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   November 29, 2006   next

These commentaries will be infrequent in order to avoid being redundant, and then be minimal once the new year arrives as I begin the We Are All Mozart project. It's been a working week, getting the house ready for winter. There were more toilet repairs (it had to happen; once is never enough), and the new/old woodstove chimney finally went up.

We had our first dinner on the ca. 1925 Home Comfort stove: curried shrimp and tofu with rice. It was perfect on the hot cast iron, that seared-savory aroma that convenience stoves can't match. The continuously variable heat is glowingly hot on one side and barely a hot-to-the-touch simmer on the other, with six marvelous square feet of cooking surface and two full-sized warmers, a steamer, two warming cabinets above, and a large oven. Getting acquainted with the stove will take a few weeks. It has a larger firebox than the old one, deeper too, and with cast iron rather than firebrick. The draft is the same (straight up about 25 feet), but this stove has more adjustments -- the pipe damper, the oven diverter, and a separately adjustable draft below the firebox.

The above must seem a strange fussiness for a nonpop composer. But, you see, I enjoy the process of cooking as well as the result, the familiarity of a kitchen where people gather to talk, and the imagination of designers who could take a roaring fire of wood and regulate it so finely. This stove is a marvel of engineering. You can tell the temperature by feel, by sound -- the stove creaks and clicks. It can be made blazingly hot, boiling water from cold in three minutes and lavishly heating the room. It burns down in its own time, or can be loaded with wood and damped tightly so that it will warm the house for hours.

So installing the chimney with its interlocking enamel and black pipes was a rewarding (if filthy) few hours. The hardwood fires burn cleanly, but not with the purity of snow.

The week also involved repotting overgrown plants, fixing websites that have been untended, and replacing a video monitor. It's the end of an era for picture tubes, that marvelous technology that began in the early Twentieth century, paralleling the rise and fall of modernist thinking. The new wooden cabinet has a few coats of paint, a technique Stevie uses that, together with sanding and hand-rubbing, creates a classic appearance instead of sharp, Swedish lines. With the stove and cabinetry in progress, we shopped for a slab of granite, a holiday present for each other. The rainforest green granite is veined with lines of gold and red, and will be cut and polished for us in the next few weeks. We also picked up some smaller sheets from the slag heap for the entranceway and decoration.

This traditional building and heating and cooking brings me to that raconteur of traditions, Garrison Keillor. He is an adept and sometimes captivating storyteller, a prophet of the past. His stories are like Hummel figurines, perfectly crafted. He is beguiling, and with that guile he brings good liberal politics. But he is a false prophet of the past and his figurines depict scenes empty of truth. He is a musical regressive, reactionary, hyperconservative. Playing on the consciousness exactly as the orchestral establishment does, Keillor weaves uncompelling fragments into a compelling fabric -- not as well as Jean Shepherd, but skillfully nonetheless -- and fools the listener into believing that the future of art is in its past.

Look, this isn't a history-repeating-itself warning from a greying, idea-deprived composer. No, it's a deep, woodstove-intense burning fury about the retro (conveniently now called 'vintage') focus on music gone by, a loss of adventurousness and a lack of depth. Keillor is a victim, most likely, in his promotion of bluegrass, old hymns, and radio music cliché. But he's smart enough to have built an empire on it, and if I can hope for anything, it's that he will disgust himself enough at some point, like a child gorging on chocolate and retching it up, and throw it over in a public proclamation of his artistic rot. Remember the penguins? They have the same problem. I heard from the conductor, who was rightly offended by my characterizations (which stand, of course), and who defended his work with the orchestra and its public education programs. However much one can accept that he believes in his work, one need not simultaneously accept that this work is ultimately healthy. (But we have an ongoing conversation, which may make its way here should we reach past the mutual-defensiveness stage.)

Does that make sense? Both the storyteller and the orchestra are behaving artistically and honestly -- but so do dandelions and tree fungus. They are part of the ecosystem, but what happens when they have become the dominant part of the ecosystem? The nonpop ecosystem? Okay, I'm trying to avoid repetitiveness. My point here is not to complain about 'vintage' behavior but to note that hard-working, talented people are involved in doing it and are unaware of the destructive implications.

Oh, woo-hoo, destructive. What do you know, Dennis? Destructive? Wotthehell did all those modernists do for the better part of the century? Talk about destructive! You twit.

Well, um, yes, maybe. Change alienates. Comfort food is the food of no change (and yes, it too cooks well on wood). There's an interview in Salon about it. It turns out people who gravitate toward comfort foods don't have to clean up the mess. Think about that. People who create comfort-food stories and comfort-food music don't have to clean up their messes either. Keillor goes home to his acolytes, orchestras pick up their paychecks and dump the fundraising on a harried staff. There's no evaluation. It's not like orchestras actually operate in a free market. (Some time ago, Daniel Wolf's Renewable Music blog -- September 20 with followup on October 1 -- was mentioned here. He talked about nonpop as a gift economy. His approach applies surprisingly well to orchestras. And Keillor in his pre-marketing days.)

Back to the lack of depth mentioned above. What makes comfort food and music comfortable is the manner in which our adoption of its tongue/ear sensibilities allows us to scoop it up and ingest it without a careful discernment. So long as the tuna casserole has the egg noodles and the peas and the Campbell's cream of mushroom soup, it's right. So long as the symphony has the anticipated chord progressions and repetitions and developments, it's right. But throw in a few bacon bits or a rim of camembert, and there's gastronomical confusion. Likewise, toss in some ninth chords like Milhaud's Suite Provenšale and there's aural confusion. Stretch further and comfort becomes discomfort -- not because it is inedible or unpleasant, but because it is unexpected. Unexpected art with depth is deeply uncomfortable (as even deeply consonant minimalism was for modernists).

Indeed, there was a time when musical comfort food was itself new, and so that trip into the soft and comfortable Jack Finney-esque past is little more than voyeuristic time-travel. I try to keep calm and temper my judgment, but deep inside I believe that the vintagists are not really giving you comfort at all, but rather the date-rape drugs of art.

So. That's over. Anyone want to hear about something from my list of possible topics? If not, it's the destruction to creativity and history caused by software! And commentary on Vernor Vinge's new book, once my copy arrives. Ah, it feels great to be back & raging again.

Governor runs on Thanksgiving
Running to discoveries on Thanksgiving Day. No vintage behavior is yet manifested.

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