A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
I'm still on a tear from listening to Paul Cantor and now from reading Richard Taruskin's smarmy tirade in the New Republic entitled "The Musical Mystique: Defending classical music against its devotees." Yeah, you should read it.
Here's the thing. It's not that Taruskin disagrees with the three authors; rather, he uses the laugh-and-distort machine that Cantor does. He makes the same kinds of non sequiturs as he criticizes. Two examples: First, he misrepresents the Joshua Bell experiment by creating a parallel with a situation not intended to be parallel -- read the original article by Gene Weingarten, "Pearls Before Breakfast." And second, follow Taruskin's logic where he introduces two concepts -- entertainment and pleasure -- and scrumples them up, uses his verbal Cuisinart to mix stuffing for his strawman, and easily knocks it down.
Oh, and then there's old Theodor Adorno that kept bouncing into my own WAAM blogs last year. I donít unequivocally disagree with Taruskin's point, but there he is flogging old Adorno again, as if one can encapsulate half a century of artistic commentary into a befuddled Marxist philosopher-composer whose main achievement was to aggregate othersí viewpoints as if they were his. Composers like me were supposed to have been deeply influenced and, of course, brought down to the depths of audience-hostile arrogance by Adorno's overarching influence. Damn, man, I never heard of Adorno until 2006 -- where I went to college, they were intellectual flyweights. No Adorno at Rutgers. So was I a freak, or was his influence only on guys like Taruskin and his fellow academics, who then splattered their intellectual spittle on the image they held of other artists who dared compose a modernist phrase?
Taruskin also conflates the classical approaches of the Twentieth Century with German approaches to concertizing and philosophy and then drops in Wagner, throwing down great swaths of anti-Semitic quotation to suggest, well, you know, all those classical people are really elitists and why, how convenient, they're racist and fascist, too, and you know where that leads.
Indeed, Taruskin does make the same character of argument as Cantor or Bill Bennett make, disguising a musico-political tract as a review of three books and, of course, allowing himself to sidestep offering any sort of solution, since book reviews are criticism, not writings with responsibility behind them. Whether or not he nails some of the crappy attitudes, he engages in the same seedy behavior. The worst part for me is that he could have made the point that we are precious, insolent, self-centered, self-indulgent, irresponsible pukes. But he didn't, and wasted an opportunity to reveal his view of a role for nonpop in our time.
I haven't read any of the books, and don't plan to; I've heard the shofar blast of a nonpop revolution, and it isn't your grandfather's lament. Maybe I'll read Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, but it doesn't ultimately matter. The declaration of the end of classical music has been with us a long time. And it is over. Classical, that is. That's why I've been calling it nonpop, to distinguish music developed for commercial purposes from music created for artistic purposes. Cantor and Taruskin types' teeth hurt when that is said. The distinction is artificial, it doesn't represent historical fact, and it's anti-marketplace in nature. Well yeah. Human culture has actually evolved over the centuries, and continues to do so. We didn't have novels, then we had novels. We didn't have symphonies, then there they were. Jazz, rock, electronic music arrived from an emptiness of jazz, rock and electronic music.
Some attribute their appearance to meeting the needs of the marketplace, but the truth is that someone has to have the idea first. Trends come and go, but the distinction between idea and product remains. Despite Don Tapscott and his Wikinomics, crowdsourcing isn't creation. It's mediation and filtering. Crowdsourcing or public opinion or the marketplace may determine that Bach or Mahler are so out of style that they're in oblivion for a century, but the original creations are not mediated or filtered by those crowds. They stand. The marketplace determines value, not worth; distribution, not influence; quantity, not meaning.
There's a convenience to the marketplace arguments. One can't go back and interview the scribbling Mozart or the deadline-meeting Bach or the publisher-harassing Beethoven or the crowd-swoonifying Liszt. One can't trust their writings, nor others' observations. So in their behavior the capitalist can infer economic motive, while the artist sees artistic motive. There is some evidence to support both, but when confronted with, say, the lack of widespread success of Bach in his lifetime, the argument is merely that he was a poor self-marketer, that his position was healthy and secure for one with a large family, that he was writing for his market (a religious one), that his attitude corresponded to his contemporary marketplace, or that the marketplace itself proved his value -- and consequently its own -- after his death. Though these are also adequate points, they ignore the non-marketplace character of human invention. Put it this way: If Bach could have made a bigger purse stealing someone else's work, would he have? How about Mozart? Salieri was writing hit operas, and Mozart was getting compliments but not raves. Why not Salieri-ize his work? And the flip side -- Beethoven was getting the news, so why didn't Haydn flip on over to where the money was?
Bringing it into the present, nearly a century of classical music failed in the marketplace. Were all those composers really such slouches that they couldn't write a decent note -- and so incompetent that they couldn't even steal a few? Exactly, suggests Taruskin, what they've done is swallowed the bourgeois high vs. low culture philosophy on the high culture side, found a clever ruse and the marketplace be damned, and hey buddy, where can we find us some grant cash to replace all those Nineteenth Century patrons? Yeah, ouch. It was Rachmaninoff all the time.
Ain't nobody gonna solve art. But denying its role outside High Capitalism is simply folly.
* * *
August witnessed a transition in the We Are All Mozart project. This was an especially utilitarian -- gosh, a marketplace -- month. Five of the ten commissioners had particular features in mind, and to fulfill my role in the project, I had to meet them. It was a rewarding stretch.
If you've been reading along in the now-concluded journal from our residency in Portugal (published here from October 11 through 25), you've already met Natividad Plasencia, an artist from Valladolid in Spain. Aside from her edgy creativity, she's also a cello teacher -- part of the multiple personalities of the contemporary artist. In Nodar, Nati took me aside and asked if I might accept a small commission for a work for cello duo, in particular for Nati and her ten-year-old student Amarilis. It would help Amarilis be committed by having something written just for her. Of course! But when time came to write this piece four months later, I hesitated. How could I write a true duo that was also artistically valid?
This shouldn't be a hard question, but since you've just read my Taruskin rant above, you'll know that I take issues of artistic integrity seriously, even in the case of a child. There would be no point to some sort of avant-garde exercise; that would just be a struggle without reward, requiring levels of interpretation of all the languages involved, verbal and musical. Instead, it would be a solidly formal piece, good to play, good to hear, and with just enough demand on concept and technique to be full rather than empty. Here. You decide whether The Nine Rabbits of Valladolid (also a covered reference to the bunnies of Utrecht, the town which followed our residency in Nodar) is valid, and listen to the electronic demo. Amarilis and Nati will send a recording when they play it in her recital.
* * *
Following immediately on the cello duo for Nati and Amarilis was another one for Paul and Melissa Perley. Musicians and instrument makers, they make a marvelous team. He also conducts an orchestra that she manages. Both play cello. The opportunity to reach a little further was presented, more expansively. Paul and Melissa are lovers of deeply tonal music. Something about their coupleness reminded me of Alan Bates and Geneviève Bujold in Le Roi de coeur from my very early composer days, when I was just eighteen. And so a mysterious opening is transformed into a solo reminiscent of the solo (written by Georges Delerue) that Coquelicot (Bujold) is playing. The harmonics become a counterpoint to the melody, and it expands slowly, unraveling and knotting into consonances and dissonances and settling on impressionist chords in double-stops.
A solo moves into a duo, with questions and answers settling again into rich chords. Pure traditional melody with pizzicati trade off, and become a synchonicity and an exhalation of breath. Near-homophonic writing weaves into hamony, long chords, and a reflection of the piece's opening. You can grab the score to A Partial Summer and listen along to the electronic demo. (Paul and Melissa also found Nine Rabbits on the WAAM website, and are having fun with it.)
* * *
Writing for old friend, conductor, violinist and especially phenomenal composer Thomas L. Read was going to be tough. I knew that. T.L. is a structure guy, a fantastic process composer, but I'm not down with that. I've done some acceptably compelling process pieces (including the monumental Mantra Canon, my Symphony No. 3 from the Nineteen-Eighties), but am not in love with the process of process. Still, I sought more than intuition for glue, desiring more evidence than an errant musicologist might invent in fifty years (optimist that I am). So I started with a sort of chorale-ish thing done in the style of my earliest keyboard pieces. In truth I've forgotten how I composed the chorale itself; it remains as a kind of opaque artifact, even when returning to the two dozen copies that show its development. It looks like ir arose from a single developmental melody, um, I think. Imagine, forgetting one's own process.
But process it was, that much I recall. And so these multiple threads were folded onto themselves until the violin was playing all four voices; as the counterpoint of the chorale-ish thing grew more complicated, the violin line drawn from it evolved into agitation, and the compound result was something like the movement of a postmodern Bach violin suite.
It was a good piece, but I wasn't satisfied. The process was too evident, the music too angular. Here's the fun: Back to the drawing board, I now expanded the violin counterpoint back into a chorale, simplified its progressions, and re-compressed it into another complete single-player composition, where I now hand it over to you. Here is the score to Meta-Dream Once and its electronic demo (T.L. hasn't played either yet), and next is the score to Meta-Dream Twice and its respective electronic demo. Preference? Either? Neither? Just the chorale-ish thing?
* * *
That's it for tonight. I'm working on a viola sonata at the moment, which should have been ready, but I'm procrastinating here talking to you. So good night!
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