Beware the personal project

Back in my radio days, I received new compact discs every day.  Most of them were sent by labels, distributors or promoters, in recognizable packaging.  But every once in a while, I’d get something different, something I came to dread.  It would come in brown wrapping paper or a padded envelope, addressed by hand.  Inside would typically  be a compact disc, a photocopy of a newspaper article, and a letter that read more or less as follows:

Dear Mr. Montanari:

I am a devoted listener and large donor.  I know that you receive many recordings at public radio.  But I trust you will find the time to listen to the recording I am sending today.  It contains my “Symphony No. 1,” a musical mediation on war, peace, the environment, the Holocaust, AIDS, injustice, racism, and the 1986 World Series.  I had never written a classical piece before, though I like to tinker at the piano.  Now that I am winding down my extremely successful and remunerative professional career, I am looking for interesting projects to keep me occupied and which would make a positive contribution to our deeply troubled culture.  I believe we need more inspiration and beauty in our lives, don’t you?

So I took a few lessons from the assistant conductor of the local orchestra (to which I also give a bundle), and he showed me things, like the range of the clarinet and what a half note is.  Once I finished my symphony, with the technical help of several talented assistants (who can actually read and write music), I sent the score (and a nice check) to the State Radio and Television Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of Freedonia & Sylvania.  After rehearsing it intensely for one hour, they made the present fine recording.  Many of my friends and employees have told me how much they liked it, and I am certain your listeners will too.  Did I mention that I am a devoted listener and large donor?

Please also find enclosed a copy of an article about me and my symphony from the local newspaper.  You will notice that the coverage is very generous and flattering, with many interesting quotes that you could use on the radio.  The article will also provide excellent background for the interview I will graciously make myself available for.  The newspaper’s publisher, a close friend of mine, is also a large donor to your station, and would be thrilled if you would mention his name when you play my symphony.

I look forward the hearing from you at your earliest convenience about the date and time of your broadcast.  By the way, did I hear that you had a big fund drive coming up?


(I could name names but won’t)

You can well imagine, I’m sure, how a sense of joy and well-being bubbled up in me when I would receive such a package.  Sometimes, I would get so joyous that I had to take an aspirin, lie down and pull a pillow over my head.

And to be perfectly honest, on one or two occasions, when it didn’t suck too loudly, I’d actually go ahead and play part of the damned thing on my show.  Call me a shill or a sell-out, but it was sometimes the only way to make the person and his symphony go away.  If you had done 35 years of radio, you’d surely have done the same once or twice.

So, what brought these lovely memories forth?  It was reading the devastatingly negative reviews in today’s Wall Street Journal and New York Times of Larry David’s play “Fish in the Dark,” also starring Mr. David, and which opened last night on Broadway.  He, if you need reminding, is the one-time stand-up comic who co-created “Seinfeld” and then created and starred in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”  Actually, the media, including my beloved NPR, did such a thorough and enthusiastic job covering the show in previews that I doubt that even the proudest TV-phobe (and you know the type) would need such a reminder.

OK Montanari, you might say, what on earth do these things have in common?  This:  In the arts, beware the long-time much aspired-to personal project.  You know, the play, symphony, book, painting or whatever that someone in another field has always wanted to do.  Almost without exception, the result is embarrassing.

Of course, Larry David is a major public figure, and my composite composer an unknown.  But the difference is one of degree, not type.  If I take the Times‘ Ben Brantley and the Journal‘s Terry Teachout at their word (which you don’t have to, of course), both would-be artists have blundered, with unmerited confidence, into difficult and competitive fields requiring skill and experience they had perhaps tried to buy, but never legitimately acquired.

They may have pleased themselves and their friends.  They may have even fooled some in the audience, at least in the short term.  Reports are that Mr. David’s play earned the largest pre-sale of tickets in Broadway history.  One wonders how those who purchased the tickets and see the show, if they are really honest with themselves, will feel later about their not inconsiderable expenditure.

But when you either go on NEPR’s classical show or open on Broadway, you’re playing with the big boys, and will be judged accordingly, perhaps harshly. That’s show biz.

There are other examples, too.  Remember the biopic that actor Kevin Spacey made about singer Bobby Darin a few years back?  Like Larry David’s play, that one was also all over All Things Considered, Fresh Air and the NY Times prior to release — after which it disappeared without a trace in about 48 hours.  Then there have been attempts by rock musicians to write classical works without possessing the most rudimentary composing skills, as I documented here and here.  It’s not that easy, people, even with fancy new toys and paid help.

Would you like an inspiring counterexample?  Take former New York Yankees star outfielder Bernie Williams.  Also a fine guitarist, Williams in retirement actually entered a full-time degree program in jazz composition and arranging at the Manhattan School of Music, where I believe his is now a senior.  OK, so his notoriety has helped open doors for him in the music field — that’s show biz too.  But just as he had in his years as an amateur and minor league ballplayer, Bernie the musician is paying his dues and learning his craft from top to bottom.  I wish him well in his new profession.

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