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 10, 2006   next

Yesterday the archetypal disillusioned composer was quoted. It was reminiscent of the late Gilles Yves Bonneau, who spoke of himself as a violet in the woods, which would bloom and offer its scent whether or not it was seen or smelled by a passing hiker. Gilles's music was largely unknown and unperformed, and is presently sitting in plastic-sealed crates in my hayloft.

But what Gilles and that disillusioned composer share is an expectation that somehow the art by itself is enough. In the 20th century, nonpop engaged in a long-term disconnection with the wider arts-attentive public. Its roots were starved of soil, its blossoms were not pollinated except by itself and by those very close to it. Attempting to cultivate itself, it was isolated, grew inbred and distorted, and shrank.

That's not a criticism of its special beauty -- only a fact of a century that ultimately came to celebrate consumption and gratification as a lifestyle.

Although that celebration hasn't ended here in the 21st century, the isolation has begun to break down. Wider communities, less expensive travel, and the internet have contributed. So have more flexible tools of the trade for composers. It began with the end of the avant-garde in the 1960s and has continued into our hyper-connected era. My own isolation in Vermont is now only a fact of geography. I can exploit it to my benefit -- to follow the curve of seasons rather than the schedule of subways -- but the time of iconoclasts-by-circumstance is over in the developed world.

If that's true, why is new nonpop still struggling for audiences? Because its practitioners suffer from two unfortunate characteristics. The first is the curse of élitism in the form of a distaste for marketing. The second is a deep selfishness that is only breached in ensemble, which is itself a tight-knit and selfish group carefully defined by rules of membership and the extent of the dues paid.

I don't want to begin thrashing around in philosophy or history. You know what I mean, even if you don't agree with my hard-line generalizations. Instead, I want to propose solutions. They won't happen in this generation's lifetime, but there's a possibility of making inroads. So put some of these into practice. I've organized them from the personal to the institutional.

A Composer's Guide for Nonpop's Survival


Fulfill any request.

Accept every opportunity to write. Don't be precious. Redouble your efforts. If you don't know the instrument's technique, learn it. If you need help, ask for it. The masterpiece on the shelf is of no use in a consumption society. If that sickens you, grab a time machine, and discover that you still had to satisfy your clientele in Mozart's day, or Ockeghem's. What you gain in stylistic choice, you lose in expectation of performance. So get on it. Until you're on the cover of Time, always say yes.


Make them pay.

Nobody gets a free pass. Take a small fee, a dinner, a gift certificate, personal services. Accept a recording session. Even take a future paid opportunity -- but only if it's assured. The composer has been relegated to beggar, and the longer composers beg for opportunities, the longer the expectation of free music will continue. There is a supply-and-demand issue, of course, but the fact that most composers don't earn a minimum wage on their work is unacceptable. So don't accept it. Make the point that a fee is essential, even if they pull out their own wallets and hand over some twenties.


Write for amateurs.

Amateurs will reveal your power to communicate -- in language, in technique, in ideas. If you don't know how to write for amateurs, just jump in. They will teach you what you don't know. They'll laugh if you're too serious, and walk out with an "I don't need this" if you're too fussy. Write music that's flexible and reveals itself from performers who are there for the love of it. Oh, no, it isn't easy. It's probably harder than fretting over which harmonics to use in a downward progression. But the vitality!


Forget the competitions.

A composition competition is the classic good-money-after-bad scenario. Look at the winners of competitions. Their compositions drop like a stone in a cold pond, never to be heard from again. The time and money involved will drain you. You'll spend a long time learning to tailor your work to the rules. Even if you win a competition, people you don't know will play the piece, far away, to other people you don't know, usually other composers. And if you win a major competition, be assured that it is a mark of mediocrity. Competition organizers don't want to rock or shock. They want buckets of technique and nothing to say. So buy a lottery ticket instead.


Play anywhere.

If you're traveling, plan ahead to give a concert or presentation. If you don't play, call ahead to encourage a performance in exchange for a lecture or seminar or master class. Creating a concert from a distance can be a trying experience, of course. Protocols are often tricky, and (as I learned not long ago) differ from country to country and even culture to culture. Here in Vermont, our rent-a-space-and-play philosophy is not easily emulated. Nevertheless, if you're traveling, try to present your music in some way. Churches and schools are open to new faces. Rotary International and other social service clubs sponsor events with sister clubs around the world. Artists from elsewhere are always welcome.


Organize a group.

Many composers made their mark with their own ensembles, particularly those from the minimalist era. It's as good today as it was then. And there's a lot to be learned inside a group of improvisational artists, especially nonpop jazz. Gather a few like-minded people together, set a schedule to meet, and you have a group. They don't have to be professional musicians. If you're a capable composer, you will be able to write for them in such a way that an effective and moving performance can be created. Get together often, and an audience will begin to gather. Before you know it, concerts will fill. Nonpop will spread like a meme.



Many conductors are afraid of new pieces, but will not say it aloud. Alleviate their fears. Pick the music together, or offer to write something especially for them. Let the conversation course toward the preparation and how, if they're open to it, you might lead the ensemble for a few measures in order to let them feel comfortable with your own knowledge of your music as a composer. Performers in larger ensembles, especially orchestras, by and large don't trust you. You might be taking a risk by writing a piece, but it's now how they see it. They are part of something larger, and the responsibility falls on them to venture into unknown territory, your territory. No matter if you're a weak conductor -- the attempt will reveal what you mean, and also allow the group's actual conductor to step in with confidence and collegiality. Everyone will relax.


Do a genre breakout.

Never done electronics? Do some. Never done chamber? Do some. Your approach may be a cliché or it may be fresh. In either case, it will take you into new sonic worlds and new ways of working. As an electronic musician, writing for instruments means writing for people to play ... writing with humanity in mind, the process and the communication and the performer investment and the audiences they must affect. As an acoustic musician, writing for electronics means delving into sound sources and processes that will deepen the feel for orchestration and unlock challenging approaches to sound in time. You may fail (I certainly have in my attempt to create jazz-oriented performance pieces!), but it will still inform your composition and give your work more life -- and give you more sympathy for a wider range of audience.


Teach the teachers.

Announce, organize, and teach seminars for the music teachers in your district. Maybe nobody will come the first year. And maybe they will. Cause change. And while you're doing it, remember that they are under stress to be entertainers. They are given iny budgets and have extra-musical obligations: football game shows, holiday concerts, and educationist directives in cross-media dilution. The idea of arranging, much less composing, is not on their slate. Show them how to do it, how to get help, and offer to fill in the gaps yourself. Teachers want their classroom lives to be easier -- and successful. As a composer, can you imagine pushing a cart of instrumental trinkets from elementary classroom to classroom, with at best an hour to gain and hold the interest of children in a different world of expression? Yes, they can entertain, do sing-along hours, and press for rote learning. But what can they really accomplish? Help them.


Enjoin the kids.

This is easy, really. You have to want to do it, and be willing to adjust your compositional perceptions. They will lead you. Set aside a weekly hour for an after-school program. Have them build instruments, or use what they have. Bring all your techniques along to let them create their own work. Use improvisation, but also use some sort of written communication -- notation, instruction sheets, diagrams, drawings. If you're a traditional notation composer, this might be alien. So grab a copy of Cage's Notations book from the library, and see what you can do with the kids. I've done Larry Austin's "Square" and Benjamin Patterson's "Paper Piece" and Henning Christiansen's "Incompatibility" and Robert Filliou's "Measured-Up Music". There are more in the new Möller/Shim/Stäbler Sound Visions. And, once you have their interest, you can create your own. Give a concert, make a recording. Play for laughs, concept, experience.



Perform your own music and that of friends. Do it wherever you can. Don't perform? Do it anyway. You don't have to have a great voice or great technique. You know what needs to be expressed, so get on it. If you express yourself simply, you can write for yourself as an amateur. Do it well, do it convincingly, and capture your audience. Get that group together and conduct it. Play in storefronts, churches, and town halls. Being famous or on faculty doesn't excuse you. If your music is meaningful, then you can create something for your own abilities that you can perform before any audience. You give them a chance and they'll give you one -- and the rest of us, too.


Visit the critics.

Pressure them to make a difference. They can't do any worse than they do, and they can't hurt you any more than you're hurting now. Don't write -- visit. Find out what they know and don't know. Newspaper critics are difficult to convince about new nonpop. Even those who claim they appreciate it (even enjoy it) are reluctant to be activists for it. Every level of judgment that they bring to Puccini disappears when the composer in question is, say, Adams or Golijov -- or you. Two hundred years of critics being mocked for wrongheadedness has gutted their courage. They outline problems without offering solutions. Some, like a fellow I know from Boston, will reject any suggestion of change to the character of traditional concerts, and thus reject any music outside those boundaries. This is a tough job, but you have to do it. You and the hundred other composers within the reach of any given critic.


Proselytize public radio.

This is the highest cultural wall to climb. Throughout the US and increasingly in Canada and Europe, public radio is moving toward easy culture. Here in the States, it's devolved over 20 years into talk radio with classical tunes and jazz lite. As the public radio monolith grows and ossifies under baby boomer control, it continues to market to its aging audience who vote for easy listening classical with their cash. Production values rise as content mediocritizes. The remaining classical programming is a Top 100 loop, rarely mitigated by new nonpop. This will be the least successful of your tasks until the current generation of PBS power brokers is dead and gone. But plant the seeds now -- contact the programmers and get on their shows. Line up your composer colleagues. There is still a chance to rescue public radio from itself.


Challenge arts councils.

Smarting from the political evisceration of the National Endowment for the Arts, local and regional arts councils and arts support organizations increased their bureaucracy and deleted individual artists from their collective memory, replacing them with social behavior, faux-fairness, and self-inflicted fear. You, the composer, are not important to them. You are infantilized. A presenter will need to be your chaperone, as with Meet the Composer. I've said before that composers are at the bottom of the artistic hierarchy. Money flows from the rich or government to foundations to distributors to councils and their juries and presenters and their boards. None of these organizations has the gombah to make artistic judgments -- but they all get paid, taking a cut of your cash. Cowed composers won't challenge it. If they do, they are ignored. But you need to be heard, so write, call, get their support directly. It may give them stomach upset. They've earned it.


Infect academia.

This is a tough one. Ask them: What have you done for us lately? Get a tour of what they do. Ask why they haven't performed composers from the community. If you're in academia, ask yourself the same question. And ask how often academia takes its productions to the public, outside the ivy walls (okay, so walls aren't often ivy anymore). If you're met with philosophy, counter with application -- that is, ask them to demonstrate, to show, by real action, how their approach is applied. Make them do it. If they can't, then dismiss them. Yes, you'll cause stomach upset again, but when did you get scared of causing controversy? Or is your art just fluff? Okay then. Equivocation over. Game on.


Dump your rentals.

Are you a published composer whose scores and parts are rented? Drop the publisher. You may like the income, but you hurt the field. Rentals are a heritage of another time, representing laziness and élitism and profiteering. Sell the paper. Or use the internet for downloads. Live on royalties. The publishers who so mistrust their clients are a hindrance to the growth of nonpop. It's all about greed -- and don't fall for the complaints that it's impossible to make a profit by selling the music because orchestras will lend it to each other. You don't live for your publisher's problems. You'll still get the royalties, and you'll get more of them if they can find and play your music. Ask them to change the policy for all their work.


Influence IP rules.

Hardening intellectual property rules are corporatized rules. As digital rights management becomes installed in all recording and playback devices, available media will stratify into that issued by corporations being easily accessible, and that made by individual artists and small companies being out-of-bounds. Research the implications of future iPod-like devices that can only play music and video encoded with expensive and exclusive technologies. Yes, this will require familiarity with legal and technological rules and trends. But if you are to have a say in your own artistic future, and you're reading this paragraph on a piece of technology, then you're ready for it. Start with the Electronic Freedom Foundation. (And don't always believe your licensing agency. I love ASCAP, but I don't always agree with their stand on intellectual property.)

Do you have something to add to this Composer's Guide for Nonpop Survival? Write me a short paragraph. The link is to the left below.

Me at Feedback Studios in Cologne
After nearly 30 years of not performing, I began doing extended voice work again in 2005. Here I am singing Memento Mori as part of a Hinterhaus concert at Feedback Studios in Cologne. Performing agian was very difficult, because I think of myself as a composer. But it was necessary.

Back to the Blog Index
Back to the WAAM Page
Back to my Home Page
Please Write to Me
Previous Day | Next Day

WAAM Info Feed RSS feed for this site