A Challenge for Richard Branson

...along with George Soros, Andrew Grove, and Bill Gates

by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

September 7, 1998

Copyright ©1998 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

This letter was sent to Richard Branson on September 7, 1998. Several weeks later, I received a 'generic' response from Virgin, and a few weeks after that, the remnants of a letter shredded by the post office. What I could read from this letter sounded to me like a hopeful and positive response. Eventually, however, in late October, a curt letter arrived from Virgin's V2 music group espousing no interest in the idea.

The letter probably never reached Branson himself -- he's a busy man, of course -- but also the nature of the response (and a certain level of skepticism) suggested that I should identify my 'intellectual ownership', so to speak, of this idea as presented. Hence, I have published it here on the web (exactly as sent, except for the activation of the links provided here). Perhaps Mr. Branson will indeed see it published on this page, and be inspired. It still sounds like the sort of challenge he would appreciate.

Mr. Richard Branson
The Virgin Group
London, UK

Dear Mr. Branson,

You have met many remarkable challenges and won. You have successful airlines and hotels and cinemas and shops, and your public presence is a joy. Some ventures involving balloons are yet to be achieved.

I'm writing to propose an incredibly difficult challenge, one that has not been met for nearly a century: inspiring popular enjoyment of contemporary 'classical' music. I am passionate about its power and beauty and exhilaration, and believe that you, as an imaginative leader, can reveal a public yearning and re-awaken a worldwide passion.

Let me visit with you and convince you. Or come to Vermont, where I'll make you a wonderful home-cooked meal and present you with an exciting and nearly impossible challenge involving the Branson Positions, The New Virgins, Deep Thought Music, and 100 composers you can explode onto the popular stage. It's been since Puccini, this dry spell unprecedented in the world's music. And now we're entering a great new Golden Age of music. You could be the historical figure who makes it possible for the public to be carried into this era. The challenge is great ... and failure is a real possibility.

I've thought about writing you this letter for a long time, and when I saw your look of genuine enjoyment once again on a recent news program, I knew it had to be now. Maybe Richard Branson can be the one to meet this challenge.

If you're surfing the web, you can see a fragment of this dream here on my website: http://kalvos.org/

Right now I am in Amsterdam working on this dream. I can meet you on my way back, or you are welcome to join me in Vermont, where I can fill you with food and wondrous musical styles you may never have heard.

Best to you,

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz
176 Cox Brook Road
Northfield, Vermont 05663

September 7, 1998

I have invented some questions you might ask.

What is this music?

Once it was called 'classical' music, but that word doesn't fit now. For a while people tried adjectives like serious, avant-garde, concert or art music--a panoply of terms that tried to identify this music as different from entertainment music. Yes, this music is different because it asks the listener's intimate attention and involvement. You might say that entertainment music wears familiar clothes; this music--this art music--simply drops its clothes to the floor, inviting a longer look. It's quite a story. Let's talk about it.

Who cares about this music?

Few enough people, but that's because they don't know much about it. An entire generation--maybe two--simply got out of the habit of listening closely to music. Maybe the music wasn't listenable for a while. Maybe recordings overtook the concert hall. Maybe music became a commodity or a utility. The reasons aren't important, because listeners are ready to re-discover this music-without-a-name.

With so many important causes, why should I care about this?

For the same reasons people buy recordings or wear fashionable clothes or fly balloons--because, when the day is done, there's growth and good beyond raw survival. Perhaps, in a world of pain, all pleasure is indefensible. So ultimately, if you don't want to do this, nothing can justify it.

What will I get out of it?

This is not a financial investment. It's an open question whether you will reap a penny. History will hardly know you, any more than it remembers the Margrave of Brandenburg. But there will be Branson compositions and dedications and concerts and recordings. Something will be forever changed in the musical and cultural history of the world. But your own reward will be entirely personal.

Isn't arts sponsorship the government's business?

Hardly. Who knows why they continue funding the arts? Maybe it's a hand-me-down from royal patronage. Perhaps it insulates artists from a commercial world. But I believe--and have lived the belief--that individual risk sharpens appreciation for the imagination of art and music.

But isn't it just charity anyway?

No. Here's the difference. Society pays for what it values, or perceives to have value ... the basics, travel, entertainment, and even one-of-a-kind artwork by the Great Masters. By hiring living composers and paying for their products, you, Richard Branson, assign value--cash value--that others can wonder about, consider, and emulate. Don't call the awards or commissions or fellowships; call them the Branson Positions, where you hire composers as inventors of worthwhile products.

What am I actually doing?

Consider it R&D--I like the research and development analogy. To start, you'll hire 100 composers as 'creative developers' to work in an environment free from outside pressures, perhaps for two years. When they've completed their experimental designs, you'll bring the results in for engineering (rehearsals), improvement (revisions), beta-testing (concerts), and production. Then, with all your enthusiasm behind them, you'll market the products under your own New Virgins label and purchase time on concerts for their performance. Aside from the artistic integrity guaranteed the composers, it will partly be a commercial venture in the public's eyes. If orchestras and chamber groups play the music, they will receive payment, publicity, and your good graces; if they don't, they'll continue to beg for contributions to play more Mozart. Audiences will pack the halls for Branson Concerts.

And then what?

If you've done it up right, others less artistically aware will emulate you--the technological barons, the financiers, the Wall Street investors. Where millions went to purchase paintings of the Old Masters, millions will also go to create new musical masterpieces. You will have met the challenge.

Who else did you ask?

No one. I had three other people in mind, but am writing to you first because, frankly, you have broader vision, sensitivity, and experience. If you want to take up this challenge, then I'd suggest three other leaders with the wherewithal to join you in transforming the musical world: George Soros, because he remembers 'the time before'; Andrew Grove, because he will appreciate that composers work as hard as he does; and Bill Gates, because he hates not understanding something.

Why should I let you advise me?

Because I am knowledgeable, I have experience, and my mind is open. Because I am not a politician. Because I will be fair. But most of all, because I believe it can be done--that people can once again find the thrilling in new music. (Information about me is found at http://www.maltedmedia.com/bathory/)

What projects have you done so far that I can evaluate?

The most important public project is Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, a radio/cyber show and website, at http://kalvos.org/. This week, we are doing an inaugural cybercast from Amsterdam, with co-hosts from both sides of the Atlantic. Our visibility is low outside the community of people who listen to new music, which is why your imagination is needed.

Who are the composers you'd have me fund?

I will list many of them if you like. Famous names will probably not appear, but there will be a mix of young and old. All will need the Branson Positions because none survive as full-time composers. For the moment, the majority will be North Americans. To the world of professional composers, the list will look strange. But my choices aren't arbitrary; they are guided by my extended interviews with them and listening to their music.

How can I reach you?

Telephone or fax (after September 25): +1-802-485-3972
Email: bathory@maltedmedia.com
Postal mail: 176 Cox Brook Road, Northfield, Vermont 05663 USA