Communication Breakdown: Cultural Noise in the Modern Concert Hall

In reading Leonard Meyer’s essay Meaning in Music and Information Theory, I was startled to find myself in agreement with his doomy assessment of the communicative capabilities of contemporary music. To give a bit of background information, here is a summation of his point: Cultural noise (here referring to “disparities which may exist between the habit responses required by the musical style and those which a given individual actually possesses”) in contemporary music results from a “time-lag between the habit responses which the audience actually possesses and those which the more adventurous composer envisages for it.” In short, in attempting to load their music with information and meaning, modern composers over-load the communication channels of their listeners, losing meaning and their ability to communicate as a result.  While, as a composer of contemporary music, I was initially offended by this assertion, I’ve found it difficult to find a compelling counter-argument to Meyer’s claim.

It’s true that, since the dissolution of the tonal system, the use of a common language has been lost to composers of the Western Classical tradition. Indeed, part of the act of modern composition is the construction of novel languages and organizational systems. While this has led to a tremendous variety of color and expression, it can’t be denied that it makes the job of the listener much more difficult. In order to properly understand and decipher the discourse of a piece of new music, the listener doesn’t simply need to have a familiarity with the conventions of classical music, they need to possess a familiarity with the conventions of this particular composer’s music, and often need to dig deep into the construction of the piece to parse out anything along the lines of significant communication or meaning. While there are many who are happy to accept this task and do willingly engage with the music of contemporary composers, this hardly makes up the majority of the popular audience (who, by the way, I do believe are capable of appreciating and engaging with contemporary music). Below are a few thoughts I have for myself and other composers frustrated with their inability to emotionally and artistically reach an audience to consider.

STOP BLAMING THE AUDIENCE. It’s not the audience’s fault if they don’t understand your attempt to communicate thoughts or feelings via music – It’s yours.  The “regression of listening” is an age-old argument, and in my opinion a tired one. While the trappings of modernity have undeniably changed the way people listen, they haven’t necessarily destroyed it. Great composers of any era have been great communicators, and have worked hard to understand the ears and psychology of their listeners. It’s your task, as any kind of artist, to communicate in a way that people can at least understand on some basic level. This is not at all a cry for reductive simplicity, but so much of the music I run across at the concert hall is so clearly designed without considering the needs or tendencies of the average listener (that is, someone who is NOT a composer or performer of contemporary chamber music) that it’s frankly infuriating.

At the heart of this issue, I feel, is the apparent stigma surrounding direct repetition in the music of many composers. The unwillingness of many composers to repeat important ideas for the sake of clarification places an unfair burden upon the listener. In the creation of your own unique language and organizational system (which, again, I feel is a beautiful and vital phenomenon in 20th and 21st century music), you must understand that no one else has the habit responses required to be able to make musical assumptions or immediately sniff out important moments of meaning. Repetition can be immensely helpful here – not only does direct repetition help to draw to attention to the fact that a gesture or idea may be significant, it makes it possible to reference and develop that idea later in a way that a first-time listener can understand. Moreover, repetition gives listeners a chance to disengage and reflect upon what they have thus-far experienced and heard, a respite that is much-needed in an initial engagement with a piece of music. Just to note: repetition here is used in a very general sense. This could mean the repetition of a gesture, melodic idea, or whole section.

While I have many more thoughts on this matter, I have once again run out of both the time and steam required to more fully elaborate on a pretty dramatic claim. This is, at least, a starting point for myself as a composer to attempt to improve the effect of my own music, and I hope will be helpful to others moving forward. At the very least: remember whom you’re writing for.

(Hint: it shouldn’t be just for you)



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