Much is being made these days of the declining size of the classical and new music audiences. The problem may be expressed as economic, cultural and egotistic.
From an economic standpoint, smaller audiences mean an end to a couple hundred years of art music primarily supported by the concert-going public. It’s a frightening prospect for our larger institutions (cavernous concert halls and opera houses), but a solvable challenge. Contemporary visual artists, for example, don’t rely on ticket sales for their financial well-being.
The cultural concern is partly based on the logical premise that fewer listeners today will mean a decreased chance for art music’s survival in the future. This is a particularly sensitive area for living composers, many of whom fear that their work will not survive them because contemporary culture undervalues artistic achievement.
Although this concern makes sense on the surface, a quick historical survey shows that it is hardly a foregone conclusion. Of the music from the past that has survived, some of it comes from composers who were celebrities in their day, and some of it comes from composers who were completely underrated by their contemporaries. Similarly, we have forgotten the works of many composers who were considered the superstars of their time, as well as those who toiled in anonymity. When it comes to posterity, there are no guarantees.
So, despite the logic of the concern, I can’t say I share it. Let the future make of us what it will; our responsibility is to make the present as good as it can be. As Kundera says, “the future is always mightier than the present. It will pass judgement on us, of course. And without any competence.”
Finally, there is the egotistic concern, which may be expressed as follows: My music is so wonderful; how come most people prefer garbage? To celebrate January 6, I’d like to share a little epiphany I had on this subject about ten years ago:
HBO was broadcasting a live performance by Madonna. I don’t remember where it was, but there were thousands of people in the audience. She was gyrating and belting some inane, energetic song, and the audience was jumping up and down, screaming. I was pouting: What are they so excited about? Any adolescent could have come up with this song.
Then it happened: she shifted into a much lower gear, the music got quiet, she stood motionless in a single, soft spotlight, and began singing a lyrical ballad. Madonna was baring her soul. And what was her audience doing? They were still jumping up and down and screaming. And that’s when I realized: This is not what I want.
Although circumstances vary widely, most performances of my music take place before one hundred to two hundred people. They sit quietly. They listen with varying degrees of attention and comprehension. They don’t jump up and down screaming while my music is being played, for which I am grateful. Many of them come up to me afterwards to share their listening experiences, which I always try to encourage.
So when it comes to Matters of Size, I will always take quality over quantity. A few good listeners are gold. Would I be happier if millions of people could hear my music all at once, instead of hundreds? Honestly, the answer is no, because the distinction means nothing to me. I speak, someone listens, they respond, I listen — and the circle is complete.