A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
Two days ago George Dyson's book The Progress of Music was carried through church, castle, chamber, stage and into the concert hall. From its 1932 vantage point, the book finds itself trapped between wars and psychological worlds, and already past ripeness with its lack of attention to its own century, and one that, had Dyson been attentive, he would have seen to be bringing great quakes to the field of musical composition -- quakes already in progress.
Dyson begins, at last, to address the question of composition that will remain in our own time -- and he does so by quoting Haydn: "Genius is always prolific." According to Dyson, Haydn was not so much talking about the quantity of work, but the readiness and eagerness to work at any moment. This important distinction is often lost, particularly as we are polarized between the prolific and the spare. As demand diminishes (and Dyson himself makes this clear in the subsequent chapter), our compositional output decreases as if that stinginess of production were a natural state of affairs.
Dyson also uses his concert hall chapter to address the change of listening habits, and how (by his time) musical knowledge and education had been growing largely unbroken since Haydn's day. Composers called upon that knowledge, and by Dyson's time, still could do so by means of references to known material not only from the present (as the Ars Nova Mass composers could) but from an increasing depth of experience with the past. What Dyson could not foresee was the fracturing of this continuity late in the 20th century.
He writes that young composers appear with "bewildering rapidity, and each is hailed in turn as the sure hope of the future." At the same time, he sees then the beginning of an erosion of innovation as "the number of undisputed masterpieces appears hardly to grow at all." Although the classical-listening public demands more music (and he was at the beginning of the recording and broadcast era), "it walks backwards" -- then as now. And as for performers, they "as a whole live on the past. Some occasionally struggle with the present. All fear the future." And it's still a 21st century checklist.
(His vision is illuminated oddly by his time and place, for he sees the greatest masterpieces of the day as "precisely three" -- the Brahms and Verdi Requiems and Elgar's Dream of Gerontius. And from thirty years before, he remakably foresees that, for Sibelius, "about 1960 his reward may come.")
Dyson sets aside his conservatism and takes his risk during the final chapter, "Men and Machines" -- and it is remarkably accurate, so much as his technological vision was naturally limited, in its understanding of the circumstances in which we would find ourselves as nonpop composers seventy years thence.
As a fifty-year-old, Dyson is astounded and disturbed by the nature of the recording studio, during that time recently electrified but still a generation away from the debut of tape editing, multitrack recording and mixing. He outlines the repeated attempts needed to produce a four-minute recorded side ("half a dozen performances, and an hour or more of trial and discussion"), and cannot accommodate the oncoming future, opining, "If art is a process of infection, a mutual approach of minds in tune with one another, the one receiving what the other would give, no more antiseptic device has ever been invented than the studio of a recording or broadcasting company." If only he had known how deeply it would change the world of music.
Indeed, he intimately understands the change without realizing how he was accurately heralding that future of portable music. Recordings would not only change the balance of composition's place, but more importantly have been commoditized and thus "have relieved man of his dullest companion, himself."
Though unable to piece together the future puzzle, he is able to see each piece with clarity. Recordings make possible perfection to the limits of the technology, they are part of companies that make profits, and therefore the "mechanized public may never be allowed to know anything of an artist who is potentially great, but whose method is by mechanical standards clearly imperfect."
I am quoting Dyson more frequently now because his understanding is at its sharpest in this shortest chapter of The Progress of Music. "Who would buy a Bach cantata or Handel oratorio on its merits, as these were produced by Bach in his own church or by Handel is his theatre? Would there be a market for John Dowland singing his songs, or Corelli playing his sonatas, or Haydn conducting his symphonies?" Dyson is certain that poor old Beethoven, full of madness and mistakes, would not stand a chance in that milieu.
Dyson sees the recording as a technical success demanding increased skill, but that the music recorded "will have to be already competent and secure. A struggling artist, deeply creative and working with utter sincerity, but with unequal results, may nver get anywnere near these channels of public favour." The recording machine -- he correctly conflates the device and the industry in that era -- produces perfect copies of masterpieces, but like factory-made Chippendale tables, "that is the end of the craft." (And we forgive Dyson for not foreseeing the electroacoustic medium wherein infinite replicability may be an understood and anticipated part of the craft.)
Again, Dyson has the pieces but not the picture. Without naming them, he rejects the modernists and atonalists in one breath as music that has ceased to be practical. Though the music may be playable, the composer is writing "a wilderness of ingenuities quite outside genuine aesthetic reality." And communicating the atonal-rejectionist's meme that still spreads as truth in the voices of some contemporary critics, he writes, "The result may be not so much an art as an intellectual exercise."
Rejecting modernism arises at this point in Dyson's discourse because the relationship between professional and amateur musicians had never been ruptured until (his) recent times. Although composers may push the technical limits of players, "its consequences become more and more apparent." Coupled with the public insistence on perfect performances because of recordings -- and what would he think of lip-synching and air guitar? -- concert music is drawn inexorably away from a public willingness to participate directly, particularly as it disinvolves those who he believes form culture's "sound and permanent taste," the listener with some practical musicianship. What happens to the course of musical heritage if "those who made some kind of attempt to decipher it with their own hands and voices" are cut out of the experience? Calling upon this progress of music that he has so far outlined, he insists, "No great art has even arisen amongst a public in which everybody looked on."
Dyson continues the argument against recording and broadcasting as unhelpful to music other than that "already approved," because the industry exists for profit (and in that he includes public broadcasting, then a growing monopoly in the U.K.). He compares approved music and its broadcast use in restaurants and quotidien activities of life to background music, where lightness and pleasantry are its core characteristics.
At this point Dyson draws the conclusion from his evidence that is wrong in the long term. He suggests that the competitive model of the recording and broadcast industry will bring about larger and greater new works because these companies will want to outbid each other in the public eye for spectacle and prestige. Not only the public spectacle -- indeed, including opera -- but the studio event will prevail, he believes. For a while, of course, Dyson's ideas came about, with, for example, the BBC and across the pond NBC creating studio orchestras of significance and companies such as Texaco sponsoring nationwide radio broadcast of the Metropolitan opera. But these orchestras faded with the shift to economic dominance and prestige in popular music, and even the appearance of public radio in the U.S. failed in its cultural mission, now having canceled the entirety of its national classical music schedule. The competition Dyson envisioned took place in the Top 40 rather than the symphonic spectacle, and for the latter, the Broadway show and the entertainment film (beginning with Busby Berkeley and continuing through Disney's musical animations and even large-scale anime productions such as Spirited Away) arose to take its place. With the advent of entertainment-based television and promiscuous 500-channel satellite television, the transition was complete.
In either case, though -- Dyson's future or ours -- the result was a diminishment of support for nonpop experiment, "leaving little or no room for the more tentative and more creative sides of the art."
Returning to composition is the natural wrapping around Dyson's thesis; "musical progress," he writes, "begins with musical composition; it ends when that impulse ceases." He speaks of the famous composers and the forgotten ones without whom the great ones would not be distinguished -- Germany, he remarks, has written and performed more insignificant symphonies than the rest of musical history -- and that art is a "habit of life," seeded and nourished.
Art is starved when cheap reprinting and recording of extant music forces composers to compete not merely with the present, but with the "overwhelming mass of the past." Composers cannot live on their art, and today -- his today and ours -- mass production means it does not occur to the general public to pay individually for new music, art, decoration, and architecture for their homes or lives. "We have talent in plenty," he says, "but no use for it." Reiterating the nature of past music as created largely by busy craftspeople, he sees a gap in perception exacerbated by a masterpiece mentality.
The premise of writing astounding music only within urban environments is belied by the past as well, and he points to both Bach and Wagner as provincials who nevertheless created music that was the pinnacle of their stylistic eras. Were provincial churches and concert halls to accept this historical reality, music could be prodded into visibility by the encouragement of its performers to resume the compositional activities integrated with musical presentation for centuries. "Had the eighteenth century behaved as we do," he asks, "what should we know if it? What will our successors know of us?"
And so we are left with the question that Dyson does not propose: Are we (composer denizens of his future) the last generation of nonpop composers? We have had enough time to anneal the sharp edges of a nearly total historical breach so that the pieces can no longer fit together as they were. On the other hand, new pieces have created an event puzzle whose image slides over the horizon of time. Among them is the thin paste of common cultural knowledge that has spread across and binds the earth in the way it once spread slowly across and bound the arts of old Europe. Nonpop composers struggle with the validity of their work in the face of critical acclaim for popular forms, lack of the nurturing attention that experimental art needs, and significantly with the new wealth of cultural sources and ideas that the shift toward a global culture has brought.
George Dyson's book was a valuable exercise because, appearing as it did at the flowering of the modern era, The Progress of Music demonstrates that music is more than a simple progression of events that build one upon the next, but rather a process of refinement and rejection little different from scientific progress as it has been known. More important, however, Dyson offers a challenging future for composers -- his future in which we are indeed living -- and offers solutions yet to be validated by the practice of the music listening public and global corporate enterprise.
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