Humility and Hadrian

Humility and Hadrian

Jenna Simeonov

“That is what, most of all, is shrinking audiences for contemporary music: not any particular musicians, stylistic approaches, or programming, but rather a pernicious idea that contemporary music can only succeed if it bets against itself, and pretends that losing was really winning all along.”

Pleasing the audience isn’t a sign of weakness, or a sign that a composer isn’t dedicated to his art. Composer Dan Visconti writes about a paradox that exists between a composer’s freedom to experiment with contemporary music, and the need for the music itself to be heard. For example, anyone who studied music in university or college knows of The U of Anything Contemporary Music Concert, or the U of Whatever Student Composer’s Concert. These concerts can turn out some frustrating material, the kind that’s self-indulgent, boring, awkward-giggle-inducing, and apathetic to its audience. They also often have a sparse audience turn-out. It happens when a composer bites his thumb at the listener’s experience. Not many people are willing to hear music by a composer who convinces himself that his music was not meant to be understood or felt by an audience. This kind of martyrdom can cost a composer a chance to really connect with his audience and say something with sound. Contemporary composers who pride themselves on obscuring the listener’s understanding of the piece also tend to obscure the chance of someone even hearing it. They’re like Rob, Dick and Barry at Championship Vinyl (High Fidelity, and you should have seen this movie by now): they liked the music they liked _because_ it was obscure and unavailable (and maybe less good?).  Remember how they berated customers both behind their backs and to their faces about their “obvious” record choices? And remember how Rob complained that they weren’t selling any records in the store because Dick and Barry were being elitist and mean?

So, the composer’s goal is to be humble enough to listen to the wants and necessary catharsis of his audience. I hope that this is what’s happening with the COC’s commission of Hadrian, set to have its première in the company’s 2018-19 season. With music by Rufus Wainwright and libretto by playwright Daniel MacIvor, it’s built up a good amount of hype already. It’s well-deserved hype, partly because Hadrian will be the COC’s first commission in almost 15 years. The COC’s General Director Alexander Neef has great things to say about his intention and criteria for choosing Hadrian, and both Wainwright and MacIvor speak encouragingly on what makes an opera and its story great.

I look forward to a brand new opera that puts bums in seats, and a composer who thinks about reception. That excites me, so don’t let me down, Rufus.

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