One third of one percent... Including all the 'classical' music written in the last 100 years. I suppose that must be accurate, because all of classical music has been estimated to be about 3% of the whole music business. The whole interview is worth reading as it traces Benjamin's career from the early days when he was caught up in the heyday of the avant-garde, studying in Paris with Messiaen and exploring the world of microtones. But he ran into a wall and his early productivity fell drastically. As he says:
"At the end of my teens I felt rather lost. You see, you're free as a composer today, which means that a huge amount is possible – a colossal, terrifying amount. You write one note, and there's not only 12 other notes (or more if you write in microtones) for the next note, but you think of different registers and timbres. The choices multiply to the billions within a few notes and, obviously, that's impossible to work within."As Taruskin points out, a large part of the avant-garde project was maximizing resources. In that sense it followed on certain aspects of 19th century trends. But maximizing resources to what end? I was in a seminar once on experimental music and a composer had presented a piece he wrote for percussion in which the rhythmic structure was derived from the irregular overtone structure of the percussion sounds with a mathematical transformation. Once I thought I understood how that worked I asked, "that is the syntax, but what is the semantic?" I meant, ok, I see how the grammar works, but what is the meaning?
I think audiences go to concerts and listen to music not so much for the delights of the structure, but for the thrill of the sounds and their expressive content. This was the iceberg on which the avant-garde foundered. The structure was everything, the expression nothing, or incidental. Let's hear some of George Benjamin's music. Here is a piece from 1980, when he was twenty years old, a setting of the poem "The Snow Man" by Wallace Stevens for soprano and chamber orchestra. I chose this same poem for a very modest song for voice and guitar.
Here is a more recent work from 1998-99.
What sort of listener can enjoy this music? One with a sensitivity to the sounds, familiar with the 'language' (music isn't a language, but it does have a kind of grammar to it), with the ability to focus on the long-term structure and development and do so in an interrupt-free environment. Given all this, it should be quite possible to listen to this music with real enjoyment. The problem is that there are very few listeners these days possessing these qualities! According to the statistic, one third of one percent in fact. Not of the population as a whole, but just of that part of the population that seeks out and enjoys music.
So if you are a composer, I think you need to be asking yourself, what do you want your music to do? Who do you want it to reach? And how in hell are you going to compete with Lady Gaga? Or Mozart? This is the result of a multi-media, iPoded world of an infinite variety of music.
Perhaps all a serious composer can do is, like the oyster, enclose a few grains of irritating sand with a few layers of beauteous nacre...
UPDATE: Just minutes after posting this, I ran into some information that says that the numbers aren't nearly so bad for classical music. Well, good! Andy Doe at Proper Dischord points out that:
He is critiquing a different article than the one I quoted from above. But no matter. I like 5.5% much more than I like a third of one percent.