On Being Irrelevant

On Being Irrelevant

Last Thursday night I hit Chelsea—a.k.a. Mecca for art collectors—with a composer friend to catch a couple of gallery openings. Amidst the crowd of glitterati, hipsters, and beautiful people toting plastic cups filled with wine, my companion remarked that new music never gets this sort of enthusiastic turnout. Indeed, some places were filled to the gills, unable to accommodate the sheer number of contemporary art lovers, sparking a block party vibe, which out of necessity spilled out onto the sidewalks and streets. One might be led to believe that folks are merely there to “be seen” while partaking in the consumption of free booze in the process, but considering MoMA’s $20 regular admission fee along with the rise of blockbuster exhibitions and an international art fair circuit, it’s perfectly clear that people love the visual arts—a market that contemporary music types tend to salivate over.

What I don’t understand is why evangelically-inclined new music practitioners feel gipped when the so-called culturally aware non-attender slaps down an Andrew Jackson to look at a bunch of paintings and maybe a urinal, but doesn’t show up at the concert hall. Big deal. Even if you managed to lure a huge crowd of contemporary art aficionados into a contemporary music concert, most if not all will likely emerge from the experience somewhat disheartened by this alien music from, to their ears, an alternate universe. You can’t force anyone to enjoy something. Besides, look at our PR buzz words: challenging, uncompromising, forceful, intense, exuberant… Well, it sounds like that could be entertaining.

Statistically speaking, modern composition fans probably don’t even make a dent percentage-wise in the musical marketplace. Take 100 average Americans, play them some Elliott Carter, you do the math for the conversion ratio. But whatever this fan base lacks in size is compensated for with loyalty, especially considering that a large number of devotees are practitioners themselves. So really, I say there’s no need to proselytize. Let’s try being content with our teeny, tiny, little, itty, bitty niche. Move along, nothing dying here. Hey, I don’t expect my family to like (or even listen to for that matter) the music I’m composing, so why call it candy while shoving it down a complete stranger’s throat? Of course I’m exaggerating, as per usual, but you have to admit we have weird taste in music. And that’s fine. It’s not like we need a 12-step program or anything.

But if you insist upon spreading the word about new music, I always thought it would be a really great idea to do a documentary on contemporary music creation as is, something along the lines of American Movie. The film manages to be compassionate towards its subjects and at the same time play out like a comedy—are these guys for real? Think about it. It could become one of those cult classic documentaries like Grey Gardens. So if you really want to bring a wider awareness to new music, please start pitching this idea to Christopher Guest. I’m ready for my close up, Mr. Guest.

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7 thoughts on “On Being Irrelevant

  1. Garth Trinkl

    Randy, I’d be curious to know whether you and others of your generation are interested that, apparently, Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton — fresh from their success in Erfurt, Germany with “Waiting for the Barbarians” (after J.M. Coetzee) have been commissioned by David Gockley and the San Francisco Opera to do an opera, for 2007, on the topic of a tragic battle of the American Civil War, Appomattox, Virginia. (I recall that you were earlier a composer on the San Francisco scene.)

    Or do you just roll your eyes at the mention of Philip Glass and another S.F. Opera World Premiere, just as Carterites in the 1970s would roll their eyes at the mention of Hindemith or Barber?

    Renaissance Research

  2. randy

    Honestly, I’m the wrong person to ask. Opera is of no interest to me at all. Additionally, I don’t really know why I’m supposed to roll my eye at the mention of Philip Glass. Actually, his operas, especially Akhnaten and Satyagraha, are some of the few that I actually enjoy listening to—add to that Robert Ashley’s operas and that’s about it for me.

  3. Garth Trinkl

    Well, I will grant that it is sad that Philip Glass’s “The Making of the Representative for the Planet 8” (for Houston), “The Voyage” (for the MET), and “Waiting for the Barbarians” (for Germany) — among the 20 or so of Glass’s “operas” — never received the recordings and public television productions that might have led the younger, post minimalist, post post minimalist “downtown school” generations to be more interested in issues of opera, music theater, and interarts.

    And I thought that younger artists and composers might be interested in how the Bang On A Can Stars and crowd and the south of Market Street Stars and crowd (including figures such as Erling Wold) have tried, a bit, to renew what Wilson, Glass, Ashley, Monk, Anderson, Davis, Galas, Reich and many others began, with various degrees of hesitation, in the 1970s. (Regardless of his ultimate overall musical quality and position in music history, Glass certainly did not hesitate, and for that he is, in my view, to be applauded (and commissioned)).

    Of course, DGG could record and issue “Waiting for the Barbarians”, and PBS and KQED television (and their liberal cultural backing foundations) could push for the televising of Glass and Hampton’s upcoming “Appomattox”, but I don’t see many calls in the music blogging community for such steps of advocacy and new music public education.

    Renaissance Research

  4. randy

    Not the voice of my generation
    Please don’t assume that younger generations aren’t interested in opera, music theatre, and interarts based on the lack of interest asserted by me alone. Sure, I don’t like opera, but I’m my guess is there are many other 20 and 30-somethings out there who are fanatical about it. And, btw, if interarts is some new shorthand for interdisciplinary, then that happens to be one of my main areas of interest as a composer.

  5. John Kennedy

    Brother Randy, you are not irrelevant
    “Let’s try being content with our teeny, tiny, little, itty, bitty niche.” NO, LET’S NOT! Maybe I am one of those “evangelists”, but that kind of thinking takes us back to the scene of 25 years ago. If your music is irrelevant, then it isn’t worthy of our energy and the investment placed in learning it, promoting it, and presenting it, which by the way, takes hours and hours of work on the part of performers and presenting organizations. And as a composer, maybe you would hope to have an audience of more than fellow jaded new music subculture groupies.

    I was in NY for 15 yrs but left before the Miller Theater came into the scene. But it may be fair to say that you get a skewed viewpoint there just because you have so much culchah all around you competing for everyone’s attention. However, in Milwaukee, San Francisco, Boston, Santa Fe, etc, lots of people show up at new music concerts who have little reason to be there other than their cultural curiosity. And isn’t it in part thanks to the way the presenters and artistic leadership do their job?

    I have always kind of gotten the creeps going to concerts filled only with people who are part of a little, itty bitty niche. As a composer, I could really care less what my peers and colleagues think of my music and I don’t compose it for them. I’m not hoping for the masses to jump aboard but I do hope that people are listening for whom the music might elicit responses beyond the musically analytical. If that’s all there is for us, then let’s just give up, because then it is irrelevant.

  6. Garth Trinkl

    Very fine comment, John. Thanks for posting it.

    I agree that we should be looking beyond just our peers and colleagues– or the hyper-excitable masses — for that chimerical “intelligent and interested public” that has existed at all times. I too believe that this audience is there and that it is larger than some new music nihilists might think.

    Young novelists and prose writers, independent filmmakers, younger songwriters and music-theater artists, and experimental visual and interdisciplinary artists all seem to be able to connect to thousands, if not tens of thousands (or millions), of educated and caring responders. Why should it be different with New Music?

    Renaissance Research

  7. rama gottfried

    relevant to what? i’m not sure relevance is the right word here. vital, important, dazzling, terrifying, mindblowing … that’s what i like. that and free wine and crackers!


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