I saw this link to THE EAR being passed around my Facebook feed today. It seems as if a lot of my colleagues are a little cagey about stating their opinions about it outright. After looking at the website, I can see why.
On the surface, THE EAR sounds like a great idea. According to Alf Bishai, THE BRAIN behind THE EAR, the reason that contemporary music is in a slump is because composers have forgotten to consider the wants/needs of “the audience.” Bishai wants to incentivize composers to write music that will be easier for the average audience member (read: “the people”) to understand.
THE EAR’s mission reminds me of this:
I’ve never really run into a musical demagogue before, but that’s basically what THE EAR is. Bishai is preying upon people’s fears that new music A) might not be up to their liking, and B) might leave them in a position where its value might not be immediately obvious.
Bishai tries to solve these pesky issues by coming up with a system of vetting the piece:
The Ear has developed a thoughtful approach to providing filtered content for our audience. By the time music reaches our stage, it has been quadruple-distilled.
What this boils down to is that Alf Bishai believes that audience members are either not smart enough to decide for themselves as to what a quality piece of music is, or don’t care enough.
“But wait, Jason,” you might ask. “What if this system doesn’t work?”
Don’t worry, guys. Alf says that the directors won’t let it not work. He doesn’t want you to get grey hair thinking about tough questions, after all.
I’d like to believe that all but the most self-sufficient composers out there share a desire to be loved. When I write a piece, I desperately hope that people will like it, and I’m sure that all but the most self-assured artists feel the same way. Bishai’s central thesis contends that, on the contrary, composers don’t care about the audience’s opinion, and that we’re writing for some upper echelon of classical music tastemakers. This “Who Cares If You Listen” trope has been debunked many times — me doing it once more doesn’t seem necessary.
My issue with Bishai and THE EAR is not that he’s promoting a certain kind of music over another — that’s his right as a curator, just as it’s the right of any musician who gives a concert. If Spano decides to put on a piece by Higdon, it’s because he thinks it’s good. If that piece has a dissonant language, or a confusing form, it’s likely that Spano thinks that this is part of the good in the piece. My issue is Bishai’s assumption that composers and performers that aren’t Bishai don’t care about the audience, because we present challenging music. Ask almost any composer, though, and they’ll tell you that it’s not true.
What’s really interesting is that Bishai unknowingly points out a glaring flaw in classical music culture that is in dire need of addressing — it’s just not the one he set out to fix. In classical music, there is an attitude that only the best music should make it to the stage. Classical music is just that: classics. It’s really difficult for even the most engaging contemporary work to go head-to-head with a Brahms or Beethoven symphony. This is a unique situation to classical music — in the visual arts, the theatre, and film, we accept the idea that art is a process, and not all the fruits of that process are going to be great. Very few people roll up to a gallery opening and get upset when they can’t see the Mona Lisa or the next great artistic masterpiece of our time. But rather than confronting and trying to fix this only-the-best attitude, Bishai embraces it, and in doing so reduces music to a commodity, a transaction between producer and consumer.
THE EAR, then, is like Yelp! for classical music, where composers are essentially service employees jumping through hoops of the audience-as-customer. Have we really reached the Libertarian/Hayekian (is that even a word?!) hell that this implies?
Is Alf Bishai really so afraid of the process of art making that he’d stoop to something like THE EAR? Or does he really think that little of the audience?