Conditions, preconceptions, and assumptions

There's been a flurry of activity these days revolving around those buzzwords. Jeffrey Nytch wrote a case-study on how he took an idea for a symphony, and spun it into a commission and performances. If you haven't read it, and gone through all the comments, go for it. It shows some classic ideas in internet-ethics...namely, read the whole article, read the entire reply, and take a moment to think about it. Jeffrey and I actually came to a pretty good understanding, once we got done circling each other for a few test rounds (I'm sure the internet cried...I have a feeling it started out looking like two boxers squaring off, only to go into the middle and shake hands).

Now, to build off of those comments, as well as previous posts. One of the main points I've been making is philosophical, a "chicken and the egg" type koan: piece/idea or consumer first?

I'm purposefully using the word consumer not audience. Yes, it is giving it a negative impression. That was my intent. "You can't just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!" is true of literature, but not of blogs, it appears. No subtlety to be had today.

Many people have said "Why can't you think about an audience? What's wrong with putting them first? Aren't you writing your music for people?" Others point to the "If you write something, and no one hears it because no one will play it, have you made music? You have to make compromises."

Those questions miss my point. We're really dealing with three things: conditions, preconceptions, and assumptions.

First, conditions. I've gotten a few commissions in my life. Nothing fancy, usually a soloist asking me for a piece, sometimes an ensemble. When someone asks me for a new piece, we go into talks--there's the nitty gritty "how many performances? How much can you send me? What's the nicest bottle of wine in your price range? I prefer Jura..." Business is business, for me an unsavory portion of what I do.

But then we get down to what does the performer need, what do they think they want, and how do we come to a consensus. These are one set of conditions.

These conditions include things such as length, instrumentation, and possibly some special requests. When you write for an orchestra, you know, roughly, what instruments are available. However, these conditions are always starting points--"So...you said unaccompanied trombone...how about trombone and electronics?" "You said you wanted it ten minutes...is seven minutes good? This idea has run it's course, so I either have to do another movement and go over ten, or sit at seven." For an orchestra, this could be doubling questions, availability of instruments (So...you're a small orchestra...can I use harp? What about two harps?), and even length issues (Hey, you said opener...you sure? I mean, I COULD do a thirty minute piece...oh, you're sure...positive? Alright, fine...).

I think of these the same way as I think of all the other conditions I set when not writing a commission--I still decide instrumentation, length, and then all the points of the piece. Personally, I always lay down conditions early in the composition process. There may be notes scattered here and there, little motives or ideas, maybe even a sketch of about a minute or so, but those are normally just used to set conditions (pitch, rhythm, form, etc.).

Then we have preconceptions. These are the ideas that we bring to the table thinking we know what's right, only to find out how wrong we were. This may be a special request from a performer (I really wanna do beat-box flute!) that doesn't jive with the composer at all. A preconception is an idea that is malleable. It's going from "I want an extended passage of sound-text in this" to incorporating the idea and technique into several passages as a timbral and rhythmic motive. These are musical preconceptions.

We change our preconceptions on a regular basis. New ideas are presented to us, and our view is changed. It's what happens after that first rehearsal, and you rush to make a flurry of changes, because what you thought a passage sounded like was not what it actually sounded like (and synthesized performance by notation software be damned!). It's hearing rumors about a certain person, being afraid for that first meeting, then realizing they're awesome. Or vice-versa. Preconceptions are bumps in the road, where if we're careful, we could end up flying into a ravine, or flying into the air on a magical carpet ride. (Point...you're totally singing one of two songs aren't you?)

Assumptions are the mind-killers. Business seems to be made of assumptions, this strange idea that, somehow, a person knows exactly what a person needs. Sometimes these assumptions pan out, but, often, they don't. An assumption is a preconception gone terribly wrong.

Apple made a big gamble with the iPhone. Job's wasn't even behind the idea at first, having to come around to it. The idea was simple: people didn't seem to want three devices for making phone calls/getting texts, getting email, and playing media. Those "dark times" pre-iPhone when people carried a BlackBerry, a phone, and an iPod. Then people switched to a BlackBerry and an iPod. Though, if you lived in NYC, it seemed it was a BlackBerry, an iPod, and something to text, usually through T-Mobile.

It was assumed people would want this product. And they were mostly right, though as time moved on, they realized just how much more people wanted mobile computers that could occasionally act as a phone rather than a phone that could somewhat act like a computer. The idea, the basic conditions (make a device capable of these three things) was sound. The assumption rang true. And now the iPhone is lauded in showing how you can identify a market and then corner it (then slowly lose it to Android, because you won't back off from other assumptions, such as "people will only use iTunes.").

But where does this work into music? What is the biggest assumption I see continuously?

"We know what the audience wants."

This is a mighty large assumption. What makes you believe you know what the audience wants? The nationwide survey done by the NEA? There's a big problem with using nationwide surveys to steer a local group--namely your group is not really working for the entire nation.

Or anecdotal evidence. My friends tell me the audience loved this piece. They applauded more loudly for Beethoven than Chittum. Obviously, more Beethoven is needed. There's also a danger here, and an assumption--that all music can be fairly judged on a single listening; that the "audience" for Beethoven is the same as for Chittum; that there is a homogeneous audience for this group.

These are dangers, mostly, of business, and we're seeing them regularly, from programming decisions to lockouts and contract issues. But these assumptions can also be dangerous for composition.

Setting out to write a piece "for an audience" means you have to ask an incredibly difficult question first: who is my audience? Marketing professionals do this all the time, and usually come up with some wonderfully "meaningful" answers, such as "Women, age 30-45, single, no kids, wanting to connect with their younger days" or "Men, age 16-24, hipster." Those demographics then get parsed into stereotypes about the group, and then the idea pandered to their exact wants.

Who is the audience for your piece? Is it the symphony audience? Which symphony? Your local symphony? What does your local symphony audience actually like? How do you know? What's your best guess?

Here's a bit of info that should free you from this question: no matter what kind of music you write, there will be an audience. I went to a metal club last night and saw two thrash bands, Insane (from Sweden), a young group that didn't even look of age to be in the club; and Deathhammer, a thrash band from Norway that was everything you'd expect from a thrash metal band from Norway, including the frontman being on some type of drugs. There were well over 100 people in attendance by the time Deathhammer took the stage.

100 people might not seem like much, but it beats many of the new music concerts I went to in Kansas City. There's an audience for this underground thrash metal, just like there's an audience for the more gloomy death metal I've seen, the most avant-garde of new music, Miley Cyrus, Massive Attack, and Beethoven. They are not all the same audience, though there is overlap.

I take a very different approach. My assumption is that there is someone, somewhere, that will probably like my music. I may not have met this person, but if I keep trying, I will. I assume if I write music that I like, that I find interesting, engaging, and moving, then more than likely, someone else will.

It's still an assumption. We can't be rid of assumptions entirely. And the point of this isn't to say "Do away with all assumptions! Assume nothing! Face all your preconceptions!" I'm not "new-age" enough for that. I accept that I will always assume things, I will always have preconceptions, and I will always deal with conditions. Instead, I offer a different path.

Change the meaning of an assumption to allow for change. Don't base assumptions on incomplete data. Don't let preconceptions become fixed in stone, and ruin meetings over your controlling nature. And push against conditions if your expression is leading you in a different direction, while accepting conditions that cannot be changed. Conditions can lead to very interesting creative moments, after all.

This is why I never think of "what the audience would like" when I set out to create a piece. I don't shoot to create an "audience pleaser." I aim to create something that doesn't deal in assumptions (beyond I assume someone will like this), challenges my preconceptions, and is always built around the push and pull of the myriad of conditions placed upon the piece. To do anything less would be to betray myself and the audience.

The audience is important, and therefore, we should kill the assumption that we know what's best for them. Why not let the audience decide?

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