A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
Tomorrow is the Kalvos & Damian special live show in Manhattan. Come to 109 West 27th to Lotus Music and Dance at 8:00pm for a little fun.
Getting ready for the show involves creating a cluttery table that feels like the radio studio, popping on headphones, and delivering the whole affair as if our audience were on the other side of a radio signal. If you've ever heard the show, you'll be familiar with the format -- except that this time around we're featuring our own creations. You'll hear music performed by Lydia Busler-Blais, Beth Griffith, Joseph Kubera, Jacqueline Martelle, along with David and me. There will be David's Redoubt (an early piece for three voices), Lois (for "60x60"), Forbidden Flute (flute and piano), and Utopiano. My early piece is i cried in the sun aïda (four voices), along with the "60x60" piece The Warbler's Garden, Sweet Ovals (French horn), and Spammung (extended voice and playback). There will be a few surprises as well.
I'm a frugal sort, so Stevie and I were hammering out the most efficient and cost-effective way to get in and out of New York, and have a good time while we were there. Nonpop is not a lucrative field. Minimizing loss is its guiding principle. Our vehicle is too old & mileage-heavy for the trek, so it meant flying or renting a car. We chose the latter -- and based on what's happening in the skies, it was a good choice. Odd and modified performance equipment would not have made a positive impression on touchy inspectors.
The current policies of overreaction strike me as insanely stupid. We become entangled in the very personal, political, and economic mess that anyone from prankster to evildoer would rejoice in causing. I don't for a second minimize the tragedies of terror, but it feels like our leaders have neither sense of history nor imagination. Whether it's the half-millennial convulsions of religions in transition (uprisings, wars, crusades, inquisitions, or jihads) or more recent political extremist acts (in Munich, Rome, Belfast, Tel Aviv, or Oklahoma City) or even fiction, our cultural and political psyche seems repeatedly surprised by zealotry or hate or even madness.
And so we react in childish, nyah-nyah ways. Box cutters get used for hijacking, so ban them. Shoe-clad nutcases attempt destruction, so x-ray shoes. Liquids are prepared for explosions, so dump them. Make mothers drink their breast milk. Put canes and walkers through scanners. How many scenarios can be imagined where, one by one, items are forbidden because of might-bes or once-wases? Lithium batteries in laptops rigged to explode? Pills looking like medicine that will flame in contact with air or water? Clothing woven with inflammable thread? False teeth filled with toxins? Walkers with metallic sodium under the aluminum? Maybe even pieces of flint used to ignite a conflagration? Any part-time sci-fi writer has already spun out a hundred doomsday scenarios created with household items. And that doesn't begin to address the ongoing, self-inflicted invasion of privacy and curtailment of freedom that goes hand-in-hand with pervasive political ignorance, such as internal spying, data mining, ubiquitous cameras, and covert detentions.
The boneheaded reactions prevent the discovery of simple, non-confrontational, uninvasive solutions. Travelers are allowed to put carry-on-forbidden items in checked baggage. Okay then. My very first thought yesterday morning was: Hey this is easy. Surely they'll phone Costco and Wal-Mart and every other big box store in reach of the airports: "This is TSA. Send over all the large ziplocks and sealable bags you have, right now." Dump a big box of bags at every check-in counter and every security checkpoint. Notify check-in and security personnel to print an extra baggage tag for every traveler and apply it to the bag at check-in or as they pass through security. Liquids in the tagged bag, bag into a big box of peanuts. Pickup at destination. Done. Sure, maybe some things get lost like any other baggage -- but it's not harmless personal property turned into a bins & bins of waste and debris. Would that viable solution have been hard, even with an hour's notice? And that's just one idea by the half-awake guy sucking on his first morning coffee. It could already have been implemented in the days of confiscating knitting needles and nail files. Where is the imagination? How'd the zealots get so smart? How'd we get so stupid?
The performance artist in me is reminded by this madness of the photographs of hundreds of naked, massed models in Grand Central Station. That memory suggests future air travel possibilities. I imagine each of us entering one of a parallel rank of small locker rooms, similar to security checkpoints but enclosed like those voting booths of yore. We reach up and snap together and lock the heavy curtains. But instead of voting, we remove all our clothes and jewelry and hair decorations and toupées until we are shiny naked. We press a big button and out pops a tube containing a fresh white paper gown and hospital slippers, which we don. Our clothes and decorative items go into the pneumatic tube, which now takes on the role of a locker with our baggage tag and a personal digital lock. We push the pneumatic tube into the receptacle and it disappears in a sucking whoosh. We pull the lever again and the opposite curtain snaps open. We file out of the lockers in a great stream of rustling white paper, pass through security for the body cavity x-ray, pick up a courtesy bag of toiletries handed out by the flight crew (also white-papered, but with chevrons), and enjoy the flight looking like a shipment of extras for Lohengrin -- while hoping nervously that our pneumatic tube meets us at the other end of our travels.
Yesterday I took another swipe at criticism, and it generated a very useful private exchange about barriers to entry with respect to new nonpop, beginning with Frank Oteri's comments about price points in the latest Arts Journal "critical conversation". One of his points was important: "Opening the doors only works when people know that they are open which means education and a greater responsibility to fostering the arts in the mainstream media."
Frank uses the R-word: responsibility. I'm not one to cry "poor artist," but Frank has a point which I'd like to expand. As composers, we are 'given' (read: forced to take over) responsibility for entire classes of activities which once belonged to others. No longer do we create a composition and leave it performers, presenters, publishers, media, and audiences. We are responsible for preparing it to publishing standards, securing presenters and performers, creating our own publicity machine, including notes and even live commentary, and arranging for documents and the associated legal and contractual fine points. When all these are accomplished, we are then reviewed as if some emotional curve that the reviewer didn't quite comprehend had been our only responsibility.
Do you see this surreptitious shift of responsibility? Rather than the composers working on what they actually do -- create the music -- they must take over work at which they are likely mediocre. While ensembles enthuse about the latest Mozart festival and media writers put their legs up and cull from two centuries of music history, the composer must convince and cajole and then teach. 'Fostering the arts' is promoting and nurturing its growth and development. Composers make the art. Yet the proper nursemaids of arts have come to expect the artists to nurture both themselves and their nursemaids!
Beyond that, it has become expected that concerts of the new nonpop will be discounted to increase their audiences. Discounted? Maybe, but I've never resolved my view on this. I pointed out that we're a very schizophrenic society about how we pay and what we pay. We like low prices but at the same time feel that lowering prices means we will receive goods of less inherent value.
We have been thoroughly soaked in the economic value equation. I have presented both free concerts and pay concerts for many years, and the costs seemed to have made little difference in audience numbers; free concerts were marginally less well attended. So long as prices were affordable (i.e., comparable to going to the movies), audiences came and even filled the places. There's a tricky balance between free (read: worthless), low cost ("good value" for checking out) and expensive (suitable for events people already value).
There are other routes to fostering the arts, including little-explored areas like ticket scholarships, elementary and secondary school music gift packs, competitions & contests & raffles, and even approaches such as this "We Are All Mozart" project. Perhaps I'm a bit of a gimmick guy, but I learned that lesson from the grandest of grand New York venues, Lincoln Center. I was one of the kids during the first years of Lincoln Center's "student awards" provided to the New York region in 1965 -- and it affected this dirt-poor New Jersey kid forever to have seen six live performances (including the New York Philhamonic and Marat/Sade) and only have had to pay $2.20 for a round-trip bus ticket on the Blue Star lines and subway fare (which was about a quarter back then). Someone at Lincoln Center had an imagination forty years ago in making the ability to walk through its doors at no fee an honor. Very, very smart.
So yes, responsibility is required. And let me say out loud: Every single sale to a cultural institution needs to come with an cultural responsibility tax. We are a hyper-capitalist society which has fostered the notion that every aspect of our existence is exchangeable for geld. Yet, as if it is not any sort of contraction, we carve out ethical and cultural exceptions through legislation and taxation. Votes and people are allegedly not for sale. We are taxed for social services, but also taxed for lost entertainment industry revenues. Corporations are handed monopoly licenses and the supposedly public radio spectrum is auctioned off in great swaths. The litany of exceptions to free market capitalism is a howling chant of many voices, yet politicians and businesses profess, when faced with cultural responsibility, that the market is offended by such a concept. The pitiful and resented support for our own debilitated National Endowment for the Arts is the fruit of that fraudulent offense that is in truth political fear and greed.
As a civilization, as a culture, it is time to stand up straight as an adult society. The responsibility -- which begins at the grass roots, not only with the already-burdened and enormously responsible creative artists, but also the publications and reviewers and educational facilities -- must be shouldered. If the currency is words, then pay in words. If the currency is hard cash, then let's see it. Enough free rewards to executives who promote the sale of tin junk or trinkets. They exploit the cultural developments the artists invent -- just count them in any television advertisement -- to earn huge profits. Those are our profits there. Like it or not, we made that possible.
And there are two ways to proceed, ever so simply summarized: carrot, stick. Either the economic barons of the Twenty-First Century return the benefits to those who initiated their gains, or the institution of a broad-scale, deeply felt cultural tax will be coming due. Watch for it.
There will be no commentaries here tomorrow or Sunday, as I'll be on the road without my laptop. I'll make notes and return with them bundled into next week's entries.
Tomorrow happens to be the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the IBM PC. I, for one, will be celebrating. It may have put my little computer company out of business, but it changed the artist's world in ways that will only be appreciated from the perspective of the next century.
Back to the Blog Index