A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
The number of compositions to be delivered for the "We Are All Mozart" project is slowing, which provides a window back over the past month.
First, yesterday's composition, for four-mallet marimba. The seventeenth piece in thirty-three days, the composition was teetering on Dennis-cliché. The eternal question of "where do you get your notes?" had come up again, and the worst situation for a composer is starting at the blank sheet of paper (or blank screen) wondering where to start. I don't use a piano keyboard, so there's no poking around in the Tin Pan Alley songwriter mode. What to do?
There's a wonderful little program called MIDImage. When I'm at a loss for ideas, I grab an interesting photo and run this program, which scans the photo, extracts the color patterns, and applies them to instruments, scales, durations, expressions, and rhythms, outputting a Midi file of up to 16 channels. It's doggone good fun, and it gets in the way of me hearing myself all the time. A photo of a bucket of hardened snow was the source, and out came all sorts of lovely clouds of sound -- perhaps even something useful for the compositions.
That didn't happen, but it did act as a palate cleanser. Or acoustic palette cleanser, in this case. I could come fresh to the composition, with my love of coherency intact. The marimba has very little change of color over its range, it has no vibraphone-style pedals, no vibrato, and no ability to sustain notes past their natural resonance. I could do performance art or some such, but I wanted to have some fun with this piece. It opens up with simple, expanding figures that grow into big arpeggios and hide inside them a melodic/rhythmic theme. That theme is then dismantled and rebuilt over the course of a few minutes, and left in complete & bareboned shape at the end. Yes, hard to write, but worth the ultimate fun -- and virtuosity.
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I'm not done. This Babbitt thing has really gotten steamy, and the musical version of Godwin's Rule has been broached: Art vs. Entertainment.
One poster to the Orchestra List referred to Alan Gowans, the Bill Bennett of artistic philosophy. All are folks who believe in an unchanging essential character to social interchange that is at heart Euro-centric and faith-based. They tend to be conservative, view art as having been born somewhere around 1600 and having ended sometime in the 19th century -- when artists had the temerity to express their own viewpoints instead of acting entirely as tradespeople. (Yes, I realize that my own project is about being a tradesperson for a year, with the clients largely being performers.)
The arrogance of entertainers can be as surprising as the arrogance of artists. Let me quote from the poster: "The dichotomy I draw is between those artists who rightfully expect to profit from their craft and those who essentially do it as a hobby. And yes, my background in entertainment helps me understand this." This equation of virtue with geld seems to bolster the viewpoint of entertainers, particularly entertainment refugees to academia, that they have the corner on Artistic Truth, and truth is based on utility and completely unevolved sense of creativity. If you make stuff, if you manufacture, assembly-line your way through goods or entertainment, then you rightfully profit -- not do it as a mere hobby, a fickle finger-scrape of the real cake. This is the entertainer's slander, every bit as menial as the artist who dismisses the entertainer as ephemeral and shallow. There is a deep-seated resentment on the part of entertainers, deep enough that their only recourse is distinction-by-loot.
Perhaps this is a reaction to academia's no-less-offensive assumption of its superiority, and related to a jazz myth that jazz artists don't read music because they don't need to, or the recasting of Bach and Mozart as regular guys with families and hemorrhoids. In any case, these turn on a central thesis: that culture ultimately cannot evolve past pleasure, pleasure is paid for, so your benjamins are your art.
So why is it artists like, say, Paul McCartney aspire to write symphonic works, or Sting attempts to sing John Dowland? Why are dreams larger than life? And why, if artists are living a dream, are they reviled for it?
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A final note on the Babbitt debate: What truly bothers me is not that the tonalists hated the atonalists, nor that their bitterness increased when so many artists began composing music that the tonalists not only rejected but didn't -- or refused to -- understand or even study seriously, nor that their anger drove them into increasing justification through pseudo-science and poor performances among their conservatory-trained colleagues, but rather that they now view the shift toward a new tonal practice (a practice that could never have been envisioned when serialism began, nor assembled from the tatters of romanticism) as their triumph, as if they had even the slightest influence on what was a rebellion by serialists, atonalists and young & emerging artists against the predominant experimental ideology -- a change that had nothing to do with the tonal rejectionists of the past, and everything to do with evolution/revolution into minimalism and new explorations of tonality, world influences, and pop musical 'subtext'.
I don't expect younger composers to understand this ancient history, nor the entrenched tonalists to see it as anything but a triumph, even though the new tonality resembles almost nothing that the antediluvian tonalists did or could have imagined -- or they would have done it. From the adoption of triadic harmony (functional or not) through the establishment of stable and regular rhythms, this is not their doing. The rejection of serialism and the avant-garde was not an embrace of the past -- it was a typical historical shift by creatively disaffected participants. Whence: known. Hence: Unknown. Nevertheless, it opened the door for those composers who write polite music to be heard in polite places where the difference is neither understood nor even recognized.
They may claim their pitiful triumph, but it was never earned.
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Tomorrow (or soon): What I did on my
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