I’m happy to be returning to posting here at Sequenza21.  It has been a while.

Recently, a quote from David Byrne was brought to my attention by Joe Benzola in a Facebook post. (The original Byrne post may be found here.)  Although the quote is from 2008, it’s new to me; besides, Byrne was responding to “modern music” written in 1957 as if it was new, so I feel okay with my discussion here.

Essentially, Byrne’s comments amount to “why don’t these composers act normal?”  I’ve heard comments like this from my undergraduates, usually non-music majors in my electronic music class. When we get to Cage and Stockhausen, there’s always one kid who thinks he’s either being funny or brilliant by asking either of the following questions:  “Is he on drugs?” or “Did he make any money from this?”

Both my students and Byrne share a similar misconception about ‘classical’ music; really, about music genres outside the larger umbrella of mass-marketed pop music.  That is, the very odd idea that one can create a piece of music, indeed a whole body of works, not for hopes of financial gain.  Sure, many of us receive commissions to compose works, but for the most part, the money generated is meager in comparison to even a modest success in the pop world.  One can also point to the few highly-paid artists like Glass or Adams, but they are a rarity.  Many of us are creating works out of our own artistic desires, whatever they may be.

This brings us to the next point – the often-repeated idea that contemporary composers deliberately try to alienate their audiences.  First of all, I’ve never heard any composer say that.  And I knew Cage, and Babbitt, neither of whom created ‘audience-friendly’ music.  More accurately, they knew that what they wrote would appeal to a limited audience, nothing compared to the vast crowds listening to pop genres.  You could say the same thing about, say, Thelonious Monk.  This is akin to ‘narrowcasting': targeting a message to a specific audience, like when a college radio station has a hour-long show all in Italian.  In all cases, the messenger knows and indeed revels in the fact that he or she is not going to reach a huge percentage of the audience at large.

On a side note, I am reminded of a quote from Cecil Taylor, which I heard in Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary.  (Okay, I have a LOT of issues with the tone of the post-1945 portion of the documentary, but still…) When asked why his music was so difficult to follow, Taylor responded (I’m paraphrasing here) “I spend many hours practicing before a concert.  Why can’t the audience do the same?”  Okay, that’s harsh.  One can say that he’s not exactly accommodating.  Yet, he’s asking his audience to prepare for the experience.  How, I’m not sure.  Perhaps by learning how to be open-minded, allowing the music to flow rather than trying to control it or pigeon-hole it into a pre-conceived notion.  Don’t expect to hear tunes based on “What is this Thing Called Love?” or the blues (at least not past the mid-60s, from what I know).  That’s where audience members, including Mr. Byrne, get lost.   They’re expecting an experience similar to what they already know, and it is simply not there in this case.  I will agree, however, that some artists take this to an extreme, leaving the audience little to grasp on to.  I don’t find this with the composers mentioned in the Byrne article.  Schoenberg is quite traditional in many ways, especially when it comes to motive and structure.  In many ways, he is a Neo-Classical composer, with a twist!

One last point:  opera is about spectacle.  Whether you’re talking about bringing in half the zoo for a production of Aida, massive sets for Wagner, or the staging in the Zimmerman, it’s all about the wow factor.  It’s a huge multi-media event, so it’s no wonder that more recent operas have made use of technology.  And that operas continue to be written.  And, yes, Mr. Byrne, sometimes there is a long gap between the creation of a work and its first performance.  It takes a long time for a work to be produced in general; when larger forces are involved there is more preparation needed.  Sets have to be built, costumes designed, and musicians rehearsed; even for a commissioned work, it is not uncommon for a few years to elapse between the composer putting down the pen and the conductor holding up the baton.

Yes, composers are not always the most practical in a business (or pop-music) sense.  We create music that makes our performers work a little (some more than others), and we expect our smallish audience to engage in active listening.  Is that truly a horrible thing?

3 Responses to “A belated response to David Byrne”
  1. Fred DeSena says:

    I agree with Anthony’s comments but would add that here is plenty of music, even in pop-like genres, that is challenging and un-typical and it will most likely always be so. Composers have been hanging over those edges forever and some get a little out front of many listeners. I look at it as the R&D team in musical arts. If you cannot or will not approach the particular aesthetic rigor, you don’t have to. The need to denigrate such work is based, perhaps, in a sense of inadequacy. Or perhaps, less negatively, based on fear – a reaction – that it will change things we know and appreciate. This fear is unfounded and is, in fact, misguided. Our economic system of commercial imperative is far more dangerous in this regard than any marginal experimentation.

  2. I stand by my comment. Opera is about the visual as well as the aural. Opera critics often comment on the entire production: costumes, set design, staging, etc. And, sometimes, we will see a performance of an opera in a ‘concert’ version.

    I will agree that some operas lend themselves to less elaborate production details.

  3. An important argument, and well put about the confusion listeners face when confronted with music that doesn’t fulfill—or pander to—their expectations.

    However, your bit about opera suffers from the same problem! The expectation about opera is that it’s “about spectacle,” and while that can be true it’s frequently not. Opera is drama, and that drama may have nothing to do with spectacle, and that’s common for Monteverdi as it is for contemporary work.

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