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   August 15, 2006   next

Travel does exact a toll from more than the purse. But sleep has been thoroughly reacquired and properly re-distributed.

* * *

Professionalism can be a wonderful thing. Often it stands in the way of creativity as a kind of institutional behavior, but in the cases when it transparently enhances imagination, professionalism is a welcome companion. So it was Saturday night for the Kalvos & Damian "Live and Unhinged" show at Lotus Music & Dance in New York. The personnel at Lotus as well as those who work with producer Tom Hamilton made the experience effortless.

In further consideration of professionalism: These commentaries have briefly mentioned that composers should not direct their own work, but it was never more clear than preparing i cried in the sun aïda for Saturday's performance. The nightmare composition was created in 1973 during the very dark early morning hours, a written-down dream piece that was little more than scribbled lines and squiggles. Over the next day it became fairly articulated as an extended-voice score for four voices, and rendered the next year in an overdubbed version with my own voice.

And there it sat for twenty years, until it was resurrected in a live performance version with the composer directing. It slept again, and then once more performed in the early aughts under similar circumstances. In those cases, the two lower voices were David Gunn's and mine, and I sculpted the piece from both score and memory. Those circumstances changed entirely this past weekend under the guidance of Beth Griffith who, together with Lydia Busler-Blais, worked very hard on the score itself -- as opposed to using it as a neumatic reference to the composer's verbal direction. And that change made all the difference between an adequate performance and a definitive one.

The aïda score is insufficient to recreate the original concept. Because the score had been used in conjunction with my overdubbed recording and notes during my direction of it, its inadequacies were not always evident, nor were the ongoing compromises between concept and execution. Volume and vibrato were commingled in the score, with the assumption that a familiar avant-garde vocal approach would be used. Like jazz, it's not something one can notate, and in the absence of stylistic information, the interwoven instructions are not easily unthreaded.

Beth insisted that the distinction be clarified, and that the assumptions be articulated. What I meant needed to be translated into what was indicated. From a graphical Finale error in one part of the score through the absence of pitch stability during notes that were shifting dynamically, her insight clarified the unwritten or poorly written assumptions. Gradually she assumed the role of aïda's sculptor, its director, effectively creating an experience close to the concept behind the graphical score.

I expect to re-score aída shortly to overcome the failures Beth and Lydia made evident. Their forgetfulness about the avant-garde was instructive in how performance styles -- neumes, figured bass, baroque ornamentation, organum and chant, Viennese waltzes or jazz or even polkas -- may often be guesswork. What decisions are made without the composer present, or without the style being still alive?

In modern times, the loss of stylistic information has been mitigated by recordings, and is less likely to fracture within the realm of common practice notation. Nevertheless, scores created even as recently as the 1960s are rethought in contemporary terms. Some years ago, cellist Anton Lukoszevieze spoke about his exploration of the university library where he discovered scores (not recordings) from the modernist era and became very excited by the possibilities. Inexperienced in (and uncontaminated by) the time's angular performance practice, Lukoszevieze brought a postmodernist sensibility to their performance -- a sensibility that understood and applied the artistic references. The absence of the angularity (those big, sharp elbows of modernist sound) was both a surprise and a cause for concern. He wasn't ignoring them -- he was simply not part of the milieu in which those gestures were bred. He didn't know them. And he didn't play them.

Was this a flaw in the score? An inability of communicate stylistic information? Or perhaps a younger musician's expected rejection of recent practices and styles for a revolutionary approach?

After speaking with Lukoszevieze, these questions fell away until this reprise of aïda, when questions -- and concerns -- returned like a pyroclastic flow. Beyond the simple questions above, what else was being eroded by history? Were the compulsive modernists correct in their assumption that every gesture, dynamic, expression, pitch inflection, Haupstimmic self-analysis and performance technique would need careful specification? Was the original-instrument movement right-minded in its restoration attempts, even if flawed in its performance guesses? Is any sort of artistic historical authenticity desirable, even in such recent history (and here I speak with an interest in such history, as opposed to my usual rejectionist position)? Or are the performance arts simply a flexible mirror that can be contorted at will to reflect the prejudices of one's own time?

The latter question is rhetorical because the reality is that the performance arts are contorted, if not by the practices, then by the receiving parties (performers or audiences) who cannot watch with eyes or listen with ears limited by history. I am reminded of "The Third Level," Jack Finney's 1952 short story in which the protagonist discovers an additional level to the New York subway system, to which he returns several times before disappearing entirely from his present. His correspondence postmarked two generations earlier is eventually found in his attic, revealing that he had left the present's immediate past for a more comfortable and welcoming past.

This grass-is-greener, past-is-gentler fiction seems to afflict us all at some point. Some of us return to the highlights of our youth, whether it's the Beatles or the Stockhausen. Others stay there, having moved forward on a shallow trajectory that is pulled back to the temporal earth, forever sporting Elvis haircuts or declaiming Marxist politics. And still others believe that, like Finney's character, they can step safely back in time, secure in their information about the future as if it could afford them the knowledge to live gracefully in a protected bubble of temporal wisdom.

But aside from the butterfly effects that might have spawned a different person who would be stepping into the past, there would be the personal consequences of living in the past. Clarke's third and most meaningful Law of Prediction says that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." What is the converse? Could one shed the ability to make magic by stepping into the past? Could one dispel the knowledge? Or, having eaten from the future tree, would that past suddenly seem suffocating, unimaginative, narrow-minded -- a wilted version of Tom's midnight garden? Would the daily conveniences be impossible to live without? Are the insane merely refugees from the future?

These questions are not simply armchair philosophy. They apply directly to the question of near-future historical performances of our own work as well as to the obsession with performances of past work. It is infinitely more comfortable to play Mozart without being concerned with commonplace tuberculosis or poor sanitation or rampant illiteracy or inadequate diet or microcosmic nationalism, and listening with reference to a history of music, broad knowledge -- from the last time when it might have been possible for all then-contemporary knowledge to be held within a single mind -- and a breadth of personal and artistic choice beyond the scale of the emperor himself. As artists, where are we on this imaginary timeline? Especially if we live long enough to see styles we have invented become faded sepia caricatures of themselves?

Under the tutelage of Beth Griffith, I learned how the future might think of my work -- should it survive -- and how they might puzzle over the meaning of the graphics and the implications of the score's descriptive words. The thought, however disquieting, is a fine lesson in the malleability of our art and our ultimate insignificance as individual artists.

Old structures sink into New York waterfront
Old loading and docking structures, crumbling and burned, sink into the Hudson on the New York waterfront in this Sunday-post-concert photo, as new towers rise across the river in New Jersey. This sighing past was once the gleaming present. What did they think would become of their present?

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