You Still Make Me Bleed

Letter to A Casual Critic

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

May 22, 1994

Copyright ©1994 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

Try for a moment to walk in my artistic shoes, those of a composer in modern America. In terms of high art, we composers live with the artistically laziest population in the world. Our artists have to scale extreme heights to be seen or heard at all, while the "easy" art gets attention. The music industry discovers, sanitizes, exploits and markets what was once the fire of creative imagination. The white big bands denatured jazz in the 30's and 40's, slack-jawed yuppies sucked the stuff out of jazz and country in the 80's, and so forth. Beyond that, music has become largely a spectator sport where conversations turn easily to personalities yet seldom to either style or substance.

I will have been composing for 30 years come this October. I may do many things, but a composer is what I truly am. Just for comparison, consider first that I've written about 400 articles and 450 musical compositions, a fair balance. Then consider that it took me a mere 18 months to get internationally known for my computer expertise and linguistic lucidity, whereby 15 years later I could fill up my life with well-paid article assignments in technology (if I wanted to). Yet it took me 24 years to get my first orchestral composition performed. Twenty-four years, though my music is some of the most deep, imaginative and beautifully crafted in the world--and 300 pieces still remain unplayed.

Why does this happen? Most importantly, it happens because we have a population which can't even read primer-level music, and most of those who think they can read will actually "read aloud"--they can't read from the page, so they play the notes to get the sound. Perhaps a dozen people in Vermont might pick up a Mozart score and hear what it sounds like by reading its language, and maybe a thousand people in the country could read one of mine. Yet this musical language is identical worldwide, and nearly as old as all the modern written languages. Our recent education has failed so badly that this is the worst state of musical illiteracy since the Dark Ages, well before the Renaissance! Imagine if you wrote only in Serbo-Croatian ... more Americans could read your words than they could any sheet music. Or imagine if your quilts were nothing more than a set of sewing instructions, without diagrams ... how many could imagine them finished?

That is what it's like to be a composer in twentieth-century America, where our scratches on the page are gibberish, and we depend on others to give our writings acoustic life. Frank Zappa's autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book reveals it much better than this. He went to his death without a decent performance of any of his best compositions, so his legacy was the economic stopgap he created, The Mothers of Invention--not the concert masterpieces he lived for. Bartok died in New York in poverty, American GI's shot Berg to death in Vienna, Schoenberg fell into oblivion in Los Angeles. What a miserable situation.

Before you accuse me again of living inside my head, realize that I, like many composers since long before melismatic organum terrified the Council of Trent, am interested in art which stretches the consciousness. Getting one's fill of empty music is easy--it's all around, from the "Brooks Drug Radio Network" to endless ads for 50 Immortal Country Hits to cheap film and computer game background music to Andrew Lloyd Weber's five-chord heartstring specials. The McDonald's analogy is bogus because I can close my mouth to a burger, but I don't have earflaps. I have to hear this stuff if I venture out, and with a teenager in the house, it even insinuates itself through my own walls. (She's into nostalgia--Gloria and "brought my Chevy to the levee" and old Stones and Jethro Tull, for goodness sake! Many kids are even avoiding adventurous pop.)

I am decidely not talking about "head music" here. Music like mine is as deeply felt and expressive as any pattern of human-built sound you can discover in the history of the world. But if it's heard by a musically lazy bum who wants canned ear-beer and a bowl of sound-chips, then it can penetrate the consciousness no deeper than that. A steady diet of musical ear-candy has in fact made us addicts of three-chord crack. And that's what it is ... a quick aural high that dulls the sonic sensibilities and gives us the ear-to-ear grin of a baked-dry, nodding skull. In that cultural milieu, Andrew Lloyd Weber--by tossing in violins and percussion at just the right time to stimulate the pleasure centers--sounds like a Mozartean genius, when in fact he is just another streetcorner note-pusher. To be more generous and less rhetorical, his work is at best spectacle, not music of substance.

People hate to realize that they have allowed themselves to become ignorant. But it does take work to discover the aural riches of music, from the simplest effort of selecting an interesting CD, through the more time-consuming labor of discovering what is over the sonic horizon, to the sometimes frightening and stressful travail of climbing inside an artform through learning and experience. Recordings have both made it possible to hear the riches of the world's music while--through the breadth and depth of musical literature now available--they have slowed the general public's musical experience until it has fallen well behind the artform's forward motion. For example: It took nearly three generations for the public to become attuned to Satie's Gymnopédie; most professional conductors have never lifted a baton to Henze or Webern; adventurous pop composers are only today discovering Stockhausen's 1956 marvel, Gesang der Jünglinge. These things happen. Yet societies do catch up, re-discovering the paths the artists have blazed, sometimes long ago.

If I seem insular to you, it is also because I take my risks with my art, and get worn out by being in a crowd where, should anyone ever discover I am a composer, I have to explain what kinds of "songs" I write. No one can deny the validity of so-called folk art and the tunes, ideas and consciousness it offers. But it is what it is. Humanity has always sought to refine its raw materials and distill its creations, and then a few alchemists take that distillate and attempt to produce new and sometimes poorly understood compounds. Such compounds--whether successes or failures, balms or corrosives, medicines or explosives--are the stuff of high art, be they song, symphony or musique concrète collage. That is what I do when I compose, and I have to chip through many tons of raw rocks to find the elusive glimmer of a wondrous mineral I might need even to begin this process. But if I am expected (by you or anyone) to find every rock equally fascinating and in need of scraping to dust, then I will find my sensibility dulled and eventually my creativity will be overcome under a kind of mineral slurry. That's just the way it is.

And, though all these words and images make it hard to believe, this is by no means puffery. Being my sort of composer is, in a sense, a curse, this having to write always at my psychological edge. I'd often asked myself, "Can you write a regular tune, Mr. High-Art Composer?" (My mother asked that a lot, too.) And, in answer, I listened and studied and arranged and, one long winter month about seven years ago, sat down and wrote the words and music to a cabaret called Beepers. Nothing great it was, but it worked in its Montpelier run and was even a good show. But what's the point? It's a selective getting-in-touch, so to speak, as Coltrane did and Braxton does on their albums of jazz classics. It's Picasso doing an occasional realistic portrait, or Ockeghem writing his pop tune Ma Maitresse into a serious high Mass. It's Beethoven's little contradances, Stravinsky's The Owl and the Pussycat, Zappa's Burnt Weenie Sandwich, Bernstein's I Feel Pretty. But these don't truly offer our gift, which is to hear through the present beyond the present, and, as musical alchemists, devise the aural compounds and invent the sonic techniques which future musical engineers and technologists will employ in their more popular music.

Let me make the problems a little more personal. When I arrived in Vermont in the late1970's, I slipped quietly into its remarkable civilization. I was not escaping some urban hell, but rather traveling to a place that I wanted to be my home, for home was something I never had as the child of an itinerant family. So I came here, held my tongue, bided my time, turned a bit of earth, listened to the thrushes, learned the meaning of Vermont, and offered what I could--as soon as my neighbors felt I might indeed have something to offer. Slowly I began to hold concerts ... local composers & performers all but two, one of whom stayed on to live. And for the past six years I've begged, charmed, borrowed, pleaded, harrassed, harangued, inveigled and become exhausted for my Vermont composer colleages. During those years I began to consider myself an adopted son of Vermont. Those who have been adopted often become fiercely loyal. Many folks come from downcountry, as I have, but instead of allowing themselves to be taught the wisdom of this land and its people, they clutch inside the formulas of their past lives. I hope I have shed those old rules, for if I have not, then I have learned nothing from treading this soil. Thus also have I faced many stereotyped comments from those who see me as belonging to this place--including former colleagues who turned my step away from Gotham into a Gradus ad Oblivionem.

These steps to oblivion are disturbingly steep in the country. From being hailed by the New York Times as one of the two finest artists among 600 at the New York Avant-Garde Festival in 1974 and internationally acclaimed at the last one in 1978, I came unobstrusively into Vermont, letting people feel my artistic integrity instead of forcing it upon them. And in the 16 years since, I have yet to receive a performance from any of our "local" groups, except for the Vermont Philharmonic and members of the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble. Even the Onion River crowd has consistently turned down my work. And, hardly worth saying, no Northfield musician has ever considered my music; even your own first presentation called on "imported" artists!

In 1988 I helped form the Consortium of Vermont Composers to make some changes, but the press faithfully ignores its lowly local talent. (Even the Burlington yup-jazz festival gives the locals last billing.) Of all our Vermont papers, only Jim Lowe--a fan of my music--did a story for the Times Argus before and after the sesquiennial Vermont Composers Festival in Woodstock two weeks ago. This two-day festival of six concerts was totally ignored by the Free Press and given a single interview on Vermont "Public" Radio (who, you will notice, actively excludes contemporary composition). I am so tired of third-rate acts getting whoops and cheers and publicity and Ben&Jerry-style underwriting, while brilliant, energizing music at the human edge is ignored out of cultural ignorance and fear. Those who come to my concerts leave feeling they have participated in a great human moment, and understandably so. They have.

Oblivion is hardly chosen joyfully. But in my case it is not an artistic choice. And that is why, even when you are only playfully scratching at the skin of my obstinate insularity, you still make me bleed.

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