So-called contemporary music has often been accused of being out of touch with the audience, and in general of playing a marginal role in current cultural trends. This is the result of many causes, as I have tried to explain in other posts, but an obvious reason is the umbilical attachment that still binds contemporary music to the classical music establishment, its audiences and its modes of promotion and delivery of live and recorded music.
The majority of contemporary composers have chosen not to sever the cord with the past, believing in a sense of continuity with, and belonging to the great tradition of Western classical music. But doing so, they blindly adopted the whole apparatus of classical music concerts, from the stiff ritual to the ageing and dwindling audiences. The higher cultural status granted to their music turned out to be the kiss of death for their creations.
Many words have been spent in the past (and sadly sometimes are still spent, as I realised yesterday at a pre-concert talk given by a young Canadian composer in Toronto) to justify this state of affairs: the need for composers to explore new territories, the reluctance of musical institutions to embark on more adventurous programming, the need for the audiences to be “educated” or the schools’ failings in teaching music, and so on.
The reality is very different: we have to accept that each different music has its audience, and ‘contemporary music’ is no exception. Expecting classical music audiences to love and understand new music is like pretending that jazz fans should also automatically become hip-hop fans.
So, let’s recognise the situation, and stop trying to spoon-feed contemporary music to classical music lovers. Let’s rebadge orchestras as museums of classical music, and limit their repertoire to the great tradition. And let’s free up the energies of those musicians that want to perform new music so that they can really concentrate on their passion, but outside the current classical music circles. Interested audiences will follow, and new ones will be created. They won’t be huge, but they will be committed.
We write music because we feel compelled to do it, not because of some external reason or demand. Or do we? The role of inspiration, and what can be defined as inspiration in composing music, has been debated extensively. The truth is, we cannot separate external influence from inner compulsion.
Throughout the history of music, the most successful composers have been the ones that have managed to tune their creative impulse to the needs of the outside world. As far as creative output is concerned the outside world is a strange mixture of elements, where the expectations of patrons, commissioning bodies, influential friends and colleagues coexist with an imagined audience and the public projection of a composer’s self-created artistic image. All these elements come to play in the mind of composers as potential influencing factors, and affect their work more than they would like to admit.
We should then rephrase the first sentence like this: we write music because we want to communicate with the world. What is the chosen channel for this communication? If you are a smart composer, alert to the changing world around you, you will know already that the zeitgeist doesn’t inhabit concert venues programming ‘contemporary music’ works. It is to be found instead in some sort of team endeavour – a movie, a theatre production, a multimedia installation, a site-specific event, where your music becomes part of a wider artistic venture, a complex cultural product of our time, reflecting the interconnecting nature and the infinite resonances of our mostly mediated experience of reality.
You have then become a content provider, a sharp operator in a increasingly undecipherable world, carving small slices of meaning by interacting with other media, other forms, and with the unavoidable, ubiquitous technology we try so hard, often so helplessly, to keep under control.
The relationship between composer and audience today is a strange one indeed. More to the point, is there an audience at all for so-called contemporary music? We need to be honest about it: the audience is disappearing. This is not something to worry too much about: it is only the natural consequence of the demise of the social role and status of contemporary classical music, and the related changes in music fruition and delivery. The music critic, another element of the traditional concert ecology, is also silently fading away, a powerless casualty of this evolving situation.
As a musician, I’m principally interested in live performance. The magic dimensions of a public concert is what we should care about: the ritual offering, the virtuoso display, the theatre happening on stage and the risky, adventurous nature of a live concert performance are a precious gift to all of us. But without an audience, live performance cannot survive. We already experience live performance without having to attend a ‘contemporary music’ concert: how do we convince our potential audiences that they are missing something that can’t be found elsewhere? Or, reversing the question, when was the last time you cried at a ‘contemporary music’ concert?
One obstacle, first brought to my attention by Peter Johnson, Head of Research at Birmingham Conservatoire, is the lack of a performance tradition for the vast majority of contemporary works. They are performed a few times and almost never recorded to the standards of a commercial release. They often include specific parts for specific performers, making it impossible or very difficult for other interpreters to tackle the works. A second related problem is the performers’ knowledge of the piece. How deep can your interpretation go if you are learning the piece for the first time and perform it only a few times? Compare this with the intimate relationship over the years, indeed over a lifetime, that most performers build with the classical music repertoire. A third problem is the nature of ‘contemporary music’ micro-market: the ratio between sellers (the composers) and buyers (the performers and the audiences) is incredibly skewed towards the former. The late Stephen Jay Gould had a very original interpretation for justifying this state of affairs, what he called the right wall of human achievement: in a society that favours innovation at all costs, there comes a time when the relative advancement of an art form, say music, becomes smaller and smaller, until it is imperceptible.
Current literature on audience numbers for ‘contemporary music’ concerts and audience development strategies are often enthusiastic, but, I’m afraid. always misleading. I’m referring here to the UK state of affairs, but the main argument could be applied equally well to French or Italian audiences. I would like to correlate the number of composers writing music today with the amount of people listening to their music. My impression is that the composer/audience ratio is dwindling ferociously, rather than expanding. The reason for this is probably a steeper pyramid, with few composers getting a lot of attention from the niche audiences of “contemporary music”, and a plethora of less well-known composers that remain virtually ignored.
river teach me sets to music the English version of ‘To the river’, a poem by Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998), from the collection Report from the Besieged City, first published in Warsaw in 1983, and translated into English by John and Bogdana Carpenter in 1985. I’ve always been fascinated by the particular way in which Herbert pitches his voice, pursuing the truth with a language both simple and profound. Before writing river teach me I set to music another poem from the same collection, ‘The Divine Claudius‘, for narrator and small ensemble. river teach me was selected for the SPNM [Society for the Promotion of New Music] shortlist in 2003.
Herbert concluded one of his sketches with these words: We are the ones who are poor, very poor. The great majority of contemporary art comes out in favour of chaos, gesticulating in vacuity or recounting the history of its own sterile spirit. All the Old Masters, without exception, could say with Racine: ‘We work in order to please the public’, which means that they believed in the sense of their work, and in the possibility of inter-human understanding… Praise be to such naiveté.
Live recording of the first performance by Christine Sjölander, mezzo-soprano, and the Thallein Ensemble conducted by Daniele Rosina. 11 December 2002, Birmingham Conservatoire, Recital Hall.
* * *
River__hourglass of water metaphor of eternity
I enter you more and more changed
so I could be a cloud a fish a rock
while you are the same like a clock that measures
the metamorphoses of the body and descents of the spirit
slow disintegration of tissues and love
I who am born of clay
want to be your pupil
and learn the spring the Olympian heart
o cool torch rustling column
bedrock of my faith and my despair
river teach me stubbornness and endurance
so in the last hour I become worthy
of rest in the shade of the great delta
in the holy triangle of the beginning and of the end
* * *
© Zbigniew Herbert
[English translation © John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter]