Post Classifieds

Composer considers the viewpoint of the audience

By Nate Shaffer
On November 12, 2013

As part of a composer colloquium series, David Sanford, composer, band leader and professor of music at Mount Holyoke College gave a lecture in Slosberg Music Center. The topic of his talk, which took place on Friday afternoon, was "The Projected Audience." Attendance at these talks is mandatory for students in the MFA and Ph.D. programs in composition. However, they are also free and open to the public.

The tone of Sanford's talk was as unpretentious and casual as could be-especially considering the lethal potential for dry personality and inscrutable musical choices. Perhaps this tone could be attributed to his background in jazz-jazz musicians are known to be "cool cats," while "academic composers" favor ambiguity, if not inscrutability, in their work.

As the talk's topic had to do with the audience itself, in presenting his pieces, Sanford discussed the particular ways in which he addressed the audience before and after performances. Typically this is done via program notes, short explanations of music to be read by audience members in a concert's program. However, he began by addressing his own appearance: "When I was younger I used to look even more like Jay-Z," he said, provoking laughs from the audience. "I could only do Public Enemy, but I could do it pretty well." He was getting to his main point-the audience's context for understanding music plays a significant role in their appreciation of a performance. Looking a certain way, or making very small statements about a piece can greatly influecne how audience members perceive a performance.

Sanford cited an example. At a recent performance of his cello sonata 22.1, he was introduced as having a background in jazz and funk. However, the piece itself sounds nothing like jazz-it's very much a part of the new music canon. Loosely defined, new music is "contemporary classical," which doesn't inherently mean much, though it tends to indicate a certain amount of inscrutability. Sanford explained that the application of this classification caused him to be described as "one lame funkster" by an especially rabid concert reviewer. This qualification of his background unfairly portrayed the objective of the piece; he wasn't aiming for funk, this was a piece in the "classical" canon.

Sanford then engaged more in the idea of how fractured our current audience is. At this point in time, we have unprecedented access to music of the past. In a sense, that minimizes the effective role of music being "invented" or composed today. He explained this idea by comparing today's audience to audiences of the past. Those hearing Strauss' symphonies for the first time understood the context of the composition; they knew Strauss' contemporaries, they had seen the concert from the previous week. They necessarily had more reference points that they could use to parse through Strauss' musical choices.

However, the listeners aren't the only ones who have been decontextualized; composers of new music can insert themselves into any aesthetic, past or present, and comment as they see fit. It's unreasonable to think an audience member will know whose music you were thinking of a composer can't just assume a listener will "get it." In short, our freedom to engage with past music effectively decontextualizes all new music.

As Sanford said, "the listener is a bit impoverished in what they have [to go by in listening to music for the first time]-got to give them something ... Personally, I don't like people to say 'this is going to be difficult, even if it is going to be like that.'"

Sanford raised an important question-what is a composer to say about his work? He came to a nihilistic view of program notes. Although the context plays a role in how the piece is understood, if the audience likes the piece, the program notes are genius and if they hate the music, the notes couldn't matter any less. He encourages composers to minimize the mediation and let the music speak for itself.

In an enjoyable way, Sanford's music itself reflected the methodically presented intellectual insight of his talk. His pieces pleasingly combine the harmonic language of 12-tone classical music with the instrumentation, soloing and "grooving" of jazz. But despite how well Sanford's music resonated with me, the take away from his talk was that in newly composed music, as in all art, universal understanding is impossible. Even if today's audience is more fractured than they ever have been, the only thing for passionate creators to do is to keep pushing forward.

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