Quote of the Week: Audience Gap

Over at her artsjournal.com/gap blog, “Mind the Gap,” which has the excellent subheading “No Genre Is the New Genre,” Molly Sheridan asks in a post that takes its title — “I Am (Not Alone) Sitting in a Concert Hall” — from an Alvin Lucier composition:

Are concert hall audiences too repressed to riot any more?
The entry is, in part, a response to “Admit It, You’re as Bored as I Am,” an essay by Joe Queenan published in the London Guardian back on July 9 (music.guardian.co.uk). The Queenan piece lazily slaps contemporary music for being difficult to listen to, and for not eliciting much enthusiasm from today’s classical concert-goers.

I couldn’t help but add a comment to Sheridan’s post:

To give that Joe Queenan piece on contemporary classical music the time of day is to give it more time than Queenan appears to have given the subject thought. It certainly isn’t a fist fight if the initial punch is phoned in.

Queenan apparently doesn’t recognize, given all his talk about atonality and the negative visceral response to aggressive sound, that today’s contemporary composition often focuses not on noise but on silence.

He also doesn’t recognize that many of today’s “warhorses” were fought over or dismissed when they first emerged, just as new work today is by definition in the process of being tested and prodded, pondered and weighed, by audiences.

I feel confident that in 50 years we’ll still be listening to Steve Reich’s phase and percussion pieces, to Scott Johnson’s settings for spoken word, to Pauline Oliveros’ deep-listening ventures, to Philip Glass’ solo piano work, and to Gavin Bryars’ chamber music, especially his electronically mediated work like Jesus’ Blood and Sinking of the Titanic. They will all survive Queenan’s dismissal.

And that’s just to name a small handful of composers — there are many more where they came from — who should have little difficulty charming the tuxedos off the season-subscription set.

Or so I’d hope. Subsumed in Queenan’s piece is a well-observed critique of classical audiences. While Queenan’s attack on new (i.e., current) music is almost willfully uninformed, his depiction of the contemporary audience for classical music’s comfort with received repertoire is all too true.

After posting that comment on Sheridan’s blog, I realized I had ended up commenting on Queenan rather than on what she herself had written. That sums up Queenan’s strength: he knows how to get a response out of people. Perhaps that’s why his most personal critique of new music is the concept of bordeom, the idea that the music doesn’t elicit a response.

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