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"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 6, 2006   next

Sun is a wonderful thing. It reminds me why I'm in Vermont, and it brings out the passion.

Yesterday I claimed to be "thrilled by concept and troubled by execution". That wasn't passionate enough. Irony has rarely been part of my work as a composer and performer. And 'performer' comes into play now because it's often said that composers in our era write for others, grabbing and holding the grip on power, exerting their cold intellectual prowess, and forcing misery upon whinging performers.

(How's that for conflation? (Or nesting.))

As for power, it couldn't be further from reality. Composers are at the bottom of the power hierarchy. They are lucky to have control over their own scribblings & keyings much less the lives of performers or presenters or audiences. At best, the composer can suggest -- if there's an ear to listen. If the work seems passionate, it's because the entirety of the composer's soul or spirit (or any work that suggests 'I believe in this') is invested in that work during the hours of its creation. And it's not as if we can hang our scores like so many puppies-on-velvet paintings in a little art show on the front lawn, gaining gratification from passing nods. A whole career full of acrylics could be purchased for what any given composer pays for the equipment needed to create a deep and abiding soundscape or electroacoustic pearl, or invests in the creation and production and recording of an orchestral work that is but twenty minutes of sound.

Oh, yes. Composers are invited (read: marketed to) to be released on (to pay for release of) recordings by great orchestras (these days, Eastern Europeans otherwise out of work and willing to work cheaply) on a major (vanity) label. For a mere $600-$1,200 per minute, composers can enjoy the fruits of their labors, fruits that will advance their artistic lives as audio calling cards, rarely sold, rarely played, silently entombed in a stack of cardboard boxes marked contents: 50 pcs.

And they do it. They work at day jobs, live miserly lives, save a few dollars from each paycheck, and buy a recording simply to give it away. The majority of composers -- not some, but the majority -- are responsible for their own scores and parts, their own publication, their own performances, their own fundraising, their own recordings, their own marketing. The most dedicated labels help with the fundraising through connections to private foundations, but composers ultimately pay a price but never return their investment.

What passion drives this?

Here's some more about composer economics. Composers come in three varieties: those economically successful from their work, those independently wealthy, and the rest. The first are rare. Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Lowell Liebermann and Tan Dun are a few. They brought passion and a near-complete lifetime dedication to their work -- as do most composers, but some were at the right place at the right time, and others rode a wave of related interests.

I am often surprised to discover the independently wealthy composers. Just last week I learned that a composer I've known who lives quietly and has frequent recordings and appears successful through dint of talent actually pays for it from a trust fund. He is comfortable, has time to compose, time to market, and money to pay for recordings. He is talented. But his artistic visibility derives almost entirely from his ample budget.

And then there are the rest.

After ten years of K&D, I came to know the dedication of these composers. They fight the laziness, overcome the expense, push through the oblivion. And why do they do it? For power? For arrogance? To guide the world from the artistic helm? As an IRS-applied hobby, for goodness sakes? It's a question we should have asked on the show, but didn't. We were too taken in by the sound, the music, the art, the passion. That was it, right? Passion? Yes, passion. That's why.

I did say that composers are lazy, and they fight it. So are performers. It's not their fault -- really. They are not wealthy any more than composers are, and keeping a high applause-to-effort ratio is essential to their careers. Even though new nonpop is in better shape in terms of audiences than in the recent past, to dedicate oneself to nonpop outside a major city (groups such as Alarm Will Sound, Anti-Social Music, Bang on a Can, Kronos and even Composers in Red Sneakers are city phenomena) is to assure a kind of career oblivion. As a performer, you don't want to do that. Even believers in new nonpop such as our own Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble can do but a few concerts a year, while otherwise teaching and performing in money-making ensembles.

So Jean Shepherd-like, I un-next my loop, unbraid my story. Composers are performers, too. We know the struggles of writing beyond our own abilities and whine about our own compositions. We go beyond what we can to do what we do. And finally, composers are audiences. Admittedly we're a different kind of audience, unable to stifle the inner composer who would rework or edit or shorten or lengthen or correct. Sometimes we even walk out. (That comes from passion, too.)

I mentioned that the sun's out. That's where I'm going now. I want to finish planting for some food, and also so this year's morning glories look like last year's...

Looking up at morning glories from the front door

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