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 9, 2006   next

It seems I've been the subject of some colleagial concern lately. They worry for my health, state of mind, potential collapse into one-dimensionality -- and what I might do to wreck nonpop's reputation.

Yes, I've been reading the surveys on composer productivity for the New Music Box article. The questions were simple, really, and oriented toward the "We Are All Mozart" project's gimmick -- and some composers were disturbed by the implications. Here's the survey questionnaire:

The premise of my "We Are All Mozart" project is this: Our ability to "be Mozart" today is inhibited only by lack of demand and associated productivity. In other words, the more we could do, the better we would get at it and the more new ideas we would have.

To test this premise, I have challenged myself to compose 365 pieces next year, all on someone else's specification. Mozart is my example not because he composed the most, but because he owns the popular iconic status for genius and speed in musical composition -- and because 2006 is his celebratory year. What better to follow in 2007 than a flood of modern Mozarts?

The article will be published in a major online music magazine this summer, and be followed by an expanded version on my website. Please respond by June 7, 2006.

To begin, just a few definitions. I use "composer" to mean one who creates original music, and "composition" to mean a particular creation. If your art does not fit these definitions, please rephrase the questions so they fit your work, while still trying to address the premise. If you compose indeterminate works or interactive works, please count only the base or source material.

Statistics first:

  1. How many compositions do you finish in an average year? Last year?
  2. What is the total playing time of this yearly average? Last year?
  3. How often do you compose to someone else's specifications?
  4. What is your age and country of permanent residence?

In the next section, please speak frankly, no-holds-barred, from any perspective. You can use a live question-and-answer approach, give a single consolidated response, or use another way or organizing that you are comfortable with (you can also send images, audio, video, etc. -- whatever is most effective in making your point). Answer only whatever strikes you as interesting or important. I am looking for what you truly believe. I will summarize what is in common, and will use the most insightful comments for the article. If there are any comments you wish to keep confidential, please say so.

  1. Are you a dedicated composer? That is, does composing come before everything else in your life (except perhaps family)?
  2. Could you compose more than you do? How much more could you compose? What is the limit?
  3. Are you satisfied with your productivity (speed and quantity of composition)? Have you changed your pace? What caused that change?
  4. Do you have a work routine? Is composition time determined by other factors (family, inspiration, day job)?
  5. What would make more composition possible? Please consider 'soft' (inspiration, prestige, burnout...) and 'hard' (demand, deadlines, money...) influences.
  6. Are deadlines helpful to you? Have you composed on deadlines? Do you meet them?
  7. Are you a good composer? Please be honest. You do know the answer to that!
  8. What would make you a better composer? For example: more time to write, more preparation, more performer feedback, more audience feedback, more money, more fame?
  9. Do you agree with my project's premise?
  10. Please add anything else appropriate to the topic.

The answers have been rich and full of instruction, more than 65,000 words of heartfelt prose. Most of the survey asked about the composers, of course (and those will be revealed later this year in the New Music Box article), but question #9 is about the project itself. And here is where my correspondents were concerned.

Some misunderstood the project's trick pony -- that "Mozart" might be a real comparison, something other than a symbol for our inherent genius, and that I would quite literally be emulating Mozart either in arrogant appropriation of genius or anachronistic compositional approaches. Others understood the purpose of the project, but also felt (and reasonably so) that there was a danger of me collapsing into a simple-minded noisemaking machine, repetitive, uninspired, ordinary, and prone to breakdown. For that reason alone, the project would be harmful to the cause of new nonpop, as a year's worth of mediocre (and worse!) music would represent composers badly and be an affront to our time's grandest musicians. And those composers who are also close friends felt that the coming year would damage my humanity by pulling me away from the rest of life's riches. My dear friend Jim Grant reminded me that being a cook and husband and person who simply breathes in life is as important as being a music factory.

I'm grateful for their concern. I had thought about these issues very seriously before taking the project into the public sphere, but the warnings are welcome. Like all the composer correspondents, I believe that I'm a very good composer, even if I've not had critical acclaim, compositional awards, international commissions, frequent invitations to speak or teach or mentor, or opportunities to be a resident composer. (My justifications for this relative invisibility are legion, and I will offer clever excuses from time to time.)

Most of the work commissioned for this project to date has been for small ensembles and soloists. It makes sense to think of these as weekly compositional sets or suites. To say, "I will write seven pieces next week" feels overwhelming, whereas "I will write a seven-movement suite next week" is an acceptable assignment. I know how I work, and already I can feel the pieces jostling against each other. No, it won't be deliberate threading of materials. The relationship from composition to composition will be slight, perhaps, but it will be identifiable to the attentive musicologist. And each subsequent piece will grow the richer for it.

The suite idea is intriguing. It's been said that a composer only writes one piece in a lifetime, and compositions are no more than sketches searching for the perfection of that singular piece that, Zeno-like, will never be grasped.

But that's the viscous glue of an idea. The hard linchpin of this project is commissioning, which I'll talk about in more detail another day. I'm selling new pieces, participating in the push-pull of commerce and trade, hawking notes to fund a greater idea. That's why the project is possible for me. Individual musical ideas are there. Absent has been the ability to live, if even for one year, on the proceeds of those ideas -- to live as a brazen composer willing to challenge the notion that we must proceed cautiously, wait for the muse to visit, and sit out of the rough-and-tumble marketplace as we grasp for the greater idea. No, I prefer to make a bargain with the muse, to have her sit down and trade inspiration for visibility. "You think you're a muse? You think you're a muse? Then put it on the table. The good stuff. I'll make you a deal." Yes, I know the arrogance of that. But what is the point if there is no point?

One composer wrote to me, "I am disillusioned, disheartened, disappointed and feel misled with composition as a profession. I see the whole issue as futile and inconsequential in the long run. The interest is just so marginal. How many people can you run into that (a) know about or go to classical concerts, (b) buy classical CD's, (c) support public radio/tv? Then take that small group of people and ask them the same about new music? If you don't get a pitiful number, you must be asking your composition class. Come on folks, what are you trying to do here? It's a dead profession."

This is frightening. We are in the Golden Age of new nonpop. More and better music is being written than in the past century. It's a hedonistic soundfest out there. And yet my composer correspondent just declared it a dead profession. Profession. Not a dead artform. The artform is more alive than it's been in years, but the profession is on its back, wheezing and spitting up a phlegm of noises.

What's to do? Be a clown. Be a huckster. Put it on the line. My greatest hope in "We Are All Mozart" is the we. I didn't call it "I Am Mozart, Sucka!" All of us are responsible to our music, to our rose, to our muse. Deny it all we like, if it is a dead profession, then it is our fault and our responsibility to fix. When I complained a few days ago about those critics being a problem, I meant that. I lose my patience. One of those critics is also a composer who would rather write about the problem than fight for the solution. Composer discussions quickly devolve into arguments over terminology rather than tactics for visibility, fear of John Updike's missteps. (And Jim: I'll still love and cook and plant and photograph and chop wood and swim and breathe life in. Keep reminding me.)

So come on! It's a Golden-freaking-Age of nonpop! Make some noise! Let's all put it on the line! We can do it! We are all Mozart.

Did I say? It's been blooming here. That always gets my optimism in gear...

The crabapple reminds me that winter is over and life returns

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