Listening to expectations

Yet another Twitter discussion has inspired me to contemplate on a particular musical issue. Listening. I revel in the fact that music exists in the fourth dimension – how the first lecture of my degree started – and music is the manipulation of this dimension. Music orders sounds over a period of time and we engage with this temporal construct by listening. All the ‘new’ music we write is often experienced more by the community that stimulates its creation – rather than a broader range of listeners. I wonder if we as composers are aware enough of the input of the listener – as a fellow traveller on the journey of our pieces rather than someone to leave follow our music with little assistance and fear of losing their way.

I am writing a musical theatre work for my school to perform this autumn and more than ever I am conscious of the listener. For me this is an unexplored genre and as such I feel more vulnerable than normal. However vulnerable I might feel writing for non-professional performers I see it as my priority to ensure the listener goes with me; Dominic Muldowney put it succinctly saying that the listener needs taking by the hand through new works. It is also important not to underestimate the listeners’ ability to ‘get ahead’ of the composer in certain passages within a piece. It makes me think of those endless warm-ups done in (some) vocal lessons and as a pattern is repeated – ascending/descending – one slowly ‘switches off’ and the concentration wavers. To keep the listener on track there needs to be some awareness of the existence of the listener when composing.

Is it the composer’s responsibility to ensure the listener follows the shape and structure of the piece? Or should we look at ways of teaching our audiences to understand the forms and designs of new works? If the responsibility lies with the composer, should they make compromises in their musical rhetoric to engage with a broad range of listener? Is it fair to have any expectations of listeners?

I don’t feel the need to write music that engages every possible listener. I would hope it could, however, but some pieces are a compositional challenge for me on a personal level and as such maybe only me – and my community of fellow composers, performers and musicologists – might recognise the subtleties of the musical language and any other structural intrigues. I do feel a responsibility that if I am to be heard as a composer I need to be willing to work with listeners rather than oppose them, and not expect them to be a musicologist but for them to be willed to join the journey of a piece to it’s conclusion without wavering in concentration. Fingers-crossed.

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