I recently saw an application form for a composition contest that asked the composer to indicate his or her view on the relationship between the submitted work and the listener.
It is funny. I rarely think about "the listener" when I'm writing. I do, however, think about the person who (hopefully) will be playing the piece. I think of a piece of music as a dialogue between a disembodied composer and a fully-embodied musician or a group of fully-embodied musicians. The audience is invited to share in the intimacy of that relationship. But people in audiences are vastly different from one another. Each person who comes to a concert comes with with a unique web of musical experiences. Each person will probably have a unique reaction to every piece, and each person playing will also react in unique and personal ways.
I have found that people in audiences tend to pay attention to performing musicians first, and if all is well with that, they are safely able to listen to the music. An ideal performance is one that allows the attention of the audience to jump from one to the other: from musicians to music. And when the performing musicians do something particularly interesting (by giving phrase a certain elan, rhythmic sparkle, or perhaps by doing something interesting or engaging with their individual or collective sounds), the audience's attention becomes fixed on the performing musicians, who have the ultimate task of redirecting the listener to what is happening in the music.
I'm starting to think that my approach to playing and writing music may not be the norm. Perhaps there are composers who could answer the question at the beginning of this post in a convincing way. I could only answer the question in a satisfying way if I were to describe a song, a song cycle, or an opera, but I would still know that the music would be my own personal response to a given text, and I would also know that the singer's interpretation of the text would be the one that would reach an audience, to be interpreted not collectively, but by each individual listener's response to and understanding of the text.