Wants You to Listen to Someone Else"
Tom Dempster, Our Foreign Correspondent, Moonlighting as a Musicianly
Critic Type Person
There are divisions among artists of every stripe. There are likewise
divisions among consumers, end-users, patrons, and listeners of every kind. Within
each division is another division, and within each of those, yet more. Nothing
short of a fractal results from the fracturing of arts, and in few places is this
more visible – or audible – within the world of music. You’ve
got the anti-rap folks and the pro-NWA, the pro-country and anti-Randy-Travis.
Pro-Alice-Cooper which is Anti-Kenny-Chesnie. And so on. This is no surprise,
really, when counts in the ubiquitous and all the more boring factors of age,
race, creed, gender, socioeconomic privilege, and so forth. We’ve got septuagenarians
in leisure suits tapping their feet to Lawrence Welk while shaking their wrinkled,
liver-spotted fists at someone rolling down the street blaring Snoop-Dogg. And
rich white boys in SUVs attempting to co-opt a style, experience, and dialect
never to be theirs. People from the backwoods of Virginia or Tennessee going to
“Christian Rock” concerts while baby-boomer-hanger-oners kvetch and
moan that rock should be property of Satan, property of leather, codpieces, rebellion,
and Ball Pythons.
We expect these things in a society inundated with media, in a country that stamps
well over five billion CDs a year for sale for whopping profit margins. We almost
celebrate these things to a degree: for instance, the most rapidly growing demographic
tuning in to watch Lawrence Welk reruns – or for a non-dead example, tuning
in to Bob Barker – is the 18 to 26 bracket. Tweens find the campiness, the
paternally clever verbal quips, and tenacity of youth clinging to the near-or-almost-dead
alluring for some odd reason, and in this way, the gaps start to close. We expect
that, as is said within academic circles, in time, younger generations will grow
more accepting of cultural differences and be altogether more intelligent and
logical than their forebears. New and old alike will be celebrated, not denigrated;
sharing artforms beyond the generational divides will one day become commonplace,
not a novelty act. Never mind the notions of equal access to educational facilities
and resources, never mind the notion of equalizing income and giving people the
ability to finance this hope of cancerous intuition and intellect.
So, this is just fucking groovy, I say: in fifty years, if I don’t get hit
by a bus full of Zen Nuns on the highway first, I will be trading CDs with my
grandchildren; we will be watching reruns of Soul Train and whooping it up; Dick
Clark will still be brought out of cryogenic sleep each December 30th to host
a pointless show filled with the talismans of one-hit-wonders. Fine. Hey Bobby,
I’ll say, although if my kids names their kids Bobby or Sue or Johnny I
will fucking kill them with my dying crinkled hands, I’ll say Hey Bobby,
there’s this nifty musical group from the late 1980s called Slint, and another
called A Tribe Called Qwest, and yet another called Ween and yet another called
Sigur Rós. And he’ll say, cool, granddad, and he’ll put them
in the holophonic projector, because by then, oil, the main ingredient used to
make the plastics in CDs and their cases and shrinkwrap, will be gone, and we’ll
listen and I’ll reminisce and he’ll be exposed to timeless-or-not
universal-or-not sonic bric-a-brac from my era. And he’ll take his holophonic
projector and a teensy silicon chip and slip in Outkast Part XII or Björk’s
grandkid or whatnot and he’ll reminisce over memories just made and I’ll
tap my foot and do my best not to shake my fist.
So, a vast part of this is the issue of timelessness. My mother once asked me
why I liked the Beatles or Iron Butterfly or Crosby Stills Nash Young Leonard
Cohen Margaret Cho and all that. I said something jejune like it’s not the
music, although it sort of is, all that passion and fire and zeal, but the lyrics
too, hey hey. Chances are, she said, chances are that there are tunes out now
that do the same thing, and wipe my damned records off before you ruin them. Some
sort of universal appeal – due in part to either expansive media coverage
during their heydays, martyrdom, or plain good musicianship – draws in new
crowds decade after decade. Case in point: I was a Nirvana fan when I was an angsty
teen. When I was an angstier fourteen-year-old, Kurt Cobain decided to but a bullet
through his head; perhaps he had read “Richard Corey” just moments
before and recognized the timelessness or not of E. A. Robinson. This fucked me
up. If only for a few days, anyway. I wore black. I was silent. I bleached my
hair as a stupid symbol of loss of an idol. A few years later I realized how young
I was, that my mother was somehow right: a few years later, I found myself listening
to Ian Curtis for the first time bellowing or howling out ideas of the same theme,
and yet again, I idolized a suicide. Timelessness.
I am a career composer, whether I want it to be or not. This is probably not my
only life career, as we are supposed to have at least six now throughout our lifetime.
This was not my first, as I started out as a shelf-restocker for Big Lots when
I was 15. But, as a composer, and as someone who has been in school for composing
art-music for nearly a decade, I’ve picked up on a few things. I’ve
learned a number of things, only about half of those pertaining directly to music,
and I have noticed more divisions and more suicides of timeless appeal:
The attachment to death.
Ask the average dun traipsing down the street who John Adams is. Chances are great
that Mr or Ms X will say, if they remember anything about American History, he
was a prez-ee-dent, wun’t he? They won’t know that there are two American
composers living and working in American both under 50 composing some very good
music. I am in an in-group: many of my friends and accomplices, musicians or not,
are familiar with one or both of these. Ask the same dun on the street who Mozart
or Bach or Beethoven were and they will say something like oh, he the one who
did the music that say buh buh buh buuuuhhh or de de de de de deeeee deee doo
de dut doo de dut doo de dut.
There is a widespread debate within the music field. On one hand, you have the
orchestra conductors and PBS station managers and NPR affiliates. These people,
including their corporate sponsors and viewers like you, have an obligation: operate
as though they are running a museum – or an aural mausoleum – where
the dead rule the earth with the luxury of not being among the undead. These people
do a reasonably good job of breathing life into long dead men and their music
and in recent years have done even better in enticing people of my age bracket
and not of my educational background to attend events. Or so it seems. Orchestra
attendance is tanking; most NPR stations are switching to all-talk formats; PBS
rarely runs symphonic or operatic concerts, choosing instead Knitting With Claudia
or Teach Your Retard Kid How to Read.
Timelessness, my friends.
On the other hand, you have assholes like me. Assholes like me who no one puts
their money on, assholes like me that no one has ever heard of. And there are
thousands of us assholes running around, pulling things out of our heads and putting
them down on paper – or directly to CD in the case of electroacoustic music,
or un-recordable and viewable/hearable only a few times in the case of interactive
music – and whining that we have no support, from the state, from consumers,
from patrons. We blame the Mozart lovers, the Beethoven fondlers, and the Bach
I like to play cultural relativist when I can, when no one will get their feelings
hurt. My music, my comrades’ music, is no better or worse than the great
Meisters of central Europe three and four hundred years ago. We’re painting
new pictures with the same paint, or at the very least, with slightly similar
tools. There were certain stylistic traits and fashions in vogue during that time.
Now we live in a pluralism where anything goes, but you’d better write the
correct music or no one will ever listen to it. Their music is stellar in its
craft, and there’s no reason not to revere it. But there is no reason to
revel in it. Let’s make everyone a household name. Let’s put Raff
on par with Brahms and Schumann. Let’s pair up Schütz, Carissimi, Isaac,
and Hildegard with Monteverdi. Mozart and Salieri. Virgil Thomson, Carl Ruggles,
and William Grant Still are as important as Copland. And let’s make sure
that when people fawn over John Williams or Howard Shore that they fawn over Joan
Tower or Michael Torke.
Timelessness: being able to pick and choose who you want to love, so long as there
are thousands upon thousands of choices, and not those who have paid with media
attention and lore; embrace the ones time has forgot.
History goes to the highest bidder, the biggest draws. This is the general rule.
There are exceptions, as there are with every rule. Mozart: his family was very
well-connected, knew the right people, and his father had hordes of money; Wolfy
died young – rather, right on time for the life-expectancy of the age –
and was so prolific and widely performed that he was hailed as a martyr. Beethoven:
was such a bastard and survived such a dastardly father that he met the right
people and became well-connected; deafness became a nice icing of semi-martyrdom.
Bach: the most prolific of them all, he slept with nearly every available daughter
of composers, teachers, church-men, nobility, and royalty that it was hard to
overlook him. The church was quite powerful in those days, and he knew the right
clerics and vicars and so forth. Having two performances per Sunday certainly
helped. Yes, yes, he died penniless. But his earliest biographers pushed his name
so much and his music so unabashedly that he became household. Never mind the
fact that there at least a hundred other composers in Bach’s generation
who held similar posts at churches and as choirmasters who also had to write a
Mass a week for forty years to feed their families.
A penny in the fountain and up squirts the big names.
And perhaps you don’t believe me. You see me as a bitter and desiccated
piece of mundungus ready for your pipe.
I went straight to the source. Thomas Edison’s son invented and perfected
a Necrocommunicator – a device intended to speak to the dead – and
I was able to sit down and have tea, opium, and conversation with W A Mozart of
Salzburg, Vienna, etc etc.
But I am over my word limit for this column – so, the interview will come
next time. But you have before you a decent set-up.
Next time: Tom speaks to Mozart, drinks tea, gets high, and buys Mozartsgeist