beauty…beholder: the aftermath – part two

Earlier i wrote about the world premiere of beauty…beholder in the context of my trip – meeting the ensemble, going to rehearsals, and the performance itself.  In this entry I want to talk about the piece itself – a bit of a rehash about why i wrote it, how my thinking evolved, and how everyone reacted.

As a quick recap – the climax of the piece milks a large dominant chord with a lush 4-3 suspension which at the point when most people would expect it to resolve to tonic instead hangs there and then goes quiet before being interrupted by a mobile phone ring that goes off in the audience.  When the music starts up again (which still does not resolve the tonic), mobile phones go off on stage in the percussion section, played as if the phones are the equivalent of triangles.

The motivation behind writing this started with my reaction to the New York Phil incident in January of 2012, what was then an extreme negative and harsh recoil to the incident.  Between then and January of 2013, my viewpoint strayed away from the extreme and moved more towards the middle, partially influenced by a conversation i had on google+ with some contemporary music enthusiasts.  I don’t really fault the conductor for stopping the piece and wanting to have the mobile phone quieted anymore, although I am still pretty appalled at everyone’s crucifying attitude towards the “offender.”  My program notes cover this pretty well – that intent is an important factor in judgement.  If the guy knew it was his phone and elected to pick it up and answer it in the middle of the piece, that’s one thing, but as an honest mistake, i feel that everyone could have been more lenient in their reactions.

In any case, the purpose of the ringtones in beauty…beholder was two-fold – first, i unashamedly wanted to create a shock moment.  I wanted there to be a feeling from the audience of indignation when the ringtone happens unexpectedly in the audience followed by a sheepish embarrassment when the ringtones got played on stage.  The idea was to catch the audience “with their pants down” as it were, and make them feel duped for their pending outrage.

Second, like with all of my music, i was trying to establish a new expectation that people could get used to and accept.  The purpose of the mobile ringtones played by the percussionists on stage is not the same as when it gets played in the audience.  The audience ringtone is meant to be shock and interruptive, but when the ringtones start going off on stage, it’is supposed to feel incorporated into the music, a part of the music and a part of the beauty.  hence the title of the piece, the idea that if you can lay out the expectation and make the ringtones a part of the music, you can create an acceptance that the ringtones are meant to be a part of the piece.ringtone

One of the fascinating things that was discovered by Matt and his ensemble was that even in the context of rehearsal, particularly the first time, there was an instinct of discomfort brought about by the ringtone – something that i’m convinced is a learned behavior in our current society.  And that brought to light something i never put into the forefront of my brain before, that mobile phones in general are perceived to be a disruption – businesses have signs that say to refrain from using cell phones whilst ordering food or whilst at the register, you’re not supposed to text during a movie, &c.  Not that i disagree with this for the most part, but it’s interesting to me that for some people it’s almost a primal reaction in today’s world to perceive mobile phone use in company or in public as rude and disruptive to the point that when in this piece its purpose is deliberate, it can still bring about that more visceral feeling of discomfort.

When i decided to write the mobile phone stuff into the piece, i wasn’t sure what reaction i was going to get from the ensemble and from Matt, and it was gratifying to go to rehearsals and be greeted with acceptance and enthusiasm.  They all really bought into the concept of what I was trying to sell and understood it even more when i explained it in more detail to them in person, all of which i think helped in the performance of the piece itself.

The audience reaction to the piece was exactly what i had hoped it would be – strong and polarized.

Unfortunately the impact of the ringtone was lessened by the fact that the program notes of the piece talked about the New York Phil incident and how this piece was a reaction to it – although the program notes never state “this piece uses ringtones”, it was pretty strongly implied, and so when the ringtone moment happened, i think it was surprising and unexpected, but it didn’t come off as being not deliberate.  Even so, there was still a thick tension in the air.  Partially because no one knew for sure, partially because there were people in the audience who clearly didn’t approve of it, and partially due to suppressed giggles.  It was absolutely marvelous.

I have to say that i got a much more positive reception and reaction from it than i expected, both from students and academics.  One of the students’ moms who hadn’t read the program notes prior to the piece talked with me after and said that the piece was really beautiful, and she laughed very heartily about how she was duped about the piece (“I kept on thinking, ‘who is that that isn’t turning off their phone??’).  Others came up to me and complimented the music, a few went out of their way to say that they really liked the message.

There was one point where i was talking to a random adjunct professor, and someone else who was clearly a professor came up to us and talked to him and deliberately ignored saying anything to me.  He glanced at me once when saying goodbye to the other guy but didn’t otherwise acknowledge me.  I think he was uncomfortable, and it was fascinating.  I mean, i suppose it makes sense that if he didn’t like it he wouldn’t say anything to my face because he doesn’t know me, but there’s a part of me that didn’t understand until that moment the idea that that was possible.  I said in the introduction before the piece was performed, “this is supposed to be the beginning of a conversation, a debate.”  And i suppose it wasn’t the most clear that I had no issues with people disagreeing with me, and that I was being open-minded and expecting that people wouldn’t like what i had to say and how i said it.

Apparently there was a bunch of talk about it the following monday too after i had left, which is gratifying not because i like being talked about but because i like stimulating people – breaking expectations, making people question, and springboarding discussion or inspiration.  That’s what i ultimately set out to achieve with the piece – create strong reactions and a wide variety of reactions, and create introspection and dialogue both from without and within that could inspire people to talk or create something else with this in mind.  One of the professors who i met during the dress rehearsal said that I should definitely consider publishing the piece or at least farming it around, and that was encouraging.  The piece needs some minor revisions and fixes which i’ll hopefully get a chance to do over the summer, and then yeah, i may see if there are any ensembles that are willing to take it on.  It’d be neat to get a different performance of it and see what other sort of reactions i could get.

Mendel Lee

I'm a composer, musician, and music educator residing in New Orleans, LA.

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