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.|
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.