Earlier this week I saw a vocal performance by Theater of Voices at the Cleveland Museum of Art, including several pieces by my favorite composer Arvo Pärt and others. Pärt's works are serene and beautiful, but one of the other composers' pieces was a bit challenging. Besides singing notes, it called for the vocalists to enunciate individual vowels and consonants, spitting out parts of words as if they were being trained to speak for the first time. It was the kind of performance that makes you turn a little red and wonder if it makes any more sense to anyone else than it does to you.
During the performance, my mind wandered to ways to cater to this audience. It occurred to me that challenge is a function of exposure - anyone who's heard this piece before won't find it strange. And the musicians have surely performed the piece before; after all, they're on tour. It's part of their professional responsibilities to be comfortable performing it. But it must have been odd to stand up and sing it for the first time. How tense for them to stutter on stage and not know how the audience would react! And then it hit me: what if that discomfort were an intentional part of the performance?
Imagine a musical composition - a really strange composition - intended to be performed only once by any given performer, and heard only once by each listener. The performers' embarrassment and tension would be palpable, and the listeners would have no idea what to expect. You could read the sheet music beforehand, but that's like taking a sex ed class before you lose your virginity - nothing beats the real thing. And you would know, as an audience member, that the performance you were seeing was unique. The event would be intimate, because it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all involved. The intimacy would be heightened tremendously if the venue and audience were small: the musicians would be giving up their only chance to do this, just for you. (You could verify that the musicians had never performed it before. Sure, as an audience member you could go to more than one show, but if you told anyone, they'd find it gauche. And what do you think you're doing trying to recreate an experience that's unique by definition?)
Presumably you could charge a lot of money for the performances. But a businessman would say that the supply is constrained and the total available market is small. So it's not going to save the music industry.