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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

previous   September 25, 2006   next

This past weekend, aside from enjoying our tenth wedding anniversary, I was watching a disturbing video. Oh, no, it wasn't some political conspiracy film or blow-em-up. It was an engraving video. Yes, the engraving of music in the traditional way, grinding away metal, backwards, on lead plates.

There is no denying the mad skill of the engraver, who plucked from banks of finely honed tools to scrape staves with a scribe, stamp in notes and rests and clefs, and create stems and beams and slurs freehand by digging into the metal with a variety of sharp blades. The engraver handled the toxic metal sheets without gloves, without a mask, brushing the slivers aside with the edge of his hand. It was a demonstration of skill and experience and technique from back deep inside the Nineteenth century, with the narrator in a constant state of muted justification of the beauty and significance of hand-engraved music.

And it was a waste of that skill, of that imminent toxic death, resetting a score by Schubert.

Then in a magazine last week there was a story about letterpress becoming fashionable again. Because nearly any sophisticated imagery can be committed to paper with a computer, there is a rush to use the heavy old machines to reveal a personal distinction. As one who learned letterpress and offset long before touching computers (no, I couldn't touch-set Linotype) I could appreciate the technology differences, but not the fashion.

Which leads me to today's topic: the wide and desperate need to be retrospective.

Returning to my youth or some earlier day is not stamped in my character like those clefs on lead. I have searched for it. Yes, I spell without a spell-checker. My grammar is pretty good and it matters. Our cars are stick shifts. And though the music and literature and television and film of my earlier days are embedded in my memory, returning to them feels, well, old. Yesterday I wrote about that transformational moment that does not return. And so the question becomes, what more is to be learned from what has been experienced as opposed to the enrichment from a new experience? This is not a fetish for newness, in particular fashion or faddishness, but merely the sense that a fresh viewpoint illuminates the recollection of the past without the need to revisit it, particularly if that recollection is vivid and almost tangible.

Experiment with the past is understandable. The cabaret Beepers was such an experiment for me, as are the standards and stylings recorded by Diana Krall or John Coltrane or Carly Simon. It's an exploration of forms that precede us, seeing for ourselves if we can illuminate the past with our own lights (though Simon's and Krall's repetitive standards releases become redundant). Fashion in hair and clothes is cyclical, or rather spiral, as each return is informed by the present. Fashion in popular music makes similar turns, as with the clarity in the arrival of the Stranglers in one generation and the White Stripes in the next. It's stylistic time travel. (You feel the ship of prose slowly turning, I know. The direction will soon be steady and the course clear.)

Consider performance today. A good performance, a great performance. The magic. Is it magic? Thought experiment: If we practiced a piece and a style for 200 years, how well and convincingly would we play it?

This is not meant to belabor the obvious, nor illustrate by misdirection. Performances -- especially recorded performances -- of each generation of new compositions have been weak throughout the past century of new nonpop. (This is not the case with disposable pop, where it is overlooked or even forgiven; but that's not the topic.) Igor Stravinsky's recording of Petrouschka for Columbia was sleep-deprivation dull, as was the staggering mess of The Dove Descending done by Edward Tatnall Canby. The overblown Black Host performance in William Bolcom's premiere recording was an otherwise impressive work. The Philips vinyl of George Crumb's Black Angels was ugly and the recording harsh. Despite the phenomenal efforts by Martina Arroyo, Karlheinz Stockhausen's Momente was accurate but bloated and tiresome in the hoots 'n' honks tradition. Subsequent to the LP, the relatively inexpensive CD coupled with economical recording equipment and a surfeit of recording artists has let loose a pyroclastic garbage flow of bad performances and worse recordings.

The problem is that these recordings remain as first examples and in some cases definitive versions of compositions. The increasing release of electroacoustic creations has been left to the stunted performance imaginations of the composers, and if composers' acoustic performances are defective, it follows that the electroacoustic ones will also suffer, despite claims of immensely careful attention by the artists. The highly skilled Eastern European orchestra musicians who continued to play new nonpop while the West cycled through classical's Top 40 can be perfunctory even if correct with new scores. There is no edge, no risk. Rock bands and jazz musicians all practice (no matter how dissonant or confrontational) over and over again, and take risks. Personally involved in the moment of creation, they are committed beyond cash.

The nonpop composers themselves are undermined by the inability to practice their art regularly and broadly. Multiple performances and accompanying feedback are few, as are recurring opportunities to compose for the same ensemble. Even the rare composers joined with ensembles eventually become circumscribed by the very smallness of the groups. Composer-in-residence programs are notable failures of imagination as well as marketing.

And let's not forget our engraver, who spent an entire working day engraving a single page of Schubert. Our new nonpop scores are sometimes good, but most often weak or poor. Some publishers even release the composer's manuscript -- or the composer's computerized output that may use the clumsy default settings of notation software, no match for the engraver's years of skill. We look silly, like amateurs hawking cheap black-velvet art with pretensions of Elvis.

Let's tot up the facts: our scores are produced in a low-feedback environment, are often weakly presented to performers, are underrehearsed and rushed to performance or recording, are underfunded and thus recorded absent the intense daily attention provided pop productions, and are presented to a listening public in limping recorded form or sandwiched between pieces with two centuries' worth of practice behind them. Remember Carly Simon and John Coltrane and Diana Krall. There's a reason standards have a pull. Familiarity beats newness in the comfort people seek in their daily lives, and repetition affords the ability to hear through and perform through to a new level each time. In listening through to new levels, what can we possibly find in the new nonpop recordings that have never been performed through to those levels?

In other words, people likely did not come to new music with the intention of living in the past. They were encouraged to do so by the practitioners and accountants of the classical art. Remember that nonpop is foreground music, and every missed inflection, inappropriately bent note, damaged line, and unconsidered moment of sonic collaboration is a listening level empty of content. Where two hundred years of experience (and ultimately reverence) can illuminate the flowing lines inside the awkward counterpoint of the Scene by the Brook, little similar can happen in a contemporary environment of artistic dissociation.

It's no wonder that musicians have claimed that today Mozart would be writing like Radiohead rather than Liebermann. Even though it might be as if Mozart in his day were playing for the town band instead of writing for the Emperor, there is a strong case to be made that the composer of genius would look for opportunities to compose rather than accept a circumstance of artistic privation that is our nonpop culture.

Oh, solutions. Tomorrow.

Morning glories arch around the door
Morning glories arch around the door to our house, and keep us apprised of the progress of the season.

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