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   October 17, 2006   next

The Toths. Really, it is increasingly over the top, the necrophilia. Now there's a "He's Been Dead 15 Years" festival for Leonard Bernstein. No, it wasn't called that, but it might as well have been. The élite classical coil is tightening as orchestras get increasingly desperate. Despite an increase in attendance in Chicago, other cities are showing halls one-third full for symphony seasons. And that's good news.

It's been said you have to hit bottom before you can change your life. Orchestras have been in denial about their addiction to musical rot, but now they are facing the hard reality of life & times wasted. Their children are growing old, their grandchildren don't visit anymore, and certainly the young'uns aren't going to take up the trade. Will the managers look in the mirror and see what has happened to their orchestras on a diet of dead flesh?

And if they don't, there is work to be done, subversive work. Do you remember Laszlo Toth? Yes, there are many Laszlo Toths, as common as John Smiths, but the special one was armed with nothing but a hammer, charging over a velvet rope to give the Pietà a sculptural reorganization. The year was 1972, and young and enraged ourselves, we founded the Laszlo Toth School of Art in honor of the "Artist of the Hammer". The LTSA was the genesis of Trans/Media, which riled up a town in rusting industrial New Jersey with some avant-garde festivals. Protests, performance art, and earnest actions in defense of the integrity of the contemporary arts were done.

Shortly we all went off to be Ahtists, secure in the knowledge that the ripples we had made would grow to become great waves, to become rolling artistic tsunamis that would engulf those eroded islands of stagnant, gelantinous muck.

Twenty years later I found myself writing yet another call for action, surprised that the sinking classical islands were still above water -- more eroded, but still there, smaller, but with strong high dikes built around them. I wrote in part:

The time has come to kill the vampires. In an atmosphere of politeness, has there been any move toward the music of our own time in the programming of "classical" performing groups? [...] Of course not! Pleasant advisory committees, cheerful compromises, and polite accommodations are doomed because such efforts attempt to deal with a special, entrenched group of diseased minds called necrosones, those who make their living by exhuming, stuffing and mounting the music of dead composers --composers who demand neither royalties nor attention to the artistic thought behind what they once did. Necrosones will never change because they cannot, because they are not artists nor are they sympathetic to art. They are vampires.

Necrosones engage in a self-indulgent, masturbatory activity -- living off the clotting lifeblood of the dead composers -- supported by a deadened, pleasure-seeking ťlite of zombies for whom new sounds are frightening because they are evocative of the living unknown. Evoking the unknown is one of the very purposes of art, the only human endeavor which provides a window upon the future -- regardless of whether that future is encouraging or disturbing, and for which prescient vision artists have gone to their deaths. The necrosonic performers and their sponsors have deadened guts and limited talent, for it is no great skill (much less art) to play only music whose content, attitude and style are culturally well assimilated. We are left with the fussy notion of "interpretations", a stagnant, shallow backwater of musical activity raised to the status of art by a society unused to (and hateful toward) intellectual challenge and in love with watching, not being -- and assisted by schools that have carefully lobotomized childrensí musical literacy and awareness. [...]

This is a demand for action. I call for no more compromises and no more politeness. Not another penny, public or private, for [...] arts councils until they cease supporting old art of all kinds. Not another penny for [...] NPR or PBS [...]. Not another penny for all the vampiric necrosones who dine on the rotting corpses of composers who once stood where we do now. It is time for the disruption of concerts played by performing groups and sponsored by organizations who consistently refuse to play newly composed music. Token performances of a new piece now and then donít count -- real commitment is the only response left, a commitment of time and -- dare it be said aloud -- royalties. Real money. The hour has come to sweep away all the festivals, symphonies, choruses and ensembles run by the necrosones. Let there be a moratorium on further performances of Schubert or Sacred Harp; for an audience which demands them, countless recordings exist. But leave the live performances for living music, not music brought back from the dead. [...]

Interpretation of "masterworks" is the shallow end of the musical pool, so to speak. The performer who deals exclusively in interpreting the understood past is splashing with the kiddies, unwilling to duck a head underwater. Old music demands established technical skills and suggests some menial sort of understanding -- often exclusively intuitive (and just as often wrong) -- whereas new music demands both standard and risky new technical skills, requires an attempt at real understanding [...], exposes a likely immature intuition and sensibility, implies the risky presentation of untried repertoire [...], and absolutely insists upon the investment of enormous time and energy both on a muscular and intellectual level. Very few performers can stay afloat in this end of the pool -- where their butt isnít comfortably anchored between Bachís and Mozartís corpses.

That was the bulk of it, published by the local daily newspaper to the acute embarrassment of my composer friends. But soon afterward, the old LTSA was brought back to life -- and, even though the account was canceled two years ago, it still lives on, frozen in cyberspace by the lapsed efficiency of an AOL computer.

Why have I brought this up tonight? Because of that Bernstein festival, where good old sorts gathered 'round to trade stories and listen to old music. A chummy thing, the fundraising buddies and their now-graying acolytes. To me, it is unimaginable. Like fashion or pop music, it cycles in increasingly tight nostalgic spirals. And maybe you're thinking, "That's not really true anymore." So I thought. I'd imagined progress (or as the author of the text that became my composition Withered wrote, "I'd imagined live chrysanthemums."), but those ripples have stilled. I was slapped back by a pile of incoming recordings, a flood of postings about notation, and a rush of notices about orchestral performances. Dull, fluffy orchestral performances that are about places or in praise of other people or events. Oh, yeah, not like this very We Are All Mozart project isn't that, too, but I can only hope that it has other points of drama and change.

Living in the past, am I? Lovin' the Rev-o-lu-shun? No, but the élite orchestral class is and it cuts to the squeaky bones. Shall it be put to the test? Sure! Why not bust up a few concerts in public view? When was the last time there was a good symphonic riot? Damn, it's overdue. The Laszlo Toth t-shirts should be made ready for new silkscreen run, too, methinks. Cowbells in the audience, whistles and banners. Grab a bumper sticker and plaster audience cars. Remind them where the sounds come from, suckas! Blast some electroacoustics from the outside. Sing a minor second away from row five. Coordinate a cell phone attack. Clap early and often. Become a Toth!

Composers really have been pretty polite, and helped launch polite pretend-rebel performing groups that rose to near-popdom. Ethel. Bang on a Can. Kronos. When was the last time you felt their contributions were artistically meaningful? Or even turned your head and forced a gape? Is this pitiful junkyard of the creative spirit with its mangy performing mongrels really the destination for our artistic hopes?

I was also brought to this state by receiving the latest issue of that pitiful excuse for a music journal, New Music Connoisseur, a self-indulgent, discombobulated and ultimately meaningless publication. It's got a freaking crossword puzzle! What is this, 1959? Sure, there's an interview with Bill Mayer, an old friend whose music is pretty darn good, but even that can't save NMC from its pious twittishness. This is the kind of thing that presumes to represent new music! Hand me my Geritol, Mabel, and don't bang your greasy head on the antimacassar or your facelift will come undone.

Okay, I'm sorry for not offering some sort of reasoned argument. But celebrating fifteen years after Bernstein's death? As Frances McDormand's character Marge Gunderson said in Fargo, "Oh, I just think I'm gonna barf." Holy dental floss, folks, it's the thirteenth anniversary of Zappa's death! Carve the Barking Pumpkins before they rot and throw them at somebody! Are we not Toths?

* * *

I'm late because of the playoffs. I love baseball.

Barking pumpkin is mute
The barking pumpkin is mute. Throw it, Simon, throw it! Be a Toth!

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