Sunday, July 10, 2011

Creating Experiential Music (as the economy and technology impact art music)

Depending on who you ask, art music faces its share of challenges in America right now.  Popular music also has its share of difficulties, although live concerts are still lucrative enough forms of entertainment to keep booking them.  When the topic turns from popular musicians to orchestras, operas, and other classical musicians, organizations have had an increasingly tough time selling tickets and getting enough revenue to stay in operation.  This is the point at which nearly everyone becomes an economist, at least as far as their own survival in a field goes.  Some people believe in waiting for a return to the way things were, and for some companies this probably makes sense, especially in terms of my personal conclusion: just sitting and listening isn't enough for most people anymore.

The younger the generation, the more likely they are to be in a constant state of activity, perpetually typing or browsing tweets and updates on Facebook, or emails if they're feeling "old school," listening to a carefully selected stream of music that suits their personal tastes, perpetually mentally active in jumping from one focus to another.  This isn't a judgment against anyone, it simply is the way a lot of people operate.  Technology has become more portable, and more pervasive in people's lives, which may be leading to the normalization of shorter attention spans.  It certainly means that people never have to be lacking for a distraction if they get bored for a moment.

No one frowns on a distracted outdoor audience member texting.
At a sporting event or a rock concert, a person can whip out a smartphone and send off pictures of everyone having fun without causing any sort of disturbance.  At a movie theater, it becomes invasive, but some people still can't resist the urge to pull up that bright distraction at a slow moment--or maybe they're just enjoying themselves so much that they feel compelled to share it with someone who isn't there.  Audience members in a concert hall for a classical music performance are not encouraged to exercise the same freedom of distraction.  The music is expected to be engaging enough that people shouldn't have trouble paying attention for an entire symphony.  It almost becomes an unspoken bit of snobbery that if you can't enjoy sitting quietly through a performance, then you don't belong in the classical music audience.

This would be a great perspective if classical music performances were consistently sold out, but the American art music audience is shrinking.  Rather than suggesting that people be encouraged to multi-task themselves through a boring moment in [insert name of well-known dead composer here], I believe that musicians and organizations interested in growing an audience of music lovers can do some things to make performances more consistently engaging.  This belief is informing the music I've been writing.

I've seen plenty of great ideas poorly executed.  I've been to concerts in which some kind of slide show was projected onto a screen while music was performed, "to engage the senses" or something of the sort.  I've also been to small recitals where the live music was alongside experimental film that added another dimension to the subject matter and emotional content of the music.  At a well-choreographed ballet, there is always something to pay attention to.  Even when everything is still, there is an anticipation that something is about to move.  In an opera, audience members are watching a story unfold, and the emotions of the characters get much more attention than the often two-dimensional characters in movies.  So, there are already precedents for art music to be more engaging that just sitting and listening, and some organizations carry it off very effectively.

For the music that I'm composing, I am thinking more in terms of a theater piece than a recital.  When music can be downloaded and heard at the listener's convenience, I think a live performance has to be more than just the sound of a piece.  While a performing ensemble can take steps in that direction, I'm composing more than just notes in my current projects.  It's not a new idea by any means, but it is taking a step beyond where I have previously been as a composer.  It's helping me to think more intentionally about what the audience will experience.

The unknown challenge before me next is to connect with performing ensembles that are interested in going a little beyond the norm in a public performance.  Essentially, that translates to marketing my music.  Even though this requires an entirely different skill set from the actual composition of the piece, it's another vital step in the creation of a compelling performance.  More to come on where that process takes me.


  1. I think another obstacle classical musicians face is that for 99 cents (or thereabouts), I can download and listen to a piece performed by the best musicians in the world. While your orchestra might have a very fine violinist, indeed, it is hard to justify paying very much to go see that musician when Joshua Bell has the same piece on iTunes.

    The economics of being a professional classical musician are already very difficult. The hell of it is, unless new musicians have a chance at succeeding in music, there will be fewer and fewer professional musicians. The only people who'll be able to succeed will be trust fund kids and those who are able to find financial backers.

    To your point, I think it's correct that "sitting and listening" is going to go away. Sad as it is, the modern audiences increasingly want an "entertainment experience", not just an excellent performance of a fantastic piece of music. I don't envy you trying to contribute a solution to this problem.

  2. Exactly on target I think. The technology in terms of access to music (and the quality of sound) continued to increase while many music organizations kept doing the same thing orchestras have been doing for over a century. There are still some people who greatly appreciate the sense of being in the middle of a full concert hall and having the music wash over them, but it's tough for a live performance to compete with a high quality recording that's had all the rough spots ironed out in a studio.

    That being said, one of the things I loved about seeing Tan Dun's Water Concerto performed live was the way the unusual percussion sounds filled the space. Just watching the piece be performed was engaging, even though there was nothing spectacular about the staging of it. I'm working with a more theatrical presentation while sticking with traditional orchestral instruments, and I'm honestly not sure how tough a sell it's going to be.

    Incidentally, I was in graduate school as a composer before it really hit home for me that nearly all of the composers that are household names (with the notable exception of Mozart) were able to spend time writing music because they had plenty of money from some other source. Survival as a composer today is largely based on having a university position, but that doesn't necessarily mean contributing anything meaningful or lasting to the world's body of music. Based on your observations, there won't realistically be many music students at universities a few generations down the line, so that changes the landscape for an incredible number of people.