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"We Are All Mozart"

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A few months ago, Project Runway was mentioned here. When a composer and well-known figure in the new nonpop world was referred to these commentaries, he happened to look that day -- and he waved the whole blog away then and since by saying it "seems to be about Project Runway, which I've still been spared from." I was startled, but not surprised. Many nonpop composers remain unthrilled by popular phenomena, but in this case there's a great deal to be learned about the failures of nonpop and how they might be ameliorated with approaches that meld creativity, excitement, tension and professionalism.

It's a rare mix, and responsible for the high visibility of Project Runway among not only the mediocre slush of basic cable channels but also the shoot-em-ups that populate the networks at that hour. It spun off an alternate-season imitator (Top Chef) and the increased heads-up about fashion prompted a movie (The Devil Wears Prada) and a network sitcom (Ugly Betty). Sure, in terms of popularity, quality means little. But Runway is an exception -- and we patterned Kalvos & Damian's Komposer Kombat after its mix of tension, humor, and merit.

What makes it a valuable reference for nonpop composers? Unlike reality shows, Runway puts energetic talent and developed skills before a trio of professional judges who don't play good cop - bad cop entertainment. There is no studio audience. No popular voting. And the results are founded in the details.

A quick catch-up on the premise: Nationwide auditions are held in which would-be clothing designers bring portfolios, videos and samples to screening panels of judges. So far, it seems American Idol-y, except for the portfolio, the essential level of competence, and the integrity of the production. These designers are already like composers with a history of accomplishment. Eventually, sixteen designers are brought into a season-long competition in which they are gven assignments to design and sew clothing, in limited time (usually twenty-four hours) and on a budget of a few hundred dollars. They need to address the theme (a couture gown, an ice skating outfit, clothing for their mothers, dresses from recycled materials) and create a convincing result.

The designers work with professional makeup artists and hair stylists, and have high-quality tools at their disposal in the studio, with ongoing critique from an experience design instructor. In each episode, the results are shown on the runway before three judges -- two show regulars, fashion professionals themselves, and one guest -- who watch, comment on and discuss the designs and question the competing designers. The exchanges are intelligent and respectful (nevertheless, searing word wit can be in play), and the home audience is treated to a lesson in design as well as the tension of a truly thoughtful and extended competition (with its own share of contestant sniping, crying, crisis and self-deprecation).

In August, Stevie and I were in New York for a live Kalvos & Damian show as part of Tom Hamilton's Cooler in the Shade series. The next day we took a relaxing walk from uptown along the reconstructed Hudson River front, wending our way up 34th Street and down past Macy's -- where the original fashions from an episode of Runway were hanging (sans either fashion models or mannequins) in the window. We were stopped cold. Not only were they every bit as captivating simply draped on a hook, but the sewing detail revealed how substantial the contestants' work had been.

Recently, there have been discussions on that hotbed of composer vanity, the Sequenza21/ forum. Now please, I'm not excepting myself from either vanity or bloviation, but when the opportunity arises to have a meaningful discussion among artists about musical events, the conversation moves away from substance and inexorably toward a clashing of wit, a butting of chests, and one-up diversionism. Composers seem fearful, unable to engage except for the intellectual shimmy-shammy, with facts employed selectively to avoid taking a personal position with clarity and commitment. A proposed discussion on "influences and aspirations" failed to generate a single comment; but a post about "iPod sensibility" provoked more than fifty. The Henle engraving video (metioned here, and now taken down from the Henle site) generated no comments; a post about website quality devolved into a personal mud-fest of forty-some slung patties. And a post to discuss the composer productivity study was immediately diverted into a few brief and desultory comments.

The difference is clear. Composers are neither excited nor exciting, and they are fearful besides. Though Komposer Kombat engaged enough interest to generate forty-one compositions from twenty-two composers, there were more than a thousand composers invited. The Runway designers would have been flooding the email and faxes for the opportunity to participate in such a live event. Of course, our panel of judges was great fun and the resulting show was an enormous pleasure. Still ... twenty-two participating composers. Two-hundred eighty were willing to present their music on air during our show's run, but only a paltry eight percent of those dared take the risk of K2.

When I saw the Bryant Park finals of the third season of Runway last night, the significance to composers arrived with perfect clarity. We need to be braver, to present our work in public no matter what the circumstances and to allow our music to be heard side-by-side with other nonpop. Our present judges (the ones who hide behind screens at competitions and as gatekeepers to conferences) must work transparently in the future. The reasons for their judgments need to be discussed publicly, captured on video, and posted online. The conversation must start and the hiding needs to end.

We do not gain meaning for our work by hiding in the shadows, only to jump out at the last moment and call for nonexistent audiences to make themselves known to us. Are we surprised to hear nothing but our own echoes? Nor does our work gain meaning by isolating itself from popular trends -- it's not about incorporating popular work or emulating popular approaches, but simply being aware of popular culture in a way that informs our growth and hence our creativity. How many composers hole up in their homes and apartments, working all night, and then 'retire' to a day job marginally involved with or entirely unrelated to their music? How many have positions in academia which conveniently preclude their composing for an ex hedera audience? Steve Reich's point about composers not performing their own work was misplaced but on a parallel track to the reality: we like our isolation.

As usual, I generalize. Our nonpop problem nevertheless is a general one, and the lack of symbiotic efforts among composers bears significant responsibility for it. Here's a story with a successful seven-year trajectory. In 1988, composers gathered in Vermont to create an activist group. There were stylistic disparities beyond imagination, the level of differences that make New York's erstwhile uptown-downtown conflict look positively collegial. But we met with a single common understanding: we were unplayed and invisible, and those demeaning circumstances had to be changed through proactive effort and sacrifice. The festival that launched the group was huge, with Vermont's Governor Kunin welcoming the crowds -- and staying for the music. By 1995, the Consortium of Vermont Composers had succeeded in placing new nonpop on every 'classical' concert program in the state.

And then the group backed off. With that retirement, with that departure from the public sphere, like a grocery product that stops advertising, Vermont's new nonpop faded from the public consciousness. Not yet being a meme, it slowly dropped off concert programs. Except for a few committed performers and ensembles -- effectively the same ones who had already been playing new nonnpop -- commissions ended. In terms of public consciousness, today is 1986 again.

Which brings me back to Project Runway and its success in opening up the interior world of fashion to wider attention. The idea grew and within a season it has shifted something in the public consciousness that nonpop has not ... yet. David and I have talked about Komposer Kombat, its near miss, the artistic glass ceiling hit by Kalvos & Damian and the inability to generate momentum for a followup to the Ought-One Festival of NonPop. We would like to take K2 on the road, with regional contests and an international finale -- all good fun, all very public, exposed, professional, and thoroughly brilliant in its details. Spread the word. We'll start the season in the fall of 2007.

What do you think?

Vermont composers in 1988
Some of the Vermont Composers Consortium in 1988: David Gunn, Gilles Yves Bonneau, Dennis Báthory-Kitsz, Erik Nielsen, Thomas L. Read, Maria Lattimore, Gwyneth Walker, Zeke Hecker, Don McLean

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