Thursday, August 11, 2011

Virgil Thomson on Audience Sensitivity

FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON except that I just ran across it, while looking for something else, here's a piece I wrote for the Oakland Tribune on September 2, 1979:

APTOS--"Why can't musicians compose what audiences want to hear?"

The anguished question was directed toward a six-composer panel at the Cabrillo Festival here last week, and it stated a problem composers have faced for decades.
There's a continual distrust of new music. It's a joke, or it's too abstruse, or ugly. "My kid could make noises like that."

All six composers at the panel agreed that they didn't set out to compose music that audiences wouldn't want to hear. But it took 83-year-old Virgil Thomson to dissect the question with his scalpel-like intellect.

"The trouble is, 'audience' is a collective noun. You have to be very careful when you throw that word around. Audiences respond as a group. (That's why record reviewing is spiteful; because it's solitary.)"

At this point Garret List, a young trombonist-composer straddling new music and jazz, interrupted Thomson: "Who do you write for?" Thomson continued to elaborate his point:

"An 'audience' figures as sociology and economics, not esthetics."
Garret List wasn't listening. "Who do you write for, Virgil? Virgil?" He snapped his fingers to get Thomson's attention.

"No one knows what an audience is going to like," Thomson continued. "Or what a management can sell to an audience. And audiences are bullied. And we can only know what an 'audience' liked last year.

"There are fashions, trends--in orchestral tricks, or whatever--that follow unconscious folklore patterns. They are very hard to predict.'

He never let on that he'd heard List, but suddenly answered him.

"Gertrude (Stein) used to say, 'I write for myself and strangers."' List nodded agreement. So did the others.

"I am the listener I puzzle over when I'm composing," Eric Stokes said.

"Exactly," said Thomson. "And any passage that bores you a tiny little bit will bore others more. You can bet on it."

Which brought up another question: did these composers aim at complex or simple music?

"Simplicity," Lou Harrison said. "I always remember something Schoenberg told me when I studied with him: 'Nothing but the essentials."'

"Depends on the music," Thomson elaborated. "If I aim consciously it's toward simplicity where possible; but if complexity is necessary, not to fear it. I tend to think music isn't finished if you can subtract anything without injury. Music is a complex affair; the more we can simplify it, maybe, the better."

Some one asked about foundation grants.

"I think we had a more independent attitude before," Harrison answered. "Post-Depression young people can't conceive of grubbing."

The young composers disagreed. Foundation grants are "a lottery," List said. "There's not enough money."

"There are more composers now," Stokes pointed out.

But they allowed that they made a living somehow. How do composers make a living, someone in the audience wanted to know.

"The answer to that question is that it's none of your business how we make a living," Thomson replied. "How we compose is another matter."

There was laughter, then silence. Then, in a rare burst of emotion, Thomson summed it all up. He pointed toward something overhead; the small silent gesture galvanized the audience and panel.

"Calling," he announced. "We're playing a game of life or death. We must find ways of answering the calling--or choose death."


Curtis Faville said...

Glad to read this old article, Charles.

Thomson is one of my heroes. You may have seen my blog on his "Plow" a few months back.

I've tried to play Thomson's Portraits for piano, but could never get much excited about them. They seem more like etudes than preludes.

I read a lot of his criticism, and long stretches of his biography. I always liked his reporting that when he arrived in Paris, he went out and bought all the Satie piano music he could find, and played it all out straightaway as a discipline and lesson in composition. He credited that with making him into a "modern" musically.

When I compose, I only try to please myself. I try to "impress" myself with my invention. You don't quite realize when you're succeeding best--it may feel right, but you don't know for sure until later when you try it out "cold". I guess with your more "cerebral" compositions, that's less an emotional than a "cognitive" process. I always think of Bartok's more difficult pieces as intellectual games of chess. Moments of pure contradiction, resolved with ironic gestures.

Civic Center said...

Lovely, and one of the more pleasant Thomson anecdotes I've read or heard. "Mean old queen" is a characterization of Thomson that nobody seems to disagree with, so it's nice to read a counternarrative. And looking forward to your description of "Four Saints."

louann said...

I sent this piece on to my three sons - I have always valued your ability to capture, without a lot of fuss, something vital that can inspire or recharge that creative spirit.

Ken B said...

Thanks for this. I am a long time fan of VT's music.