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Itís Time to Bury the Dead:
A Manifesto for Vermont Composers

... and American Composers Generally

by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz


Proposed in 1992 and reprinted in two Vermont publications
Copyright ©1992 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz


The time has come to kill the vampires. In an atmosphere of politeness, has there been any move toward the music of our own time1 in the programming of "classical" performing groups or Vermont Public Radio, or in the attitude of sponsoring organizations? Is there anything new on the menu of the Vermont Mozart Festival or the Killington Music Festival? Does either the professional or amateur musical community of our state and beyond show any commitment at all to the music of their own age? Indeed, does the listening public have any clue what a wealth of music is consciously and maliciously being denied them? No, no, no and no. Of course not! Pleasant advisory committees, cheerful compromises, and polite accommodations are doomed because such efforts attempt to deal with a special, entrenched group of diseased minds called necrosones, those who make their living by exhuming, stuffing and mounting the music of dead composers --composers who demand neither royalties nor attention to the artistic thought behind what they once did. Necrosones will never change because they cannot, because they are not artists nor are they sympathetic to art. They are vampires.

Necrosones engage in a self-indulgent, masturbatory activity -- living off the clotting lifeblood of the dead composers -- supported by a deadened, pleasure-seeking élite of zombies for whom new sounds are frightening because they are evocative of the living unknown. Evoking the unknown is one of the very purposes of art, the only human endeavor which provides a window upon the future -- regardless of whether that future is encouraging or disturbing, and for which prescient vision artists have gone to their deaths. The necrosonic performers and their sponsors have deadened guts and limited talent, for it is no great skill (much less art) to play only music whose content, attitude and style are culturally well assimilated. We are left with the fussy notion of "interpretations", a stagnant, shallow backwater of musical activity raised to the status of art by a society unused to (and hateful toward) intellectual challenge and in love with watching, not being -- and assisted by schools that have carefully lobotomized childrensí musical literacy and awareness.2 You can name all the local concert-music groups with excitement, power and daring on half of one hand: Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble, Carnegie Chamber Players, Michael Arnowitt, who else? Kate Tamarkin and her Vermont Symphony are trying -- sort of. And?

But wonít audiences complain about a shift to the living present? The first, simple and proper response is who cares! Sponsors will always take refuge in the bogus economic argument that unfamiliar music drives audiences away from the concert hall or public radio. Well, folks, if they will thus die, let them go. These dandy playthings of the blue-rinse set and the yuppies need to be aired out and healed -- or cut off like artistic gangrene if audiences desert them at the first life they begin to reveal. But isnít it true that audiences will leave, to the detriment of the greater culture? No. This is the big lie of the music business; this lie is a sham carefully orchestrated by lazy musicians and unwittingly supported by illiterate and deprived consumer dupes. Who, unfamiliar with such flavors, likes artichokes, oysters, chitterlings, mushrooms, or sushi the first time? Few people do, and so it goes with any new taste -- any new experience. In truth, when newly composed music is played in a lively, welcoming style with visceral commitment by its performers, audiences love new music. Some few donít, usually those necrosonic listeners with lolling heads who are no longer capable of knowing or willing to discover anything beyond their beloved Brahms or Schubert. And be assured that the dead composers they adore, to a one, would be sickened to know what has been done in their name, and would be the first to call an end to this despicable vampirism. Vermont Mozart Festival, indeed! What a trifle!

What to do? This is a demand for action. I call for no more compromises and no more politeness. Not another penny, public or private, for the Vermont Council on the Arts or local arts councils until they cease supporting old art of all kinds. Not another penny for Vermont Public Radio or Vermont ETV (or their parent organizations such as NPR or PBS) for the same reason. Not another penny for all the vampiric necrosones who dine on the rotting corpses of composers who once stood where we do now. It is time for the disruption of concerts played by performing groups and sponsored by organizations who consistently refuse to play newly composed music. Token performances of a new piece now and then donít count -- real commitment is the only response left, a commitment of time and -- dare it be said aloud -- royalties. Real money. The hour has come to sweep away all the festivals, symphonies, choruses and ensembles run by the necrosones. Let there be a moratorium on further performances of Schubert or Sacred Harp; for an audience which demands them, countless recordings exist. But leave the live performances for living music, not music brought back from the dead. Being the sort of composer I am, this statement is not presented as a culturally diverse, democratic proposal; on the other hand, then, if the chamber groups and the symphonies for which I write are indeed to be replaced by jazz or rock or something yet unimagined, let that replacement not be the likes of Charlie Parker or Thelonius Monk or Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison -- another clutch of great but dead icons ready to be body-snatched by the necrosones.

There are many points of view to be balanced, you say? I know what I love, you say? What about freedom of speech, respect for othersí opinions, you insist? Where is the sense of compromise, of fair play? Nonsense, I say. Thatís just freedom of money talking. Ask any émigré artist who has escaped political repression only to be enchained by marketplace repression.3 Indeed, if you were a real dues-paying artist, not some regressive dilettante, you would know that something is rotting in the artistic life of the United States. If itís you, go stick a stake in your heart. Iíll be happy to help.

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1"Music of our own time" does not refer exclusively to the so-called avant-garde or some sort of groundbreaking "new music." It means, quite simply, any music newly composed, whether or not that music is old-fashioned or newfangled. It is unarguable that contemporary culture makes its way into newly composed music (even by those such as Sorabji, who would pretend to be a hermit), and it is contemporaneity -- the continuum informed by tradition but born in the present -- that is the subject here. Contemporary schlock of any genre (even music as tune, jingle, hook or word-painting) has as much or more to say to us than does Mozart. In the case of our supposed universal human empathy, sympathy, or resonance with these classic masterworks, the oft-proposed "Shakespeare argument" is specious, because an underlying literacy and historicity, if you will, (or at least the cultural assimilations during childhood) are required for untranslated Shakespeare -- whether the translation is through Pappesque staging, modern psychological recasting or any level of dialogue adjustment -- to make sense today, for alone (that is, in and from its time) it contains few cultural "hooks" to contemporary life ... as with Mozartís music. Hence Burtonís Hamlet, Shafferís Amadeus. But then, these latter slither out of the interpretive puddle (viz. next footnote).

2To continue the water analogy, interpretation of "masterworks" is the shallow end of the musical pool, so to speak. The performer who deals exclusively in interpreting the understood past is splashing with the kiddies, unwilling to duck a head underwater. Old music demands established technical skills and suggests some menial sort of understanding -- often exclusively intuitive (and just as often wrong) -- whereas new music demands both standard and risky new technical skills, requires an attempt at real understanding (for the composer might be standing by, ready to say, "Uh, Chucko, thatís not quite it."), exposes a likely immature intuition and sensibility, implies the risky presentation of untried repertoire (not always readily rewarded with requisite chablis-set bravos and encores), and absolutely insists upon the investment of enormous time and energy both on a muscular and intellectual level. Very few performers can stay afloat in this end of the pool -- where their butt isnít comfortably anchored between Bachís and Mozartís corpses.

3Marketplace repression first came to my attention in the New York Times a decade ago, when a Soviet émigré author found himself artistically horrified and fiscally discouraged by the capitalist commercialization of literature in America, where publication was censored not on the basis of a politics of government, but rather through a politics of economy. It is interesting that our anti-discrimination statutes likewise do not address these economic prejudices, and worth considering legal or constitutional protection for the undeniable psychobiological demands within one inescapably born an artist.

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