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

previous   July 26, 2006   next

I've been critic-bashing. "Hey guys," I suggest, "stop talking and do something." What might that be? You were asking. I could feel it. Here's what critics can do, in an imaginary scenario -- a scenario it would take only one influential critic to make manifest:

They speak out. In a surprise move, the leading music critics in North America call for new music actively -- in collaboration with each other and with reviewers at local dailies . As the only public contact with past, present and future events (outside of advertising), they conclude that any review of older music is both redundant and a wasted opportunity. This is a political statement and they discover it takes real guts, but requires nothing more than sitting silent. And there's no antitrust act outlawing critics speaking with one voice. They do it! With intense curiosity, the public asks for what they've been missing, and music directors everywhere turn to some of the thousands of working composers to fill their halls with new sounds.

They don't do it. Critics refuse to review concerts unless they include new nonpop. They just won't attend! And they say so in their columns. En masse, they make it their daily practice to resist the temptation of the familiar, to quash the urge until it goes away. They discover they aren't missing anything -- they'd heard it all before over and over! When they do stumble upon an old piece, they recognize that the number of truly remarkable discoveries mined from the past is microscopic, and the chestnuts are, well, dull. Next to the riches coming from composers refreshing the artform every day, the past pales.

They become brave. They feel their power. As critics, their role is to make clear cultural successes and failures. And the surprise revelation is that symphony orchestras going bankrupt is not failure. Instead, it is a failure that symphony orchestras had been concentrating on the past, living as zombies upon the dead. When the cobwebs cleared away and the light let in, they recognize that by enthusing the public into a state of anticipation and endlessly critiquing the classical monolith's programming cowardice -- with solutions at the ready -- they can bring nonpop back into a living state.

They get out. Yes, many critics simply leave the business. Thanking Eldridge Cleaver for reminding us about solutions to problems, and on which side of that narrow line one stands, they decide that compromise is too distasteful and the bravery too demanding. A little like George Bush, they think, but no matter -- at some point, when faced with people wielding handcuffs or guns, we each make a decision. For many critics, this is a decision about specifics, and the only way out is -- out.

They grow. In the process of transforming themselves and the music business they used to be enslaved by, their open eyes see other failures. In a flash of insight, they acknowledge that orchestras are not educational institutions; there are schools for that. Orchestras are cultural institutions with a musical user interface. Orchestras have presented the flowering of their culture -- yet had (before the critics began changing them) preferred to present the dusty, faded flowers of a far-away, long-dead culture. Critics knew that story, and whimpered about it now and then. Orchestras had taken on the educational role to survive, along with every bit of cheapness associated with commercial culture. In other words, they sacrificed standards to play cheap music in a sleight-of-hand that looked like greatness. The critics, slamming their fists on the table with insight, instinctively know that old music is cheap music because it requires no particular effort, the sleep-walking of music performance. They begin to ask, "What other field of work does not expect its professionals to be current?" They encourage classical necrosones to test the hypothesis of the great past by living with the rest of the standards of 1790s Europe ... the politics, the food, the health, the transportation, the plumbing.

They teach. Those who do not get out take their skills of observation and elocution into teaching. With their huge body of knowledge they decide to get out into the field and teach. And they discard the idea of teaching at universities, where tastes were already formed and ignorance already rampant. They begin to get down there with the little kids whose education they had lamented. There's a job for them!, they realize. Yes, they face the daily lesson plans, culturally diverse classrooms, and federal directives -- but having behaved docilely for so long, they know how to fulfill orders without complaint and leave their imaginations to run wild in collaboration with their young charges.

They retire. As time goes by, a new generation of critics raised in the realm of the outspoken and the brave takes their place. The nonpop world resumes its integration into the culture -- leading and following -- and the older composers of the past become an occasional bonbon.

So why would this work? Why would critics work together, why would anyone listen? The scenario can spin out any number of ways, but the optimistic direction is toward the public expression of an entire panoply of music genres.


What if the critics don't care? What if their analyses of Mozart and reviews of Mendelssohn continue unabated? There are other ways. One of them is money, but it must combat what I have called 'significance sickness.'

Much of the significance-sickness in nonpop has to do with ineffective investment and unimaginative marketing.

Our ears are not specially made for nonpop genres. My wife listened to blues and rock, yet after meeting me she developed both a discernment and a true enjoyment of new nonpop. My enthusiasm was a kind of one-on-one marketing that expanded her -- and other friends' -- listening habits. The 'naïve' local listeners to Kalvos & Damian were faithful every Saturday for ten years, for it was they (not our large body of online listeners) who contributed funds to the station in our name that kept us on the air -- listening to music of and talk with composers.

Our local audience had a new experience, but the larger consumer world doesn't really care about composers. That world doesn't know what they do. The term 'song' (that somebody sings) has replaced 'composition' (that somebody writes) in commercial software, on websites, on i-yes-'Tunes'. When nonpop is considered at all, it's usually on television at two in the morning or rush-hour drive time when few people are watching. That's when we're invited to purchase "The Most Beautiful Classical Music in the World... Ever!"

But think of this: A marketing entrepreneur with serious investors could turn around the public attention by sheer mass presence. A single movie brought public enthusiasm back to bluegrass. Yanni dragged the concerto soloist model onto the fringes of the pop world before getting PBS-ized. Andrew Lloyd Webber, also on the edge of the old-school classical model, keeps attention on a concert-ish sound through spectacle.

Back in 1998, I wrote to Richard Branson, who began the Virgin operations and is known for spectacle, including his balloon events. My (yes, physical, not email) letter offered an imaginary Q&A to interest his investment in new music spectacle. An excerpt is below -- even today, not bad for talking points for a composer looking in the eyes of an über-wealthy patron. (It's not easy. I couldn't make much headway with these guys either.)

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.

Eventually a Branson/Virgin secretary wrote back expressing no interest in what they read as a purely business proposal. The same plea to Bill Gates went nowhere (Microsoft emailed back instead of responding via postal mail, sending along corporate partnership proposal forms), as it did with Andrew Grove and George Soros.

In some ways, though, it was worth posing the questions if only to frame them. And the idea of nonpop as the essential research & development system for the mass-audience arts is worth addressing at greater length. R&D represents the significance that our significance-sickness has sapped from us. Another day for that.

Now What?

I'm not sure. It's late, it was a long day preparing for the Vermont Chess Camp, a family-elders operation for which I do graphics and documentation. It opens on Monday. I realize how my father-in-law John Balch took chess, a niche pursuit if ever there was one, and turned it into one of Vermont's great student challenges. He was called the Johnny Appleseed of Chess, dropping small programs into schools and town halls all across the state and raising a generation of young champions. He died a few years ago on his way back from coaching elementary school kids for a chess tournament.

Among all our critics and investors there just has to be that Johnny Appleseed on Nonpop.

Chess campers on the cruise on Lake Champlain
Vermont Chess Campers on the cruise across Lake Champlain. John Balch founded the camp in 1996.

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