Class Action

“There’s no such thing as ‘the audience.’ Each musical exchange is a private one between a performer and a listener, and everyone listens differently. You can’t generalize about musical experiences.”

OK – there’s no such thing as “The Nazis,” either. Some Nazis shot Jews in the head with apparent unconcern, others felt quite anxious and guilty doing it, and still others managed to get themselves confined to clerical work. You can’t generalize about the Nazis, because each one was an individual who acted and felt differently. And if we composers can prevent people from generalizing about new music, then complaints will be limited to individual cases like, “On Sept. 22, 1982, Andrew Imbrie’s Cello Sonata made Walter P. Syasset of Fort Lee, New Jersey, wish that he had never let his wife talk him into coming to this boring concert.” That will free the composing community from any collective responsibility for their actions, and there will never have to be any self-questioning within the profession as to whether there’s perhaps something wrong with our pedagogical trends, or too much cronyism in the selection of award and commission committees. Anything amiss will be deemed at the most an infraction by a single composer, and since each listener’s response is entirely subjective, we’ll all be off the hook forever.

Only one problem: what if there are people who refuse to limit themselves to the modes of discourse that we’ve declared permissible?

(“You don’t mean like, Kyle Gann?”)


  1. mclaren says

    “…You know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.”Margaret Thatcher, 23 September 1987
    KG replies: Considering the source, I’ll take that as elegant confirmation.

  2. peter says

    To be fair to Mrs Thatcher, the statement quoted came in direct response to a question put to her by an interviewer asking what “society” would think about some proposal of her government. In the context, her reply was quite reasonable.
    More importantly, the notion that there is no “audience” for music gets short shrift in Mark Evan Bonds’ excellent book, “Music as Thought” (Princeton UP, 2006) which charts a change in the social interpretation of public musical performance during the time of Beethoven. Lots of people at the time, including composers, according to Bond, began to view public musical performance as a political and empowering act (eg, empowering for national-cultural identification) and so would have quickly rejected the notion that, “Each musical exchange is a private one between a performer and a listener”.
    KG replies: Also, observing the collective behavior of audiences for twenty years, and noticing how different it is from individual listening, makes “the audience” seem like a pretty palpable phenomenon.

  3. Samuel Vriezen says

    I’m sorry guys, I can’t help but be the spoilsport here. I hope you can forgive me.
    It’s not the coherence of the argument I disagree with. It’s the terms of the analysis and the implied prescriptions. We’re talking about the audience here as if it’s something out there that is (1) as big as the world and (2) that we can deal with. But as composers of contemporary “non-pop” music we simply don’t have that kind of marketeering power in our field – I’m talking basic resources here – though if we’re lucky we know some hotshots who program orchestras or festivals who have a little more of it.
    It’s easiest to begin with the Nazi comparison – if only because as hyperboles, Nazi comparisons are always easy targets (hence Godwin’s Law).
    No matter what individual differences you might have, it was always easy to identify what Nazis were and could be and what they couldn’t be. A Nazi was someone who was a member of the Nazi party and so supported Nazi politics. They couldn’t, therefore, be (known) Jews. So it means something extremely specific to be a Nazi.
    But what does it mean to be a member of The Audience? If we are to speak of The Audience in this kind of way, we need to establish who is, and thereby – I’m sorry, but this is essential – who is NOT, entitled to be The Audience.
    But none of us wants to be excluded from The Audience, and I think none of us would find it reasonable to exclude anybody from The Audience. So here you have a difference between audiences and Nazis.
    Clearly, if we both want to be reasonable and have some sense of The Audience, we can’t give such limiting pre-determinations, and we are reduced to statistics (and some lies and damn lies). The Audience is at best the statistical behavior of a large, undifferentiated group of people. Certainly Kyle is addressing this statistical audience in his response to Peter.
    Now it’s not to be denied that there is such a thing as a statistical behavior of any large group of people. You can always do statistics. That’s what statistics is there for: to make calculations about things without individual quality. To do statistics, you only need to disregard qualities.
    But what are we to do with it? Are we to ‘take responsibility’ for such a statistical behavior by a large group of people?
    That, it seems to me, is a delusion of power. I’m convinced that the idea that we can, as marginal composers, take responsibility for our relationship to The Audience as a statistical phenomenon in a meaningful way at all is sheer overestimation of our place in the world.
    As if this boundless, amorphous group of people is sitting there waiting for us to react to. As if they don’t have enough music to listen to already! As if what I do can change what a large group of people will do, just like that.
    As if this large group of people is not in fact organised in all sorts of ways by all sorts of infrastructures – that, if I would want to use them, will actually be more important than my contribution in determining what gets through.
    I can talk and theorize about “The Audience” in any way I like; if I want to ‘take responsiblity’ for my (let alone that of the entire composing community’s!) relation to it – which, if it is to be meaningful, boils down to being able to level with it somehow, to have the option of influencing it directly, that is, influence the statistical behavior of a large group of people – I should – in this world – do something other than composing. It’s the communication departments, the marketeers, that communicate with large groups of people. As composers, we can either fulfill the needs of the communicators, or we’ll have small audiences – no matter how much we pride ourselves in the theoretical responsiblities we are taking.
    In classical music, most people go to concerts of classical works. If we want to communicate with the audience of classical music, we need to write pieces that fulfill the desires of programmers of concerts of classical music. Because in the first place it’s they (NOT the audience itself! audiences never initiate, they follow) who determine what reaches The Audience (in the sense of a large group of people) and gets a chance to communicate with it. What do programmers program these days? If they want to reach ‘the audience’, they program a Mozart concerto. And ask a composer to write a 10 minute ouverture that doesn’t get in the way too much.
    What other audience is there if you go around those existing power structures (and this includes those ‘awards and commission committees)? I can only be one we create, I believe. But you don’t create an audience from a large group of people – you create them locally, and if what is shared locally becomes so clear that it is communicable to other situations, your audience *might* – but *is never certain to* – grow. Like organisms, audiences just don’t start big.
    That’s why I think ‘taking responsibility’ for audiences doesn’t start from some statistical idea of ‘the’ audience – and why the first message of composers should be that the people listening to their work are not ‘the’ audience. But ‘a’ audience, a new audience, present to a unique event.
    Perhaps they find that feeling exciting.
    KG replies: Hi Samuel. Thanks for your comments, which are insightful as always. I’m the official spoilsport here, and I don’t cede that role to anyone. I felt bad because I knew it would look like I was responding to you, and I truly wasn’t, I was responding to a hundred musicians over the years who have told me never, ever to generalize. But whenever I talk about “the audience,” there’s never anything statistical about it. I know lots of audiences, and they all behave differently. I know the BAM audience (best 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). And I’ve observed lots of collective behavior by audiences, and they’re very consistent and revealing. I’ve seen them all start backward at once in the middle of a fantastic ROVA sax quartet solo, and all suddenly burst into a guffaw when Rzewski quotes a Beethoven chord. The collective behavior, so different from individual listening, is fascinating, and (when the audience is good, i.e. absorbed) draws a kind of map of how the music works. In any case, my point wasn’t really about the audience, but about the fact that people who tell you you can’t talk about certain things usually have a political reason for telling you so, because they want to define the terms in such a way that they themselves are advantaged in the argument. It’s a Republican strategy of which, in music, Brian Ferneyhough is the master. And the only real point here is that I do not let other people define my terms for me, or tell me what level I’m allowed to talk on. So we’re a little at cross-purposes here, though in the abstract, I certainly see what you’re saying.

  4. Joe Barron says

    So, you’re saying, what, that audiences are Nazis? That we’re all subject to groupthink? It’s a bad analogy, and an offensive one.
    The problem with populism as an aesthetic philosophy is that it requires me to let other people make up my mind for me. If a larger audience or the public, even one you can generalize about, doesn’t like a particular piece of music and I do, how is my behavior supposed to change? Do I have to take a poll before I can decide whether I like a work of art? On the other hand, if millions of are paying billions of dollars to see Cats, am I therefore obligated to think its great? Personally, I’m glad there is complex music in the world. I’d get bored if everything were on the same simple level you seem to think the public prefers. It seems that you are the one limited the discourse to permissible terms.
    Your hero Ives knew his complex music would never be popular. That’s why he sold insurance.
    KG replies: Many, many nonmusicians have trouble coming up with their own opinions about art, and rely on the opinions of others, and many musicians are influenced in their own opinions by the opinions of those they admire. Many people, wanting to fit in, are subtly influenced by the behavior of people around them. I see nothing to be gained by pretending that those facts are not facts. You offer no evidence to convince me that every listener in the world is just like you, nor does that make much sense as a proposition. There are, of course, musicians capable of completely making up their own minds, but I would suspect that we form a minority.