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"We Are All Mozart"

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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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The difficulty of expressing the place of nonpop in Western culture is enormous, and eludes me. Those who read yesterday's commentary and response understand the swampfeet of words that can be sucked down into the muck. Jacques Bailhé and I continued our exchange privately, and it has revealed an inability even to agree upon the terms of art, economy, and integrity between two nonpop composers.

Artists are dissatisfied and independent spirits always ready to remake our reality, and nonpop composers perhaps even moreso after a century of struggle with those who felt assaulted by the honestly offered product of composers' minds. In some ways, we have internalized that we are valueless parts of contemporary life. We are told that salvation lies in capitulatation to the economic model that gravitates always and inevitably toward mass appeal -- and still fail in capitalist terms.

The theory goes that if Bach and Mozart and Beethoven could be hirelings, why not us? The analogy fails. Bach and Mozart and even Beethoven could not have survived on the sales of their specialty product in the grow-or-die mass marketplace in which we're living. They were required to write music that fit the terms of their hire, of course, and someone had to be satisfied -- or at least unable to find someone who could do better. But as a whole these composers were not marginalized by their imagination. They struggled with issues irrelevant to the wider public -- Beethoven's notebooks testify to that -- particularly as the nonpop composer shrugged off the yoke of arbitrary royal or ecclesiastical demand. Beethoven needed commissions. Berlioz struggled even to have his music heard. Wagner borrowed money he never paid back. Even earlier, Bach was notoriously unsuccessful and old-fashioned, a composer in a backwater town where they couldn't draw in the likes of a Johann Hasse -- far more in demand and popular than Bach, but today forgotten.

I think of Mozart, that wretch of an indentured staff composer with occasional commissions -- who, even in the most conformist of times in Europe, the time of perfect balance, was criticized for the complexity of his music. Mozart remains the most conservative of the major composers we still program heavily today, but adventurous within his circumscribed context. That made him less of a day-to-day success than Antonio Salieri, whose name would be unknown now if not for the fictionalization of his rivalry with Mozart in Amadeus's extension of the Pushkin novel. The real Salieri wrote forty operas, most resounding successes. But then he and rival Mozart both sank into oblivion, both known only to other composers until the era of recording.

No, this past can't be our model, can it? Yet it is. It is because there is no satisfactory replacement that will allow change to happen on the larger scale. Events may seem momentous, but history has singled them out post facto, whether it's the suddenly radical Stravinsky or the suddenly momentous Elvis. All built on pasts and eventually crossed paths with fate, taste and notoriety, during or after their lifetimes. I deeply believe in the inherent meaningfulness of the nonpop composer, heralded or not. Even the nonpop composer in the Gothic era was a restless part of a larger machine. And we are still that person, turning over a divot of melisma where it had been smooth before. Give us a rule -- the Council of Trent or the Billboard Top 40 -- and we will find its flaws of normalcy and violate them. Nonpop composers do that; it's in the creative genes to be uncomfortable with the ordinary and try to make it better, or at least different.

And so the nonpop composers we remember most were inventors of new ideas or new ways of hearing which so often ran ahead of general public's grasp, even if some of these tunesmiths received public adulation or royal favor. As time passed and the individual was asserted beyond Rousseau's limits, the creative leap of the individual mind was discerned and the politics of individual meaning enshrined in political life. Yet new ideas, as much as we claim allegiance to their value in theory, are mortally risky in a marketplace psychology such as ours. Most new ideas fail -- Johann Schobert? John DeLorean? -- and history (according to the theory that it is written by the victors) assumes the present state and understanding of ideas to be the inevitable one. Origins are forgotten or adjusted. It was unremarkable when Henry Mancini uses quarter-tones fifty years after Ives promoted them. And now, even though uncommon, they're no longer surprising.

But history is not a comfortable old shoe. Sometimes nonpop composers themselves are taken by surprise. There is the unusual case of the Górecki Third Symphony. We are told that it is an example of writing what the public wants to hear. But no. The Third Symphony's success was a marketing success, not a musical one. It was an unpredictable and likely unrepeatable marketing phenomenon. The Górecki Third was a one-hit wonder, and had only short coattails for the composer. But it was a marketing wonderment, a conjunction of social and economic events. The Third was hyper-tonal and sweet and backgroundable, it fit in at the height of the yuppie new-age music era (including play on Hearts of Space), it was spiritual minimalism with prayers embedded in it, and it stood on the back of the Holocaust exploitation with the recording released alongside Schindler's List in 1993. The Górecki Third also waited 20 years before it was recorded, until the time was right for it to be marketed. To my mind, that's not the success of a nonpop composition whatsoever on its own merits. It was packaged goods -- golden goods, it seemed.

Alas, nonpop marketed into Top 40 numbers is nothing but a golden calf. Were the aurium of public desire to flash upon one of my own compositions, I would seek the extra-musical reasons and throw them aside because I know that nonpop today has a greater reach than Mozart could dream of in his own day, advice a young but wise Zbigniew Karkowski once offered. Gold depends on where you look, and what you're looking for. In truth, millions of people have heard and been thrilled by new nonpop across its many genres. Even those magnificent composer representatives of the Great Unlistenable Era have legions of fans today. Xenakis and Stockhausen, whose unlistenable music drove people screaming from the concert halls of the past century, absolutely rock online. They generate millions of Google hits (1.2 and 2.5 million respectively) and are identified as influences by thousands of bands. They have enormous fansites, and classic works have even made it to YouTube half a century later (the Poème Electronique has nearly 20,000 plays in five months via three separate uploaders).

Music of each era pushes art differently, and its effect upon the infinitely malleable audience gives motion and shape to the artform in manners unknown. If the individual pieces are unloved and their creators scorned, it is a fleeting discontinuity. In truth, music is tough to make. People are impatient. Music takes time, especially the foreground music of nonpop in a vast, raging torrent of discardable music. The sirens call from that torrent. Composers despair.

At the World Trade Center, 1977
Uncomfortable with the ordinary, the Dashuki Music Theatre performing Plasm over ocean at the World Trade Center, New York Avant-Garde Festival, 1977.

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