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"We Are All Mozart"

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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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Since the ideas are rolling forward ahead of me, I'll be catching up in any way I can. This story continues in Vermont.

I didn't actually speak much about New Jersey, but it's all been said. Urban wasteland, lots of neighborhoods, inferiority complex to New York. Birthplace of Susan Stamberg and Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra. And Vermont? Calvin Coolidge.

New Jersey was left behind with hardly a thought. With most of the Trans/Media crowd also leaving, there was nothing avant-garde left in the old neighborhood. The apartment in which Trans/Media was born and which served as my home and instrument-invention & -building shop and recording studio for nearly eight years was torn town along with most of the block in about 1980. The urban renewal efforts left behind the beautiful pin oaks, but the benches and lights disappeared, and the multicolored sidewalk cracked and faded. The Baptist church at which my first organ pieces were played (along with a series we called "Gracie's Improv") fell into budgetary crisis and disrepair. The baker, watercolorist, deli owner, and meatcutters have all died now, along with the pharmacist who was shot dead while I still lived there. Only Byrdia keeps her beauty salon running in the one building that still stands on that corner.

During the summer of 1975, when the Twandano performance piece was created with dancer Ruben James Christman Edinger in Purchase, New York, I also visited an old high school friend in Vermont -- five minutes' walk from where David Gunn lives today. It was summer. Vermont was beautiful. The memory made the departure from New Jersey an easy one, into the fall colors of the Green Mountains in 1978. Little did I know how that first winter, unprepared and almost penniless, I would be tossed into musical oblivion. New York loves her artistic cadre and her New Jersey and Connecticut acolytes, but she is unforgiving of those who leave her behind. Within months, my absence caused me to fade and pop out of existence as a composer-who-might-have-mattered.

The isolation was staggering. The winter of 1978 was very cold and snowy, an introduction to incomprehensible weather when on Christmas Day the temperature fell to -36°F and my car, a 1964 Valiant, stalled on its was up the hill to visit Jane and Ed Pincus, activist writer and filmmaker respectively. Working in isolation, they too slipped slightly below the horizon from their Boston visibility, but had been in Vermont long enough to understand how to cope and even thrive. For me, that was still in the future. Why was I here?

In economic desperation, I repaired televisions and radios and even an electric fence, and eventually worked as a typist at an engineering company. Combining the two opened an opportunity to use my little microcomputer for some electronic music, and also as a means to income: writing articles for the new generation of magazines. In 1980 the tiny Green Mountain Micro was founded and, like all small business owners, I discovered the unbearable complexities and time demands. For several years, business technology was my life. A few compositions (such as Not Vermont Hardware, done with David Gunn in his first and abortive attempt to live in Vermont) were created.

All the above is preface to the music, and how it became transformed under the influence of few opportunities but also a culture-starved, personal audience. We did a piece dropping in on Christian Wolff in his kitchen at his new Dartmouth digs an hour away. I wrote some recorder pieces, abandoned some pieces, and made some attempts at jazz-influenced compositions -- not very successful more because of the very white performers than the pieces themselves. We met other musicians who did classical tunes. I sang alto in Messiah to the discomfiture of the assembled audience. A concert in the renovated Chandler Music Hall included the Rhythmatron, a programmable digital percussion instrument. We performed small local concerts.

With my demanding little company (which went bankrupt in 1986), I was online in the early Internet days, signing on for the first time at 300 baud in 1981. Though New York was a fading memory, being online reminded me that the world was still out there, past the cold and the mountains and the sheltered rural public.

Music in the Oblivion Years

Ash Wednesday, 1983

Public radio has long abandoned its mission as a vehicle for the contemporary arts, but there was a time when it was still possible, very slightly, to bring new composition to its listeners. Terry Gross had interviewed us in the mid-1970s, but the closing down of the NPR experiment could be felt by 1980. A single program that played older classical music showed interest in new composition. Its host was actually a scientist named Paul Connett, holding down the listener-free Sunday afternoon slot. As scientists are open to new ideas, he thought it would be a welcome idea to create a new piece for the show. Ash Wednesday drew together the mysterious aspects of pseudo-chant and thin harmonies, unusual instrumental combinations in live performance (voices, sax, Peruvian flutes, ring modulator, bell, piano, small percussion) and created an effective tapestry on the notoriously difficult text. The concept of writing through from end-to-end is almost achieved, and the deep dips into graffiti-tonality can actually be shocking. This time writing for amateur but reading musicians, I rehearsed and presented the music in the same day, live on the air. Ash Wednesday was one of only two pieces composed during 30 months -- nothing in 1984 -- as I was in a deep compositional depression, and occupied by business duties I'd hoped never to have. (Sadly, Ash Wednesday has never been reprised because of copyright issues.)

Nighthawk, 1985

High technology made its way to Vermont slowly, and I had been working on ways of animating computers as composer collaborators. For a multi-arts show entitled "Inquiries into High Tech," Nighthawk was built and programmed to act with musical intelligence under environmental influences. Using light sensors and an algorithm that learned the use of the space, Nighthawk filled the air with changing patterns of delicate sounds -- sounds that could never be chased down without great patience, as they would withdraw into silence when approached abruptly. Though very quiet, its presence was so deeply felt that some gallery watercolorists demanded it be turned off while they worked. Nighthawk would end up being a study for later pieces such as Echo (a breakthrough piece, and separately described) and form the core of my new approach to texture and density.

Mantra Canon, 1986

There are moments when as artists we are either disappointed or enraged by those we have believed in. When those moments coincide, we can be driven to become greater than ourselves. So it was with Mantra Canon. Upon hearing Steve Reich's The Desert Music, I knew that a sham had been perpetrated. It had grant-fulfillment shouting loudly out of it. Following his Tehillim, the new work was a travesty. Why had I not stayed in New York, I thought, so I could have shown the way? If you're so good, my thought answered, why not do something about it? And so in fury I called every performer I knew to get a commitment for a performance three weeks hence, and began composing Mantra Canon, built upon developing intertwined loops, a big fat C-minor piece of huge proportion for singers, orchestra, six percussionists, two pianos, and descant soprano. It was dense, had fugues and bitonalities, and in its seventeen days of composition, did exactly what I'd hoped: revealed that high minimalism could be both minimal and developmental, tonal and tonally challenging. To this day, Mantra Canon remains one of my few 'inspired' compositions -- inspired because I cannot recall the process of composition, which was both precise (based on the resynchronization of short vocal phrases) and expansive (with call-and-response segments and a discernable form over its 25-minute length). The score remains in pencil.

In Bocca al Lupo, 1986

The year of Nighthawk, an old friend from before the Trans/Media diaspora, a Kindergarten teacher in Trenton having become a sculptor in Missoula, wanted to work on a project together. Fernanda D'Agostino called when my business was failing. For sure it was time to shed Micro, but in an acknowledgment of technology's longtime role in my work, I created a large-scale interactive sound environment. The installation is described elsewhere. Compositionally, it allowed me to explore the densities, the intelligent learning that the system could do without my oversight, and the creation of a cultural singularity. It also helped me learn what I did not need to accomplish as a composer, what roads that the audience required as guidance to discovery, and what fine points of compositional finesse were irrelevant to both a work's motivation and its impact. Bocca ran for over a month, unattended, bringing a fully composed sensibility while the factual events were, post-intitiation, hands-off. It was a successful self-instructed lesson in humility.

Rough Edges, 1987

The Eighties became a period of stylistic confrontation -- that is, confrontation with myself and with established and establishing stylistic traditions. Minimalism was in a rotting stage by 1987. Formal atonality was abandoned in all but the academy. But not everything had yet been learned from either because they had stood in such uncompromising opposition, whether it was called an uptown-downtown or academic-popular divide or by some other indication of hostility. A commission to write a piano piece for Michael Arnowitt came with the suggestion of somehow providing a creation that he had not yet seen -- something, say, with a minimalist pulse but absent the sickly sweetness of typical minimalism. I took Michael quite literally, and wrote Rough Edges as a formally dodecaphonic piece with an unrelenting 120 beat-per-minute pulse. The idea that atonality and minimalism could be so well integrated was demonstrated by the piece -- not full serialism, of course, because rhythmic serialism flies in the face of minimalism. Charles Wuorinen rejected his gift copy as an affront to the frontiers of music that he had, of course, long retreated from. I was gratified.

Northern Lights ... Seeking Sasquatch, 1989

Following Mantra Canon and Rough Edges, there was a sense of exhilaration and emancipation. One of the areas in which my composition hadn't yet expanded was high-surface pop beats with a complex melodic shape above it. In a tribute to one who had achieved that sensibility, I wrote Seeking Sasquatch (later including the "Northern Lights" as a marketing gimmick within Vermont, which didn't work, as the Vermont Symphony Orchestra rejected this piece (too)). The tribute to Frank Zappa is first heard in the woodwinds, which course around the beat with jagged and syncopated melodies. Lights/Sasquatch is a big puffball of a piece, part ironic, part dramatic, and the emancipation it provided was from the still-tugging obligation to Serious Music. Emancipation from music by music is a glorious freedom.

ÿçuré, 1990

On the other hand, little could have been more serious than ÿçuré, a fanfare-as-isorhythmic-motet. Commissioned for the 25th anniversary of the Friends of Music at Guilford, it was received with complete hostility. A comparison of the score and the recording will reveal the myriad errors, but it's the story of the days up to the premiere itself that are most scandalous. Stevie and I had been hiking in the Grand Canyon for a week, driving back to Vermont in time for the dress rehearsal the day before. The orchestra -- mostly volunteer professionals -- had a new conductor, and the rehearsals were out of hand already as the musicians put her to the test as a new conductor coming from the choral realm to the orchestral scene ... and a female. ÿçuré was the ultimate test of musical coordination and cooperation, as it had changing tempi that were metrically linked, difficult parts, and split the orchestra into two chamber ensembles besides. Upon arriving in Guilford, we noticed a kind of chill. Our reception was not open-armed. No provisions had been made. We slept the night outdoors in our camping tent. The dress rehearsal was tense and the conductor (who several years later remarked after my performance of David Gunn's The Troll's Awful Curse that I was actually funny) avoided me. I learned that the previous week's rehearsal had gone badly, with performers walking out after a food fight of balled-up ÿçuré parts being thrown across the room. By performance day, it was little better -- and in truth, I still didn't know why. Attempts at socializing failed. When we sat down at one of the communal tables at lunch, the musicians stood up en masse and moved to other tables. Even at the performance, when the orchestra seating had to be reset for the double ensemble, the players stood in place as if I didn't exist so that I needed to move the chairs around their bodies. As the performance began, the first violinist laughed aloud. A few measures later the oboe put down her instrument for most of the piece. At the conclusion, there was a stunned silence -- followed by an embarrassing (to the musicians) standing ovation. We returned home quickly, where I brooded for weeks. It had become my one crushing scandale.

Softening Cries, 1991

Despite the failure of ÿçuré, I received a commission from Lou Calabro at the Sage City Symphony in Bennington -- Lou's last commission before his death. With a full orchestra, I knew that it would be possible to explore density effectively, and I wanted to do that. A string quartet was extracted from the orchestra and played a single chorale stretched across the 25-minute length. The rest of the upper strings played diminishing repeating figures. Woodwinds created sound-clouds. Melodies danced in the low winds and brass. Cymbals were bowed, harmonics sounded from the lower strings. It had the orchestral underpinnings of a kind of Sibelius-gone-Xenakis. The performance of Cries (taken over by Larry Read after Lou's death) was shimmering.

I wrote about Cries in 1992, when I was much closer to the process of composition: "Binding the movement together is an ostinato, perpetuo, dissonant, chordal rhythm with accelerating changes in the string ensemble. These pulses sit on one harmony for some time at the outset, but increase their change (and hence their energy) as they proceed toward the middle. The process reverses, as do the harmonies, from the middle to the end, providing a very clear (but largely inaudible) mirrored curve of energy. The second process is a dream-suspended F major (!) chorale of 42 notes, which is pulled across the entire 15-minute movement, with its chord-to-chord modulations stretching and shrinking via prime numbers 17 to 43, chosen without interest in the (again) common time barring, and intended as a kind of Greek-chorus-gone-autistic in its maddened introspection. Constantly reshuffling groups of low instruments play homophonic, quasi-tonal chorales or melodic segments in complex relationship to the basic beat, but which are, with respect to themselves, in simple rhythms of 3, 5, 7 and 9. Counterposed to these processes and layerings are woodwinds which cry in expanding and contracting waves of sliding chromatic expressions ... Through strict attention to certain automatic processes and with rhythmic detail emphasized for individual parts, a free-flowing, floating sonority is created."


The composition of Softening Cries was done in April 1991. Late that fall, we left for Europe at the invitation of Clarence Barlow, where Stevie began to feel respect as a midwife and I began to feel a similar respect as a composer. Although Cries was copied at Clarence's kitchen table and I missed the feel of Cologne for it, the European experience pushed me into new compositional ideas and a firm sense that my feelings of inferiority as a composer were ill-founded.

More tomorrow.

Green Mountain Micro staff in halcyon days
Green Mountain Micro in halcyon days, at a trade show, ca. 1984: Me, Joanne Trottier, and Steve Lusk.

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