Composers, People and Audiences

I’ve been thinking a lot about this article on composition and audiences:

There’s no need for us to pick over every detail or weak choice of words but I do think, beneath it all, there is a valid point.

Simply, it’s no good us complaining that audiences are too small, or that second performances are difficult to come by when the kind of music we write is not designed to be populist. I think most of us are naturally more interested in creating good and thoughtful art than bums on seats, though of course we would rather every concert be full.

However, if what we make is worth taking seriously we can’t use this as an excuse to plough ahead with our ideas, with little regard for audiences and the rest of society, and then expect there to be much money to support it, or more general appreciation of all our hard work. At some point I think we do need to engage with people at large. For some composers this means engaging with an idea of society; either religious or philosophical. In many cases I think we have lost this though there are notable exceptions across the policital and philosophical spectrum and one thinks of the likes of Richard Barrett, Michael Finnissey, James MacMillan or Rolf Hind as notable examples. In each case there is something beyond the music of these composers that makes their work more intelligible and, I really think, more humane.

Patronising audiences with ‘spectral’ dominant 7ths because they are somehow accessible is obviously no way to proceed, but expecting any large group of people to engage with no more than ‘sound’ in the same way as they do with Brahms or Sibelius is, I think, going to be about as effective as asking audiences to engage with geometric shapes in the same way as they do with Michelangelo’s Pieta. Philosophy and politics provide a narrative to music and, can be for many people, a way in to a soundworld that is often highly disorientating. Indeed, there’s no reason why we should stop at politics and philosophy. Harrison Birtwistle has long been using Greek myths and popular stories in his operas and concert music and Oliver Knussen’s use of children’s stories points again to using kinds of narrative that are widely understood. Neither of these composers, or indeed any of the composers I’ve mentioned could be accused of pandering to the masses. They are not trying to second guess what their audiences will like but they are engaging with them.

Perhaps I might sum up what I’m trying to say as follows. Good art, that can be enjoyed by a great number of people is better than good art that is only appreciated by a small number of people, and there’s nothing artistically dishonest in trying to engage with people at large. In fact, if we are only writing for ourselves then the most artistically honest thing to do is just write electronic music for ourselves to listen to in the privacy of our own bedrooms. Needless to say, I don’t think we are in the business of creating ‘bedroom techno’.


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