New Music Is Boring Part One: The Tyranny of the Concert Hall

If you’re back after reading my first post, I’ll assume that I don’t need to keep hammering home the point the new music scene in America is a mess.  I’d like for this blog to be a place where people who don’t want that to be the case can rationally discuss what we can do to fix it, and I think the first step in the process has to be addressing what in particular is wrong.

Here’s the State of the Union in one sentence:
We have no audience because our concerts are boring.

It’s not a lack of education on the part of the public.  It’s not the fault of crumbling classical music institutions.  It’s not that people today have trashier taste or shorter attention spans or only want to stay at home with the Internet wired into every orifice.

All of these things and many others may well be true, but shifting the blame for the state of things to vast cultural currents we can’t control accomplishes nothing, and worse, places the onus for change conveniently outside of our purview.  That’s just self-pity, and there’s no place for it in a rational discussion about our future.

What we can do is identify those negative aspects that are under our control and do something to change them.

Perform this simple test.  Next time you are at a new music concert, look around you.  Does anyone seem to be enjoying themselves?  I realize that as a group composed largely of introverts we needn’t necessarily clap our hands and squeal with glee to experience engagement or enjoyment, but the atmosphere pervading our concerts is one of apathy.  Boredom. At best a mild, dispassionate interest.  Does that mean I’m bored to tears at every concert I attend?  No, but I’m a composer.  I have immersed myself in all things academic art music for a decade which means that I have a sky-high tolerance for self-indulgence and irrelevance, and my threshold of boredom could probably rival a patent lawyer’s.  We shouldn’t expect that of our audience members.

You call that dry? I’ve been to SEAMUS.

Perhaps this isn’t your experience.  Maybe my attention span is too short, or I’m too critical, or I’m not committed enough to my art, but consider that, as participants in new music (and composers in particular), we are generally blind to how anemic our concerts are because we’re too close to the problem.

If you take a step back from the excitement you feel when your piece or performance is on the program, from the sense of loyalty you feel to your friends, students, and colleagues who organized or participated in the event, and from your sense of obligation to support new music in general (in other words, try to pretend you’re a guy who walked in off street – hey, it could happen – rather than someone with years of investment in the people and aesthetic of this world), I think you’ll find that the experience of seeing new art music live leaves more people politely clapping and yawning than enthusiastically cheering.  A depressing amount of our willingness to keep organizing and attending events boils down to vanity and obligation rather than a sincere interest in the content and dissemination of our art.

A story to illustrate. Last year my university hosted a regional symposium which brings composers and performers from other schools in the area to put on a weekend of new music.  The point is to encourage camaraderie amongst programs and of course to expose us to the music of our colleagues.  People who really dig what we do, who legitimately enjoy the new music scene should have been champing at the bit to take in as much of it as possible, and yet (I’m sure you see where this is going) these concerts were embarrassingly sparsely attended by my classmates.  The only pieces played to more than a handful of lingerers in the audience were those written by or featuring students in our own programs.  We only turned up to hear our own pieces and our friends’.  If that doesn’t make my point, that even people who have ostensibly dedicated their lives to making and promoting this music can’t be bothered to show up for a concert when they have no horse in the race, I don’t know what could. Yes, I’m sure there were mitigating factors at play (there always are) – busy schedules, too many concerts in too close proximity, and whatever else – but the experience demonstrates quite clearly to me a disconnect between what we say as proponents of new music and what we do.

Even for those of us who say we enjoy it, there’s something about a new music concert which turns people off, and that’s something we need to realize and deal with.

To my mind the question of why contemporary art music is unappealing to so many people splits into two main issues: presentation and content.

I won’t mince words.  Content is the biggest problem.  I think there is something wrong with the music we’re writing.  I think many of us are misguided.  I think we spend far too much time and effort trying to look smart and talented in the eyes of our teachers and peers (even when they can’t see us) and far too little trying to make music that we or anyone else would actually enjoy hearing.  Other new music specialists might enjoy the music, but are we really happy writing and playing only for each other? This is the real issue, and it’s something we urgently need to address.  But since both issues are so huge, I want to split it up.  I’ll get into what’s wrong (or at least confused) in our music in time, but there’s plenty to say about how we present ourselves first.

***

Ahem.

Welcome to our concert.  Allow me to tell you the rules.  You will arrive at the beginning, sit perfectly still, stay until the end (no matter how much or little you enjoy yourself), and make sound only at appropriate moments, as any other conduct is considered deeply rude.  Eating and drinking are verboten.  This is a place for high culture.

Now that you’re settled in to that mindset and ready for a well curated evening of purposefully chosen music, we’ll present you with a baffling mash-up of totally disparate styles and aesthetics, anything from Stravinksy to Carter to Adams to Babbitt!  It’s all new music, baby!  Open your closed-up little mind!  Oh, but you still can’t move, talk, eat, drink, or laugh.  What do you think this is, one of those “rock and roll” shows the kids are talking about?  This is deadly serious.  Read my rambling and narcissistic program notes if you have any questions.

And don’t forget, you’re probably seeing our little show on some tucked-away school campus whose entry way made you walk through a fluorescent-lit, cheap linoleum-tiled hallway past a row of lockers, which in addition to just screaming professionalism likely made you feel like you were headed to a production of a high school play.

Keep it classy, Indiana.

Either I’m on my way to an exciting evening of new music or I’m having that dream where I show up to geometry class without pants again.

Hope you enjoyed your new music experience!  We’ll see you next time, right?  Right?  Sigh.

***

What we’ve got right now combines all the snobbery and repression of post-Wagnerian classical music with the confusing esotericism of a ‘60s happening topped up with a good measure of schoolboy amateurishness.  It’s not a great system because it hasn’t been purposefully designed.  We have been tacking on the veneer of last generation’s idea of what a concert should be to the one before that, and I think it might be time to reevaluate how we show our music to the world.  In the twenty-first century, with no single driving principle or united vision for the future of our music, what should a concert look like?

I think it breaks down into two things: venue, where we put our shows and what that says about us, and  program, how we choose what pieces get performed.

Even though there has been a slow move toward alternative venues for new music, the lion’s share of events still take place in too large, too empty classical concert halls which come pre-loaded with all sorts of cultural baggage dragging along behind them.  I’m hardly the first to suggest getting out of the concert hall, but I have often heard some variation on the following from composers in response: yes, I enjoy being part of a wacky show at a bar once in a while, but I certainly couldn’t have my oh so serious music performed there on a regular basis.

Why not?  What’s great about the way things are?

Putting a show in a classical concert hall tacitly accepts a number of assumptions about who you are, what kind of music you’ll be playing, and who you want your audience to be.  In the minds of “the public” the concert hall conjures up the pretension, elitism, and cultural conservativism which, merited or not, are associated with classical music in the minds of the many.

What’s that?  You don’t care if John Q. Every-plebe doesn’t want to come to your concert?  You should.  Classical music can’t (or won’t) support new music as anything other than a hobbyist’s offshoot, and there just aren’t enough people wandering around with advanced training in music to constitute a real audience, not to mention that it’s absurd to make at least one degree in music the price of admission to experience your art.  That pretty much leaves the unwashed masses, and we would do well to consider how we look to them.

It appears to be some kind of tower…

Now add that the defacto home of new music has become not just the concert hall but the university concert hall.  When new music ensembles go on tour, where do they usually perform?  It’s not necessarily their only stop, but invariably they’ll hit a college hall while they’re in town.  When professional societies get together to share and disseminate their music, where are the concerts held? State U’s convenient 300-500 seat chamber music hall.

I’m not confused as to why.  Finding little support in the world at large, new music has retreated  into academia.  However, I think that relying too heavily on the convenience of the school’s hall contributes to a negative feedback cycle which keeps us looking and acting like students rather than professionals for our entire careers.

There’s nothing wrong with the hall itself – many of them sound great – but a school concert hall is a basically a special use classroom, primarily an educational space, and the dignity and gravitas of the setting are a distant second to other, more practical concerns (like where to put more instrument lockers).  Professional performances occasionally take place there, but it’s like a step-up instrument, a semi-professional try-before-you-buy model, and that’s exactly what it says about concerts that take place inside. Really, nothing drains the energy out of an evening like walking through an academic building to get to it.  With rare exceptions in the case of famous schools or truly exceptional concert halls, being in a building which is obviously a school makes people feel like they’re going to class, and it invites comparisons to student work.  And even if you are a student writing student work you shouldn’t want your concert to feel like going to a child’s dance recital or a PTA meeting.

Maybe this is obvious, but why are we still doing shows in concert halls?  I’m by no means the first person to have the epiphany that new music doesn’t quite fit there, so why is it still the norm?  Clearly there are practical concerns, and while issues like acoustics and recording equipment are very valid reasons to prefer a hall setting, I want to take a moment to point out that we needn’t be as tied to traditional concert venues for these services as we think.

I’ll start with the issue that always gets raised first in this discussion: concert halls (especially at schools) have easy access to large or difficult to transport instruments.

This is a tough one, but it’s something that pop musicians (and I use the term broadly to mean people outside of academic music) deal with all the time.  Big percussion setups can be moved, and pianos can be replaced or substituted.  I’m not suggesting you should have your piano sonata played on a Casio, but there are times when flexibility is worth more than accuracy.  Consider how swapping to a smaller, more portable, or more available instrumentation will really affect the end experience of your music. If the only point of interest in your piece was that you wrote for the absolute highest and the absolute lowest note on said instrument, I think you might be doing it wrong.  Sometimes quality of sound and faithfulness to the score is not the paramount issue. There are other factors to be accounted for, and if a small sacrifice in one leads to a meaningful gain in another then it’s worth the trade.  This quickly leads to another can of worms entirely, which is that, as a group, composers are much too precious about specificity, and in general it wouldn’t hurt us to be more realistic and flexible.  But that’s another discussion.

The next big ticket item is the recording, and the solution I’d like to offer is this: separate the concert from the recording session whenever possible.  This has a few advantages.  First, it frees the concert organizer to consider venues that either don’t have built in recording equipment or aren’t acoustically perfect but might be a better fit in terms of size, atmosphere, or location.  Second, doing so automatically changes the atmosphere of the event for the better.

It is a fact, for better or worse, that recordings have become the primary documents of our work, but there is a world of difference between quietly sitting in on an event which is essentially an open recording session (which is regrettably how many concerts feel) and attending a concert whose aim is to connect with the people in the seats.   If the primary goal is clean recordings, skip the concert.  You’ll get a better document, anyway.  Performing under-rehearsed, difficult new music is already stressful enough for players (it might be the only performance ever!) without adding in that this might also be the only recording of this piece for all time (no pressure.  Have fun out there).

People in the audience can feel this pressure, and it isn’t comfortable for anyone.  Taking the importance of the recording out of the live show not only alleviates this, it also allows us to relax some of the stiff traditions of the concert hall, many of which are about preserving total silence.  Stop making people feel unwelcome if they come in late, leave early, or converse quietly during the show.  These things happen during live music.

As an added bonus, a separate recording session means we can worry less about acoustics in live performance. Book a hall or a studio for the recording and put the concert where it makes for the best event.  A hall with gentle, warm, natural reverb is nice for a lot of what we do, but there are also plenty of instrumentations that sound just fine in less reverberant spaces and some that actually benefit from it – anything amplified, using drumset, or involving electronics, for a start.  Of course we should always try to find a space where our music sounds well, but we needn’t always assume a chamber music hall is the best by default.

But even if you don’t agree that sticking around campuses keeps us trapped in the farm league or that classical concert halls are stiff and unappealing to a big demographic we ought to be courting (only my opinions, after all), you can’t get around the fact that even the best concert hall environment is built around a basically one-directional interaction between performer and audience member.

Yes, there are fascinating and meaningful interactions between composer, conductor, and performer in the creation of what is heard, but basically the people on stage send information out into the audience who passively accept it.  Sure, a great audience gives off a different vibe than a bored one, but the entire model of the post-Wagner classical concert places control squarely on stage, and the feedback audience members can give is explicitly and tightly limited.  Come and be elevated.  Come and be educated.  Essentially come and watch, but don’t take part.  I’m not suggesting that a lot of people couldn’t use some elevation and education, but right now the top-down, passive consumption of culture model doesn’t seem to be playing too well for us.  That’s because it’s easier and cheaper to get that at home – just turn on Netflix and get as much as you could ever want.  I’m not sure exactly what the solution is (though I do have some ideas).  Live events need to offer something more, and no one else is going to figure it out for us.

Whatever the answer is, I don’t think it’s business as usual, and I don’t think the concert hall is the best place for it.

…So then what is? That’s what I’ll try to hit next time.

Thoughts, comments, arguments welcome.  If you believe this shit matters you should be talking about it.

Manifesto

The world of new music is broken.

With few exceptions, we inhabit a pretty bleak landscape.  Nobody comes to concerts.  Nobody knows what we do.  For the most part, nobody even knows that we’re doing it.  A depressing number of people aren’t even aware that there are still living composers outside of the film industry (“You mean like Mozart?”  Yeah.  Just like Mozart.)  Most of our music is played a single time in front of an audience of fewer than fifty people in a glorified classroom – even the most successful and popular groups have only the smallest following outside of people who hold degrees in music.  For composers and performers of new music alike, our best hope for employment is to scrabble for a handful of jobs at schools which generally don’t support what we’re doing (and still we should be so lucky) and will, with no hint of irony, declare one hundred year old museum pieces to be “new.”

I think it’s safe to say this isn’t what anybody had in mind.

Pictured: our adoring public

So how did we get here?  When did new music become a closed echo chamber of composers writing coded love notes to one another (or themselves)?  At what point did we lose track of the idea that music is supposed to be heard?  There’s an endless supply of blame to go around and plenty of places to dish it out: changing cultural currents, harsh economic conditions, our predecessors (always a popular target, but let’s dispense right now with the “It’s Schoenberg’s/Babbitt’s/Cage’s/whoever-we-happen-to-disagree-with’s fault!” argument and move on), a poor educational system, a political climate that antagonizes the arts, a university system that drastically oversupplies demand and unrealistically inflates expectations… I could go on.

The reality is that things aren’t great and, as easy (and stress-relieving!) as it is to climb the soapbox and rant for a few minutes, the better use of our time is to start trying to answer the question, “now what?”  Given that we live when we do, given that there is an entrenched and deeply conservative art music establishment, given that new music has become an eclectic and largely irrelevant nano-culture cut off from the mainstream, what can we do?

Chase after the scraps that dying orchestras throw our way?  Carve out increasingly tiny and isolated niches for ourselves?  Cry into our beer?

It isn’t sufficient to survive.  There’s no shame in a day job, but I’ll be damned if I let myself become a hobbyist.  If we believe in the music we write and play, if we think there is real value in having it performed and disseminated, if we really are writing and playing for living, breathing human beings out in the world and not for a tiny cadre of jaded, heavy-lidded peers, then we have a duty to change the system with which we’ve been presented, to do our best to breathe some vitality and purpose into our dessicated little corner of the art world and to make people want to wake up and listen to what we have to say rather than lying down and meekly accepting irrelevance, even if that means drastically reevaluating what we do and why.

We like to imagine ourselves in contemporary music as creative thinkers and problem-solvers, but there are a lot of preconceptions and assumptions we’ve accepted without much question, everything from how our music should sound to where it ought to be performed to who we’d like to have listening.  We didn’t get to choose.  Most of these assumptions have been handed down from our teachers and mentors who got it from theirs who got it from theirs, and at this point they aren’t doing us any favors.

My purpose here is to identify some of the problems in the systems that create, promote, and perform new music and game out, with the help of anyone reading, some possible solutions.  Certainly this will involve pointed criticism of people and institutions which (mostly unintentionally) make the world a more difficult place for new music, but I’ll do my best to focus on constructive changes.  This is not music criticism, nor is it a foil for me to clap my friends and colleagues on the back and tell them what a good job they’re doing – there are already plenty of other venues that serve those needs.  What I hope this can become is a forum for those with a vested interest in the health of new music – conductors, performers, composers, administrators, scholars, members of the public (just kidding, I know they’re not reading) – to discuss how we can change our existing institutions for the better and how we might shape those that come after for a more fruitful, relevant, and vital culture.

I don’t accept that this is the way things have to be, and neither should any of you.  There are real changes we can make in the ways we think about, promote, present, write, perform, and consume music, and if you agree that it’s worth a little time and thought make this happen, then read on and speak your mind.