A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
On the Orchestra List (and I promise they won't be mentioned again for a while!), multiple threads run parallel on opposite sides of the hedge of the old and new, but rarely reveal each other's mutual incompatibility so starkly as in the past weeks.
Let me begin with the confrontational: With the wealth of recently written musical compositions of all styles and genres, there's simply no reason to be doing Mozart or Brahms at all, much less be fretting about whether to do the low parts with celli or basses in the former or to take the repeats in the latter. If nonpop in any reasonable way resembled the other living arts, there would be a continuing celebration (and marketing) of anything & everything recent, and attention to old material would be handled by a few specialists hunched over paintings to restore and those bent on educating the public with park performances of Shakespeare or hyperbolic tours of Rembrandt.
But it is different and deadly -- and I think it's time to lay this deadliness where it belongs, which is not by scapegoating serialists or any other style or genre. What composers do and have run into is not a wall of atonalists, but a wall of institutionalized ignorance, arrogance, and fear, exhibited most starkly by Orchestra Nation. There was no great celebration and marketing of serialism. Nor was there celebration of any of the other styles and approaches by the mid-20th Century. Orchestra Nation had become a vehicle of historical entertainment, with the occasional new novelty music. It took seventy years, for example, for the pre-atonal Rite of Spring to become relatively standard repertoire (and only for the adventurous and well-endowed orchestra).
Sure, Orchestra List composers Nancy Bloomer Deussen's and Amy Scurria's (and my) music was out of sync with the surrounding styles of their day, but so is most composition -- as is all new nonpop today, which has effectively no audience, save for a niche among scattered enthusiasts, friends, supporters, and primarily the internet. Beyond that, it doesn't matter. My music doesn't matter, these commentaries don't matter. We might easily not exist, and the butterfly effect wouldn't even engage.
Like it or not -- and I despise it -- the nonpop establishment has become and chosen to remain a museum culture. It's a charge made so often before that it feels shopworn, yet its aphoristic implications have not changed in accuracy or significance. The critical fact today is that it does not matter where the demeaning of new composers or compositions came from; it began before the serialists held academic sway, and certainly used them as an excuse to fuse the orchestra into the mass entertainment industry (which ultimately failed, but that's another story). It remains an entertainment vehicle, even though long ago -- despite pop refugees' objections -- art evolved separately from utility in human culture. Entertainment may encompass both, but you wouldn't discover that from Orchestra Nation's concert programming. The internal dissonance in nonpop has little to do with chords.
Audiences who have become used to hearing recordings in the place of live music and thus have invested in the music they already know from their coming-of-age in a music-as-souvenir-object kind of way are at heart conservative listeners; for nonpoppers, that's pretty much the blob from 1650 to 1910 (the birth of mass-marketed recordings). Further, in a culture where popularity is equated with substance, the result is almost inevitably a bottom-line approach to music. Even the pop listening public is conservative, and generational. The retirement fund television advertisements use clips of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. Guess who's retiring these days? Yup. There would be little revolutionary transformation in pop if it weren't for simple youthful rebellion across generations. But youth is not the nonpop audience; nonpop asks more of the listener if in no other way than in terms of time alone, as the three-minute nonpop creation is the exception in the nonpop concert hall. And by the time it steps over the symphonic threshold, there's not much youthful revolution left in the audience's spirit.
Beyond marketplace conservatism, then, what else could account for the dismissal of so many composers? One path brings me to an influential element that has not been mentioned. You can blame the individual composer's visibility problem on stylistic fascism or market-based nonpop economics, or you can blame it as well on ruptured connections. I suggest the latter is significantly more important than elbowing through the academic line per se -- it's the decision not to elbow through that line that's the crime. You can't quit the team, even if you've got the better play.
I've known hundreds of composers in nearly as many styles who fare far worse than some of the aggrieved tonal composers who have written on the Orchestra List. There's at least one composer on the list who could easily make that claim of stylistic abuse, but remains quiet. I know another brilliant composer who has never received a commission nor one single orchestral performance -- other than those performances he saves every penny for and empties his bank account every five years to buy from an Eastern European orchestra. Indeed, he ruptured his connections early, leaving music for programming. That and that alone is what accounts for his rejection.
In other words, ruptured connections represent a failure to pay one's dues. I didn't pay mine but instead became an independent composer early -- and that decision dogged me my whole artistic life. Had I stayed within the institutional shelter, done my little serial ditties, maintained my connections, and then come forth with the approach that I had been growing with (had it even survived), chances are I would not have had to wait twenty-two years into my career for a first performance by musicians other than my own ensemble, or forty years for my first performance by a professional orchestra. But, of course, that's not how artistic revolution happens -- and Orchestra Nation is now the very antithesis of artistic revolution. It's been a very long two hundred years since that night in 1808, as Elizabeth Schwarm Glesner describes, that could make possible such an event where...
Indeed. Revolution by orchestra. Imagine that kind of thing happening next year, in 2008. (I heard you laughing, yes I did.) Instead, we'll likely be greeted by celebratory performances of, well, Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. Museum culture -- and broken connections, where the originators of the music, the composers themselves, have no authoritative voice.
Music, whether performance or composition, remains an apprentice trade. But in our times, not paying one's dues by working in the accepted style with institutions and keeping up a high schmooze level (not to mention teaching in the sandals of others) is a near ironclad guarantee of rejection no matter what forces presently hold the keys to Symphony Hall. You don't get to Tanglewood as an independent composer -- even Steve Reich and Philip Glass, for all their adulation as self-made composers, apprenticed in the traditional way. And keep in mind that there is no new nonpop media voice to discover and hype the unknown nonpopper as it might thump unknown bands from, say, Omaha or Seattle or Milwaukee. There's no scene.
As I wrote in these commentaries yesterday, music isn't rocket science. You can get ideas when you apprentice, and learn a body of skills, but it's just not that hard. With limited resources and trepidacious ensembles, the way to play it safe (and guard the bottom line) with composers has therefore been to grab those with proper dues-paying histories and well-maintained connections and networking -- far more than their style or musical language. (No? Open the booklet for an orchestral program with a new piece on it. The composer biography will include teachers and institutions and awards, long residence in an artistic center, but rarely a philosophy of composition or artistic substance.)
There are many places to look ... to place the blame, if you like. But primarily those decisions are made within the nonpop orchestral establishment -- Orchestra Nation -- with its lack of experience with recently composed music and most of all with its primal bottom-line terrors. Though some composers may be welcomed or spurned based on stylistic vogue, composers who have opted out of the apprenticeship (serfdom, for some) will struggle (and likely fail) to be heard (not to mention the issue of gender as well, which in the past automatically denied serious consideration). This E-Z first line of separation also cuts out composers whose ideas may differ with orthodoxy, who already had done that with their ruptured connections. And so there will be no Beethoven again this year, rises the lament -- though Orchestra Nation would politely usher any present-day Beethoven right out the door in a mental cloud of terror.
The truth is, those who find no Beethovens today aren't looking. And if you want more Mozarts or Beethovens or Brahmses in your midst -- and by that I mean, as regular readers know, composers of passion and dedication and excitement, whatever their genres -- you must decide that you really do want them, then resolve to make it possible, to make it happen, to advocate, to take chances, and even to risk failure to raise the moonshine money.
Unfortunately, like Mahagonny, the capital crime in Orchestra Nation is not being corrupt or inept or unimaginative or even suffering night terrors, but rather failing to pay for one's whiskey.
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Article not to miss tonight, by Margaret Atwood: "Just pay the piano player".
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Tomorrow: flute stuff. See you the day after, if things go well.
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