Saturday, May 24, 2008

Process and an Audience

Due to a couple of very intriguing posts over here and a couple of interesting conversations on a few composition listservs that I belong to, I have been doing a lot of thinking about process, tension, art vs. entertainment, new territory and a plethora of other similar ideas.

Due to the recent passing of Robert Rauschenberg I have been looking at a lot of pictures of his work, and listening to various interviews etc... basically anything I can get my hands on (or eyes on) just to try and get a real perspective of this man's great work. Especially the later glass work, I knew a lot of his work from the 60's but never really looked at this newer work. Of course it is insanely interesting, but that is a post for another day.

Rauschenberg's ideas on process have intrigued me to a point where I find myself thinking about it almost constantly over the last few days. Which also brought me to reflecting on John Cage as well (specifically dealing with the white paintings, which came before 4' 33"), and reflecting on his ideas of process, tension and exploration. So I have been sitting at a piano (in my elementary school classroom, which I find just hilarious, Cage pieces being pounded out of an elementary school classroom, and I think Cage would find that delightful in its own way) playing various Cage pieces, to the best of my ability anyway. Both of these men dealt with an almost pure process related perspective. For Cage, at least on a generally speaking level, was more about how to go about writing a piece, or experimenting with sounds etc... than he was about the final product. 

I was also recently listening to an interview from Chuck Close. He began talking about similar ideas about experimentation and process. The idea between tension and process goes like this:

as you go along you have artistic ideas, no matter what art form you particularly practice, you begin to establish processes, wether conscious or not. Basically you have ideas and you try to express them through your art. Now these ideas can be of all sorts, but for my purposes and how I am currently dealing with my work, these ideas are about the process itself. Close talks about continuing to introduce new challenging ideas to keep tension in your work and this allows you to progress as an artist. Otherwise you are just finding something that works for you, and then you stagnate until you die (and even after in some cases). The idea becomes that each "completed" work is simply a snapshot of a constantly evolving process.

Based on these thoughts I had this idea of introducing new ideas in my work, (at least new to me, or things I have never tried, no matter if they already have a place in history or not), and as soon as I get a piece done that I feel does a good job representing that process, to never write a piece like that again. Move on, find another method or change the process so much that it becomes something completely different. One person on a listserv said that eventually you will have to repeat because you will run out of things to try. Well, I think that is foolishly narrow in thinking that everything has been done, and there are only so many things one can do etc... Of course this was a part of a conversation about art vs. entertainment that I will discuss momentarily. 

Kris Tiner talked about, in a comment to another post at another place, that when things seem to not be working it is because he has fallen into "some kind of groove". Which I heartily agree with and have had many experiences like that myself. Not to say that the work is necessarily bad, but the fact that it isn't working for you anymore should be blaring sirens that you need to move on from that process.

Which brings me to the point of art vs. entertainment. During the listserv conversation on this topic one gentleman composer actually stated that we have to remember that we, as composers, are not our target audience. This is such rubbish. We are absolutely are target audience. We are the first person to hear the piece, we are the person who decides to let it out into public or not and if we aren't continually intrigued and challenged by our work, then what is the point of working, we should just run off and become the next Yanni or Tesh or American Idol judge. 

The conversation went on and on like this, and it surprised me that most of the people were wholeheartedly supportive of at least, to some degree, writing for a specific audience. It bothered me to a point where I had to discontinue my involvement in the conversation so I am not entirely sure how it ended, or if it even has. Not to say that there aren't specific audiences for whatever it is that people are doing, and the audience may be very specific depending on the genre of ones work, but the point is to not write for that specific audience, allow the audience to come to you if it so wishes, just like a good visual artist. Do the work, present it, and let people either come and stand and experience, or avoid, but allow them the option, and knowledge that there is no wrong answer. And if no one ever comes, then hope that they do after you die, and know that you have still done a good thing.

So this brought me to start thinking about how we deal with art vs. entertainment. Thinking about it from a visual art perspective, that world has done a much better job of getting a public to recognize and enjoy, or at least experience, modern art. With paintings, sculptures and the like, you walk in to wherever they are and you can't help but experience the piece. Good, bad, indifferent, doesn't matter, you have had the experience and when you feel satisfied you can walk away at any point. With modern music, perhaps there is more demand placed on the listener. You can just get up and walk out of a symphony hall or recital hall, I have seen it, and I have experienced people doing it on my work, (which makes me laugh), but you are considered rude to do so. I have experienced people liking my work, hating my work, indifferent, not even paying attention etc... so it got me thinking, is the modern musical world more demanding on the audience? We want them to sit in a chair for some period of time and take in whatever they are about to hear, which usually they have no idea what is about to occur. Whereas an artist hangs his work in a space and people can either gravitate toward it and have a very intimate experience with it, or they can avoid it based on a first glance, but either way they have experienced it in its completed form. Music cannot do this.

 I don't know what the answer is, or even if this is true, but it has begun a thought path in my mind that I haven't quite figured out yet.  


Stefan Kac said...

The word "honesty" is thrown around mindlessly by musicians, often used as a euphemism for who-knows-what. I'm still not sure exactly what most people mean by it, but for my own purposes, I would define artistic honesty or integrity as exactly what your listserv cohorts seem to have a problem with: creating work that you, as an audience member yourself, would enjoy. I might even go further and say that my goal is to create my own ideal music for myself to enjoy, and if others happen to like it or not, fine with me either way.

In our extra-artistic lives, we are bombarded with feel-good touchy-feely and sometimes propagandistic messages inciting us to "be ourselves", reminding us that we are "unique and special", that we are "individuals" with rights and obligations, that "someone somewhere loves us for who we are", that this is America goddammit and that we should never compromise our beliefs, values and personal quirks just to make someone else happy. Only in the post-Babbitt backlash of the contemporary composerly world are we told the exact opposite: that our tastes are meaningless, that we exist only to please other people, that our music doesn't deserve to exist if only 3 people show up to the concert. It is a message that is entirely incongruous with the rest of the cultural landscape, and while I am not naive enough to miss the dishonesty in much of this individualistic propaganda (particularly that from Uncle Sam), I am wholeheartedly disgusted with the anti-science, anti-European, anti-Enlightenment, anti-Individualistic backlash that emanates from some corners of our musical environment. This is the form it most often takes, and in my humble opinion, it thus demonstrates the epitome of what might be called musical or artistic "dishonesty."

Every composer was a listener first, so the idea that these are two separate groups of people we are dealing with needs to be disposed of before we can move on. The reason I feel justified in calling a musician who makes music solely to please others "dishonest" is twofold: first, this person, whether they will admit it or not, has tastes and opinions themselves, and to suppress those aesthetically primal inclinations is, if not dishonest, then at least unhealthy, akin to sexual repression, extreme dieting, or any other mildly torturous form of sensory deprivation; and second, the desire to make other people happy, while undoubtedly painted as a sort of community service by the perpetrator, is most always tainted with the promise of material gain in exchange (i.e. bigger audience = mo' money).

I laugh every time a musician is accused of self-indulgence. Music is an inherently self-indulgent endeavor. Those who would frame it as a selfless service to others in the name of bringing greater happiness into the world are just as indulgent as the rest of us, only they are being (get ready) "dishonest" about their motivations so as to ingratiate themselves to whatever people or institutions they want something from at the time. We are the (more) honest ones (no one's perfect in this respect); they're not. Don't let any listserv tell you otherwise.

Sorry for the long winded comment. Kudos for devoting your blog to some important musico-philosophical questions.

James Sproul said...

no worries on the length. I really thought you hit it dead on. I liked your point about us composers were listeners first, and many often forget that. I find music, especially the attempted creation of new music, to be extremely self-indulgent. And I think anyone who says otherwise is not really writing new music, just regurgitating old stuff that has been done. If you are truly exploring new paths (at least for yourself) it is all about yourself, and your thoughts and experiences. Composing is, most of the time, and extremely lonely process. And, I think anyway, if you are "honest" with yourself and reflective about the things you do, have done, and about yourself and this profession in a genuine manner, then you are heading down the right path and ultimately it is about pleasing yourself first. I always liked the idea, like you say, If I like it, then it is good, and if other people like it too, all the more fantastic.

I appreciate the thoughts and comments. Too often composers and performers alike are skittish and run away when faced with the philosophy of music creation, either from scratch or from interpretation. and anyone who is willing to step up and be heard, even if their ideas are frowned upon at times, is a true musician and brave soul.

Leah said...

I dunno. Like you say, composing is such a lonely endeavor--I really enjoy the product as much as the process. The ability to share music and connect with other people through it is a very important part of the whole business, for me. But alas, I am a people pleaser so who knows if that's me projecting again. I do agree and think that it is me now, audience later when thinking about composing. If you're not getting anything out of it but the benjamins, why submit yourself to this masochistic profession? There are much more lucrative jobs you can be bored about or loathe.

At the same time though, some people really like the fluff. For me it seems that these folks' approach (and mine too at times) can be more of a game--like a problem solving puzzle or erector set where section A has to go before section B but only with this connection piece etc. etc. And it can be a fun game, but it is not necessarily "challenging" as you say--as art, or process, or philosophy.

It's late .I'm rambling. I'll talk to you more later about this I think.

James Sproul said...

Leah - I think it is important and a good thing that you enjoy the product you have created. That is what I am talking about. You enjoying that product is the first important step. If you didn't like it, you wouldn't let it see the light of day. So you, as a listener, are your first priority. The process concerns you as a composer, when the process is done and a piece has emerged then you get to switch gears into the listener and make those decisions on what you liked and did not like. I think where the "dishonest" composer comes in is when they liking the final product is not as important as the audience liking it first.

As far as people who like fluff. Although not for me, that is ok. If that is what they truly enjoy then they are being true to themselves. But are they a true artist? That can be debated. If they find a formula and they just write on that formula, then I would say no. They are making no progress, their concern is not for themselves as artists and their goals as a composer are money and fame, not artistic progress.

So don't fret, I think you are very much on the right track. and your work shows it.

~ James