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.

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24 Comments

  1. Tim

     /  September 22, 2012

    David, this blog is amazing and touches on everything that has bothered me for a few years now about what we composers do. I actually just a few days ago had a long discussion with a colleague from where I teach now about many of the things you discuss here. We both felt like something has to change.

    Many of these things tie into the issue of the continued downfall of the orchestras in our country, I think. (Many, many other things are at fault too and that’s a whole other conversation.) I ask this question, “Why does academia focus on teaching musicians the methods, ideas and music of dead composers?” We have been stuck in this vicious cycle of teaching the music from the Common Practice Period and the students only get a taste of 20th-21st century music during their final couple of semesters. To one degree, I understand why. We can’t look over the past. Without the music of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Brahms, we wouldn’t have the music of Crumb, Carter, and Birtwistle. Our former teachers taught us what they were taught, who taught what they were taught… you get the point. But these musicians are the next performers, conductors, and season ticket holders and concert goers. I believe they are turned off by “new music” because they simply aren’t exposed to it enough. This includes the general public too! So what do we do to change this???

    After reading this blog, I asked my wife (a non-musically inclined person, but avid new music concert goer) a few questions:

    “Do you feel our concerts are boring in general, if so, why?”
    Her answer: “The music isn’t my cup of tea, but I appreciate it for what it is. Art music. But, in a concert hall every one is sitting straight forward, silent and non involved or engaged with what’s going on.”

    “Is it the music or the venue that makes the concert boring?”
    Her answer: “The venue certainly. A club is a more social environment where I don’t feel uncomfortable getting up to go to the bathroom or talk to my friends. Everything seems so serious and structured in the concert hall. I could enjoy the same music more if it was inside a different environment.”

    Its important to note that she didn’t know that I just read this blog. I wanted to hear her side of things, and interestingly enough, her answers are many of the things you discussed here. It made me think about the issue from a composers standpoint. Or the MUSIC. Who do I compose for? The “sophisticated” audience who knows and understands what I do? My wife and the general audience? Both? Or myself, for my own personal inner voice? I really want to say for myself, but I actually do want the audience (regardless of their background) to have a unique experience.

    In our music we work very hard to write subtle moments to express a specific idea, that I believe, would get lost inside a club environment. That said, I have recently started to find a way to make my works more engaging for the audience. One example is my dance piece that includes a colorful, quirky costume worn by a dancer who is told to engage the audience to help them feel connected to the character that is being brought to life in front of them. I still want to write “my” music, but I understand that generally new music concerts are boring and things should change. I want the audience to come away with a unique experience and at least remember something from it. Making them feel more engaged in the actual performance is a start. I feel my pieces could work better in some cases in a smaller, more engaged environment like a club. Logistics play a role in venue changes, but I feel this is a big step in the right direction.

    I know we are the generation who have to start making the changes. I have many other ideas, but I’m tired of typing here. Anyways… that’s my 2 cents.

    Tim

    Reply
  2. TRUTH TRUTH TRUTH. I have nothing great to add. I’m sure I could quibble. People will get offended. But they should be, if what they are doing is boring. Have a nice day.

    Reply
  3. Jay Hurst

     /  September 22, 2012

    @Tim, regarding that last little paragraph:

    As David said both in this post and the last, our generation inherited a wasteland when it comes to contemporary classical music. There are a few havens for it in the USA (there’s good work happening in the Northeast and on the West Coast), but that hardly accounts for the majority of contemporary classical concerts happening in the country. And with that, those who want to attend concerts that “do it right” have to spend significant time and money to make pilgrimages to those places. So yes, we need to significantly change the landscape and the attitudes towards “new music” in more places across the country.

    That said, our generation is absolutely the most equipped to fix the problem. For those of us in our mid-20s, we grew up on the internet. We grew up connected. We can barely remember a time where we weren’t able to find anything we wanted to hear or to see — all we have known is access (which you could argue makes us spoiled; I’d say it makes us lucky).

    And now, access is the name of the game. We now have the ability to disseminate our music to people not just in our immediate area, but to listeners all over the world. Yeah, I know that instant messaging and music sharing has been around for well over 15 years now, but with (legal) music sharing/streaming services like Spotify coming into prominence in the last few years, our potential audiences have never had access like this before.

    With ease of access to recordings (and people liking what they hear) comes renewed interest in attending live performances. Then we can start talking about how to fix the attitudes, venues and structures of contemporary classical concerts — but I think accessibility to our music the key to fixing whatever problems there are in “new music”, and in the classical music tradition in general. It makes me optimistic.

    -Jay

    Reply
  4. Robert Ponto

     /  September 22, 2012

    Bravo, David. This is insightful, eloquent, and precisely the questions we all need to be asking.

    Reply
  5. First off David, fantastic start to this blog here–the sentiments are right on, and I enjoy the snark. (The image captions had me falling out my chair!)

    I concur with the idea of separating the recording from the performance. Things can go wrong (and often times do) in live performance. That’s the nature of the beast. And there are certain halls I’ve been (particularly university halls), in where, while they may be acoustically fine, have the atmosphere of a Unisom bottle, and I could hardly be alone in that sentiment, so the idea of a different venue is logical on those grounds.

    As far as instrument availability, one need not look further than 1970s progressive rock bands–they often were toting around a lot of travel-sensitive equipment, like timpani and mellotrons, and Keith Emerson was, in the days before the MiniMoog, using a full Moog modular synthesizer unit on tour. Of course, those groups often had major-label record contracts, and they could afford to purchase and haul all that stuff. The financial side is definitely a factor in why things are the way they are right now. This is a large part of the reason the “classical-academic complex”, as I like to call it, exists. The university is basically a patronage system–it’s the late-20th/early-21st century equivalent of the church or the house of royals/wealthy nobles from the Medieval through Classical Eras.

    While I think the academic side still has its place, I think its financially-fueled dominance in this segment of the musical world, since about the 1930s (and especially since the 1950s), has created an unhealthy, self-perpetuating vacuum of sorts, and has actually dragged us backwards in a lot of ways.

    I’ll leave it there for now, and I look forward to seeing Part Two.

    Reply
  6. The truth is that older classical music is more alive than contemporary concert music. Although orchestras are having a hard time making ends meet, concerts of common practice era composers are MUCH better attended than contemporary ones. It is the difference between a dying tradition and no tradition at all.

    Things that need to stop if you want a audience.

    1. Stop trying to educate audiences. Composers are of course free to write whatever they want, but if they want to engage they world, they should write music it can understand–So do not write music that requires footnotes, because one wants to be lectured.

    2. Do not write your love letters in Klingon. If you eschew the things that most people like about music, most people will not like your music. I know we emancipated the dissonance, I know we have overthrown the tyranny of the barline, but guess what? People stopped coming. If you want them back, do something that they will enjoy.

    Things we should do to get an audience

    1. Offer childcare, booze and popcorn.

    Notice that I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t write music for music’s sake; you are free to write whatever you want. What you may not do is than complain if your music remains a minority interest.

    It seems to me that it should be at least possible that contemporary concert could both in the vernacular AND artistically challenging. I think this is the greatest challenge in music, it is the challenge I have chosen to address, I don’t get invited to symposiums, and PhD composition programs won’t give me the time of day, but my audiences leave the concerts smiling…I think I have the better end of that bargain.

    Reply
  7. I’m glad that people are starting to say these things. And that some of the thing we were told at composition school (lol, I kinda like that term) are being questioned. I myself have been going through a process of questioning and rejecting some of these “givens” that people in our field just seem to accept blindly. You can read my own little manifesto at http://www.cronopiuforte.com.

    The important thing is for people our age, to look into these matters a be completely honest and open about how much work needs to be done. Our teachers are not going to fix it for us, they have a vested intereest in keeping things the way they are.

    I’ve so often felt that a new music concert so often is devoid of life and spark, and so many composers seem to have given up on ever doing something that might be meaningful to the public outside of academia. Why is it that they should be our only audience? and why and how have we trained ourselves to pretend to like so much bad and meaningless music?

    Good luck with this blog, I hope it can be another important place online where people can come together and figure out a way to come out of the dark ages that we’ve put ourselves in.

    Reply
  8. My own realm is early music, which is at the other end of the spectrum. But similar truths apply. The concert hall where everyone has to sit still and be non-reactive is a poor choice if we want to build audiences. What we need are informal spaces that allow people to move, and preferably also do not require a perfectly silent audience. We need physical closeness between performers and audience. And while musicians must be selfish in giving performances that first of all satisfy themselves and take care of their own needs, making a connection with the audience is essential. It is the high of arrogance to play music and offer no explanation. How is the audience supposed to know the language? How can they possibly be well enough educated in what we are doing to make sense of it on first hearing? Performs who will guide the audience though verbal explanation and demonstration already offer so much more than musicians who only play the notes. Jonathan Salzedo (Sunnyvale Ca).

    Reply
  9. I’m a jazz composer/pianist, and although jazz has some similar issues with accessibility, I think its slightly different orientation and practices have led me to some potentially helpful solutions.

    For years, I’ve chosen a particular instrumentation and written for it over a period of years. This started accidentally: when I was in college, I wrote a large-scale work for sextet: 2 saxes, trumpet, bass, drums, and piano. When I graduated, I wanted to be able to play this work as a part of my musical life, so I developed a “book” of music in that instrumentation. That meant that I could play a full set of my own music by hiring a single band. As I played more concerts, I rotated in new music. My book became large enough that I could be the entertainment for an entire evening at a venue. This way, I was able to perform the original piece about 10 times, and it didn’t always have to be the focal point of the evening; in fact, around a third of those performances featured premiers, which is nice to say in an advertisement.

    A perk of this system is that you get to develop as a composer with instrumentation as a constant and explore what can be done with limited resources. Another perk is that an ensemble with fixed instrumentation can be marketed as “band,” which interfaces more smoothly with the pop marketing that non-musicians are used to.

    Those particular instruments have a few advantages. They’re all relatively portable, so we could play in bars or stages and go on mini-tours with two vehicles. It kills me a little to play a keyboard, but it’s worth it to be able to perform my music. These instruments are also completely standard in the jazz world, so I can go to any jazz community and find people to play my music. I found that the downside of that instrumentation was that 6 mouths are hard to feed (how sad, considering the legacy of big band music in the US!). After trying a sax/piano duo and missing the drums/bass groove, I’m now working on a trio project (piano, drums, bass). So far, I have one set of music, and I’m excited to write more for the same type of band.

    A brief word on content: I write what I play. My mentality is working-musician first, composer second; my compositions are an outgrowth of the music that I live and breathe. This is an attitude that resonates with people like Bach, the church organist, and Haydn, the court musician. I have always found it strange for a composer’s instrument to be her pen, and I know too many classical composers whose instruments are only their secondary focus, a requirement for school. Maybe the classical composition world could benefit by rededicating to a working-musician mindset.

    Reply
  10. David – Right on. In line with your discussion and you hit on it, is that these traditional concert halls forbid drinking. Not saying you can’t have a great musical experience without it but, I tend to find that when I am attending a concert or listening to music a tab buzzed – SO MUCH MORE INTO IT than if completely sober. Look at every single other form of entertainment out there – sports, pop concerts, art openings, you name it – you can eat, drink, walk around, leave when you want to, come back when you want to. I really like open air venues because you immediately get rid of the idea that it will be a sonically uninterrupted experience. I think this in some way frees the audience from the “SHHHHHHH – art is happening” mindset.

    And you are right. Our generation should be the one to say, “fuck this, let’s change it up.” It is my extreme hope that our generation wil be some sort of turning point in the recent history of music. This is one way to make a change. Word.

    Reply
  11. Great post – tangential (or maybe not) to the issues you raise which are largely in relation to the music itself, what about the accessibility to orchestra concerts re: Delivery – Price of a ticket! I love orchestra music, love.it., in fact, I don’t think I ever look bored in a concert BUT that’s only when I can afford to go…The elitism associated is not purely intellectual, it is also socioeconomic. This music fails to reach a lot of folks below a certain age/income level for obvious reasons.

    Reply
  12. Heya. Thank you.

    I was so fired up when I got to the end, I was about to supplement your rant with additional points, but you’ll probably get to them in future blog entries, so I will shut up and enjoy the read.

    Also: “You call that dry? I’ve been to SEAMUS.” — As someone who has also been to SEAMUS, this cracked my shit up.

    Ohhhhh OK, I can’t help myself. I’ll throw in one point, because it’s not a given that you’ll get to it — can we address the almost total lack of diversity in composition and new music concerts? I groan every time I see all the composers get up on stage at the end of the show, and they look like freaking clones of each other. Seriously, 9 times out of 10, it’s like I’m at a quintuplet birthday celebration. Is there something about new music composition in particular that seems to attract white guys of average build with brown hair and glasses? Is there something about new music concerts in particular that make them perfect fodder for http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/? And, yes, it’s a problem with composition in a few different genres (e.g. at the Emmys last night, there were 34 men nominated in music categories — and 2 women), and I see that universities everywhere are trying really hard to admit at least one token minority every year into their grad programs, but what can we change to speed this process up? I’m tired of laughing at it.

    Reply
  13. Bwahaha I just found your Google+ profile, and it appears you are a white guy of average build with brown hair hair and glasses. SEE!??

    Reply
    • Tim Miller

       /  September 24, 2012

      As am I. (more black hair, but I get the point) Guilty as charged.. Wow, I think she has a point David.

      Reply
  14. Mormolyke, by the way, is as far from that as one can be, PLUS she has a gorgeous accent. Plus, her work is enthralling. Plug, Plug.

    Reply
  15. Eric Knechtges

     /  September 24, 2012

    Here’s the counterargument that I can’t get past — some of my favorite moments of new music are those quiet, intricate, delicate moments. Those only tend to work in a quiet concert hall. Do we have to give up writing those moments, if we give up the concert hall? Does everything need to be amplified, to counteract this?

    I’m not against the points made in this blog — I think there are plenty of merits to the conversation — but it’s not like we get to appeal to a different (and possibly wider) audience for free. There are some potential advantages of the concert hall that get forfeited in the process.

    Also, I’m reminded of Satie’s “furniture music” that was intended to be background music… and that, of course, everyone tried to be quiet and listen to when it was first played, which was precisely antithetical to its intent.

    There is certainly plenty of new music that can be performed outside of the traditional concert hall, and perhaps we do need to start conceiving of some of our music as such. I know of several new music groups moving in this direction, and I think it’s healthy. However, I still maintain there’s room for everyone at the table. I like my concert-hall-oriented stodgy new music, too. 🙂

    Reply
    • I’m not sure that the quiet concert hall is so much the problem. Audiences are quite happy to sit silently in movie theaters, theaters, libraries etc, IF they are interested. The secret is for us to engage people in such a way that they will be interested in what we are doing.

      Reply
  16. Tim Miller

     /  September 24, 2012

    As I mentioned in my first comment above Eric, I agree that those subtle, soft moments in music are some of my favorite to compose. I feel like the audience (some of them) appreciates and respects those moments enough to allow them to happen. I don’t think we give up writing those at all, but maybe? we have to retrain the audience to know that they can enjoy those exciting, loud rocking moments in our pieces how ever they want. And with time, they will understand when to let loose and when to settle down…

    “Also, I’m reminded of Satie’s “furniture music” that was intended to be background music… and that, of course, everyone tried to be quiet and listen to when it was first played, which was precisely antithetical to its intent.”

    Again, I think there has to be a new sense of what we allow our audience to do inside the hall. New rules, per se… After numerous years of knowing that the “rules” of the concert hall are, like David mentions in the post (“This is a place for high culture…”), Satie’s audience DIDN’T KNOW HOW TO ACT when the composer say “Hey, go crazy, drink a beer, talk to your friends… The next piece is supposed to be background music.”

    Being NORMAL wasn’t normal for the audience(!!!) because we have trained them that the concert hall is a “high class” only venue.

    Reply
    • Robert Ponto

       /  September 24, 2012

      I’ve long pondered the notion of labeling pieces in a program by overall mood and volume – kind of like the number of hot pepper icons appearing next to a Thai restaurant menu item. 🙂

      Reply
  17. While you make some vaild points, you miss the most important (as do most people). The Art of musical composition began to decline during the mid-20th-Century, when, following the destruction and upheavals of the Wold Wars, the music business changed from being led and dominated by great composers to being led and dominated by managers, agents, soloists and conductors (secondary and less beforehand). These latter bad actors understood that positioning themselves atop the biz served their own self-interests. To assist in this realignment, they enlisted to cooperation of several prominent, mediocre post-WW2 composers, whom academia slavishly followed like puppies. This “successful” effort effectively lowered the bar for new music. Prior to 1950 the most significant musicians were the Beethoven, Verdi, Stravinsky. Now the most prominent are the likes of Dudamel, Muti and Yo Yo Ma (and their managers). A few contemporary conposers have their fans. But in general, liiving composers are considered more or less interchangeable by those who run Music today. There may in fact be great living composers. But they are not the ones who get major exposure and who lead the profession, and promoting them would not be in the best interests of those in charge.

    Reply
  18. Thanks for so many thoughtful comments, guys. There’s a lot to respond to, but I’ve been bogged down trying to finish up a piece and dirty sick on top of it. I’ll try to get the next post up soon, but I’m blown away by how much response this has gotten so far. Let’s keep the interest in this stuff up.

    Reply
  19. I do want to say that I don’t by any stretch mean to suggest that the concert space is the whole problem. Far from it. Style, content, historical bias, education, lack of diversity (why, yes, I am a middle class white dude with thick-rimmed, black glasses), those are all factors leading up to the tiny little corner we’re backed into, but you have start somewhere.

    Reply

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