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"We Are All Mozart"

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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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The desire for novelty is woven into our genes, yet the desire for newness is apparently not -- it bucks up against our avoidance of harm.

Artists knew this long before the genome was unbraided.

The avoidance of harm drives both extraterrestrial-threat movies and ordinary immigration fears. The sense of accompanying loss is exploited. The classical establishment has institutionalized harm-avoidance by reducing its programming to what Douglas Adams might call the "mostly harmless."

The search for novelty is found in extreme sports and survivor television, and of course at the heart of new releases in the pop genres. Because music is consumed and discarded so quickly, there is no perceived harm should a 'threatening' recording appear. Government also institutionalizes harm-avoidance with warning labels and public attacks on musicians who move from the novel to the threatening.

Nonpop composers have, whether with progressive slowness or breakthrough speed, sought the new, whether or not it was also the novel. Dictionaries see these words as synonyms, but in the nonpop realm, they are distinct:

Novel & New

The novel is an isolated difference, fascinating for its arbitrary character and absence of direct backward or forward connections. Novelty is evanescent and any gain in significance is accidental. Disconnected backward novelty included the appearance of Solesmes monks singing Gregorian chant in pop tracks and even the marvelous Grunt : Pigorian Chant from Snouto Domoinko de Silo, or Judy Collins singing Landini's Lasso, di Donna, Suzanne Vega's unaccompanied solo in Tom's Diner, or the otherwise mediocre White Stripes tearing rock down to simplicity. Disconnected forward novelty (that is, novelty that does not 'take') can be heard in extended-length recordings during the rock era's high baroque with Cream's Toad, Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick or Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Tarkus, or such curiosity pieces as the Electric Prunes Mass in F Minor (though even Vanilla Fudge based Some Velvet Morning's breaks on the Rite of Spring) and Wendy Carlos's Switched-On Bach.

The new is a coherent difference, often confrontational or rebellious, arising from or opposing existing expectations or traditions. Newness initiates an enduring change of worldview, and as such usually arises over the horizon of visibility after its initiating events have already taken place. Newness is found in the blooming of Romanticism with its contrasts and emotions, the rise of atonality and serialism, the development of electroacoustic musics, the unexpected appearance of minimalism, and it includes specific initiating events such as igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Arnold Schoenberg's Suite für Klavier, Les Paul and Mary Ford's overdubbed recordings of the 1950s, Terry Riley's In C, and David Del Tredici's Final Alice.

In some cases, newness is buried in novelty, as with George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique, Darius Milhaud's La Création du Monde, and (among many) Raymond Scott's Powerhouse. Scott buried newness in novelty with a blend of vaudeville, jazz and modern rhythms working in real-time assembly of his music, without score -- and his electronic invention informed his music as well. Scott's novelty and pan-musicism has driven recordings by Kronos, the most postmodernly decadent of the chamber ensembles.

The novel is particularly present today in the reference-without-quoting environment. That is, nonpop composers have traditionally exploited their own and others' work, Brahms's Variations of a Theme by Haydn or his Academic Festival Overture and Vaughn Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis being among the best known classical repertoire. Today, such external quoting of common cultural references is all but forbidden. The conversion of copyright protection into an artistically eternal lock on products of the mind -- eternal because when the cultural reference lines are ruptured, they cannot be repaired -- has increased the distance between nonpop composers and their potential audiences. In such a non-referential environment, stealing from oneself or stealing from pre-1923 sources is a meaningless cultural exercise.

The quote-laden pieces of Biz Markie, for example, were slapped down in court, and groups like Negativland and artists such as John Oswald (of Plunderphonics fame) have faced the issues of quoting and sampling directly and often unsuccessfully. Organizations such as illegal art showcase sampled compositions for which permission demands are ignored or rejected. (We must solve the intellectual property issue, redefining and restoring the original concepts of copyright and the commons, or the cultural reference stream will dry up or be diverted to corporatized music-making. Another day for that.)

There are plenty of references to pop styles and backbeats and jazz riffs, but nonpop explorations of, say, New York, New York or Lonely Woman or Peaches en Regalia or Like a Virgin or even Oops! I Did It Again hardly exist at all. So the novel is requisite, even moreso in pop with its consume-and-discard paradigm.

But imagine a situation where quoting in new nonpop was commonplace rather than caught in a nightmarish legal snare. The new could develop out of or react to the music industry and its products directly, and the gestures of nonpop could be integrated with the audience's experiences. (Right now the best we can expect is back-of-brain steals from existing music, whence we may expect a hard rain of lawsuits if our brain is too obvious. Jeff Winner has a delightful phrase for it, calling James Horner a klepto-composer.)

Cultural References

This is no small difference between what is and what could be. With the ability to cut from the cloth of common cultural references -- even if they are pop culture -- threads of commonality in the nonpop can be spun. The audience (and performers) can grasp the new by reference to the known, and the novelty of the known can be reconstructed into the new. It's not an issue of many sets of variations, but rather a body of cultural nodes that can be connected, an internet of sound, a compositional nervous system. Nonpop lacks reference -- and absent reference, we too engage in novelty. (And when we do not, such as when it is forced upon us in the name of ideology, we get twisted fragments of structures such as Alexander Mosolov Steel Foundry, faux-descriptive Soviet realism. Other later industrial places like the Charles Coleman's Lime Factory, not so much.)

When we engage in novelty ourselves, with small audiences, who is there to perceive the novelty? The novelty becomes old -- and there is nothing we can teach ourselves in this way. We become self-referential, creating personal languages and forms and terms and actions and gestures. Novelty embedded in the personal becomes a style but moreso can become a rutted path, as it has done in nonpop, particularly in the electroacoustic realm, whose tools developed so much more quickly in the Nineties.

There are three possible examples across the spectrum of renown: Karlheinz Stockhausen, Michael Torke, and Larry Kucharz. Each has developed a personal vocabularly and an internalized set of references.

Stockhausen's Licht uses his formel. But what else hangs it together to the ears? Is there a set of extra-Stockhausenian cultural references? There is not. Stockhausen, who calls out to collect the universe, reduces it to himself. One longs for a single moment of Over the Rainbow, Fly Me to the Moon, Venus or even Stars are Blind.

Torke's color pieces contain few overt cultural connections beyond the beat and the harmonies, but he draws together internal fibers so that, like tumors, they are self-standing but embedded in the musical body while maintaining a sibling relationship -- through colors: Green, Purple, Ecstatic Orange, Bright Blue Music, Charcoal, Slate, Rust, Chalk and Yellow Pages.

Finally, Larry Kucharz creates ambient soundscape music, also threaded by colors and personal style. Ambient sound has found a place in the ear through trance artists and film music, but almost nothing else reaches out of his world from Ambient Red Washes, Ambient Blue Washes, CyberChoralColors, ComputerChoral Green Prints, DigiChoral Blue Portraits, blue motion, Dark Red and red motion.

One can of course ask what either Torke's or Kucharz's pieces actually have to do with color, and this brings in the mystery of naming. Are they really color? No, not at all. With Torke they are simply titles, a place to hang program notes on; With Kucharz, they are synaesthetic suggestions. Names pose a dilemma. They may be the way in which otherwise-absent references can be integrated into a work -- or avoided.


In modern musical history, from about 1600 forward, names underwent a change, moving from song names to form names with song references. Vocal and instrumental songs had their source names, but veering off were the canzon and ricercar and sonata and toccata -- song and echo and sounding and touch pieces, mildly descriptive. Composers like John Dowland gave suggestive names to their suites, such as Lacrimae Antiquae, based on his song Flow My Teares. Form names proliferated, some named for ensembles (trio, quartet, quintet, etc.) and some were functional (trio sonata and Mass). There arose symphonies, concertos, preludes, noctures, mazurkas, some still dance names, some not, some named (as with Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata) by publishers as marketing opportunities.

Programmatic and descriptive names were a rich part of the Romantic developments (the tone poems of Richard Strauss or Franz Liszt, and the named waltzes and marches of the Strauss family) along with standard form names. The dissolution of Romanticism did not leave behind the names, whether modified and sometimes descriptive (such as Milhaud's Suite Provençale and Le Boeuf sur le toît, Stravinsky's ballets Petrouschka and orchestral work Pulcinella, and Resphighi's Ancient Airs and Dances Suites and Fountains of Rome). Olivier Messiaen gave us the Quartet for the End of Time and a host of bird pieces that represented both transcriptions and musical explorations.

Into the modernist era, fragments of forms -- abstract forms denying the Romantic impulse -- dominated the musical landscape: constructions, domains, elements, structures, formulas, responses, groups, masses, angles, blocks, and a host of untitleds. Elliot Carter still called his music studies or quartets or concertos, and even proto-modernists Boulez (Le Marteau sans maître or Pli selon pli) and Xenakis (Pithoprakta or Bohor) liked a good title. There was an era of coldness nevertheless, when names were significantly abstracted from the underlying musical ideas. Modernist names and modernist music attempt to make the unprogrammatic sound dominant. My own Construction for Trombones & Tape from 1974 was an example, though the piece was more sultry than objective, leading me to retitle it Construction "on nix rest... in china" from the fragments of text. (A parallel trend was the dissociation of sematic meaning from words, as in Berio's Sequenza III for solo voice.)

By the Eighties, names made a strong return and the constructions and structures gave way to poetic names, albeit few particularly descriptive (certainly no Dnieper Power Station in there). In any case, names are problematic because one can never know what they mean. Explanations from composers may help, or may merely reference a source concept or driving force. The abstraction of music waits quietly to deny what the composer proclaims.

My own work is amplified or diminished this way. Titles are chosen before the music is written; most have neither sonic implication nor moral lesson. They are merely tags that, if anything, carry a composition's aesthetic. My "birds" series is an exception -- not descriptive so much as a nod to the source material. LowBirds was drawn from the suggestion of thrushes, HighBirds (Prime) from a spectrogram of several bird calls, Mirrored Birds from the wingspans of flying birds and Middelburd from a transition from the silicon to the carbon (and the name of a town). But nothing is exposed by these names, even if doors to cultural commonality are opened by the sleight-of-hand that naming requires, a sleight-of-hand that with luck reveals the new inside.

In recent years, naming itself has become a novelty -- and a challenge. Armies of Mice, John Somebody, Meat, Dix Gens? Dijon?, The Hook, Dream Bridge, Another Violin, High Life for Strings, Travelling by Camel, The Vermeer Room, Terminal Baggage, White Cranes, Slack Tide, Egil the Skald, Voice Activated, Long Night, Piping the Earth, Absolution, Icecut, After Devil's Night, Bounce... all titles chosen from 1995, 2000, and 2005 respectively (and only one mine).

The name, the novelty, and the new. It's this last, this bedeviling newness, that is the composer's cross, for the composer-artist is a beast who does not suffer mediocrity lightly. Each composition, if it is to be written at all, must speak with a unique voice or with a unique message or in a unique way -- and, as the naming reveals, too often with novelty embedded with the obstinately personal and private. Perhaps this search is why we take so long to write.

The cats wait for the rain to end
Twelve-year-old twins Oranjeboom and Gesualdo watch forelornly on the door for the rain to end.

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