[Editor’s note: Samuel Vriezen is a brilliant Dutch composer, performer, poet, polymath… oh, let’s just say the list goes on. I’ve known Samuel — online, at least — for the better part of 15 years now, following his artistic and aesthetic progression, getting into stimulating conversations and sharp smack-downs along the way. Just the other day Samuel approached me with an essay that he’d been working on, that he felt might be ready for a wider audience through a place like S21. Of course I immediately agreed; Samuel has one of the sharpest minds I know, and whatever rolls around and finally drops from it to the page is quite likely worth a bit of our time to read.]

OUTSIDE OF MUSIC  — On the role of the audience

Samuel Vriezen

Heiner Goebbels, composer, director and a major presence in contemporary German music theatre, gave a presentation at a conference devoted to Gertrude Stein and the arts in May 2014 in Copenhagen, on his use of Stein’s work. For him, Stein’s vision of a theatre piece as a landscape to be enjoyed rather than a drama to be followed was highly inspiring for his own theatrical conceptions. In passing, Goebbels made a very interesting remark. All you need to make theatre, he claimed, is an audience. What he meant was that it is the audience that completes the theatrical experience. If you present an audience with any staged image, you practically don’t even need actors any more, as the audience will invite itself into making it a theatrical experience, into filling in the drama itself. You just need to give it a landscape, something to look at, well staged and probably with stuff happening in it; but what the theatre really only requires is the audience.

This struck me as a strongly theatre-based approach to the audience, one very much about presenting a spectacle, about the experience of watching and presenting, perhaps even about ‘communication’. My own focus as a composer being mostly on chamber music, I couldn’t imagine myself making such a statement at all. In chamber music, you really need some performers – something that is even true of a piece like 4’33”, which only requires (a) dedicated performer(s), more or less inviting the audience to become a performer itself.

The next day at the symposium, Andrzej Wirth, a major figure in German theatre one generation older than Goebbels, was interviewed. Wirth, who had collaborated with Brecht in his youth, and who had himself used Stein’s work in his productions, seemingly made the exact opposite claim during his talk: the audience, he said, is an obstacle, something that threatens to get in the way of theatre. The point being that the theatre is what happens, what people on stage do, the whole action of it, rather than its passive consumption (a position that fits the tradition of the Brechtian Lehrstück well.)

Instinctively, I found myself more sympathetic. The idea that an audience is needed for something to be music is quite evidently not true. If I play piano at home, just because I feel like it, there is no audience. There is only me, the performer, working at the music, and even if this involves my hearing and listening in the process, it doesn’t make me into my own audience. In fact, it has always been my feeling that the vast majority of music that gets practically made by humans does not involve an audience. For instance, ritual music – and let’s interpret ‘ritual music’ broadly: a birthday song at a party or a stadium of supporters chanting to inspire its team could be an example just as much as liturgy being chanted or a village tribe honoring its ancestors. Likewise, there is music that is merely play, or a way to pass time. There is humming to yourself; there are the songs that are part of children’s games; there is practice, which is playing for the sole purpose of getting better at playing. Work songs, campfire songs, protest songs. Clearly, to think of such events in terms of ‘performer’ and ‘audience’ would be to miss the point completely. All these things are music; none of them involve an audience.

Yet it is not quite satisfactory to see the audience as an obstacle. Even if it should be true that the main thing that happens would be the process among actors or musicians, that does not necessarily imply that the audience has no role to play. Surely it must have one, or we wouldn’t spend so much time organizing concerts. But what is this role?

You might think it obvious what the role of the audience is, but it isn’t. In fact, it’s not even easy to ask the question about the role of the audience, accustomed as we have become to see it in certain fixed ways, foreign to what I have in mind here. It’s easy to frame the concept of audience in discourses about economical or social issues, about communication, or about individuality and taste. All these bring presuppositions to the idea of audience, bringing in values that I prefer to avoid. But to clear up the issue, it’s good to look at them nonetheless, not so much to argue for or against such values, but to see why they’re not relevant to the question.

Take economics. It’s obvious that sometimes, it takes a lot of money to do music well. We all have to eat, but even if we would be happy to rehearse or play for nothing, there can be costs, like renting a hall or rehearsal space. An audience can help cover the costs. But this cannot be the core importance of having an audience in music. To see it that way would be to subordinate what music is about to what the market is about, as if the purpose of making music would be to sell it to some consumer. Perhaps that is true for purely commercial music but certainly not in general.

This economic idea is easy to accept because it fits a certain moralism of capitalist culture. The value of things, is says, is the price people are willing to pay for them, and if the music we play doesn’t pay our bills, then it has no value and we are foolish to engage in it, almost morally wrong. We’re at best being selfish, anti-social. Behind the economical reason for having an audience stands the idea that we make music to do something for society, that it has a role to play, and that the audience can guarantee that the music we make is not merely some sort of useless waste of creative energy. It says that music can do something for an audience, or for society, and looks at music mostly from that angle.

However, what it fails to explain is what society, and the audience, is doing for music in return. That is, if we think of music only in terms of its social function, it’s clear what society can do for music – approve of it – but if we think that music is not essentially reducible to social function, then it wouldn’t really be a problem if society disapproves, or even fails to notice. Additionally, if all the audience can do to music is to approve of it, that severely reduces its options. Surely being in the audience should be something deeper than having one more opportunity to press the ‘like’ button.

There is a reverse side to this type of morality provided by democratic capitalist culture, which is the idea of individualism. This says we’re all different, there’s no accounting for individual taste, and minorities have rights too. We could pursue some socially irrelevant music because it somehow makes us feel good personally, as individuals. It’s perfectly OK to make music for very small audiences, or even to make music only for yourself. The problem here is not so much that this is wrong – it is in fact a good thing that we can have marginal musical cultures in addition to the dominant ones. The problem is that it still fails to develop the notion of audience in an interesting way. Say I make music only for myself. That is tantamount to saying I am sufficient as my own audience. But what this audience does for the music is, again, basically, press the ‘like’ button. Surely, I’m making music for a more interesting type of effect.

Additionally, if I really only make music for myself, it’s doubtful that the word ‘audience’ really applies to what I do, there being no distance between creator and listener. It’s missing out on an important dynamic that could exist between artist and audience, and in fact the idea of personal gratification is in danger of leading to a musical culture that is perfectly sterile.

Something should happen between musicians and the audience. Often, people use the word ‘communication’ here. The purpose of music, it is thought, is to communicate with the audience. Therefore, the role of the audience is to be communicated with. Surely this involves more than mere approval, since the effect of communication can be the transmission of some deeper sensation. If this sort of communication has taken place, the music has succeeded, and the audience is there to make it possible for music to succeed.

Again, however, this doesn’t suffice. For starters, the word ‘communication’ has some problems. In my experience of having been in audiences myself, it’s not really ‘communication’ that I’m looking for. We tend to speak about ‘communication’ in more or less formal settings, generally having to do to efficiency. For example, if we say that we communicate well with a friend or partner, we mean we can get on the same page easily. But what I’m really after when talking to friends is not that sort of efficiency, it’s rather about having a good time, sharing jokes, surprising one another, being together in a space for some time that feels good. No information needs to have been transmitted at all in a conversation to be inspiring and important. Communicating and just talking or conversing refer to very different qualities of being together.

Additionally, ‘communicate’ is so often used in a one-way set-up only, and that makes it into a dangerous metaphor for what happens between music and audience. Communication has become a technique of public relations, a technology, usually employed by advertisers or politicians or the like. The object is to present something with clarity, to transmit information, or to influence my feelings about some product or party. But I don’t go to a concert to acquire information, and I really don’t like getting the sense that some performer is hankering for my approval. If I feel being communicated to, I feel let down, since I hope for something stronger from a musical experience.

Again, it’s a question as well of what I, in the audience, can mean for the music. It’s a flimsy idea that music should have as its goal to influence me, as if I’m only a passive receptacle for its effect. Indeed, when performers talk about communication, they usually also talk about what they receive from the audience in return for their playing. But then the question becomes, what is being returned exactly? The best I can do in an audience is, usually, be very attentive, and think or sense or feel along with what happens. I am not aware of having something to ‘communicate’ back to the music, something to make clear, some idea to promote, so once again communication doesn’t seem the most apt metaphor. The best that I can return is the intensity of my attention. But what does this attention do for the music? How is it developed and enriched merely by my attentive presence?

The question is interesting, precisely because we so easily take it for granted. So many discussions about music bandy about the ‘audience’ in some way or other, as if it were at the centre of music. We say music is meant for an audience, or we measure its success by its audience, or we analyze its techniques in terms of what they do to an audience. A lot of talk about new music is bemoaning the lack of audience, or about the necessity of building one, or about what to do when it remains absent. Often it seems like the audience is the most important thing there is in music, but it remains entirely unclear why. So, what is the role of the audience in music? Meaning, what important thing does it add to the music that is played? How does it contribute to the event? What does it produce?

One way in which an audience can develop the music is after the fact. If I attend a concert, I can for instance give feedback. Likewise, I could talk about what I heard to others, or help spread the word. Thus I can contribute to generating the whole culture around the music. Collectively, we digest the event. All of this could help music in a practical sense, and would not happen had I not listened attentively. But, once again, it doesn’t strictly speaking require an audience to have a music culture – think for example of the culture of home madrigal singing.

Such contribution to music culture is an effect, rather than the essence, of having an audience. The important thing already happened during the performance. I had an experience there, one of being part of the music, and that allows me to remember it, value it, and if it was inspiring even militate for it. Yet what was this part I had?

Perhaps my part was simply to share in the event. To be present, to be a witness. This indeed corresponds to my experience of successful concerts. It is less a case of being the recipient of a message directed towards me, than it is of witnessing something magical and important unfold. In my most intense concert experiences, I don’t experience the music as some conduct of communication interposed between a performer and myself. Rather, it is something magical that happens within the space in which we are both present.

In fact it is hard to say where the music is located in a performance. It is not between the performer and me, but it is not in the performer either; it may seem to be between performers, or between a performer and his or her instrument. But it is also all over the performance space. In musical performance, when it is successful, things happen, but other than on a purely technical or music-theoretical level it is hard to say what these things are exactly, what has made them happen, or where they have happened.

The German-Dutch composer Antoine Beuger, publisher of the Wandelweiser composers group, likes to compare composing to the creation of musical situations that have a particular atmosphere. If this atmosphere is welcoming, it may be conducive to the experience of such special events. Making music then is not a question of mastering, possessing or expressing such events, but of opening up the conditions that make these important experiences possible, and when they do, they do not really belong to anybody. Not even to the performer, who only was there to interpret the score and thus help generate this sonic atmosphere. Beuger has often spoken of music, but also people, as being “auch da”: there too. This extremely basic formula does suggest that indeed, what an audience can do, is simply be there, to share the experience.

Perhaps so that the musicians will not be alone? Or the sounds? Maybe, but it is necessary to go one step further in order to explain what an audience can do for music. If what the audience confers to the music is primarily its being present and attentive, this does not yet set it apart from the role of the musician, or explain why one could be so eager to present music in a concert setting.

Something more is needed still. We do have a number of important hints already: the audience remembers the music, witnesses it, makes sure it is not alone, is there ‘too’. But all this in a way that indeed is apart from the performers themselves. This mode of being there, present but apart, may be precisely what the audience has to add.

Why is that apartness important? As Gertrude Stein famously wrote: “I write for myself and strangers”. One way we could read that, is that we actually need to have the assurance that there could be somebody interested in our work that we do not know. If there were no strangers, we would basically be doing everything by, with, and for ourselves and our own circle. The danger of this is precisely that we remain in known territory, as there is only the inside experience of our activity. Normally, we have the experience of knowing what we’re doing, and of knowing what we’re experiencing. But if there are strangers, we have the guarantee that our experience is not the only experience. In the case of music, this implies that we are no longer masters of the music that we play. The presence of somebody else guarantees that there will be something about our music that we do not know. This is liberating.

Of course, when making music by ourselves, we do not really ever fully grasp its meaning either. There’s always something elusive about it, something we can’t entirely control, some sort of secret, even if we are very proficient performers. You could say that the performer is facing an inner secret of the music. But if, as a performer we are alone with the music, we are at least entirely free to negotiate our experience with it. We are free to roam about in it as we like, and we will never quite encounter any limits, an outside to our own musical process.

The listener in the audience adds to this his or her very strangeness. He or she liberates the music from being this limitless private experience of the musicians. The listener confers an outside to the process of music making, creating an extra interval, an extra dimension to the musical space, that without the listener would not be there. This creates the space for music to have an outer secret as well, and to become a mysterious happening of things that are so hard to locate precisely.

The importance of the stranger is at the same time the danger he or she presents: simply, the fact that he or she is unknown to us. We do not know how the stranger will react to our music, what he or she will have heard. The stranger might perhaps even have a violent reaction. This danger is not reducible. It is precisely the stranger’s gift to the music. As the music is heard by strange ears, it becomes indeterminate what there is to hear. By listening, by adding an interval, an apartness, the stranger confers a limit onto what could otherwise have remained limitless. But just by doing that, the audience gives the music an open world to exist in.