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"We Are All Mozart"

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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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Some days I feel on the defensive about the progress of nonpop. Here's the thing. Despite artistic creativity, this can be a desperately conservative field. There are several topics that converged in the past few days -- training, definitions, audiences, and commerce -- all of which suggested that my viewpoint is microscopic and my anticipation of forward motion in the nonpop field (not the artform) is misplaced. So four incomplete thoughts follow.


Robert Bonotto wrote to me after my commentaries about wanting it all through technology. At first he seemed to be talking about the facile use of technology, but he clarified his meaning as more being trapped by the technology in our ways of working and thinking. My disaffection with notation software addressed part of Robert's concern, but first, his own words [he was reacting to a concert where he "heard/visualized repeated harmonic chords that sounded like the composer was repeatedly hitting the 'Enter' button"]:

The problem was not the repetition or ostinatos patterns. The problem, one of them, is that what the composer-listener's uglier side of his unconsciousness is imposing on the set of judgments that your conscious mind is trying to frame. It's rather like the old business of atonalists like Babbitt saying There Are No More New Tunes and picking on (I was there) the student of a fellow teacher's work and asking why he was quoting Sinding's "Rustles of Spring" in his supposedly 'original' Violin Sonata. (I heard Babbitt do this, a dozen years apart, both times using Sinding. It's ingenious, because the older member of the audience sort-of-remember the tune, and the young student doesn't know the tune and can't deny it.) But whether my ambivalence over lazy counterpoint/harmony is in fact deliberately derailing my attempts to bring a fresh viewpoint, by bringing an unwonted mental image forward -- this block-image of computer formatting is a new, unpleasant wrinkle that has to be addressed at some point -- so we can effectively separate and dismiss it.

Robert ties multiple issues together, and he also questions how computers may train us, and it reminded me not only of notation software but also of my cats. They're a mature pair, these brothers, twelve years old. They will not respond on command, but through their motions, cries and moments of just sitting, they have trained us to take care of them to their tastes. It was subtle as they evaluated our reactions and reformatted our responses.

The interaction between beings is different from an action in response to a machine. And although I agree with Raymond Kurzweil that we are increasingly adopting machines as part of us -- eyeglasses and hearing aids and sneakers and drugs, mechanical hands and feet and hearts, implants -- and expecting machines to take over our physical actions (read more of this in The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Comuters Exceed Human Intelligence and The Singuarlity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology), it's the present absence of flexibility in the machine responses that troubles me. Let ourselves be trained before machines have been trained to us, and we limit our vision first and have our machines adopt our limited vision. The spiral is inward, not outward.

From the tiny window of the present, that's how it looks. Unless my cats are at the keyboard, too. Then we're saved.

For What?

One of my dear friends wrote to me after my throwaway line yesterday: "Most satisfying were the audiences both nights, which were open and enthusiastic. I think I'm actually seeing the nonpop revolution reach us here in Vermont, far from the city ferment."

His reaction seemed severe; he wrote, "Shall we abandon the music, but keep the audience, or annihilate the audience but keep the music?" Was he being ironic, or had I scratched something-- him? myself? "I had been planning to go on producing music while maintaining only hypothetical audiences. I also wrote quite a lot about hypothetical ensembles. I was wrong, wrong, wrong. The ensembles are real enough, sort of, mostly, or partly at least, but the audiences are absolutely hypothetical."

Ironic or serious, there is something here. If the music is actually written for an audience to hear it, a flesh-and-blood audience, I think having an audience is better than not having one, and having one un-resentful and open and enthusiastic is better than that. (There's more in my description of the ten audiences.) It seems that composers can hear the piece already, or get a better performance in electronic form, so why bother perform it? If they can imagine the music, why bother writing it into a score? If it's electronic, why bother rendering to the hard drive what can be imagined? Passionate response? Love or hate? Surprise? Or as composer Clarence Barlow would say, flushing?

There's something else. I observed the audience being bored by the Poulenc Sextuor. What could it mean that these two hundred people were more energized by the new pieces than by one they new well -- the one they had come to hear? In a general audience, this was the first time I had experienced such an inversion. To that surprise were added interpersonal moments of what people notice, such as being told after the concert by a tiny old lady that new music is like quilting. Okay, it seemed a bit bizarre, despite her explanations about color and shape and the passage of time during the making of it, but she listened. Now I, too, can think about quilting. Perhaps her comments will work their way into a later composition. I made a quilt. It took a year.

And so it matters, this audience, increasingly so in ways that I had never anticipated during the Dark Years. Having people care that they've had the experience of music says to me that, after scraping off years of cynicism, I can discover response to be a part of music's trajectory that I am just able to discern through the lifetime fog of resentment. The end of the rainbow?

Nonpop Again

Here's the setup: Earlier today a composer asked about surrealist music. I answered that we are now accustomed to music (and television and film...) that juxtaposes styles and other sonic elements. The surrealist breakthroughs -- and much more -- are now simply part of the artistic and commercial vocabularies. Yesterday's surrealism is today's postmodernism.

To this astute composer David Bailey objected. He wrote:

I'm very surprised that someone who doesn't like the use of classical music as a term to define what he really wants us to think of as non-pop music uses such truly meaningless terms as "postmodernism" as if "modern" can ever be a term of the past. I've never understood the term "postmodernism" as being applicable to anything which has already been created -- once created it is modern, and eventually becomes old as time passes. Pre-modern I could understand as applying to something which was created before modern times.

This co-opting the meaning of perfectly usefull words and locking them into a time period so that "modern music" was written in the past so obviously we must be in a "post-modern" world certainly does nothing to endear us to the wider audience we wish to have embrace our music.

No wonder people stay away from greater involvement in what most of them call "classical music." Who can understand what any of the terms we bandy about so nonchalantly really means? And there's nothing that keeps the wider public from involvement in anything than a totally incomprehensible yet somehow necessary lexicon. It's just easier for them to stay away than to be put down for misusing the term "modern."

I didn't invent postmodernism. Like all such terms, its meaning comes from usage. Modernism is now a specific historical period, and postmodernism is after that. (The Wikipedia entry on this is actually pretty good.) What makes it useful to the original question is identifying that the entire premise of surrealism has been absorbed into contemporary culture -- whatever you call that culture. I don't have a better term than "postmodernism" (and I try to keep term coinages to one per lifetime, and mine is "nonpop").

Last year I plowed through Fredric Jameson's 1992 Postmodernism which, despite a political slant I disagree with, is still worth reading for a perspective on the terminology and its functional consequences inside contemporary culture -- consequences which have already been substantial for the orchestral world.

These terms are mnemonics, shortcuts to communicating intangibles or general categories. When I write 'chair' or 'bird', there is only a shortcut because there is no 'chair' or 'bird' to see. Do I mean beanbag chair or throne or high-chair or office chair? Thrush or dodo or hummingbird or great blue heron? Or a drawing of them? Some chair music? These terms also delimit what they are not. Context matters, and they exist to facilitate discourse. (William Safire's column a few weeks ago on 'pretexting' found the term valuable because it filled a hole in the vocabulary.) Words like 'postmodernism,' whether or not one accepts the kind of over-arching cultural behavior it defines, is just such a mnemonic device. The question was about surrealism. That word gives a very general sense of time, place, culture and manifestation. Like impressionism or minimalism, the term breaks down on specific examination, but it does suffice as mnemonic or metaphor.

What makes postmodernism interesting, and my hope was not to argue the term but rather hear how its implications related to the specific question and the nonpop orchestral world in general, which is pretty much a social and musical monoculture, is that a monoculturalist point of view explains a substantive part of the orchestral world's failure to ignite passion in contemporary postmoderist society.

My case for 'nonpop' is similar. It acknowledges the postmodern aesthetic by bundling together the old 'classical' term generally along with all music for foreground listening. It avoids the dilemma of a Yanni and Gilles Apap. It avoids bizarre usages such as 'jazz is America's classical music'. It offers an attention-directed metagenre on one side of which is, say, Xenakis and on the other side of which is, say, Justin Timberlake. The latter may in fact have artistic qualities of production that far exceed the former, but by using a very broad pair of categories ('Archie' and 'Mehitabel' or 'Dr. Jeckyll' and 'Mr. Hyde' if you don't like 'pop' and 'nonpop') that fade into one another, it deconstructs the harsh barrier kept up happily by élitist forces heavily invested in genre exclusivity.

People identify categories because as humans we have the capacity for metaphor, the imaginative talent to grasp what is beyond our immediate physical environment. To say 'impressionism' offers the opportunity to grasp thousands more paintings or compositions than one has yet seen or heard in a way that allows the inverse grasp of individual artworks once they become part of our actual experience.

I've often recommended Ishkur's Guide to Electronic Music as an example of how categorization becomes ever more refined by geography, influence, purpose, and history -- right down to the individual artist and individual tracks. But the trick is to make the categories, the genres, and the meta-genres useful for discourse in a postmodern world -- and to integrate the understanding of music aside from the conversation-ending 'this is what I like' approach.

As a culture, knowledge (or just information, if you like) has so broadened and deepened that there is little left undescribed.

Buy Local

Yesterday an invitation to participate in Local First Vermont arrived. An opportunity for our composers! "The Think Local First campaign will promote economic stability, job growth, entrepreneurial vigor and healthy communities through nurturing and promoting a wide diversity of locally owned businesses," was the cheerleading on the website. So I wrote to Chris Morrow, suggesting that Vermont's composers could participate in and benefit from a local buying campaign.

He responded:

As far as LFVT goes, we are just starting out and are focused on raising awareness about the value of buying goods and services locally. Perhaps at some point we will broadened out to the arts, but we are overwhelmed with what we're doing now... Best of luck.

Oh, snap. They are focused on raising awareness about the value of buying goods and services locally. Is that not exactly what we composers have been told to do? There are nearly two hundred composers living in Vermont who would be delighed to be able to sell their goods and services locally. How many nationwide? Composers are expected to compete in the economy on the same terms everyone else does -- until we join in the process. Then we're dismissed as just "the arts," no longer under the umbrella of goods and services. Best of luck, buddy.

I would love to earn my income from selling to the Vermont Symphony instead of the egregious behavior of playing Mozart and Beethoven for free, union-busting, anti-competitive, and safely dead. I would love to have awareness raised about the value of buying artistic goods and services from hardworking Vermonters -- or hardworking composers anywhere being hired by the symphony next door. Our state has an emphatic "Buy Local" campaign, starting with agriculture and moving outward with the Local First Vermont folks. Not music, though. Yup. Best of luck, buddy. Now move along. We have business to attend to.

Concert music. Buy local.

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