In search of an audience…
Sibelius started me thinking down this road.
For those of you who aren’t music geeks, or classical music geeks to be precise (although I think he defies category), I’m talking about Jean Sibelius, a Finnish composer from the last century. I was recently listening to some of his piano music.
Sibelius is hardly obscure. But he’s known for his granite symphonies and colorful symphonic poems. Most classical music listeners probably don’t even know he wrote piano music, a ton of it, and surely not many have heard any of it.
And that’s too bad! It’s sublime. Some of the most brilliant, original miniatures of the last century. Much of it sounds contemporary today.
I guess Sibelius should be counted one of the lucky ones. His place in posterity is secure because of seven magnificent symphonies, a couple of which, it could be argued, are among the five best of the 20th century. (The Fourth and Seventh would be my candidates.) But still, listening to his Five Esquisses and Five Piano Pieces Op. 101, I couldn’t help think that it was tragic someone wrote music like this to have it go into the dustbin of history. Who was he writing for? Himself? There’s the school that says artists Do It All For Themselves and not for the fame and reward, and there’s something to be said for that. The Artist as Hero started with Beethoven—deaf, almost without companions near the end, turning out late-period masterpieces that the rest of us would not understand for about 75 years.
At the same time, what’s the point if art like this is consigned to obscurity? It’s not noble. Art is intended for an audience. When an artist talks to himself, it’s no different than when anyone else talks to himself. Doctors would probably say it’s not mentally healthy. It’s not artistically healthy either.
Many artists go on, driven by an internal need that doesn’t care about audience approval or even acknowledgment. And that’s great, if the artist means it. But one can’t also help but conclude their art has failed if it is ignored. The failure isn’t the creator’s fault necessarily, but it’s a failure nevertheless, because each creation is an idea that is supposed to go from someone to someone. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Art that gets no response is a lot like the sound of one hand clapping.
What stops so much great art from succeeding—and more great art fails on this level than succeeds. To a large extent it’s an audience that wants comfort in the familiar. Real artists—as opposed to craftspeople—don’t do the same things over and over. That’s commerce. Nothing necessarily wrong with that. But if you’re driven by that inner demon, you’re not going to want to do the same things over and over. No demon in that. The demon wants escape, wants surprise, wants a new reason to live.
But every artist has had to deal with an audience that wants the familiar, the tested. New things get through, of course, but, almost always, it’s an uphill fight, even though so often audiences say they’re tired of the same. Yet back they go, renting the next franchise movie (even though they hated the last three) or listening to the same music that appealed to their base instincts in high school. You really have to wonder why. Why are people oftentimes so lazy? Why do they say they don’t like something, and then ask for more?
Because of this, we have a surplus of great books hardly anyone has ever read, music almost no one has heard, and more importantly answers to questions no one will uncover, ways of thinking few people will ever know. It’s as if the answers to our problems are all there already. We don’t need to look any further. Rather, we need to sift through everything we’ve created already.
This Internet world we live in has tipped the balance even more against artists finding audiences. That may seem wrong; in the beginning, the promise of everyone being interconnected was that of new and better roads for art and artists. But the same Internet that makes us one big global village also lets us erect high walls and paint on them only the views we want ourselves to see.
Added to that is the problem has become that everyone wants to be a creator or performer; nobody wants to be in those red seats anymore—it’s almost déclassé. A young author who recently saw her first novel get published complained that more people today want to know how to write novels rather than how to read them, a skill she (and I) find sorely lacking. Just check out Amazon or Goodreads reviews! Yet she says when she asks aspiring writers what they read and why she often gets blank stares.
It wold do everyone good to step outside their comfort zone. We’d all be richer if the next time you went to a bookstore, you bought the sort of book you normally don’t read. My ears are better right now because Sibelius took the time to write about seven CDs worth of sublime piano music. I’m glad he did, but I do wonder what he got out of it. He’s been dead for well over half a century, and he wrote these works mostly in the early part of the 1900s, as he went silent after 1926. He felt he had nothing new to say for the last 31 years of his life. In fact, he probably destroyed an entire symphony he’d spent decades composing because of dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction that he didn’t do something bold and new and original enough.
The audience didn’t even get a chance to discover that one.