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"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

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At a time when the the flames of death and destruction visit the peoples of the world with increasing madness, it may seem petty to wag a finger at minor injustices in the tiny privileged community of nonpop. But minor injustices incite great resentments and flare into anger that joins in the collective lunacy.

So another invitation to send music to a competition arrived today.

Musical competitions are depressing affairs, like lotteries in which we buy a ticket with the tacit understanding that we will lose and that the act means nothing. A desperate composer creates a piece, checks the rules, usually pays a fee, sends a bunch of copies, and waits for the lottery results. The copies go to judges (performers, composers, conductors, impresarios) who jockey for position with their favorite styles, and try to decide who might have some imagination, but not too much to offend, who might best represent what they represent, but not too much to be obvious that the deck is stacked. Almost every composer gets a rejection letter without explanation, just like a lottery ticket. Few get chosen for possible performance, sometimes a purse is offered. Subsequent oblivion is all but guaranteed anyway. (Forget it, Jake. It's nonpop.)

One wonders why composers bother. Yet these marginally artistic jousting contests remain a staple of the compositional world, even more desirable than grant begging. For some composers, to win a competition is a sign of validity. (Aside: That sort of insecurity makes no sense to me. I have my own insecurities that generate much more creative excuses for any possible apparent seeming lack of success, thank you. I'll answer an occasional call for scores, but not these competitions.)

Competitions often have fees, and too many have startlingly discriminatory rules. A typical competition might be for Canadian women composers born after 1970, or for an unpublished composition by a composer able to come up with a caviar entrance fee and pay plane fare for required presence at the premiere.

This is the source of today's commentary: How composers accept these limits and demands and charges in order to snap at prizes dangled like herring from above. The competition invitation just arrived reminded me of some notes begun in earlier this year and left incomplete.

In competitions -- when the teeth and claws are ever-so-politely bared -- artists are among the last apologists for systemic discrimination. They would stand face-to-face with another artist and say: You may not participate. You come from the wrong land. You have a vagina or a penis. You are too old or too career-mature. You are not in our stylistic club. You are not wealthy enough to pay fees and hire musicians to make acoustic demos. Go away.

Some of this discrimination has been cleaned out in the U.S. at least, but there are still gender-limited and fee-limited competitions and a general disaffection with the 'dis'-abled. And yes, nationalism remains intractable almost everywhere, whether explicitly part of the competition's terms or unspoken, as with the legendary rejection of Latin American composers in European competitions whose barriers were more nationalist than stylistic.

Management efficiency and group self-identification are two of the discrimination's apparently sensible sources. Opportunities are limited to a group's own membership or to students, for example. These Elks-Lodge-style scholarship contests are self-congratulatory -- what good boys are we -- even where their meaning for the world at large is dubious, a curiosity, a musical flick. And yes, it's efficient to keep the number of entries from becoming overwhelming by accepting only music you are guaranteed to understand, in a kind of personal entertainment way. No funny stuff, mister.

One can wave away nationalistic competitions as, well, nationalistic sources of false pride, and use a funhouse mirror to see gender limitations as still having some sort of vestigial social purpose. But age is the stinky & deliberate discrimination that few composers, organizers or judges challenge. Age discrimination is apparently the 'benign' discrimination of arts competitions. Many richly framed excuses have been offered for age discrimination. The competition gives first opportunities to innovative young composers. It eliminates composers who should have been recognized by a certain age and so must be dullards now. It divides the emerging composers from the mature composers. It distinguishes the utterly unknown from the overly lauded.

The reasons are all phony. Such discrimination is based on laziness, predicated upon the inability to articulate meaningful distinctions by competition managers and their complicit judges. Artists arise at all ages, not during delimited Mozartean lifecycles (and indeed there are two kinds of creativity in different balance at different ages and levels of experience). Phony reasons reward young composers for (depending on the competition) either novelty events or professor-emulation, and promote little more than everybody-is-a-winner! feelgoodism.

So what are the solutions to this intractable problem a giving younger artists a chance, and keeping out artists who have failed? Or keeping in artists who need the opportunity, and barring those who would pollute the pool? Of preventing the famous from out-competitioning the newcomer? Separating the green hay from the yellow straw, as it were?

These are not the right questions. This discrimination is an illusion of fairness, a faux-tribalism that reeks worse than geographical or political tribalism. It is the essense of artistic collapse, of a failure of the artform.

Both dot-music and electroacoustics are fields of almost entirely subjective judgment. We can pluck out techniques, begin to hear derivative behavior, be annoyed at noise or compression or harmonic anomalies, and attempt to identify innovation. As with any art, try as we might, it's futile -- and the lack of public visibility for nonpop art music is all the more proof of that. But to state it so is being coolly philosophical, engendering a momentary scrunch of the brow.

How about this: What is the difference between a piece by a composer whose first compositional steps were taken at 28 years and one day, and that of a prolific composer of 27 years and 364 days? The difference between a piece by a wealthy Sunday-afternoon tune-dabbler of 42 with a room full of software and recording technology, and a poor but dedicated 20-something with a two-generation-old laptop and a heap of hand-me-down paper with five-line staves? What distinguishes the 30-and-a-half-year-old from the 29-and-a-half-year-old in any artistically significant way? (Did someone say the substance of the art? Yes, good, now take your herring and go. Door to the right.)

Remember, the rules are generic, so saying 'it depends on the piece' is fatuous. Oh, perhaps it's to weed out the loopers from the posers, the improvisers from the sketchers? Maybe to herd the fat, overqualified prize-hunter with a slick opus away from the hungry, desperate newcomer with more imagination than technique? How could anyone know that? Maybe it's because the judges need some way to be sure they don't make embarrassing mistakes?

Oh, you want to know how to qualify these entrants. How about self-qualification as, say, inexperienced and experienced? If the winner were unmasked as too experienced for the category, would the competition be shamed? Or would the winner be shamed? Or does that matter at all? What about no categories, and really put the judges on the spot to figure out what makes a substantive contribution to artform? Or entertainment? How about that one? (Now there's a distinction -- which category do you want to be in, art or entertainment? Careful.)

Some believe that calls to end arbitrary discriminations amount to no requirements at all -- no length, no medium, no source, no purpose, no definitions, nothing but a fuzzy undifferentiated heap of potential sounds. Such arguments (the falling dominoes, the opening floodgates) are diversionary. Of course such requirements can be met, because they are criteria that an artist can choose to meet -- or not. A composer cannot choose to be white, or female, or 27, or Belgian (well, maybe Belgian), or grow eyesight for purposes of a competition.

There is no reason to continue living in an artistic world of acceptable discrimination. The shame here goes to the organizers for doing it, the judges -- well-known judges all -- for participating, and artists hungry for that herring.

Artists, supposedly forward-thinking individuals, must scream 'enough' and turn out those responsible for such practices. And if it does not change, then it can be subverted by flooding the competitions with false entries. (Yes, I've done that -- pretended to be a different person. I like subversion. Oh, it's not fair to those who entered honestly? Bollocks to them for believing the competition was fair in the first place.)

Here's the thing. We cannot infuse vitality into nonpop with discriminatory tricks that cheapen us. We can only do it with vigorous presentation of authentic, compelling art.

A view from Mount Mansfield
This is last year on Mt. Mansfield. It's days like today when the desire for another hike grows strong.

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