John Zorn quote
The Performer, the Audience, and the Measure of Success

The Performer, the Audience, and the Measure of Success

John Zorn quote

Do we really care if they listen? In new music, we are constantly aware of the criticism that our performances seem to be for a niche participant community rather than for a wider general audience. Well, our little sub rosa is that all performers know that we do it for ourselves—and that is how it should be…at least in part. The audience and series patrons argue that they supply the financial backing that makes our craft possible, and we should not only respect their place in our performance but consider them when making stylistic and programming choices. Does the new music performance belong to the performer, the audience, or both? This series will examine why both points of view, though conflicting, are necessary to uplift the other party and elevate both the artistic achievement and commercial viability of our community.

We are the creators, composers, and interpreters, and as much as we respect the audience and want to immerse them in our creation, the work itself is inherently an intentional act that we are creating and they are consuming. Any comprehensive performing musician enthusiastically promotes the creation of compositions, the displaying of sound in performance, and the experience of the music being made. But, should the attention be paid equally?

As performers, we have devoted our careers to issues of musical virtuosity, technique, the interpretation of the composer’s work, and how the variations of each specific performance expresses different facets of the composition. We have studied the historical, theoretical, and often personal context of the composition’s creation. When I’m performing, I know that everyone in the audience “owns” my instrument—the voice—but they are not there to use it as an instrument, and the vast majority cannot or will not have the ability and training to use it in the way that I am while on stage.

This ability, training, and study are privileges, and while I am honored that I have been entrusted to communicate these ideas, I am also (selfishly) receiving the richest experience of anyone in that venue. Not only do we as performers have the most knowledge of the piece and have often even collaborated in some way with the composer, but we absorb the visceral excitement of the crowd. I get the physical joy of stretching my skills to their utmost—and in new music I have material that is always exciting and challenging.

While performing, I use all of my senses to create an experience that is for myself even more than it is for the audience. When reading the score, I can see the interconnectivity of the musical lines take shape visually while listening to them happen in real time—I watch the act of creation from abstraction to fruition. I use body language to communicate with other performers and understand the communication in their subtle changes. And not only can I see it and hear it, but I have the sensation of making sound in my entire being, from the intake of breath to the internal vibrations to the pursing of my lips. It is physical, it is sensual, and clearly this aspect of the performance is for me.

Of course, this is hardly reserved for singers. In Avant-garde Jazz Musicians: Performing “Out There” by David Such, saxophonist and composer John Zorn describes a similar reaction:

After a performance, some people come up and say it’s very visual…Some people say that they didn’t know what was going on…Everybody gets something different and everybody experiences it in a different way. As far as the audience is concerned, I have nothing to do with them whatsoever when we’re performing…I’m concerned with the music itself.

Zorn isn’t suggesting that we all ignore the audience, but rather that there is a useful separation between his role as an interpreter and the audience’s role as perceivers. If a performer tries to alter his performance to manipulate the audience into a specific and universal response, then he has done a disservice to the music and the individuality of each audience member. Zorn may be discussing avant-garde jazz, but would there be any difference from a broader new music perspective? If we view each performance as being for us and allow the audience the space to create their own reactions, then we can ensure that our role in the performance achieves the performance that is most artistically true to ourselves and to the work.

In this case, there is a strong indication that because the performer gets the most out of the experience, the performance event is a heightened moment in the musician’s life and less so for the audience member.

The problem arrives when we try and measure our success. Being personally satisfied and artistically actualized as a musician does not pay the bills. Tickets sales pay the bills. Commissions pay the bills. The audience’s presence is vital to our ability to continue to program and perform new music. That suggests that parity between the performer’s and audience’s experience is necessary. However, when the performance is for the performer, perhaps the model we use for measuring success changes as well. Enjoying our communion with other performers and staying true to our own vision is delightful, but if it so alienates the audience that we turn off our support base, could it possibly be considered a successful performance?


Megan Ihnen

Mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen is a tireless promoter of contemporary classical music for the voice. She was invited as the only voice fellow to Fifth House Ensemble’s Fresh Inc. program in 2013 as well as at the 2012 Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival at MASS MoCA. She has been a featured soloist at both SICPP (’14) and MusicX (’11). She returns to Graz, Austria in February for IMPULS 2015. Megan is also the author behind the popular classical voice blog, The Sybaritic Singer. She reviews classical music performances and writes about musical entrepreneurship during her “28 Days to Diva” series each February.

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.

11 thoughts on “The Performer, the Audience, and the Measure of Success

  1. zan stewart

    Nice post, Megen. I would say that you and John Zorn have it right: the music and its integrity come first, otherwise what we are saying loses its central core, its raison d’etre. But at the same time, as a jazz musician who is trying to build an audience, if I don’t connect with listeners, then I am creating more of a divide than a bond and that seems pointless. Granted I am not a ‘new musician’, my work has ties to some of the more popular genres of music through the years, but it is new when I play it with all that I am able to in the moment of creation, in the now. I guess the way I look at it is that if I create something I like, a song or a groove or a phrase, it has to connect first with other musicians, if there are any, and then it is sent out to listeners, and if I like it, I hope someone else will. If the music is only for me, that, again, to me serves no purpose.

  2. Michael Oberhauser

    Great post, Megan. I think you and Zan in the comments make some great points – I think if the music and the performance are meaningful to the performer, that will connect to at least somebody in the audience – even if the audience is only connecting with your experience and not the music itself. That, of course, isn’t ideal. We want the audience to connect with the music directly. But any connection is better than none!

  3. Akropolis Reed Quintet

    We pivot all our programmatic and artistic choices toward our identity and mission as ensemble, which is basically to play contemporary music in a way which engages with today’s audience, and to establish the reed quintet as a standard chamber music force. We highly encourage having a focal point (or two) to go back to when making the hard choices of programming. One time, we put Mozart on a program because we felt we needed to connect with our audience, and we felt sort of slimy afterward. Other times, we play new works which stretch the limit of the standard chamber music audience’s patience with new music. We debate as individuals which pieces are most “for us” and most “for the audience,” but in the end, success means that our audience is engaged by new music, and we’re performing works that we feel will expand the reed quintet repertoire. We believe that a work should engage both Akropolis and our audience. Some engage one more than the other, but if we’re highly cognizant of how, we can grow as a group, and grow with our supporters.

  4. Curtis Smith

    I agree that fidelity to the piece and to oneself is a vital part of performing but if the primary function of what we are doing is focused inward and only outward toward other musicians, why are we performing on a stage or in a concert hall or for an audience? If they are there only to receive the energy and musical experience that is a byproduct what we are thoroughly enjoying on the stage I think we are missing out on a deeper musical connection that arrises when the barrier between audience and performer breaks down and music becomes a two-way communication. You see this breakdown all the time at rock concerts (think stage diving and chanting crowds), or jazz concerts (spontaneous applause and calls for another solo), or new music concerts where the idea of the traditional venue is turned on its head so the audience becomes part of the performance. It’s not a dichotomy of audience and performer where fidelity to one party robs the other. It’s a matter of involving all parties in the musical experience. When we do this we obviate the question “were we successful” and we’ll probably take care of how to pay the bills as well.

  5. Susan Scheid

    This is a thoughtful article, certainly, though, as a listener, I bridle a bit at being put in the box of “consumer.” I like very much what Curtis Smith has said. We’re not so passive, not if we really care about what we’re hearing. I think the deal we have to make with one another (if you do wish to perform for listeners, which doesn’t need to be a given), is that you will perform music you love, with passion that is evident, and we, as listeners, must come ready to give our full attention to and engage with that music. It’s nice, too, if possible, to hear from the musicians, and perhaps even have a conversation afterward about the shared experience of the music–what it means to the musicians, and what it means to us as listeners.

  6. Tony Arnold

    Megan, this is a lovely post about an issue that has vexed many a performer, especially those of music that has been deemed “prohibitive” in some aspect by the culture. I’d like to offer something, if not a different view, one that looks at what we’re doing here through a different prism.

    Music is what humans do. Whenever I hear the doom and gloom rhetoric of “classical music is dead” or “contemporary music alienates the audience”, I remember this simple fact: music is what humans do. We have always done it. We don’t know why, and we don’t need to know why. It is one of the most common modes of human expression. (Of course, there are individual exceptions to this… there are some people who don’t do music and don’t seek music. But they are in the minority, to be sure).

    As long as we offer ourselves as performers, simply, to the music, to the composer, to our collaborators in performance, we are also quite naturally offering ourselves to those who seek to listen to the music. We can analyze this relationship, it does indeed have its complexities. And in modern day life, with the transactional nature of EVERYTHING (thank you neoliberalism), it is tempting to look at the performer/audience relationship through the lens of the omnipotent market.

    Let’s not.

    Looking through the marketability lens is drives fear. Looking through the lens of generous collaboration yields something entirely different. Maybe the niche is small. But if it is a niche that is fed by a true love for the music that is present in that moment, it will always find an audience. It always has.

    Paying the bills is paying the bills. Our identities need not be tied up in that; save that energy for the music. What else can we do but give ourselves simply to the music and the moment? There is nothing else. Audiences that sense this generosity return, out of generosity. It’s the great human feedback loop.

    It is not easy to be generous as performers (or in life), and undoubtedly we fail at this more than we succeed (certainly I do, it’s painful to concede!). But the goal is a worthy one, and I think it yields lasting dividends for all who are touched by the music.

  7. Andy Costello

    “If we view each performance as being for us and allow the audience the space to create their own reactions, then we can ensure that our role in the performance achieves the performance that is most artistically true to ourselves and to the work.”

    Dear Megan, this sentence is where you lost me… I don’t think anyone has the right to claim any quantitative level of artistic truth toward an interpreted work. Perhaps true to oneself is achievable, but not to a work written by another or a past self, IMO. Thank you for you words and thoughts. Best, Andy

  8. Pingback: Megan Ihnen published on NMBx « The Peabody Post

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