All Indians Walk Single File

I’m moving a topic from a reply I made in the comments up to a new entry, because it strikes me that it may explain some things. I piss people off all the time by making what people think are generalizations, that might more charitably be characterized as descriptions of collective behavior. As someone rather hyper-aware of peer pressure and who reflexively recoils from it, perhaps collective behavior is something I’m more sensitive to than others. 

Let’s take that mythical animal, “the audience.” “You can’t talk about the audience, there is no such thing as the audience.” Well, these days I live like a hermit, but keep in mind that for many years I attended five concerts a week, often two or three in an evening, at ten or 15 usual spaces all over New York. I became very aware, among other things, of how a performance that drew cheers from one audience might get blank stares from another, and it was to some extent predictable. I saw the audiences more regularly than I did the individual performers, and got to know them better. I ranged the city from Avery Fisher Hall to King Tut’s Wa-wa Hut; if you only get your new-music fixes at, say, Miller Theater and Carnegie Hall, you may never have learned enough about audiences to realize how much, and how predictably, they can vary.

I knew the BAM audience (best, most nuanced audience in America), the NY Philharmonic audience (worst and rudest), the Kitchen audience (hip but not very spontaneous), the Experimental Intermedia audience (all friends, and undemonstrative), the Chicago jazz audience (very savvy and good-humored, intense listeners). I sat in the Chicago Symphony audience among people who’d made up their minds before they came in, half believing that Georg Solti was a god who could do no wrong and the other half convinced the orchestra would never again be what it used to be under Reiner. I sat at Roulette in the middle of an early ’90s John Zorn audience indistinguishable from a Barack Obama rally today – you betrayed divergence from the prevalent riotous approval at your peril. I sat, or stood, in the Knitting Factory and CBGBs (on new music nights) among audiences whose members, aside from myself, ranged in age from 21 to 23. These toddlers made no distinction between one act and another, one piece and another – they weren’t appraising the music, they were learning the scene, mindful to show a hip level of enthusiasm, but afraid to look uncool. I would observe the audience’s reactions as a counterpoint to my own, and these post-pubescent audiences were worthless for that – it was like I was the only subjective consciousness in the room. 

I’ve seen audiences lie, in both directions. I’ve seen audiences spend the duration of a performance bored and restless, flipping through their programs, and then burst into a standing ovation when it was over, because the music was something they were “supposed” to approve; and I’ve seen audiences get caught up curiously and very attentive, and then applaud tepidly and speak slightingly of the music during intermission, because the composer’s reputation was still in doubt. On the other hand, I’ve seen a sophisticated audience all start backward at once at a daring turn in the middle of a fantastic ROVA sax quartet improv, and another all suddenly burst into a guffaw when Rzewski slyly quoted Beethoven. We all like to believe in free will and have faith in the integrity of our individual judgments, but you put 300 people in a room together, point them at a stage, and give them a stimulus, and certain kinds of groupthink take over, except perhaps for an intransigent, peer-pressure-hating curmudgeon like myself. Add to that that audiences tend to be fairly self-selecting, based on venue. If the audience generates a groundswell of enthusiasm, nothing can afterward shake the faith that that reaction was directly attributable to the music itself. That’s often how reputations get made, and then you move the same music to a larger, more formal venue where it falls flat, and everyone gets confused. But if the audience is a well-tuned, sensitive instrument, its behavior can draw a revealing map of how the music works.

The late, great Jim Tenney was someone who’d always tell me, “You can’t generalize about the audience, everyone listens differently.” Well, Jim probably rarely went to the local symphony or the Knitting Factory, but to small new-music concerts where he was surrounded by like-minded individuals who were unusually focussed on their own individual judgment, and, expecting to compare notes with their peers afterward, pretty free from collective bleed-through. Within his usual haunts, he was probably right – you couldn’t generalize about his audience. But Virgil Thomson says somewhere, and I don’t want to go look it up so I’ll paraphrase it and ruin it, that what being a critic teaches a composer is a realism about what can get across to an audience and what can’t, and the sad truth that an effect cannot be communicated simply by wishful thinking. When I talk about “the audience” I may have BAM in mind if I’m thinking of a perfect world, or the NY Phil in mind if I’m thinking of them as a bunch of shits who don’t deserve anything better than Kenny G, but I am thinking of an entity that possesses, for me, a palpable presence. Maybe it’s you who can’t generalize about the audience.

Likewise, I’m hyper-sensitive, perhaps, to the kinds of groupthink that run through the composing world, for which we composers bear, in my view, a collective responsibility. For instance, it’s kind of standard to say today, on one side of the line, that in the 1970s composition teachers pushed their students to write 12-tone music or some suitably complex-sounding equivalent. But I don’t think that’s quite what happened. It seems to me that the real pressure came not from faculty, but from peers and the general environment, and that a kind of macho competitiveness based on compositional systems became an inescapable undercurrent. Probably the professors, who in their own minds were trying to be fair and impartial, took a little more encouraging interest in the students whose music reflected their own interests, and that subtle preferential treatment spread throughout the student body as an emotional charge connected to compositional systems, to which some students gravitated and against which others rebelled, but no one was allowed to remain neutral. That would explain both why so many students remember a perception of having been pushed toward systematic thinking, while so many professors feel injured by any such suggestion. And I was at Oberlin; we’d have Midwest Composer Symposia, and I’d learn that the dynamics were a little different at U. of Michigan, and different again at U. of Iowa.

On composition panels, I’m always the one who notices that, out of 73 orchestral scores by young composers, 19 of them start out with a dramatic single tone crescendoing into a burst of percussion, and of course I immediately disqualify those 19 as composers who’ve succumbed to the clichés of their time. (One of Feldman’s talents was for identifying clichés no one else would recognize as such – like the facts that, in the ’70s, the standard orchestra piece had become 20 minutes, and the default tempo quarter-note equals 72.) Contrarily, I notice a 7-against-6 pattern running through a piece by Ben Neill, and then an 8-against-9 in Evan Ziporyn, and a 6-against-7-against-8 in Glenn Branca, and it occurs to me that there’s a movement going on, and I coin an -ism, and man, does that piss everyone off. I am not supposed to call attention to the things I notice – if they conflict with the article of faith that each one of us is absolutely unique like a snowflake, and impervious to outside suggestion or unconscious imitation, or even picking up ideas that are “in the air.” (Hey, have you noticed that all snowflakes have six sides?)

Among all good liberals, generalizations took on a bad odor in the ’70s, as though they were all of the same form as, “all Blacks are great dancers,” or, “Jewish people are good with money.” My mother had a great put-down line for people who drew conclusions from too little evidence; she’d respond, “All Indians walk single file. I saw one once, and he did.” More recently, though, the idea of groupthink has entered our political discourse as an attempt to describe what goes wrong within professional circles. We composers have groupthink too – and how are we supposed to identify groupthink if we are forbidden to generalize, or notice recurring patterns? The prohibition against generalizing can be a political tool for preventing the recognition and exposure of groupthink. No wonder certain people are so violently opposed to it.

Well, forgive me for being me. I just paint what I see as clearly as you’d paint a tree in your front yard, but being a Scorpio, I perceive the substrata more clearly than the surface. I see patterns, I draw connections, and since no one else sees them, or they’re all focused on other things instead, I must be up to something sinister, or perhaps just crazy. If my descriptions find no resonance they will fade away quickly enough, but I can only employ the talents I have.

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Comments

  1. says

    I think that the kind of taxonomy you do is helpful from a commercial standpoint, and maybe people might realize that being a “snowflake” isn’t very easy to market. Is there a general implicit (?) opposition to commercialism? Why? Categories are good for memorability, coherence. I don’t think it stands in the way of individuality or authenticity. If anything, it highlights the individual within the subgroup, makes them stand out a little more and gives them a sense of weight belonging to a general trend. The hard thing is when someone straddles different trends that might seem incompatible—but that didn’t bother Matisse or Picasso very much (or Copland or Stravinsky). Patrons are looking for a good bet provided by something stable and coherent. You help them find it.
    KG replies: Why is it taxonomy, and why only from a commercial standpoint? I know how to describe the behavior of certain audiences I’m familiar with, just as I can describe certain friends. I’m not classifying them. And it’s a great artistic thrill to have one’s music played for an attentive, open-minded audience, which makes some venues more attractive than others in that respect.
    Or wait, perhaps you’re only referring to the end of the article, about totalism. I can only refer you back to this more in-depth rationale:
    http://www.artsjournal.com/postclassic/2006/01/rules_of_the_word_game.html

  2. says

    Thanks for making all this ruckus. I’ve been enjoying your blog posts about complexity, the audience, and so forth. The past few years has been a kind of systematic deprogramming of what I thought/learned a composer was supposed to be and how a composer was supposed to write a piece. These last few posts are helping push me off the cliff, so to speak, about figuring out what the hell I’m really doing. I don’t think I have any answers, mind you, but I think I’m asking myself better questions.
    And, as for all the fuss that others are making about your comments, I can’t help but geek out and quote Han Solo from Empire Strikes Back: “I must have hit her pretty close to the mark to get her all riled up like that, huh, kid?”
    KG replies: Thanks, Jay. It would be churlish of me to overstate the opposition I’ve gotten recently – everybody’s been extremely supportive – but there were a ton of naysayers in the past, and I still manage to irk someone now and then.

  3. mcmechanism says

    The ability to see patterns is too rare a quality in this world; one wishes there were a few more people in Washington with the ability. While you clearly have an innate talent for it, it’s also obvious your long career as a reviewer shaped and refined that skill.
    Moving tangentially, I wonder if you saw this article from the NYTimes, from May 20, 08, headlined “Older Brain REally May Be a Wiser Brain.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/20/health/research/20brai.html?scp=5&sq=brain&st=nyt) The premise is that the younger brain is better tuning out distractions and focusing on a particular task; the older brain is better at processing both task and distraction, and therefore better at seeing potential connections between them. Or, as a Dr. Hasher says, “A broad attention span may enable older adults to ultimately know more about a situation and the indirect message of what’s going on than their younger peers…We believe that this characteristic may play a significant role in why we think of older people as wiser.”
    Then the scientists go on to equate creativity with lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, but I think they’re being mean because they’re jealous.
    On the audience front, I wonder if you’ve been exposed to the theory of “mirror neurons.” I won’t expose my scientific shortcomings by trying to explain it. Here is a link to the Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neurons. I think if you took that theory, and mixed it with some of Dr. E. O. Wilson’s theories on social behaviour and evolution (he’s the Harvard doc who studies ants and other social insects), you might just come out at the same exact place you did in this post, that groups of people can demonstrate particular behaviours as much as individuals. So when some genius collects his Nobel prize for this work in the future, make sure he or she acknowledges you got there first.
    KG replies: Thanks for the leads. I haven’t been exposed to any science since 11th-grade chemistry class. I think the periodic table was up to aluminum.

  4. says

    Hi Kyle, thanks for these clarifications – it makes a lot of sense to me. I guess we can say that there may not be ‘the’ audience, but there certainly are audiences – each of them somehow historically and socially consituted. And I realise that if I find myself having a problem with generalizing about the audience, that’s because I want to see if I can find one of my own – which may well be typical of someone who likes Tenney (and so is 47.9% likely to be a composer…)

  5. says

    I was referring to Totalism in the paragraph starting “On composition panels . . .” I’m not sure what’s wrong with commercialism, though. There are plenty of examples of commercialism in coinage as your prior post supports, and I’ll throw in another one for good measure: Herwald Walden coined Expressionism in Der Sturm in 1911/12. The word was thrown around in reference to a lot of other things before he made it officially about German-speaking modernism. Walden was competing with Paris, and he was just as concerned with selling paintings in his gallery as anyone at the Impressionist galleries or at the salon. I think taxonomy (i.e. name coinage) can be an important way to help the public identify with an artist. It seems nowadays like some want to think there’s something wrong with trying to make a living from art. (I don’t think you believe that based on prior posts.) Making art for whatever non-commercial reason a person can think of is a relatively new concept in the history of art. And it seems like dealers and critics have such a bad rap now, though they are so useful in clarifying things for the public (even when a critic labels someone pejoratively as in the Impressionism example).
    The taxonomy comment had to do entirely with Totalism and not with all of that about the audience. I like your comment “I know how to describe the behavior of certain audiences I’m familiar with, just as I can describe certain friends.” I have about five people I consider my best friends, and I sometimes think that my sixth best friend is the rest of the world. I rely on them each for different things.
    KG replies: I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps you’ve saved me from a blog entry that I now won’t have to write.

  6. says

    I disagree with Tom Brennan’s comment, “Making art for whatever non-commercial reason a person can think of is a relatively new concept in the history of art.” On the contrary, making art for commercial reasons — that is, for sale to a consumer — is very new in the history of art. In classical music it’s barely more than 200 or 250 years old. Before then, composers worked for a single patron or for the church. They worked for pay, but the system wasn’t commercial in the contemporary sense.
    Millions of examples of unpaid music-making: birthday parties, work songs, lullabies to babies (very often invented by the parent, who usually would never think of herself or himself as a “songwriter” or “composer”). Anonymous songs even made the 20th century hit parade: when “Home on the Range” became a radio hit in the 1930s, nobody had identified the composer or the lyricist; it turns out that the composer (who has since been identified) was a semi-professional musician, who got paid for performing, not for writing. The lyricist was an amateur.
    Art for pay does go back thousands of years — the artists of the Pharoahs’ tombs probably made their livings doing that — but art “for sale” (as distinguished from “for pay”) is very recent; and art for no money has *always* been with us, and, Marduk willing, always will be.

  7. says

    I like this post. It reminds me of a friend of mine who has told me that she hears patterns in tonal music very differently from the patterns described by received analytical traditions, and that she’s run into some difficulty because of it. Of course, there’s always the possibility of an unusual way of hearing things suddenly capturing everyone’s attention and changing the way a lot of people listen (e.g. Schenker). Although it probably helps if your way of hearing things supports someone’s political goals (e.g. Schenker “proving” the superiority of Austro-German music).
    I think the issue of stylistic pressure in academia is a bit less one-sided than you suggest. Michael Daugherty says that Wuorinen actually forbade him from writing octaves. I’ve seen it happen in the other direction in recent years: I once played one of my more dissonant pieces for a professor of Daugherty’s generation at another school, and his comment was, “Did you feel forced to write in this style because you were in an academic environment?” I didn’t at all — I just like dissonance — but I felt that that remark represented a less intense, friendlier sort of professorial pressure not to write in a style that could be perceived as “modernist.” But you’re absolutely right that fellow students play a large, maybe even a larger, part in this phenomenon as well. I often felt a very intense anti-modernist, anti-European, pro-postminimalist, pro-rock-influence sentiment from some of my fellow students at Michigan, to the point that I was initially embarrassed to tell people when I got interested in Ferneyhough. (This is particularly bizarre because most of the music I actually write is much closer to Steve Mackey or Scott Johnson than it is to Ferneyhough.)
    I’m curious, by the way: how come the similarities you note here between Ziporyn, Branca and Neill don’t turn you off in the same way as those competition entries that open the same way? How come you don’t see it as “groupthink” too? Is it just because they’re music doesn’t actually *sound* that similar? (I’m not familiar with Neill’s work, but at least, Ziporyn and Branca don’t feel at all like clones of each other to me.)
    KG replies: Thank goodness for the easy questions. Of course, it’s because the totalists were making very dissimilar musics based on similar (and partly hidden) underlying structures – without even realizing they had company! The kids who all started off with single tone/cymbal crash couldn’t free their ears from something they’d already heard somewhere else.

  8. says

    Two separate things. First, when you’re talking about the expectations and pressures placed on student composers, are you talking about grad students, undergrads, or both? Your diagnosis of the situation seems about right–I would just add a couple of things. First, at the undergraduate level I think part of what happens is that professors are generally willing to teach their students to compose whatever the students want to compose but there’s a presumption that if the student wants to follow the academic route there’s a particular path to success. There’s not much direct pressure–it’s the presumptions by the faculty and the institution about whom they need to take seriously. I was fortunate to have teachers who took me seriously even though I wasn’t writing in an approved academic style, but it was made clear to me that unless I switched to a different style I was going to have a hard time of it. I knew another student who had been writing in a neoromantic style who had clearly been accepted into a Masters program on the premise that he had raw talent but that now that he was in grad school it was time to get serious and start writing in a more academic style. Which brings me to my point about graduate schools: in grad school the faculty chooses the composers they accept, so the students are pre-screened for academic acceptability. Again there’s little direct pressure, but the selection criteria make for an increasingly homogenous pool of talent. Most students are already writing in an approved style. Some students were brought in with the assumption that they would get “more serious” now that they were in grad school, and others who appeared “serious” initially but convert to less “serious” music can tell that they’re dissappointing the faculty. Ultimately, of course, a lot of this stuff reduces down to the conflation of personal taste and judgements of quality. There are lots of people who claim not to have stylistic prejudices but whose taste results in biases in judgements of quality which are heavily skewed against certain genres.
    What you’re saying about the nature of audiences being generalizable is of course true–I’m amazed that it needed to be spelled out, but apparently it does. The thing that interests me is why people are so committed to the idea that the audience can’t be generalized. My initial thought is that it comes from the American fetishization of personal responsibility. Just as we’re afraid that saying that poverty increases the crime rate somehow means that we can’t hold individual criminals responsible for their actions, we’re afraid that if audiences function as groups it will somehow mean that individuals don’t have and aren’t responsible for their own tastes. Composers need the audience to be responsible for their own tastes so that when audience members don’t like their work it’s because the audience members are wrong and when they do like it it’s because they’re right. If the audience is absolved of responsibility for its own tastes and reactions, then the composer is saddled with the responsibility of meeting the needs of the agregate audience. Obviously this isn’t how things really work, but I’m thinking that’s something like how we tend to think about it.

  9. says

    In response to your commentary on groupthink among composers, it does seem that we’re less inclined nowadays to make grand pronouncements about how music ought to be composed, or to make the “performative act” of declaring allegiance to one –ism or another. I think that may be because the stakes don’t seem as high as they once did. It’s pretty clear now that music isn’t progressing in any one direction toward any particular goal, so whatever innovation a composer may come up with is unlikely to be seen either as the way of the future or as a dangerous wrong turn; it’s just one more thing.
    The groupthink does still exist, but it manifests itself more subtly in the unequal standards we apply in our aesthetic judgements. Great pieces in whatever style may stand above the fray, but each “scene” has a much greater tolerance for mediocre, run-of-the-mill works in its own accepted style. The characteristic techniques and tics of someone else’s school are clichés that demonstrate a lack of imagination and a servile acceptance of stylistic orthodoxy, while those of our own school are evidence of technical mastery and craftsmanship. We may not think a piece is great or even good, but we’ll grant that at least it’s well-written if it touches all the bases of the local house style. In other words, derivative pieces are generally acceptable as long as they’re derivative of the right models.

  10. says

    Galen – I think the reason why you can find resistance to any idea of generalizable audience is this. You can (given a particular audience) generalize about its behaviour; that’s the world as it is. But it’s not thereby the world as it should be.
    If you take an idealistic view, then in the world as it should be, everybody has gone deep inside themselves to find what is important. This is less about everybody being different from one another (that already fits perfectly with contemporary capitalist ideology; a great deal of our often-celebrated ‘differences’ are in fact completely social) than about everybody seeing themselves and for their world on a deep, completely felt level – a first step towards, indeed, personal responsibility, though not the ‘fetishized’ one you mention; which requires somehow a kind of solitude, because you can’t get to such a level if you continue being submerged in social and historical pressures.
    Art has many incarnations and functions, and one of these, a very important one to many of us I think, is that it could in fact could help people find such a kind of solitude where important things in life might come to appear. The kind of experience Thoreau seems to have been after at Walden. This kind of important experiences always has a strong solitary dimension, even if it’s a thousand people having such an experience at the same time.
    So if there’s a problem with the generalized audience, it’s in how some artists want to address the audience and what we want to achieve by their address. Other artists of course would like to actually address the audience *as* a group, and offer them a *collective* experience, an experience of being together, being social – so that the fun in listening is not merely in that you’re in a group of like-minded listeners, but that you’re constantly being made *aware* of the power of such a group, and that your positive experience *depends* on being in that group, that the people around you are the people that you’re more-than-together with, and their co-presence is what the music conveys.
    If you want to change things (even if it’s just the world of prize committees) you may want to somehow break such spells of collectivity. So if generalized audiences are resisted, it’s not because they don’t exist, but because their existence may not always be what art is about.
    The other problem (which I now understand does not apply to this particular discussion) is with the notion of a generalized audience without limit to ‘scene’. This is totalizing the untotalizeable. The system of all possible audiences is not a closed system.
    KG replies: If I may add in here, not entirely linearly: one of the things that you learn from the system of thought embedded in astrology, or likewise from Jungian psychology, is that introverts focus on the inside world, extroverts on the outer world. Extreme introverts – and musicians involved in experimental music probably fall disproportionately in this category – would rather die than take their opinions from others. But extreme extroverts may be far more focused on what seems hot and trendy at the moment, and might hardly consult their own perceptions at all. If the world were all introverts, hardly any communication would take place. Extroverts fulfill a tremendously important service in getting the word out and forming connections between members of society. Of course, we musicians tend to assume that every audience member is like us and forms opinions the way we do, and it’s good to keep in mind that that’s just not true. I once got a great comment from an extrovert – “I didn’t know what I thought about that piece until I read your review.” These people, thank goodness, are part of the music scene too.