Phenomenology, Metanarratives, and Classical Audiences

Just last week, I wrote a post discussing similarities I saw between metal audiences and classical music crowds (both orchestral and new music). Yesterday, I stumbled upon an article at New Music Box by Sam Hillmer entitled "Audience Cultivation in American New Music." This comes at a time when a certain Kyle Gann blog post railing against Modernist music, and a Telegraph article reporting on some comments made by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. And there is this bit of journalism floating around about a study that suggests classical musicians should improvise. On top of all this, a good friend of mine who is working on bringing Heidegger and music analysis together started asking me about metanarratives.

Of course, there's only one possible quip when asked about metanarratives:
one narrative to rule them all, one narrative to find them
one narrative to bring them all, and in darkness bind them
Perhaps a bit melodramatic. However, it's amazing to me that this conversation about metanarratives and phenomenology comes up at the same time five posts appear that basically represent these ideas. Since it was on my mind, I decided to look at a few of these posts with these philosophical thoughts in mind.

First off, Hillmer. I'm known, in some circles, for flitting back and forth between incredibly dense writing to snarky, yet accessible writing. This article falls fully on the incredibly dense. It is Hillmer's attempt at Husserl and Heidegger (somewhere in the middle, I suppose, between an epistomological and existential stance) , a philosophical comparison of the NYC DIY and new music scenes. To simplify a long article into a glib sentence: DIY (or the more European DIT) and new music ensembles should working together; new music ensembles should be fine with playing in bars where audiences act and dress differently than in concert venues; and DIY artists shouldn't fear new music festivals, and attempt to make contact with that scene.

Oversimplification at it's finest. I could write an entire post sorting through Hillmer's arguments, but, instead, I want to posit a different theory. His critique is inherently anecdotal, and reflects a specific scene. Hillmer does not make this a secret--it's stated up front, but it's easy to lose sight of this over the course of the long, dense article. There is one over-arching principle, however, that I find odd--the idea that the audiences are so incredibly different. This is the metanarrative if you will, the pulled out view to a create a dichotomy that can only exist in a large, general scale.

But what's the narrative of the situation? In other words, what happens at a single concert that can be observed (and therefore measured)? And what do repeated studies show? Well, the only major, long term study of audiences is via TV--Nielsen. But what of an experiential approach?

From that, and I think Hillmer will agree when I say this, there isn't "an audience" for DIY or classical music concerts. There's not "an audience" for anything. When playing in a bar, you have several audiences: the regulars, who showed up before there was a cover, come regularly (perhaps every day), and are not there for your music. They can be loud, talk to friends, party, etc. Essentially, they're not there for the concert. They can become your audience, but it's often a more tough sell; there are casual concert goers--it's Friday night, they're looking for something to do, and they know this bar often has music they like. They don't know your band, but are receptive because past experience has shown that this site has provided entertainment. They're the middle group, oscillating between becoming big fans, and generally ignoring you; there are the "dragged in," a forced audience coming because the rest of the group is going. They're often hostile; there's the "Other musicians checking out the competition." Depending on the type of scene, they'll run the gamut from supportive to hateful; then there are "fans," people that came for your show, and are there to support you. This is just a small sample of different possible demographics within "the audience."

Here's what I've seen--people who come for the concert are, generally, quiet during the music. They'll do whatever is appropriate for the style (lighters in the air swaying, headbanging, air drumming, screaming after songs, clapping after solos, etc). Then there are people who just happen to be there.

The classical world, generally, doesn't have too many "happen to be there." Most of those are "dragged in," force audience members who make incredibly humorous videos. But, again, I won't take any more time on this, but to say beware distilling the concert experience down to a metanarrative, a "we're so different, let's learn from each other." I'd like to see more posts that do more "this is how we're the same;" in other words, the DIT idea manifest in blog form.

As for Kyle Gann, and many other critics, it's their job to take a specific stance. The views expressed are his own. The danger comes when Gann starts to project on the audience. Let's look at experience again--his view is well known. He's invited to a festival, where certain people agree with his view (therefore solidifying it), and those that disagree with his view (which do little to sway him). Again, he breaks the world into a dichotomy, a long-shot of "him vs. them," modernity vs. post/minimalism fusion. There was a time I agreed with most of what Gann wrote. There was a time when I disagreed vehemently. Now, I take it as one more narrative, a possibility among a large, but finite number of possibilities. Beware being dragged into the contention--funny advice coming from someone who has been as reactionary as I.

As for Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the man that first got the conversation of metanarratives rolling, I would like to see his specific comments, not quotations in the Telegraph. I read these as a critique on music education, one which I actually agree with. However, he's mixing generalities with specifics--students should learn these things, and they're not, in his experience. His experience is the education system of the UK. In the last year and a half, I've met quite a few people working on changing the music education curriculum, specifically to include studying electroacoustic music. In the US, of course, we have issues in music education, from lack of funding, class time, academic study for all students after a certain period, and a focus on performance. These ideas fluctuate a great deal based upon location--at one MS I was familiar with in the US, the music teacher had built her own textbook, was very active in her teaching, and worked on a wide variety of topics. At my middle school, there was no academic music.

My friend was concerned with Davies choice of a metanarrative that shows superiority of classical music. That, of course, can be an issue. Is a trend starting to pop up? Popular metanarratives are dichotomous and present an "us vs. them" attitude. It's about a choice that must be made, and once it is made, that is all. When I took playwriting courses, my teacher spoke often of keeping each individual choice to "Either/Or," a fork in the road. There can be lots of different choices, but each choice should be simple, this or that.

In a play or a movie, this can be powerful. However, it also reinforces an attitude that is ever prevalent--this or that, us vs. them, either/or, a choice between to opposing forces. Tolkein used in effectively as a metanarrative, but the narrative itself was painted in vivid, swirling colours, not black and white. And if one chooses to delve into the Silmarillion, the "good vs. evil" starts to blur a bit, as we see where the corruption comes from. The same can be said with David Eddings and his two series, the Belgariad and the Mallorean. The entire structure is built around a choice, this path or that path. Forks are abound, and, yet, each sentence is painted in more vivid colours. Characters are fleshed out, situations are incredibly complicated and often have more than one choice present. The characters even point out "Wait, there's more choices than this," and yet get shoehorned into a set of preordained choices.

This is something powerful to think about, and why phenomenology is an interesting road to take when analyzing these problems. And why studies involve more than five people.

To that last article that has been getting praise, it's important to remember the circumstances. The generalization is made: "studies suggest musicians should improvise." First off, suggests is the keyword. Second, the study involve five people, three performers and two audience members. In other words, a non-reflective sample size. This is where metanarratives and generalities just don't work. And why scientific studies number participants in the thousands, and even then, generally only show small subsections of opinions. Does improvisation affect the brain? Probably. Will it affect every brain the same way? Neurology says more than likely. Will these have the effect on each person? No. That's the wonderful difference between neurology, psychology, and philosophy; the physical, mental, and the meta-physical/spiritual.

What is experienced can be the same--if everyone reading this gets a paper cut on the edge of their index finger of the same size, created by the same paper, and with all other factors being equal, we will have the same cut. But how often does this happen in the real world? Everyone will experience it differently based upon past experiences, running a gamut from not even noticing to fainting. The science of distilling these large experiences into a working philosophy is part of phenomenology. It's becoming a lost art, I'd say.

Because reading these articles shows how people tend toward generalized metanarratives when, in fact, we haven't reached that point of investigation yet. Do these comparisons help?

They do, in that they are conversation starters. Since Hillmer's post, I've seen it shared in both positive and negative lights. Same with Gann and Davies. The study has just been an "oo, neat," since most people sharing realized that a sample size of five a study does not make.

I think, however, it's time we move away from these generalization, these base comparisons of "us vs. them," and move into what Hillmer comes to at the end--a "DIT" or "Do It Together" stance. By this, I mean we need to discard our metanarratives, generalizations, and conceptions of the idea. There is no "audience." There is no "us vs. them." We exist in different spaces, and are perceived differently, for a large amount of reasons. By "we" I truly mean everyone, every type of music, every nearly infinite (but not quite infinite), possibility. Only then, when we acknowledge that there is no one "classical music audience" or "DIY audience" or "Noise audience," but a group of individuals who may share like characteristics, but also have widely differing views of the world, will we really be able to move forward. So, perhaps, a move toward a narrative model, a poststructuralist view of the audience.

Because as philosophers discovered long ago, Truth and Fact are not the same thing.

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