Page Forty the village VOICE, July 5, 1973
Shredding the climax carrot
(part one only)
by Tom Johnson
When I was a composition student, the one thing which was always held up to us as an unassailable criterion for good music was whether or not it would "hold the attention." This seems obvious enough until one begins to consider what it involves.
In order to hold our attention for an entire evening, a work must jolt us once in a while with a well timed surprise, hold a climax carrot in front of our noses so that we will have something to look forward to, lift us up and let us down in an appealing sequence, and titillate us with interesting details all along the way. Other wise our minds might wander.
There is something manipulative about pieces which force themselves on us, conning us into following every move they make, and I think this process begs a few questions. What right does an ar tist have to tell his audience what to feel and when to feel it? Shouldn't it be possible to have an enjoyable evening in a theatre or concert hall without constantly being manipulated? When we go to something like "Rigoletto" aren't we really just sitting there like so many Pavlovian dogs, salivating when the bell rings, laughing when we are supposed to, and weeping on cue?
I am not saying anything is wrong with Verdi, not to mention Beethoven, Shakespeare, Bartok, or any of the other masters whose works hold our attention so well. We give ourselves willingly to These things, just following them along, allowing them to manipu late us, feeling whatever we are supposed to feel, and loving every minute of it. But I am not sure this kind of art, which actually tyrannizes its audience, is what people really want and need today. And I am not sure that we should continue to insist that a performance must hold us in rapt attention from beginning to end in order to be beautiful.
Some of the performances I enjoyed most this past season are ones in which my mind wandered a great deal. They did not try to manipulate me or ring any Pavlovian bells, and they did not struggle to hold my attention. They simply said what they had to say, leaving me free to listen or not listen, and to respond in my own way.
I think the first time I began to think along these lines was the night Victor Grauer read his "Book of the Year 3000" (at the Kitchen, Voice, December 14). This was a truly non-manipulative performance, and it is a good example of what I am talking about, because Grauer made his intentions quite clear at the outset. His introductory remarks, as well as I can remember them, went some thing like this.
"I'm going to be reading for about three hours against this electronic sound. There won't be any intermission, but I don't want anyone to feel tied down. If you would like to hum along with the electronic tone, or echo back some of the words or phrases I read, that's fine too. And if you get sleepy, don't force yourself to stay awake. We can take in a lot of things even when we're asleep. The improtant thing is just to make yourself comfortable." I listened attentively much of the time, sometimes humming along with the electronic back ground. But I also took a couple of intermissions, and I spent quite a bit of time just lying on the floor, allowing the mellifluous words of the repetitious text to wash over my wandering mind. The piece was not holding my attention much of the time, but I would not have walked out for anything. Whenever I was able to tune in on the specific images and rhythms, I liked what I heard. And when I came to the end of a concentration span, the atmosphere itself was quite enough to keep me content.
In a very broad sense, all art is manipulative, and Grauer was pulling a few strings himself. After all, he did prime us with those introductory remarks. The lighting he used, the electronic tone, and the text itself all had a calculated effect. But this is not manipulation in the specific sense I was talking about before. No climax carrot. No surprises. No titillation. No insistence on holding the attention. He left us pretty much alone, allowing us to decide for ourselves how we wanted to respond, and leaving plenty of room for each individual to respond differently.
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