The immediate future of my blog may well be excerpts from MusikTexte’s new volume of Robert Ashley’s writings, Outside of Time: Ideas about Music. Damn, he’s a great writer. This one’s about the conservative reaction that followed the demise of the ONCE festivals in 1968:
Recitals are a curse. Forget for the moment the history of how they came into being. Recitals are a curse. They make the musician into an entertainer, rated, say, on a scale of ten: Ashley = 1; Michael Jackson = 10. They make the audience into a consumer, requiring the equivalent of a restaurant guide: should I go to hear Ives’s songs sung by somebody I have never heard of or should I go to hear an Indonesian gamelan, played by people I don’t even know about, or should I go to the Philharmonic and hear some turn-of-the-century Austrian music? Dear me.
The political reaction of 1970 was a return to recitals. That the music was called minimalism or the uptown complications of serialism doesn’t matter in the least. The reproach to what had gradually come to be the feeling that music was everywhere, that you were part of it and you were actually in it in your daily life was enforced for some cultural reason I cannot understand. The ONCE Group pieces had come more and more to suggest the idea that you were a character in an opera that was bigger than you could understand. That is why we were [physically] attacked at Brandeis and elsewhere. Because we had stopped giving recitals.
Recitals were a perfect format for so-called “world music.” Balinese gamelan, no problem. Bong bong bong. How cute. That the gamelan was part of a larger ceremony of cremating the body, drinking the pig’s blood and not sleeping for a week didn’t enter the picture. Bong bong bong. How cute.
“World music” has been a disaster for America. It doesn’t kill people, like AIDS, but it has made us all into consumers, because we are not from Indonesia or South America or China or wherever, and so can only sit there listening to the sounds, wondering where we will eat after the concert, hoping the baby-sitter is behaving and, all in all, wishing we were at home. So we are at the mercy of the “distributor,” who makes all things available, but takes the music out of our hands. The distributor, in this case, is the music school and its patrons, who – certainly without understanding what they are doing, what is happening – turn us all into either entertainers or consumers.
That palpable but invisible wall between the entertainer and the audience is a fact of the recital. As a member of the audience you are a consumer and a consumer only. Take your seat. The musicians come on stage. Two or three pieces. Intermission. Two or three pieces. End. You are back out on the street having had an experience, which in most cases lasts only as long as the experience itself. This is a recital. It could have been juggling or a live porno act. Whatever it is, you are not part of it. You have been a watcher. The recitalist hopes that you have been entertained. But you have not been included. You have simply been distracted from what is outside. You do not have more of a musical life. Your life is not more musical.
This is our situation today. And it’s not much fun. Because the composer does not have the idea of including the people who come while the music is being enacted. We have lost the idea of the rituals that remind the people who come that what is happening is only a small part, a “surfacing” of the continuing musicality of everyday life.
Actually, those rituals do not exist, except in television and probably in sports events. Everybody plays baseball or football or basketball or soccer or hockey (or wishes they did or thinks they do) so the game is only a “version” of what is part of your life. You are emotionally in it. That is what I mean by ritual. Everybody does not go around singing Mahler or Ives or Feldman or Palestrina. The music is foreign to you. Interesting, maybe, but foreign, like the gamelan. You are not in it. Mostly music students go to recitals. This is true, maybe more so, even if the music is all by living composers. Not that we should expect huge audiences for recitals. But we should expect that the audience is a part of the music, and this is not true, even if the audience is entirely music students. This is the dilemma of contemporary music. The ritual has disappeared. The event is hollow. [“Speech as Music: A Musical Autobiography,” pp. 54/56]