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"We Are All Mozart"

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the perception of the
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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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A Nowhere Composer

There is a fear of being from nowhere. It pervades literature and music and aphorisms -- Nowhere Man, going nowhere fast, Camp Nowhere, the bridge to nowhere, even The Man Without a Country -- and leaves the mind disassociated, the feet ungrounded, the panic rising. Nowhere is beyond the city limits, never inside them. You may be anonymous in the city, but you are always somewhere.

I bring this up for having started a small brush fire on the Orchestra List a few weeks ago. It began with a discussion of the newspaper cliff off which reviewers are being unceremoniously tossed, leaving nonpop events invisible in such cities as Seattle and Atlanta. Readers in small towns and rural areas already know this well, so the discussion sidled into a commentary about the credibility of music created in off-the-grid locations with their amateur reviewers and inconsequential audiences. The example dangled before the group by one poster was Spillville, Iowa -- a trick-pony attempt to demonstrate that great music can come from small towns.* Sadly, the trick was nothing more than famous old Dvořák on a brief vacation from New York to Iowa some 115 years ago ... not a rural composer, but a visiting urban composer extracting and running away with what he could grasp. (Yes, Dvořák had rural roots; so did Bartók. At least some remaining filaments of those roots show in their ability to grasp and run.) The fearful poster had nothing better to offer, and for good reason: Geography is artistic destiny -- not just visibility, but the manner of creation which renders the music too distant for the history-driving cities to internalize.

The reason it does not work in reverse -- that is, the rural listener can clearly grasp the city creation -- is because the city is a unidirectional (outward) cultural broadcast. That unidirectionality is also why the urban reader will feel this commentary is flawed -- there is no context for it to be otherwise experienced for that reader. One must leave the city first, and stay out of it. (Yet leaving for the city, even rural expatriates will lose touch quickly, all the while believing that the countryside still 'lives inside them.' It cannot.)

Do you notice how strongly the contours of music are affected by living outside the cities, particularly for those composers who make their lives inside them? Composers (Beethoven, Dvořák, Stockhausen and Goode are some examples) occasionally take time away from the centers and create music influenced by a perception of the countryside that city audiences might grasp. Sometimes that influence is even meaningful, especially where it coincides with nurture (Bartók and Gubaidulina). Occasionally a composer whose life is almost exclusively urban (Feldman and Kline) can create music with many of these characteristics as, perhaps, an imaginary refuge. But composers are dramatically transformed by leaving or coming to the city or the countryside for the long term.

Geography is as significant as (and to) culture, and they each mold different aspects of the creative process. Literature is writing about what you know -- basic writing courses even insist on this -- and what you know is your family, your culture and your geography. Yet when music is held to the same standards, it inspires fear and anger in some composers, as if their art might be out of their control. The flawed belief that music is some universal language leads to the false conclusion that music is not rooted in place. It is deeply rooted in place. The art is assuredly out of their control.

Living in a modern Western city is an interchangeable experience of common brands, synonymous pop music, accelerated behaviors, even where personal timing and language are stretched in one city or foreshortened in another. North America and Europe in particular are moving toward homogenization of urban experience that makes even the Rough Guides more catalogs of similarities than of unique cultural infusion.

Cities have neighborhoods, yes, but rural areas are tribal, and tribes live inside geography. What only occurs when power fails or disaster strikes in cities is part of life in agrarian regions. Living in geography is sound and sense and the processes of internalization and assimilation -- processes that operate without the will. One participates, ergo one changes. What I've said may seem obvious, but here are some examples (the people are real, but the names are fictitious).

  • Wim and Linneke live in the Netherlands. Linneke's brother Huub has lived in England for a decade. During a conversation some months ago, Wim exclaimed in exasperation at his brother-in-law's loss of accent and idiom, "Your Dutch has gone to the dogs." Wim was right, but Huub was untroubled -- a double transformation.
  • Daniel, originally from California, has lived in Europe for more than fifteen years. Now a well-respected composer there, his erstwhile American sound has dropped away and he sounds acoustically and structurally entirely urban European now, and he speaks with an increasingly local accent as well.
  • Frank and Randall, two compatriots and well-known composers in America, have lived in two European cities separated by a few hundred miles; they have been gone from America for nearly 30 years. Frank isolated himself from his environment and has not learned the language; Randall is fluent and has settled. The former has devolved into a bland, interchangeably international sound who depends on past American successes; the latter has developed a new musical vocabulary alien to his former culture.
  • Duncan moved from cityscape to rural America, where he has lived for two decades. He struggled with attitude and art that did not fit his local culture for the first decade; but when they had absorbed each other, they were mutually changed. His music is often performed but, conversely, the urban locales which once welcomed his music now do not grasp it and find it trivial.
  • Paula moved from rural to urban America and her composition changed; when she moved back 'home'. it was no longer home and she had to learn to live there all over again. But instead of informing her work, the double change paralyzed her and she no longer composes.
  • In even minor terms, the longer my brother and I live apart, the more he sounds gratingly New Jersey to me and I sound hickishly New England to him.

My point is that these are things about which we have no choice if we make a cultural and geographical commitment. Urban and rural life have different timing and cycles, light and dark, seasons and sounds. It is learned experientially, not objectively. Like the brain's adjustment to colored glasses or moving trains or jet lag, the previous experiences dissolve and the beingness re-sets its perceptive and assimilative mechanisms to the new environment. And the deeper and longer the experience, the greater the change and the greater the forgetfulness. It is out of your control; you cannot keep your gestalt. You cannot say, "Though I now live in the city, I cannot forget that I was a country child." That memory is impossible fiction -- and destructive fiction, because the halcyon days are embroidered with sunsets that never were, the hard times re-painted like clapboards that had faded and peeled in the sun.

Irrespective of the level of creativity and imagination available to the artist, transformation takes place. The significance of the transformation is indeed deeply connected to the depth of curiosity and imagination. The urban and rural -- specifically the committed urban and rural -- sense and express in often mutually incomprehensible ways.

Though I hate to parse: What I have said does not mean that city people are any less savvy about their environment, but rather that their savvy is different and intimate to their environment -- knowing more about self-protection, having a heightened high-arts surrounding, intimately grasping subway schedule rather than sunrise. One simply doesn't need to know the sun angles or the date of the last frost in the city, any more than the country denizen need know about tide tables or marker buoys.

Do these rural differences manifest themselves in the music? Or am I simply inventing a meaningless generality like "women's music" or "Canadian music," as if they had some identifiable genetic character inside their abstract sonic palette? Is there really a distinction between urban and rural music? Does geography (notwithstanding political borders) actually matter?

It does. Unfortunately, the word that comes up most often about music written with rural influence is "pastoral." Pastoral is used as if the countryside were full of happy peasants dancing and gentle water babbling and puffy clouds scudding along with the occasional burst of thunder and lightning. This is the same mythology that sees the countryside as ignorant. This mythology need be rejected out-of-hand. In preparing my book on Vermont's country stores, for example, I almost repeated as fact that rural Vermont had been an illiterate place -- until I researched statistics buried deep in the old Census Bureau Population Reports. Illiteracy statistics were kept for over a century, ending in 1960, and during that entire time, Vermont -- then and now the most rural state in America -- often had the lowest illiteracy not only in New England, but in most of the United States.

The high literacy rate does not mean rural areas are necessarily a book culture. It means survival: from reading seed packets or tractor instructions or chain saw guides through preparing commodity forecasts and complex taxes, literacy is a practical affair. The best summary I have read about this is a poem written by an old friend (who must remain anonymous). Here is that poem:

It is New Year's Eve
and the farmer's boys
traipse the stubbled cornfields
picking ears enough to make the brown burlap
bulge all over,
kernels enough to keep
seven pheasants fat
till winter ground's turned under.

When spring arrives
so will the lambs.
They will be white and the boys
will wait up nights for them,
pulling slippery wriggling bodies
of wet ringlets
until the ewe's cavities
are empty again.

And summer will come to
driving tractors and cropping
wheat once it's turned brown.
And the boys will be shy
at grown-up barbeques
and dream adolescent dreams of saddle ladies
and fall asleep to radios
turned down low.

In September they will fracture
oak and hickory logs and
at school they will be placed
again in the slow class
since they can read only
woolybear forecasts
and the crusty braille of deer tracks
but no books which can boast of words.

It is New Year's Eve
and at midnight the farmer's boys
will sling shotguns over their shoulders.
They will walk to a clearing in the woods
and they will plant their boots in the snow
and they will shoot
the cerebral moon
full of holes.

And how about those lovely scudding clouds? Forget those. None of the locals looked up when we were in residence in rural Portugal; rather, they were bent over washing clothes at the cistern or planting the fields one seed at a time and leading the goats up steep and strenuous hills. The only scudding-cloud-observers were guests like us, and when we are at home, it is only our guests who look up.

If the rural countryside is such a marvelous place, why do people leave it? Living in the country is hardship. Dreamers leave, rural villages become ghost towns, farms are abandoned, and the cities fill with both the hopeful and the doomed. Artists look for their community and opportunity, and sheer numbers make the city a magnet for opportunism. There's no magic in the explanation. "How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm" is not only a cliché, it is true. Here in Vermont, after every war, the returning young people looked around at the shabbiness, the hard work, the minimal profit and the narrow experiences, packed their bags, kissed their families, and waved a teary goodbye to walk out into the wider world. Now no war is needed; television and the Internet will do. Woolybear forecasts are forgotten.

More next time

*If "credibility" is the word, then music composed in out-of-the-way places does lose credibility. Having lived off the urban musical grid for forty years (ten in Trenton, New Jersey, and thirty in Central Vermont) and having created some artistically groundbreaking work during those years (including at least three completely new concepts), I say from personal experience that a premiere in the hills does lose musical credibility. Musical credibility -- which I take to mean value assigned by external critics or academics -- is not assigned outside American cities, particularly the coastal cities. Fly-over America is a vapid place.

Without a substantive press or academic old-boy/girl network, musical credibility is simply nonexistent. Credibility is what gives art its place in history, and its place in academic discussion. I come across published claims of 'innovation' assigned to art that post-dates work I know or have done myself. Though I might point this out to the author, there is never an erratum, and the error becomes the source of errors for future such publications. Critics and academics feed on their own work. Even today a project can be done where I live and -- despite it being the Internet age -- have no credibility and consequently no effect on the larger musical community.

The presence of criticism in regional newspapers does not matter. Seattle? Atlanta? Certainly. They are urban centers that can through sheer mass create credibility on their own terms, just as a firestorm creates its own weather -- whether or not they feel slighted by a New York or San Francisco parochial sense of superiority.

It has been a long time since a premiere in Spillville or Montpelier or Wichita or Cedar Rapids or even Denver made an impact on the musical world -- at least before it was re-premiered in New York or San Francisco or even Seattle or Atlanta.

* * *

One correspondent asked about the gardens this year. There is no gardening yet; other than narcissus and tulips and perennials that are coming back. Our last frost is officially June 5th, and here is what I could see this morning....

Gardens 2008: Apple leaves
The domestic apple leafs out despite severe damage from famished deer during the winter of deep snow.

Gardens 2008: Grape leaves
Leaves from domestric grape vines just begin to unfold from their red buds. This is their third year, and now we need to build an arbor.

Gardens 2008: Hollyhocks appear
Hollyhocks, which self-sow every year, begin to break ground. Because they are tall, the seeds fall nearby but not exactly in the same place.

Gardens 2008: Oriental quince
The oriental quince is about five feet in diameter, and was crushed flat by the heavy snow. A month later it is round again; here are the topmost branches blooming profusely.

Gardens 2008: Rugosa roses
A decade ago, we received a rugosa rose root and cane as a bonus from a bulb company. The roses have now expanded to more than 150 square feet.

Gardens 2008: Wild apples
The wild apple tree comes into bloom in early spring, despite it also being eaten by the hungry deer.

Gardens 2008: Wild grapes
Wild grapes crawl over a plant stand. These are concord relatives expanding rapidly across the back area, having been brought down from a patch west of the dam.

Gardens 2008: Wild violets 1
Wild violets are appearing across the lawn. These dark ones are pushing up to the west of the house.

Gardens 2008: Wild violets 2
More wild violets, these are coming up in even great masses around the house and in the garden. They are durable and friendly, and don't mind the mower.

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