A 365-Day Project

"We Are All Mozart"

A project to create
new works and change
the perception of the
music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   June 3, 2006   next

My good friend Alex Shapiro suggested that I start a blog. I thought, no, everybody has a blog, or at least 11% of those with websites as of this writing have blogs. And then I read the Greg Sandow - Allan Kozinn posts over on the super-fluffy ArtsJournal. They were arguing once again about the decline of classical audiences. Arguing without a solution. Without daring. Without Norsican gombah.

They're both nice, intellectual guys with big critical CV's. They enjoy the sparring and debating and one-upping. But they belong to the problem. They believe that they can think their way out of the classical decline by rationalizing the struggle with numbers, or reflecting on big-city name-brand orchestras -- those creaky ships of sound firmly anchored to the historical bottom. But being on the ships, they and their kin can't see the rest of the world. They see only the bestilled ocean around them, and assume that's the world.

But this journal isn't about those guys. I wish them well. Instead, I'll be talking about new nonpop, the most exciting music in the world. I won't talk about history or musicology or even very many other composers. Instead I'll talk about audiences and motivation and madness, about how composers are their own enemies, about how nonpop is both the cause and the victim of its oblivion.

First, about me. Rather than repeat my story, my history, and the status of my life, I'll just invite you in. There's a home page where I make announcements and post silly pictures of myself, a catalog of my music if you'd like to listen to it or grab some scores, a pile of writings that tell where I've come from and my opinions, the long-developing vampire opera about Erzsébet Báthory, the erstwhile Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar that I co-hosted for ten years with my dear friend David Gunn, and of course a verbose résumé.

If you're here, you know about the "We Are All Mozart" project. I had thought the nature of the project would be self-explanatory: by creating an almost-impossible challenge for myself, I could be a fool for new nonpop, a guy shaking his jingling hat in front of the media. "Create a madness about new nonpop," I thought, "and it will be caught and transmitted like a virus."

The project is seven months away, and I'm having some misgivings. I can do it, without a doubt. B-vitamins and chocolate will help. But instead of a struggle with music, I've instead run into skepticism and disapproval from other composers, and a nearly complete blackout by the music media, with the exception of the imaginative New Music Box.

The skepticism began with a survey of composers for a New Music Box article that considers new nonpop composers, their productivity, and what influences that. As a postscript to one survey, I received a note from a composer who wrote, "Please prove to me that this whole notion of the contemporary concert music composer is anything but a dead end. So much more could be said, but who is really going to listen?"

Tough. Part of my answer:

Here's how I feel about it, and why I'm doing this. I believe in new nonpop. I've done it all my adult life -- coming to it late, at age 14, as a choice, not some default of musical skill. From the beginning and now at age 57, I don't think it, I feel it as a substance of life. From the days of the abstruse avant-garde through these more 'accessible' times, I have been thrilled to hear new pieces -- even weak ones, even bad ones. There was always something enriching, personal, and powerful inside each one. I strove to achieve the same myself...

Perhaps some of this enthusiasm and dedication comes from being outside academia, always hawking my music, if you will, and personally organized concerts before groups of people who by and large were neither musicians nor classical audiences, never students or professors. No matter where, we would enthrall the audience in some way. My first such concert was in 1969. Even when we did our "Closing the Book on the Avant-Garde" concert in the mid-1980s, the audience didn't seem to want that book closed. They wanted more -- and we did that second concert, "Closing the Book, Volume II". There were converts to new sounds made those nights.

It continues. I had the privilege of hosting, with my fellow composer David Gunn, "Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar", which during 537 two-hour episodes, we were up close & personal with composers and their work -- always live or at least recorded and broadcast unedited. It was a thrill. Even the composers struggling against their own modicum of innate talent had a spark and a passion. It was a wonder to behold. And the geniuses we spoke with -- David Del Tredici, Kaija Saariaho, David Behrmann, Linda Smith, and many others -- were brilliant and humbling.

When we ended the show last September (mostly because we were flat-out exhausted preparing the show every week and handling the mass of followup email), we knew that our goal of spreading the news of this Golden Age of new music had essentially failed. Our audience remained a niche because we could never crack the mainstream media. It was nearly nine years before we even counted our millionth site visitor. Hardly an impact -- even after we won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award in 2000, created the massive Ought-One Festival with 37 concerts in one weekend the next year, and done a two-day Komposer Kombat that resulted in the composition of 41 new works on the spot, from around the world. It was, as I've said, an absolute thrill.

After three months without K&D, though, I decided to do this 365-composition project. I'd always wanted to do it as a personal challenge, and thought, if nothing else, I could burn up in a flash that someone in the greater public realm would see, perhaps igniting that flame in more places than the tiny places I'd performed.

Unfortunately, I'm finding the same barriers of lack of interest in the media as I experienced way back in 1969 -- this time, even those who had been attentive to K&D have failed to acknowledge this project in any way. Perhaps the idea of composition-on-demand, every day, every hour, sounded cheap to them. But I believe that if it does rise over the top, and if other composers begin the same sort of challenge, there were be listeners. Maybe they'll be the "American Idol" sort to start, but any start is more than we have with our museum orchestras and backward-looking public radio.

It could be a mixed blessing. As more people listen, there will arise standards of judgment from that experience. Those of us who thought we were interesting may find our work ignored once again. Others we will be surprised to find a rise in their prominence and unexpectedly positive opinions. But overall, and here is the point of the project's name, we will begin once again to reclaim the depth and scope and relistenability that is nonpop's strength through the ages. We will all, once again, become Mozarts -- or Salieris, if you like. But again heard, criticized, waited for, booed, cheered, and remembered all the way home.

Does that make sense? Or is this just going to be a fruitless year ahead of me?

My composer correspondent was troubled. Apparently I didn't make myself very clear, and haven't yet. He warned me to be careful if I expected the project to make me into another Mozart.

Ouch! What could I say? Me? Mozart?

Not at all. This is about visibility and gimmicks (how I've always done it) and audiences. I would prefer that every composer compose more and be more visible. The Mozart bit is the gimmick, because it's his 250th and using his name is controversial.

Composers are by and large lazy and fearful. Not all of them, but American composers in particular are prone to false humility and a really underdeveloped sense of marketing. Many would rather write for colleagues and competitions and loft concerts than for the local school kids.

But it's at the local level that a sense of what it is developed. To test it, I taught elementary school music for six years in the late 1980s, carrying one class through. Kids do not distinguish pop from nonpop. And if it's presented in an equivalent 'platform', then they take it in and know it as unjudgmentally as anything else. My kids played and read and wrote music with whatever notation system then needed to communicate it. They recorded it in a little studio that they ran (made up of my equipment). And when they could recognize the Bartók and the Mozart and the Larry Austin together with the (in those days) Milli Vanilli and Michael Jackson and movie themes, it just made me grin. They had no sense that they [the compositions] were different. Their parents and the middle/high school music teachers were confounded. So no one bothered to follow up, but to this day, they still remember that music. The kid who today is a logger can still smile and nod to a Bartok string quartet. Imagine that.

He was worried that it would make no difference, that concerts with 30 in the audience in 1972 still have 30 in 2006 -- and that "none of us will ever be on Letterman or Leno and rarely even an 'arts report'."

That's part of the personality gimmick, too. Even 'classical' listeners love a personality. We [composers] just don't have any personalities, and our crazies aren't crazy enough.

That's one of the ideas of this project. If I can get traction at all (which depends on getting past the threshold with mainstream media writers and bypassing the 'classical' ghetto), and somebody to talk to, then I can get nonpop on Letterman. Maybe it'll be me and I'll have to wear a silly hat. Or maybe someone else will do it. But songs by Phil Kline & Eve Beglarian on Letterman? Damn, that would be hot! And the audience would love it!

He was skeptical thoughout, adding that there is no room "real judgment anymore" and aside from that, "who's got the time?"

I do. Why not? I can't get much poorer, so there's nothing to lose. And judgment only comes from experience. Your average intelligent teenager can talk with greater clarity and perception about pop than almost any adult I know can talk about nonpop. The kids know the instruments, who plays them, and can distinguish styles accurately -- styles with marginal differences (check out Ishkur's Guide for a revelation). If they don't already know the specific pieces being played, adult classical listeners can hardly tell a Mozart from a Haydn, much less a Beethoven from a Reicha, or (in real fiction-realm now) a Pärt from a Penderecki.

The more that ears are flooded with the sound, the better the judgment becomes, or at least the body of knowledge. Even if you're not interested -- as my wife isn't interested in computers -- the mere continual experience infuses abilities. Today, without ever opening a manual, she is better skilled at and has more 'intuitive' knowledge of computers than most of her quotidien contemporaries. (And new nonpop, too.)

I guess my wife can't escape. My composer friend was worried that the entire project was "pie in the sky." I suppose I would agree with that. He called it a "Happy Days" approach because our culture has moved too far from that which produced "this vast body of truly great music." He felt more akin to Brahms than a new piece "for amplified bass clarinet and 13 violas." Again, this touched on the point of the project, but it was so hard to untangle -- even for me.

This is not Mozart's time. It's not about that. You have been acculturated to love Brahms. His music, along with Mozart's and Beethoven's, I find excruciatingly dull. When I said at the outset that I "feel it as a substance of life", I meant new nonpop, what's being created during my life as I continue to live it. I meant Del Tredici and Didkovsky and Beglarian and Barlow and Saariaho and Pritsker and a hundred others. And I, too [like the composer correspondent], have been a jazz listener since my teens -- but to Coltrane (who was still alive) and Monk and Ayler and Earl Brown and Ornette and Braxton and Cecil Taylor back in those days, not to the 'classic' jazz artists who were, with the possible exception of Parker, just historical curiosities to me.

Why is it really that you don't want to know that piece for bass clarinet & violas better? It's an important question, but those who make a choice for Brahms over the Diddly Squat composer are not the audience for my project. The audience is those who know and care about neither because they never had enough experience. They will listen and come to know Diddly Squat and the E Minor Symphony -- and might ultimately choose the former. Who can say? Maybe Diddly Squat is a classic.

But wait! I would never, ever start such a process of discovery with Brahms. Or any other older composer. Every artform we take seriously and talk about as intelligent adults is contemporary, except for the nonpop. We did art history or film history in college, but that's not where we live. I hope to help initiate a change not by converting an audience with prejudices in place, but by inviting new ones, by bringing this project over the horizon of visibility to those for whom Brahms and Mozart and Stravinsky are all alien (three names from the Reader's Digest set that was my introduction to 'classical' music as a teenager -- and the Stravinsky was my first choice and played to scratches).

It will never be pop. But the idea is to make it visible, and thus audible.

I thank my composer friend for his directness. Correspondents help sharpen my focus. More than that, they help sharpen my clarity of expression. I believe that, as composers, we are all Mozart in the sense that we are all capable of writing more, writing better, writing for audiences who will hear us, and thrilling them. The typical critic's argument, however, needs to be changed. The direction changed. I'll be writing more about that in the coming months.

One final note. The survey about composer productivity has returned more than 60 detailed and often heartfelt and and passionate responses. The published article will summarize and quote, but a piece in greater detail will be published here.

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