A challenge to artists?

A friend of mine sent me this TED talk in which a guitar player sets a challenge to composers that we should provide context for the sounds that our audience hears, and I actually found it to be a very depressing view. Firstly, he makes the argument that classical music has relevance because it ‘touches us daily’ through advertising and media. This is not just problematic, it is actually offensive, that the chief means of exposure for most people to classical music is when someone is trying to sell us something. Of course, this may indeed be true for many people, but the relevance of something is not the efficacy with which it can be used to sell cat food to the elderly. He then presumes that the audience got bored during his performance, or that they started thinking about maths or laundry. This is bad on two levels: it is patronising, because it presumes the audience has a low attention span (bad) or don’t ‘get it’ (worse), and it is self-deprecating in the worst possible way; if you are an artist, you have to start from the position of engaging people in what you do – in other words, you don’t walk out on a stage with the presumption that you are going to bore people. To make a statement like this, you either have no faith in yourself, or no faith in your audience, and both are completely toxic to being an artist of any description.

What possibly irritates me the most about this video is that it infers that the piece is basically meaningless without its narrative. I was engaged by this piece before I knew its story or title, when I first heard it years ago. Brouwer, of course, made compositional decisions based on the story, but my initial lack of awareness of this did not diminish my enjoyment of it in any way – when I did find out what it was about, I understood why he arranged the musical incidents in the way that he did, but I did not consider it a vastly greater composition for it. I didn’t tune out, fall asleep, or start thinking about whether I had put a red shirt in with a load of white shirts, because, funnily enough, I am capable of enjoying music without being told how to react. Is this a genuine problem – that we need to be told how to react to things? Are we not capable of independent thought? And who cares if you become bored during a musical performance – the piece may not be for you, and that’s ok!

What is wrong with pure, abstract music? It has not been proven conclusively that music can symbolise or represent anything – music is a series of sounds to which we can choose to apply a narrative through intuition, convention or association. It would be dictatorial to suggest how one should feel during a piece of music.  Formal programmatic music is a relatively young thing too – we have been making, and appreciating music for a lot longer than that. I am much more fascinated by how a series of sounds, arranged in a certain way, can affect people in different ways, not in a universal way, because this is what makes music your own thing. If this wasn’t the case, I would do something else. Who would go to a concert in order to come out feeling exactly the same as everyone around them?

I also feel that artists don’t owe explanations of what they do if they choose not to give them. That is the nature of art – it is subjective, reactions are often not the product of the intentions of the creator, and this is the way it should be. I remember Phillip Glass being asked a question about his music being ’emotionally dense’, and Glass responded by saying that the question told him more about the person asking it, than it did about him.

I worry for the future if people like this are going to be public representatives of music – it would appear that he has very little belief in the viability of his own art form, and in someone so young, that is a tragedy indeed.


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