Monday, November 5, 2007

Tipping the chef

Bernard Holland’s Nov. 4 column in The New York Times . . .

. . . revisits the familiar issue of the relationship between composers and audiences. What responsibility does the composer have to speak intelligibly to an audience? What is the listener’s responsibility? Who sets the terms of this transaction?

"In classical music," Holland observes, "the onus of responsibility has been shifted from creator to receptor." In the past century, compositional techniques have advanced more rapidly than the capacity of most listeners to absorb them. If listeners can’t or won’t keep up with new developments, that’s their problem. Creativity shouldn’t be retarded by public incomprehension.

The classic summation of this argument (in music, at least) is Milton Babbitt's (in)famous 1958 article "Who Cares if You Listen?" You can read it here:

Holland asks, "Do I owe the waiter a good tip, or does he owe me good service?" Babbitt would answer that he’s not a waiter. He’s not even a chef serving paying customers. He’s cooking in his own kitchen, and if the guests at his table don’t like the food they can go home hungry. Babbitt rejects the idea that art-music is a transaction in which the creator is obliged to please the consumer.

Babbitt spent most of his career as an academic, on the faculties of Princeton University and the Juilliard School; he could afford not to care whether the public liked his music. So could Charles Ives, who made a comfortable living as an insurance executive. Read the biographies of trailblazing or contrarian composers, from the Renaissance to the current day, and you’ll find very few who weren’t independently wealthy, or subsidized by a wealthy patron, or employed by an institution, or earning the bulk of their incomes either in nonmusical pursuits or as performing artists (and not just performing their own compositions).

The performer is the key intermediary in the composer-public transaction, certainly in modern times. Audiences generally are induced to listen to unfamiliar or challenging music by proselytizing re-creative performing artists, whose virtuosity and cachet sell the tickets.

If Yo-Yo Ma hadn’t organized his Silk Road Project, how many listeners would pay to hear music from Central Asia? If Esa-Pekka Salonen, Neeme Järvi and Osmo Vänskä weren’t leading conductors, what music from the Baltic states, other than Sibelius, would be heard outside Eastern Europe? Would Chinese composers be heard as widely in the West if there weren’t so many performers of Chinese descent in Western classical music? (Imagine works by Zhou Long or Bright Sheng being played in Richmond absent the Shanghai Quartet.)

More historically distant art-music is no less dependent on the advocacy of performers. Where would Hummel be today without Stephen Hough, or Alkan without Marc-André Hamelin, or Charpentier without William Christie, or Zelenka without Heinz Holliger? Would Washington National Opera patrons have paid big bucks to hear Gomes’ "Il guarany" or Giordano’s "Fedora" without Plácido Domingo in the starring roles?

The more arcane or challenging the music, the more dependent it is on re-creative advocates – or, to put it another way, the more the composer enjoys creative freedom via celebrity endorsement.

When a contemporary composer gets a piece played by the Kronos Quartet or Ethel or eighth blackbird, most of the audience shows up not for the composition but for the performers. They are the waiters getting patrons in the door and earning tips. The composer is the chef getting a split of the proceeds, whether or not the diners find the dish tasty or digestible.

ADDENDUM: Check out this ongoing conversation at NewMusicBox about how composers make money (or don't):