Both sides now

Andrew Taylor, my blog neighbor, now gets to inhabit both my blog and his own with this comment he e-mailed about my audience piece:

While I’m sure you’re being pilloried for suggesting orchestras consider their audience (at least quietly pilloried), I’d even nudge the argument one step further than your article suggests. I’m a big fan of John Dewey’s view of art from way back in 1932, that art doesn’t exist until it is received and processed. It’s a noise or an artifact in an empty room. Here’s how Dewey puts it:

“For to perceive, a beholder must create his own experience. And his creation must include relations comparable to those which the original producer underwent.…Without an act of recreation the object is not perceived as a work of art.” (Art as Experience, p. 54.)

So, if the art of orchestral music requires both an orchestra and a listener to become art, then both sides are REQUIRED to be in the room (or at the speaker) and prepared for the experience. It’s not that orchestras need to consider their audience, they need to understand that they don’t make music without them.

Thanks, Andrew.

And this would be a worthwhile discussion — why people in the classical music world think music is somehow imparted in a one-sided transaction. Some years ago, a composer who teaches at a big Midwestern university told me how he’d tried to introduce the concept of feedback in his classes. The audience, he’d explain, is always giving something back. Now, any performer knows that this is true. But at the university in question, this concept outraged the music department! Somehow it attacked the greatness of the music — as if the music stood apart from any use of it, so it doesn’t matter how anyone reacts to a performance.

(This was the same music department that objected when I included James Brown in a course I taught as a visiting professor. The course was called “American Music Since 1945,” and was more or less my revenge for a course called “Music Since 1945″ I took as a graduate student at the Yale School of Music. That course only looked at “advanced” composers — Cage, Babbitt, Stockhausen, and a fourth I can’t remember. Maybe Carter. My revenge in my course was to cover all kinds of post-1945 music, classical, pop, and jazz, Babbitt, Philip Glass, Elvis, and many more people, including James Brown.

No! screamed the faculty. You can teach Elvis, even, but not James Brown. There’s nothing to say about him, by which they meant nothing analytical, nothing that music theory can address. Hah. He was the one figure in my pantheon who really needed to be taught. I’d often start a class by playing something I’d assigned to the students, and then asking them to tell me what was going on in the music. They could do that for classical pieces; they could do it for the Beach Boys. But when it came to James Brown they were stuck. They couldn’t think of anything to say. I had to draw their attention to the rhythm — to, just for instance, the way Brown’s voice jumps ahead of the beat, then slides behind it.

What this means is that their classical training hadn’t taught them how to listen to rhythm. Or, really, even to consider the possibility that rhythm might be where all the crucial things in a piece of music might be happening. So music in which most of what goes on is rhythmic became, in the faculty’s view, music in which nothing was going on, simply because they didn’t know how to hear the rhythmic stuff.)

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