in some cases simply not cut it. I have audiences to thank for that insight. I learnt that I write is not interesting just because I spent a lot of time writing it.
    Thing is: to a listener, it’s not interesting what sounds good to the composer. It’s interesting when the composer can convince the listener that what sounds good to him or her should sound good to the listener as well. This doesn’t mean that music should originate with the ticketholder – it means that you should try to write convincingly.
    If you don’t want to try to write convincingly, I don’t see *what* you want. That that literally: if you can’t convince me, you can’t expect me to see what it is you want to write. In such a case I can do no more than nod politely (and forget you).
    Check my website to get an idea of what sort of things I try to convince the listener of. Perhaps you’ll hate it, but I think it’s hardly what you can expect a listener to expect from music.

  16. says

    i’d like to add that i wasn’t trying to compare the death metal scene to the classical scene, per se. i picked death metal because it’s a style that appeals to a small amount of people and i would assume that its practitioners know that and accept their fate out of love for the music. future death metal fans are born every moment. while the style will never be mainstream, it won’t ‘die,’ anymore than punk, disco, bluegrass, insert-favorite-supposedly-dead-style-here. why are we classical folk always in such a panic about our status in the wide world?
    i am guessing – perhaps wrongly – that there is not heated discussion on death metal internet groups about its demise or whether slayer isn’t duly taking its audience into consideration when putting together its album (although there may have been such discussion amongst fans when radiohead’s ‘kid a’ came out…). i think, like death metal, we know who our audience is or could be. i can’t guess what a specific person might like, but i know what i like to hear as an audience member, i know what i like to play as a performer, and i know if i’m writing for anything other than a concert (elementary band, music for the grand opening of a burrito bar…) then i will channel my quirks into something that, yes, i think the general public will ‘get.’ of course, my judgement of what the general public will get is probably rather flawed. in sum, i think writing for yourself is writing for an audience. finding other people that make up that audience is a matter of work and dealing with the word ‘no’ a lot.

  17. Walter Ramsey says

    “Thing is: to a listener, it’s not interesting what sounds good to the composer.”
    That reminds me obliquely of a Schnabel quote:
    “If you are not bored, the listener will not be bored.”
    Walter Ramsey
    KG replies: Very quotable, but it wasn’t my experience when I was young. Audiences were sometimes capable of being bored by things that I had considered intensely clever.

  18. Walter Ramsey says

    “KG replies: Very quotable, but it wasn’t my experience when I was young. Audiences were sometimes capable of being bored by things that I had considered intensely clever.”
    Which reminds me of a Sol Hurok… “When people don’t want to come, nothing will stop them.”
    Sorry couldn’t resist.
    Walter Ramsey