Alan Edward Williams

Composer/ cyfansoddwr

Audiences, feedback and the work concept

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We all are inclined to shoot from the hip on Twitter. So when I was challenged on a comment I made in response to Sound and Music’s recent survey (what a good thing it is that they’re doing that) I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is my response. First, a bit of background. SaM had tweeted a comment emerging from their survey to the effect that contemporary music should receive more coverage in the mainstream media. My kneejerk response was “don’t blame the media, we did it by turning the audience away”.  Of course, media coverage would be nice, wouldn’t it? But if mainstream culture ignores us, especially in comparison to the visual arts, we have to ask “why?”, not expect coverage as a right.

SaM’s survey is obviously addressing the protest by many senior figures in the contemporary classical world that SaM was ignoring them. The old virtues of live instrumental interpretation of complex and explicit notation were being cast aside in favour of DJ remixes, free improv – dubstep fusion and video mash-ups. I exaggerate, but not much.

My loyalties are divided over this. On the one hand, I love notation, its complexities and challenges, and I love working with musicians who read it on its interpretation. It’s always a humbling experience. Personally I have no problem with sitting quietly in a rather plain hall while music is played: I like the ritual and find it to be a solace, like going to chapel.

But we have to recognize that for most people, the austere rituals of classical music performance could not be more alien. They live in a visual, interactive, informal culture. Let’s face it: contemporary classical music is rarely much fun. So one of the ways we can address the problem of the vanishing/ed audience is to revisit the spaces and conventions surrounding its presentation.

We would do well to learn from other art-forms. Today I went to an evening of contemporary dance organized by the Manchester Dance Consortium, an artist-led organization promoting dance in the region. Three very different works in progress were presented (and when was the last time you heard that phrase applied without critical intent to a piece of contemporary music?). In between each piece, we were given 10 minutes to write extended comments in response to several questions. They will then provide a précis and some kind of statistical analysis of the audience comments to the three choreographers and dancers.

So the evening, and the work, was serious and of very high quality. It also made me laugh. It was informal, interactive, and had an intelligent fusion of sound and visual elements, although used almost no music. The process of writing comments proved to be much more engaging than it sounded initially; at the end of the evening, by constructing my own thoughts on paper about contemporary dance, I began to feel like it was an art form I had “access to”. The method was developed from a Canadian model by Prof. Deirdre Reynolds: could it work for contemporary music?

Well, there’s a question: we do workshop pieces, and generally the responses come from an “eminent composer” and the performers – the audience don’t get a look in. And, hand on heart, I can’t honestly say I’ve ever reworked a piece in response to a workshop. The score is too fixed, too much of a commodity. By being in thrall to the “work-as-object” idea, we are alienating our audience.

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