How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Disappointing Feedback

Recently, I went for coffee with one of my friends from Birmingham Conservatoire. Over the course of catching up with him, conversation drifted towards his reactions to Tangents. Whilst he thought it was interesting (or, at least, was polite enough to feign interest), the largest piece of criticism he had was about how quickly the musical ideas developed within each improvisation. He wished that we had dwelled upon the ideas for a longer amount of time, exploring each in more nuance. Previously, I had heard a similar comment before, again from a composer from the Conservatoire. Admittedly, I was rather surprised at this feedback, as each track was already rather long. After living with the recording, I had personally felt satisfied with the pace of the tracks, and I would be wrong to admit that I was disappointed by this critique. In addition, the length of the tracks themselves may be a deterrent to listeners. According to the statistics which are provided from bandcamp, most people, when streaming Tangents online, stop listening before 90% of the track has finished, and that roughly one third of all listeners stop listening before 10% of the track has passed. This is particularly evident as the album progresses, with the total play count of the final track only 4% of the first. As I am very much invested in each track, it is disheartening that so few people make it all the way though. However, there are lessons to be learned in this. Given these (seemingly contrary) pieces of feedback, how can I prepare for future recording projects?

It is tempting to argue that whilst it may have felt natural to follow the development of ideas over the course of twenty minutes while performing, it may not feel natural to do so when listening. Thus, a large amount of my audience may simply not have the stamina or the attention span to listen to improvisation for that amount of time. However, there are significant issues with this argument. First, it is important to remember that bandcamp's metrics only measure the listening habits of those who are streaming the album online; there is no information about those who have downloaded the album. Listening through a website is a distinctly different social activity than listening through some other device, and may not reflect how all audience members are experiencing the recording. That being said, twenty minutes may be beyond the threshold for the subset of my audience (and, importantly, my potential audience) who stream the album. Second, extended tracks are not unheard of, particularly from within Western art and ambient traditions. Although my friend has had experience with such long performances, those performances may have different characteristics which allow them to take more time. His complaint was not necessarily with the length of each track, but the rate of change of musical ideas. Therefore, it may be worth slowing down the evolution of my improvised material – at least, to allow it to mature and develop at a rate which may feel more appropriate to audiences familiar with contemporary classical music.

Based on these thoughts, it is worth experimenting with the following: longer ideas, shorter tracks.

Rather than creating vast landscapes with many different features, my next venture into ensemble improvisation may focus on vignettes – crystallised moments of performance that explore the nuance found within musical ideas. Whether or not this approach is successful (however you choose to define it) is somewhat beyond the point. What I feel is most important is that I continually challenge the way that I craft my performances.

As my audience, what are your thoughts? What reactions have you had to the album? Do you have a preference for the rate of change in music – or do you even notice?

The Caveat.

It would be easy (and not entirely unexpected) for me as an artist to ignore elements of feedback which I do not necessarily agree with. At some point, we have to draw the line and perform what  and how we feel compelled to do. Otherwise, we run the risk that our artistic decisions become democratised to the extent that they become insipid. That being said, I vainly like having people listen to me. I want to please people, to make them happy, to make them want to be my audience. Within our attempts to strike a balance between these two motivations, we can find art and, possibly, humanity.