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Alex Shapiro, composer email
Words on Music


To the Dustbuster and Beyond  

If you want to see a look of horrified alarm on someone's face, just ask a struggling American artist whether the U.S. government should help fund their pursuits. Given the disproportionate amount of creative energy some spend writing not symphonies and prose but grant applications, it's understandable that in a culture with priorities that are usually things other than art, artists will take what they can get.

I enjoy debating both sides of this question. Many excellent thinkers and devoted arts supporters fear that government involvement in just about anything these days only leads to bad things, and given the state of the U.S. right now, they've got a point. But personally, I believe that in a society of intelligent life forms, yes, the arts should be supported generously, by private patrons, corporations, and yes, even the government. A great civilization is not remembered for its automobiles or its bombs, but for the legacy of the art which reveals the souls of its citizens. Oh, and for its good beer, too.

Alex Shapiro

       

There's something in our DNA that readily accepts the concept of (someone else) boldly going where no mere taxpayer has gone before.

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Among the impressive variety of attacks commonly lobbed against public funding, critics suggest that if the government is to subsidize artists, then why shouldn't it offer grants to other creative professionals who don't always fare well economically: carpenters, landscapers, massage parlor employees (okay, forget that last one). What makes artistes so damn special? And hey, if our capitalist society isn't supporting the work of artists through normal supply and demand, then maybe all this new art isn't so great after all, since no one's willing to buy it! Of course, there's always the amusing protest from some who cry, "Why should we have to give our tax dollars to pay for art that's crap?" And that's the polite version.

Some artists themselves rail against public subsidies, for fear that such support makes a creator beholden to the whims and possible censorship of the funder, as has happened on occasions too numerous to list. Other citizens simply decry funding anything that doesn't directly impact their own lives. Oddly enough, this is usually the same bunch that tends to be gung-ho for finding tax money to build new prisons, even though presumably they're not planning on moving into one.

 

 

 

Each of the above debating points is worthy of its own essay, plus a complimentary set of Everlast professional boxing gloves. But here's the crux of it all: in this country, the closest some people get to an art experience is when their local K-Mart pipes in a particularly cutting-edge arrangement of "Memory" over the PA system. When live music, art installations, dance and theater aren't part of people's lives, we can't pat the public on its collective head, declare that Art Is Important and then expect folks to giddily hand over their tax dollars. If artists want the public to support funding for our projects, then we've got to find a way to connect our fellow citizens to the same sense of intriguing adventure that we feel when we're creating. Interestingly, that emotional connection has been made successfully in other equally arcane arenas.

 
       

Do you intend to make a space walk anytime soon? Relatively few Americans oppose funding NASA programs. The variety of missions to the moon, Mars and other planets and all those fun photographic joy rides around the galaxy, are of little consequence to the daily lives of this country's citizens. Yet most Americans don't complain about having a few of their tax dollars pointed toward these exploratory programs. Perhaps it's because these forays fall under the heading of Discovery, and the excitement found therein. There's something in our DNA that readily accepts the concept of (someone else in a highly flame resistant jumpsuit) boldly going where no mere taxpayer has gone before. Plus, we get a few unexpected bonuses from these jaunts. Can you even imagine your life without the wonder of Black & Decker cordless tools like the battery operated screwdriver and the Dustbuster mini vac? I certainly can't. And what about the cordless cheese grater? Could your existence have meaning without one? Of course not. But no one told us ahead of time we'd get nifty portable gadgets out of the deal if we just let the space program do its thing.

Do you intend to make a space walk anytime soon?

______________

 

       

Artists know better than anyone that to create art is to take a journey into the unknown.

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Americans relate well to the concept of bounding out to discover the unknown. It's in our history as a nation, beginning a few hundred years ago with Christopher Columbus and his queasy journey across the Atlantic. Who paid for those three termite infested vessels with lousy navigational equipment? Why, the Spanish government, of course. Granted, Queen Isabella just wanted to get this pesky guy out of town, but the end result made for lots of good press.

Artists know better than anyone that to create art is to take a journey into the unknown, to discover something in themselves that they may have suspected was there but couldn't quite identify. The making of art is, by definition, exploration. And every artist I know is afraid of falling off the edge of their private world, of working for years only to find that the nay sayers were right all along. Yet we persevere. We make many attempts. We fail. Or we don't succeed in a particularly inspired way. But occasionally, we stumble upon something really terrific.

 
tide pools
tide pools
splash

I get frustrated when people complain that for all the art that artists create, only a very small percentage is any good. Let's ignore for a moment the subjective definition of what "any good" might actually be, given the wide diversity of tastes among 300 million or so North Americans, some of whom happily don painful combinations of plaid and stripes on polyester. Yes, I'll just ignore them for a moment and ask: what the heck do you expect? Of course the majority of what's put out there is less than brilliant. Sometimes considerably less. That's the point. Like a scientist who tries, tries again in countless experiments before finding the cure for, say, idiocy (they're still working on it), artists also take an awful lot of stabs at something before they have a hit. It’s a simple matter of odds.

Like a scientist who tries, tries again in countless experiments before finding the cure for, say, idiocy (they're still working on it), artists also take an awful lot of stabs at something before they have a hit.

__________________

 

 

 

Let's say for the sake of argument that for every twenty new pieces of music, two compositions are especially wonderful. A modest ten percent is hardly an extravagant claim. The more conducive the environment is to new music, starting with the public's willingness to fund it, the more new music the public can hear. So instead of discovering four great pieces out of just forty premieres, if there are two hundred premieres, there's a reasonable chance that there will be twenty notable additions to the repertoire. Of course, it's entirely possible that every single one of those twenty pieces might stink, but then I wouldn't be able to write this snazzy segment of the essay to bolster my point about arts support, so just bear with me here.

       

Men and women are both equally capable of writing incredibly boring music as well as music that is transcendent.

__________________

On a related note, I've used these ratios to counter the very occasional accusation that music by women composers is too often of lesser quality than that of men. I'm lucky to have been born late enough in the twentieth century to have dodged the evils of both over-teased hair and gender discrimination and as such, I carry no chip on my shoulder, but such a moronic generalization is worth a retort. Statistically, there are fewer working female composers than male ones, although after a disgraceful history of being shut out of the field, women now have considerable recognition and will soon equal their male counterparts in numbers. In a collective pool of new pieces, if only two out of twenty works are likely to be compelling, and of those composers, if fifteen are men and five are women, the law of probability says that the two excellent pieces will more often be composed by men. If the ratio were reversed, so too would be the outcome. Men and women are both equally capable of writing incredibly boring music as well as music that is transcendent.

       

 

 

 

Supporting the arts means understanding the law of averages. Even Mozart in all his brilliance didn't have a hit every time. The majority of new pieces of music, new plays or new paintings won't interest us. Or at least they won't during the particular performance we're attending, during which we’re thinking about how much the babysitter is costing and whether we need to pick up milk on the way home. The reason to go to concerts, theater and museums is not because you think you're going to love everything. You won't. The reason to go is because there's an enticing chance that you'll discover something you do love.

 
       

It's been said that composers and visual artists often create the same piece over and over until they get it right, without even realizing it. Perhaps this is the glue that makes an artist's output unique, that gives an artist their own voice: their own ism. A composer's love of a particular interval pattern, or a writer's tendency toward certain phrasings are some of what distinguish them from their peers. It's as if these creators are haunted by a theme or gesture absorbed early on in their lives, and spend the rest of their careers trying to exorcise it, just as some people tend to repeat the same relationship patterns with a procession of partners. And while many seek therapy for a string of failed marriages, it's the perceived shortcoming of each new work that is itself the artist's therapy. Our motto: on to the next.

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The reason to go to concerts, theater and museums is not because you think you're going to love everything. You won’t. The reason to go is because there’s an enticing chance that you'll discover something you do love.



Ironically, repetition and lack of originality are often precisely what lead to great breakthroughs and new frontiers, even though they may also lead to more than a few mind-numbingly uninspired premieres. Patience and persistence are key, not only for the artist, but for the audience as well. Nearly every overnight success we read about in the Grammy or Oscar afterglow had a previous afternoon that lasted a decade or two. Many artists will never have a hit or see their work reach the masses, yet they continue doing their art because they simply have to, they have no choice. To make art is to be blessedly obsessed. This is one of several important trade secrets that everyone should know about creative types, whether they be composers, choreographers or vintage Barbie doll collectors. Yes, we're all a little... possessed. And we're all explorers, setting out to find our own Hispaniola.

I suppose that part of what keeps an artist going is hoping that like Columbus, in our journey toward our goal we might accidentally bump into something unexpected and unexpectedly valuable. We really should frame the entire question of arts funding in the same way that we view other voyages of discovery. Then, instead of fearing the unknown new concerto or paint splattered canvas, Americans will see each fresh offering as what it really is: an artist's attempt to find new shores and new galaxies, and with any luck, make a modest contribution to society at large. And who knows? Maybe as I discover ways to create interesting sounds for my next string quintet, I'll inadvertently stumble upon a technique that makes using a cordless cheese grater a thing of the past.

©2008 Alex Shapiro

Nearly every overnight success we read about in the Grammy or Oscar afterglow had a previous afternoon that lasted a decade or two.

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Since 2006, Alex has published a personal, pixelsonic blog called Notes from the Kelp, that has developed a following of thousands of readers each month. She pairs snapshots from her daily life by the sea with audio clips of fitting pieces of her music, and welcomes comments. It's Alex's contribution to virtual tourism! Join her in Kelpville, and see where her music really comes from. Enter another world, here blog


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