Barbara White: A Plea for Compassion
The deeply personal nature of so many of Barbara White’s compositions explains why she has predominantly written music for soloists or small ensembles. Even the largest-scale project she has ever created—an opera about an unjustly abused woman, which feels particularly relevant since the rise of the #MeToo movement—is extremely intimate.
Thanks to the rise of the #MeToo movement, our society is beginning to be more aware and sensitive about how gender inequities have resulted in long overlooked and unpunished—and, in many cases, tolerated and even encouraged—scenarios of harassment and assault throughout our society. The focus on these toxic abuses of power has led many of us in the music community to look more carefully at ourselves, at our own work, and the work we admire and advocate for. It has caused us to ask some profound questions that take it far beyond the realm of questioning direct personal physical and verbal abuse. Why do we venerate various composers and interpreters over others? How is our repertoire chosen? Who are the composers who are included and who are excluded and why? In the case of works that are presented on musical stages or that include a narrative text, there’s an extra layer; we’ve begun to more closely examine what stories we are choosing to tell and why.
One recent dramatic musical work that asks a lot of these questions is Weakness, a mostly one-woman opera composed by Barbara White which premiered, presciently, six years ago this month. For Weakness, White chose to set an old Celtic legend about a spirit woman named Macha whom a despotic king forces into a fatal race with his horses despite her begging him, as well as the entire community, to spare her.
“What ends up happening is that there is no empathy,” Barbara White explained when we visited her at her home in Princeton, New Jersey. “She is scapegoated, subjected to abuse. It has a real patriarchal aspect to it. There is a woman with gifts, and it’s a problem for this king. He has to stomp her out, and no one helps her.”
But in her telling of this story, White was very aware of Carolyn Abbate’s assertion that female opera characters are often victims, and so she wanted to tell this story somewhat differently than it would be told in a more conventional opera presentation. Macha is the only singing character. The king’s lines of are actually spoken by the conductor! Other significant characters, such as Macha’s husband—who in a moment of bragging caused the king to be aware of her and ultimately demand her compliance—is a speaking role for one of the dancers. The community is represented by other dancers, but the members of the audience are also made to feel like they are members of this community as well, which ultimately does nothing to help Macha.
According to White, “It’s very easy to be a bystander. It happens a lot. The problem is that a bystander is passive and is watching, doing nothing, not acting. In the theater, that is what the bystander is expected to do. So it was really interesting to me to think the audience becomes complicit in the story. … Many side with a perpetrator over a victim because all a perpetrator asks of you is that you do nothing. A victim asks you to do something—to speak, to stand up, to challenge. … The moment where she addresses the audience is her final plea. It’s a plea for compassion.”
Although Weakness is the largest-scale project that White has ever created, it—like most of her compositions—is extremely intimate. There are only four musicians in the ensemble, and she chose to write a role for herself playing clarinet in it. In so doing, she made herself as uncomfortable as she was trying to make the audience:
One of the hardest things that I’ve ever performed is in that same spot that I was talking about. There’s a pairing of a singer and dancer playing the same character. While the singer is indicting the audience, the dancer is appealing to different people on stage—the non-speaking, non-singing, movement chorus and the King. Then she comes and appeals to the musicians. Relatively late in the process, it became apparent that … she’s appealing to us. And we’re not playing at the moment. So what do we do? I asked the choreographer, and she said, “Just look at her heartlessly.” And so we did. That was so difficult. I had to put myself in the position of the non-sympathetic bystander, the one who was not doing anything.
The deeply personal nature of so many of White’s compositions explains why she has predominantly created music for soloists or small ensembles. Many of these works—such as the solo piano piece Reliquary, which explores the fragility of human memory, or her contribution to Dominic Donato’s tam-tam project Desire Lines—were tailor made for their intended performers, which she acknowledged is “the opposite end of the spectrum from [writing for] orchestra.” In the last five years, White has also immersed herself in performing regularly with musicians who have very different musical backgrounds from her, such as the traditional Cape Breton guitarist Charles MacDonald, with whom she plays in a duo called Fork & Spoon.
On top of all of these musical activities, White retains a busy schedule teaching undergraduates and graduate students at Princeton University, where she has now taught for 20 years. While most of her students “really have a sense of adventure and a sense of commitment,” her own personal compassion has enabled her to be an ideal mentor.
“There is perhaps something of a permission giving,” she noted. “A very common thing with composition students, no matter how joyful they are, is of course to have this kind of fear: ‘Can I do this or not?’ It’s enjoyable to me to see what they bring up. At 12 o’clock, someone will come in and say, ‘I think I’m repeating too much. I think I should repeat less.’ Then the next person will come in and say, ‘I think I’m changing too much. Should I repeat more?’ That tickles my fancy, for sure. And, as much as I love trained musicians, I actually am fortunate that I get to do a lot with people who aren’t trained musicians. That’s really special to me. I teach an undergraduate freshman seminar called ‘Everyday Enchantment,’ which has to do with everyday experience and art making and where the boundary is. Is there one?”
Her desire to instill curiosity and risk taking is also an important component of her latest composition, a children’s ballet called The Wrong Child, inspired by yet another Celtic folktale, which will be performed by Northeast Youth Ballet and Boston Musica Viva on March 11:
I’ve been intrigued to be writing for a young audience. … I thought about that a lot in reshaping the story. For example, how dark and brooding can it be? Another thing that I delighted in was the idea of bringing in sounds that are maybe not traditional classical sounds, but ones that we know as experimental sounds.
FJO: Every piece of yours that I’ve ever heard is either a solo piece or for chamber ensemble. Even your biggest composition to date, Weakness, which I want to talk about quite a bit but not just yet, is scored for relatively small forces. You haven’t really written for orchestra, and it seems like that’s a conscious choice.
BW: Well, way back in 2000, I did a project for Continental Harmony where I was asked to write a march for the band and the local orchestra. It ended up turning into an overture for the orchestra with a march at the end. We called it the detachable march, so that the band could also play it [on its own]. The really unusual experience for me was that not only was it a march for the band, but it was actually marched to: it was played in a Fourth of July parade in 2000. But that’s the only time I’ve written for band. I’ve done a little bit for chamber orchestra, but nothing bigger except for that piece. (Raging River, Rolling Stone is the orchestra piece, and it ends with The Roll Stone Marches.) I think this came about quite naturally in that I was drawn to smaller groups and a kind of intimacy in the music. I like to know the names of everybody who’s there. And it’s even gotten more intimate than that: I’m working really closely with people right now, getting to know their particular way of playing, and doing pieces that other people couldn’t sub for. I go almost to the opposite end of the spectrum from orchestra in that way.
FJO: Of course, the closest you can probably be to any musician is to yourself, and relatively early on you wrote a solo clarinet piece for yourself, No Man’s Land, which you have described as a “homecoming.” There are things in that score, like certain non-standard fingerings to get certain specific off-kilter sonorities, that a lot of classically trained clarinetists might not want to do. Asking players to do something that subverts their training can make them feel concerned that an audience might think that they are not good musicians. I wonder if anyone else has ever played it and what that was like.
BW: That’s an interesting question to me. I did not expect anyone else to play it. In my clarinet music there are pieces I write for me to play that I don’t expect others to play. This does not mean that I won’t permit it, but I just don’t expect it to happen because it comes out of what I do. It’s really inefficient to put these pieces together, so I wouldn’t expect someone who’s more of a classical player to engage with that material, even to deal with the notation. Nevertheless, it has happened. I’ve had two or three different people contact me about that very piece, No Man’s Land. I’ve heard one other recording of it, and it was good. And somebody contacted me just a few months ago who wants to do it on a Masters recital. So I provided the music and said just let me know how it goes.
But you’re right. There are the microtonal things and the moaning things. Another one that did come out of No Man’s Land and went into other pieces was this kind of squawking sound that you might remember in the last movement. I put that in another piece and was working with one ensemble where, first of all, I felt very understanding if the clarinetist didn’t want to do that. In rehearsal, I was explaining how to do it, and I provided a sound clip and so on, and the clarinetist just wasn’t doing it. I let go of it, but we got to the performance and there was this squawking sound. So it did come out, but just not in rehearsal.
As for it being a homecoming, I had an injury and couldn’t play much when I was young, in my 20s. Then when I started playing again, the instrument didn’t have baggage for me. I was discovering it anew and not taking for granted how things should sound, what fingerings to use, what’s pretty, as you said.
FJO: I think the fact that you were coming to the instrument afresh after a long hiatus makes it different than many of the repertoire classics by composer-performers which are really mostly concerned with showing off the idiomatic virtuosity that is possible on a given instrument—whether it’s the Paganini Caprices or Liszt’s etudes or pretty much anything by Rachmaninoff or, for that matter, even much more contemporary things. One of the benefits of writing for instruments that you can’t play, like Beethoven writing his late string quartets or David Rakowski writing all those piano etudes, is that it can push the envelope of what an instrument can do.
BW: I think it can go either way. I’ve sometimes felt fortunate that I’m a bad pianist; I’ll sometimes hit a wrong note and like it. I’ve wondered if I had more facility with the piano if that wouldn’t work for me—which is not to say anything about anyone else’s facility. If you have chops, it can allow you to explore, but if you don’t have chops on a given instrument, you might have a tabula rasa. But that may or may not be appreciated by the performer who ends up playing it!
FJO: But you found a way to give yourself a tabula rasa as a composer for your instrument.
BW: That also comes into play in my sort of quasi-trad music experience. I do tend to play clarinet in a way that has lots of inflection. It’s not pristine, continuous, beautiful sounds, but I do like that type of playing and I’d been missing that. One way that it came out was that I started playing in a quasi-trad music context. In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, I have a duo called Fork & Spoon, with a guitarist, and we play tunes. I still have these squawks and bent notes and so on in our tunes, but it’s also encouraged me to play things more “straight” sometimes, and I really have liked doing that as well. One that I’m very fond of is based on the Beethoven settings of Scottish Songs. I’ve wanted to find the original songs, which may or may not be possible. One is “The Lovely Lass of Inverness.” It just happens, not surprisingly, that there’s an Inverness nearby in Cape Breton because there’s a deep Scottish heritage there. Anyway, I looked at the song and basically took out the chromatic notes and approximated what I thought the original might have been and made a new song out of it. I turned “The Lovely Lass of Inverness” into “The Lonely Lark of Central Park,” and we play that in a set with other truly trad tunes. With my background, being new to trad music and not being really in that scene, I liked being able to “recuperate” Beethoven a little bit; it was enjoyable. So I like playing that tune.
FJO: We’ll talk more about Fork & Spoon in a bit, but first let’s go back to this bifurcation you mentioned about clarinet pieces you write for yourself and clarinet pieces you write for other people. I think perhaps that strikes to the heart of your decision to focus on being a composer, since someone who primarily identified as a performer might not necessarily think in those terms. I’m curious about how and when and why composing got the upper hand.
BW: I think it was that I was being asked to write pieces for ensembles and I wasn’t part of those ensembles. I remember times, 10 to 20 years ago, where I would long to play and say, “I’d really like to make space for a project that I would play.” Gradually occasions arrived where I could play. It’s nice that you mentioned No Man’s Land, which is almost 20 years old now. That’s on my first CD, but then on my next CD I didn’t play, even though I had premiered one of the pieces [Small World]. I wanted someone else to play it for real on the recording.
FJO: “For real”? Hearing you say that definitely proves that composing got the upper hand.
BW: I caught myself saying that. It wasn’t maybe the best way to put it. It was a piece that had some klezmer-y things in it. The inflections that I was using I could do, but I don’t play klezmer music. So I thought it would benefit from a clarinetist who practices every day. And the other thing with that piece is that it was written, again, for people who were an ensemble. That was Larry Passin and Nancy Zeltsman; they were doing a project with clarinet and marimba. I wrote the piece for them to play, but I played the premiere to test it out. It was natural that they would play it in the end. So there isn’t a dramatic story there, but what has happened is in various projects I did start playing again. It’s been a much bigger part of my life in the last five years or so, maybe longer. What got me back into playing was actually working with the shakuhachi. I wanted to learn that instrument, just to experience it, and part of doing that led me to think, “This is the hardest instrument ever. It’s very gratifying to struggle with and I want to keep playing it, but I already know how to play the clarinet a little bit.”
FJO: It has been an interesting path, going from writing pieces for yourself to play, to writing pieces for others to play who you know, to writing for people who you might not know, to working more directly with players you do know and sometimes also play in the ensembles with. To jump the gun a bit chronologically, you’re actually playing in the instrumental ensemble for the most recent recording of your music, which is devoted to your magnum opus Weakness, which we’ll also talk more about in a little while. But obviously, when somebody asks for a score, and you send it off and say, “Let me know how it went,” you’re not really connected. How does that feel, since you obviously want the connection?
BW: Well, I think it makes a big difference how old the piece is. I do feel somewhat protective of my pieces sometimes. It might be tempting to aim for as many performances as possible, and that can be great if there’s a piece that any number of people can play. With that piece you mentioned, No Man’s Land, it is about 20 years old now. So I don’t feel so protective of it. And I’m happy especially if it’s younger people who are exploring repertoire and find that piece and are interested in it and want to grapple with the notation. We end up having the experience and connection we have, so I guess I take for granted that there are going to be projects where I know the people and we’re making something anew. But once a score is out there, it will also find its way to people and that’s great, too.
FJO: Well, I also wonder about that in terms of the choices of ensembles that you work with. You have a piece called Five Elements that’s a standard piano quintet. It could easily be grouped on a program with pieces by Brahms or Dvorák. But you tend not to write for those kinds of ensembles. In the repertoire of yours that I know, I don’t know of a single piano trio or string quartet. You have a violin-piano duo, which is a really cool piece. But there are a lot of pieces for the so-called Pierrot ensemble, which is more an ensemble of our own time, so there isn’t this heavy weight of the distant past. Still, if you write a piece for, say, piano trio, there are a zillion piano trios out there who could potentially play it. Whereas if you write a piece that’s scored for clarinet, violin, and marimba, like your piece When the Smoke Clears, how many of those groups are out there?
BW: Right. However, sometimes groups arise, not necessarily formed as a formal group, that will continue. It’s funny you mentioned piano trios, because I do have one and it has had just one performance. That is one that I feel could travel more. It’s still intimate, but I think it’s more gregarious than some of my other pieces. But you’re right. It often has to do with who asks, and whether the project feels like it appeals. One piece that fits what you’re talking about is a piece for two bass clarinetists and two percussionists [Repeat After Me]. It is a dance score, and fortunately I had the opportunity to choose the instruments. There aren’t too many ensembles like that, but it has been done by other people. It was really gratifying that Sqwonk, the bass clarinet duo, recorded it. I hadn’t gotten around to recording it myself yet and then I heard from Jonathan Russell—who was a Princeton graduate student and bass clarinetist—that Sqwonk wanted to record it.
FJO: I was going to interject before when you were trying to get that clarinetist to make a squonk in rehearsal that now we even have groups that are named that! I think we’ve come a long way. There are a lot of performers now who want to take the ride, people who just want to do the wacky, out there stuff. It’s a very different world from the more established chamber music ensembles like, as we were talking about earlier, piano trios, whose bread and butter is being presented on concert series where they’re expected to play the Archduke Trio.
BW: Hopefully Ravel once in a while.
FJO: The balance is tricky. But most of your music tends to be performed on new music concerts. It doesn’t live alongside older music so much.
BW: I think that’s largely so. The piano quintet you mentioned was commissioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Chamber Concert Series. So the rest of the program was older music. And my piano pieces will be on concerts with older music. But you’re right. Usually if a Pierrot ensemble is involved, it’s going to be recent music. Related to what you’re saying, I think probably—not surprisingly—the traditional “ensemble,” so to speak, that comes up the most is solo piano, which actually feels a little foreign to me. But I enjoy getting into the space of writing for it. Eric Moe is premiering a new piece that will be performed with some older music for sure. And maybe some newer music, too.
FJO: He’s a composer, and he performs mostly new music, so you’re probably not going to be the only living composer on that concert.
FJO: But certainly, for the people in our field who write orchestra music, they wind up being in this position where they share the program with all dead composers and many people in the audience might not even know or care about the new composer on the program, so they’re dealing with the potential disappointment of the audience as well as the potential hostility of players who are used to playing a certain repertoire. That’s a very different world from the one you’re in where you know everybody’s name.
BW: Sounds like Cheers. [Laughter] Although there’s almost an analog to that for me, which is that when I interlope or interfere in the world of shakuhachi and in the world of Cape Breton music, I am often putting something in a program that stands out from the tradition.
FJO: But the other part of it is I think it affects the music that one winds up writing for those instruments. For example, you mentioned the piano as being the most traditional thing you’ve written music for. It’s an instrument with a huge historical repertoire. When people see a piano, before they hear a note of whatever music is being performed on it, they already have a context for what they’re hearing. Same with a piano trio or a string quartet. But they’re probably not going have as fixed a notion for, say, a solo percussion piece.
FJO: So does that affect what you write when you write for solo piano?
BW: I think it might. Not counting a student piece, I’m imagining that I have three piano pieces. And the middle one doesn’t do that so much, but the first and third ones do to some extent. It has to do with thinking about the specific player, too. I have two pianist colleagues I’ve worked with a lot. Of course, I’m about to hear Eric play a new piece, but if I think of the other two—Geoff Burleson and John Blacklow—they’re very different temperamentally. So for Geoff, I would tend to write something that’s very omnivorous and might have some kind of vernacular—for lack of a better word—aspect to it. For John, I would tend to write something that’s very concentrated and contemplative. This is not to say that each of them does not have the other aspect, but it’s the gestalt that comes to the fore when I’m writing for them. So I think that’s part of it. In the piano piece I just wrote for Eric, I didn’t expect it to be so much about traditional music, or about repertoire, but it ended up being that way.
Eric asked for a short piano piece, and I was about to say, I don’t know if I can do this right now! Then I had an idea for the piece. I’d been thinking a lot about ice, because I went to Newfoundland in June 2016 and had the great experience of encountering what I will call an iceberglet. I tended to call this “my” iceberg. Basically it was a piece of an iceberg that floated in and out from shore, and eventually it broke into pieces and then all of a sudden, it was literally in front of the house where I was staying. I audio recorded it—and I plan to do something with that—but I was thinking about it in terms of the piano. The idea of icy frozen sounds was with me. But then, as I was working on the piece, I started to think about Schubert. Ice and tears, and brooks babbling and so on. So the piece has this kind of thing where there’s ice that melts, and after it melts, it’s Schubert. It seems very organic. I couldn’t have predicted that. I didn’t set out to write something that refers to Schubert. And it doesn’t have a quote exactly. It’s more as if it messes with his syntax. The other reason that that came about very likely is because I was teaching music theory at the time, and we were working on Schubert song cycles. And that was what was in my imperfect memory, so it just emerged.
FJO: I’m trying to imagine how the piano conveys the sound of ice melting. Maybe it’s a loud chord prolonged by the sustain pedal? We can attach these meanings to something abstract like that in a piece of music, but unless you tell people that’s what it is before they hear it, they’re not necessarily going to perceive it that way on their own.
BW: The relationship was with high and sharp, crystalline sounds with a lot of decay. So things that were very still and steely, so to speak. But sure, it could be a fire burning at a camp site to somebody else.
FJO: Now, the piano is not your instrument, but you have a piano here. So do you test out stuff? What’s your process?
BW: I do use the piano, but it really depends on the piece. If I’m writing for percussion, I will often sort of tap things out. I like to get physically involved in the music. If I’m writing for clarinet, I will use my clarinet. And I can get around a flute. But what I’ve been doing more recently, partly because of the instruments I work with, is mockups. For my opera Weakness, I made a blackmail mockup: if anyone wanted to threaten to release it to the world, they might be able to get some money out of me. I even sang some of the parts; I’m not a singer. There were some really high wailing sounds. I did those just to show the singer what the idea was. Particularly working with the shakuhachi, that’s what really led me in that direction, occasionally playing things myself but even taking things that I’ve recorded from a player, and so on.
FJO: I know that physical gesture is also an important component for you in forming your music, but it’s something I’ve hardly been aware of as a listener since I’ve experienced almost all of your music on recordings rather than in live performances. So important aspects of pieces such as your song cycle Life in the Castle or the piano quintet Five Elements, which we’ve already touched on briefly and which was inspired by martial arts, are somewhat lost on me. How did movement—dance, martial arts—play into the creative process for those two pieces and perhaps others as well?
BW: Well, Life in the Castle was meant to underscore dance, but I have a more roundabout answer. More recently, when I started working with shakuhachi, it confirmed an experience I had had with the clarinet, of just how potent the physical experience of playing the instrument is. Shakuhachi is not a stadium rock band instrument—though it has been for some, actually. But generally, it’s a very private, intimate instrument that has often been played alone. There’s something about the way that the different sounds are made where the use of the fingers and the breath become very pronounced. For example, if you finger a note different ways, that’s not considered an alternate fingering. They’re actually different things, and you’ll get very different sounds. You wouldn’t do the same kind of thing you’d do on the clarinet, with forked fingerings. So going back to the piano quintet, Five Elements, I it might be right to say that the physical gesture was important in that that’s how I learned about the five elements. There’s a qigong exercise or activity called five elements that cycles through the different elements. The way that works conceptually is really interesting to me and stays with me all the time. But I think that I was thinking more imagistically by the time I got to that music, rather than gesturally.
FJO: I know that you studied taiji at some point.
BW: Yes. Pretty rigorously. But at that point I was doing qigong more. Here’s something maybe related to what you said earlier: Eric Moe wrote the liner notes for one of my CDs and he talked about movement in stillness, and stillness in movement. That is something that is always there with me. It actually relates to the yin yang symbol. If it’s black and white, you have a black squiggle with a white dot and a white squiggle with a black dot. Each half contains a bit of its opposite. So it’s this idea of duality, but also relationship. That was very much part of what I thought about in that piece. There might be a lot of activity on the surface with slow harmonic movement. Or there might be really quick harmonic movement with a slow gestural thing happening. That comes into play also in this interesting journey I’m having with the shakuhachi and with Cape Breton music in that in some ways they might sound very opposite. Cape Breton music has a Celtic aspect to it. There are jigs and reels, and strathspeys, and so on. There’s a lot of fast music with a lot of ornamentation and so on. Shakuhachi music tends to be slow, especially the honkyoku repertoire that interests me the most, but it also has a lot of ornamentation. With shakuhachi, I’m always joking—but it’s sometimes true—every note lasts a minute, but there’s a lot happening in that note. So it’s a stillness with a lot of movement in it. And then if I take Cape Breton music, with the Celtic-Scottish-Irish influence, jigs and reels that repeat with lots of eighth notes usually, there’s also a kind of compactness to the syntax that makes it seem still in a way.
FJO: I didn’t realize this until what you just said, but the first movement of No-Man’s Land is actually called “Pibroch,” which is an example of a type of traditional Celtic music that’s as slow as shakuhachi repertoire.
BW: Good point.
FJO: And you wrote this long before you became enamored with either of those traditions.
BW: Interestingly though, the way that I came to that title was through the Ted Hughes poem called “Pibroch,” which if I remember correctly, begins:
The sea cries with its meaningless voice
Treating alike its dead and its living
So the idea of a cry was very much there. But then, of course, I did learn about Highland bagpipe music, so that was in there, too.
FJO: So, in terms of the inspiration, you said a little earlier, some allusions to Schubert subconsciously wound up in your new piano piece because you had been teaching his music in a theory class. Similarly, you were reading Ted Hughes and his poem became an element of the music you were working on. A piece of yours I really love, Learning to See, is all about trying to make musical connections for experiences that you had looking at visual art. The CD very nicely reproduces some of those images, and your notes talk about Brancusi and Eva Hesse and my favorite detail: your referencing of a John Cage piece because Jasper Johns incorporated the manuscript of it in one of his collages. But if a listener didn’t know any of that, if they didn’t read the notes or just happened to hear it on the radio, they might not hear any of these references. Is that okay?
BW: Sure, that’s fine. My original request was not to list the artists in the program notes, so it’s just my titles, but not who the artists were. And then as time passed, I’ve been flexible about whether to do that or not. Particularly when I was putting together Apocryphal Stories, I was bringing together things of interest to me that were so specific. I really didn’t expect anyone else to get what those were, these collage moments of obscure references. It’s very gratifying that you know the story about Perilous Night, but I certainly wouldn’t expect that. And it’s also not trying to prove anything about those things. I’m not saying, “Aha, I found Perilous Night and now I’m bringing it back and this shows something about Jasper Johns.” It’s more a kind of curio, to explore this unexpected juxtaposition.
FJO: It’s interesting that you didn’t want people to know initially, because I think that’s what’s so cool about this piece.
BW: I’ve had some surprising experiences with it being done without the information. Also, even if people have that information in the program, they might not look at it. Right?
FJO: Right. Of course.
BW: So there have been instances where people either didn’t have the information, or didn’t take it in, and I got really insightful comments. The point isn’t so much that they were positive comments, but they might have been really interesting observations on the music—and not necessarily from people who are all that informed about contemporary music. So I’m always happy when that happens. And I often think that a big part of that can be performance. A really fine, persuasive performance can draw people into something that might seem alien otherwise.
FJO: But I do think if someone knows the back story, the listening experience is even richer. I know that it was for me, so I’m glad that you’ve allowed those liner notes to be out there. To take it one step further, has the piece ever been performed in an art gallery?
BW: I don’t think so. That is about my most-played piece, so I might not be able to remember every single performance. But I think not.
FJO: For me it’s always important to know what’s behind something, to find out anything that could offer a window into it. Similarly with your piano piece Reliquary, the idea that there are these echoes of other pieces in it that are only partially remembered, in terms of their accuracy, is something to latch on to when listening to it.
BW: I hesitate to be so categorical, but even without that much extra-musical apparatus surrounding the music, there could be things in a piece that are intended that don’t get across. It’s something I talk to students about. A composer can have an idea of what a piece is doing, and maybe that’s not heard because we might not be projecting it so much. Similarly, I’m always going to have these associations of a narrative in the back of my mind, or a visual image, or something like that. I’m happy to share that, but I don’t expect people to have the knowledge I do. At the time I was doing Apocryphal Stories, I was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute and gave a presentation, the same way the scholars did. A historian said, “Oh, your work is not unlike what I do.” And I said, “Okay, yes. There’s some excavation and some research.” So I love doing that. I love having the opportunity to explain and explore and give the background of a piece. I just don’t expect it to happen every time. There are going to be performances that don’t bring that in.
FJO: Novels are perhaps the most direct way to communicate as an artist, but oftentimes someone writes a novel and many people read it and they still don’t get what the author had intended. It’s something that can’t really be controlled.
FJO: Although, to take it to literature, when you set a text, there are things that you can control. For Life in the Castle, you set a bunch of poems about mirrors, so you did things in your music—pardon the pun—to mirror that. Then, in Enough Rope, you also set all these wonderful Dorothy Parker poems and the music you set to these is quite different. So when you have a text, how important is it for you to bring out that text and how deeply does that text shape what you create?
BW: With the Dorothy Parker texts, because they have meter, that made a big, big difference. And also, simply the tone of the poems. What does one make of this arch, wry kind of projection that is sometimes more than that? That was a big part of it. There is wit in her poems, but really out-there wit. Some of the lines still stick with me.
Drink and dance and laugh and lie,
Love, the reeling midnight through,
For tomorrow we shall die!
(But, alas, we never do.)
I was particularly interested in the “zingers” at the ends of her poems, so that very much influenced the form. So for the one [I just recited which is] called “The Flaw in Paganism,” I used a lot of ornamentation to make the voice dance and laugh. Then there’s one poem that uses the word “yes” in an erotic way, so I took advantage of that. And there are some high, florid parts, which doesn’t make it any easier for her to sing.
FJO: Of course, the tricky thing with writing something very high and busy for a soprano is it can affect the intelligibility of the words. How important is it to you that the words are not just heard, but understood, in so far as we can affect what someone else understands?
BW: That’s a big question. There’s another direction I’ve gone in that you might know less about. I’ve also used texts that are more everyday. I wrote a series of pieces for Dominic Donato’s tam-tam project and they got worked into an evening-length theater program called Desire Lines, which I played in as well, along with him. One of them sets George Carlin. And there are fortune cookies. There’s a Zen text, which is kind of wry also. And there’s also a passage from Bertrand Russell. Take a guess about what I used from George Carlin.
FJO: The Blue Food?
BW: Nope. I don’t know that one. It’s the Seven Words.
FJO: Oh, right. Of course.
BW: It might be the shortest piece I’ve ever written. It’s about 20 or 30 seconds long. It’s just the clip of George Carlin saying, “You know what they are, don’t you, the seven words you can’t say on television?” Then he utters the words, and Dominic, the tam-tam player has to race across the stage and bang the gong so we don’t hear the words. It’s very much about this idea of erasure and danger. The danger I put into the piece is if he doesn’t make it in time, we hear one of these words. So that affected how I wrote the piece. That was a case where the text was very significant.
FJO: I love the idea that you set it up for a mistake. Did he always get there on time?
BW: He did, but you can hear a little bit of the “sh…” at the beginning of a word that has been in the news lately.
FJO: For the largest piece you’ve composed to date, Weakness, you set your own text, but it is based on a very old Celtic folktale, which is both beautiful and creepy. I’m curious about what led you to that.
BW: There’s actually an interesting story to this. There was an opera project going on at Princeton. I was invited by Scott Burnham, who was the chair of the department at the time, to participate in this and compose an opera. I was thinking about different stories to work on, and I had this funny serendipity. I missed a meeting about the opera project because I went on a road trip to Chicago to take a workshop in Celtic mythology taught by Tom Cowan, from whom I’ve learned a lot of these stories. And he read this story. The version he read was from Marie Heaney. She has a wonderful book called Over Nine Waves. It’s a stunning and startling story to hear. It’s so rare for me that this is the case, but this was a moment that changed my life. He got to the point in the story where the Goddess, who has become human, is pleading, for the third time I believe, to be helped. She’s been overpowered by a king and her life is at stake. And she says, “Will no one help me?” As he read that, it was very potent, and I actually saw something very specific, which was the Goddess, as she was facing the people in the story . . . I saw her breaking the fourth wall and facing the audience. I started to see this as way of addressing the way that bystanders see mistreatment and violence. It’s very easy to be a bystander. It happens a lot. The problem is that a bystander is passive and is watching, doing nothing, not acting. In the theater, that is what the bystander is expected to do. So it was really interesting to me to think the audience becomes complicit in the story.
FJO: For the purposes of people who might not know the story, it might be nice for you to tell it.
BW: It’s not an easy story. Interestingly, the man I learned it from—Tom Cowan, whom I mentioned—told me later that he would always read the printed text from Marie Heaney when he told the story. It took a while for him to decide to tell the story impromptu, or to write his own version of it. This story has a real power to it. I’ve felt it through the years that I’ve known it and worked on it. I don’t have a good word to say this. I don’t want to say I’m superstitious about it, but the power of the story is not lost on me. It has had reverberations that have been very loud, let’s say. The context in which Tom teaches the story is the idea of sovereignty over oneself—we tend to hear about that in terms of dynasties and nations—but the idea here is that sovereignty is not about being in control, but being in charge. One of the things that Tom talks about is that there are people who cannot be in control: children, prisoners, people who have great constraints on them. But if we’re not in control, we can still be in charge. It has much to do with what happens when you are really stuck and something terrible is happening. And you really don’t have a way out. How do you still retain your sovereignty and your personal authority, and perhaps dignity? You might lose, but you still retain that sovereignty.
So the story has to do with a spirit. We might call her a Goddess, but I’d call her a spirit who assumes human form. The inspiration for this is that she sees a man whom she fancies and wants to get know him. So she shows up at his place, and he doesn’t know where she’s come from. His name is Crunnchu; she is Macha. One of the mysterious and I think charming parts of the story is that she makes him dinner. So I put into my opera that they wash the dishes afterwards. There’s this kind of very everyday aspect to this story. In addition, there’s something very marvelous about her, which is that she runs. In my opera, she’s spied upon by him, and he says, “Wow. What’s she doing? She’s running.” She’s very fast, so she still retains some superhuman qualities.
Anyway, they live happily, and sometime later Crunnchu, the husband, is called away to a gathering, which might be a political gathering or a festive gathering. There are different versions of the story. And she is worried about him going, because she does not want people to know about her. In my version she says, “Do not speak my name. Do not tell anyone I’m here.” And yet he goes to this gathering despite her warnings, and the King is there. There’s a race involving the King’s horses, and everyone is expressing delight at the speed of the King’s horses. And before he knows what he’s doing, apparently, Crunnchu yells out, “My wife can run faster than the king’s horses!” And that’s where all hell breaks loose. The King does not want to hear this. The King wants his horses to be the fastest. So the King insists that Macha be brought to him and that she race his horses. In my version, and also in the originals, she issues pleas. She pleads to her husband not to go to this gathering and not to talk about her. Then she pleads with the King to let up on this requirement that she run the race. Then eventually she pleads with the bystanders. That is the spot I was talking about. This to me is the real kernel of the story. Another part of the story is that in all the tellings of the story I know, except mine, she is pregnant. So although she would win the race, who knows what would happen when she runs a race while she’s about to deliver a child?
What ends up happening is that there is no empathy. There is no help. She is scapegoated, subjected to abuse. It has a real patriarchal aspect to it. There is a woman with gifts, and it’s a problem for this King. He has to stomp her out, and no one helps her. So she runs the race. In my version, she expires but she possibly goes back to her goddess-spirit form. The ending is not just her crumpled on the ground. There’s more that comes afterward that returns to the spirit realm.
FJO: But she wins the race.
BW: Yes, she wins the race, but at great cost.
FJO: And ultimately also at great cost to the community because she put a curse on them.
BW: Yes. There’s some interesting research on the story. She says that for seven generations they will be cursed. When the men go into battle, they will be doubled over with pains. Some research actually associates these men being afflicted with—or even imitating—women’s experience of menstruation. Men are visited by this kind of bodily interruption and incapacity. In my version, I worked with that curse idea a little bit. It seemed to me that she didn’t need to curse them. They’d already done it themselves by ceding humanity to dominance, ceding compassion to abuse. So there’s a line in my opera where she says, “They say that I cursed them. But no, they cursed themselves.” One could say she’s speaking from the future, but because she’s a spirit again, she’s speaking through non-linear time.
FJO: The interesting thing about all of this is that she always has agency. She always retains power. She chose the man. She won the race. And the community was cursed because they did not offer to help her. They might have destroyed her corporeally, for that moment, but ultimately she won.
FJO: I think this portrayal is very emblematic for the current moment in our history. It’s very much a #MeToo story in that it’s speaking truth to power and overcoming.
BW: There’s actually a scholarly resonance for this for me, which is from Carolyn Abbate’s book, Unsung Voices. Female opera characters are often said to be victims. She proposes that—at least in some cases—they can be “undone by plot yet triumphant in voice.” I was thinking about that, that the spirit nature of the Macha character does endure. So it might be that she goes back to spirit world. It might be memory, like we were talking about before. It might be something more impressionistic. I was very much questioning the notion of triumph as I wrote it. We don’t always get what we want. I had had cancer a bit before. It’s not the main issue in the piece for me, but something that that and other experiences can teach is that being super tough doesn’t necessarily mean you win the race. It was very poignant to me, and again kind of chilling, that she’s a Goddess and she still loses. She wins the race, but she doesn’t win.
FJO: She, of course, loses the happy life she had with the man that she chose to be with.
BW: And in many versions, she actually dies. We’re not always going to prevail. This is very personal, but the opera has to do with an earlier experience. I don’t know if anyone would guess this, but this idea of a woman being overpowered actually has to do with sexual abuse for me. I deliberately did not make that explicit. I have a lot of pieces that deal with something or other, health issues for example, that is not made explicit, but it does grow out of an experience of that. The moment where she addresses the audience is her final plea. It’s a plea for compassion. My subtitle for that is The Indictment Aria. Because she is damning them there: “Is there no one among you who will help me?” A really interesting historical association with that moment is the McCarthy hearings. The famous line of Joseph Nye Welch, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” To me, it’s very much like that scene in the opera. You mentioned the #MeToo movement. We see demeaning treatment, disparagement, and degradation of others. It’s very easy and very common to let that happen. It takes a lot more to stand up.
There’s a wonderful writer on trauma, Judith Herman. She talks about the Vietnam Memorial, which of course was controversial and has its own particular character. She says, we do not have a monument for rape victims. There is a kind of bifurcation between public and private trauma. Of course, the trauma of war also has its secrecies, particularly in the past. But things like spousal abuse, domestic abuse, sexual assault, and so on, often are hidden. This very recent historical period has changed that a lot. But that’s generally been the way it has been treated. The other thing she says that is really important in terms of bystander-dom is that many do side with a perpetrator over a victim because all a perpetrator asks of you is that you do nothing. A victim asks you to do something—to speak, to stand up, to challenge. So when I think of bystander-dom, I always think of what she’s written about it.
FJO: It’s interesting that you found a way to prevent the audience from siding with the perpetrator, in this case the King, since only the victim, Macha, has a singing role. The conductor speaks some lines as the King and there are other ancillary characters, but it’s essentially a one-character opera, a monodrama for Macha.
BW: That’s really interesting. There is the husband, but he’s a dancer. There’s one singing character, and then there’s this breaking not only of the fourth wall, but of the conventions of performance, where the conductor talks. I was thinking this morning about something that a colleague said to me about the dangers of politicized work. I wouldn’t call mine political exactly, but we’re often presented with a story, and the composers identify themselves with the good and they’re showing the evil. They’re indicting the evil. That was actually something I thought about in that I wanted the shakuhachi to be associated with the spirit, for good reasons—inspiration, respiration, and so on, the kind of Goddess-like otherworldly qualities of the shakuhachi. Then the instrument that would be associated with the man who betrays his wife was the clarinet, which I was playing. I deliberately did that. I put myself in the position of being the betrayer. I wasn’t playing the role exactly, but I did not want to say, “I’m a force for good and out there are all these evil people.”
One of the hardest things that I’ve ever performed is in that same spot that I was talking about. There’s a pairing of a singer and dancer playing the same character. While the singer is indicting the audience, the dancer is appealing to different people on stage—the non-speaking, non-singing, movement chorus and the King. Then she comes and appeals to the musicians. Relatively late in the process, it became apparent that—I’m on stage next to the shakuhachi player, Riley Lee—she’s appealing to us. And we’re not playing at the moment. So what do we do? I asked the choreographer, and she said, “Just look at her heartlessly.” And so we did. That was so difficult. I had to put myself in the position of the non-sympathetic bystander, the one who was not doing anything.
FJO: And the audience is indicted for doing nothing, but if someone in the audience stood up and said stop they’d be ruining your performance.
BW: But that’s the right thing to do.
FJO: So the period when you were creating this piece, which is based on a Celtic folktale, was roughly around the same time that you started deeply immersing yourself in Celtic folk music, but the music for Weakness isn’t noticeably Celtic—at least to me.
BW: Well, I’d always been interested in and had responded positively to, Celtic music. I did a dance piece in graduate school where the choreographer used a myth told by Yeats, and so I explored some of the music then. So when I was working on Weakness, people assumed that there was Celtic music in it. Not a bad assumption, but nah, there was a Japanese flute instead; that’s how it worked. After that was done, I was still very much working with Celtic stories, but I wasn’t thinking at all about Celtic music.
This is what happened. I had been chained to this piano in this room for a couple years writing an opera. I hadn’t had a lot of chances to travel, so I just had this idea: I’m going to take a road trip. So I got on a very handy internet map—I love how you can zoom in and out and see where you are in any kind of resolution—and as I was looking at the map, I thought, “I haven’t really been much in the South.” So I started looking south and I said, “Nah.” Then I said, “I’ve always wanted to go back to Montreal. I visited there on a band trip in high school.” So I looked up Montreal. Then I kept going east on the map. And I remembered that one friend in particular, but others as well, had visited Cape Breton Island. I didn’t remember much of what they told me about it, but I just said, “Hmm, that might be the place to go.” My reason for going there had nothing to do with music. I did know there was music there, but I’m sure I wasn’t really thinking about Celtic music in Cape Breton. Really what I was looking for—and this might sound sacrilegious for a composer—was not having any music for a while. I intended to go sit on rocky cliffs, take in the ocean sounds, and so on, after doing Weakness. So that was my intention, and I booked a reservation at an inn on the island and was getting ready to go, and then I looked on the website and saw that they were having a music camp there the day I arrived. I literally did say, “Oh, damn.” However, I couldn’t say no to a music camp in Cape Breton, so I went over to New Hope, Pennsylvania, and bought a tin whistle for $20 and went up to this camp. It was a 48-hour camp, and it was run by an organization I’ve worked with in various ways since then, called Kitchen Rackets. I went to this camp for a weekend and—I’ve already said this once today and I don’t often say this—it changed my life. I ended up learning a little bit of tin whistle, but then I sort of stuck around. I went and sat by the ocean. I made some field recordings that worked their way into the [Weakness/Macha] CD. I did some recordings with musicians I’d just met that were in the background of the sound design for Tom Cowan’s [spoken word] story version of Macha [on the CD].
But that wasn’t my impulse for going there at all. And yet there was this connection. The other thing I thought about at the time was that after doing this very large, ambitious full-contact thing—where I wrote the music and the libretto and I played in it—was it seemed like the right thing to do was to sit in someone’s living room with a pennywhistle, to move to this very humble, unassuming direction. But through doing that, I did start playing in the musical community there and that stuck.
FJO: So since the organization that organized the camp and whom you’ve worked with since is called Kitchen Rackets, is that the reason for naming your duo Fork & Spoon?
BW: Yeah, a little bit. There’s a tradition where they have what they call kitchen parties. I think this might be true in Irish traditional music, too, but certainly in Cape Breton. The musical tradition there is astonishing. It’s as if people are born with fiddles in their hands. And there are lots of fiddles, fewer wind instruments. It sometimes happens that people aren’t quite sure what instrument I’m playing when I have a clarinet. And that is not at all to say that people are uninformed, because they are very informed about the fiddle. It’s just a different kind of economy and ecology of instruments there. So there is this old tradition of kitchen parties where people would play all night. There’s even a song written about that: “For the second time since we got up, it’s getting dark again.” That’s a line from a song about people playing for days at a time. This is a really informal, family-oriented, multi-generational, and very, very good amateur tradition—in other words, people aren’t necessarily making careers or trying to get paid to play, but they play beautifully. So it happens again and again that I meet people who aren’t showing that they are musicians or talking themselves up, and then you hand them a mandolin and you fall over when you hear what they do with it.
So yeah, it was maybe subconscious, maybe just serendipity, I’m not sure, but I’ve ended up working with Fork & Spoon. Kitchen Rackets is an organization that promotes local music. They run the camp and other events as well. With Fork & Spoon, we’ll sometimes host an evening jam session or something like that. We play in pubs.
Fork & Spoon is my duo with a Cape Breton guitarist, Charles MacDonald. We started playing together more than five years ago and over that time have worked out a repertoire. There’s a little bit of traditional Cape Breton music, but mainly warping it to make our own kind of music. And some of the exchanges we have go like this. He will say to me, “I can’t believe you can write that down.” And I’ll say, “I can’t believe you don’t have to.” And then I will write a tune, thinking it’s very traditional, and I’ll say, “I wrote this tune; it’s so normal.” And he’ll say, “That tune’s really weird.” So it was just this really interesting cross-fertilization. The ways that we meet are really fascinating to me and very nourishing.
FJO: So how much of your compositional stuff has seeped into these other musical activities and vice versa?
BW: There are some things that are separate. There are some things that blur. My first impulse would be to say they stay kind of separate, but that’s not entirely true. I’m just thinking of a tangent. There’s a beautiful recording by Jordi Savall of Celtic music. There are two volumes, and around the time I started to travel to Cape Breton, I got this recording. He plays these tunes on his early music instruments. Many of them are written down. They’re by composers like O’Carolan and J. Scott Skinner. There is actually a notated, sort of closer-to-classical part of this tradition, and that’s something I relate to. But when I work with Charles in Fork & Spoon, because he plays by ear, I usually start out doing a tune that will have chord changes. The thing that amazes me is that if I were playing traditional music per se, he can play any tune. He knows them all. But say he didn’t know it—he can hear eight bars and then on the repeat he’ll play all the right chords. In addition to that, he doesn’t just play the chords, he really plays the tune. It reminds me of Max Roach, how he didn’t just play his pattern, but he really played the composed tune. So when I’m working with Charles, I definitely take that into account. For example, I did some funny meters. It wasn’t just that it was 7/8, but it was shifting meters. When I played it for him, it turned into syncopation for him. So if we want to actually do funny meters, instead of syncopation that gets normalized, we’ll have to work that out.
But a project that did blur things was a setting of five Celtic airs for clarinet and shakuhachi, originally with obbligato piano, but then this turned into a piece for Fork & Spoon and the shakuhachi. So now I’ve got this kind of funny trio going. It was partly inspired by my colleague Riley Lee, who likes Celtic music. He particularly likes O’Carolan’s music, and I did use one O’Carolan tune. And I like really slow airs. A lot of the time when one hears Cape Breton music, there is a lot of fast music happening. But, of course, there are slow things, too. So between working with the shakuhachi, and with Riley and his interests, and my own interests, I ended up feeling like I had an excuse to spend more time with the slow tunes. Around the same time I was exploring these two duos, I had asked Riley to play some pieces with me. This got this started in a funny way in that he was in Weakness. I cast him first, by the way. I cast the shakuhachi first in my opera because he was the Goddess. So we were rehearsing Weakness, and he had a concert coming up the next week playing pieces of my students. I’d arranged that. And he said, “Do you want to put something on the concert?” And I said, “Well, it’s in ten days. I don’t know.” I don’t normally do this, and it sounds almost haphazard, but literally backstage, or in the ten minutes or two hours between rehearsals, I would come into this room and try to write something for him and me to play. This is a case where circumstances made me do something I wouldn’t have maybe done otherwise. I took one of his traditional honkyoku pieces and made a part for me to play with it. I’m almost like a reverb unit for him. It is its own piece, but it really has this relationship to shakuhachi tradition. So I’d begun working with him in a duo and thought about other pieces we might do, and we started thinking about a CD project.
At the same time, more or less, I started playing in this duo with Charles. So I had these two duos and then I ended up combining them into a trio. So basically if I put it in containers, there’s a CD project with shakuhachi and clarinet, Riley and me. Then there’s a CD project with Fork & Spoon, Charles and me, guitar and clarinet. And then each of them is visiting the other CD for one piece. So we have two trios that we play. One is the set of Celtic airs, Farewell to Music. The other is an original that I composed based on a piece that Riley does with a Hawaiian slack key guitarist. I totally loved it and I asked his permission to arrange it for Fork & Spoon, and what I ended up doing—which was better because we all got together—was I arranged it for all three of us. Well, it’s not an arrangement; it’s actually a riff taking off from his piece, but there are some parts that would be direct references. So that’s been very special, and only through knowing these two people and playing with them would I have written this piece, Passage of the Herons. We keep trying to say what genre it is. It’s maybe folk at one point, even—we thought—new age, since it’s melodic with chords, very pretty and very flowing. Not that I wouldn’t want to write music that fits that description, but the particular shape of this piece is something that really could only have happened with those two people in the room.
FJO: To tie some loose ends together here, it’s very exciting to hear you talk so ecstatically about making music in these very different traditions and learn how liberating and inspiring it has been for you. At the same time, in addition to this being something of an alternative stream to your other—I hate to use the word “regular”—compositional activities, you also train composers at Princeton University which is something you’ve now done for 20 years. So how do you encourage them to look at a map and take a trip to an unexpected place that will change their lives? How do you instill that serendipity and sheer joy?
BW: That’s a good question. My first impulse to answer that question is to say I don’t need to; they already have it. I’m fortunate that the students I work with, both undergraduates and graduate students, really have a sense of adventure and a sense of commitment. I see a lot of real pleasure and satisfaction that they express. But there is perhaps something of a permission giving. I was talking to a graduate student yesterday about a dissertation—which is still creative work, though not composing. I did literally say to this student, “You can do this your way. You don’t need to fit into what you think a dissertation is.” It was someone with a jazz background, and this person has strengths coming from that background—a really strong ear and not needing notation, so I didn’t want them to feel compelled to fit into some other kind of music analysis mold. That does happen. A very common thing with composition students, no matter how joyful they are, is of course to have this kind of fear. “Can I do this or not?” It’s enjoyable to me to see what they bring up. At 12 o’clock, someone will come in and say, “I think I’m repeating too much. I think I should repeat less.” Then the next person will come in and say, “I think I’m changing too much. Should I repeat more?” That tickles my fancy, for sure.
And, as much as I love trained musicians, I actually am fortunate that I get to do a lot with people who aren’t trained musicians. That’s really special to me. I teach an undergraduate freshman seminar called “Everyday Enchantment,” which has to do with everyday experience and art making and where the boundary is. Is there one? And so on. The students in that course do all sorts of interesting projects, and particularly because they’re freshmen, I figure it is helpful for me to just say yes to them. You can do something with words. You don’t need to be a poet. You can make art out of food. That’s okay. And they do. They end up doing performances. They do things outdoors and try to get people to interact with them. I don’t think of professoring as all that somber. Teaching introductory music theory has more somberness to it, but luckily a lot of my classes are pretty freewheeling.
FJO: Of course, the world of academia has changed so much. I doubt if Roger Sessions would put in his bio that he won a photography competition for coffee.
BW: Are you saying someone did that?! Yeah, that is true. Sometimes I think about when I was born and how that affected me. I am just old enough to have experienced, not Sessions per se, but the end of high modernism and partly because of where I was, I was hanging onto that for longer—at Harvard. Then when I went to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, it was really very different. Mathew Rosenblum was writing pieces that had drum set and microtones, and Eric Moe was working with synthesizers and wailing sounds, and so on. So I had an interesting journey through the landscape of what music is.
The way I’m thinking of that most these days is in my teaching. I’m currently teaching what used to be called “Music Since 1945.” I took a course by that name, and there’s a Paul Griffiths book by that name which is now in its third edition. And I’ve taught it before. I told my students, I last taught this course in 2000, and they were stunned by that. And I said, “Yes, you were being born then! I understand that.” So you can imagine, at some point, we’re going to hit this critical-mass moment where this has to be two courses. But even to think of how I taught a course that went basically between 1945 to maybe 1998; 20 years later, there’s 20 more years of music. It’s really fascinating to try to think about what music they need to hear about. There’s something liberating in that there is so much history now that you know you can’t cover everything. And I found myself thinking very seriously about the matter of the canon, which has been discussed by scholars for decades now. I was inspired in part by a recent essay by Anne Shreffler where she pointed out that the canon is not innocent. In terms of giving students permission, allowing for delight, and so on, the last sentence in my course description is: “Whose music is it?” I was thinking very much about what this tradition is. Where do its boundaries lie? Who’s been brought in? Who’s been left out? Going back to the title, “Music Since 1945” is a problematic title now. When I was in graduate school, we would have taken for granted what we meant by “music.” But now that could be any music, and that’s a good thing that we have this more ecumenical view. So I changed it to “Music After Modernism” and thought very much about: Do I include the important pieces because they’re the important pieces? Who decided they were the important pieces? And did they keep being thought of as the important pieces because we’ve said so? So it’s really interesting. I’ve been looking at some anomalous composers and pieces. I’ve been thinking about alternate examples. It’s fascinating even to think of a linear narrative. How true is a linear narrative that we would make?
FJO: Well, you say 1945. Earlier you were talking about Max Roach. That was the year he recorded the Savoy Sessions with Charlie Parker that are now legendary, but those recordings are probably not mentioned in the Paul Griffiths book about music since 1945.
BW: Yeah. He’s not in my syllabus either, but I can tell you what I did on my first day. I explored things from 1945. I chose a bunch of things that I was going to play in a row, but I ended up making a kind of mashup, if that’s the right word. There was a little bit of the Spellbound score. Then there was Stravinsky’s Babel, which no one knows, but I bet you do. Then a little bit of Walter Piston’s Sonatina for Violin and Harpsichord. Then Nat King Cole, the Andrews Sisters, and Bing Crosby. Then Spellbound again. Just think of all these things happening at that time! And there’s more—Daughters of the Lonesome Isle and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” are also from 1945. Well, I might have fudged some of them, but they’re basically from around that time.
FJO: Get Charlie Parker in there next time. And Max Roach!
BW: Yeah. The reason Nat King Cole was in there specifically is because he was playing Rachmaninoff.
FJO: Before we stop recording this conversation we should probably talk a little bit about the ballet that’s premiering in Boston in March.
BW: Let’s see. This piece [The Wrong Child] was commissioned by Boston Musica Viva. Boston Musica Viva does a family music concert every year, and they often work with a group called the Northeast Youth Ballet, which is based in Reading, Massachusetts. I grew up in North Reading, Massachusetts, so it’s kind of neat that this is my old neighborhood. The choreographer, Denise Cecere, runs the ballet and the conservatory associated with it. It’s a youth ballet of really skilled people. I’m excited to see what they’re going to be doing. It’s a big piece in terms of needing to think about story and interacting with dance, and so on. Again, as in Weakness, I wrote a text. You might not expect that there would be a text, but it has narration. That will be done by Joyce Kulhawik, who is a beloved Boston personality and who I remember from when I was growing up. There’s some kind of homecoming about that. And it’s another Celtic story. This one is Welsh, and it’s a story that’s well-known, at least among people from that area. It’s about the birth of Taliesin, who was a real poet, a historical figure whose poetry exists—we have manuscripts of some of it. But he’s also mythical figure. The story has to do with the birth of the poet and inspiration and shape shifting and initiation.
I’ve been intrigued to be writing for a young audience. I’ve had some interactions with young people, but not in a family concert exactly, at least not in a while. So I thought about that a lot in reshaping the story. For example, how dark and brooding can it be? The choreographer has helped me with that a lot. But another thing that I delighted in was the idea of bringing in sounds that are maybe not traditional classical sounds, but ones that we know as experimental sounds. I’ve worked in some references to other pieces—most notably Henry Cowell’s The Banshee. There’s this moment where a raven gets stung by a bee. Then the piano makes this wailing sound, and then the next line, crucially coming after, is “The raven wails like a banshee.” I liked the idea of young people hearing this banshee sound. Who knows if they’ve heard Henry Cowell yet? Maybe. I don’t know.