Avner Dorman: Point of View, Personal Choice, and Duty
For the Israeli-born American composer Avner Dorman, being true to his own personal artistic point of view has never meant remaining in any particular aesthetic comfort zone. His music is constantly evolving and he is constantly challenging himself to go places he has never gone before—even sometimes to places that are decidedly uncomfortable.
As a teenage whiz kid growing up in Israel, Avner Dorman was simultaneously drawn to music and physics, studying the score of Stockhausen’s Gruppen and taking college-level mathematics courses by the age of 15. Although to this day he credits his science and math background with how he conceptualizes music, Dorman the composer was deeply moved by music’s emotional resonance from very early on and was quickly drawn to postmodern aesthetics, starting with his 1995 Concerto in A for piano and strings, a work he completed at the age of 19 which is still in his active composition catalogue and is available on a recording released on Naxos.
Dorman’s earliest works made him something of a superstar in his home country. By the ripe old age of 25, the top Israeli orchestras were performing his music and he became the youngest composer ever to win the Prime Minister’s Award. But rather than basking in the glory, Avner decided to apply to graduate school overseas and he wound up here in the United States. At first it was a bit of culture shock.
“In Israel, if you put on a concert it’s in the paper,” he opined when we met with him in early January at the office of his music publisher, G. Schirmer. “I remember the first time I had some concert that wasn’t listed [in The New York Times], I was like, ‘Why wasn’t it listed?’ And people said, ‘Why do you think you should get listed? They list six concerts and that’s it. There’s like a thousand today.’ I couldn’t quite fathom the size and variety that goes on here.”
By moving from Tel Aviv to New York City, Dorman went from being a big fish swimming in a little pond to trying to stay afloat in the music equivalent of an ocean. Dorman, however, was enrolled in The Juilliard School and his principal teacher there was John Corigliano, to whom he remains extremely grateful for helping him realize his own compositional identity.
“You only learn who you are when you’re not where you grew up,” said Dorman. “Early on, people often would mention the Middle Eastern flavor of my music. In Israel no one ever said that because other people are so much more extreme about it. So [that] was a big revelation. The other thing—and this I credit John for very, very deeply—is that I remember he would always say, ‘You’re very emotional and expressive, and you’re not afraid to express emotions in your music.’ … Since then, I’ve come in touch with it more and more and I think having him as a guide for several years really helped me understand who I am.”
But for Dorman, finding out who he was as a composer has never meant remaining in any particular aesthetic comfort zone. His music is constantly evolving and he is constantly challenging himself to go places where his music has never gone before—even sometimes to places that are decidedly uncomfortable. A prolific instrumental composer who has created numerous works for soloists and orchestra, particularly for less standard instruments such as mandolin and percussion, Dorman has begun to deeply explore vocal music. Last year, he completed his first opera, Wahnfried. It received its world premiere at the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe in Germany on January 28, 2017, and will remain in repertoire there through May. Aside from the fact that Dorman’s artistic collaborators, Lutz Hübner and Sarah Nemitz, wrote the libretto in German and he is not fluent in German, Wahnfried poses many other challenges for the 41-year-old Jewish composer. Not only is the opera the story of the notorious late 19th-century anti-Semite Houston Chamberlain, another one of the opera’s characters is Adolf Hitler.
“Hitler met with [Chamberlain], and that’s actually in the opera,” Dorman explained. “If you listen to Hitler’s speeches, there are direct quotes from his book. I actually transcribed some of his speeches as musical notation … and that’s the music that he’s singing. … I am aware that some people from Israel might be offended by this, but I think they would be mistaken. I’m obviously not advocating my own death and my family’s death. Who would do that? But I think it’s an important part of history that is rarely told and that needs to be told. I definitely think it is a politically charged piece. Even more so today than it was when I wrote it. I do think, especially in this era, that one of the mistakes is not to say things. We need to know that racism and hatred are a feature of humanity. It’s in our language. These things exist and they catch on like wild fire. When you don’t counteract and contradict them, they will continue to grow. I think as artists we have the opportunity to make a statement that will be heard.”
Frank J. Oteri: You became pretty prominent as a composer when you were still a teenager and some of the pieces you wrote back then are still in your active catalogue. In fact, some of your earlier works have even been commercially recorded. There are two CDs devoted exclusively to your music out on Naxos, and one of them contains a piano concerto you completed when you were only 19 and the other contains your first two piano sonatas.
Avner Dorman: My first piano concerto was from when I was still a teenager, but those piano sonatas are from my early 20s.
FJO: You were still really young. That’s many years ago. If people discover you through these recordings, they’ll hear this music before they’ll hear more recent pieces which haven’t been recorded yet. So I wonder, now that you’re a slightly older composer, how you feel about those pieces being an entry point that a lot of people will have for your music. Do they represent who you are still?
AD: I think in certain ways they do and in certain ways obviously not. If you just look at the outer stylistic layer, their harmonic language, then certainly the first sonata and the early piano concerto are not stylistically how I write now. I don’t even know how to describe what they are, but they are not the language that I use now. But I think some of the deeper levels are still the same, like the energy that these pieces have and—maybe—this idea that music stems from the base up. A Baroque concept of harmony and a little bit of a physics-related concept of harmony is already in there. I think I always was thinking about harmony like that. And in all these pieces, there are a lot of elements from popular music and non-Western music—again, not in the same way, but I think that’s still there. To a degree they obviously don’t represent me now, but they represent a time in my life and a stage in my development. So I don’t have a problem with people finding them first. If someone went to see my most recent work, especially a lay person, they would probably have a hard time figuring out that this is the same composer, but I think that’s a very common thing, so I don’t have an issue with it.
I know some composers withdraw a lot of pieces later on. I had actually written a lot of pieces before those pieces and had withdrawn them. But I do feel like these pieces [that you mentioned] work well, even after a long period of time. To a degree, I don’t think I could write them now; I just couldn’t do it. So I almost feel like that person that wrote them deserves not to be put aside, even though I’m not that person anymore. I do feel that they have artistic integrity and are rich enough that they merit having their own life. That being said, I obviously hope that what I’m writing now, and what I’ve written since, has more to offer because otherwise I did my best when I was 20. And that wouldn’t be great.
FJO: Very fairly stated. You remind me of this wonderful quote from Thomas Pynchon. In the ‘80s, he authorized the publication of a group of short stories he wrote back in his early 20s, before he wrote his first novel. He contributed a new introduction where he wrote that though there are some good things in these stories, he wouldn’t have written them today. But that young writer also deserves a chance to be read. There was this wonderful line that was something like, “I like the young me. I’d even go and have a beer with him, but I probably wouldn’t loan him money.”
AD: I would subscribe to that. Also, I would say, the first concerto and the first sonata are very neoclassical and sometimes people think it’s because I was still studying. But in high school, I studied [Messiaen’s] Turangalîla and [Stockhausen’s] Gruppen very deeply, and I had written some pieces that were all cluster harmonies and collectional concepts. Then—I was still playing Prokofiev, Mozart, and Bach—at some point I wanted to try to write something neoclassical. That’s how these pieces were actually born, like after knowing some of the avant-garde and experimenting with that. I actually felt like that would enhance my abilities as a composer. So I think they’re less naïve than someone might imagine. At 19 you’re young, but if you started writing when you were 10 or 12, or even 15, you’ve had several years. I was lucky enough to go to an arts high school where my theory and composition teacher was very well educated about Schnittke. I also got to know more recent scores. I think he was roommates with David Lang at Yale, so I knew David Lang’s music when I was in high school. So I wasn’t that naïve, thinking, “Oh, let me write something in A-major.” It was really more like I want to try to do this.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you name drop Schnittke because I don’t think of those early pieces of yours as being necessarily neoclassical as much as being postmodern.
AD: Right, the result is more postmodern than neoclassical. But at the time I didn’t know that. I didn’t quite know what postmodern meant yet, although I did know of David Del Tredici. I didn’t know his music, but my teacher in high school did mention his name when he heard my concerto. So, again, I think it’s not by accident that I ended up studying with John Corigliano.
FJO: You were saying that your harmony is derived from physics. You majored in physics as well as music, so your physics studies actually paid off.
AD: Certainly, and I was even more involved in math and physics than a double major would be here. I was in a special program at Tel Aviv University which lets you focus on different areas that generally you wouldn’t be able to focus on. The amount of math and physics that I had taken was like being a math-physics major at a major university, and not a double major; it was even more extensive. For the ability to conceptualize music, I think that knowledge has been invaluable. Like managing patterns over long periods of time—it’s the big question for a composer, right? It’s also the question of math. In my mind, they’re almost the same. To play around with numbers and to write a piece of music are very, very, very close. So yes, I think it really did pay off.
FJO: So getting the double degree was actually complimentary to your composing. It wasn’t like you majored in physics in order to mollify your parents when they balked at you saying that you wanted to be a composer.
AD: Well, my parents—especially my father—wanted me to study physics and math because it was more practical, but I was kind of a prodigy in math as a little kid. I was already taking mathematics classes at the university level when I was 15. A lot of my friends growing up ended up being in start-up companies and making enormous amounts of money. So my father, who was professional musician, had very high hopes that I would not be a professional musician and that I would be a computer programmer.
I got into this program at Tel Aviv University which allowed me to do both. It was a very competitive program, but there was no tuition and they gave you a stipend. I couldn’t say no to that. Basically, for four or five years the university took care of it all. I still had to work, but it was too good to pass up. Then when I started studying, the math and physics classes were very challenging but it was very rewarding. I like this stuff. So yes, I think it paid off and I think that program and that structure was very good for me as a person, because it was so free. I could pick and choose courses from different parts of the university and skip certain requirements—all the things that they don’t like to let you do. I will only thrive if I can do it a little differently and not have to go through all the steps that everyone has to go through. That program is designed for people who are little off track—that the university feels have potential to contribute intellectually, but who don’t exactly fit the mold.
FJO: So, the physics shaped the music to some extent.
AD: Again, to me, math and music are so intertwined that I will sometimes sketch a piece as a series of numbers. And to me notation is a graph. So I can’t completely distinguish. I don’t know that I have as clear a distinction of where one begins and where one stops. The great thing about music is it’s so emotionally connected; physics not as much. I think that’s why music is such a holistic thing—the entirety of my being is involved.
FJO: Well, it’s interesting in terms of what we were talking about earlier—neoclassicism and postmodernism versus the high modernism you were studying, things like Gruppen. When people think of modernism, whether it’s the music of the integral serialists or practitioners of indeterminacy, or even the earliest pieces by the minimalists as well as the microtonalists—what all these various –isms have in common are a systemic approach that involves mathematical stuff.
FJO: But I think what postmodernism did—and co-relationally postminimalism as well, since you mentioned David Lang—is that it went beyond the mathematical procedures shaping the music. So it’s very weird, given your own compositional aesthetics, to hear you say that music is very close to math!
AD: Yeah. I think my music is definitely postmodern—anything that is sort of the middle brain, social, emotional, all that stuff. I think what people were reacting against with modernism is that to a lot of people it sort of ended up being cold and separate from the human experience. But I also find that there’s something really beautiful and rewarding about pure mathematical structure, and I think that goes back forever if you go back to Guillaume de Machaut or even Perotin. Ockeghem is one of my favorite composers. Mathematically it’s beautiful, and then musically it’s just sublime. That combination, at least for me, is where the transcendence of music comes, when these two elements meet, like they do in nature. You look at the stars and planets, and they’re both beautiful and also just incredible to think about.
FJO: Since you brought up early music composers, I definitely hear in your music a deep dialogue with music history—with standard repertoire, a canon that spans a thousand years in Europe and has spread out to the rest of the Western world, the stuff we call “Western classical music” for lack of a better term. At the same time, I hear much less of a dialogue with the so-called avant-garde. In fact, I think you’re music is decidedly about not being avant-garde. Is that fair to say?
AD: I think I have some pieces that do that, but generally those pieces don’t get played that much. I don’t know why. In my first string quartet, for example, there are a lot of extended techniques. But for me, it’s a very personal piece and emotionally very loaded. I wrote it in memory of a very close friend who died in a motorcycle accident.
I do feel that the avant-garde is part of our musical history and I certainly don’t avoid it intentionally, or haven’t thought about it like that. But I also think that—and this is the other side of the postmodern and postminimalist movement—there is a social aspect to music. If the music is such that people don’t listen to it, then it is marginalized. I feel like in my catalogue, partly that’s just what happened—pieces that are in dialogue with the avant-garde are less appealing—but maybe not. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say. I would have to maybe think about it more. I do think my new opera does perhaps do that more. I think opera allows for more extremes.
FJO: We’re going to eventually get to the opera, I promise. But while we’re still talking about your early days—you mentioned it in passing, but we didn’t really bring it up specifically—I’m curious about how you feel growing up in Israel shaped who you are as a composer. It’s a society steeped in thousands of years of tradition yet, at the same time, it’s relatively a newly recreated country. And, as a result of the number of European émigré musicians who moved to Israel, there are deep connections there to Western classical music. However, in another sense, it’s kind of a brand new frontier. So I wonder what it was like for you to be involved in the classical music there.
AD: I would say that I think one of the unique things about growing up in Israel is how much geographically you are at the center of the Arab world. Israeli popular music, which is what I mostly heard growing up, is this kind of blend of Arabic and Western popular music. I certainly think that has influenced me in a very deep way. I think a lot of my pieces have those elements in them. And I think my interest in rhythm, to a great degree, is because of that—because I grew up in a place where the rhythms that you heard come from Arabic and North African, even Indian music. It’s a different rhythmic world. People here hear it, but as an imported element. Obviously, I didn’t hear it in a traditional context all the time, but it’s so prevalent there that you’re steeped in it. Also, a lot of the early experiences that I had working in music were crossovers with Arabic music, popular music, and traditional Jewish music. It’s a small country and a very small market, so if you want to survive when you’re young, you just have to do all these kinds of things. Even in the army, my job was to be an arranger for bands and orchestra, so I got to work in a lot of genres and types of music that I don’t think you would encounter elsewhere, because it is in the Middle East.
My family is from Europe and I grew up in a very central European household, but in Israel. So I think that is also a big influence on me personally. The new music scene there is very European. If you go to a new music concert in Israel, you might not know that you’re not in Germany. A lot of the composers are still very close to Paris, Darmstadt, and Frankfurt—all those influences. Personally for me, the immigration from the former Soviet Union was very influential. My main teacher in Israel came from the country of Georgia.
FJO: Ioseb Bardanashvili.
AD: Meeting him and starting to work with him was definitely a turning point in my life. He brought in a lot of knowledge and expertise. Georgia is even more of a different place than Israel, and just this point of view was so distinct and so unique. I think he was the person who encouraged me to focus on my point of view. Your point of view is the most important thing. I remember he heard my piano concerto, the early one, and he said, “I can see your face in this piece. This is you. That’s your point of view. Never forget it. You’ll be tempted to try to be someone else.” Here we talk about “finding your voice.” But to him, the idea is that it’s your point of view. He always talked about it in cinematic terms, like being a cinematographer who is invisible to the viewer but who makes the most difference in the movie. It’s the person who gives you the point of view. I think that really helped me to be more focused on my point of view when I’m composing. It’s something I feel that you have to recreate from piece to piece. So he was a huge influence on me. Going back to your question about the avant-garde, he would always say, “Why do you only use major and minor chords? What about a cluster here and there?” And we would argue about it. I’m still very close with him. He’s an incredible human being and an incredible composer.
FJO: Now in terms of the reception history of your music, when you were a young composer in Israel you were essentially a superstar. You were the youngest person ever to receive the Prime Minister’s Award. You were named composer of the year by the second largest paper in Israel. Your music was played by the nation’s leading orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic. It was as high as you could go. You said it was a very small community, but you were more than a big fish in a little pond. You were as big a fish in that small pond as you could be.
AD: It was really shocking. I think within a matter of four weeks, all of these things you mentioned and a bunch of other prizes just happened. I won this award and that award, and then “we want to play your piece here,” and “we want you to be composer-in-residence for this orchestra.” It all happened at once. I was obviously quite happy, but nothing really changed in the world. You know, I didn’t write any new pieces during those four weeks. It just happened. And that was actually the point where Bardanashvili and my father both told me I should probably go somewhere else—some big cultural center—and get my doctorate to grow more.
The Ellef Symphony, for which I won most of these awards, was played in a dress rehearsal. My score reading professor was an incredible character who was a pianist for the Bolshoi, I think, before he moved to Israel. He was a really odd character, but we got along very well and he was a fantastic teacher. I remember he came to the dress rehearsal and we went out. Everyone was so excited, but he said, “Well, you know, if you think about your career as a staircase, you’ve made the first step. You are now on the first stair. That’s a big step, you’re now a real composer. But now you have all these other steps to take.” I’m grateful that the people around me were smart enough to realize that that was the opportune moment for me to go somewhere else where I could develop more and make larger connections. In a small market, you can be really successful quickly. But there’s nothing else left. It’s like, what’s going to happen tomorrow? What are you aiming for? It was great, but where do you go from here? It’s a very challenging market to be in. It’s a very small country with a lot of geopolitical issues, obviously. I’m not telling any secrets. I think I was very fortunate that people around me were saying that this was my moment to leave and get another perspective.
FJO: In terms of risk taking, you went as far beyond being a big a fish in a little pond as you could to swimming in an ocean—the New York City music scene is much bigger than a pond.
AD: You want me to regret it?
FJO: By no means! You’ve done well. You came here to attend Juilliard, which is a world-famous school, and you studied with John Corigliano, who is an extremely famous composer and was a very important mentor for you. But I still wanted to point out that, aside from it being a great opportunity for you, it was also a big risk, at least initially.
AD: Yes, it was a big risk. There was a financial risk, too. I actually had founded a startup company before I came to the United States. I got some venture capital and I was still running it for the first couple years when I was at Juilliard. The company eventually closed down but I’m pretty sure that, had I stayed in Israel, we would have had a better chance to survive. It was a music software company and, I think, a very interesting concept, but maybe too early in those days. Maybe the technology was not ready. Maybe we didn’t have enough money. I don’t know. Maybe had I stayed it would have worked out. I will never know. So, yes, I risked a lot. But I think for me, being in a place where there are so many other composers and so many other points of view and so many organizations, I feel like I needed that challenge and that dialogue. I thought that I would grow and expand my horizons.
People around me were worried that I would be frustrated staying in a small pond and that, as a person, it wouldn’t be the best thing for me. I wasn’t someone who was ready to take on a big job and become a power player in that scene. Some people really like that and some people did that and do very well. I’ve always wanted to focus on composing. I’m fairly certain that, had I stayed there, I wouldn’t have had as much time and energy to dedicate to the work and I wouldn’t have had the same opportunity to engage with other composers and get feedback from conductors. At Juilliard, one of the great things is that you work with such good musicians and you get feedback from them. That’s not to say that the Tel Aviv University music department is not strong; it’s very strong, but it’s much smaller.
You’ll probably find it funny, but one of the first things that shocked me about New York is how difficult it is to get a listing in The New York Times. In Israel, if you put on a concert it’s in the paper. There’s no question. I remember the first time I had some concert that wasn’t listed, I was like, Why wasn’t it listed?” And people said, “Why do you think you should get listed? They list six concerts and that’s it. There’s like a thousand today.” I couldn’t quite fathom the size and variety that goes on here. But again, why not take on the challenge? I’m always up for a challenge.
FJO: And you found a way to thrive here. We talked about you going to Juilliard and studying with John Corigliano. Here we are in the office of his publisher which is now also your publisher, G. Schirmer, one of the world’s leading music publishers. You were signed by them almost twelve years ago, just a month after you turned 30. So ultimately, coming here was the right decision. But I think it’s important to remember the moments of uncertainty. We talked about ways that growing up in Israel shaped your music. Do you feel like coming here changed your music?
AD: I do. And I think it took me a long time. People would ask me what the most important thing that coming to New York or that studying with John Corigliano did for me, and I didn’t know exactly. But I think now I have enough perspective. One thing is that you only learn who you are when you’re not where you grew up. So, if you grew up in a small town in, I don’t know, rural Pennsylvania, it’s only when you move to New York City that you realize that you’re from a small town in rural Pennsylvania. Before that, you know it theoretically, but you don’t really understand it. Early on, one of the things that happened here was that people often would mention the Middle Eastern flavor of my music. In Israel no one ever said that my music had a Middle Eastern flavor because other people are so much more extreme about it. But it’s there. So I think learning who I am from people who are not from exactly my background was a big revelation. The other thing—and this I credit John for very, very deeply and it took me a long time to understand what he actually meant—is that I remember he would always say, “You’re very emotional and expressive, and you’re not afraid to express emotions in your music.” I was like, okay, but he felt that was really important. You should listen to your emotions and think about them and start from the emotion. That’s why I wouldn’t say it starts from the numbers for me. They’re a huge part of me, but I think emotion and expression is a huge part of me as well. And I think that’s something that he saw very clearly and helped me come in touch with more. Since then, I’ve come in touch with it more and more and I think having him as a guide for several years really helped me understand who I am. So I think to a great degree, I was able to know myself much better because I wasn’t in my original environment.
FJO: I’m going to throw out an assumption I’ve had and see where it goes. An early orchestra piece of yours, which was in fact a piece that the Israel Philharmonic played under Zubin Mehta, is Variations Without a Theme. Variation form is one of the most common forms in Western classical music. But, as we had been saying, Israel, while connected to European traditions, is also somewhat removed from them and has its own traditions, some going back millennia even though it was built anew in modern times. It’s an old place, but it’s also a new place. So you’re taking variations, this time-honored form, but you’re doing variations that are completely unlike what we think of as variations. Your variations are without a theme. They’re homeless. There’s almost a diaspora quality to it. Am I reading too much into this?
AD: That’s an interesting thought. In the Ellef Symphony, the main theme is the same note repeated four times and then a rest. I was trying the old Beethoven thing of “can you write with a smaller and smaller and smaller motif?” So then I was like, I don’t want a motif at all. I don’t want a theme. In variations, most of the interest is not in the theme. We love variations and sometimes the theme is nice, but really it’s because the variations are interesting, what you do with the material. It’s almost like it’s what you do despite the material that is so interesting. Take the Musical Offering; the theme there is not a very good theme. You know, the king wrote it, whatever. But it’s what Bach did with it, despite the theme, that makes it a great piece. That was my impetus for that piece: just throw it out, why do I need to deal with a part that bogs me down. In the variation process, I’ll just play with elements of music.
The other thing is that variations are short and they change often. It’s like 50 seconds later—boom, we’re doing something else. I find that very exciting. I don’t feel I need to be committed to a certain texture, to a certain idea, to a certain aesthetic. The postmodern part of me loves variations, because I don’t need to justify why three measures after I started one idea, it’s like—whup—we’re doing something completely different. Obviously the challenge is to make a piece like that coherent, but being so mathematically oriented, that’s usually not the challenge for me; that usually almost happens on its own. So the more I stretch the boundaries, I think it usually works out better than when I try to work in a box. I understand why some composers need that. If you’re like a Jackson Pollock personality, you need the box. But if you’re very mathematical, then maybe the box will happen on its own.
FJO: Alright, I’ll try another one. You’ve written a ton of concertos.
FJO: Once again, it’s another centuries-old, Western classical form. And while you wrote a piano concerto very early on and a violin concerto more recently—two most often used solo instruments in concertos—you seem to be more drawn to instruments that are more outside of what we think of as being soloists with an orchestra. You’ve written several pieces which feature percussion soloists, as well as a piccolo concerto, which is not very common. Saxophone concertos are getting more common, but it’s an instrument that’s not typically associated with the orchestra so it is also an outlier. And one of my favorite pieces of yours is your mandolin concerto, definitely an outlier to the orchestra. In a way, it’s an interesting sonic metaphor for growing up in a somewhat outsider place in terms of Western classical music that’s also partially inside because of all the European immigrants. But do you think of these concertos that way, or am I just inferring it?
AD: I don’t want to make this disappointing. I love writing concertos. It’s perhaps the medium that comes easiest to me. I don’t know if it’s because I started out as a pianist and played a bunch of concertos, or maybe it’s because of my affinity for Vivaldi. Concertos are easy for me to write and to conceptualize. I think part of the reason that I’ve written all these concertos for unorthodox instruments is that these instruments are beautiful and there’s so much to do with them that hasn’t been done. But partly it has to do with basic market demand. With Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!, [the percussion duo] PercaDu were colleagues of mine at the academy in Tel Aviv and they just nagged me to write something for them. That piece developed into the concerto. A piccolo player asked me to write for him fairly early in my career. First, he wanted it to be a piccolo and harp sonata. I’d written the first movement, and I called him up and said, “You should come hear this, I think it’s a concerto. I don’t think it’s a sonata. I want to make it into a concerto.” That’s how that piece came about. The Mandolin Concerto started in a very similar way. Avi [Avital] wanted a piece for mandolin, harpsichord, and harp. And I said, “Avi, I love your playing and I appreciate that you like my music, but I don’t think I’m the person to write that piece. I think Henze should write that piece, or Webern, like someone with that sensibility. I think it could be beautiful, but I just don’t see it myself. Why not something with a string quartet, a little concerto with string quartet?” And we made that work. Then it became a real concerto. I asked him to bring me recordings. Avi gave me stuff from Russian and Brazil, and bluegrass; mandolin is prevalent everywhere in the world. In Israel, it has a really interesting history as well. There are a lot of mandolin orchestras in Israel. It was a social-political move of the government in the ‘50s to help educate immigrants, especially from poorer backgrounds. They would have the kids study mandolin so parents could work. It was kind of a real socialist thing. So yes, I’m fascinated with these unusual or non-traditional instruments, and with all of these soloists. But partly it’s just that these people want to play solo concertos. There’s no Tchaikovsky marimba concerto and no Brahms mandolin concerto.
FJO: But there is a very famous Vivaldi Mandolin Concerto.
AD: Yes, and I’m a big fan of Vivaldi. Some people don’t appreciate it, but I really do like his music. But yeah, there aren’t that many [mandolin concertos]. There also aren’t that many saxophone concertos; there are more, but there’s no canon so there’s an opportunity there. The thing with piano concertos and violin concertos is that you’re always in dialogue with the past to some degree, because you’re writing an old genre. And you’re always in competition. The orchestra world has to be driven by a lot of considerations. It’s difficult for a piano concerto to get played a lot, but a lot of soloists are coming to me for these kinds of concertos. I’m not the only one, obviously. Percussion concertos are a big driver of new orchestral works.
Also, when you’re writing a concerto, you can write longer pieces than the regular seven-to-ten minute orchestral commission and you have the soloist as your partner. When they get to the first rehearsal, they know the piece really, really well. With Avi, he knows it so well and most orchestras can probably read that piece at this point off the page because there’s a recording and YouTube. Any orchestra can also basically read Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! It was not like this at the premiere. It’s not an easy piece, but as it gets into the rep, then the conductors can hear recordings. It just becomes much easier and the soloists bring so much with them. You can count on the soloists to help the orchestra learn the piece more quickly, so that’s a very helpful thing.
FJO: And it is one of your most widely performed pieces at this point.
AD: The two percussion concertos are, definitely. I think each one of them has exceeded a hundred performances. That’s a lot.
FJO: And for both of those pieces, I think it also helps that you gave them such evocative names. Instead of just calling it Double Percussion Concerto No. 1, it’s Spices, Perfumes, and Toxins!, which actually immediately conjures up the Middle East, though perhaps once again I’m reading too much into this.
AD: Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! is definitely sort of a Middle Eastern piece. The first movement is based on an earlier piece of mine that I wrote just for PercaDu. The goal was to write a piece that really reflects young Israeli culture. If you go and analyze that first movement, a lot of the rhythmic aspects of that piece are actually drawn from South Indian music, but the flavor of it is very Middle Eastern, I agree, and that was the idea of that title as well.
FJO: And for the other one, Frozen in Time, the movements are all named after different continents and inspired by their musical traditions. We were talking before about how we’re formed by local influences, but for this piece the entire world’s music was your playing field.
AD: Right. That was from Martin Grubinger when we started talking about this piece. He said, “You’re from the Middle East, but your family is from Europe and you live in the States. You’re kind of a citizen of the world.” His perspective actually got me thinking about that concept for that piece. Again, that’s one of the reasons I love working so much with soloists: the exchange of ideas is very fruitful. When I write a concerto, I insist on meeting with the soloist and seeing them play in person. Recordings don’t do the same thing. There’s something about the physical presence of a person: the way they move, the way they hold their instrument. Often when I’m composing, I imagine them playing the piece. And when I orchestrate, I always imagine an actual orchestra on stage. I’m always thinking—back to physics—about the physical manifestation of the piece. I don’t know how other people do it. When I teach, I always find that students, as long as they’re thinking of composing or orchestrating as pen to paper, it’s very difficult for them to do it well. Once I imagine a specific stage with a specific orchestra and a specific soloist, I’m actually doing the work that I want to do. I’m actually thinking about reality and not about just page and paper.
FJO: Early on we were talking about successes and risks. You’ve actually managed to have a career as a guy who writes music for orchestra, which is something that is elusive to many others. There are tons of composers who maybe have only one orchestral piece in their catalogue, or it’s not even part of what they do or aspire to do. There are many composers who write well for large ensembles who work outside of the orchestral sphere entirely and instead write music for wind band where it is not uncommon for a piece to get played a hundred times. You have not yet written for wind band.
AD: No, but Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! has been arranged for band.
FJO: But by someone else.
AD: Yes, by someone else, by my wife. And she did a great job! It was premiered by the Musique Militaire Grand-Ducale in Luxembourg, and it was also done by some other bands in Europe. And I think San Jose State did it last year. There are talks of other American bands that want to do it as well. There was a graduate student in North Texas who arranged my piece Astrolatry for band. I’m hoping to work with him to make a few adjustments and get it performed again, maybe at my college. I find that world very interesting, first of all because the ensemble is so rich. Bardanashvili always says that strings are like the canvas of the orchestra and winds are the colors. So when you’re writing for orchestra, you’re designing the canvas and then on top of that you add the colors. The wind symphony is all color, so to me it’s a very attractive ensemble—also for the fact that you can have basically as many percussionists as you want, which is always a struggle for me with the orchestra.
My percussion parts for orchestral pieces are like these little books. I wrote a piece for the Cleveland Orchestra that was premiered last year. It’s a seven-minute piece, and the percussion score is very thick. The percussionists there did a phenomenal job, obviously, but they’re not used to seeing stuff like that. Partly it’s because I love writing for percussion—the rhythmic and color aspects of percussion are so central to my writing. I will often write six parts and just somehow squeeze them into three, because you only get three plus timpani. So I find the band world really fascinating, and I would love to write for the band word. But I feel like it’s a completely different market and I just haven’t had experience with it. I can say this: when they played Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! with the wind symphony, it almost sounds the same; it’s very difficult to tell that it’s a different piece. Some things bands are really good at—like rhythmic things and accents, because they play a lot of marches and a lot of them play more popular music. And of course John Corigliano often talks about the amount of time that they rehearse, which means you can actually write differently for a band.
Because I’ve written so much for orchestra, I think at this point I can write what I want to hear in a way that is very practical. And I think that’s one of the hardest things to learn as an orchestral composer, because you write your first piece and someone’s played it, but then the phone doesn’t ring. So how do you actually learn to be good at orchestrating and all the endless details common to orchestral composition? How do you make it practical? How do you get better at that? By having written a lot for orchestra, I’m much more confident that I can do that work.
FJO: Another part of your experience with orchestras which we haven’t even begun talking about is that you now also have an active career as a conductor, and not just of your own music. You’re the music director of CityMusic Cleveland. That’s another of way of honing your craft writing for an orchestra since you actually get many practical takeaways from directly working with an orchestra.
AD: Right, and you learn things the score never tells you—which pieces and which things actually work well in first rehearsal. This is something I’ve learned as a composer, but even more so as a conductor. You learn on the job that some things that look great on paper and sound great in all the recordings are actually not very practical. I did the Mozart Haffner Symphony. It’s a piece I love. I’ve known it forever. I thought, “Oh, this is gonna be a walk in the park.” But it’s so difficult to put together. It’s so difficult to play. It’s very transparent. Mozart never writes anything that doesn’t have to be there; this is one of the things people admire him for. But that means if anyone plays something wrong, there’s no one else to cover. On the other hand, Rossini is the most practical composer. Everything that you put in front of an orchestra, it just sounds great. It plays itself. We did the Dvořák Violin Concerto. The balance is so difficult in that piece, but how do you know until you actually do it? And the same goes for Ravel. Ravel is always quoted in orchestration books, but there are so many things that Ravel wrote that orchestral musicians actually change. In Alborada del Gracioso for example, there’s a place where the second violin is pizzicato, and it’s divided. One half is playing on the quarter notes, and the other half on the off beats. But they just play all the notes. No one divides it, as far as I can tell. How would you know that? When you’re studying Alborada, you’re like, “Oh, that’s a good idea. I understand why he does it. I will do that too.” But it’s actually a mistake.
So, as I conduct more and get to know the pieces from the actual practical point of view, I think it makes a huge difference. Also, I’ve worked with so many different conductors, some of the greatest in the world. Having conducted myself, I feel much more at ease now working with conductors. I have much less angst about saying things. I know what it feels like to be standing there and moving your hands and thinking that’s really not what I wanted, but that’s what came out. This idea that whatever comes out of the orchestra is what the conductor wants, it’s not true. Sometimes you do something, and it’s just not what you wanted. So as a composer, if you say that probably should be like this not that, the conductor may say, “Yeah, that’s what I wanted.”
I’ve learned that that’s much more of an integral part of the process and sort of a natural thing to have happen all the time. Conducting has been great learning, especially for orchestration. The best way to learn orchestration is to conduct. Obviously it takes some time to study scores and it takes away time from composing, but I think it’s worth it.
FJO: Also, CityMusic Cleveland is an organization that has a very significant community agenda. It isn’t about doing a concert series in a concert hall that people from around the city of Cleveland come to. It is about going into the communities directly and serving different groups of people. There really is a mission to build audiences. You were saying early on that if music is not reaching people, why do it? I think what they’re doing ties very neatly into that.
AD: My first experience with CityMusic was when they played my piece Uzu and Muzu from Kakaruzu, which is a piece for kids based on a beautiful Israeli children’s story. It’s all about building bridges and resolving conflict. They did it and I went and did outreach work for the orchestra. I went to inner city Cleveland schools; I talked with kids and did presentations. I love doing those things. I also did that in Miami last year for the Cleveland Orchestra. I very strongly feel that that’s one of my missions in life. So the more I can do that, the more I will do it. I narrated some of the concerts, too. It really is in my heart and soul to bring art and music to people who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to have these experiences. CityMusic’s concerts are free and we go to churches all over Cleveland. Your local church, so it’s a place you’re comfortable in. And during intermission, the musicians talk with the audience and there are cookies; it’s a very community-oriented experience. I think that partly why they decided to hire me as their music director is because I do share that mission very, very deeply and very dearly. And the orchestra is so good. Some people make the assumption that if you’re going to do that, then maybe you sacrifice some of the musical integrity. But that’s not the case. The orchestra is really a top notch ensemble. The atmosphere in the orchestra is also very special, because a lot of the people playing in the orchestra do it for the mission, not for the gig. We rehearse more than most orchestras. We usually have four, three-hour rehearsals, plus a dress. And then we perform five times. So by the last concert, we’ve been through the music a lot. I’m very encouraging of collaboration during rehearsals as much as is possible in an orchestral setting, so I think the musicians in the orchestra really take ownership of the orchestra. That’s not always the case.
FJO: The kind of community engagement you’re describing sounds similar to what you did when you served as the composer-in-residence with the Stockton Symphony through the Music Alive Program that New Music USA administers in partnership with the League of American Orchestras. I think what was particularly noteworthy about doing outreach activities there is that it was a deeply troubled community. There’s a lot of talk at orchestral conferences about how to make orchestras more relevant to people’s lives; there you were, actually on the front lines.
AD: That was an incredible experience. By the end of the residency, I think 7,000 students heard the concerts and another 5,000 students heard some form of presentation or were somehow engaged by the orchestra. There must have been some overlap, but we’re talking probably near 10,000 elementary school students in the Stockton area. And yes, it’s a city that went bankrupt and that has great divisions and economic gaps and a lot of social problems. In some of these schools, you come in the morning, and you see the kids eating their breakfast, because their parents don’t have money for breakfast. I didn’t know that was the case. I didn’t know this is how things are in some places. Yet you start talking about how to write music—I showed them that in Uzu and Muzu there’s a diatonic row, a row of seven notes that are from C major. I showed them all the permutations and I showed them how the theme is built from that. And these kids got up and they started making up their own tunes. And other kids were singing in the retrograde. They get it. You see that their minds expand and their hearts calm down. Music has that ability to engage people in a very healing way and in a very developmental way. We need to give them all the tools that we can so they grow as much as possible.
As musical institutions, that’s a great goal. Stockton [Symphony] is another example of a very small orchestra that is both high quality and that took on this giant project. I was in awe of how they manage to produce so much outreach and I think I only spent three week there, maybe four weeks, during that year. That was a big production to reach that many students. And I got letters from students. They sent me drawings that they made. Some schools put on their own pieces that the kids made based on the story. They made up stories and they acted them out and played. They actually created these musical stories. It’s so heartwarming to see that you can touch lives in this way. It makes everything so much more a part of the world.
The tendency as a composer is to lock the door and say see you in six months; it’s such a solitary experience. There’s nothing more solitary than composing a piece of music. Of course, I enjoy that. But I think in order to be a complete human being, giving to the community is very enriching for me, and obviously I think it’s our duty, or my duty at least, to do these things. I grew up in a place where everything was basically available. We can’t just take it for granted.
FJO: In terms of engaging communities and sending messages through your music, sitting on this table with us is the full score of your first opera. You’ve written vocal music in the past, but not a ton. In fact, there’s only one vocal piece of yours that I ever heard, a setting of Psalm 67 from pretty early on. So I don’t think of you as a vocal composer. Last year, I know that you wrote a big choral piece which I’m eager to hear at some point, but writing an opera is even more ambitious. And with vocal music, once you attach words to something, you get into this whole other area of meanings and emotions and telling stories directly. And the story you chose to tell here, for your first opera, which is being done in Germany—
AD: —in German!
FJO: Yeah, which is not a language you’re fluent in. But what seems even more peculiar is that you’re an Israeli-born, Jewish composer and you wrote an opera that’s being premiered in Germany about this guy who was an anti-Semite who inspired Hitler. That’s kind of mad.
AD: Well, this is where we start the therapy session. I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. I think from my point of view, to write this is very natural. It’s a funny thing. I grew up in an Israeli household, but three out of four of my grandparents came from Germany. Two of them were born in Germany, one was born in Israel but moved to Germany. During the ‘30s they moved to Israel. So German culture and German music were a very central part of my home upbringing. Nietzsche, Goethe, we had all the books at home and they weren’t in Hebrew. Growing up, I played a ton of Bach and Beethoven sonatas, Brahms, Schumann. It’s like if you asked someone here where they are from. “I’m American.” Where did your family come from? “Well, they came from Italy and Spain.” My family came from Germany. So I’m Israeli, but my family came from Germany. Then this same culture that produced all these things that I identify with very deeply produced the same thing that was trying to very effectively kill all of the people that I am a part of religiously. That’s a huge paradox to grow up in. So I think that this story fascinated me. This guy was not just an anti-Semite, he was one of the first people to put together a racial theory that, on the basis of so-called modern science, distinguished the bloods of different people—between the top Aryans and the bottom Jews. Not only did he do that, but when you read his book, The Foundations of the 19th Century, he starts from the individual. He says really what drives history is individuals. Like the genius individuals. Who is a genius individual? Wagner. Beethoven. So not only did he make this up, he made it up with my biggest heroes. I wanted to understand why this became so popular. His book was a huge best seller. Not just in Germany, but in Russia, in England, in France, and in the United States. It was huge, and this guy is completely forgotten by most people today. How did this happen? I felt like this is an opportunity to understand a little bit more, because the history books start with when Hitler came to power. But this guy wrote his book in the 1890s. This guy divorced his first wife and married one of Wagner’s daughters. He became the head of the Wagner household. He ran Bayreuth, and got rid of all Jewish influence and socialist influence in Bayreuth.
And he was very influential in the German government during World War I. Hitler met with him, and that’s actually in the opera. Hitler revered him, and Hitler quoted him. If you listen to Hitler’s speeches, there are direct quotes from his book. The intellectual, pseudo-scientific, brainwashing ideas brewing there that people bought into are where racism starts. This is where hatred starts. Of course, anti-Semitism existed in Germany and in Europe for thousands of years. But I think what drew me to this story was to understand. We don’t play Wagner in Israel. To me, it’s an abomination. How can we not play Wagner in Israel? But, of course, I understand. And yet, did Wagner really mean this stuff? So this has really been an opportunity to get familiar with a part of this history. And I think it’s very relevant. I think it’s more relevant now than I thought two years ago. Racism is not gone.
Wagner’s son Siegfried was most likely gay, so one of the things that happens in the opera is that there’s a big scene where the main character, Houston Stewart Chamberlain who wrote the book, catches him with a lover in the garden. He pays off the lover to go away and then covers it up. These ideas that still plague society were there a hundred years ago. Sometimes I think it’s perhaps easier for people to look back and be like, “Oh that’s really bad. Let’s be better than that.” That’s one of the things that the opera taught me. I didn’t think two years ago it would be very relevant, but now people talk about neo-Nazism again. These tendencies in society are not eradicated.
FJO: So Hitler actually sings in your opera.
FJO: And you’re staging this in Germany where Mein Kampf was banned for decades?
AD: It’s now a best seller again.
FJO: But the Germans are very aware of this horrible history to the point that they’re very concerned about people being swayed, as they had been, by a charismatic figure. I’ve looked at films from that time and I don’t understand how he could have possibly been perceived as charismatic, but he was by millions of people. So to put his persona on a stage and have him sing, there is a potential danger in making him somehow iconic, since that is what opera does with characters. What are Hitler’s melodies?
AD: That’s the context of the whole opera. Houston Stewart Chamberlain is not as famous, but he’s a vile, despicable human being. There’s just no other way to say it. We actually cut some of the worst things, but there are pretty racist, awful things sung in this opera. It’s all very grotesque. When people ask me what genre is this opera in, I would say that the pieces that it speaks with from the past are Shostakovich’s The Nose, Ligeti’s Grand Macabre, some of the staged pieces by Mauricio Kagel. That’s the world that this piece is in. It’s different, obviously, but it’s very grotesque and absurdist.
So, yes, it celebrates these people, but in a very mocking way. The opera does not advocate for these points of view. I think it’s very clear, both from the libretto—which I think is brilliant—and the music. Also I would say that I think that has always been my way of dealing with the Holocaust. I always had to make jokes. I always had to think about it with some humor because it’s just too horrific to actually think about. In Israel, there’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, and you go to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. Even thinking about it now, it’s just too much to handle. So I think humor and irony and absurdism—like Bulgakov, his spirit is in this opera, this out-of-this-world grotesque—is my way of dealing with it.
Specifically to Hitler, to answer your question, I actually transcribed some of his speeches as musical notation, because he was really a composer as an orator. He was a brilliant orator. He starts and then he waits and he builds up in pitch and lengths, the number of words. If you ever watch a speech by him—which is a very bad feeling but I had to do it—when he gets to the climax, it’s always like very high and then some word, the Jeeeews, he will say as a very long word. And he will basically yell it. I actually transcribed some of his speeches. And that’s the music that he’s singing. It’s actually from the intonation of his speech; it’s actually Hitler. Weirdly enough, some of the motivic structures that I found in his speeches are related to the scene in the first act when Houston Stewart Chamberlain first comes up with his racial theory. By complete coincidence, but that ties in really beautifully. The first time that this guy comes up with the racial theory is the same motive that Hitler ends up using for his big scene.
It was very tough to write the end of this opera. The ending is very harsh. It’s very evocative of death and death camps and not in a very beautiful way, but a very artistic way. I ended up thinking about the three last scenes of the opera as the beginning of the next one, which is the one where World War II happens. I wrote it like the beginning of another opera, because that was the biggest block I had in the whole process. What are you going to do with Hitler? How do you sit down and write notes that Hitler is going to sing? That was really tough.
FJO: So you’re going to write a second opera about this?
AD: I don’t know, but that was how I imagined it. If there was a sequel, this would be the beginning of that sequel, so then I don’t have to think of it as an ending so much, which was very hard. I think also transcribing Hitler’s speeches was a way to deal with what to write for Hitler. At the end of that scene, he’s like, “I’m going to have the Reich for a thousand years.” It’s very optimistic, but not.
FJO: Now in terms of being a big fish in a little pond, an opera in which Hitler has a singing role probably could never have been done in Israel, I would imagine.
AD: No, I don’t think so. It would mean a lot to me if it will ever be done in Israel. I am aware that some people from Israel might be offended by this, but I think they would be mistaken. I’m obviously not advocating my own death and my family’s death. Who would do that? But I think it’s an important part of history that is rarely told and that needs to be told. There are a bunch of quotes from Wagner, so maybe because of that, they won’t play it.
FJO: Obviously this is a very socially charged work. We talked about the emotional qualities of music, and what Corigliano said to you about you challenging emotion in your music. And also what Bardanashvili said to you about having your identity in a piece. And then the work you did in Stockton and now with CityMusic Cleveland, interacting with the communities and how important that is to you. A final observation, a lot of people are talking about these days being the beginning of a new era that’s very uncertain. So what is the role of a creative artist in such a society? What is our responsibility as artist citizens? When you say that you had to tell the story of this opera, I feel you’re touching on that.
AD: Obviously this is a very personal choice. When I say I feel this is my duty, I really mean my duty. Is it another composer’s duty and responsibility? It’s not. I don’t feel like that’s anyone’s choice, but for themselves. With a piece like this, you have a captive audience for two hours and you get to design the whole experience—which is, I think, the most exciting thing about writing an opera; there’s not going to be a Sibelius symphony on the second half. I think it’s an opportunity, if not a responsibility, to say something. I definitely think it is a politically charged piece. Even more so today than it was when I wrote it. I do think, especially in this era, that one of the mistakes is not to say things. We need to know that racism and hatred are a feature of humanity. It’s in our language. These things exist and they catch on like wild fire. When you don’t counteract and contradict them, they will continue to grow. I think as artists we have the opportunity to make a statement that will be heard.
The problem for most people is that if you’re sitting home and you hear some personality, politician, celebrity, or whoever, talk on TV or on the radio and don’t agree, what are you going to do? I guess today you can put it on your Facebook and in your Twitter. Great. But if you write an opera, or you write a symphony, or you release a recording, or you get interviewed, you can say these things and maybe more people will take notice. When someone comes to the symphony and they hear a piece and it has a message like this, maybe it touches them in a different way, because they get an hour off from their crazy and busy life and the music touches their emotions. Maybe it reminds them, you know, I was once a child. We all have love and compassion; that’s the other feature of humanity. Everyone has a certain element of prejudice and not being tolerant, even without being aware of that. But we all also have love and compassion and care about the people around us in our communities and beyond. So I think we do have an opportunity to raise these questions and to make people think and to encourage people to think, and to encourage people to feel and maybe not go in those directions even when it’s tempting. So I do think artists play that role in society. Historically it’s basically been proven that the last step before the really horrific steps is when that role is blocked by the government. In those societies where the government says to artists, “You can no longer speak your mind,” that’s one step before genocide and war and the massive imprisonment of people. That’s the moment that people really need to worry about. Like the Nazi government felt that certain artists, like Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, were a threat to the country. That shows us that we shouldn’t underestimate our ability to influence. Hitler was afraid of Brecht. So Brecht had some power there. Stalin was afraid of Shostakovich. Well, obviously Shostakovich was afraid of Stalin. Not to get too into current politics, but you see it now with the inauguration and who was not willing to perform, and who was willing. It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal when an artist who is invited to do something, says, “You know what, for you, I won’t do it.” That’s always a big deal when artists say, “I won’t support this kind of rhetoric.” I think we have power, or at least there’s some opportunity and possibility, that we can affect the world positively as long as it’s not blocked by the government. Obviously we’re not there, but I think we shouldn’t be afraid. But again, that’s me. I completely respect people who feel like music is separate and shouldn’t have anything to do with anything else. It’s their choice.