What audience are you writing for?

October 15th, 2008 Uncategorized

This is another FAQ that I hear.  To answer it, I might cite the two extremes.  There’s the school of thought that says the composer does him/herself a disservice by being concerned with audience reception, that you’re first and foremost writing for you.  You can’t worry about who’s going to like it, the important thing is that you carry out your mission in a way that satisfies you.  I recall a faculty composer scolding me when I was an undergraduate, saying, “You’ve got too much of the listener in you.”   Of course that was back in my Beethoven phase, when I wrote strictly tonal music, so maybe he was justified in some degree.  But this philosophy is still prevalent.  Just last spring, at a very animated composers symposium at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, much of the discussion reinforced the notion that you can’t be true to yourself creatively if you allow the prospective audience to look over your shoulder.  On the other hand, there’s the approach that aims to placate or appease the audience, calculating the palatability of what is served up, at times even pandering to the poorest tastes.  (Remember The Fountainhead?)

I don’t subscribe to either point of view.  I’m proud to be a fellow listener, a part of the audience, and I have a player’s background.  Also, I have a sense of adventure, and I trust that altogether this orientation allows me to produce music that others will find rewarding.  “Accessible” AND “challenging” – this is said repeatedly about my work, one of a number of pairings that I am happy to accept.  Truthfully when I’m writing, I don’t think about listener accessibility or challenge, but just keep the faith that if it pleases me, it will please someone else too (I’m not that different from the next person).  It comes back to what I was saying above – if the music stems sincerely from the emotions, it is bound to communicate on a human level.

I do, however, think consciously about the performers and how they are going to regard the work and the task of preparing it.  I intend to challenge them, but at the same time offer a vehicle for their own self-expression and application of skill.  If the performer can come to the piece each time and find something new in it, bring new energy to it and not have the interest wane, then I am delighted.  If the performance experience is gratifying, the reception will be that much more positive.

Certainly there is no greater feeling of fulfillment than to receive the applause of a warm and appreciative public.  But you can’t always predict the reaction to a work, and that in itself may be a reason not to fret about it too much.  Things come across differently depending region, country, etc.  Now and then you can be very surprised.  I remember one time I presented my music in a recording-plus-commentary format to a small gathering.  Among the listeners was a Belgian engineer who had moved to the U.S. after the Second World War.  He had been in a concentration camp and seen it all.  One of the examples I played was a vehement, atonal Klavierstück.  This appealed to him greatly.  By contrast, I then played an elegiac Largo for strings, a tonal piece in E major.  This threw him into a rage: how could anyone in good conscience write anything beautiful again after the horrors that had been perpetrated during the war?  It was the most difficult and polemical situation of my career, an anomaly, but one that I’m not sure I have fully resolved.