THE ORCHESTRA AS METAPHOR
Excerpts of this essay have been published in Harmony, forum of the Symphony Orchestra Institute. Number 11, October 2000. Posted on the Internet with permission from the publishers of Harmony. Copyright © 2000 The Symphony Orchestra Institute. All rights reserved.
This essay attempts to view the symphonic repertory and
western music in general as a metaphor for a larger sociopolitical process and
its spiritual undercurrent. Through this approach, the essay attempts to
address the question of why is the symphony orchestra today in a state of
crisis as regards repertory and audience.
The reason for this essay is the wide spread perception in recent years that there is a growing crisis in the world of the symphony orchestra in relation to its audience and also in relation to its repertory. The two are in fact related, but not necessarily in the manner that this relationship is perceived at present. The most common attitude among repertory programmers and audience development strategists of symphony orchestras and other large performing arts organizations that depend on a sizable subscription base for their survival is that the amount of contemporary repertory in any given season and the number of subscribers in that same season are inversely related. In the following paragraphs we will try to see if this attitude reflects the facts or is a misinterpretation of the facts.
Here in Canada, notable exceptions notwithstanding, an important reason why many orchestras program contemporary repertory at all is because contemporary content in general—and Canadian content in particular—is an important funding condition imposed by Federal, Provincial and Municipal arts councils on music presenters: more contemporary music equals more government funds or, given the diminishing arts funding nowadays, less cutbacks. This is a mixed blessing for the cause of contemporary music. Yes, it provides incentives for orchestras to program works that they might not otherwise, but at the same time the music gets the “cod liver oil” type treatment from presenters: “we know it tastes bad, but it is good for you”. Adult audiences in general resent this top-down treatment. They don’t want to be told what is good for them, so they often respond by becoming even more reactionary than they might have been otherwise. Also, the apologetic manner with which many presenters introduce contemporary music to their audience is not likely to win any converts. You cannot convince any one about something that you are only half-convinced yourself. More often than not this type of promotion of contemporary music happens at the music’s expense, and not just contemporary music’s. The antidote to losses of audience allegedly caused by contemporary music is a corresponding increase in pops programming, the mainstream classical music repertory being increasingly squeezed in between these two slices of perceived “problem” and “remedy”.
While the tactic of offsetting the losses caused by contemporary music with a corresponding increase of pops content may balance the books on the short term, on the long term it enhances the public perception that the symphony orchestra as a concept is an increasingly obsolete and irrelevant one. The slowly aging subscription base is further evidence of this seemingly irreversible trend towards obsolescence. No hip advertising is likely to change this trend. Advertising may bring people into the concert hall for a while but it will not keep them coming back for long, unless there is a new and radically different vision of how the symphony orchestra fits within the larger picture of contemporary post-modern society in a way other than as a stale museum item. Before this question is successfully addressed in the boardrooms of the symphony orchestras, it has to be addressed in the minds of the organizations’ content providers: the composers. This is a question that composers of orchestral music have to tackle face on, more so in fact than their colleagues who are active the field of chamber music. The considerably larger audiences necessary for the fiscal survival of a large orchestra make the question of a composer’s relationship to an audience far more pressing than is the case with the survival logistics of chamber music presenters. In contrast to orchestral music, choral music’s relationship to composers has always been audience centered, at least as far as the majority of non-professional choirs is concerned. This has caused most of the avant-garde composers to refrain from writing for choirs and for several decades choirs have had to depend on Gebrauchsmusik by composer/organists who have little or no visibility beyond the world of choral music. This situation is rapidly changing nowadays and some of today’s most important composers have made choral music the cornerstone of their compositional output. It is not an accident that these same composers have a strongly cultivated relationship with their listeners.
A composer’s relationship to an audience is intricately connected to that composer’s relationship to music and to how this relationship is perceived by the audience. These two—the composer’s and the public’s perception of that relationship—are not always identical: what a composer thinks (s)he is doing and what the audience thinks the composer is doing are often two different things. Since the early part of the nineteenth century, the composer’s first and foremost allegiance has been to his/her own musical ideas. It was up to the audience to acquire the necessary intellectual skills that would make possible the communication of these ideas to them. With a vigorous and widespread system of musical education among the upper and middle classes of the western world particularly during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was not impossible for a sizable audience to indulge composers in this musical adventurism. However, with our present systems of public education that place little or no emphasis on music training, most listeners understand the music they hear in terms of their own biases, not the composer’s and these biases are not the product of a commonly shared system of music education as was the case in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Even though composers often request an unprejudiced hearing from their audience, that is hearing without preconceived expectations, one rarely encounters such a mode of hearing among listeners or, for that matter, among composers. That is not to say that such type of hearing ever existed in the past in critical numbers. It is just that in the past composers and audience shared the same biases and more or less spoke and understood the same language. Today we cannot depend on the existence of a commonly spoken musical language when we speak to an audience, except perhaps the language listeners understand when they go to the concert hall often enough. That by default is the language of predominately eighteenth and nineteenth century music.
The way we make sense of anything that we perceive is by comparing an incoming stimulus with similar stimuli we have received in the past and which have already made sense to us somehow. This comparison method accosts us a much-needed reference, which is crucial in our sense making and value ascribing process. Moreover, the process of referencing incoming stimuli is to a large degree involuntary and culture specific. Whether we are conscious of it or not, when we hear the sound of a symphony orchestra we instantly think of common practice classical music, that is the music that has defined this sound in our minds as a sonic archetype in the first place. The value we ascribe to a new work for orchestra draws heavily upon our experience of ascribing value to a work of the common practice orchestral repertory. This is not something we can readily negotiate with ourselves during the listening process, because the moment we do so and consciously acknowledge the existence of such an association we engage in an intellectual (linear-textual) discourse which is I believe different and less rewarding than the deeper, non-linear, pleasure driven, visceral connection which most listeners experience when they listen to music. Even if it were possible to hear and make sense of new music without any cognitive reference, such process of hearing would be purely cerebral at the intellectual level while at the psychological level it would be a process of continuous negation and denial. We would be consciously blocking out associations and all their semiotic extensions in favor of a mechanical understanding of form and structure. During such a process of listening we would in fact be very biased listeners: most of our brain activity would be engaged in blocking and filtering information. In this sense our perception would resemble more a deflective shield than a holistic processor of information. The fact of the matter is that for every person who is capable of hearing this way—and for the even fewer people that find this manner of hearing worthwhile—there is an appreciably larger number of people who don’t or don’t wish to. Increasingly audience development and outreach in general are shifting their focus from educating listeners to understand how composers think to studying how audiences listen to contemporary music, or any music for that matter, and what they listen for. Knowing how concertgoers listen is crucial to audience development, and is of equal value to orchestras and composers alike.
Given the fact that most classical music audiences are non-musicians—therefore with little or no musical training—their listening is necessarily inferential and semiotic and the meaning they derive from the listening experience is more often than not metaphorical or parable-like. By that I mean that listeners tend to translate the abstract musical processes they hear in a musical composition into equivalents within their own constantly developing world of semantic construction. Since they have little or no means of understanding what these processes ‘mean’ in the encoding process—chord progressions, methods of melodic construction, serial aggregates, etc.—they impose a meaning in the decoding process which resonates with their own experience and methods of attributing meaning to things. Given the radical difference in orientation, it follows that there must be considerable discrepancy between the process of encoding (by the composer) and the decoding (by the listener) of musical meaning. Furthermore, I submit that beyond some vague, conscious associations (“the music felt like a bubbling brook” or “a green field in summer” or “infernal hell”), most listeners’ understanding of music is unconscious. They may be deeply moved by a piece of music but, if asked to explain why, they may be hard pressed for an answer. If they do explain it at all it might be in terms of images they felt the music evoked during the listening process, similar to the ones listed above. Of course what I refer to as the “encoding process” is what the composer is consciously encoding into the composition, in other words what the composer, if asked to explain, would indicate that the compositional process is. If we can agree for a moment that there is much more that goes into a composition that what the composer is capable of understanding and/or acknowledging, then perhaps it may be that there is not so much discrepancy between the encoding and decoding processes as previously suggested. This is however a subject for another essay.
Investigating what kind of responses a certain kind of music solicits from different listeners may prove more useful to composers of film music and jingles than to composers of concert music. However, a knowledge database of sonic stimuli and corresponding responses, even of a statistical nature like the ones advertising research companies are constantly developing, might be quite useful to a concert composer and for different reasons that it might be to a composer of jingles. Knowing how listeners may decode musical information during the listening process may be of significant assistance to a composer during the encoding process. Of course, the concert composer’s interest is not in the surface cause and effect relationships that most kinds of commercial music practitioners are interested in, but in the deeper cause and effect relationships that create a more substantial sense of understanding and fulfillment within the listener. Research shows that, some exceptions notwithstanding, unconscious responses to subliminal causes are very similar for a large number of listeners. When advertisement companies play different kinds of jingle music to different listeners and ask them to describe the product that first comes to their mind, the responses are eerily similar. This similarity of responses may be attributed to extensive musical “brainwash” by advertisers and therefore these are subliminally “learned” responses. For example, we learn to associate the sound of harp glissandi with softness by just watching television advertisements the same way we have learned over several centuries to associate the slow tolling of a bell with death or tragedy, or a low soft drum roll with angst and/or lurking danger. This is what I meant earlier when I called the referential process of understanding incoming sound stimuli “culture-specific”. Of course the more primitive the culture, therefore the further back we can place it in the human evolutionary tree, the more universal and probably potent its semantics would be at present. Thus the sound of rolling thunder is more meaningful to listeners from various cultures and has a more primal impact than the harp glissando or the rich but muted electronic pad of a synthesizer trying to express the softness of a certain brand of tissue paper or an airline’s attempt to subliminally reassure its passengers while instructing them in emergency safety procedures.
While these visceral reactions are the result of learned associations, there are others, which can be best described as metaphors and are of more interest to the concert composer. The symphony orchestra and some of the musical forms that have been developed for it may be such metaphors. The relationship between the strong, muscular first theme and the gentle second theme in the classical sonata form is most certainly a metaphor for the eighteenth and nineteenth century society’s understanding of gender roles. Not only is the character of the two themes consistent with that society’s view of gender, but the fact that in the recapitulation section the second theme usually abandons its own home key and adapts to the key of the first theme may be construed as a further unconscious reflection of gender philosophy in a male dominated society. (It would make for an interesting approach to the analysis of the sonata form for example to examine the interaction between the two themes in conjunction with the key areas in which they appear each time as power interactions between genders). The concerto form, particularly in the nineteenth century, is generally acknowledged as a study of dramatic interactions between the individual, the soloist, and the amorphous mass of the rest of society, the orchestra. A great deal of the formal processes in any one of the well known concerti of this period may be understood as such a study, moreover one biased in favor of the individual rather than the social group. The nineteenth century spirit had little regard for social conformity. This impatience expressed itself through exclusive emphasis on heroic individual action. Heroic action against the backdrop of the amorphous social mass was for the romantic spirit a supreme moral value. This was a widely held belief, not just something that emerged in isolation in the writings of Nietzsche.
Orchestration, melody, rhythm and harmony too may be viewed as sociopolitical metaphors. Since the advent of polyphony, the horizontal aspect of counterpoint has stood for the unfolding of the individual will (that of a single voice or instrument) in time, while the vertical aspect, the harmonic convergence of separate lines, has stood for the social interaction between these individual wills. In the music of strong hierarchical societies, the tendency has been to reach the maximum possible melodic independence but always within the constraints of a strict harmonic language, that could be never violated for the sake of further melodic independence in individual voices. In the late classical and romantic eras, these rules could be violated if the forward harmonic thrust of a powerful musical idea made such violation necessary. The solid, all encompassing harmonic system, which Bach considered inviolable, Beethoven accepted only if it did not stood in the way of his own Promethean momentum. By the time Schoenberg, and Webern introduced free atonality, the hierarchical system that held society and music together for centuries was completely abandoned as non-relevant. Soon after a very brief period of anarchy, a new ordering principle based on series that reflected the industrial idea of society as a huge assembly line, became the new vogue becoming more automated by each passing generation in tandem with the industrial trend towards automation.
Of course music is not just a reflection of the socioeconomic process, not least because both constitute a reflection of a deeper, spiritual process. Understanding this spiritual process and its relationship to music has been the preoccupation of a number of living contemporary composers whose music has had tremendous impact on an unprecedented number of listeners. This is a phenomenon of particular interest in these times of diminishing audience returns, and it is encouraging news for orchestras that have been divided between their wish to stay current and their fear of loosing their audience as a result of trying to stay current. I have made a number of attempts in the past to describe this music and the new paradigm that gives this music its foundation, so I will not dwell on this here (1, 2). However, the attempt to understand the spiritual undercurrent of not only the music of today, but also that of the past brings us closer to the concept of music as metaphor that has been the main thrust of this essay. It is also a practical means of understanding via metaphysics a potent force of generating musical meaning for non-musically educated listeners. This force is spirituality in all its conscious—and particularly its unconscious—expressions. I believe that all along the possibility of composition becoming a metaphor for the spiritual cause of creativity has been the thrust that has caused western music to evolve from its monophonic heritage to the complex polyphonic organism that it is today.
Let’s take an isolated example from the past to illustrate this. From a psychological perspective the music of Claude Debussy, particularly his orchestration, is an expression of primordial desire. What makes some of his music so haunting and mysterious even after repeated hearings is the fact that he has managed to regress further back than any composer before him and reach a psychological state which lies before the fully formed ego, the latter epitomized in the music of Beethoven and Wagner. His is a state of languid, unarticulated desire. Debussy’s music is a non-verbal discourse on the aesthetics of pleasure. It resonates with a deep-seated feeling or memory lying dormant within each one of us until something stimulates it from the outside; we seem to recognize some aspects of our own spiritual pre-history when we listen to La mer or to the L’ après-midi d’ un faune. Yet, as any theologian or Jungian psychologist might caution, deep within the Garden of Eden of Debussy’s music lies the tree that can cause humanity’s spiritual downfall. Within pleasure lies temptation and temptation is the pencil that draws the outlines of ego, the “I” which conceives itself as separate from the whole. In theological terms, most of the music that followed Debussy was a coming to terms with a fall from Grace. The heroic, defiant soloist who was celebrated by the nineteenth and previous centuries as a hero had by now become the Fallen Angel, and this Fallen Angel consciousness, the turning point in the parable of the Prodigal Son, is what informs spiritually most of twentieth century music. In theological and spiritual terms, this is an important point in the history of human eschatology. Realizing the fall is the beginning of the return home.
In the twentieth century the character of the soloist/orchestra or composer/society metaphor, quickly turned from heroic to radical, even subversive, not least because of the growing, but still unarticulated realization of the composer as the Fallen Angel. The lack of “user friendliness” in a great deal of mid-twentieth century music is due to this change of character. Many twentieth century composers felt that they had a mission to ascertain their individuality and defend the very concept of individuality against the conformist wishes—real or perceived—of society by means of an elitist artistic stance expressed through an uncompromising and defiant compositional language. The society against which the nineteenth century composer was reacting was the old, slowly dismantling order of the aristocracy and in this reaction composers had the new order of the Bourgeoisie, their audience, on their side. In contrast, twentieth century composers reacted not against an old, but the established order, their listeners, while the new emerging order of the infoculture economy was already aligning itself with the exploding field of popular music. The irony is that in order to illustrate their reaction to the established order, many twentieth century composers resorted to compositional systems of total control, which, although empowering the composer in a corresponding manner that a political system of total control empowers a dictator, left the audience experiencing not just one but two distinct negations.
Let’s look at these two negations separately. In the first, the defiant stance of the composer towards the audience is perhaps a stance that some liberal minded listeners might still appreciate. After all a call to emancipation has romantic overtones that resonate sympathetically with most of us today as it did two centuries ago. In the increasingly complex world that we live in, however, the desire to be different at all costs might not solicit as sympathetic an ear today as it did when the western world was emerging from a long and debilitating legacy of monarchy, aristocracy, and a stale social status quo. In an increasingly chaotic and dangerous world such as ours, the reassurance of order may not be as unwelcome by the free spirits of today as it might have been in an earlier era. Furthermore, the second negation reveals the veiled motives of the first. How is applying rigid systemic controls on one’s compositional material consistent with one’s claim to artistic emancipation? How can an asphyxiating in its strictness compositional system make a persuading case for the cause of artistic freedom? Is not the microcosm of musical material and its organization a reflection of a composer’s view of the world at large? If yes, then are not pre-compositionally (systemically) determined musical processes a metaphorical endorsement of the “Big Brother” mentality in society? If on the other hand the microcosm of compositional material is not a reflection of the macrocosm of a larger view of the world, then of what usefulness is the whole exercise of composition to the listener? In other words, if the music we listen to does not reflect something greater—like a parable in the Gospels reflects a greater moral truth—why ascribe to this music any value over and beyond whatever value it may have as entertainment?
Too often the claim to novelty as a self-contained artistic goal is the result of a desire to replace one unwanted system with another that places the claimant at its center and therefore empowers the claimant without necessarily benefiting anyone else. Organizational principles of compositional control in conjunction with calls for raising the emancipation of the artist to a supreme goal reveal a composite psychological profile of insecurity—artistic insecurity that is—that can be viscerally felt in the music by even the most naive of listeners. Furthermore, this insecurity may be the result of a conflict between the expressed need for independence and the felt guilt associated with the growing realization that the composer has become in our age a metaphor for the Fallen Angel, the imposter creator who would have the world created on his/her own terms. Nowadays, anyone who demands to be heard on his/her own terms manages quickly to alienate potential listeners who might otherwise give that person the initial benefit of the doubt. This is partly due to our own rapidly growing spirituality, which after extensive baptism in the waters of information and experience has already most of the nourishment it needs and partly due to necessity. In the information maze that we all inhabit we have developed “gut” reactions to incoming information which enable us to sort out quickly what is or is not likely to be useful to us. In a lifestyle in which we are accustomed to making split-second decisions about almost everything, the “I know what’s good for you” attitude seems to be patronizing or at best out of touch with our spiritual needs and with our everyday reality as consumers of information. In composition, mid-twentieth century modernism was the epitome of this “I know what’s good for you” attitude and it is not surprising that this was also the time of the widest yet gap between composers and listeners.
Since the middle of the previous century there has been a healing process taking place. Composers are increasingly aware of the need to connect to an audience in a deeply felt and profound manner. There is a growing number of composers today who are producing music that has a great deal to say to people from all walks of life with no preconditions placed on the listeners as to how they should behave in the presence of such music. In this new climate of spiritual communication between a person who has something to say and the many who need an antidote to the growing complexity of life, music works on the listener like a healing agent. When new music is applied in this spirit and in this capacity, listeners do not need convincing about its value or their need for it. No degree of marketing will be able to accomplish what the direct experience of such music will accomplish by itself. Composers who are in tune with this need and are able to honestly and wholeheartedly fill this need with their music have no problem communicating successfully with rather sizable audiences. In fact the number of listeners of this type of contemporary music is unprecedented. So why is the symphony orchestra still in crisis? Why is it that, in this age of musical rebirth, we have orchestras that have a difficult time sustaining their audiences and whose future looks bleak?
There are a number of possible answers to these questions. One possible answer is that it is more difficult for larger performing organizations to do the deep soul searching, which individual musicians or small groups of dedicated musicians can and do, but which they desperately need to do all the same. Another possible answer is that the artistic decision making of an orchestra is in the hands of the conductors the majority of whom have traditionally been and continue to be one or more generations behind their times, at least as far as contemporary music is concerned. Just as the avant-garde had trouble earlier with conservative conductors who thought that contemporary music was an aberration in the natural evolution of western music, today’s truly contemporary music enjoys a similar treatment from conductors who consider themselves new music champions just because they have discovered Stockhausen or Boulez or a younger generation of composer who write in the image and likeness of the old avant-garde masters. The problem of course is that the music of these composers, just like that of Beethoven or Brahms, is a metaphor of things that are no longer of vital importance to an audience. It may be still appreciated for its historical significance, like most exhibits in a museum, but not for its current value. This music is no longer a useful metaphor of things that matter to us today. Most of us don’t get a similar sense of thrill, excitement and urgency from this music that a younger generation gets from pop music and, unless symphonic music begins to generate that thrill and excitement again, the writing is on the wall as far as its future is concerned. I remember that twenty years ago, when I was a university student in composition, I used to listen to the music of Xenakis and Berio and felt like nothing else mattered in the world. Now I listen to this music with the same emotional detachment that I listen to the music of Beethoven or Brahms.
How does one go about changing this situation? I don’t have all the answers, but I know that orchestras will have to rethink their own artistic decision making process before any real progress can be accomplished. Orchestras need to have a forum in which artistic matters are regularly discussed among all parties concerned. The planning of a season can no longer be the result of a negotiation process between the conductor, the managing director and/or the publicist. Ways must be found for the players and particularly the subscription audience to get involved in this planning process. Otherwise, frustrations of an artistic nature that cannot be articulated as such have a way of eventually transforming into labor/management disputes on one hand and the erosion of the subscription base on the other. These certainly curtail the chances of an orchestra’s survival. Even when a marketing scheme that plays into the age-old conductor cult or uses some new spin on an old idea seems to be giving subscription a temporary boost, it is the music itself that will ultimately ensure the artistic and fiscal health of the orchestra. Without downplaying the effect that a great performance can have on an audience, I believe that most orchestras spend far too little time nurturing the most important factor in their interaction with their listeners: the music itself.
While twentieth century music should
not be neglected in the programming of a season, the answer to the orchestras’
problem of coming to grips with contemporary music might be found in the music
of the twenty first century. Given the crisis of repertory that orchestras find
themselves in at this point in time, a great leap forward, a leap from the
nineteenth to the twenty first century, may be the most sensible way to address
the problem on the sort term. Some of the new music that is written today is in
many respects more relevant to today’s listeners than Mozart or Beethoven, and
much easier to relate to than Boulez or Stockhausen. Instead of balancing
contemporary music with pop concerts and old classical warhorses, in other words
instead of thinking of contemporary music as “unpopular, yet important”,
artistic planners should begin to seek contemporary music which can be both
artistically and fiscally rewarding. Many composers and a critical mass of
listeners have already entered the new century. The weak link lies somewhere
between the new composers and the new listeners—that is in the dissemination
process, i.e. the orchestra. It is imperative for each orchestra to locate this
weak link and address it before it is too late for the orchestra and for
contemporary orchestral music in general.
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