The Great Unwashed

The Great Unwashed

In the office, Randy is always taking me to task for spending too much time analyzing music: “Just let it wash over you,” he says with a mischievous grin. To which, depending on how caffeinated I am or how many deadlines I’m behind on, I’ll either smirk, grimace, or say something like, “I hate getting wet unless I’m in the shower.”

Fact is, whether or not I want to, I really can’t help but hear things analytically to some degree. Even when car horns go off randomly in the street, if the simultaneity of their honking results in a major seventh chord or some wonderfully off-kilter microtonal aggregate, I pay attention to it. But indeed, just as I derive great joy from hearing a random neutral third while crossing Broadway, I am totally thrilled when I am startled by something in music, and it is really difficult to be startled by something that you know too much about.

Last week, Richard Guérin wrote about the perceptual implications of hearing Elliott Carter’s Asko Concerto twice in one evening at Juilliard’s Focus! Festival. I was there, too, but while I was pleased to have multiple encounters with that work, I found the increased awareness of knowing when certain things would happen—from the benefit of focused short term memory—a bit disconcerting. Second time around, obviously, there were way fewer surprises. Of course, folks who attend concerts predominantly of standard repertoire or listen to pop oldies radio stations are getting surprised even less.

That said, few events at concerts I’ve attended recently were more inspiring than seeing a woman sitting a row in front of me nearly convulse upon the blast of a certain chord in a performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite I heard Marin Alsop conduct in Baltimore last Thursday night. I know the piece, but hadn’t listened to it in quite some time, and was jolted by the chord also. Experiences like this are proof that music can be as engaging as movies or sports events, though a reaction like that is much harder to come by if you know what’s going to happen. I doubt the millions of people who watch major league sports would do so with the same engagement if they knew the scores in advance.

But to my thinking, there still needs to be a significant level of connectivity between you and what you’re experiencing in order for it to have an impact on you. No one would watch football if the rules got changed for every game. Many years ago I was dragged along to a radical staging of Shakespeare’s Hamlet directed by Ingmar Bergman and presented in Swedish. It looked like it might be interesting, and probably would have been, had I understood Swedish, but I was so bored out of my mind that I left at intermission.

The best way to approach something you’re attempting to appreciate must be some sort of middle ground between not knowing enough and knowing too much, since neither extreme is particularly satisfying. But how do you find that middle ground? In new music, it changes with every piece of music you encounter.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

3 thoughts on “The Great Unwashed

  1. teresa

    musical connection
    I find with new music, as with all great music, it has to have an emotional connection to the performer and the audience, in order to make it last. That “connectivity” you mention is true on lots of levels, I think. (Did anyone read the recent NYTimes article about the Opus 95 Project at Curtis?) It’s nice to know a piece well so you can hear it from different perspectives, and it is also nice to be surprised. In the end, the reason I like to play and hear new music is because I like to hear new sounds, plain and simple. I love the surprise, but I also really love change… and new situations, musical and otherwise. It’s great to hear a concert of “masterworks”, but if I had to hear only that… I would go crazy. It’s what’s new that is interesting, and if I connect to it on some level… then it is a memorable experience for me.

  2. Chris Becker

    I don’t necessarily disagree with anything in this essay…although I think if I was sitting in between Frank and Randy at a show they might drive me nuts (and vice versa).

    I thought I’d offer that as a composer, I myself am used to working with musicians with backgrounds (and technique) that are very different than mine. How we then “connect” as an ensemble to perform my music then is the challenge. This challenge isn’t necessarily something you ever overcome – and I should add that I tend to stick with players for years in order to develop my compositional voice through their respective sonic prisms. The music I “compose” is crafted to generate surprises; I’m looking for the musicians to inject their funk into the components of the work…I don’t want them to play me what is expected. It’s a dance between a compositional gesture (which includes improvisation) and a scenario where you don’t know what the f— is going to happen.

    But Frank seems to be talking about audiences who may or may not need a “handle” on the music they are about to hear to really enjoy it? In my experience, it’s all in an audience member’s attitude – whether or not they hold a music degree or not isn’t an issue. Grant it, I’m talking about a perceptive sensitive person, not a reactive insecure critic.

    Also, I hate to say it, but when I’ve found myself sitting next to a composer at a “new music” concert, I often find they 1.) feel they have to say SOMETHING supposedly critical after a piece is played or 2.) refuse to converse about music once they find out what school you went (or didn’t) go to. Come on, let’s be honest…”the great unwashed”? Some of the worst audiences for new music are contemporary composers :(

  3. philmusic

    I strive to be a disinterested listener. The problem is being a composer by its very nature makes me an “interested” listener.

    I must learn mediate myself!

    Phil Fried


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