A 365-Day Project

"We Are All Mozart"

A project to create
new works and change
the perception of the
music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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At the Chamber Music America conference, I attended three commissioning panels, thinking there might be some ideas for this project and future opportunities. What I learned was that commissioning has hardly advanced at all.

Here was the scene at the most bizarre of the three panels. There were two commissioners, two composers, and a facilitator. Heather Hitchens was the facilitator, head of Meet the Composer, an organization that helps out with grants for performing ensembles as well as commissioning projects and other aspects of the motley nonprofit nonpop scene.

The composers were Kenji Bunch and Paul Moravec, the latter a guest on Kalvos & Damian and later a Pulitzer Prize winner. The two commissioners were almost caricatures: a wealthy hedge-funds manager and flutist Marya Martin (who organized commissions), neither, it seemed to me, particularly interested in music as a compositional activity.

Here's the thing. They're to a one masterpiece-obsessed. And Meet the Composer is culpable in both psychology and the program of "brokering" commissions between patron and composer. Marya would thump her chest and talk about the deep soul of the music; the hedge-funds guy seemed at sea in the whole discussion, but revealed his hand when he suggested that the music he wanted to commission couldn't be (and this is my word; I can't recall his) extreme. They seemed relics of the romantic era, the time when the barons of American culture would offer dollops of largesse to towns for opera houses and concert halls, using their capitalist nobility to emulate European tradition.

The composers seemed uncomfortable with the discussion, to their credit, with Kenji explaining hesitantly the significance of a major commission to himself and to the literature -- but became caught in the romantic trap nonetheless. Paul was more practical, keeping to process and avoiding the Marya-esque heartthrob; where he spoke to impact, it was outside, on the performers and listeners, and in the meaning and purpose of the commission.

To me, the inflated terms of the discussion were nauseating. It was as if the past hundred years of demystification had never happened, a step back in time to the Esterházy court. Rather than speak to cultural function or placement, the exchange kept snapping back to the commissioning of great works. There was not a grain of attention to craft but more significant was the absence of acknowledgment of the exchange itself: that composers are tradespeople selling their talents to a buying public, small as that public might be, and following the terms of the transaction (length, instrumentation, style and purpose).

Of course, the WAAM project's premise assumes composers to do just that: to make bargains with buyers for something of value to them both. Covering up "buy" with "commission" and "sell" with "accept" is a conceit that we nonpoppers have all capitulated to at some level in order both to keep our pride and to eat. Those for whom eating was otherwise provided could be composers of leisure, or could work in high-level compositional trades such as film composing (where today's Mozarts really reside, composing massive quantities of darn good stuff, some of it even great, under deadline and meeting thematic requirements and undergoing heavy critique and continual editing, trimming, and rewriting).

Look, I don't want to sound like a guy grinding an axe for capitalism. What I do is art. It would never sell in the marketplace at large, and I have no illusions that it would. But the nauseation point is reached when the entire artifice of commissioning denies the reality of buyer and seller. The number of "here's ten grand, write whatever you want" gifts is minuscule. It's all about composers offering a product that enhances the image of the commissioner, the commissioning organization (or facilitator, in this case), and the performing ensemble. That's why it can be neither too hard nor too long (the American commission -- ten minutes, limited resources, two rehearsals, audience-friendly), nor be conceived, born and raised without carefully tended publicity and adulation to the commissioner, as if a commercial exchange had not been made!

Regular readers of these commentaries will understand that I cheerlead for composers being commissioned and performed, almost no matter what the circumstances, and my objection lies solely with the aetherial quality afforded this most basic of trading partnerships: you buy, I sell.

Naturally, my comments addressed from the audience were greeted with careful shoe examination. Asked who I was, I explained myself as a composer and host of the erstwhile K&D -- to which Paul jumped up to say he had been wearing the K&D t-shirt the day before. In a situation where status counts as much as content, I was grateful to Paul for lending me a bit of personal credibility. Nonetheless, the mystique returned within seconds.

* * *

Yesterday some comments were left unfinished. I'd said this project was harder than I expected in terms of the activity of writing.

In nonpop, we are absent a common language and so are required to build up vocabulary and syntax, explain them within the context of the piece, and then go about creating the piece and expressing its purpose. It's the inverse of 50 First Dates, where the protagonist awakens each day with no memory, everything forgotten back to an accident years past. In this case, our audiences have no memory because there is no collective memory. Common practice is distant history, and references are either pop- or self-based. Even during the common practice period, longer works such as sonatas and symphonies exploited the repetitive patterns of dance and song in order to ease audiences into the works' ideas.

Although I have come face-to-face with my own stylistic consistencies, they are not common coin for performer or audience. The effect of this on the listener is often discussed, but the effect on the composer comes as a surprise when producing music at Mozart-like velocity. It is no longer a matter of creating a composition in which a small window of creativity is opened into otherwise pre-fabricated structures, harmony, tonality, counterpoint, phrasing, meter, and orchestration.

As a thought experiment, strip away the common practice from these common practice compositions -- all harmonic expectations, all metrical givens, all structural heritage, all ideas of development or imitation or sequence. To what's left (the "noise", otherwise thought of as the creative part of composing), fold in the orchestration available in 2007 and a history of musical development that encompasses, for example, chromatic and serial harmony, electroacoustics, and pop and global influences -- remembering that even the brief Turkish fashion influenced Mozart's work.

Now let's see Tony write The Four Seasons or Wolfy write Don Giovanni. That's still our circumstance today (less than it was fifty years ago, but still strongly felt), and why coming up with a new piece and a new internal explanation and a sense of implication (does that chord resolve or not? is it even a chord in the traditional sense?) is an exhausting task. For example, I wrote in pencil, inked parts, rehearsed and premiered Mantra Canon, a thirty-minute work for orchestra, chorus, descant soloist, six percussionists, and two pianos, in less than three weeks. Yes, it was exhausting, but once the language was established, the piece could be composed in its terms. But separate pieces for different forces -- electronics; piano; voice, flute and guitar; theremin; viola and bass clarinet; trombone; trumpet and organ; tenor guitar performance piece; Midi; church choir -- require re-thinking the language and presentation each day.

Leaves me wrung out.

* * *

Okay, it's late, so no composition commentary tonight.

Flowers in January in New York
Down Riverside Drive, across the highway, and sloping toward the rebuilt riverfront parks, there are flowers in New York. In January. I suppose it was one of the highlights of the CMA show -- not being there, that is.

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