When Will Audiences Follow?

January 1, 2001

Much has been written about the apparent rift between composers and audiences during the 20th century. While enjoying complete freedom to cultivate highly personal styles of expression, composers have remained most hopeful about sharing their musical creations with a broad-based public. Unfortunately, the current state of affairs in the professional music world makes the encounters between the newest music and the public-at-large quite counterproductive as a rule. The following four reasons contribute to this unfortunate set of circumstances:

The lack of adequate, if not inspired, performances of new com positions by musicians unable or unwilling to cope effectively with the challenge posed by these new works.

The lack of appropriate concert venues and auditoriums designed to meet todays musical practices, rather than merely satisfying the requirements of a performance tradition inherited from the 19th century.

The obvious lack of cooperation from the broadcast industry, which is terribly afraid to alienate a shrinking listener base by programming even a minute amount of unfamiliar music.

The inappropriate expectations and frame of mind typically found in the average listener which prevents the easy grasping of the aesthetic underpinnings of new compositions.

Do composers really have any power to influence or modify these inappropriate circumstances? Should composers identify an ideal listener before embarking on their creative journeys? Should they spend valuable time and energy training the average listener so that he or she can genuinely enjoy the bewildering array of styles found in newly minted musical works?

In light of the obvious commercialization of the music industry as well as the infectious, ever-growing and threatening musical illiteracy, should composers consciously dumb down their style in order to achieve greater public acceptance? Should they take the lead from psychologists who investigate the listening habits of the contemporary public and subsequently tailor their compositions to suit the average music lovers preferences? Should composers remain totally uninvolved with the selling of contemporary music and leave this complicated task in the hands of professional promoters and marketing geniuses?

Todays composers relate to audiences and tradition in heterogeneous ways. John Tavernerwidely regarded as Britains unofficial national composer and often called upon to provide music for public occasions such as Princess Dianas burial processionspeaks of the German tradition from Bach to Berg as a rotten corpse. On the other hand, Sir Harrison Birtwistle would fail a doctoral student for stylistic inconsistency and musical illiteracy. Most likely, Elliott Carters music will only appeal to a small segment of the public and to a few, selected performers capable of tackling its intricacies with aplomb. Will the popularity of Philip Glass operas survive the test of time? During the recent past, weve seen the ascent of Mahlers and Ivess artistic stock while Kabalevskys and Respighis have plummeted.

Undoubtedly, the practice and teaching of composition during the 21st century will undergo radical transformations. Academia will be confronted with the necessity to provide new thinking about the role of the composers in its midst. Seismic changes will be felt in educational philosophy. Radical curriculum changes will follow.

Teachers and students will face greater demands on their time and abilities. In addition to being comfortable in their dealings with traditional disciplines such as counterpoint and orchestration, emerging composers will feel the pressing need to excel in the use of the newest technological advances. They will also have to come to terms with a growing awareness and acceptance of world music. Will young composers consider their creations as the natural extension of a tradition solely rooted in the Western tradition? Will they strive for originality? For universality?

Versatility will remain essential for success. Composers will have to operate in non-traditional environments. They will find ways to collaborate with artists in other disciplines. Conceivably, they will function more like artisans than artists. Hopefully, some of their creations will be more inspired than practical. Composers will have to reach audiences in both traditional and unconventional ways, including live concerts, recordings and telecasts, and by taking advantage of new technologies like the Internet.

In order to fight obsolescence, composers will not hesitate to switch styles as often as needed. They will reinvent themselves regularly. A plurality of styles will coexist for the foreseeable future, frequently within a single work. Some composers will honor the past while others will rebel against it. Like Bartók, Chou Wen-chung, Revueltas and Villa-Lobos, composers will reach into sound-worlds previously ignored by mainstream thinking and discover the foundations of their musical language. Hopefully, artistic vision and integrity of musical choices will guide their musical thinking.

Who could have predicted that, after a dormancy period spanning several centuries, Gregorian Chant would suddenly be discovered by the masses in the early 1990s? Who could have forecast the explosion of resources during the second half of the 20th century that were devoted to the research and performance of Baroque music-workaday music whose composers never meant it to outlive its everyday service? Who can say for sure at what point in time musicians and audiences will frolic in the rediscovery of 20th-century music?

Romanticism encouraged composers to become their own masters-to behave like demigods. Composers were expected to explore new timbres, novel harmonies, different shapes, even exotic philosophies and religions. Audience acceptance was supposed to ensue. The struggle for originality would bear its proper rewards. As inheritors of the 19th century, 20th-century composers continued on the same path. When will audiences follow?

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