03 July 2007

More Food For Thought From "The Nation"

I promise this will relate to music eventually. If you don't believe me, keep reading until it does.

I'm not making a habit out of taking issue with verbiage in The Nation because I have some kind of bone to pick with them. It's just that I've been reading it regularly again and I've stumbled upon another very thought-provoking turn of phrase, this time from Ronald Aronson in his article "The New Atheists." Aronson profiles five recently published anti-religious books that have made bestseller lists; I won't bother with titles and authors because all you need to know about the excerpt that follows is that it refers to two of them:

"[Author 1] and [Author 2] might have considered their readers more and disciplined their own need to follow out every line of thought..."

If you are a musician, you probably have heard almost this exact same phrase uttered before, only about a piece of music, a performance, or a recording. "Consider your audience" is another one of those pieces of our colloquial musicological vocabulary that could have been devised by Karl Rove. It's not about specific people with specific wants and needs; it's about something more abstract and universal that it is suddenly assumed all human beings share merely as a consequence of being human.

As with most such assumptions, it has proven irresistible to large throngs of people despite being completely false. There is, in fact, wild variation in our willingness to read demanding books or listen to demanding pieces of music, to say nothing of the inherent value of "follow[ing] out every line of thought" in philosophical discourse. Used as it is in Aronson's article, the phrase is just another institutionalization of pop culture sensibility, where anything that cannot be taken in passively is not worth the trouble (or worse, is elitist or snobbish). Particularly with regard to verbal discourse on issues as complex as religion and atheism, it astounds me that anyone would level such a criticism against a book. Just a few paragraphs earlier, Aronson described the authors as, "devoted...to overcoming a situation in which every other area of life can be critically analyzed while admittedly irrational religious faith is made central to American life but exempted from serious discussion." If pursuing "serious discussion" means being "inconsiderate" of one's audience, does that make it any less urgent or valid?

Music, of course, is not an empirical pursuit, but I don't think that using "consider your audience" as a euphemism for "don't play anything contemporary or long" is any more intelligent or appropriate. Words like "modern" and "avant-garde" got co-opted in the same way, and many people now understand them to refer to embalmed musical styles rather than to their dictionary definitions. The problem? This leaves a linguistic void, or at least creates confusion: what do we call music that is literally "modern" or "avant-garde" but doesn't sound like what most people associate with those terms? Similarly, we must always be considerate (literally) of our audience; they are human beings, after all. But alas, this turn of phrase has also been stolen by the trend-makers and sentenced to function merely as so much mud slung in the general direction of anything dissonant.

I hereby consider my audience by giving them permission to alleviate any discomfort they may experience during my performances. If their butts hurt after 20 minutes, they can get up and leave. If they're falling asleep, they can get up and leave (or stay asleep; just don't snore and/or fall off your chair because those things make noise and would interrupt the performance). If someone in the audience absolutely hates what I do, I would recommend that they get up and leave rather than sticking around and creating that now-famous "cold and stale" atmosphere that has Greg Sandow's knickers in a twist about the future of classical music.

I am reminded of two summers ago when, by some stroke of luck, the Minnesota Orchestra's often-forgettable Sommerfest resulted in a late-night solo piano set at Orchestra Hall by none other than Fred Hersch, and for only ten f$%&*ing dollars! Not only would this have likely cost $50-$100 in most any other case, but it would actually have been worth it. Nonetheless, people's butts were squirming after one tune, and were headed out the door after two or three. The most engaged they were all night was during Hersch's opening remarks when some hysterical laughter erupted as he introduced the first tune, Billy Strayhorn's "Upper Manhattan Medical Group." If he had just followed up with Monk's "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are" and Hank Mobley's "Old World, New Imports," he might have kept them around longer. But Mr. Hersch didn't consider his audience; he just played his ass off.

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