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"We Are All Mozart"

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the perception of the
music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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These commentaries are a test bed for ideas, not (yet) declarations of truth. The point of view can be experimental or polemic or merely the taking on of a persona or point of view. Tonight it's a little different because it's a cloud of unformed feelings hovering over a lifetime of experiences.

It's about the penguins. Here, read this first.

I am the first one to call out loudly for new ways of presenting nonpop. My nonpop performing career began in the early 1970s doing street concerts that combined Johannes Ockeghem and Henning Christiansen. For the 1985 Echo, I got naked. For the "Closing the Book on the Avant-Garde" series in 1986, performance art and electronic music were on the same program with the massive Mantra Canon. In the 1994 "Clusters" concert series, the musicians wore t-shirts of sponges and bottle caps and film cans. In the 1996 "Circular Screaming" concert, the music was intertwined with warm air and melting ice and dozens of aromas. The whole idea behind Kalvos & Damian was to scrape off the bitter taste from nonpop. My commitment was to get an audience in front of us and give them a good show.

Such events transgress the rules of concert-making while engendering positive expectation and enthusiasm before the event -- but the presentation ultimately is always about the art, not the presentation itself. If a Picardy Penguin were integral to a composition, or a concert, or a broadcast, or even provided a means of unlocking some music, it should become part of a presentation. Picardy Penguin and the Picardy Playground are so infuriating because they are a gimmick and only a gimmick. The gimmick proceeds from the assumption voiced by conductor Lucas Richman that "classical music seems to be a very intimidating form of entertainment." And that assumption is pure penguin poop, and the reason that this series will utterly fail as a musical experience of consequence.

There's no report on how much Picardy Penguin cost. "LeDor Group, a company run by Richman, markets concert packages for young people. Lucas created Picardy Penguin for his company, which offers it as a mascot to other orchestras," says the article. (Marketing concert 'packages' to young people? For the love of Monty Python, what kind of marketing is this?) Somebody paid the tab for the penguin animation and voice-over, money that might have gone into the creation of actual music rather than march all penguiny to the coffins (again) of Gershwin and Beethoven.

Look, I applaud innovation, but this is capitulation to the meanest of market forces. My own project is a gimmick, but it begins and ends with music and the creative process surrounding it. These institutions are pandering, cheap, and demeaning. And please don't tell me the kids are too young to get it. I taught elementary school music starting with five-year-olds and these kids are smart. Gonna make the Sesame Street argument? Don't. That was a daily event integrated with the extant expectations and habits of children. Porky Penguin is an anomaly, an occasional appearance like a carnival barker who sells trinkets or cheap thrills to be forgotten another day -- or the same one. The evidence is stark: the music is such an afterthought that it gets one paragraph in the press release.

Picasso is credited with saying, "bad artists copy, great artists steal." Set aside the inevitable argument about greatness, and consider that just as important in nonpop is the fact that many artists compose, few artists compel. Few artists thrill. Few artists risk, dare to engage and enrage, confess and confound, express and exhalt, are be shameless. Kids get this. They are compelled by storytelling, thrilled by the event, and laugh at risk. They're too young to be enraged, perhaps, but involvement begins and ends viscerally, cradle to grave, birth song to lament. Yet in an era of successful disintermediation, the Knoxville crowd is hiring a bloody animated penguin!

Don't tell me to calm down and that they probably brought in consultants and educators and psychologists and marketing experts -- oh, wait, the conductor hired himself in that role. All the consultancy doesn't matter because they're following the same pandering pattern of inevitable failure that has lacerated and left fatally bleeding the music education system in our public schools, all rolling carts full of debilitated instruments pushed by harried, pitiable, undertrained teachers few of whom have ever written an original note. No penguin can compensate for this. But what can begin the compensation by action and example is a meaningful musical program conceived at the participatory, hands-on (and voice-on) focus of younger children.

There's a flawed but successful program here called the Vermont Midi Project. I believe it is flawed because it is bound to both standard Midi and creatively the weakest of the notation programs, because it is too uncritical in subscribing to the hyperdemocratic self-esteem model, and because it accepts wholesale conservative notions of composition (minimalism would never survive its 'demonstration of evidence' criterion). But my personal gripes aside, it nevertheless is successful in integrating music into the students' lives because it is unabashedly committed to the creation of music. Together with Kalvos & Damian, in 1997 and 1998 composers in North America and Europe did live online mentoring with Vermont students. After ten years, it has created an enormous body of young -- sometimes very young -- composers and in the process enthused thousands of kids about nonpop. Entirely without penguins.

Here's the point: Change the concert, don't add penguins. Change the venue. Change the content. Change the notion of playing at an audience. Have a good proportion of the music be student creations and treat them and it professionally. Record it, distribute it. Use the penguin cash to put the music in the hands of students, on CD or for download.

Okay, it's almost midnight, so I'm done. Read more about successful programs in the excellent columns of Belinda Reynolds in New Music Box.

Kids tossed the recorders
Kids tossed the recorders and got donated Casio keyboards in this shot from my 1988 elementary classes.

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