Shirtless man dancing by himself in a park.
Be the First Follower

Be the First Follower

For my final post of the month, I present you with the shirtless dancing guy. See you in three minutes:

For fun, let’s think about who the equivalents in the new music world might be.

If you will allow: the shirtless dancing guy represents composers (Actually, partly. We’ll come back to this). He’s genuinely doing what feels natural and at the same time is largely invisible to or ignored by everyone else. Without any followers, that is what he will remain.

Next, you would think that the first follower would be a new music ensemble or performer who specializes in contemporary music. True, new music players and ensembles take risks on composers all the time. But they are expected to do this. It’s their mandate. In fact, these players and ensembles are crucial to making the music happen. Without them there wouldn’t be any new music (or dancing guy) at all. In my analogy then, the dancing guy stands for more than just the composers; he’s the composers and new music players working together as a community.

So. Who is the first follower? How about this: a mainstream player, classical or otherwise, who champions a composer that the rest of the world thinks is off his or her rocker. Music that fits with the audience’s expectations doesn’t count. I’m talking about a performer who usually plays Brahms and takes a big risk by programming something that everyone else thinks is too out there, or even something that most would not even consider to be music at all.

It does happen. Glenn Gould championed Schoenberg. Bernstein conducted Varèse. More recently, Alan Gilbert brought Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre to the New York Philharmonic and here at the 21C festival in Toronto we just heard Marc-André Hamelin play a magical 80 minutes of Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus. These are highly visible musicians who are bravely sticking their necks out. They are not programming what the audience wants, they are programming—as Péter Eötvös puts it—what the audience needs. Contrast this with the classical groups that program rock or pop transcriptions and advertise it as out-of-the-box thinking.

“The first follower is an under-appreciated form of leadership,” says narrator Derek Sivers in the video above. Yes it is, and it’s wonderful that there are awards like the American Composers Forum’s Champions of New Music, especially when those recognized are from the non-new music world, such as Michael Morgan this year.

So, the takeaway is: composers and new music ensembles together are the shirtless dancing guy, so let’s be as visible and easy to follow as possible. Also, to go with the video’s advice, let’s be sure to make it more about the movement than about ourselves. And players: is there someone out there who is creating or playing music that we all need to know about? Maybe you are the first follower who will spark the critical mass.

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One thought on “Be the First Follower

  1. John Borstlap

    A wonderful and instructive video! Underneath of all the layers of civilization, convention, custom and routine, there is the instinctive source of life energy and music can open that up. It also explains why, for composers, the ‘beginning’ – the entrance into the world – is so difficult. There are so many layers of routine and dull convention all around, especially in the arts. A couple of remarks:

    The music is pop music that everybody ‘understands’, i.e. no effort is needed, no attention even, which is shown in the indifference towards the dancer in the beginning, which also seems to be towards the music: it’s merely wallpaper. When all the other people join-in, it’s a basic, instinctive gut reaction which does not need any reflection, the barrier is very low. People are social animals. WIth art music, gut reactions first need to overcome the barrier of context (concert hall, strangeness of the music, insecurity of the listener, complexity of the musical language in case it is complex), and that is far more difficult. One cannot require of new music that it is ‘easy to follow’ because that may result in meaningless triviality.

    Gut reactions are helped by the context of social traditions, like a classical concert format, or a rock performance format. It is easier to stand on your head in a yoga class than on your own alone at home, or in a shopping mall. From this observation to “Music that fits with the audience’s expectations doesn’t count”: it may be that what is considered ‘audience’s expectations’ is, in fact, the social context. Social contexts open-up the possibility of understanding and acceptance. The distinction is important, it seems to me, because the one is mental laziness, the other a bridge to contact, which is the opposite.

    “They are not programming what the audience wants, they are programming […] what the audience needs.” Would it also not be possible that what the audience needs, is ALSO what it wants? Namely, this formulation sounds rather totalitarian: ‘Only I can tell you what you really need, you can’t say that for yourself.’ It sounds patronizing and is this not exactly the very thing we don’t like of conventional music performance?

    Just some food for thought….


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