Revising the Triangle

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music-making is sometimes depicted as a triangle consisting of composer, performer, and listener. It is a triangle in constant motion, with each side responding to one another. The interplay might go something like this: The composer interprets herself, the performer interprets the composer, the listener interprets the performer, the composer reinterprets herself, the performer reinterprets the composer, the listener reinterprets the performer, etc. As this clumsy illustration suggests, there is no one type of triangle or order of interaction that works for all scenarios.

It doesn’t take much to warp the triangle’s dimensions. When the composer is dead or was never identified to begin with (as with most folk music), one corner of the shape is inactive. When the music is improvised, the composer and performer are one and the same. Sound recording can freeze a one-time performance, leaving the listener to interpret an inanimate artifact. Electronic music can eliminate the need for a performer’s mediation.

These and other iterations require a revision of the triangle, the conventional version of which survives solely under strict conditions: a living composer writes music that is performed by living players for a live audience. The only side that remains constant in all cases is the listener—so much so that the model should be redrawn to favor the perceiver’s corner. One possibility is a tetrahedron (a three-dimensional triangle) that funnels sounds toward the listener. At one end is a wide opening, which receives music of all sorts: live, recorded, electronic, manual, composed, improvised. At the other end is a narrow opening, through which the music empties into the ear.

The advantage of this revised triangle is threefold. First, it does not discriminate against performance modalities. An orchestra premiering a new work in a concert hall is on equal footing with a turn-of-the-twentieth-century folksong recording. Second, it emphasizes that music is always heard/interpreted in the moment. This is true whether the performance is live, recorded, or a combination of the two (e.g., someone singing along to a karaoke track). Third, it reminds us that music is fundamentally audience-dependent. Painting, sculpture, and other concrete arts are affairs between artist and tangible materials. Once the work is finished, the creative process is complete; whether anyone sees the work is, in absolute terms, irrelevant. Not so with the immaterial art of music. If nobody hears it, it cannot be said to exist.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

3 thoughts on “Revising the Triangle

  1. John Morton

    This is the first comment I’ve read concerning this interesting phenomenon I’ve experienced many times. The process of live music is indeed a two-way process. When a band is in fine fettle and playing to an audience that is receptive to the music and the audience, too, feels good, the results can be startling as the music ‘bounces back’. This is especially true in jazz and other improvised forms. I doubt if you can get Alba TV over there, broadcast from Stornoway in the Hebridean Islands off Scotland but this station regularly features Celtic and Gaelic bands where the degree of rapport between players within the band and listeners is astonishing. Re your closing remarks: the main difference between music (and drama) and other forms is that music is a temporal idiom. I’m not sure about other differences. Anyway, interesting post, JM.

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Thanks for your comment, John (it’s been a while!). An Indian-American friend of mine wrote: “South Asian performing arts put so much importance on the interaction between audience and performer, that I’ve thought of it much less like a triangle, and more like a Venn diagram. The composer/choreographer/author one one side; the audience on the other; and the artists in the middle.” This image intrigues me. Regarding music’s temporal nature, I think that goes hand-in-hand with what I’ve tried to say here about music existing “in the moment” (i.e., it is not concrete, but experiential).

      1. John Morton

        An afterthought here, Jonathan. Although music is perceived to be more ‘experiential’, the disturbances in the air are, perhaps, just as real as stone or oil on canvas but, I suppose, our reactions to all forms of art are experiential and also very personal, but I’m not so sure of this last point, as we’ve discussed before.

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