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   July 5, 2006   next

Even after yesterday's cheerful Independence Day celebrations, there is good reason to be skeptical about the arts within a capitalist system. Though my ongoing comments and exhortations (and the "We Are All Mozart" project itself) suggest that a fully free market mechanism is the goal, it truly isn't. In many ways my excessive buy-and-sell commentaries are a response that says yes, we can play within this system under extraordinary circumstances. Remember that the fit is poor, and it does not pinch me, it pinches you, my nation, my culture.

The corporatized direction of our über-capitalist system has the marks of a theocracy, which is why I have used the term "Capitaliban" to describe it. The assumption is that a free market is the solution for all problems except defense of the citizenry, and even that is contracted in greater measure to the private sector. Education is being transferred to corporations. The health of the population was and remains controlled by private institutions. Theocratic capitalists believe that the security of those who have provided the economic backbone to the nation for their entire lives should be tossed into the fickle free market. Everyone, these theorists believe, should be an expert in the work of their lives as well as the mechanics of their increasingly corporate-based finances.

The free market is in many ways a very functional system. But when it grows without oversight, we see that, like the Chinese Cultural Revolution, ability and skill and talent are put to death on the altar of orthodoxy. When government colludes with the private sector, it can purchase what the law does not allow it to gather by itself. Ultimately, everything can be bought and sold if the price is high enough.

The results are sinister, whether it means private flights to private prisons, the betrayal of our citizens' expectations, or the collaboration of government and business to bankrupt finances or dreams.

These are overwhelming issues. Yet considering the precipice on which we stand environmentally and politically, it would seem that the arts are safely protected by both free speech guarantees and a robust economy.

Unfortunately, neither is true. And indeed, they are resoundingly false. The broad interpretation of the laws worldwide, including the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution and issues of national security, gives government significant power to regulate dangerous speech, while keeping hands off powerflul corporations who control the means of communication. Though the internet would seem to release artists from tight scrutiny and control, one only need look toward sweeping intellectual property treaties (including currently debated provisions to make internet content separately copyrightable), the Great Firewall of China, or even Europe's apparently benevolent laws that outlaw Nazi artifacts and Holocaust denial, to realize that, from self-censorship through corporate censorship to government censorship, thought is being shifted toward the ordinary.

In fact, as the internet mirrors its increasingly large participatory population, the method of creating visibility drops even further into the older methods of distribution and advertising. The microscopic interest groups in yesterday's commentary are merely geographically far-flung, but no more visible or influential. Those means to visibility once again begin to fall to the corporate world and their good will. How long did it take Google's "do no evil" mantra to fade to silence once the staggering profit of providing search engines to totalitarian regimes was flashed before them? Google controls the means.

The equilibrium of large government-corporate alliance is re-establishing itself. Though we may have something to say and apparently a place to say it, the saying itself becomes increasingly difficult to hear. Search engines asked for "soundscape" already deliver ads that provide this kind of absurdity: "Soundscape. Looking for Soundscape? Find exactly what you want today. www.eBay.com" ... and sure enough, you can purchase "The Healing Garden: Sensuality - A Seductive Soundscape" along with 26 other items. Are you thrilled?

I'm not. The deceptive pseudo-democratization and full-on freemarketization of the arts provides the impetus to appeal to majorities of purchasers, and subsequently to compromise artistic choices to do so. Whether it means pop groups that tame their words because the largest buyer is the hyper-conservative Wal-Mart or renegade attorneys general who clothe the breasts of Justice or Janet, the result is neatly trimmed product, increasingly the same even where it dons the garb of rebellion. Rebellion is beautifully exploited, packaged, and marketed. The arts as we think of them -- cultural artifacts of past, present, and future -- are shucked out of the commonweal and the corporate one as well.

The capitaliban want you to write Splenda music. Every political power structure wants music that glorifies its ideals. Stalin wanted socialist realism. The Church wanted glorification music. Our free market system wants Splenda music, music that is pleasurable, that has the largest possible buying public, that contains nothing offensive, that requires nothing that is uneconomical, and that keeps to its place. Military bands are a good example -- and paid for by the government -- but the ideal example of Splenda music in nonpop is National Public Radio, whether it's their Happy Time Performance Today or Jazz Lite All Nite. A few negative phone calls or, worse, a well-connected listener who fails to renew membership because the music violates the Splenda music policy will guarantee a tightening of the stylistic belt -- not the economic one.


Composers know this is unacceptable, but what can be done? There's no begging to government agencies or corporations if you believe self-respect goes with artistry. Instead, composers can speak the truth. Speaking the truth is important for us as nonpop artists. It's never glad-handy and your stomach may disapprove. People will sidle away from the D-List composer. So how does music itself speak truth through your quill?

  • Be authentic. Speak with your own voice, not with the expected voice of performer or commissioner or one of the ten audiences. If the voices are the same, then the match is perfectly made. But a match is in truth impossible because authentic music is also adventurous music.
  • Be adventurous. We don't need more music, a point made with increasing frequency by composers themselves. The only music needed, if you will, is music that enriches the repertoire through ideas, vocabulary, sound. Not every piece must be new, but it must have a reason for existing beyond self-absorption or economic exchange. You must dream beyond what is into what will be tomorrow.
  • Hold your ideals. It's hard to put a finger on ideals with respect to music. It could be you really want that high G. Or that double-stop is critical. Or the work must be heard in eight channels. Or the players must be up to it. Whatever ideal you started with, do not let it go. You may be creating a product in modern capitalism's eyes, but it is your product and can be no other's.
  • Write well. Not well enough, but well. If you write well, every piece will frighten you into believing you could have written it better. It will take you over and shame you until one or the other of you is exhausted and weeping and you can do no better. It is not merely skill, for the next day you must be unsure. That is when you are writing well.
  • Be joyful. No, not happy. Joyful, filled with passion and wonder and despair and anticipation and fear and rage and love. You are an artist and hold in your mind and hands the vision of what does not yet exist. No one else on this earth is about to make the piece of art you are about to make. Whatever the struggle and the doubt, be joyful There is no sad birth.
  • Be brave. We don't need more music. So with great bravery, decide if your piece is good enough, and if you are good enough. What is good enough? You must decide. You are the doctor in the triage unit of your own soul. There is not enough of you to do all that your music must be. If there is, then you must place a toe-tag on your compositional life.

And how do you, the person who is also a composer, speak truth? I have no list for you, because it is an issue of conscience and personal risk. Will you speak out at concerts, and suffer alienating music directors or powerful boards? Criticize composers whose work is Splenda music, directly, and not surreptitiously? Praise those you most despise when their work is magnificent? Make public statements when your Arts Council or local ensembles are faithless to contemporary art? Admit to when your own work has failed? Speak out when it is important work? Say no to being purchased as a juggler-slave? Live your art?

I watched the space shuttle launch today, and followed it online as the news networks chased a new shoot-em-up story in North Korea. The reminders of authenticity, adventurousness, idealism, skill, enthusiasm, and bravery all came to mind. To seek to explore at the risk of instantaneous incineration, not because you were called or paid or commanded or bored or confused or patriotic, but because you quested with your very life.

As a composer, I wonder what we sacrifice, what we are strong enough to believe into our very bones. In reflecting on yesterday's holiday, I am reminded of these concluding words from the document that declared our nation's independence: "We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." Our lives, without running. Our fortunes, these idealistic capitalists. Our sacred honor. As artists, we should do so well.

Mirrorgarden installation, broken mirrors and sound, 1973
Mirrorgarden installation, broken mirrors in plaster with live electronic sound, 1973.

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