Who Cares If You Listen?


Igor Stravinsky sat stunned backstage, looking out into the crowd. Before him was a calamitous scene: concert-goers from across Paris had packed the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées to watch what would become one of the most momentous events in the history of music—the premiere of the Rite of Spring. As the heavily rhythmic, ritualistic ballet and music lurched forward, chaos broke out in the audience as the factional split between detractors and supporters of the performance quickly became evident. Stravinsky could only watch in shock as a full-blown riot consumed the hall. The reviews in the papers were merciless.

Forty-five years later, in 1958, American composer Milton Babbitt would issue his famous rebuke of classical music’s audiences, polemically titled, “Who Cares if You Listen?” In the article, Babbitt argued that audiences of laypeople were no longer equipped to receive advanced musical works exploring concepts like integral serialism and aleatoric composition, just as they weren’t equipped to understand advanced concepts in physics or mathematics. Arguing for academic music’s retreat from public life, he said “it is only proper that the university, which significantly has provided so many contemporary composers with their professional training and general education, should provide a home for the ‘complex,’ ‘difficult,’ and ‘problematical’ in music.”

Art music, the kind studied, written, and performed at schools like Juilliard, Berklee College of Music, or the Yale School of Music, shares much in common with the architectural discipline. Each is inextricably linked to power and resource-rich institutions. Within both, myopic intellectual discourse shares space under the disciplinary umbrella with the canonical, the quotidian, and the vernacular. One might even argue that the disciplines are similar in that both rely on the senses as a starting point for their consumption: in one way or another, work in both disciplines communicates a set of values about something to somebody, intentionally or not.

But the disciplines diverge here. Music is keenly aware of who its audiences are, and successful symphony orchestras—which one might call one of the most public practitioners of that discipline—go out of their way to calibrate themselves to and engage with their varied audiences. Just look at how the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which the New York Times recently called “America’s Most Important Orchestra,” straddles the multiple boundaries it encounters: the boundary between itself as an elite institution and as an agent of public good, between itself as a conservator of timeless works and as a brash innovator in the world of classical music. It’s both a cloistered entity residing within the walls of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall and an activist on the streets and in the public venues of Los Angeles.

But every musician need not be social visionary, a communicator, or even a performer; behind every premiere at the Walt Disney Concert Hall is a composer who, in the spirit of Babbitt’s essay, has spent his or her life studying and learning from the works of other artists. But symphonies like the LA Philharmonic and other performers provide an important connection between this private intradisciplinary world and that of the public. Music has the advantage of  spectacle: it demands a focused audience, be it an audience of one or of one thousand.

Architecture doesn’t share this advantage. As Brennan Buck pointed out in Paprika! 3-04, Everyday, architecture’s audience is mostly “accidental,” and the public’s engagement with architecture is usually passive, or in a state of distraction. But unlike its audience, architecture—or design, more broadly—is not a passive discipline. Architecture is polemical. How architecture addresses audiences outside the echelons of academia needs to reflect this, even if the reactions we elicit may not be the ones we expect. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was poorly received the night of its premiere, but this calamitous presentation was an important event in the course of music history, contributing to the evolving relationship between audiences and polemical works of music.

Orli Hakanoglu and Jeremy Jacinth’s review of the current Chicago Architecture Biennial in Paprika! Bulletin IV revealed the most recent and stinging example of architects’ negligence towards our broader audience. Who is the Biennial’s target audience? A public event displaying work by academics and practitioners to other academics and practitioners successfully alienated all three of those constituencies to one degree or another. One might say that the public may have left amused, but uninformed and perhaps unmoved. This may have been a moment to cogently and convincingly engage the public;instead, it seems a missed opportunity. Again, not every idea in architecture needs to be tailored toward public consumption, and maybe most of them shouldn’t be, but when the opportunities arise to interface with the public, it may be unwise to squander them.

As disciplinarians, we exhibit varying degrees of success toward this end, even between projects. Bureau Spectacular’s proposal for MoMA PS1’s Young Architects Program, for example, is a project that engages both architectural dialogue and the public in a way immediately relatable to both. The project, which proposes a collection of prefabricated pools scattered on the ground and suspended on a steel grid, takes advantage of a public event to mediate the line between academic investigation and public display. “Visitors do not need to know or care about our love for Cedric Price, Kisho Kurokawa, John Hejduk, or Yona Friedman,” says the project’s promotional video. While Price et al. frame the project’s conceptual investigation, it’s accessible and just-whimsical-enough architectural language would have allowed anyone to immediately engage with its spatial investigations.

Architects seem to never tire of bemoaning our discipline’s fade into irrelevance. But architecture is incapable of being irrelevant. Perhaps we have sleepwalked into impotency by not honing in on who our observers are. In the same article where he identified architecture’s “accidental audience,” Buck offered that “by engaging sensibilities other than traditional beauty and strategies beyond core architectural media, we can make our argument to a wider audience.” I would build on this and say that we need to be mindful of the language we use, the opportunities we already posses, and the intention behind our communication. Ultimately, an idea’s value is tied into its ability to be received and internalized by others. Perhaps we could even say that in architecture, ideas must be catalyzed into actions, reactions, finished works, or advocacy. When architecture addresses its broader audience well, everyone stands to benefit. Things get built and ideas are spread.Perhaps even our visual language as designers should come into question. Outside of building and writing, drawing and object-making are our primary tools of communication. At what point do drawings and objects become too alien or incomprehensible to telegraph their ideas? Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was certainly alien to early 20th century Parisian audiences, but it has come to be recognized as a great work and is still performed publicly today. Who, outside of informed appreciators and studious classical musicians, has ever heard of Milton Babbitt? I dare say that even among most musicians, his essay is more well-known than his musical works. The difference is clear. While both composers were indifferent to the tastes of their audience, one composer chose outright to abandon any idea of addressing his audience through his work. If our ideas are to have potency, we must begin every project—written, drawn, built, modeled, or otherwise—by asking: who is our audience and where, when, and how are we speaking to them?

Do we care if they listen?