Thursday, September 3, 2009

Dem agog

I recently gave a talk on my music, as well as on living and working as an immigrant composer in Finland, for a friend's Rotary Club branch. I tried to maintain an accessible, if not populist tone, doing my best to engage intelligent, cultured people who were not necessarily musically inclined, at least toward my branch of music. One of the things I said was that it didn't really bother me when audience members told me they didn't like a piece of mine. (It's happened, though not often.) Note that I say audience members, as in general listeners, not specialists. There are maybe five composers/musicians in the world who are allowed to tell me they didn't like my piece without getting the business end of my hair-trigger temper. Composers tend to react along ideological lines. Audience members, who aren't usually party to the aesthetic discourse surrounding a new piece, generally approach it with fresher ears. If they like it, so much the better. If not, they're free to tell me about it.

One of the questions I was asked after the talk was how I dealt with the situation when it happened. I responded that I generally asked questions back, like why the person disliked the piece. If they can give me specifics – a type of texture they didn't enjoy, it was too loud, too soft, too repetitive, too uneventful – I can offer a different way of listening, or offer them a tidbit about the piece's background story (there's always one of those) that may give them something to hang onto. If they just state a general dislike, there's not much you can do, except wish them well and hope they don't discount all new music because of your piece. It's usually out of a deep-seated conservatism, fed by timid programming and worship of the master canon, that makes people expect all music to sound and behave a certain way, and that's hard to argue with. But for far too long, composers have indulged themselves in the conceit that dislike of a piece indicates lack of understanding, with the partial result that listeners have been cowed into a state of submission where they feel unable, or unwilling, to express an opinion on a piece of new music. So they don't react for fear of being labeled an ignoramus, or at best respond with polite if bewildered approval. Audiences should feel that, within reason, they're allowed to have an opinion on works of art. By the very act of placing a work before an audience, we ask for their opinion, and there's a certain humility required in dealing with the reaction, positive or negative.

However, there's a line that occasionally gets crossed, against which a stand should be taken. A friend told me yesterday about this vile "review" published in a blog by a local independent newspaper (Finnish only, apologies). The writer, a local conservative politician, took Kalevi Aho to task over the Helsinki Festival performance of his flute concerto. Calling it a "crazy concerto" – it's actually a breathtakingly sophomoric play on the Finnish words for "flute" and "crazy" – he attacked the scare-quoted "music" ("musoc"?) as cacophonic and horrifying. How he arrived at this conclusion is beyond me, as the piece is question is largely quiet, meditative and highly lyrical, a gentle piece by a gentle, self-effacing man. New music doesn't get more listener-friendly than this, in the best possible sense of being thoroughly accessible while remaining challenging, invigorating listening.

But beyond that, he proceeds to engage in the worst sort of ad hominem criticism, calling into question the adequacy of Aho's oxygen intake, wondering why trained musicians are made to play such awful stuff, attacking the people responsible for commissioning it, the programmers for defiling a concert otherwise filled with masterpieces, and going on to generalize that if all new music is like this, surely the people (read: the "taxpayers" so beloved of populist demagogues) have been ripped off.

Yes, it is a man of small character who would engage in this sort of public denigration of a humble artistic offering. But it points to a larger belief in the Western world among politicians and voters of a certain stripe that, in order to debate the idea of public arts funding, art itself must be attacked, bought down, made to appear ridiculous, objectionable in its very being, so that artists who receive any kind of public stipend for their work can be labeled as charlatans, tricksters, feeding at the public trough and having a good laugh at what they managed to pull over on the unsuspecting public.

It goes without saying that I've never met anyone involved in the arts, in Finland or abroad, who thought they were getting away with murder at the public expense. Yes, I've met artists whom I thought were full of shit, and heard work whose need for being I don't understand, but not one of those people wasn't extremely serious about what they were doing, thought they had something valuable to contribute to their society, and knew exactly how lucky they were to get to do something for a living they felt so passionately about. So it's particularly galling when this type of celebration of know-nothingism attracts even a modest public platform – and lord, isn't the unfiltered sewer of the internet great for that – reveling in its ability to cause damage and bring low a well-meaning person. It's the standard conservative line of debate when they set their sights on arts funding. I like to think it's out of a feeling of jealousy of people with abilities they don't understand, and a way of looking at the world they can't access and don't view as valuable because a dollar figure can't be attached to it. No artist makes art as a way of making a quick buck; it's too much bloody work. There are plenty of other ways of making cheap money off an ignorant public. Politics, for instance.

I foster no illusions that this man has serious issues that need working out, and that his voice carries little to no weight in the world beyond his little clique of lowbrow panderers. I thank every known deity on a daily basis that I live in a country whose people, by and large, recognize the contribution art has to offer and are willing to defend it against all comers. But people of this hateful, boorish type are loud, and proud of their ignorance and intolerance, and just keep coming, and must be made to look as foolish as they are, if we as creators are to have any hope of making contact with an audience still willing to listen to us. So by all means, dislike a piece. It's allowed. Tell the composer about it, and let them tell you why they made it the way they did. Engage. Talk. Trade ideas. Then if you still didn't like it, go drown your sorrows in a beer and don't ever listen to that person's work again. But do us the courtesy of basic civility, in private and in public.