on accessibility

This BSO concert featured some pieces by Miaskovsky and Knussen (Knussen was also the conductor). I must admit that I did not fully comprehend it (fell asleep midway through Miaskovsky), and so went back to review, mainly this and this — the last two on the program were probably audience appeasement and brought lesser difficulty.

I’ll go out on a limb and say those “difficult” pieces weren’t accessible for a lot of people, judging from the live reaction. In a pre-recorded discussion, Knussen said something about this: that they weren’t aimed for accessibility, something which he disdains, but they were also not deliberately obfuscating. This is already a better sentiment than expressed in Copland’s article on “modern music” (which this concert was), but I still take great issue with this, on the grounds of the purpose of art and especially, art performance.

Now, art has to do with emotion or feeling, analogous to how science has to do with rationality or truth. Like the latter, art serves two purposes, one for the creator, and one for the recipient. The purpose for the creator is rather selfish: it’s simply a form of self-expression to notate a particular emotional state. In this narrow sense, nobody should even care whether the art is accessible or obfuscating. It doesn’t matter. Should an uninvited recipient take up the challenge of understanding the work, that is entirely none of the creator’s business. This is the understandable perspective leading to shameless academism and more sadistically, deliberate obfuscation. But then, the kind of art that lives (like good papers or good presentations in science), the unselfish kind, must serve a rather human (i.e. living) impulse: to communicate. It has been said that art (in its greater, broader form) is the communication of an emotional state from one person to another. This can only be done using some set of universals that tie the creator to his intended audience, and with some care to the question of accessibility.


Back on the topic of the BSO concert, of course the pieces took on more memorable personality with additional listening. I don’t even mean that the compositions were originally boring — there were great acoustic effects from the deliberate juxtaposition of higher-order harmonics in orchestral instruments, which Knussen uses to great effect. But I mean that there seems to be missing context required for comprehension. For instance, the Miaskovsky piece would be fairly typical as a contemporary movie sound track so it isn’t really that bizarre (and turns out there is this back-story), but without dynamic imagery the piece becomes a typical discordant modernist mess difficult to grasp over its entire length. The Knussen piece is even more abstract. It was an interesting, jarring, and ringing sound-scape, but here, even the preview discussion (describing the piece as a precarious high-wire act strung between the beginning and the end) did not help much. It is something that belongs to the composer.

From Copland’s article on “modern music”:

Why is it that the musical public is seemingly so reluctant to consider a musical composition as, possibly, a challenging experience? … Most people use music as a couch; they want top be pillowed on it, relaxed and consoled for the stress of daily living. But serious music was never meant to be used as a soporific … It is meant to stir and excite you — it may even exhaust you. But isn’t that the kind of stimulation you go to the theatre for or read a book for? Why make an exception of music?

Well, I think there is no exception for music. It may just be the responsibility of all serious creators (artistic or scientific), in particular those who go public with some work, to do the obvious thing, which is to be less selfish and take whatever steps necessary to allow full communication of their work to their intended audience. In the case of the BSO concert, certainly providing more context (even in other mediums) and in-depth education about the pieces beyond the perfunctory program notes would have been helpful. Does that turn the concert into couch-enjoyment (which ironically the last piece was)? Of course not. It would still be a challenge, but not one taken under a half-cooked effort at communication resulting in gibberish. It is never the fault of the audience to not get what you want to say. You are either a poor communicator or you chose the wrong audience or you are an ass.

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