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Listening to the Listeners?

Dorian Bandy

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Published: June 21, 2015 at 4:19 PM [UTC]

"Psycho" has a very interesting construction and that game with the audience was fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them, like an organ.

-Alfred Hitchcock, interview with Francois Truffaut

A few weeks ago, I was discussing various classic films with one of my UK friends, and, of course, Hitchcock came up. My friend commented that he's not really a fan, since he finds Hitchcock's emphasis on audience manipulation ("playing the audience like an organ") to be deeply unsettling, and unworthy of great art. Yesterday, during a conversation otherwise unrelated to film, an American friend of mine made the same point about Hitchcock. Last week, discussing the arts with one of my former students, a similar theme emerged when he suggested that one of the differences (among many) between good artists and great artists is that the great artists do not consider their audiences. The "greats" create for themselves, whereas the "merely-good" create for their viewers, readers, and listeners.

These colleagues were born in three different countries during three different decades, and are professionally involved with three different artistic media, so their agreement probably isn't generational, cultural, or genre-related. In any case, talking to them, I was struck in each of the conversations by how consistently I disagreed. I cannot imagine a single musical dimension that doesn't fundamentally depend upon manipulating the listeners.

Try a reductionist thought-experiment: beginning on a purely musical level, suppose I decide to play a certain dissonant chord louder than the surrounding ones (and even grant, hypothetically, that my ostensible reason for doing this is just a gut-feeling, with no underlying intellectual framework). Why play a dissonance louder? Because there's an aural clash that "wants" to be "brought out". Why does the aural clash "want" emphasis? Because emphasis will heighten the emotional impact of the clash -- and will help the performance match the musical content. Why will emphasis heighten the impact of the clash? Because if the clash is unexpected and unprepared, emphasis will increase shock-value; if the clash is prepared and expected, emphasis will provide a satisfying aural climax. Unexpected to whom? Shocking to whom? Satisfying to whom? Ding!

The same series of Why-questions can apply to meta-musical decisions, like whether to play from memory, or how much to visibly emote on stage. In every case I can think of, they still come down to the audience's experience. And, in fact, I think this is a good thing. With classical music (and the other arts) in a precarious position alongside contemporary culture, the idea of the lone artist creating only for his own satisfaction strikes me as selfish, arrogant, and entitled. Shouldn't we consider artists even more great when they care not only about the inside workings of their art, but also the outside world that will consume it?

I like deconstructing these issues partly because I'm interested in what makes an artist great, and also because the better we understand what exactly is going on in performance, the better we can take control of it. In this sense, Hitchcock may be the ultimate brilliant, self-aware creator. The filmmaker (or painter, or writer, or composer, or violinist) cannot avoid manipulating her audience in some way: as soon as she's turned on the camera and pointed it at something (or set a piece in C minor, or picked a tempo), she's already begun to control exactly what the audience can and can't look at. Hitchcock is a small leap from that recognition: as long as one can't avoid being manipulative in some way, he might as well do it as grippingly as possible! (Perhaps this qualifies as a new kind of reductio ad perfectum?)

And if Hitchcock isn't your idea of a Great Artist, then what about Mozart? In two letters to his father (3 July 1778, and 26 September 1781) he consciously and explicitly takes the same attitude. Here's a particularly vivid excerpt from the first letter, on symphonic structure built entirely for the satisfaction of his listeners:

...Just in the middle of the Allegro a passage occurred which I felt sure must please, and there was a burst of applause; but as I knew at the time I wrote it what effect it was sure to produce, I brought it in once more at the close, and then rose shouts of "Da capo!" ... Having observed that all last as well as first Allegros here begin together with all the other instruments, and generally unisono, mine commenced with only two violins, piano for the first eight bars, followed instantly by a forte; the audience, as I expected, called out "hush!" at the soft beginning, and the instant the forte was heard began to clap their hands...

I can't imagine that the other great artists would disagree -- even Beethoven, that archetypal Romantic, who consistently shows himself to be a master of pushing the audience's buttons. (The Eroica alone is a case-in-point.)

More importantly, though, I think the consumers would agree. We go to the opera or watch the movie or read the book not for the story itself (if that were the case, we'd just skim the plot summary), but because we're interested in how the story is told. We want to be manipulated -- and who better to do it than a Mozart, a Beethoven, a Dostoevsky, or a Hitchcock?

(Also posted on my personal blog)

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