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"We Are All Mozart"

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music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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I am often asked how I compose, and have long been troubled by my inability to form an adequate or scholarly or at least entertaining answer.

In analyzing this failure, I've searched for, considered, and rejected several possibilities.

  • Eclecticism. This might be my permanent excuse for not describing compositional techniques, and ultimately a poor one.
  • Lack of discipline, and an inherent incoherency in the corpus -- not likely, though, as listeners can identify my touch.
  • Lack of interest. I made a political decision to avoid the Style Wars at their worst, climactic era of the 1970s.
  • Incompetence. There might exist an ineptness at developing a self-perceptive ability and the concomitant skill of expressing it.
  • Mediocrity. Much drab and unremarkable music has been written by Sunday-afternoon composers, and I, though prolific, may be among them.
  • Self-indulgence. Art has a self-indulgent, pleasurable, and almost masturbatory quality that is embarrassing to describe and difficult to justify.

They all play a part, but the most significant reason is the simplest: I've never gotten around to it, never stopped long enough to categorize my work -- and, really, never been asked. So rather than answer the hypothetical "how" directly (since I've already described the process itself), I'd like to explore some of my pieces from the present year 2006, with perhaps some understanding of how they mattered to the past's future. (And if you really want more of this, you can slog through these papers & presentations.)


I was born too late and too early. The great avant-gardists -- Pauline Oliveros, James Tenney, the Fluxus artists -- and the great minimalists -- Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley -- were ten or more years my senior. The elder Stockhausen and the electronic experimentalists of WDR Köln had already done their groundbreaking work, Xenakis had shown the Way of the Number, and Partch had hammered and sanded and varnished aside the old orchestras. It was over, all said.

Also, I came to music late. Riley had composed In C the year I had played my first C. As a young teenager, I had grown up with Fifties ballads and Duke of Earl. I heard Wagner, Stravinsky, Bach and Coltrane all within a few months.

This was not the commonplace eclecticism of the 1980s and 90s. Rather, the artistic class divisions were very strong in 1964 when I penned my first notes -- popular/classical, tonal/atonal, uptown/downtown, tradition/fusion. And I had no teachers, only models and those whom I came to call my mentors ... first Stravinsky, then Zappa, Partch, Cage.

Outside the academy, and for my first few years of compositional groping, everything was allowed -- or rather, nothing was forbidden where there was no one to forbid. My first taste of the Style Wars came when I transferred from mathematics to music in 1968 at Rutgers University. Robert Moevs, unrepentent avand-gardist, dismissed my efforts at our first meeting. Presented with my untutored but extensive Symphony in C Major, he snorted, "This is in C? All of it?" He spent no more than a few seconds on the first page of each score, and implied that I had too much to learn to take his time. Shortly thereafter occurred my oft-repeated story of the department chairman declaring, "Mr. Kitsch, our undergraduates do not compose."

Those dismissals and declarations kept me on the path of defining my own style from the very beginning.

Music was fascinating and listened to simply because of its name or its record jacket: Gesang der Jünglinge, Ascension, Sequenza, Silver Apples of the Moon, Ancient Voices of Children, New Music in Quarter Tones, Lemon Drops. On the other hand, not having grown up in a household with "classical music," I found Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms interesting if old-fashioned. I learned them well, for my appetite for all music was vast, but never felt their breath on my neck. I had taken in and expelled the demons of common-practice tonality by the time I was 18, while at the same time discovering both the earlier tonalities and fascinating melodic threads of the Ars Nova and the very modern and exciting melodic threads and textural fragments of 12-tone practice.

As David Del Tredici, archetypal new romanticist, said to me during a radio interview, atonality was thrilling. It was sexy. It wasn't something we were forced to do. And so I wrote atonal pieces and created electronic ones where pitch systems of any kind were irrelevant, all the while playing and singing music from the Ars Nova and soon the Ars Antiqua.

And having learned the virtues of analysis and rigor and the skill of conducting, I departed Rutgers in a storm of political activity and forsook academia forever (or at least until a distance-learning PhD program a few years ago). The decision to leave was confirmed by my physical dyslexia and concomitant inability to play tonal scales and arpeggios. No degree granted and, other than economically, no regrets except for the politics and safety net of academic life.

In the ensuing thirty-six years, I have developed techniques which I consider linear and inevitable. It is inevitability which I believe makes a composition work well. In other words, of all possible pathways, a memorable composition takes those which are most interesting and, listening back from the conclusion, those which could not have been other. More on that later (or another day).

The Way to Style

Maybe this autostylographical writing will seem a little self-indulgent, but I've never done it quite this baldly. So here goes -- one or two pieces from each year that mattered. My composition began in 1964, and there were a few mildly interesting but usually derivative pieces in the early days, but it wasn't until 1969 that there came a piece of enough substance. (The links below are to scores and/or audio files.)

Composition for Tape and Soloists, 1969

This unimaginatively named piece consists of several gestural regions. A melodic but atonal Kyrie for alto voice and a jagged solo clarinet line are nested in a modernist counterpoint of sounds and noises, and these are framed in an elegant and almost tuneful linear overlap of multiple voices using melodic shapes and approximate pitches. In 1969, Composition remained a concept because the equipment to realize was not available. It was four years before the tape part would be created, and sixteen years until its premiere. Composition represents an accident of my development -- that larger, coherent pieces turned out to be within my abilities.

Exequy on the Death of Igor Stravinsky, 1971

This is a dramatic work for large wind ensemble with a traditional modernist sound, mixing tonality and free atonality with specific mensuration and aleatory. Exequy, the first acoustic composition to bear my 'stamp,' uses broad instrumental forces in a combination of linear melodies, many of which could be stripped out of the composition and stand alone. This linearity will be found throughout the next decades, and sometimes result in great densities. Exequy represents another developmental accident -- this time, that I could write quickly, as soon as ideas gelled. This piece was composed complete into orchestration in eight hours.

Withered, 1971

Pieces for voice and percussion were de rigueur for mid-century compositions. Luciano Berio's Sequenza for Solo Voice appears frequently as a reference point in my conversations, and by 1971 it was well in my ears. But I was still interested in the expression of words' meanings, sometimes with surrounding instrumentation and its implications. The choice of percussion was from ability and availability, with amateur players and almost no drums (juice cans, a snare, a cracked suspended cymbal, water glasses, plus a borrowed gong and timpani). This gave it an especial vitality, and I have always performed the voice part myself. The rocking on close pitches also follows my music through many years.

Concerto for Piano, Winds, and Electric Bass,1972

Here is an odd work, still unperformed, that explored long, sustained melodic loops in strict rhythm and linear melodic modulation in an aleatoric frame above a solo part that moved ahead in time in mock stylistic advances whose meter and tempo reflected the stylistic origins. The piece is incessant and unperformable in its original orchestration, as there are inadequate rests for the brass over its 14-minute length. This composition has me pulling away from external styles and for the first time accepting the repeating module -- but not in a set of minimalist gestures, which I had rejected, but more on the order of an independent sonic Stepford angel.

Variations for Piano, 1972

The Variations were pure invention, exploring what could be done with the least amount of material. I recall that these were meant as enigma variations, with the theme disguised to the point of encryption. Having disposed of my early sketches in the 1976 Detonacy, however, I no longer have the key to the enigma -- I only recall that these variations were based on a rhythmic, not melodic, theme. The Variations marked the beginnings of a schizophrenic or eclectic compositional path. These were notes without special effects or textures, an area I continue to explore in chamber and orchestral pieces, but beyond that, it was a composition expressive in the traditional modernist vein.

i cried in the sun aïda, 1973

A dream work, i cried in the sun aïda was written down in near darkness. Because the text had no waking-world meaning, I used its words and syllables as I'd heard them in the dream -- a mix of vocal horror and avant-garde expression. In aïda, the voice carries through its full range, from grunts and growls through whistles and squeals. Through these noises, however, is a consistency of flow, another characteristic that became significant over time. Sometimes it seems that because my first instrument was bass clarinet, the long periods of waiting and counting seemed unnecessary ... that if an instrument was scored, it should be used in some coherent and linearly connected way. Everyone had something to do, and had to do something. (I set down a multitrack version with my own voice in 1973, with a live performance version finally mounted in 1994.)

Specimen, 1973

Whereas aïda was conceived as a serious dramatic work, Specimen was intended as the introduction to the vocal avant-garde for a lay audience, and was a six-part piece with a high-energy performance sense. It uses mouth sounds and nonsense syllables, and was created for any group of vocalists (trained or amateur, and not necessarily singers). The ease of creating a peformance of Specimen made it possible for lay performers to be quickly rewarded -- and as recording is an important part of performing, the reward was doubled by the performers being able to hear the composite effect of what they had rehearsed.

Waltz in no time, 1975

Traditionally 'noteful' compositions haven't had a large place in the idea of self-described significance that's being rolled around here. But quietly I had been working on these 'noteful' chamber works, even though most of my performances were now with an ensemble of lay and part-time musicians, writers, and dancers. This was the height of the post-Fluxus time (I had co-directed the 1974 Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde), when a range of imaginative but non-confrontational, non-existential works was created ... indeed, the time was a cauldron for performance art of the 1980s. But pieces like Waltz (one of nearly 50 small works for recorders) were written for our ensemble's enjoyment. It has a tonal 'heft', but no traditional harmonic progressions or melodic shapes. These pieces are my Tafelmusik, and exist in abundance.

Network C/R, 1975

I regret that this composition for tethered dancer and interactive electronics was never realized. Using the dancer's body to control the music via a web of sensors, it was 30 years ahead of its time. Three versions were written, each with a different take on how the body could be used to sculpt sound. The sculpting was elementary in technical terms, with all the control taking place with analog circuitry triggered by microswitches and light sensors, and the sounds derived (as the name suggests) from the typical voltage-controlled devices and capacitive-resistive circuits of the time (here is my VST emulation of the instrument used). This summer solstice composition was put aside shortly after its composition; the dancer vanished to Amsterdam.

Cy-Gît, 1976

A serious performance work, Cy-Gît (subtitled "A non-dance in music") layers clouds of sounds from unique instruments -- bells, thunder sheet, organette, Peruvian flute -- with the spoken text from Villon and a chanted text from Beowulf, with a middle section incorporating Dunstable's O Rosa Bella. The linear sweep always edges toward chaos, but is held together as a collective howl. Using its separate compositions and lines, it is fully engaged in the concept of density, and contrasts with the single solo dancer. At this point in my writing, the music was shifting toward a historical richness and reference without giving up the 'edge' in its totality.

Plasm over ocean, 1977

Chamber opera was not on the plate of most composers in the 1970s. Plasm was not only a chamber opera, but was also exploratory in several other ways: It used handmade instruments (a double-logarithmic harp, a maple-and-glass cello, a hand-hammered gong, and differently tuned brass and glass chimes, some of which are described and still have photos and diagrams available), it is performable by skilled amateurs, and it slowly discards the robes of the avant-garde for the garb of the highly ritualistic. Its three scenes consist of an aleatoric and interwoven section, an alternating rhythmic/a cappella section, and a heavily rhythmic conclusion. (This work was my first composition heard by my old nemesis Robert Moevs from Rutgers, and he despised it -- not that its premiere along with Phill Niblock and Karlheinz Stockhausen helped its avant-garde cachet.) Plasm, with a libretto written by David Gunn, was an existential drama whose entire shape represented the stripping away, at last, of the old avant-garde. In the process, its melodies moved from intricate modernism to raw chant. (David was always disappointed with the libretto, but I loved its ambiguity and bleak humor.)

Missa da Camera, 1978

It is in the Missa that my eventual personal theory of "expansion-contraction linear modulation" (something I named much later) can first be heard in all its elements. It is scored for voices and hand instruments. The Kyrie uses the standard setting of three "Kyrie," three "Christe," three "Kyrie," but the "Kyrie" sections are long, overlapping voices and instruments which only come to terms at crucial points of rest; in between, the parts modulate independently (in length, rhythm, and tonal direction) until they agree. The Gloria is as literal as the Kyrie is mysterious, with an anti-modernist sound and a directly expressive setting. The central Credo has three independent layers: Rolled tone clusters on the 'defrocked autoharp;' a rhythmic chant harmonized in three bass voices in d-dorian; and a high, luminous soprano duet in c-sharp minor. It is difficult and sweaty. The Sanctus is an overwhelming cloud of two dozen bells and almost Chion-like rising screams (though I didn't know of Chion until 1992), punctuated by Pakistani automobile horns played like trombones; the Benedictus chills this with a simple soprano and clarinet duet before the return of the raucous Sanctus. The final Agnus Dei section is pure and distant, with bells and plucked strings, and a quiet chorus rising in and out of tone clusters before fading lengthily into silence. The Missa was confounding to listeners. Some heard modern music; some heard beauty; some heard religion. It was also deeply moving and personal for me, because of its Cambridge premiere at Charlotte Moorman's last Avant-Garde Festival.

Car Horn Symphony No. 1, 1978

Inspired by its locale -- a concrete parking garage -- the Symphony is the first of an occasional set whose third one should have been performed by now. Humor has always formed a kind of excuse for me to experiment in sound patterns, and the great good humor of the Avant-Garde Festivals of New York and our own Delaware Valley Festivals of the Avant-Garde were the perfect settings to play out these excuses. Works like Gendarme (for whistles and cake boxes with a year's duration) and Candled Piano Music (for random chords played until candles burned down) and Malpractice Insurance (for fried eggs) and both Car Horn Symphonies had their genesis as whimsical ways of playing with concepts. Written on the spot, the Car Horn Symphony No. 1 used the materials at hand (a roof full of cars) to experiment with random-pitched, quasi-aleatoric-rhythmed spatial composition, with that rare benefit: an immediate performance. This piece and many of the on-the-spot compositions ("Music While You Wait" is what I once wanted to earn a living doing) are improvisations in the tradition of Chopin and Coltrane. The difference is, of course, that I am not comfortable as a performer, but very comfortable imagining music into existence. The parts to this piece (there was no score) are lost.

Rando's Poetic License, 1978

The layering of my computer-programmed Jophxo Poetry whispered by an audience, computer-controlled analog synth, and live performance on small instruments is at the heart of Rando. Its only performances were at the Washington Project for the Arts, where televisions (doubling as computer monitors) were scattered in the audience. The audience whispered the words they had already contributed to the algorithmic poetry generation, and the whispers were mixed with the other sounds. Because it was integrated into a program that also included dance, I could reach back unashamed with Rando to the avant-garde past while looking forward by using a microcomputer for control -- something that was not yet commonplace in new nonpop.

Leaving Town

All this music was created in New Jersey and performed there or in New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Washington. The urban settings were pressing on me, and with Charlotte Moorman's sickness and the increasingly caustic uptown-downtown antagonism in the city, I felt it was time to leave. Personal issues also played into it, so we gracefully shut down the Trans/Media Arts Cooperative and became an artistic diaspora from New Jersey to Colorado, Oregon, Montana, New York, Washington and Vermont.

Rando was the last work composed in New Jersey, after the move to Vermont was already underway. The changes that took place in the countryside were absolutely wrenching. More tomorrow.

It rained today on the roses
It rained today, and the roses bowed before the drops.

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