A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
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).
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:
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.
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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....
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