The Audience Does Not Exist

The Audience Does Not Exist

In my view, one of the more insidious terms that often crops up in discussions of experimental music is The Audience. People who talk about The Audience generally seek to appease this mysterious beast, with sacrifices of artistic integrity and psalms in a language they believe their deity will find pleasant and simple to comprehend. I strongly believe that they have the right to compose music in whatever style they find most satisfying, and I will fight for their right to do so. But far too often, their artistic mission statements claim that they seek to create music that The Audience might enjoy, in opposition to the harsh, noisy, and/or dissonant music that drove The Audience away from experimental music—in short, in opposition to the music I most cherish. While these composers are all honorable men and women, I come to bury The Audience, not to praise it.

Over the last two weeks in this space, I’ve been working towards a possible definition of beauty, finding a fruitful path in Gardner’s idea of “antecedents to beauty.” For me, one of the better aspects of his postulate is that it allows for differences of taste, for different people to find beauty in different places. My sense that it’s most effective to discuss beauty as an individual experience is bolstered by our knowledge of the Komar and Melamid project on the Most Wanted and Most Unwanted Art, and the related song project they created with the help of David Soldier. Inevitably, the Most Wanted Song turned out to be one that sounded most like every other song with which the audience was familiar and was as moderate and unassuming as possible.

The problem in creating music for The Audience is quite simple: The Audience does not exist. Our music is not heard by a unified mass with a singular taste; instead, it reaches out towards individuals, each of whom perceives the sounds in his or her own way. I’m aware that my taste is remarkably esoteric—others always considered it odd, even before I discovered experimental music. I’m aware that very few people will be drawn to the same sounds that fascinate me. The fact remains that I like the music that I like, and when I write compositions that focus on unusual sounds it’s because that’s where my obsessions lie. Obviously, writing in order to please academic intellectuals or teachers or any other person remains equally problematic, and I recognize that this has been a long-standing problem leading many young composers away from their natural proclivities. It was unhealthy for Boulez (and others) to declare the necessity of a single artistic style. However, by calling for a new Audience-pleasing orthodoxy, composers are not balancing prior errors and thereby returning us to artistic equilibrium. They are replicating the mistakes of the past.

For me, one of the most exciting aspects of being involved in music is that music directly imposes itself on our emotions without any mediating necessity for extra-musical meaning. Concepts like infinite yearning can be embarrassingly difficult to express through words, but can be conveyed surprisingly easily in music. (Imagine the opening of the prelude to Tristan und Isolde.) Conversely, it’s incredibly frustrating to create music that describes any specific scene without resorting to some extra-musical explanation of the intended meaning. Therefore, the ideas that music can best communicate are purely musical ideas, and the people hearing any given piece of music tend to provide wildly varying accounts of the meaning of any musical piece. Despite this disagreement on the meaning itself, most people simultaneously tend to agree that the music conveyed some meaning, that it communicated something.

Since music conveys meaning, and composers often work in isolation to produce scores that can only be brought to life through the concerted efforts of large groups of people, a question arises: If The Audience does not exist, for whom are we writing? Fortunately, there are dozens of answers to this query that can lead composers down unique and fulfilling artistic paths. Most create some mental construct of like-minded listeners open to their aesthetic choices. Others take this concept even further by imagining a theater filled with clones of themselves. Some use specific individuals as representative of their ideal listener. I have one colleague who eschews the whole concept that his music should communicate anything to anyone and who professes not to care if his music is ever heard by anyone other than himself, a stance that has led him to write some of the most original and effective music it’s ever been my honor to hear. (Interestingly, he points out that he is human and that it makes him happy when people say nice things about his music and hurts when they say mean things, but he believes that his music is really for himself. Therefore, he doesn’t seek performances of his music, but he also doesn’t balk when other musicians insist on organizing events that will allow them to hear it.)

In place of considering The Audience, I’d like to propose this: Write the music that you love and that’s honest for you, while enjoying the huge variety of music in the world. Let’s set aside the concept of a massed Audience, replacing that notion with a view of our music being heard by individual persons. Let’s approach the music that we find abhorrent and distasteful with the understanding that it was lovingly created by some other person in order to appeal to his or her innate taste and sensitivities, which differ from ours, and help this music reach like-minded listeners. Let’s embrace the fact that each person sitting in the audience at a concert is experiencing the music in a way that differs from every other person and let’s help each individual find the music that will speak directly to her or him. Let’s talk with those people whose taste differs from our own in order to broaden our horizons. Let’s find beauty in as much music as possible.

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23 thoughts on “The Audience Does Not Exist

  1. Joseph Holbrooke

    “In place of considering The Audience, I’d like to propose this: Write the music that you love and that’s honest for you, while enjoying the huge variety of music in the world. Let’s set aside the concept of a massed Audience, replacing that notion with a view of our music being heard by individual persons.”

    In principle I am right there with you. But I think it is important to point out the difference between The Audience (a boogeyman really) and An Audience (repeat customers). Without some general ideas about the needs and tastes of the people who actually pay my bills, I’d have to have a day job. Certainly there are musicians who are brilliant or charismatic or hard working enough to do only exactly what they want and still make a living from music. But I am not one of them and I am proud to meet enough musical needs of a very small but loyal audience in exchange for a modest but sufficient wage.

  2. Andrew Violette

    I seem to remember that when Schoenberg was asked in later life what kind of audience he wrote for he replied that he didn’t have an audience.

  3. jeff harrington

    This is a great subject and it’s well-presented and it’s theme of empowering the individual vision is always important. The problem I have is that it’s a rationalizing theme. It’s a theme which seeks to condone the way we so often create our music these days – exploiting the extra-musical organizing principal way beyond it’s musical usefulness – forcing the audience to endure hours of empty or too full spaces because YOUR vision is what’s important, not the collective musical experience that we as a society have participated in for millennia and that has created our great world musical cultures.

    Audiences do exist and they will hear your music. What composers, who consider themselves experimental don’t always appreciate is the similarities within audience experiences. Those similarities are extremely important. The are the group experience of the humanities and represents some of the most glorious experiences in human culture.

    If you insist on ignoring the expectations and the shared experience of the audience you risk creating an experience that is likely the exact opposite of the experience of experimentalist theatre you are hoping for.

    This denial of audience expectations and the celebration of the great vision of the composer is indicative of a world uninterested in beauty, instead it is only interested in celebrating the great vision of the composer. But beauty is the shared experience. It depends on shared empathies. It’s the ‘AHA’ vibe in a Cage extravaganza when weird shit just lines up, it’s the shared tear drop when you look at the other audience members and see others are trying not to weep too. But to think that you, the composer, are outside of this shared drama – is a complete betrayal of the human. It is narcissistic, self-important, void of compassion and void of empathy.

    Now, the problem I have with the folks who always talk about pleasing the audiences is that their music is almost universally rotten to the core, cloying, disgustingly sentimental, not heart-felt, sheer saccharine crap. What I’m trying to suggest is that rebelling against crap white-note music with an argument which is secretly being used to rationalize the fact that you, the composer, have always wanted to write something that only used ping-pong balls and lasted for 6 hours and you resent the fact that nobody else in the world seems to want to come to it.

    In this case – you’re the problem. Your vision is self-involved to the point that you’re not even being artistic at this point – you’re really just playing with ideas until you produce outrage. That is just as sentimentally simplistic (in the opposite anti-art sense) just as cloying (in its positing the ‘ideal composer’ who can realize any bizarre vision) and just as banal (in its common derivations of the edges of taste).

    And FWIW, audience experiences themselves can be educational to the composer. I always get a kick out of watching when the audience starts shuffling or scratching their heads. A composer that is attuned to watching an audience can often get a good picture at the dull moments in a piece through those visual cues.

  4. Philipp Blume

    You’re making a leap in logic here, Jeff. There’s a difference between declaring audience appreciation of your work incidental to the work itself (Smooke) and ‘denial of audience expectations’ (Harrington). The consistent denial of audience expectations is no better than the consistent fulfillment of them (and is no less absurd in practice). When a composer sets out to create a strong-willed ‘vision’ dictated only by his or her own predilections, then the result is still being made by humans for humans. The result is a genuine attempt to reach out to the like-minded, and those who simply aren’t like-minded are still offered a vision different from their own which they are empowered to evaluate as they please. That’s true for any history of ideas, not just musical ideas.

  5. Tony Clements

    Like all art, I believe it is meant to be shared. Imagine your composition being like a painting. Is the artist’s intent to complete the painting, the put the work into storage? I would think the painter would like to SHARE his work and elicit a response, positive or negative. Imagine how the world would differ if Ella Fitzgerald never performed in public, or Louis Armstong, or Jimi Hendrix. What if Fred Astaire or Gregory Hines, or Nureyev never appeard in public? What if Clark Gable, Sofia Loren or Meryl Streep never appeared before an audience? I believe the basis for all art is to be shared with an audience. Yes, write, sing, dance, paint what moves you as an artist, but ultimately it is the SHARING that makes art, art.

  6. jeff harrington

    That was my small point, my big point got lost when I crystallized it into your dialectic. My big point is that the audience is ourselves, it’s real, it’s our friends, it’s the musicians, it’s the material itself, it’s everything that’s listening and creating the cultural experience. The realization of a piece requires a multi-dimensional audience of listeners of all types.

    My problem with the claim that it doesn’t exist is that it is also a rationalization that feeds into the games of the ego-centric narcissistic vision that is exclusively obsessed with the needs of the composer. Our materials have their own needs of our services as composers. Our world has its own needs. Which is why doing something new is so important. Our musicians that play our music have needs too. We are not composers against or indifferent to the world. We are players within an audience of listeners.

  7. Seth Wrightington

    I think composers should relieve the responsibility of the public taste and concentrate on the development/execution of their respective style. For my work, the audience of myself is in all wise worthwhile, and even corrects the composition when the composer has made a ‘mistake’

  8. Phil Fried

    For classical music there are three kinds of audiences members; interested, disinterested, and captive. Though I am not convinced that art, or an artist, can exist without the disinterested audience; it takes some folks longer than others to find it. Perhaps since my motto is no sonic prejudice my view is atypical.

  9. DrMatt

    I have always found a warm reception for my folkloric tonal music–and an excited enthusiasm for my harsh dodecaphony–the harsher the music, the better the response, with Lou Karchin referring to my harshest work so far as “a crowd-pleaser”. In either case, if I’ve touched somebody and reminded them of the value of pluralistic civilization and the joy of being alive, it is enough.

  10. Kyle Gann

    As someone who spent 19 years getting to intimately know the BAM audience, the Merkin Hall audience, the Roulette audience, the Miller Theater audience, the XI audience, and quite a few other audiences, with all their quirks, foibles, self-deceptions, insights, virtues, soft spots, and proclivities, I just shake my head when composers say, as they so commonly do, that there’s no such thing. I guess anything you haven’t studied up close must not exist. Virgil Thomson, at least, agreed with me.

    1. smooke

      Kyle, I think that you’re proving my point. You studied several different audiences because each of these organizations is trying to reach different segments of the population, because there is not single unified overreaching Audience. I guess that we’re all in agreement with Virgil Thomson!
      – David

  11. Garrett Schumann

    Last November, Gordon Mumma spoke about this very subject on a panel in Ann Arbor as part of the ONCE Festival commemoration organized by the University Musical Society here in town.

    He agreed with the idea that there is no single audience (he used the term “general audience”, I think), but insisted on a point very close to Kyle Gann’s here a few comments above my own.

    Like Jeff Harrington , Mumma averred that there are niches of willing listeners whose interests are extremely broad. I suppose his point was about the composer’s personal expectations regard to whom they are writing, or – to be a little crass – who they can expect to get to care about their work.

    As much as I agree with this concept, I’ve always thought a charismatic, self-confident, engaging personality could transcend these “boundaries” contemporary music’s impact. Perhaps I am naive (it wouldn’t be the first time), but I think personality is an essential quality of a composer, his or her work, and one we know is frighteningly absent from our field. My feelings tie into the end of the original post: if you really believe in what you’re doing, people will rally around it. Whether these ‘others’ are composers or randos off the street, I can’t speak to. But I know people – in general – are drawn to self-confidnet individuals, and that includes artists and composers who believe in their vision and what they produce.

  12. Phil Fried

    “..I’ve always thought a charismatic, self-confident, engaging personality could transcend these “boundaries” contemporary music’s impact…”

    Don’t you mean “a charismatic, self-confident, engaging personality’s music could transcend these “boundaries”??

    Or are you saying its more important to be interesting than to be talented? Well perhaps so but no one, no matter how charismatic, can sell me a musical idea unless I can hear it.

  13. Garrett Schumann


    I see how you could have gotten that from my comment and apologize for being unclear. If you would only have read a little further I suggest that my view of “personality” applies both to the individual composer and his/her work.

    However, I think it is a little naive to ignore how important it is for a composer to be able to communicate with other people, face-to-face. Whether those people are performers he/she is attempting to get to performing his/her work, an audience at a pre-concert event, a panel at a graduate school or job interview, a conductor with whom he/she would like to work, etc., it doesn’t matter.

    The one thing I keep hearing from successful composers I run into at master classes/summer programs/on twitter/other places is that building relationships with people (see above list) is extremely important to creating opportunities for your music to be shared with others. Obviously, the quality of your music matters, but if you can’t connect to anyone on a personal level, how will you get anyone to play or support it?

  14. sam

    Great posting and great responses. My comment may be a bit off track from the others here and perhaps a little persnickety in general; however, I have to take issue with some of your assertions early on in the post.

    “Concepts like infinite yearning can be embarrassingly difficult to express through words, but can be conveyed surprisingly easily in music. (Imagine the opening of the prelude to Tristan und Isolde.) Conversely, it’s incredibly frustrating to create music that describes any specific scene without resorting to some extra-musical explanation of the intended meaning.”

    I’ll address the second assertion first, since it is the most egregiously off target. It is not “incredibly frustrating” to describe a specific scene in music without extra-musical explanations of intended meaning; it is completely impossible to do so. Obviously any music that has a text can work to overcome this. In my view however, any explaining that goes on in the text of a piece is conveying extra-musical meaning. Music cannot tell a story or create characters or describe physical spaces. Music can prompt audiences to imaging these things (within certain cultural constraints) if given a programmatic starting point.

    Speaking of cultural constraints gets me to my second point. Infinite yearning is not expressed in the prelude to Tristan und Isolde in any absolute fashion. Within a certain cultural context (namely, the western art music tradition), this music may invoke the abovementioned emotional response, but ultimately the evocation of this specific emotion is still heavily dependent on a knowledge of the programmatic elements of the work (the story). Moreover, non-western cultures may not feel the prescribed emotion even with a knowledge of the story. They simply haven’t been trained (as we have) to associate that kind of sound with a certain kind of emotion. Like I said – persnickety.

  15. Pingback: Why Composers Should Drop Out of University (and What They Should Be Learning), Part 2 | Aaron Gervais, composer

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