Sunday, September 30, 2012

Experience As Art

In Music: A Very Short Introduction, Nicholas Cook argues that Popular music as opposed to Art or Classical music is associated with authenticity by society at large. For example, Rock musicians write and perform their own music; music which includes contemporary references, acts as a response to current events, and brings with it a perpetual freshness, a renewing relevance. Classical music, in contrast, is by no means fresh. Most of its visionaries are long dead and the environment to which the composers were responding is literally ancient history! However, I would venture to say that assessment of Classical music depends on how you define it. For those of us who perform Classical music, its value, its magnitude, and its potential ability to move and inspire are proven discoveries of our experiences. However, Classical concert goers don’t seem to be sharing those same experiences. The proof is in the deterioration of audience attendance. The reason for this is our perspective as a society on the experience of listening to Classical music. Audience members enter a concert hall expecting exposure to “Art” and they find that they do not share the performers experience of “Art,” or the critics experience of “Art,” or the 19th-century romantics experience of “Art.” Many of them experience frustration, confusion, boredom, anger, impatience, blissful aloofness, occasional bouts of frivolous joy, daydreaming, and an endless variety of other unprescribed sensations. The audience member knows that these are not the experiences they are supposed to have. Therefore, they feel that their experience is inauthentic and they close to the idea of Classical music. Frustration, confusion, boredom, anger, impatience, blissful aloofness, and occasional bouts of frivolous joy and daydreaming...what a symphony! In a certain sense, every concert is a production of mass composition with components of combined unique feelings, ideas, memories, and inspirations. No two concerts are alike, no two reactions are alike. It is the experience of the music that is the Art not the musical works themselves. “...if musical works are not experiences but merely their surrogates, so to speak, then the same might be said of the contents of any other museum: paintings, for instance, are bought and sold (and insured and stolen) as physical objects, but we go to the gallery to look at them not for themselves, but for the experiences we can derive from them- and there are as many ways in which they can be experienced as there are people experiencing them.” (1) This change in focus from the stage to the audience is not an original idea. In fact there are a great deal of experimental “modern” composers (mostly from the 1950s’ and 1960s’) that depend on authentic, unedited, momentary feedback for their work to exist. For example, American composer John Cage composed a piece in 1952 untitled Four Minutes, thirty-three seconds which consists of the sounds in the environment that the listener hears while it is performed. These sounds can be the listeners own breathing, own heartbeat. The piece may also consist entirely of silence. Minimalist composers like Philip Glass (although now he would prefer to be referred to as a composer of ‘music with repetitive structures’), frequently premiered music seemly static in nature, sometimes with use of only one pitch. However, the true impact of the piece is entirely depended on the constantly shifting perception of the listener. Perhaps at first the listener is engaged, then the experience turns to that of annoyance, later still the experience become that of irritability, followed by unbearable torture. Perhaps, a different listener on a different day in a different environment finds himself gently guided into a profoundly peaceful meditation. All these separate works of Art are perpetuated by the same medium! One might make the case that audience attendance at performances of the aforementioned composers works is just as pitiful as the audience attendance of the great historic masters. I am not in denial of that. In fact, I believe that these modern experimental and conceptual composers are failing in the same way as the performers. The idea is effective, in theory, but the application is incomplete. Audience members are leaving “new music” concerts with the same response, “I didn’t get it.” The composer is setting up a work dependent on experience, he is making the audience part of the production, but who is the listener? Who is benefiting from the experience? Very often, the only person moved by meaning of the composition is the composer himself. The key to audience experience is making the audience member feel welcome to embrace his own experience. It is perfectly natural to feel frustrated or bored; in fact, it is a beautiful thing! If music is a reflection of current society, we need to work with all of it: short attention span, perpetual multi-tasking, and all! In a country of free speech where we are told we can be anything we want to be, where people are competitive, opinionated, where the expectations are high and the possibilities are limitless, musicians have an infinite palette of experiences from which to create something meaningful and they shouldn’t be afraid of negative feedback. Not all Art is beautiful. Not all Art feels good. But all Art expresses an authentic relationship between the creator and his audience. (1) Cook, Nicholas. Music: A Very Short Introduction. (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 71.

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