Beware of Consensus

Beware of Consensus

Recent concert and competition jury experiences suggest to John McLachlan that only the best music sparks disagreement, and that mediocre work enjoys consensus.

We all prefer to get along. When people are grouped together discussing a concert they have just been to they hope to agree, even if their own opinion is already rigidly decided. (We’ve all met exceptions to this but they are either sociopaths or critics, and sometimes both.) 

In April I was at a concert of the (Bulgarian) Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra at the Lisinski Hall in Zagreb, Croatia. The better pieces that they played were from Tansy Davies and Bent Sørensen. Exit Music, from Sørensen, seemed to me to be the best piece of the festival, never mind the evening. But later it turned out that some composer colleagues and friends had found it awful, or annoying, and so forth. Others had found it good or excellent. The wide range of reactions reminded me of Wilde’s phrase from The Picture of Dorian Gray: ‘When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.’

Another recent experience was sitting on a judging panel – I’d better not say where – going through sixty pieces. Four of us were giving them scores in order to make a shortlist, and it was extraordinary how much we agreed, sometimes even with matching scores. I puzzled and worried over this and came to the conclusion that the panel was from the same scene and that was why we agreed.

The range of reactions in the case of the Sørensen didn’t seem so surprising when I went through in my mind what I know of the varied contexts of each colleague: their music (if they compose) and their scene. The one who decried it as disgustingly post-modern is himself a writer of good old fashioned serial music, who believes in applying Schenkerian analysis to his own music.

These two contrasting experiences brought home two things: firstly that the exceptional will lead to dissent, and the fairly good to consent; and secondly that a local scene is self-referential and more likely to lead to general consensus – not surprisingly, a more international festival exposes the variety of general consensuses in local scenes, creating a patchwork of styles and opinions in a wider context.

So, the next time you agree with everyone in the group, tell yourself, ‘it can’t have been exceptional’, and, ‘maybe we’re just all wrong together.’ Consensus is a friend to the mediocre and an enemy to the great.

Published on 10 June 2011

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána. www.johnmclachlan.info

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