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

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About a month ago, there was a discussion of musical economics following the publication of the productivity survey. Daniel Wolf was quoted here, and he posted a thoughtful response on October 1. He clarifies some points that show we agree in many ways, but there remain some points of disagreement and some points where my deliberate image-making process with the We Are All Mozart project seems judgmental and narrow-minded. Certainly it is, and this is the project's conceit. Because this project was undertaken to change an image more than change a process of art-making, it takes philosophical leaps and hence philosophical risks. This same question came up in the "Arts & Answers" interview with Anne Cammon.

Before turning back to Daniel's comments, let me outline the salient features of this project's premise, intended effect, and possible consequences.

The premise is that composers can compose more, and that is a good thing. Composing more could mean there is more opportunity and more demand or that composers simply begin increasing the number of compositions they create irrespective of outside forces. As part of the latter, composers also increase their visibility and their colleagues' visibility by seeking local opportunities for performance, even those opportunities that may not correspond directly to their compositional interests. The premise is modeled on the composer-as-craftsperson rather than the composer-as-artist, the latter being a kind of Nineteenth century view that still persists. It requires a certain self-sacrifice to work for the visibility of the field as a whole and to seek opportunities that require bending one's artistic point-of-view to the demands of, say, a less artistically appealing commissioner or venue.

This is fuzzy, so here is more. The composer-as-craftsperson model is well known in the Baroque era and earlier, where composers sought positions to create work on demand, whether for weekly church services or for court entertainments or school activities. The composers who have appeared on Kalvos & Damian are almost to a one already fine craftspeople, but the overarching majority do not compose as a craft or a trade. They compose as art. The project's premise includes composing as a trade (even if for a generation more it be part of Daniel Wolf's "gift economy"), knocking on the door of the local band director, historical society, or parks commission, or seeking out store openings or weddings or celebrations.

The point is that they could meet the demands of such circumstances in the interstices of their time doing Art. David Gunn is often mentioned here, largely because he is the composer I've known longest. David generally writes slowly, but also writes under pressure, using his craft. When approached to write a score to a small play in Los Angeles, he agreed, and quickly created a thirteen excellent cues -- almost twenty-five minutes of music. The craft pushed the music ahead, and (to his surprise, it seems) effective art was also made. He created new pieces, making art, increasing his income, and spreading new nonpop further.

Recently a dance company was looking for music appropriate to their theme, and asked on the Orchestra List. The suggestions made were to use classical selections. Not one person suggested setting aside part of the rather substantial budget to commission a score for the dance company. Here is the mechanism of that failure: the very first thought in such a circumstance was to create a new dance but use existing music. The essential disconnect is not perceived, and the complete cycle of opportunities -- to composer, dancers and public -- will be lost by using Tchaikovsky or Vivaldi.

The intended effect of the project is to increase visibility by intertwining composers with the thought process of other creative projects -- what the business community calls a "top of mind" approach. You're cutting the ribbon on a public building and need music; what do you think first? You're getting married; what do you consider first for music? Your school band is giving a concert; for the program, what do they think of first? A memorial service or dedication is being conducted; what music do they consider first? If none of those answers are to have music written for the occasion, then composers have not put themselves at "top of mind" -- even though making music is the very heart of what composers do! (If you thought, but what composer would want to write for a ribbon cutting?, then you've touched on the other symptom, and what was meant above by a less artistically appealing commissioner or venue.)

Among the other effects are shifting the public view of the composer. This is important. When Sting can record Dowland and McCartney can create an oratorio, all to great acclaim from the general musical public, it says that what the existing body of nonpop composers does is unappealing (not everyone agrees, of course; read this commentary from The Guardian). We have become incapable of rousing our own 'natural' public, and by actually engaging in the rousing process -- creating music in public places, and doing it frequently -- it becomes an expectation. Not "what's a composer?" but "where's the composer?"

That leaves the possible consequences, which break out into consequences to me and consequences to the field. (Though I might hope this project is far-reaching, it may not be, with no consequences to the field. But let's for the moment assume otherwise.) The personal consequences are that I will fail as a composer in delivering the compositions, making them appropriate, and making them worthwhile art, and in the process get sick, go broke, and totally fall apart. The process might alienate other composers (some have already been chill) and seem to be a cheap shill. There are times I can be pretty fragile, and at the end of 2007 I'll probably know how fragile.

The more important consequences are to the field if this project reaches beyond the single composer and his gimmick. If the "Buy Local" concept takes hold, it will bring the composer to "top of mind" and there will be more attention, however dangerous that may be to composers who do not work well with pressure. (The means and consequences were discussed early in the development of the project's ideas on June 4, June 7, June 11, and most notoriously on June 30, as well as with some 'money details' on July 2 and the concept of utility music on July 20, 21 and 22.)

If, on the other hand, the project fails (by getting insufficient commissions, or by my failure to deliver them on time & well-composed), then any attentive public will have a brief "I-told-you-so" reaction and sink back into the world of past classical music.

One significant assumption in this process is that the participation in the societal and economic structure is, however distasteful, essential to -- for this time at least -- recovering interest in new nonpop. Daniel Wolf objects, and in my artistic heart, I agree with him, and wonder if the sacrifice to participate responsibly in the trade society is too great. He writes:

I see no significant act of responsibility in participating in the trade society. Our participation is that society is already de facto, as we have to feed, clothe, and house ourselves, and we will do what it takes within that society to make survival possible. Some musicians will to build structures or institutions for their music within that economy, and the more power to them. However, I happen to see my responsibility as participating in mechanisms and processes that are alternatives, if not active resistance, to that de facto trade society.

Ah. The composer as artist-resistance figure. Daniel's point is very important, and I agree with it almost wholeheartedly -- except that my resistance is to a compositional establishment that has made a requirement of this resistance. Art must provide these most obvious of alternatives, this anticipated resistance, and provide only alternative and resistance. Yes, this exaggerates Daniel's point, but the resistance has come to be such a cliché that composers have walled themselves outside the trade society where resistance is as significant as a bug outside the screen. This is not resistance, this is crying in the wilderness. No one hears. No one is listening. In other words, the greatest artistic alternative of our time is to subvert, if you will, from within, to bring music to the public through its own mechanisms, toppling the classical establishment by chipping at its foundation in meaningfulness.

Daniel also disagrees with the economics of productivity, payment and patronage, seeing it moving back far earlier than my date of "for nearly a century." I wrote, "low productivity is a symptom of a greater compositional disease, a disease whose vector is starvation and sickening of opportunity. Like a body that feeds upon itself to stay alive under stress, the body of new nonpop composition, presentation, and audition has been feeding upon itself for nearly a century. If nutrition is so badly needed for this patient, it matters little where it comes from. Consciously increasing productivity places nutrients in our feeding tube." Daniel's response needs to be quoted in full:

The economic situation for composers has never been good, and without patronage or a day job, very few composers would have ever composed anything, even the most famous cases of hyperproductivity. But more importantly, we each come to music with different sensibilities, interests, ambitions, experiences, and talents. Some composers simply don't have many pieces in them, and they are not necessarily lesser composers because of it. While some composers do improve their art by composing more pieces, others improve by working more intensively on a small number of pieces, composing and recomposing, getting every detail right. Some compose out of lightning bolts of inspiration, others simply work long and hard. The problem here is that productivity will inevitably be measured by quantity, whether in number or length of pieces or in the amount of time spent on a piece. However, not all composers are gifted in the same way, so no single measure of those gifts is going to work. (There's that word, gift, again). Do we value Webern, Varese, Ruggles, Kurtag, Chowning any less for the small size of their catalogs? Do we value them more for their scruples? Do we value a Clemens Non Papa or a Hovhaness more? I sure don't view my own low quantitative productivity as symptom of an illness, but rather -- and perhaps, optimistically -- as a sign of the standards I set for myself. I'd estimate that I compose about a minute of music every day, but most of those minutes I cheerfully abandon, for the potential of making something better.

Once again, I agree with Daniel with only minor reservations. The unproductive composer is a modern phenomenon, and it's not really possible to know if the reasons are scruples or economics. If more people were knocking at the doors of Webern, Varèse, Ruggles, Kurtág, and Chowning -- checks in hand, performances scheduled, audiences in heat -- what might have been the result? Of course we can never know, but the decreasing productivity of nonpop composers has to be a symptom of something. What does it mean? Perhaps there's no conclusion to be drawn, but I am willing to draw a conclusion about its effect, which is the appearance of being incompetent note-dabblers in the face of the Mozarts who dominate the concert hall and public radio.

There are several choices possible when observing this and acting upon it -- and I feel that it must be acted upon, even if the reason is singular and selfish. As a composer who feels painted with the same brush as those who write little, I make the choice that compositional paucity is also a choice, a way of adding value by artificial rarity, an affectation, not a fact of being. It is also a modernist predilection that time has passed by. And yet, and yet, and yet the audiences and performers have still not acknowledged the changes in compositional vibrancy around them. And so I make the point of compositional productivity along with compositional substance and hope other composers will do the same.

Gesualdo in October
Gesualdo waits for me to finish writing my daily commentaries and do something useful.

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