Lessons from Motherhood: Loving the Audience

Oct 20, 2013

Kala Piersonby Kala Pierson, SFCA Composer-Not-in-Residence 2013-14

A parent becomes intensely attuned to her baby’s sounds, both for practical reasons (guessing right about a whimper can stave off screaming) and for more abstract ones (communicating outside traditional language can be pretty amazing). For musicians and non-musicians alike, parenthood will probably be life’s most intensive ear-training lesson.

One of my son’s earliest words was “music” (pronounced “moo-not”). He used “moo-not” to ask for music and—more interesting for me—to respond to music. At each moment that struck him, he’d delightedly shout “Moo-not!” or whisper “Moo-not…” with wide eyes. He absorbed it all in wonder, never rejecting even the most adventurous new music or non-western sounds.

Listening with him, I was in awe at the open attention we’re born with and sad about the various ways we’re expected to grow out of it. A baby has no concept of the value of her time, no concern she should be doing something more productive. She doesn’t consider multitasking a virtue, and she barely has any facility for it because a single thing is enough to occupy all her focus. (As adults, we feel we’ve developed this facility, but study after study proves that instinct wrong: what feels like multitasking is really just rapidly switching our focus from one task to another, not doubling our efficiency but compromising both tasks.)

We hear plenty of talk about Saving Classical Music that tackles issues like ticket prices and demographics and the stereotype that it’s part of a luxury lifestyle. A deeper issue, I think, is the notion in our culture—stronger every year—that an hour or two of simply sitting and listening is itself a luxury, wasteful on some level. There’s always another layer of action we could and should be adding in pursuit of productivity (or connectivity, which too often means disconnecting from the moment in favor of devices that connect us with somewhere else).

Contemporary music is still healing from its pre-1980s culture of aggressively inaccessible pieces (famously summed up by the editor who titled a leading composer’s anti-audience rant “Who Cares If You Listen?”), and we’re working on where to take the concert experience now. But as I watch my peers on the East Coast live-tweet marathons of new music amplified to rock concert levels, I wonder about our new definitions of connecting with music. I don’t doubt that some people’s ideal experience of live performance involves a constant state of internally shouting “Moo-not! Moo-not! Moo-not!”—and the freedom to tweet about that state to their heart’s content—but for me, relentless overstimulation and multitasking seem more like paths to non-engagement. In my ideal world, focusing into a live performance is an ongoing and ever-evolving choice.

This is why writing choral music is a core of my creative life. One of my favorite models of engagement is a family of voices focusing their attention into my music like a parabolic mirror—letting me connect with the audience from within those already-multiplied layers of mutual listening and choosing to be present. I understand that shared focus as an act of love, and I want to return that love by making music that can sustain real attention.

I don’t believe new music should be purposely simple in order to be ‘accessible’ to singers or to audiences, in part because I think connection is built on respect. I want my music to be bold, stimulating, surprising—yes, often communicating outside traditional language, but also communicating as directly and richly as possible.

For me, loving the audience means not just “caring if you listen” but also caring whether I’m speaking to you in a way that’s real, that’s me, and that’s worth listening to.