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"We Are All Mozart"

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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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The Geographical Cure

In case you think you have heard this before, you may have. There was a commentary on the personal aspects of composer-in-geography on June 12, 2006. I would like to discover more than that kind of solipsistic version of geographical influences, though, to find a thread that in some way confirms or denies the geographical connection in a significant way -- the influence, not the descriptive or exploitive content

Composers, I think, can be trivial in their exploitation of local content, which distorts or at least badly filters those sources and also devalues them. Did they really grasp the rural experience? Beethoven's Contra-Dances were likely expressively inferior to the real thing. Bartók's folk songs beginning in 1906 seem pallid compared to the acoustic 78's in my family's collection. For all the brilliance of the Rite, Stravinsky took and transformed and even hid -- rather than revealed -- the local material. Percy Grainger's folk song work could be teeth-gritting. Sibelius, despite coming from a small town in a far-off country, became more engaged in nationalism as he was promoted across the continent. Stockhausen's mountains gave rise to his formants, but little else this side of Sirius. And contemporary American composers frequently make wreckage of the subtleties found in the original folk songs they arrange or vary.

The classic examples of rural depiction include the babbling brook and happy peasants of Beethoven (Sixth Symphony) and the storms of Moussorgsky (Night on Bald Mountain) as well as Smetana's river story (Moldau). One could add Thomson (The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River) and Grofé's (Grand Canyon Suite and Mississippi Suite). These are the stuff of artistic fiction, just as, say, pieces by Gershwin (An American in Paris) and Stan Kenton (City of Glass) are urban fictions. In film, any urban location serves to tell a story. Vancouver and Toronto and New York are all interchangeable if their distinctive landmarks are kept out of the lens. Likewise, a bunch of hills and dirt roads and small clapboarded village houses and a covered bridge or two tell a rural story. At their best these are splendid metaphor, or they can be mediocre leitmotiven, or at their worst they are embarrassing stereotypes.

The question, though, is not about painting pictures, setting scenes, or evoking images. Rather, it is about the sensibility and challenges of geography, both in practical terms and in the underpinnings of one's relationship to music. Are rural composers' writing and listening, for example, more patient and abiding than that of their urban cousins?

* * *

There are also undeniable practical issues. Today this note arrived from a rural musician in response to yesterday's commentary: "[my wife] and I have a similar discussion frequently, but from the point of view of performance. She laments not being able to have a performance career and a studio be sustainable here. I am curious whether I am good enough to make it as a[n instrumentalist] in a place with higher standards. Sometimes (less), I wonder if I could make it as a "real" conductor, with real musicians. I'm not that terribly willing to try that here, it doesn't seem worth the huge effort, for the extraordinarily minimal gains."

I won't parse that, but I can feel it. In fields like ours, a lack of some arbitrary critical mass means a lack of opportunity and the lack of competitive improvement. I am an infrequent performer because I don't enjoy it -- but if I did enjoy it, there would be no place to perform, and with extended voice being my instrument, there would be no students. People who move to rural America are, as I was, often looking for the slower pace and greener pastures of the imagination. It is yet another fiction, of course, unless one has the cash to turn fantasy into reality -- that is, putting the real work onto someone else's shoulders. (Rural retreats like the Copland House or Yaddo or Bread Loaf exist because of such shoulders.) The musician above has internalized that trade-off and it has shaken his confidence, which above all is a symptom of living outside the urban world -- and points right back to the commentary that started the Orchestra List brushfire: that few pieces (or in this case, performing musicians) of importance come natively from and make their impact from rural places. It seems almost natural that cities speak but do not listen.

Yesterday I quoted a woman from Vermont in 1816 who wrote, "It is all hardship." Strong as it makes us or deeply that it breaks us, hardship does not directly speak to the differences in the music.

* * *

We are not there yet. Another thing first: There are two sides to being a "Vermont (insert your own ex-urban locale here) composer". One side is pride of place (and these days the cachet of my locale's brand). The other side is its deliberate use as a bounding tool.

Pride of place makes sense. We are tribal in a way that city residents aspire to -- family, neighborhood, clan -- but that cities slowly dissolve. Beyond the tribe, we are also rooted, almost literally, in the soil beneath our feet. We have a relationship with water, for example. Here, it is abundant. In the rural southwest, it is rare. In either case, it is what we feel and smell, not what pours from a tap.

The bounding tool is the circumscribing of the rural experience in dismissive terms, and I don't mean a mere slander-the-hicks attitude. Sometimes it is the surprise that comes after a particularly effective composition is performed, as if it is anomalous that it could come from far outside populous places. And it is also a lack of curiosity about the experience of life close to the soil. There are people who pride themselves in living their entire lives in New York, for example, as if its cultural mix and non-stop activities include everything that is worth knowing and feeling in life. How many tales of fiction use that model? One television series shows the city limits as the end of the earth, beyond which is quite simply ... nothing. In King of Hearts, the inmates cannot leave their village -- here, a city in microcosm -- and when they reach its walls, the joy dissolves and the sounds of distant war and desolate wind intrude.

In other words, the city is somewhere and elsewhere is nowhere.

* * *

I suppose you deserve a case file, court appointment and verdict on this. You've earned it, but I haven't got them. What I discover inside music from rural composers (as well as traditional musicians) is a simplicity, a layering, and a subtlety of detail. By the next part of this series there should be some examples ready, but in the meantime, let me suggest that you rent Songcatcher. It's low on plot surprise and high on predictability, but powerful with musical interest where the material is not as contaminated and it is more highly respected than a nonpop composer might create. Then find some Donegal fiddling. And finally, if you have never heard "Didn't Leave Nobody But the Baby" from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, that retelling of Ulysses, then take that link to Amazon and listen to the sample as sung by Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris.

Didn't expect that wrap-up for today, did you? More next time when I come up with some samples.

* * *

Odd Things Happen

My printer popped up the message, "parts inside your printer are almost at the end of their service life." What could that mean? One page later it popped up more ominously: "parts inside your printer are at the end of their service life." And quit. It's kind of a challenge to fix a printer after midnight. With a little help from a fix-it site, I learned that the printer's firmware is counting print cycles, and after a certain number, stops the device. The "parts inside" are some sponges that store waste ink -- the whole bottom of the inside of the printer is filled with sponges. Unattractive-to-disgusting, but fixable ... because if you call Epson, they'll try to sell you a new printer. Open it up, squeeze 'em out, and then run a clever little piece of freeware that resets the counter. Fully functional printer, fully inky fingers.

Oh. Our cable system was down all morning. Not so good.

* * *

Covered bridge
We look out at this covered bridge; this photo was from our the small lower field that borders the brook and becomes a roiling brown torrent in the spring. Our house is just high enough to have been removed from the official flood plain.

Dam behind trees
Again from the lower field, this is the dam seen through the trees. This is its last year, as the trout group and the state have gotten together to remove it and restore the stream to its original course. We hope that's a good thing.

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