As a music critic, I’ve sat in the middle of hundreds of audiences, and I’ve observed them closely. I’ve seen them all gasp in unison at a right turn in a daring improv; I’ve seen them break into laughter at a clever one-chord quotation in a Rzewski piece; I’ve seen them fooled by an energetic performance into approving mediocre music; I’ve seen them let their minds wander during a performance and then clap loudly because it was something they were supposed to like. In short, I’ve generally seen audience members get swept into a collective dynamic, especially if a piece or performance is extreme in one way or another – extraordinarily boring, virtuosic, touching, and so on. I’ve also talked to people at intermissions and found that, despite a tremendous variety of opinions, it’s usually pretty easy to reach agreement on the details. It’s one’s evaluation of the details that makes for differences of opinion.
And so, from my own observations, I’ve always thought that that omnipresent composer mantra – “I never think about the audience when I write, because there is no such thing as the audience; everyone listens differently” – was hugely exaggerated. Within reasonable social-group similarities, people don’t listen that differently. Everyone drives differently, too, but it’s funny that when I press on my brake, the guy behind me nearly always does too.
So I think about the audience when I compose. Constantly. Of course I don’t simply try to write what will please them. I have my own kind of musical content I want to get across, and always have: overlapping rhythmic schemes, intricately interlocked harmonies, smooth forms whose seams (if any) are carefully brushed over. That stuff is me, and if I couldn’t put that into music, I’d quit composing. But when I was younger I often noticed that I’d stuff a piece with everything I wanted to say, and the audience wouldn’t get it. They’d just be mystified. I realized that my message wasn’t coming across. I went through a lot of self-criticism, and learned to give the audience what I call “points of entry” so they’d recognize something right away. If I wanted to get them to perceive a 13-against-29 tempo clash (in my piece Texarkana), I’d couch it in stride piano technique, so they’d have something familiar to start with. To seduce them into a tonal flux of microtonal harmonies in Custer and Sitting Bull, I added a military snare drum beat. I don’t call that compromising – I just call it learning how to get your message across, giving the listener something to hold onto, something that interests them, acknowledging their part of the transaction. It’s not up to me whether audiences like my music or not, but if they listen to a piece of mine and have no idea what I was trying to do, I consider that my failure. Frankly, I feel composers should forget about Schoenberg (who railed against people who please the audience) and start taking lessons from Spielberg.
Out of a purported 40,000 composers in America, I thought 39,999 disagreed with me, but it now turns out the number is only 39,997. As revealed in the comments on my previous post, Jeff Harrington and Samuel Vriezen also believe in composing with the audience in mind. That makes three of us.
UPDATE: Actually, let me add one more thought. Beethoven gave us what I consider an admirable model: he wrote the Grosse Fuge, which almost no one understood, and also the Ninth Symphony, which no one can fail to understand. And I’ve never figured out why today’s composers seem to think that they need to choose one point along this continuum and compose only from that point. Why not write one piece with a typical symphony audience in mind, and the next as a puzzle just for yourself and friends? As I once asked in a Village Voice column, “Isn’t Craft a god who must be propitiated, and won’t an occasional offering do the job?”