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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   June 30, 2006   next

What's conservatism in music? Start here. Now settle down.

I talked to David Gunn. He said my blog is too polite. Damn right.

So I'll tell you what I mean. I mean classical music sycophants -- composers or listeners or performers -- have been cruising the musical strip malls for years looking for scraps that their undeveloped Denny's tastes can digest. And with the economic capitulation of public radio and arts endowments to mounting the pleasuredome equivalent of strip mall concerts, they've found their burgers 'n' fries, chicken 'n' biscuits, meatloaf 'n' gravy, jello 'n' cool whip musical moment in time.

Do I write major chords? You bet. How about nasty stuff? That too. But it's not about tonality or atonality. It's not about audience friendliness or accessibility. It's not about mind vs. emotion, objective vs. subjective. That's the cover story.

It's about backbone. One more time. It's about backbone. Gombah. Spine -- and not as in tap. Not about postmodern irony or cross-cultural ripology, but meaning that comes with a willing thesis and defense. The willingness to answer the question posed by art, and take the risk of being wrong.

It takes no backbone to rewrite Schubert today, or even Rachmaninoff. No backbone to smush together floor scrapings from Brahms or Shostakovich. No backbone to swing big hair in concerts of beat-box classical transformations from bankrupt rock 'n' roll. No backbone to Rieu-Riverdance-Yannify in public. No backbone, no risk at all.

Nobody will deny that it takes work to compose easy-listening nonpop. But work is not what art demands, not by itself, not just to be part of a revolving stage of five-minute late-night entertainments. We are not entertainers, and anyone who says we are is a coward. Anyone who believes so is incompetent. If we entertain, it happens to occur while we're doing the yeoman's work of showing humanity who it is by being who it is not, or not yet. Even the beloved Mozart did that in his own most conservative of times.

We're in the business -- or rather the art -- of thrilling or inspiring or challenging or subverting or mirroring or angering. Being authentic. Not happy-making. Not sucking Mary Janes or licking Sno-Cones, not even rolling the hippest California Viognier under the tongue.

Sure, if your model is the fictional image of an on-leash classical dandy with bad lungs and a high laugh, then what do you expect? On the other hand, does anyone among the audience-friendly gangstas take even Beethoven's confrontation seriously? Wouldn't they have booed the man? For the wrong-key five-seven he tossed at them right off? Where does the aforementioned Shostakovich and his lifelong private persecution fit in? Did it matter? Couldn't he just have sucked up to Stalin completely? How about the musicians cut down in the Santiago stadium? Those shut down by the Church councils hundreds of years ago? Those cut out of performances by policy because they dare to speak with their music in our own times? Would you dare to be put up against the wall and be shot for your music? No? Then out of the room with you.

No backbone, all-is-fine, smooth-chorded, pass the roulade please? That gets you George Bush the Decider, Clinton the Bugger, and any basket of Sunday-afternoon tunesmiths with a notation program or trust-fund lucre.

And, hey, nobody's gonna throw your CDs on a bonfire, Ms. Classical Tamborine Girl, no sister. Your work just doesn't matter enough, you know what I'm saying? You're a piece of candy to suck on, a gelato to lick, a plastic cup of bad white wine. After that, nobody gives a big fat damn.

So what is it you're really doing? Why do you even matter? Because you please somebody? Because you're paid? A puttana or a gigolo that just can't quite come by your cash honestly, Mr. Jongleur-pour-Pourceaux?

Look, the conservative chill is not about Good Happy Classicists being audience-friendy or the Bad Nasty Composers being audience-hostile. It's never been about that. It's about the freedom to think and feel and be transformed. Art brings that freedom because it opens the doors to places in the mind and heart and soul that have been covered by the crust of expectation and the mold of dreariness. Not everybody is entitled to that five-lined paper. No, sirs & ma'ams, not every composer has the talent, dedication, and imagination to transform. Look where seventy-five years of talent-bashing has brought us. To Sir Paul McCartney writing 'classical' music. To accolades for the Corigilianos instead of the Saariahos. To processed Denny's music. Who could handle what Saariaho or Pritsker has to say? What Cage or Partch had to say then or what Eckardt has to say now? The incompetent listeners and spineless performers who decried Stockhausen would now decry new complexity as faux composition.

Oh, yes, and those butt-for-taste Great Big Masters recordings and masturbatory prizes? Yup, more happy talk while shivving their more talented colleagues at will. Is this about art -- or is this about revenge? About exploiting the conservative politics and free-market theology to demonstrate the falsehood that marketplace popularity is a measure of meaning in order to retrospectively rewrite the last century's musical history? Yeah, that's it. Kyle Gann's been at it for years -- a good guy and fine composer who was so abused by academia that he becomes a tonal taliban, taking revenge on art just because his tormenters believed in it. And some of us cower. It turns my stomach.

You want Wal-Mart music? By gollocks, you are going to get it, my friends. 101 Strings of nonpop hell in a bloody basket until your lungs turn inside out. Whoa, you don't even want nonpop, do you? You still want it to be "classical" because it has all the éliteness and at the same time enough blended-in musical Maalox so you can go home and nap without having ever taken a moment's trouble to become engaged in your gut as you digested your concert-reception prawns? The prawns are yummy, but the music is Splenda, the perfect name for it -- musical food that has no calories and no value yet all the ultimate medical rot of chemicals ingested in place of the genuine. You'll die anyway, but die empty. And well deserve it. Splenda Music. Suck it down. And die.

Why not look at causes? You think you got this way on your own, Mssrs. Fanboys-of-Brandon? I don't think so. You're the greatest and most pitiful of the victims, victims of a sham perpetrated by a media enterprise that interposes its out-of-control market system on art and claims it to be The Truth. You believe you have a choice in this? Of course you don't. You've been a pawn & a prawn all along, my friends. You've been part of the deveining of your classical art, the transformation into a tasteless, odorless commodity available all on two CDs at 2 a.m., operators standing by, and that's not all, get this handsome air freshener free with your order. It'll cover the stench because ultimately it's you who would have collaborated in suppressing Ockeghem and Beethoven and Stravinsky, smothered them in the crib. You'd go back in time to do it right now if you could. And you would have been Stalin's best friend, all heartfelt socialist realism and weepy regret over vodka and pogroms.

Oh, you think I'm angry because I'm out of style? I'm not out of style. I can out-classical you as can any decent composer. But why bother? That was someone else's era. I'm not angry at all. I'm disgusted. This disgusted: "What we have now is--for the first time in 100 years so yes it feels funny--normal. It is normal, through the long course of music history, for composers not to be two generations ahead of their audience. It is normal for styles to change rather slowly. Welcome to normality. Me, I'm happy here." That's an artist? Bollocks. He's not even correct. That's a lazy tone-slut, all comfy in a well-worn sonic bed with some other body's impression in a not-quite-santized plastic hotel in that strip mall, dreaming dreams of market forecasts and hedge funds and delicious D'Indy for dinner.

And me? I believe in composers who are searching for questions, and dreaming of answers they know they'll never achieve. Most composers I've met are searching and dreaming, but some are fakes. They have that fakey smell, like Naugahyde or Cool Whip, made out of something dead. Oil, reclaimed from once-living beings. That's what those fakey composers do, and their necrosone listeners. They reclaim ideas from once-living beings. You really can smell it. The stench of artistic death stays with you.

The smugness of it all, too. How, because in this great Golden Age of Nonpop we've got attention to the most conservative of the lot, this time it has caught engaged composers off guard and unengaged.

Well engage! Real composers, come out of it! Wake up! Don't just write your music, but make noise. Real performers, you too. Grab those Rosses and Kozinns and Sandows and let them know that intensity is alive and well and you'll take them on if they have the guts for it, the spine for it. They won't, they don't. They won't engage you the first time or the second or the tenth. And of course, they'll dither and die. You can hope for the latter. (It won't guarantee much better, because a generation of uneducated critical ignorance is waiting for those jobs. But that's the message for another day.)

Spine, my friends. Use it.

Tomorrow is July. Then it gets really hot. (Oh... and thanks, David.)

David Gunn at Kaxpiksu in 1975
David Gunn plays the Devil at the Kaxpiksu Performing Arts Festival in Trenton, New Jersey, 1975.

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