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24 July 2008


Trevor Hunter

I have two problems with the DFW quote, one made by the man himself, and one made those who try to appropriate the argument for music. First, Wallace uses a common, and in my view maddening, rhetorical trick by referring to "the audience" as though it were a monolith. The audience for what? All fiction? Isn't that like talking about the audience for cooked meals? Infinite Jest has always frightened me away with its sheer mass, but I've read and loved several of his other works - and I think it obvious "the audience", as apparently defined here, would find Wallace just as obfuscatory as he accuses some of his colleagues of being. I'm positive I could get more of my culturally-challenged friends and family members to dig Reich (an artist that DFW disparages briefly in E Unibus Pluram) than an author who requires frequent and mandatory trips to the dictionary for basic comprehension of his work. The funny thing is that he defines his audience earlier in the interview as people with "some education", but doesn't delineate when attacking the others. Not that it matters too much, but its curious nonetheless. I'm not going to rag on the guy too hard, since it was an interview and not one of his obscenely well-thought out (and usually brilliant) essays.

The more serious issue I would have with this is equating the argument with music. Despite a problem with definition I have in his answer, I'm not all that inclined to disagree with him as it relates to literature. Music, however, does not deal with the concrete ideas of fiction. As an art form it is inherently nebulous, which as we all know is its biggest weakness and greatest strength. No one is going to finish Don DeLillo's White Noise (to borrow from my current reading list) and say its main themes were racial integration and east asian economics. But in music, you CAN listen to and disagree about very fundamental issues relating to meaning of music. To take the most mainstream example I can think of, go to any dave matthews message board and read up on the fans debating the meaning of various songs. Some will be absolutely convinced its about love, others about environmentalism, and then the ever-reliable third group will claim its all about smoking weed. To bring it back to focus on the use of Wallace's argument, if you claim contempt for the listener by a large section of 'new' music, you're placing entirely too much power at the hands of the composers who really have no control over how the audience receives their music in the first place. If you claim Babbitt can't communicate because he has no desire to, you're ignoring the hundreds of people who do receive something emotionally from, say, Philomel (such as me). Whereas Wallace can point to overly academic writing and perhaps accurately claim that it has no intent beyond its own cleverness, exhibited in concrete detail on the very pages, the machinations of aural sound to each listener are veiled. Elliott Carter is perfectly able to induce a stomach-level response in many of his pieces for many people. So, by the way, was the Zimmerman opera, to most of the audience members I talked to.

One last brief thing from the last posts comment section: its cute and all to refer to Frank's "zenlike appreciation" for all creation, but anyone who knows him will tell you he's one of the least zenlike people you're ever likely to meet. And he dislikes plenty of music (although, granted, less than most). The reason for his rep is because he finds it unconstructive to write negatively about music he doesn't care for. What's the point? To convince someone to NOT experience something new? To convince someone that they didn't actually like a piece? Or worse, to belittle them for liking it? It all comes off as otiose and solipsistic. There's room for altruism in criticism, and its advocacy. In that sense Frank should be a role model for anyone in this gig.

Apologies for the ramble.


its cute and all to refer to Frank's "zenlike appreciation" for all creation

That's not my coinage. (Hence the quotation marks.) And I have a ton of admiration for FTO, as I'm sure Gann does as well.

Mike Bradley

Disclaimers: Professionally, I'm a scientist (Ph.D. student in molecular biophysics nearing graduation). On a very amateur "in my spare time" level I'm a musician too, and have been since junior high school.

I do "experiments" in the strict sense of the word, for a living. Sometimes I'm following a well defined protocol and just applying it to something that no one else has ever tried before, to basically "see what happens." Sometimes I'm doing exactly what has been done before, to assess my capability or test reproducibility of the results. Other times I'm struck with inspiration and really get to apply every ounce of creativity I possess (a debatable quantity) to a problem and come up with a truly original approach to make a truly new statement about something I'm studying (rare, but it can happen). Several of the scientists I admire both currently and throughout history have employed an enormous amount of defined protocol en route to having a few instances of truly original work. In many respects, good science is a tricky balance between carefully following accepted norms and boldly drawing new conclusions supported by creatively discovered evidence.

After reading Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise (and listening to many of the samples from his webpage, along with getting several new-to-me recordings), I'm pretty convinced that a lot of "good" new music follows a similar pattern to my "good" science example above. The funny thing about "good" science is that it can still be uninteresting to the typical observer (including a majority of other scientists, even in the same field). I'm willing to bet the same is true in music. Certainly there is room for singular genius in both science and music (coming up with something astoundingly new and beautiful without spending much time treading established paths), but is such trail-blazing the only product of value in either discipline? NO.


First, Wallace uses a common, and in my view maddening, rhetorical trick by referring to "the audience" as though it were a monolith.


Is it obligatory for someone to bring up this objection every time anyone talks about "the audience"? Kyle Gann already dispatched this line of thought over at his place. I would just add that you should try telling a stand-up comic who's bombing on stage that there's no such thing as "the" audience.

Listening to live music is a communal activity, and that's a huge, essential part of the experience. A lot of musicians seem to believe that the reaction they get from the people who have chosen to come out to listen to their music is not important -- I think that that is a huge mistake. As I have said before, I think our job as artists is to do our everything in our power to make you believe in what we are playing as much as we do. And I believe that this can be done without pandering, dumbing down, or otherwise compromising our essential artistic vision.

As for DFW, Infinite Jest is a blast. It is and remains a very popular piece of contemporary literature. It is by far the most entertaining thing he has ever written. The book spawned its own listserv, on which I was an active participant back in the day. I've actually evangelized for this novel a lot, and every person I've persuaded to pick it up has fallen in love with it -- including a few non-native English speakers, who got along just fine without frequent dictionary trips. I do recommend using two bookmarks (one for the text, and one for the endnotes) but Infinite Jest is a great example of an artist taking Rzewski's axiom of making the difficult and complex understandable -- in DFW's case, by being really, really funny, skillfully manipulating pop culture references, crafting an engrossing, page-turning plot, and balancing a large cast of compelling characters. (Pemulis!)

Also, there are two problems with your argument about the nebulousness of literature vs. music. The first is that I don't think it's necessarily true -- is the meaning of a story like (sticking with DFW for a minute) "Everything Is Green" really less nebulous than the meaning of a song like, say, "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker"? but more importantly, you are confusing the meaning of art with the experience of art. DFW wants the experience of reading his work to be pleasurable, regardless of how elusive the meaning might be.

James Hirschfeld

A lot of musicians seem to believe that the reaction they get from the people who have chosen to come out to listen to their music is not important -- I think that that is a huge mistake.

Do you mean a particular, specifically intended reaction or just any reaction at all? Is the composer's intention or the performer's intention relevant to the reaction that any given listener may have? I tend to think it is not especially relevant. The work will be interpreted differently by all people. I am always interested in listeners' reactions for sure (which I think is what you are saying), and I am often surprised.

As I have said before, I think our job as artists is to do our everything in our power to make you believe in what we are playing as much as we do. And I believe that this can be done without pandering, dumbing down, or otherwise compromising our essential artistic vision.

So examples of this might be expressing/articulating the music clearly, playing with energy, having rehearsal, etc, right? But even with all those things going for someone, there are going to be people with an artistic vision, who will execute it as best as they can conceive, and be poorly received by an audience. Maybe it is the wrong audience. Or the wrong venue. My group Respect has stopped playing at certain venues in NYC because the vibe is all wrong. (We don't like stages. We don't like mics.) Maybe that is a part of "making people believe in the music"---finding a receptive environment for that music. [Disclaimer: Before people go after me ragging on the "wrong audience," when 30 seconds after you start playing, people shout "Play a beat!" you know you may have the wrong audience :-) Also, the stand up comic thing is tough too, because people are assholes to those guys. I saw an open mic at Spike Hill and and can't imagine why anyone would get up there and allow themselves to be berated. They aren't even a minute in and people are shouting "not funny!"]

Now here is a funny story: Did you know that Respect once opened for The National in Pittsburgh? In 2004! Who knew they were destined for fame? Not us! This was not a good show for Respect. The audience was not receptive to our show and it made it very difficult to execute our ideas amid the wonderfully thick, awkward situation. We did everything in our power to get the audience to believe in our music, put after 30 minutes, we were asked to stop. We made $12.

So--when you spell out what you think an artist's 'job' is, I guess I see it a little differently. Don't disregard the audience. But the main focus should be to execute your artistic vision. Put yourself in a position to succeed and try to find an accepting environment. Beyond that, whether an audience believes in it is up to them. I tend to think that if you are honest with yourself, and you really do execute this artistic vision then people WILL believe in the music in the right circumstances. It may be tough to find a large audience for your music, but while everyone may not believe in your music, there are some people that will. And when you find those people, it is incredibly satisfying. Maybe all that is a semantic difference---you tell me.

And I do apologize for not really addressing the original post! I find the ensuing discussion is often what pulls me in.


James brings up a good point, that researching one's demographic and targeting one's audience is as important as executing artistic vision. I would lump it in with part of the artistic vision - being smart about presenting one's music. When a band falls between the genre cracks (like Kids Eat Crayons), it takes a little more research. As we've found via sometimes arduous trial and error, we succeed when we're playing to a rock crowd, even though we're all jazz musicians. The music is complicated, but when we play, we don't emphasize the complexity of it - we emphasize the power and we rock as hard as we possibly can. And even when crowds are thoroughly baffled by us, there's a handful that are genuinely affected by our music, as weird as it is.

The difference, to me, is asking the audience to marvel at the generative detail of the music vs. making them engage with the resultant music on some deep level. Greg Osby said it best: "If I wanted to hear someone stick Giant Steps changes everywhere, I'd never leave my practice room." Gann addressed it in his essay as well: conservatories in the '60s and '70s (and even today) generating a litany of pieces that exist more for their processes and their program notes than what it actually sounds like. This gets back to the notion of fanservice, I suppose. I think we owe it to ourselves as artists and human beings to go beyond inside jokes.

Trevor Hunter

Yes, I saw Kyle’s histrionic and unintentionally ironic post. For the record, I am not a Nazi apologist. Moving on from that, I think my first point was a bit unclear – my fault, obviously, since I approached it deconstructively. When I attack the idea of “audience” as a monolith, (eg “The audience doesn’t like new music!”), that emphatically does not mean I’m arguing for the ‘individualized experience’ model. I’m completely on the side of music as a communal phenomenon; I just don’t like the way it’s applied. For instance: one of the most powerful concert experiences I had in the past year was a Helmut Lachenmann concert put on by Either/Or. It was a free event, and so theoretically open to anyone who might want to come, and it ended up being so packed that at least 40 people listened to the concert standing in the hallway. The audience was more diverse than I had thought it would be; the academics, sure, and the grad students, but also noted people of the downtown scene, random people who just attended all things in the Goethe Institute, etc. Throughout the concert, everyone, even in the hallway, was completely attentive and quiet. The performers gave it their all. When it was done slightly less than an our later, that was one of the greatest levels of enthusiasm from all quarters of an audience both in the hall and at the reception afterwards that I’ve ever seen.

Now, does ‘the audience’, as defined by DFW and Kyle Gann, like Helmut Lachenmann? No! Not in the least. Even Alex Ross, in his otherwise positive account of the entire 20th century’s music, is dismissive of him. But the audience as defined by the people actually at the concert loved it. It was actually the first time I realized that mass rapt silence could be as communally powerful as anything else (having previously regarded it as a mere necessity for quiet, unamplified acoustic music). A profoundly spiritual experience, and almost everyone there felt it. Or at least the 20 or so people I talked to afterward did. Also, speaking of Ross’ book, Lachenmann was presented as being completely uncaring about the audience in TRIN, which may have been part of his rhetoric 30 years ago. However, hearing the man speak several times that week, it was obvious nothing was further from the truth.

Much as any ecosystem will provide for the maximum diversity of life possible, I think any regional environment will provide for the maximum cultural diversity possible. And a big, information saturated modern city is the equivalent of a tropical rainforest in this case. There are dozens of music scenes that can be supported by communities in a city like NYC, perhaps not financially, but certainly in terms of interest and attendance. To call any one of them out for ignoring the community is to ignore the fact that they often times already have a community that they’re engaging. The sizes may differ, but I’ve never seen a difference in passion and ambition. Yes, the bombing comic might not be appreciated by ‘the audience’ as a whole, which statistically is more likely to enjoy Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld than Mitch Hedberg. Numbers, however, do not mean that the hypothetical comic or Hedberg isn’t a considerable talent, or able to be completely affective to other groups of comedy enthusiasts.

FWIW I’m absolutely sure that Infinite Jest is amazing. DFW is my favorite writer, but his novel (as well as Pynchon’s Against the Day) sits idly next to my bed month after month because I never feel like I have enough time to devote to it, whereas the short stories and essays are much more easily digestible within constraints. This is entirely an indictment of my life’s schedule and not his or Pynchon’s work.

Regarding nebulousness – yes, there are examples on both sides that can be brought out to nitpick that argument (although Id probably argue if you take the Ramones lyrics away the music itself actually does become nebulous), but as a broad argument I’ll still stand by it as holding true. As far as meaning vs. experience goes, in abstract art such as wordless music (no lyrics, no program notes, no obvious meta-references) I don’t think there’s any difference. As far as DFW’s work, I wasn’t aware I was masking that distinction, but if I was, I happily back off. Words have concrete meanings, so of course there can be a difference between meaning and experience. Interestingly, experimental fiction, which I usually have problems with, usually really does try to blur the difference – maybe I have that issue because I haven’t learned to conflate meaning and experience in the written (or sung) word.

Finally a couple quick hits:

A lot of musicians seem to believe that the reaction they get from the people who have chosen to come out to listen to their music is not important

I honestly have never met these musicians. Nor have I ever met the composers that do not care about their audience, either. Maybe they just never go to concerts in the first place, so I don’t meet them. (And no, I don’t personally know the typical punching bags of this line of thought, so I can’t be certain if their public perception is earned.)

I think our job as artists is to do our everything in our power to make you believe in what we are playing as much as we do.

I agree. I just don’t think that’s limited to any aesthetic or technique.


Hi Trevor,

Gann followed up. I really don't think he's being histrionic. Some of it is cranky and some of it is egregiously self-serving ("it was like I was the only subjective consciousness in the room"), but mostly he makes a lot of on-point observations, including:

I've seen audiences lie, in both directions. I've seen audiences spend the duration of a performance bored and restless, flipping through their programs, and then burst into a standing ovation when it was over, because the music was something they were "supposed" to approve; and I've seen audiences get caught up curiously and very attentive, and then applaud tepidly and speak slightingly of the music during intermission, because the composer's reputation was still in doubt. On the other hand, I've seen a sophisticated audience all start backward at once at a daring turn in the middle of a fantastic ROVA sax quartet improv, and another all suddenly burst into a guffaw when Rzewski slyly quoted Beethoven. We all like to believe in free will and have faith in the integrity of our individual judgments, but you put 300 people in a room together, point them at a stage, and give them a stimulus, and certain kinds of groupthink take over, except perhaps for an intransigent, peer-pressure-hating curmudgeon like myself.

Also, is there some reason you think that I don't like Lachenmann's music, or believe that nobody would ever respond to it on a visceral level? I didn't say a word about the dude. It seems to me you, like James, are only proving my point that it's impossible for me to talk about thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand works that I don't like (most of Babbitt) without everybody jumping to the conclusion that I have it in for all thorny, complex, difficult-to-understand works. And it doesn't seem to matter how much enthusiastic gushing about complex music I've done on this on this blog over the years, or what role complexity plays in my own music... it's like the punchline to that old joke: "But you fuck one goat..."

Trevor Hunter

Hey Darcy,
I suppose its entirely possible that Kyle was being sincere in his comparison of Nazism and postmodern audience breakdown, and it wasn't histrionic at all. Regarding his newest argument, eg, "We all like to believe in free will and have faith in the integrity of our individual judgments, but you put 300 people in a room together, point them at a stage, and give them a stimulus, and certain kinds of groupthink take over", well, yeah, totally. And I think its awesome. There's nothing better than being on the same emotional, visceral page as everyone in the room, and without getting into the nitty-gritty of the evolutionary analysis, I fully believe that therein pretty much lies the power (and, dare I say, inherent purpose) of music. Too bad Kyle is too attached to his intransigence to get in on it.

But onto Lachenmann: It actually didn't even enter my mind as to whether you like his music-which is a bit myopic I suppose, considering its your blog and all. I used that example because A) His music is stereotypically audience un-friendly B)In this corner of the blogosphere, he's been brought up by Kyle lately, at the very least C) The Rest Is Noise (if I remember correctly) calls his music "deaf to the world around it" or some such thing, and what better model for audience zeitgeist than that book? D) I actually could truthfully relate a positive story about a Lachenmann concert from last year, which sadly I couldn't for the perhaps more appropriate Babbitt.

I'm starting to think it distills to this: you're attacking a perceived attitude amongst a segment of a specific group-the complexity guys who think the audience is stupid- which you feel is destructive to the musical community. However, all of the people I know from the complexity group do not hold that opinion of the audience (admittedly, the younger generation, in their late 20s/early 30s), and are usually much chagrined that people keep trying to paint them with that brush. I find this destructive to the musical community. Am I misreading?


Hi Trevor,

I think your read of my attitude is correct, but it looks like we disagree on the lay of the land. Most of the complexity-kids I know are more hardcore fundamentalist/righteously anti-audience than those in their 30's and 40's, who have often mellowed a bit. (And then there's the kids with complexes, like Colin Holter.)

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