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 11, 2006   next

The days are warm and dry. We still have the woodchuck plaguing the garden, and put up a low-to-the-ground electric fence. Yesterday, with the weeds pulled and new plantings in place, there were deer tracks and more plants eaten. Another higher strand of fence wire was added, and a fence was set around the young pumpkin plants, too. It's not been an easy time to focus on music, for that's our winter food disappearing into the happy wildlife preserve we seem to have created.


Making art expects forgetfulness -- rejecting, setting aside, and eventually forgetting what one has learned. In music, the evocation of expectation is so strong that forgetfulness is imperative.

This is not a radical statement. It's about choosing imagination. Can we stream through this for a score (although an electroacoustic piece might engender similar questions)?

Something happens first. A request, an idea, a date. The process starts. Select a sound, style, or just wait for inspiration. What is that? Is it just sound, personally significant, culturally laden? What is the first thing to put down? Title? Note? Nothing?

And then forgetfulness weaves into the the process.

That instrument is used but could be any other instrument. Forget. Re-imagine.
That note sequence is elaborate and baroque and cheap. Forget. Re-imagine.
That progression is so familiar, but it carries implications. Forget. Re-imagine.
That meter has been let happen rather than been chosen. Forget. Re-imagine.
That two-part interplay is ordinary textbook counterpoint. Forget. Re-imagine.
That style has inhabited too much work in recent years. Forget. Re-imagine.
That voicing is inked without any thought to its purpose. Forget. Re-imagine.
That rhythmic figure has been heard so many times before. Forget. Re-imagine.
That moment is all talk and no action and no silence either. Forget. Re-imagine.
That expression creates expectations that betray the music. Forget. Re-imagine.
That development is truly not part of the piece's vocabulary. Forget. Re-imagine.
That ending stops meaninglessly in trying to hush the sound. Forget. Re-imagine.

There is nothing overtly magical in this process, except from the outside. It takes place so quickly that the watcher cannot see the forgetting and re-imagining. It's as if brilliant creativity streams unbidden from the pen or the fingertips.

It is far more ruthless. The exhaustion a composer feels at the end of a day (or even an hour) of composition comes from the tugging and peeling away of the constant surface, the scooping out of the dull and heavy, and the excavation of the compelling far below the surface. Not the craggy stone, but the crystal in the geode. Neither the placid lawn, but the piercing rhyzome. Not the topside ripples, but the deep and steady clarity below. Not the crowds at the surface, but the still heat and clap of silence inside the canyon.

The natural analogies are revealing, and preferable to semantics because, despite the internal similarity of each upon reaching the sub-molecular -- the rock, the ground, the water, the cleft -- the paths to discovery are unique, a zigzag of steps. It looks like a possible geode. The grass may have invaded here. It seems the water is calm below. The canyon might be private. Then: Not this one. Not here. Not under here. Not on this trail. And again, later: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Each 'yes' flashes by unacknowledged as, unlike geodes and grasses and streams and canyons, the next problem presents itself before the previous is entirely solved (or even clarifies its 'rightness'). In music, these problems and solutions interweave in a fabric of yes and no, forget and re-imagine.

Even to the composer the fireworks of forgetting and re-imagining explode and fall to the ground so quickly that the whole event, merely chemistry borne into sound and light, seems magical.

The story of actual fireworks will wait until another day.


For nearly twenty years, I made a weekly trip to a small shop to repair electronic devices. The shop once occupied two showrooms where televisions and VCRs were sold, and two rooms of repair benches with four technicians. It was a jovial group, and our lunches were taken together around a heap of the latest equipment abused by consumers and their kids, including the VCRs full of packing peanuts or peanut-butter sandwiches, the CD players layered with the condensed smoke from a half-dozen winters' woodstoves, and the endless crackle-and-thump of late-summer televisions knocked senseless by lightning.

In recent years, though, traffic into the shop dwindled. Three techs shrank to two, one room became storage. A showroom closed and became an apartment. I was the last tech, with no work for almost a year. And a week ago, the owner sold his home and moved into the old showroom. The shop will be open another few months, and then we all retire from that work.

Repairing equipment is not unlike composing. No two pieces break down the same way, so one struggles to solve the problem of each. Sometimes it's imagination, sometimes a circuit study. From the earliest tech years back in New Jersey, it was said I had 'magic hands.' They would hover over equipment, gently stroke the circuit boards, and in a while the source of the problem would come clear. Like the television show Psych, it was somewhat of a dissembling. My body's resistance and capacitance would throw the circuits out of balance, and without having to engage in laborious voltage measurements, I could isolate the problem. There was a certain joy in forgetting the schematics and re-imagining the problem as a body out of balance, seeing past the surface deep into the shift of electrons, and then repairing the unit for the inevitably delighted owner.

But consumption habits have changed. Equipment is cheap, and not worth repairing. Oh, the occasional Philco still came in for repair. But the landfills now gulp down masses of circuit boards and motors and dials and displays and plastic housings and rivers of lead-tin solder. There's an anthropomorphizing of our vehicles, but not of our televisions. They are used up, sitting silent and opaque by the curbside.

Our music is like that. People like or don't like it, but don't think much about it. The 78s crack, the LPs get scratched, the CDs get dusty, the MP3s get drop out of shuffle. They go out of style, and so much music is so cheap. The music gets tossed. The composers get tossed. What was once a strong current of imagination is now like the lower Colorado, shallow and discolored as power roars through the Hoover and Glen Canyon to light a million flickering computer screens, before a few of which labor composers on work that will be heard perhaps once before it is replaced by newer, shinier, and cheaper musical product.

A different character of forgetfulness, this.


Gosh, that really wasn't meant to be depressing. But something else has been on my mind. The repair shop owner's nephew Richie had heard about We Are All Mozart, and his question at that bonfire party was simple: "Doing a piece every day? Why commoditize music so great?"

"Great?," I responded. "Do you listen to that music?" No, he didn't. He know only about it, that it was great music. Great art. His uncle had listened with care, faithfully coming to my concerts -- though his real love was 1950s pop. He had an original RCA 45rpm changer, and often retired to his bedroom to listen to oldies under their own terms. But Richie was a musician and a Rush guy, an Eagles guy. Nonpop wasn't in his vocabularly. How did he know it was great? And more important, why did he think it should not be commoditized?

Inside the answers to those questions may be unearthed our artform's future.


Don't know how I missed it: Art and Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Composer John McGuire recommended it because he said that We Are All Mozart "feels right, and the validity of the premise has been verified experimentally" in Art and Fear. And now I recommend it (despite the authors' stereotypical dislike of the music of the past century).

The productivity survey is coming along, but still unfinished. Distilling those hundreds of brilliantly expressed thoughts is not a simple task.

The stain on the jeans becomes a dolphin
Forget that these are my wife's jeans. Forget that it is a paint stain. Re-imagine the dolphin in the water.

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