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Archive for December, 2012

I’m writing this following a tweet-corespondence about composers who don’t seek to engage their audience. There has been a point of view among modernist artists, articulated by Theodor Adorno, that to be true to their calling to respond to the world in which they live, they face unavoidable alienation form their audience. An honest artist creates art rather than a commercial product, creating as they feel they must rather than in a way designed to attract audiences. In Adorno’s view, this unavoidably alienates them from their audience.

I don’t see the situation in this way. While I write as I wish, I seek to construct the music in order to engage audiences. My experience is that I often win over sceptics, even though I present obviously modern(ist) music – but music constructed to give the audience a way into the sound world, and a way of following the musical drama. Maybe we can escape the genuine dilemma Adorno described.

I want to describe an experience of music which evidently did not do this – Brian Ferneyhough’s opera, Shadowtime, performed at the ENO in London on July 8th 2005. I have never enjoyed Ferneyhough’s music, but we booked in order to give it a try, especially since the subject seemed to have potential – the suicide of Walter Benjamin just as he managed to escape the clutches of the Nazi’s by slipping over the Spanish frontier from occupied France.

The date of the performance is significant, the day after the London bombs. That evening, a Friday, the West End of London would normally have been crowded with theatre-goers. It was almost empty. The audience who attended Shadowtime were people who were not only probably aware of the nature the music they were going to hear, but also who had chosen to venture out that evening when few other people had done so.

It was a concert performance, with the cast standing as a group on the stage, little evidence of acting, and no scenery. It was in a language I do not know, and which not many of the audience would have understood. As a result the focus was on the orchestral sounds.

They were fragmentary, consisting of often interesting or beautiful sounds, but I felt no ability to follow the music. Rather the reverse, the music seemed to be carefully constructed in order to prevent any attempt to follow it. Had there been a fully dramatised performance, it might have formed an effective background.

Within 5 minutes the first person walked out, and people continued to leave in a continuous stream. It was as if they could bear it no longer and, as each reached their pain threshold, they left. Many had left by the interval, when we gave in as well. I imagine there were few left by the end.

I have my own thoughts on why this happened, but I am interested to hear from anyone else who attended that performance, or any similar performance, where the lack of audible order to the music (which I’m sure was intentional and carefully organised) eventually proved too much for the listener.

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