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"We Are All Mozart"

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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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There was an interesting confluence of emails yesterday from three lists: The More New Hours list discussing Canadian music (which replaced the "Two New Hours" list that the CBC closed due to controversy), the CEC-Conference list (an international electroacoustic music discussion list), and the Orchestra List (discussing, well, orchestra stuff).

A littlle background. These three lists have composers in common, but then diverge. More New Hours has composers and listeners, CEC-Conference has composers and academics, and O-List has composers and conductors. All three also have some performing musicians and presenters. And while on the topic of lists, extraordinary how-to and philosophical discussions can also be found at Finale (notation, with lots of peripheral conversation about the mechanics of music and historical issues), Surround Sound (the recording and reproduction of acoustic music), 3D-Audio (the creation of surround compositions and presentations), Algo-Comp (algorithmic composition), Sound As Art (sound art, installations, objects and methods), and LevNet (discussing all things theremin).

The confluence has to do with what might be called "lasting value."

The lasting-value problem includes the postmodernist flinching from judgment and discrimination in the arts, a loss of grip on the identity of the artwork, the continued dominance of older music and a lingering resentment over the Bad Years of new nonpop. Though the latter is a factor in any discussion, it isn't interesting for continued debate. It simply remains present, and will until those my age and older are gone.

In our postmodern era, it has become a subtext of communication that judgment is somehow a smarmy behavior primarily because it is impossible, and if judgment must exist at all, that the distasteful process is best left to the reviewers who get paid to indicate thumb direction and to water cooler conversations framed with the tacet understanding that one personal opinion is inherently equal to another -- that is, knowledge brought to the discussion is a power play to suppress a contrary point of view. Within this faux-egalitarian photograph can also be seen creators lurking in the background, jealous or triumphant, resentful or beneficent, yet equally unwilling to offer much beyond a skewed curve of praise from lukewarm through effusive.

Aside: It may seem that these commentaries are critical of equality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Through the grace of equality of opportunity, my own work has been heard. These critiques are primarily of wasted opportunity, fear, duplicity, cheapness, and a redefinition of terms intended to avoid discussing the reasons for choices we all make -- but not critical of imagination, exploration, experiment, or even accident. No, you will never mistake me for a Zen master.


The problem of judgment arose on the More New Hours list when a poster criticized an opera. Responses decried critiquing a countryman and suggested that the work could not be evaluated in musical terms alone. What did not arise in the discussion was an exploration of the opera's quality in terms of imagination, audience, or even mundane issues of technique.

Just as it began to devolve into a discussion of peripheral matters, percussionist and composer Rick Sacks wrote, "Culture is not a servant to comfort and surety. It is the risk-taking and the honesty of both the listener and the creator that generates the vitality or the sense of 'awe' or the transcendental, or the sublime, or at the least, delightful qualities we hope for, support and aspire to," and he concluded "It is essential that members of this list feel free to not just critique works/events in the most brutally honest way but to promote their own views. The list can handle it. Canada can handle it. Contemporary music requires it." (At that point, of course, discussion became at best polite, with one poster asking, "who is Rick Sacks?" Without an argument, question credibility.)


The CEC discussion began with a request to find German equivalents of three sound terms, and moved to the meaning of "der Sound" as a term of audio identity. The point here is not the definition of "der Sound" (as a kind of surface grip on an artwork) but rather how the process of questioning has almost entirely replaced the presentation of evidence or information, save to offer fodder for more questioning. The academic overlap has created an environment so fearful of even marginally delimited vocabulary and so anxious to deconstruct any premise that paragraphs are liberally sprinkled with scare quotes (What are a scare quotes? Here is a good explanation) and question marks and inevitably end with verbal shuffles, disclaimers, and emoticons.

The implication left is that there is always a search for diminishingly minuscule elements, moving toward the unsplittable particle of acoustic/musical truth. The validity in the experiment is assured without considering how it has consciously evolved the artform away from the ear-assessable and toward the analytical. This latter is not necessarily negative, at least in the presence of a concern for perception. But aside from discussions of perception (centering largely on its own impossibility of assessment), little attention is given to any of the ten audiences. When years ago Alcedo Coenen told me (and I paraphrase) that music had evolved away from the sound and into the concept, my suspicions were alerted. Was this still music? Or was it a new artform? If it was a new artform, by what artistic means did it communicate, and what message did it offer?


The third element of concern, and the one that ties all three together, is a request that popped up on the O-List. Composer Karen Amrhein asked for advice on bequeathing music and intellectual property rights. It was a good and simple question, and spawned a second one from composer David Lamb about archiving manuscripts.

The discussion fractured into the practical (methods of preservation, where to bequeath materials, viable formats) and the judgmental (material worth keeping, cultural value, and anonymity). A striking undercurrent in this means-vs.-value discussion was that contemporary behavior was identical to past behavior, and past behavior was clear: artistic significance was predicated on recognition during one's lifetime. Composers unknown in traditional terms might as well chuck their work in the landfill now instead of leaving it to their kids. (Buried deep inside was something even more sinister: that most composers might as well stop composing. Well yes, some composers should stop composing, but lack of potential legacy isn't the reason.)

For dealing with practical issues, here is what I posted to the list:

Composer Gilles Yves Bonneau, died unexpectly in 2002, bequeathing me all his work (I was his publisher and a longtime friend). I was unprepared to receive them, and live in a very small home. So there are some 15 crates of manuscripts, packed in plastic, in my barn. They are looking for a home without success. None of the universities in the places he lived (Québec, Vermont, Louisiana, Washington) have expressed interest.

My own work is extensive (in many fields), and it's been suggested I contact the university libraries in my state. None are interested. I have no academic connections. My distributor (Frog Peak Music) doesn't have the space to accept any of the original materials.

Archiving has become a major problem. Archives (libraries and independents) have consistently seen their funding shrink. Materials previously given to archives are being broken up and redistributed. Some are sitting cataloged and crated, but untended -- such as the original materials I prepared when I created the annotated bibliography of Kenneth Sawyer Goodman's work for the Newberry Library (Completed in 1978, published in 1983, and now OOP but $55-$75 on Amazon. Yikes! I should sell my copy!). The Goodman materials remain stored as they were. Fortunately, his work was done before 1918, before acidic paper.

The rest of us have acid paper, and guaranteed-to-be-obsolete digital formats. (Here's my 2002 article on this.)

Composers with university connections would do well to take advantage of those now; a composer in Manhattan has his work organized for receipt by his alma mater, so he is relieved.

If you're not talking about original material, it might have a greater interest (sometimes). But as a former librarian, I can also say that from the library end, receiving an unexpected bequest in not unwelcome, but often greeted with a stiff smile. It's best to make arrangements well ahead of time with parties who would like to receive the materials. If they don't want them, they will be merciless in paring down the collection received. You might do better on eBay, and give the institution the proceeds.

No matter what route you take, do it early. (I shouldn't talk. I still haven't done it.)

But the conversation soon turned to the question of value. Steven Schaffner wrote, "While we each think our work is important, and maybe it is, most folks couldn't care less what we've done with our lives." Steven's comment is an irrelevant truism in that it does not recognize the circumstances that have changed in recent times. Local significance is valued as towns and cities and nations have gained a heightened sense of community, and the peculiar circumstances of the internet have given rise to a new kind of international or rather pan-national visibility.

Rather, the problem lies once again with the lack of the critical means to define and then identify "lasting value."


Now let's put it together.

We have (1) no critiques or bravery, (2) no definitions or vocabulary, and (3) no judgments or interest. Together, it means no listenership and no legacy, that is, no "lasting value." The absence of definitions provides nothing for an artist to push against, no limits to explore, with art becoming self-absorption. Without these factors, it guarantees the continued dominance in performance and recording of dead European white males and their counterpart composers in contemporary society. If we have no means to judgment, or if it is supressed, we depend on historical judgment, that is, historical personalities and approaches that cannot give us the tools to acquire a sense for the contemporary. Judgment is given over to chance and glad-handing, and works that are approved will inevitably appeal to the past-minded, for they have no tools for listening to, much less developing a critical sense of, new nonpop.

This is not about education or intellect. It is about the toolset -- one which we find readily available for music outside nonpop. There is animated discussion of authenticity, genres, references, influences, technique, style, and recording quality. These are the same terms applicable to nonpop. Why are we not hearing them?

Oh, but wait! Have I just stepped into a self-contradiction? Yes, I have objected to talking about music. Words are the skeins out of which doleful philosophy is spun. Talking about music is about the talking, not about the music. It is impossible to translate the music, and when one does so it risks turning into philosophical salesmanship like Adorno's, Jameson's, Danto's, or Hofstadter's.

We get the ability to understand music from the music itself. Outside the music itself, it is a card trick, like fate knocking at the door in Beethoven's Fifth. It may be helpful to some musicians to think about their own worldview and how it affects their approach to music, but it has no meaning within the context of the music. We can get worldview from "Peanuts," too, as many a musician has, or by the brook, in the garden, or hiking a canyon.

Time out.

These issues are so large that one improvisational daily commentary is piffle. But finding solutions is important, or there will be no legacy outside those composers who have digested their work through enough stylistic entrails of the past that it seems to carry artistic weight. One can guess the content of that weight. (Yes, I'm loath to name names because it's unfair to do it in a unidirectional public place like this one; face-to-face is better, though still not endearing.)

A few points, then, made in words with respect to the surround of music that can enable it to be heard, grasped, and internalized.

  • Content. In the development of a viable artistic vocabulary, there is no place for content-free, art-free music, music that may be technically proficient, even heartfelt, but under the surface uninteresting or uninvolved as art. That applies particularly to Splenda music: fanfares & overtures & tone poems in honor of places and events that make no attempt to engage the listener in a worldview shift, even a slight one. Without creative imagination, the composer cannot engender this shift. (To put myself on the line: Clouds of Endless Summer has an appealing, almost Splenda music quality about it. That was deliberate. Also deliberate were the incorporation of a moto perpetuo in the piano part that moves right through the apparent tempo change, and the use of central minimal textures to set off the pseudo-romanticism of the outer wings. Those two form the conscious shift.)
  • Identity. The academic world is responsible for curating the musical vocabulary, but it is in the grips of an ongoing identity crisis. A solution would be welcome, even if it means making peace with the alternative nonpop world now as it did with the jazz world a generation ago. That applies to the vocabularly of productivity as well. Composer P. Kellach Waddle wrote, "I really wish Comp Academia would put more emphasis on production -- to tell people to write something all the time. To be blunt, like I do. If it's a chord progression, a note, something. I see too many people getting PhDs and Masters and no one seems to have a problem that they write two minutes of music a year. This really continues to concern me."
  • Imagination. Although the idea of progress per se in music is specious, conservatism haunts the realm. Conservatism is well known in the concert hall, but it can also be found in the explosion of retro sounds (in peripheral nonpop electronic composition, for example) and retro thinking (such as theremin performers who play The Swan rather than exploring, Eric Ross-like, the advanced sonic world of the air-based instrument), as well as the explosion of "photoshop music" -- pastiches of existing patches and rhythm generators that output endless streams of sub-mediocre sound. In other words, we need a functional critical vocabulary that can reveal the imaginative grains within the enormous heap of sonic chaff.
  • Obligation. A sense of responsibility to the field of composition would help. This is not to suggest a compositional chauvinism, but rather the willingness to speak truth to oneself and to others.

In other words, the definition and contractual terms for "lasting value" must be shifted by a conscious application of energy by composers and their performer compatriots.

How time flies. My daily three hours are up. Here's a photo from this morning -- a pumpkin blossom for Noah Creshevsky.

First pumpkin blossom of the year
The first pumpkin blossom this year, with the power of horse manure brought to bear upon the roots.

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