A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
The "We Are All Mozart" commissions were clustered in January. And now that they are spaced a few days apart, I am missing the flaming ignition of ideas every morning when a new project awaits. Today's was the first touch of compositional post-partum depression that I've had since finishing Eventide last May. Of course there is a piece for flute due in two days, but the extra day -- the only extra day since the year began -- feels incomplete. So I took down the holiday decorations today.
About last night. Carson Cooman had asked for two organ preludes, the first on a theme by Justin Morgan. Morgan is best known for the horses he bred in Vermont, just twenty miles from here, and he was also a composer -- crude by European standards, but powerful and imaginative. His Amanda (on which I've written this set of variations that opens with Morgan's hymn) remains unique in its harmonic passion and emotional sweep. For Carson's prelude, instead of using Amanda or Morgan's other painful hymn, Despair, I selected the fuging tune Sounding Joy.
The movement toward simplicity in the January 7th composition (Centering for chorus) suggested this could be explored further, and so in this new creation, the composition proceeded backwards -- not truly backwards, but rather from the most complex and distant exploration of the music toward the unadorned Morgan hymn itself. Against it would be pinned an opening flourish, and the music would go from an the detailed prelude through decreasingly opaque variations, arriving at Sounding Joy by itself.
* * *
The Amanda Variations were mentioned above, which leads me into how a composer is viewed by the outside world. There has been a good deal of complaining on the Orchestra List about the oppressive treatment of tonal composers by their teachers in academia, and on Sequenza21 about the lot of composers and how they will be remembered and understood -- or remembered at all.
There's not world enough or time to lament the place of composers in the fully capitalist society where popularity offers almost the sole judgment of meaningfulness. Rather, there's the question of expectation and how it is met or confronted. It is the era of specialty, and there is a wisp -- no, a haze, a fog, a veritable soup -- of suspicion of artists who continue to step outside the genres in which their work first come to light. It is hard to imagine, for example, Steve Reich turning up with an atonal symphony or Charles Wuorinen writing a set of children's songs (no, the arrangements from the Glogauer Liederbuch don't count) or John Corigliano doing avant-garde performance art (no, that ain't right).
Other genres are not as restrictive, which is why John Coltrane and Anthony Braxton could both record standards two generations ago, or Sting could set his voice to John Dowland's songs, or Paul McCartney could crawl after the symphony. The younger & fringier nonpop artists like Nick Didkovsky or Eve Beglarian can move popward and even transform it, and groups like Radiohead can aspire to the old avant-garde by making self-conscious stylistic mashups of composition.
Here's where I'm going with this: With few exceptions, genre-hopping is neither accepted nor even understood in the nonpop community. The narrow streaming of composers into opera or minimal or chamber or sacred or electroacoustic has diminished their collective visibility. Whereas Mozart could compose for stage or symphony, dinner or Vienna-era nightclub, park entertainment or student, in our times such diversity is looked upon with suspicion of incompetence, and not only by outsiders. Composers live inside circumscribed areas of composition their whole lives -- which is, in some ways, where the fury at the serialists and experimentalists and avant-gardists (often lumped together) comes from with respect to their composer colleagues, and the demeaning of the tonalists and neo-romantics and high minimalists arises from their composer colleagues. This is their own doing. They don't try it, they don't get it, and they don't want to bother; at best a weak, "oh, yeah, I did some of that in college" can be heard (and this applies to any nonpop genre).
How did such specialty arise? Is it simply part of the increase in specialization generally in modern culture? I don't believe that. Music, let's face it, just isn't that hard. Art is hard, yes, but the languages of music, such as they are, require less study and exactitude than architecture or medicine. Music isn't rocket science. There are no fake books in rocket science, no brain surgery singalongs, not even malleable rules in stress analysis. In other words, there's no need to specialize in composition, or even in performance for that matter. The lifelong study of Josquin's performance practice reveals what? A good guess? The rote-learning and slavish imitation of the variations of Charlie Parker offers what? A window into the past?
Learning these subjective rulesets has little application in building music. Wuorinen's Glogauer Liederbuch orchestrations or Didkovsky's or Carl Stone's pieces based on Schubert (cool things, all) or Sting's pop stylings of Dowland use history only as a straight man for their art. They hang the new on the familiar -- but don't have to. It's a conceit, not a manual of industry practice, and a way of allowing composers to step out from a peculiar perception of their roles. No, this is not a dismissal of learning music history and analysis (or, as John McGuire would complain, a voluntary ignorance of species counterpoint), but rather to point out that those are skill-building activities like learning to work wooden blocks at age three, a computer at age ten, or a stick shift at age fifteen. You do it, internalize it, and move on.
But it seems to me that composers are extremely conservative in their attitudes -- and here I don't mean the tonalists, but even the experimentalists, and to a fault. Sure, we like what we like, but we are also not animals with a limited set of tasks to survive and feed ourselves and pick nits and reproduce, so save for postmodern stylistic stewpotting, composers won't risk writing outside their chosen stream due to the lowest level of animal drive: fear. Fear of criticism from colleagues, fear of looking unfocused or shallow, fear of exposing a lack of technique, fear of the reaction of the fanbase (however small it may be), fear of expanding compositional horizons, fear of being disliked.
(This generalization doesn't apply to all composers, of course. The aforementioned Eve Beglarian as well as Alex Shapiro and Gene Pritsker are notable exceptions who come immediately to mind, and in varying degrees follow other composers.)
These fears feed a voracious performance and presentation beast that consumes artists for what fattens that beast's bottom line, and yorks them up when they upset the assumed stylistic tastes. It's how the American Commissions came about, and why composers (myself included) have capitulated to them. Hey, we're good, and if this is our only vehicle to reach a wider public, then the diabolical deal is done.
Which brings me to a story of expectation. From the beginning, my musical composition worked in dot-music, performance art and electroacoustics. Young composers now of a certain age found performances nearly impossible to find; the options were to write for friends and amateurs and professionals who wanted to get together for a good time or for a broader sense of art. Whatever. Other solutions included doing electroacoustics and writing for one's own strengths and bringing them to concerts in storefronts or museums. The concert hall was a forbidden space for many years.
Unfortunately for the aspiring Symphonic Composers, such accommodation of circumstances and imagination in transforming them is like creating one's hell-to-leather MySpace trail in 2007: it will doubtless come back to haunt the future artist. When those Amanda Variations were premiered in the late Nineteen Eighties, my reputation as an artistic gatecrasher was well known, leading to incredulous reviews that were reminiscent of artists who, the newspapers would discover, "really could paint." I "really could compose." Dot-music, they meant. After twenty-five years as a composer, I really could compose.
Some of the derision that greeted this "We Are All Mozart" project arises from the perceived impossibility or shallowness or inadequate technique or lack of focus of working in such a way -- as an artist. A hack, maybe. But a nonpop, uh, classical composer? No, not likely. And that incredulousness comes as strongly -- more strongly -- from some other composers whose vision has taken them down a quiet rivulet, well past the rapids. It's not all about me, me, me. It's just that the parallels struck me this evening, as I read those plaints in two online communities, both dominated by individuals of such specialization that the broader world has become a place of enormous fear. It is an agoraphobia of stylistic diversity.
Looks like it's almost midnight, and time to post this. Tomorrow I work on a flute solo. And no time for a pix tonight.
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