Hello everyone; my name is Dillon and I’m a new contributor here. Inspired by Meg’s most recent post, I’d like to suggest another pair of categories, having to do with the environment and situation in which music is perceived.

I started thinking about this a lot after my senior year at Ithaca College. I was a composition major, and at the end of every semester our teacher would have a dinner party at his house for the studio. As an after-dinner activity we were asked to bring recordings of music we liked to share with the rest of the students.

So at one of these parties, we had our dinner, and then we gathered around as students took turns putting on recordings of their favorite music. After we had politely listened to stuff like Berio, Stockhausen, and Furrer, my best friend in the studio got up to put on his then favorite jazz album, the none-too-generic “Sky Blue” by Maria Schneider.

Almost instantly, people started talking again; someone got up to get more cake and Sprite; a ping-pong game resumed. Back to the party.

My friend and I were both pretty bewildered. The point of this activity is that students from a wide range of backgrounds and interests share something that inspires them. So I felt for my friend when his favorite music was instantly and unanimously turned into background music.

But then it got me wondering whether there’s anything we can (or should) do about a situation like this.

So here are my two categories. More accurately it’s a spectrum and these are the far ends of it:
1. Experiencing music with our full attention.
2. Experiencing music in conjunction with other activities.

The examples of category 2 are countless: Jazz to set a mellow and sophisticated tone at a party or restaurant. Light rock in the deli to make waiting in line more bearable. Techno at a club, (even at an absurdly loud volume it still has quite a bit of competition for your attention). And category 2 isn’t just the music which is externally pumped into our lives against our will – just count the pairs of ear-buds in a subway car.

Some composers intend for their music to be wallpaper – this music often calls itself “easy listening.” Others find that notion unsettling or maybe even a little despicable. Still others are in the middle – they take a tack of “there’s no wrong way to listen to my music.” This attitude sounds attractive, but I wonder if anyone actually means it. But it is true that composers don’t have much control over how people listen to our music. We’re at the mercy of cultural norms.

It’s self-evident that listening to music as just one of several things perceived at a time has a big cultural and historical advantage. The notion of getting together in a space, just to revel together in single-minded uninterrupted music-listening, is a pretty new idea, and staggeringly less common than the other ways that people listen.

In fact, this talk of staggering unpopularity is starting to sound pretty familiar, so let’s just simplify our terms: The only music that gets category 1 treatment as a rule is concert music. Everything else is usually listened to category 2 style.

I think we composers, performers, and scholars of new concert music are so used to the experience of a concert that we sometimes forget how much it actually resembles a religious ritual. The concert hall, or any other space in which we get together to listen exclusively and single-mindedly to music becomes a sacred environment. We assume that this is a natural way for everyone to perceive music, and not the highly specialized and obscure activity that it actually is. And this influences the music we write, as well as the way we talk and think about it.

But I need not make the case for the advantages of the sacred environment. As a composer, I try to put a lot of effort into every sound. It’s bad enough to think about the fact that each sound is going to pass into our ears and be gone a moment later; I’d at least like to imagine that it’s passing fully into our ears at all! Writing for a captive audience allows composers and performers to explore forms, sounds, and ideas that demand our full attention in order to work. To put it another way, I often wait until I’ve heard a piece of concert music twice to decide if I like it or not, especially if I can’t give it my undivided attention the first time I hear it. But this is a situation unique to our sacred environment.

Take Cage’s 4’33”. Okay, I know, cliché to even mention it, but that’s kind of why I bring it up: This piece simply wouldn’t work in a strictly category 2 setting. If I stood up at a crowded restaurant (where, no doubt, music is already playing) and performed this piece, people would more or less just ignore me. Yes, Cage has an essay in which he describes his solitary performance of 4’33” in the woods. But there’s a difference: Since he was the only audience, he created his own sacred environment. Once you’re dealing with an audience of people with free will, then you lose that. I could call my restaurant performance of 4’33” an authentic performance, if I really wanted to, but it still wouldn’t have any effect on the room full of people eating their dinner. If you don’t have a captive audience, you can’t convince them to frame an experience. So 4’33” is born entirely out of a sacred listening environment we’ve created, and depends on such an environment in order to exist.

I’m one of many people who participates in music from both categories, and I’ve noticed that some of my otherwise like-minded peers don’t want to make a distinction. They bear the attitude that it’s all just different paths up the same mountain, that any lines we draw in music are constructs that we can do just as well without. This doesn’t really work for me. First of all, different categories of music are often put into the world with completely different intentions, and, more saliently, their audiences consume them in completely different ways. So I say it’s different mountains, and that the lines we draw have both meaning and importance.

There’s another growing school of thought, of which I am a part, that musics from different categories do still have stuff to say to one another. I grew up playing in rock bands, and I don’t want to just ignore that, even when I write concert music. And most other composers of my generation are also involved in music that happens outside the sacred environment. As we search for honest and artful ways to express ourselves, I think it’s important not to ignore that there is a spectrum of how we perceive music. Keeping the spectrum in mind will necessitate that we find ways to look at different music in different ways, and account for more than just the sound of a drum-beat, or multiphonic, or blues lick, but all of the perceptual norms that these sounds come with. While it isn’t so hard to bring the materials of music from these different categories together, it’s a lot harder to get these two styles of perception to coalesce. But I think it’s a worthwhile challenge.

I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on any of the above.

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