Friday, January 26, 2007

Renewing the catalog

I've been following Dennis Báthory-Kitsz's We Are All Mozart project, which is, among other things, a study of compositional productivity. Although he has not reached his goal of booking every day of the year with commissions, he nevertheless has a calendar for 2007 with 80-some bookings, which is by any measure an out-of-the-ordinary figure.

In his diary entry for yesterday, Dennis is wrestling with some of the problems of identity created by a significant increase in productivity. These problems of identity are associated both with the works themselves and with the composer as a kind of brand name out there in the market for commissions, performances, and the like. How "original" does a single work have to be? How much do you repeat yourself (materials, styles, techniques) from work-to-work? How much can/must/should one item in a composer's catalog distinguish itself from the next? When a person or institution gives a commission to Philip Glass, for example, they want something that is recognizeably a work by Glass, but also recognizeably different from other works by Glass. New but not that new. While a few composers have the luxury to have their patrons expect either an extreme of eclecticism (Cage) or an extreme of consistancy (Hovhaness) , most of us are stuck walking the tightrope between these extremes. (The imbalance in supply and demand in our little market suggests that this is a tightrope without a safety net below!)

Dennis's new productivity level is an opportunity at many levels, not least of which is to establish the Báthory-Kitsz compositional brand in a larger market. But at a practical and personal level, it is an opportunity to reassess his own composer's tool box, the body of ideas, methods, materials, and techniques he has assembled with his work to date. How much capacity or potential do those tools have for new applications? How can they be tweaked, combined, recombined, mutilplied or subverted?

A project like this, with a projected output of many smaller pieces, confronts two very powerful forces directly: those of the masterpiece ethic and of mass production. The masterpiece ethic is our peculiar inheritence from the post-Beethoven era (the beginning of an continuous music-historical memory), with the emphasis on the blockbuster, the unique work, sui generis, full of sound, fury, significance and import. Mass production, on the other hand, emphasizes similitude, economy of production, and reliability, and sucessful mass production is ultimately defined by profit and a sustained place in the market.

With the highest respect to Dennis, I will venture now that none of the WAAM pieces will be "masterworks", but that is (a) neither a critique nor a value judgement, and (B) an entirely irrelevant measure of their identity and value. On the other hand, none of the pieces will be easily assessed or valued in terms of mass production: they are all handmades, their market values are irrelevant, and they will each carry traces of relationships between composer and commissioner that cannot be found in mass production (or at least production above the scale of a Morgan Motorcar).

The masterwork ethic and the detachment of "art" music composers from mass markets has led to one major change in our catalogs, and that is a -- to my mind unfortunate -- tendency to devalue the work-overlapping notions of genre and repertoire. From Beethoven onward, there is such importance attached to works as singular instances that, within certain compositional milleux, it becomes virtually impossible to maneuver creatively within a genre. This leads to the psychologically difficult situation in which a composer likes Barraqué can write but one Piano Sonata, and even then cannot ever really finish the thing. (Of course there are always counter-examples, like Hovhaness or Buckinx, both outsiders).

Dennis's project may be a great opportunity to revisit his catalog, indeed the whole notion of the catalog, and to reconsider the potential and value of genres. Isn't there something that of unique value that can be learnt when, instead of writing, like Barraqué, the Sonata (-to-end-all-Sonatas), one follows the model of a composer like Buckinx with his 1001 violin and/or piano Sonates? The pressure on a new work to be relevant to and measured against its ancestry, to epitomize its genre, can be both unfair and deadly. But maybe, if we stand back a bit, and allow that a work can be an instance of a genre, without necessarily being a culmination, and we allow for cul de sacs, deadends, and failures, as well as successes, we'll find ourselves on a more productive path.

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