Communication and isolation between composer and audience
This article was written for the Newsletter of the Havergal Brian Society, hence the emphasis on Brian’s music
X ‘had always wanted to compose since he was seven—”I always had a music in my head, it never corresponded to the music that I played”. He doesn’t though concern himself with an audience: “I wouldn’t know how to do that, I don’t know who it is. I speak directly to myself”.’
I thought I would withhold the identity of this composer from the text of this article. Could it be Havergal Brian? It feels like Brian to me, even if the source of the feeling is only my experience of the music, rather then what I might have read in books and elsewhere.
The Havergal Brian Society website lists numerous general articles about Brian’s music. “HB’s use of abrupt and often incomprehensible changes is tackled”…, “On difficulties and unevenness in Brian’s style”…, “More on the difficulties Brian creates for his listeners”… —and that’s in just the first five articles in the list!
A Google search of “composer isolation” throws up a lot of results. (Incidentally, it is extraordinary how many pieces of music are titled ‘Isolation’.) We know Brian was isolated/felt isolated, and we can name many other composers in a similar position.
How come? Is this phenomenon restricted to composers or does it apply to other creative people? If it so common, how does it suit composers to be in this position?
As a business coach and trainer, I constantly emphasise the importance of addressing the relationships between people in business, rather than the people themselves—that is, for those prepared to acknowledge that business is about people, in the first place. And I am fascinated by the relationship between the composer and the listener.
(As I write, I am listening to something deliberately un-engaging, Brian Eno’s Thursday afternoon, a work whose very genre intends that it is not to be listened to (ambient music) yet which, particularly if listened to on a good music system, yields a deeply satisfying wealth of richness and detail which you don’t hear if you listen to it in compliance with the composer’s instructions to keep the level low. So here we have a composer adopting opposite positions simultaneously. Of course, if I can work that out I am sure the irony was intended by Mr Eno.)
What interests me is these isolated positions that composers end up in. “I am a voice crying in the wilderness (something which should not be forgotten)…” said Allan Pettersson, the C20 Swedish composer. It’s that bit in parentheses which makes the quotation interesting. Is it a cry for help? A proud statement? Is he saying it’s our fault and we should jolly well listen to what he has to say?
How about this: ‘My argument would be that Art can only be produced by Artists. Traditionally gifted men [sic] working in (complete) isolation from society although often trying to reflect the society from which they are cut off.’ Jonathan Febland, a composer. This apparently said with a straight face. Again, it is the parenthesis which is interesting. Mr Febland would argue that only by being cut off (completely) from society can an artist produce a valid reflection of that society. Is this really a sensible, or even rational, standpoint?
My thesis is that composers adopt a position of isolation, or at least collude in the process by which it comes about. Far from being because they believe their position has to be isolated (Pettersson or Febland) or because they pretend not to be interested in whether they have an audience (X above), it is actually either because the public and professional response they have received has not met their expectations (‘Mr Brian has the happy distinction of waking up this morning to find himself famous’ reported a local paper after a success at the Proms—but that was in 1907, when the world was young) or it is because they’re just not interested in being part of society and communicating with it.
Many years ago, I attended a concert given by the Tallis Scholars at St John’s, Smith Square. They sang like angels, the music was sublime (and difficult to listen to, because old). Yet it was as if they were performing with a full height, full width glass screen at the front of the stage. There was no communication of the music.
If, for ‘society’, we substitute the word ‘people’, would it not make sense for composers seeking to engage with society, ie people, to write in a way that communicates with an audience? In other words, the composer would find it useful to acknowledge that there is a relationship between him or her and any audience, whether he/she likes it or not, and a consequential obligation to ‘show up’ in the relationship. That means writing in a way which communicates to the listener. Note, I am not advocating dumbing down the content. I am also not sanctioning a lazy or ill-informed approach by the audience.
However, there is a very useful adage: ‘the meaning of a communication is what the recipient makes of it’. By not recognising a possible listenership, which is listening, the composer gives out a clear message “I am not interested in you”. Communication is in more than words and notes. The absence of a message is itself a message. Now there may be some people, inevitably a small—tiny—band, prepared to indulge the composer, even posthumously, but we shouldn’t be surprised that the majority of the potential audience, of promoters and performers get the message and reject someone who has played the rejection card first.
To X, whose music I appreciate, on the whole, I say you are being disingenuous to suggest ‘I don’t know who it is’. They are the people who go to the concerts of your music and, mostly, clap at the end.
My own explanation of the composer who says, I compose for myself, I am not interested in the audience, is that it has nothing to do with selfishness and everything to do with fear of other people.
So to Brian and his famous cussedness. I have no reason to believe Brian took so extreme a stance as X would like us to think he does. But, a refusal to communicate effectively with the potential audience will lead to them getting the (unintended?) message and this is why it is so hard to get Brian’s music performed. The music is set up to fail. It becomes about the isolation (cf Pettersson)—and the isolation ends up by being the only thing that is communicated. And people only need this is small quantities.
Of course, this is all unconscious. The visible content might be heroic, or some other positive characteristic.
And there will always be people empathetic to a composer and that goes for Brian—hence the Society—and I count myself amongst them.
None of this is intended to be judgmental. It is an interesting phenomenon. Do composers like Brian (to the extent there is another composer like Brian) become isolated because they lack the will to communicate effectively? Or do they lose this ability and create their isolation as a sort of grand gesture ‘Sod the lot of you!’?
And I’m with Sir Malcolm Arnold: ‘Arnold believes that music is “a social act of communication among people, a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is”.’
I am not aware that the music of JS Bach, particularly of Haydn, and of course of many other composers (including contemporary ones) is degraded by virtue of falling largely under Arnold’s definition. It doesn’t appear to me facile, superficial, trivial, beside the point or (aaargh) ‘dumbed down’. Indeed its greatness, as music per se, I would argue, is partially down to the willingness of the composer to communicate with the audience,
X is, surprisingly, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, quoted by Colin Anderson in the notes for the CD Refrains and choruses (Deux Elles, 2001)