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The Curse of Love

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

October 13, 2000


Copyright ©2000 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz


I asked Eric Lyon what hed like me to talk about today. He wrote in his emailed response, "You could talk about how you won your Pulitzer prize. Or the trials and tribulations of eclecticism in an over-baked media-saturated cultural stew. Or your feelings on the use of pizzicato in string writing. Just give them that authentic 20th century composer feel."

Dennis at 50

Ah yes, that authentic 20th century composer. That's me. I'm a 20th Century composer. Barring some medical breakthrough, I have already spent the majority of my life back in the last century. A damn duffer. My mentors were Stravinsky, Cage, Partch, and Zappa, the last of them dead when most of you were children.

The choice of mentors might tell you something. All were geniuses, of course, but all were also eclectics. I am at best the latter. I love all sorts of sounds, hearing them and making them, and that love has driven me to become uncategorizable and unmarketable.

I did a web search on documents containing both 'love' and 'curse'. 360,000 were returned. That's about right. Love is a curse. The curse of love. Love, curse, curse, love. Lyrics and life.

Pop quiz. Name three compositions Stravinsky wrote after he was 50. Cage? Partch? Zappa? Here are three of mine, Jetlude, Sourian Slide, and Snare:Wilding. (Jetlude is Midi, by the way, if you'll forgive the lack of a performance.)

All listening and score references are available on my website

When It's Good for You

I wonder if you thought, "no big deal." If so, you have it good. Here's what I mean.

The last century was spent breaking ground. Those tools are yours.
The fusion of styles has come and gone. That experience is yours.
Arguments over tonality, atonality, avant-garde, uptown, downtown are over.
Instantaneous distribution techniques are your birthright.
You're already bonded to the academy, which protects its own.

I'm the 20th century composer, remember. I grew up through those artistic struggles. So I'd like to say something useful and colorful to you about how many miles to school I trudged in snow, barefoot, uphill, in below zero weather, after milking the cows, carrying my books, carrying my older brother, carrying my bass clarinet, practicing at the same time... but it wasn't like that. I was a child of the old, marginally poor suburbs.

So, my normal-childhood advice: Unless you're a genius -- a great genius -- don't be an eclectic, especially now, especially in America. I will tell you about mistaken paths, about love, about curses. I will tell you about my music, and what happens to it.

Sell Me, Please

We're living in the era of product. You may think we're not, or as artists, that you in particular are not. But you are. We are.

Try this. I do my electronic composition on a Windows 95 PC with an Intel Celeron 300A processor overclocked to 450MHz and a pair of Waveterminal 2496 sound cards using AudioMulch, Cakewalk, and Cool Edit with AnalogX plugins under DirectX 7. See what I mean? Not only do you know what I mean by all those product names, but you probably have a reaction -- though not necessarily a good one.

Here's another for you. I don't know if it's original with him, but composer John McGuire sent me this résumé vocabulary menu:

Composers' Résumé Vocabulary
Combine any term in the left column with any term in the middle column with any term in the right column:
complexAmericanattitude
cutting-edgeback-porchcomposer-improviser
drum-drivencrossovergrant proposal
hardcoredowntowngroove
hard-drivinggenre-jumpingloft concert
independentground-breakingmarathon concert
non-commercialinteractiveperformance design
pioneeringnon-specialistpounding rhythms
tough-soundingrisk-takingworld beat
uncompromisingtake-no-prisonersyouth culture

So what's this?

Yes, the composer's résumé vocabulary is clever stuff. We can laugh about it, but a simple breakdown is a marketing necessity now. Categorization is identification, identification is marketable, marketing is essential to the corporatization of intellectual property. And that's what you're good for.

When No One is Right (What's Love Got to Do With It?)

Not since Frank Zappa confronted Tipper Gore in the battle over lyrics warning labels have the creators of art been visible activists. But when Courtney Love and Metallica's Lars Ulrich doff their costumes to become articulate defenders of opposite points of view, you know something's up.

What's up is a deep and troubling disconnection between those who create and those who market creations and those who enjoy creations. Artists, writers, musicians and their agents, publishers, labels, and fans are accusing each other of exploitation, greed, and criminality. Love and Ulrich know both sides -- and take both sides.

The heart of bitterness is found in a peculiar fiction that has served society fairly well for several centuries -- the idea of pride of ownership in a creation, and its subsequent recognition and remuneration. It's the fiction of intellectual property.

The past few years have been singular in the history of creators and their creations, but the news media have been late and incomplete in covering the new intellectual property debate, leaving disconnected databases of information -- despite the World Wide Web and its power to bring together disparate ideas.

Intellectual property has run its course, say some; for others, intellectual property is finally an effective powerful tool for perpetual profits.

We have long acknowledged the reality of this fruit of thought in law and custom with unique and limited protections of copyright, trademark, patent, and trade secret. For every protection there has been a limitation. Patents expired in a relatively few years, while copyrights were afforded a generation's safekeeping. Protections encourage innovations from individuals; expirations ultimately return what creators invented within society to society at large.

Protections for writing and musical scores go back deep into our cultural history, rendered into law from the earliest stages of the Republic. 1909 expansions to include the new technologies of photography were welcomed; more than 60 years later, recordings gained the nod.

Renewed times of struggle over recordings and broadcasts and films gave birth to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), becoming composers' agents. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) stabled performers, those who expressed composers' work but had no rights to their own. Even film composers wrested rights to their work back from studios after a bitter strike in the late 1960s.

There were always difficult details to work out in order for protection to balance public interest. That was the bargain.

But twenty years ago, the world changed.

When the World Changed

A confused understanding of digital programs and data led to rejection and then acceptance of both copyrights and patents. In his dissent as part of the Commission on New Technological Uses of Copyrighted Works (CONTU), author John Hersey (Hiroshima) called software's object phase -- the bits themselves -- a 'machine part' undeserving of status of a work of art. CONTU disagreed.

Two years later, a vacillating Copyright Office rejected -- then accepted -- object code for copyright. The Patent Office issued patents for software techniques, shifting dramatically away from its long-standing 'show me the machine' process. Now, on one hand, software was a copyrightable non-machine-part something, and on the other hand, it was a patentable process like a machine.

Had not the World Wide Web been born inside the Internet in the early 1990s, however, little of this would have mattered outside the software industry itself. As corporations colonized the Web, there was a rush to become profitable -- as well as to protect questionable patents, from Amazon.com's patent claim on 'one-click' purchases to BT's patent claim on the hyperlink itself.

The Critical Interim

Not that an interim bit of digital history didn't sketch the first lines in the sand. Another implicit understanding was that a certain 'fair use' was associated with products of thought. Purchasers owned an object, to be sure, but not the contents of a book or recording. Copying machines were scarce and expensive, and making tape recordings was a hobbyist's affair and required the purchase of objects. Even with the advent of the low-fidelity compact cassette from Philips, no serious ill-will was perceived in the occasional copying of an LP onto tape for the morning commute, though the music business waggled schoolmarmish fingers. Handing out classroom copies of a book chapter was largely overlooked, with the occasional slap at the profligate professor.

But the 1980s turned up the technological heat on creators and their army of agents, publishers, labels, agencies, and associations. The time-shifting of television programs using consumer videotape recorders was believed to be the death of movies, and was fought all the way to the Supreme Court in the Betamax case. There, consumers had their 'fair use' validated by the black robes -- just as the introduction of compact discs and home computers brought a new word into the home vocabulary: digital.

Like the reel-to-reel tape recorders and ham radios of a previous generation, home computers were still the purview of hobbyists and specialists. But the compact disc said 'digital audio' right on it. And Sony -- already the scourge of the RIAA and Hollywood's Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) with its Betamax and its invitation to copying, the cassette Walkman -- was poised to introduce another, more devastating recording tool, the Digital Audio Tape.

The industry fought DAT to a standstill, proposing crippling protection schemes and blank tape taxes. After several years of bitterness, DAT was dead as a consumer medium and the tape tax became reality with the Audio Home Recording Act (AHRA) of 1992.

This time, the forces for copying were in retreat. Consumers had their VCRs, but cheap analog cassettes still ruled among the young, the greatest consumers of music. High-priced CDs began to replace LPs, and the treasure trove of previous repertoire opened up for sale to a new generation at full price. It was the music industry's hour of triumph.

Long in the periphery had been certain artists invisible to the Industry. The earliest among them inhabited the universities, where they recorded libraries of sound clips from the world at large and from recordings, and stored them for manipulation on powerful computers. These clips -- samples -- were an academic specialty since the late 1940s, but growing hugely with the arrival of computers and digital recording and storage technology.

The hobbyist's computers spun off a connection technology standard roughly the same year the CD appeared. The Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) could connect inexpensive musical instruments to each other, and to computer controllers with software to sequence the commands. Once major companies like Yamaha began to incorporate MIDI, sequencers gave every garage band a professional drummer.

But the best drummer would be a real drummer, a pro. Licks by pros were recorded into short representative clips, converted to digital form, and sequenced into new patterns as needed. Imaginative uses turned up in clubs as DJs scratched records. Sampling was born as an art.

And artists who were sampled hated what was happening to them. Their hard-won styles could be snapped apart and reassembled like Legos. The legal machine cranked up again and a decade ago the sampling litigation began.

Into this milieu -- time-shifting, sampling, instant copying -- the Web generation came of age. It was when the copyright owners sought to tighten their hold and extend their sweep of rights ... but not expecting to meet a generation of followers of Stewart Brand's (The Media Lab) aphorism "information wants to be free" -- forgetting that what he really said was, "Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy and recombine ... It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient."

Immeasurably valuable to the recipient. Brand might not have imagined the value of the aphorism, how his restatement of the centuries-old bargain would have been truncated to Information wants to be free. That's the entitlement sound byte.

So by the turn of this century, the extant understandings of invention and art had broken down. And with that breakdown came an unexpected result: Deep and abiding divisions about the right to ownership of the fruits of thought.

The Entitlement of a Generation

It has, quite simply, gone nuts. There are battles over shrinkwrap/clickwrap licenses, the decryption of encryption as represented by the arrest of anyone even wearing a DeCSS T-shirt, copyright vs. home recording rights again, absolute replicability (a myth when anything is digitized anyway -- only the digital version, a poor representation of the analog world at the super-quantum level, is copied), copyright vs. copyleft, the corporatized Digital Millennium Copyright Act (with extensions two generations past an artist's death) and its basis in the corporatized World Intellectual Property Organization treaty, the now-ubiquitous Napster and Gnutella, mp3 and its eponymous dot-com. There's ASCAP vs. the Girl Scouts, the Free Music Philosophy of Ram Samudrala, sampling avengers like Negativland and a good friend of the Bregman world, illegal art.

Nicholas Negroponte in Being Digital gave us what we needed in concrete virtual terms: It's about bytes, he said, not atoms. Infinite replicability. Don't forget that everybody wanted this! ... but no one expected it to be the 'entitlement of the generation'.

Here's a break with something no one is likely to steal.

Calling the Bosses

It's not irresolvable, but I have a worry. I'm worried that -- convinced that -- the transfer of the intangible fruit of artistic genius to the corporation -- itself a fiction of a company incarnate as person -- maw is a serious distortion of principle, not to mention Constitutional intent. So I've written my personal letter to the principals:

To Hilary Rosen, Dr. Dre, and Metallica: Get out of the way. Your day is done. Take your winnings and retire before you start looking like the raging luddites of music. The rest of us have music to make.

Don't look at the signature. You won't recognize me. I'm just a 51-year-old composer who has written more music than all three of you and who, yes, depends on commissions from performers and royalties from ASCAP and MP3.com.

Wait, what? Royalties from MP3.com? Don't they steal stuff? Nope. But the industry, in its terror, wants you to believe that, and maybe believes that itself. Sure, MP3.com calls it "payback for playback," but it amounts to the same thing -- a moral contract with the artists. The artists. Scary, huh?

You bet. And as a guy who started using the Internet for music in 1995, I know you weren't there. You were grinning over your win over the DAT. Yes, you had the power and the repertoire to be a key part of how the Internet music scene developed, but you just weren't there.

It wasn't technology. Don't start talking about geeks and how you're an artist. I've heard that. The latecomer's excuse. "But we didn't know." Nope. Just look at who's frightened -- the wrinkle-cream set of musicians and their handlers who never looked up from the ledger book long enough to see where their creativity might lead them. And I'm not sorry for you.

Now you want to colonize the Internet. And you and your lawyers are dragging everybody into court, from schoolkids who figured out how to untangle your DVD encoding (and even made T-shirts illegal) to people who just plain had better ideas than you did. Hate that, huh?

So you want to talk legal now. Okay. How about this for legal. Did you ever notice that copyright is the only right written down in the body of the U.S. Constitution. See, you say, there's all we need. But wait, there's more....

Yeah, I know, I'm just a guy who's never made it. Yup. Never made it in the cash-motivated music industry. A corporatization never dreamed of by the gentlemen who wrote, "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

As an artist I like the visibility, the access. The way I sent scores right up to the last minute from rural Vermont to Prague, and arrived to an ensemble that already knew the notes. The way folks who I'll never meet have enjoyed my music -- or hated it -- without having to wait for an industry to memorialize me. The way, as Zbigniew Karkowski once said, he could be heard by more people in a single year than Mozart in his entire life.

No, Hilary, you're not doing a job for artists. Remember, you name says Recording Industry Association of America. Nope, not artists.

The letter goes on. I haven't finished it yet. Every time I try, I get angry.

Deadly Sins

Anger has its uses to eclectics, because one of the questions that has always plagued me -- when I'm not in the act of composing -- is "where do you get your notes?" Anger drove the piece you just heard, anger upon hearing the incredibly consistent and uneclectic Steve Reich's piece The Desert Music. Anger drove me to adopt a high-minimalist style for a month, composing and preparing for rehearsal the entire 30-minute, 1110-measure Mantra Canon for orchestra, chorus, two pianos, six percussionists, and descant soprano in 17 days.

Mantra Canon Measure 617-621

I never thought of myself as an intuitive composer. I would focus on the composition at hand, solving the problems of voice leading or drama or purity, attempting to make sense of a text, invent a unique sound (whether by building a virtual or physical instrument), or challenge a performer or confront an audience. But what can explain a 17-day straight-out hurl like Mantra Canon?

And so, it turns out, I am an intuitive composer. I suppose I believe in that now. And anger has helped that.

What have anger and copyright to do with eclecticism? Marketing. If you're eclectic, nobody really wants to hear you. You're unpredictable. Unmarketable. Uncategorizable. Without worth in a society that uses "values" as if it means "ethics." You won't get commissions, and if you get commissions based on what folks have heard, it won't be performed if its sense is new. You'll be mistrusted as a jack-of-all-trades composer and master of none. Reviewers, when they review at all, will be surprised every time.

Don't believe me? I've had 55 commissions in my career, seven still to be delivered. Of those completed and delivered, 21 are still unperformed and all but one unpaid as the performers turned down the score, disliking it or finding it too hard or too distant from their expectations, and postponing or canceling the performances.

Though I've lived in Vermont for nearly 23 years, and have received commissions from individuals and ensembles, I have never won a competition in the state.

So, in psychological self-defense of my aesthetic, I have turned to electronics and interactive installations -- more eclecticism.

Interactivity

Interactivity in a populated space was a fascination from the early days of my composition. My first electronic piece (1969) involved performers, even though it was static and the electronic part prerecorded (and it was long before the first live premiere of any of my music, in 1972). I grew fairly quickly dissatisfied with the fixed composition, even though I created many electronic pieces in those years. I improvised on synth with poets in 1973 and 1974. And by the mid-1970s, I developed ideas for audience interactivity with electronics (the easiest way to "deal out" the reluctant and misunderstanding performer as a variable).

One of my favorites, never realized because of the expense, was Network C/R (1975, three versions -- was I ambitious!) for tethered dancer and electronics ... a body suit with sensors that controlled some sophisticated interconnected capacitor/resistor oscillators. I made a little working sculpture of this oscillator array called the Bleebler, in honor of the work never finished, for my 1985 performance piece Echo. The Bleebler worked by candlelight, and pictures are found at my website.

Rando Excerpt from Jophxo Software

It wasn't until the I started using microcomputers (KIM-1 and first TRS-80) that interactivity became a serious intention -- because I could do it meaningfully, from my point of view. My 1978 creation, Rando's Poetic License, made for and premiered at the Washington (DC) Project for the Arts, used the TRS-80 together with various text input techniques to create random poetic fragments that were read aloud by the audience as the piece progressed, and which also controlled various resistor ladders (crude D/A converters) that ran my synth. The avanty-gardy era!

Later in 1978, I moved to Vermont and it was real effort and some pain to align my experience there -- far from the city, in a town of 350 people where temperatures plummeted to -35F in winter -- with the urban feel of the avant-garde that I had lived with. (A fond memory is returning to New York in 1987 and meeting Charlotte Moorman again, who gave me a lecture about having "abandoned" my work. She was kind, though, a with her usual twinkle.)

So I spent several years re-learning what I wanted to do, and created the interactive Nighthawk in 1984. It used a series of Tandy Color Computers (a dandy processor, that, with internal 16-bit architecture) to form a cube inside of which people could cause the system to react in various sonic ways, some of my first experiments in "negative" reaction, or silencing, like the electronic insects. I liked it, but it was somewhat toy-like with the obvious presence of the computers, and didn't fit into its environment, or the environment I was living in. That's how, when Fernanda D'Agostino contacted me (she had worked with me years before on my first installations in 1973 and 1974, and then moved west to Montana and now Washington state) fresh from her trip looking at roadside shrines in Italy, I decided it was time not to fit the sound sculpture to the existing environment, but to have them created together in a new "culture", so to speak. That's how In Bocca al Lupo came about. Since by that time I had also been running a computer company for nearly seven years (I had become a TRS-80 "guru" with hundreds of articles in print by then), assembly programming was a natural for me.

Bocca is most representative of my interactive work, installed in Billings, Montana, at Yellowstone Art Center, September-October 1986. Original text and photos are found on my website.

In Bocca al Lupo Museum Program

Infrared output and sensor arrays were connected to a set of computers with data-gathering boards, sound-generating software, and hardware controllers (for tape loops), and an algorithm with the ability to learn the use of the space. Multiple speakers were embedded in walls and sculptures. There is also a picture of the equipment on the Bocca webpage.

Visitors manipulated the sound without knowing it (unless they became aware of it happening, an occasion I didn't expect often). Visitors' movement through the space was detected by sensors, and the computers determined their location, direction of movement, and motion "quality." The immediate data was compared with recent and historical data on the room's use.

Some warning-like sounds grew louder or changed character; some regular/repeating sounds quieted as insects or frogs might do when disturbed; other sounds constantly moved away from the visitors so they appeared to be in the distance at all times. These electronic sounds were mixed with prerecorded chantlike or percussionlike natural and electronic sounds (on the tape loops) to provide a constant aural nest and "cultural immersion."

The exhibit was up for about 5 weeks, during which time the computer system learned how the space was used. Rarely visited areas (such as corners) became more aggressive in their (re)actions, frequently used areas (such as the entry door) became uninterested in nearby motion and made little change. (It was in its own room with sound absorbers outside the single, always-open entrance door.)

This was an artificial culture which was invented by sculptor D'Agostino and for which I developed an artificial lexicon of sound and sonic ritual.

Before it was open to the public, I "played" the room, and then lay on the floor to see what sort of stasis eventually developed. Perhaps others played the room as well, but no record was kept. I have a brief tape of a few minutes of the sound in the room as I moved around it, but there are only a dozen photographs or so.

I watched during the exhibit's opening day, and only one person became aware of the actions, and lightly danced in place. On the first day, I watched visitors come and go slowly or quickly as they would do in any museum space. Undoubtedly some visitors returned, but there is no evidence one way or the other.

No one expressed anything -- but they were not asked to. For my part, I try not to make overt, self-conscious artistic gestures and then expect some sort of reaction to my cleverness. What reaction takes place was learned by the system I designed, not by me. Battery-backup memory chips and hardware real-time clocks kept the changes alive and the learning ongoing during the exhibition, even during the night, so the system knew when to get quiet or constant. But in the 14 years since Bocca has been dismantled, the embedded batteries have died in the chips, and so the Bocca history has been erased from memory. A fitting cultural end. And no, I never dumped the memory contents for analysis.

This was very rudimentary 'intelligence' -- little more than building a tiny, intertwined database (almost too small to call it that!) and having the program modify itself (a Bad Thing in computerdom) not because it was truly intelligent, but because there wasn't enough memory or CPU speed to save and search huge arrays of information. The data it collected became a compressed file that changed the distances of loops, etc. ... writing the code to keep the history of six weeks of interactions in few dozen kilobytes of flash RAM was exhausting and maddening!

Not only were these widely spaced interactive installations another part of the eclectic curse -- and hence not very worthwhile for "audience development" -- Bocca also wasn't understood and got only passing attention in the days when tech and especially small computers were not high on the public's (or the formal art world's) horizon. In retrospect, I find some of these ideas being reworked today with more powerful machines (mine were 0.9MHz Tandy Color Computers hooked together with homemade hardware. I wrote all the software in assembler, and burned it into EPROMs, as those were the days when disk drives were expensive and unreliable for running mission-critical applications like an installation; there were no electronic curators in 1986 -- when I flew back to Vermont, it just plain had to keep working for 40 days!).

Stilt House from Travelers Rest

A later and richer development of this was Travelers Rest in 1991, but it was sited outside and soon vandalized; documentation is my website. I wrote a performance piece for it, since the interactive space was trashed, computers stolen, etc. And since 1991, I've not created interactive work, leaving the present generation of jaded, tech-aware, and band-in-a-box-on-every-computer audiences alone.

Microphones were not used in Bocca because of the likelihood of sensory feedback oscillation, which would happen in a real culture but much more slowly; on the other hand, mics were used in Travelers Rest because it was outside and the sound output -- via speakers buried in the ground -- more localized.

But I veered dramatically away from the aesthetic of interactivity after Travelers Rest. The vandalism contributed to it, and I take such events to be serendipitous. I'd never had an installation destroyed before, so I decided to take it as a lesson or a guide or an inspiration in what I was to do next. So I went to Europe and lived there with my (future) wife and her daughter for half a year. I was friends with Clarence Barlow, and he introduced me to people and concepts that gave me a decade's more ideas to work through.

Another part of the aesthetic change came from a paper I wrote with my wife in 1991 that we presented at the first (and I think only) International World Congress on Medicine and the Arts. The paper was called "Composing a New Language," and it used virtual instruments as a link to the world of those who had lost verbal skills through trauma or other dementia. Once virtual reality is available and convincing, the interactivity that most of us artists use seems trivial!

So I've spent time working on music that I created from end to end, which, for the moment, was hard enough -- and another eclectic twist. I worked out in more detail my expansion-contraction linear modulation ideas which I spoke about here last year, and also started getting commissions -- none for installations or interactive works, at least since the 1988 A Time Machine for small ensemble, dancers, computers, and staging. And last of all, the grant proposal for the final version of the interactive project that began in 1973 and which Travelers Rest was the 5th version, did not get approved. It would have been created in 1996.

I still believe in interactivity, and hope to continue with it in the next decade at a different level -- completely disguising the technology now that sensors have evolved dramatically and sound manipulation and generation are commonplace. I want to create a sonic landscape like that for Detritus of Mating, a six-channel fixed piece with 6-plus-minute loops that take over 27 years to complete (also available as a stereo CD), only with the sound placement and changes completely transparent and based on perceptions of emotional state (the 'lie detector' scenario, but without the wires) and advanced biometrics. That calls for another collaboration, though, and another eclectic veering and dis-marketing!

Conclusion

This hasn't been a very tidy presentation, but I'd like to wrap up the package with some verbal twine.

  1. Eclecticism is risky. Get a marketing gimmick or you will be mistrusted, misunderstood, and poor.
  2. No one is right in the intellectual property debate. Stake your ground and protect it from corporate expropriation.
  3. If you're doomed to oblivion, make your own toys. Installations are good.


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