Thoughts on Kevin Volans’s Speech

A couple of weeks ago, Kevin Volans gave a keynote address at a conference in Galway, Ireland. A few days later, the Contemporary Music Center published the text of the speech on their site. Since then, the hot takes on New Music Twitter and Facebook have been piling up. As usual, this probably says more about my social following habits as it does about any particular body of critical thought.

Thankfully, I happened to encounter the speech before I encountered most of the overwhelmingly negative reaction to it.[1] While I think there are definitely some problematic ideas, and a fair amount of “in my day”-eyeroll-inducers, there are lots of really important ideas here.

First, I want to address the title of the speech, "If You Need an Audience, We Don’t Need You". Like Babbitt, Volans is victim to his headline here.[2] He acknowleges that the title is a Feldman quote from a Darmstadt lecture. The average Darmstadt lecture attendee would probably not find this line revolutionary, or even remarkable. Context really changes the interpretation. More importantly, Volans’s main points are not nearly as polemical as his title suggests. In fact, those that read past the headline will find that Volans contradicts its spirit pretty directly later in the talk:

No composer I know can bear being unperformed and un-listened-to. We need audiences to show them what we have discovered, what we have struggled with. And to share the experience. For their cooperation we must treat them well.

I want to focus on the important parts that he gets very right. You can find the angry mob elsewhere.

An important part of Volans’s thesis is the distinction between art and entertainment. Again, this isn’t exactly groundbreaking material, but it’s worth pointing out that these are two different goals, even if there is plenty of overlap in practice. One of the key differences is the differing assumptions the two make about their audience.

[Art] sets out to offer an insight of some kind, something the composer has discovered for themselves – the audience, if they are taken into account at all, are required to make an effort, to collaborate, to listen with intent, with a desire to experience something new.

I remember reading a Yehudi Wyner line that “Art is from the neck up. Entertainment is from the waist down.” Volans is a bit less glib, and quite a bit less biological.

One of the problems many have had with Volans’s speech is the extent to which he demonizes money and business. He tells the old folk ballads of the days when governments spent money on elaborate presentations of “Serious” music, juxtaposed with the vapid, hit-driven presentations of The Three Tenors and commercial classical radio. I would argue that there is room in the world for both. I’m not convinced that the people who are drinking iced white zinfandel (hi, Grandma!) and listening to The Three Tenors on Spotify are not doing so instead of going to a Ted Hearne opera. These people don’t know about Hearne, and may not even think of themselves as operagoers.

I do not believe that popularising art creates a public for serious work. There is no ‘trickle down’ effect.

Volans blames Thatcherism. That’s probably a part of it, but seems a bit too neat and tidy to me.

I’ve read a few responses to Volans’s speech calling it ageist. This is completely baffling to me, as he goes into quite a lenthy diatribe against ageism, particularly in opportunities for composers. This is something that I personally relate to. I’m hurtling rapidly toward aging out of many cool opporunitites, and my current dayjob precludes me from taking advantage of most of them while I can.

At least 95% of all composers get better with age. … There is no such thing, in my opinion, as an emerging composer. There are gifted composers and there are not-so-gifted composers. Age is irrelevant. Emerging, who cares? Publicists.

My only quibble is the disparaging of publicists. NPR’s From the Top makes me want to barf.

Something I really love here is the emphasis Volans places on giving composers time to develop. He describes working with Stockhausen 14 hours a week. For comparison, I see my students for 14 one-hour lessons per semester. I can’t imagine that this is 14 hours spent one-on-one each week; surely, Stockhausen had more than three to five students at a time. However, the notion of spending more direct time with a master composer talking about music more generally than what note should come next in bar 58 in the third horn part is something that appeals to me.

More important than official study is the time spent talking and listening to other composers. Years of time, spent in a compositional community. So that the young composers are not under pressure to produce, so that their ideas and their education can mature quietly.

There are lots of things that I would really like to experiment with; but, I can’t justify the time for something that has such a high likelihood of failure.[3] I feel like I never really had that opportunity while I was in school, and I’m not sure my students do either.

I know I wrote that I wanted to focus on the good things in the talk, but I do want to call out a few particular points that I strongly disagree with. Volans laments that the kids these days have no sense of large scale works. This is true. I don’t want to write a two-hour piece of music. But you know what? I probably don’t want to listen to most two-hour pieces of music either. It would be a more than a little sadistic of me to subject audiences to something that I wouldn’t like myself. Moreover, composers write eight-minute orchestral openers because that’s all they can get performed! If an orchestra wants a 30-minute piece from me, I’ll stop writing this essay right now and get to work. The clever reader will notice that the essay continues.

Volans concludes with a list of seven prescriptions for composers and new music presenters. Yep. Old Man Volans just wrote a listicle. If you’re short on time, just read these. There is gold here, such as this:

Presentation: Every detail counts, and every second counts. From the minute the public walks into the building, the concert has begun. A concert is a Gesamtkunstwerk."

The only problem with this is that it’s hard and takes time and effort to do. Play-clap-play-clap is really much simpler, logistically. Volans also calls out lighting, pacing, stage presence, and appearance, which all kind of roll into the presentation issue. In particular, I love the line that “performers looking like unmade beds doesn’t instill confidence in the audience.” Bingo. However, I’m going to strongly disagree with Volans when he writes that talking about pieces during the concert is a bad idea. To me, this is a great way to understand a piece better and a wonderful reminder that the people who make capital-A Art are not wizards or demigods, but that they’re regular people.

One thing that is an over-arching theme that many have latched on to is that Volans spends a lot of time arguing for quality over quantity. This seems at odds with his arguments about musical scale. And, it also seems to imply that we’re making too many composers and presenting too many concerts. This is certainly something that I would disagree with. However, I’m interpreting this differently. If we’re actually going to get the Three Tenors audiences to care about more challenging work, we can’t just toss thoughtless performances together. If it takes more time to put together each concert, it might be worth having six amazing, wholistic (note the W!) experiences than ten Pretty Good Concerts. To me, this is the root of Volans’s anti-business argument. He writes that “one perfectly prepared and presented concert is worth 10 mediocre concerts. One bad concert drives the audience away.” If everything else—revenue and cost per concert—remains the same, this is cutting profit by 90%. However, buzzworthy entrepreneurial projects like like Claire Chase’s ICE and Ellen McSweeney’s Parlour Tapes+ have shown that doesn’t have to be the case.

I read Volans’s writing in this way: first, we need to care to make challenging music that assumes an audience that cares. We can solve the other problems later. I would only respond that we can actually do both at the same time. That doesn’t detract from the strength of his positive arguments, and I hope that the backlash to the more polemical bits can draw some attention to the hopeful ones.

  1. Hat tip to Rob Deemer for offering a more measured response.  ↩
  2. However, one presumes that unlike Babbitt, Volans got to pick whatever title he wanted here.  ↩
  3. This is almost certainly an artistic failure of mine, possibly a topic for a different essay.  ↩