Category: Conversations

Tyshawn Sorey: Music and Mindfulness

A BIPOC man posing in front of a rehearsal hall door

Tyshawn Sorey’s music emerges from a vast array of experiences, communities, storytelling, and a deep engagement in mentor-mentee relationships. When I listen to his recent works Pillars I, II, III, and Everything Changes, Nothing Changes, I hear imagined worlds and sonic environments that are anchored in numerous histories and traditions. The detailed timbral designs within his compositions amplify a spiritual and creative focus in the music, asking the listener to employ mindfulness, to breathe, and to engage with spontaneity.

Sorey’s creative practice is multifaceted. His musical journey began as a trombone player in New Jersey where he listened to everything from be-bop to hip-hop and country music. He is in regular demand as a new music composer, writing for ensembles such as the International Contemporary Ensemble and the JACK Quartet. As a drummer, Sorey is a fixture on the jazz scene and can be heard performing with artists such as Vijay Iyer, Kris Davis, Marilyn Crispell, and Jason Moran, in addition to leading his own ensembles. Sorey has also developed a unique voice as a pianist and has played piano with artists such as composer/trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith and mrudangam artist Rajna Swaminathan.

Throughout his rigorous career as a composer and performer, Sorey regularly teaches and mentors other artists to support the creation of their own work. This practice has led him to become an assistant professor of music and African American studies at Wesleyan University. It is here, in his new creative home on the Wesleyan campus, that Tyshawn Sorey and I sat down to discuss his history as an educator, his latest works, and his thoughts about the word “improvisation.”

Tyshawn Sorey outside

Lucy Dhegrae: The Art and Science Behind the Voice

A woman with pink hair sitting and her reflection in the mirror.

In most of the world’s musical genres, the distinction between creating something anew and interpreting something that already exists is somewhat blurry. And in many folk traditions, there is a further blur between performers and audiences—in some societies, making music is just part of living and it is participatory and often non-hierarchical. Yet in Western classical music, there is a very precise delineation between the roles of composers, interpreters, and the audience and, for better or worse, this is a paradigm that most practitioners of new music have inherited. But just as distinctions between genres continue to erode in the second decade of our new millennium, there has also been a shift in our perception of what the particular roles could be for making music now and in the future.

“The best composers know what it’s like to be a performer and the best performers know how to improvise,” says vocalist Lucy Dhegrae, who is the founder and director of Resonant Bodies, a three-day festival of contemporary vocal music that takes place annually in New York City and which has now had iterations in Chicago as well as in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. “Maybe those delineations were important for the time and maybe they’re helpful for some people, but now what I see in myself and Resonant Bodies artists and people I work with all over the place is that we just don’t care about all of those delineations anymore. … At what point did we start to structure it this way and start to exclude people, except that we were trying I guess to exclude people for financial reasons somehow? It’s not all necessarily nefarious, but it can have this exclusive idea to it.”

As far as exclusivity goes, calling Dhegrae the “director” of Resonant Bodies is somewhat misleading, because although she carefully curates the vocalists who perform on each of the concerts, she gives each of them full reign in determining what music they present to an audience.

“What I love in an experience with people is to know what they’re passionate about,” she gushes with contagious enthusiasm in a conversation at her Manhattan apartment only an hour after she flew in from St. Louis. “I would never dream of telling a singer, ‘Hey, you should do this specific piece. I want to hear you do that piece.’ Because you’re only going to get the second best thing from a singer that way, I think. But if you ask a singer, ‘What do you love to sing? What lights you up? Right now?’ Because it has to align with their life moment. Then things feel urgent. I want to hear your urgent music.”

Urgency is an important ingredient not only for Resonant Bodies, but all of the music that Dhegrae performs as a vocalist herself, whether it’s a something by singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom, high modernist composer Jason Eckardt, or composer-performer Gabrielle Herbst, whom she sang alongside for the premiere of Herbst’s dreamy opera Bodiless. Urgency is also what fuels her life’s mission: to be empowered as a singer and to empower other singers which, aside from a desire to make musical experiences fairer (“in Resonant Bodies we … always talk about being treated as singers versus musicians versus artists”), yields better performances, as she points out:

It’s really beautiful when you have that melding, where you’re coming halfway, and we see a really special part of the performer and a really special part of the composer. That to me is the best part of creating a new piece.

Curiously, in her childhood, long before she ever considered singing as a profession, Dhegrae wrote music and even won a contest for it. But she quickly got turned off when a teacher attempted to make her do a rudimentary composition exercise instead of trying to nurture her creative impulses. Perhaps an even more significant background for Dhegrae, however, was her pursuit of a pre-med degree simultaneously with studying singing as an undergrad. Though she ultimately did not become a laryngologist, which is the career path she wanted to pursue at the time, her deep study of the acoustic, physical, and medical science of the voice informs her approach to making music to this day.

“There’s one particular nerve that people talk about for the voice, the recurrent laryngeal nerve,” Dhegrae explains, “which starts in your brain, goes down, wraps through your heart, and then goes into your vocal chords. So literally your voice has to go through your heart first before it comes out. It has to come from your brain, through your heart, and then come out of your mouth. … I think that’s really an important metaphor, because your heart is naturally a part of how you sing. And we can’t deny that. That is a physical reality. So it’s not a metaphor anymore!”

Frank. J. Oteri in conversation with Lucy Dhegrae in her Manhattan apartment
August 19, 2019, 2:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Melissa Dunphy: Composing Has To Be a Calling

A woman with platinum blonde hair sitting in her home

One of the highlights of my attending the 2019 National Conference of the American Choral Directors Association in Kansas City was encountering Melissa Dunphy during the Composer Fair at the end of the first full day of the conference. Dunphy was full of energy and passionate about what she does and was also incredibly articulate—an ideal candidate for a NewMusicBox Cover! And after I returned home and started exploring her musical output, most of which she has generously made scores and recordings available for on her website, I was even more eager to have a sit down conversation with her about creative work.

What struck me about her music, and what she confirmed when we visited her at the bizarre place in Philadelphia where she lives (more on that later), is how deeply it relates to her ideas about social justice and inclusivity. Primarily a composer of vocal and choral music, Dunphy frequently creates music which is inspired by current events. The Gonzales Cantata, her 2009 gender-reversed faux-Baroque setting of the public US senate testimony that culminated in the resignation of attorney general Alberto Gonzales, landed her on national television while she was still pursuing an undergraduate degree in music composition. Her unaccompanied choral work from the following year, What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?, is also based on public testimony, this time from an 86-year-old Republican World War II veteran and VFW chaplain arguing for marriage equality, an issue that still divides people in this country.

“I had an incredibly emotional reaction to watching the YouTube video of his speech,” Dunphy remembered. “I soaked an entire dishcloth with my tears because I was so touched by the testimony. In 2009, there was such a cultural struggle between people who wanted marriage equality to be on the books and people who were pouring huge amounts of money into stopping it. His testimony gives you hope that the other side might understand that it’s an issue of human rights and freedom. So again—ping—I immediately needed to set this to music.”

Among her most ambitions works to date is her 2018 American DREAMers, a multi-movement choral setting of texts from five young Americans who were brought this country as children. “This is completely up my alley for various reasons,” explained Dunphy, who was born and raised in Australia and is the child of immigrants who fled Greece and Mainland China during the Cultural Revolution.

But creating intense politically-themed music is only part of how Dunphy spends her time. That bizarre place she lives in is an 18th century building that most recently had been the site of an abandoned magic theater. When she and her husband acquired the property, it was in a ruined state. So, on their own, they embarked on a huge construction project that has resulted not only in a viable place to live and artistic studios, but also an AirB&B they rent out. However, more interestingly, in excavating the former theater which they had hoped to eventually turn into a performance space, they discovered a wide range of 18th century artifacts and have become significant archeologists of early Americana. Dunphy gave us a guided tour of the construction work and some of their findings following our extensive conversation about her music, some photos of which appear toward the end of the transcript.

“We tore every room down to the studs,” Dunphy euphorically exclaimed. “I learned how to sweat copper pipe and do dry wall, build a kitchen, and build a bathroom. We just went through and did it. And I loved doing that kind of work. And it’s not only a source of revenue generation or wealth generation, it enables you to buy a really cheap, crappy house, and turn it into something that’s livable. In some ways it’s like this nice corollary to what I do as a composer. Composition is very ethereal. You write something—yes, you have it down on a piece of paper—but when it’s actually presented, it’s in the air and then it’s gone. It’s a memory. It’s not tangible. It’s not concrete. But I literally make concrete in the other part of my life. … This whole theater venture fulfills both a long-term financial idea and also this intellectual hunger for creation. You create ideas, but you can also create stuff. It’s nice to be able to do both.”

Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Melissa Dunphy at her home in Philadelphia, PA
March 13, 2019—3:00 p.m.
Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan

Hannibal Lokumbe: Always Go With the Feeling

A BIPOC man with dreads, a dark shirt, and dark cap

For the past three years, composer/trumpeter/raconteur/poet/community activist/force of nature Hannibal Lokumbe has served as a composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the auspices of Music Alive, a program which New Music USA administers in partnership with the League of American Orchestras. The culmination of this residency is Hannibal’s massive oratorio Healing Tones, which at the end of March received its world premiere performances featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra joined by two choruses and three additional vocal soloists.

Hannibal has had a long history with New Music USA and, before that, with Meet The Composer (which later merged with the American Music Center to become New Music USA). MTC supported the 1990 commission of African Portraits, Hannibal’s first large-scale work involving a symphony orchestra. African Portraits, a sprawling sonic adventure requiring blues and gospel vocal soloists, three choruses, a West African kora player, and a jazz quartet in addition to a large orchestra, has now received over 200 performances all over the country, a rare accomplishment for any contemporary American work let alone one that costs $4000 a minute to rehearse. So we have long wanted to have an opportunity to record a conversation with him about his musical career, his compositional process, and his sources of inspiration.

Our recent talk with Hannibal in Philadelphia was a 45-minute roller coaster ride that was part testimonial, part reminiscence, part philosophical manifesto, and part performance art, but all pure emotion. Many questions were left unanswered and others just led to other questions for us, some of which we probably will never be able to answer.

There was a lot to process in a very short amount of time. There were his extraordinary thoughts about Pangaea—“the spiritual land mass of humanity is music”—as well as his optimistic outlook on the future: “What our world and what our nation’s going through now is giving birth.  Birth requires some bleeding and some suffering.  But in the base of our brain is a certain knowledge, and that knowledge says that from this pain will come this treasure.” There were also tantalizing fragments of anecdotes from his storied life in music, such as taking Jimi Hendrix’s place after Hendrix died for a recording session with Gil Evans (“Gil … always saw things in a person that they might not see in themselves”) or giving advice to a young Whitney Houston (“Sister, whatever you do, follow the music.  Don’t follow the people. People will confuse you.”) Perhaps what was most poignant to me was a comment he made about why he creates such personal and idiosyncratic music:

“It would be a disgrace to my ancestors to try to tell someone else’s story, which I could not do.  I could emulate it. I could emulate Bach. I could emulate Brahms. I have the technical skill to do that, but it would be dishonest.”


Hannibal Lokumbe in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia
March 13, 2019—12:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Bun-Ching Lam: Home is Where You Park Your Suitcase

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Born in Macau, educated in Hong Kong and California, and now dividing her time between Paris and upstate New York, Bun-Ching Lam has created a fascinating body of music that is shaped by her multicultural life experiences as well as her sensitivity to a wide range of instrumental sonorities and extreme curiosity.

“I’m always curious, and I try anything at least once,” she told us when we visited her at the home of baritone Thomas Buckner, with whom she had been rehearsing in preparation for the New York premiere of her recent song cycle Conversation with My Soul, based on texts by Lebanese-American poet and painter Etel Adnan. (The performance, with the Tana Quartet, will take place at Roulette on November 16 as part of Buckner’s Interpretations series, celebrating its 30th anniversary this season.)

Macau, she acknowledged, was a challenging place for an aspiring concert music composer since, when she was growing up, live performances of classical music were extremely rare. But thanks to her father and some friends who owned classical music recordings, she was able to learn about the repertoire. At the same time, she immersed herself in many other kinds of music, from traditional Cantonese folksongs to the local jazz of Dr. Pedro Lobo to discovering the Beatles on the radio. And she learned how to play many different musical instruments, from the Chinese yangqin to the baritone horn (which she played in a school band) to the accordion. But soon her primary focus was playing the piano, although she admitted that she preferred improvising to practicing: “Maybe that’s the beginning of my composition.” Still, she enrolled as a piano major at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Lam’s composing activities did not officially begin until she came to the United States as an exchange student. She spent a year at the University of Redlands in California, where she was exposed to a wide range of experimental approaches under the tutelage of Barney Childs.  But after she returned to Hong Kong, she won an art song composition competition, which helped pay off her debts and momentarily led her to think that composing was lucrative. When she decided to pursue a graduate degree, she enrolled at the University of California, San Diego, and wound up studying composition with Bernard Rands, Roger Reynolds, and Pauline Oliveros. Unlike her peers, she did not come in with a huge portfolio of works, but within only a few years, Lam began creating music in a distinct, personal style. One of her early works from this time—Bittersweet Music I for solo piccolo—remains one of her most frequently played compositions.

“One of the things that I already had was an idea about what I think music is,” she remembered.  “And I haven’t really changed style. I’m always old fashioned because I like melodies. Even now, writing melodies is not fashionable. I’ve never been with any fashion.  I’m always out of fashion.  When you’re always out of fashion, you’re always in fashion because fashion is a very stupid thing.  … I don’t want to be Mahler.  You cannot be Mahler.  I don’t want to be Respighi, either.  I want to be me.”

Being Bun-Ching Lam means creating music slowly and carefully. She rarely composes more than one work per year. And although she claims that with each piece she’s “starting from scratch,” every gesture is meticulously shaped, with an end result that blurs different aesthetics seamlessly. She frequently juxtaposes instruments as well as texts from East Asia and the West, as well as from the Middle East.

“It’s all available,” she explained.  “Just like nowadays, you don’t just eat Chinese food.  You eat Thai, Afghani, what have you, because everything is available, so why not use it?”


A conversation with Bun-Ching Lam at the home of Thomas Buckner in New York City
October 8, 2018—12:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Frank J. Oteri:  I’ve wanted to talk to you for years, but now seems a particularly apt time since the world is currently going through a very strange period of resurgent nationalism and xenophobia. More than most composers I can think of, you are so polynational, both in terms of your life and your music, to the point that I don’t think what you do could have existed if you did not have this range of experience in so many different places.

“I have a different perspective than someone who has been stationed in one place and stayed there forever.”

Bun-Ching Lam:  Absolutely.  I agree with you. Because I’ve lived in all these places, I’m familiar with so many different cultures.  I speak five languages. None of them well, of course.  But yes, I have a different perspective than someone who has been stationed in one place and stayed there forever.

FJO:  You were born and raised in Macau, which is a very unusual place already.  It, in itself, is a multicultural oasis.  When you were growing up, it was still ruled by Portugal.

BCL:  Yes, until 1999.  My piano teacher was Macanese, so our lessons consisted of Cantonese and English, because I don’t speak Portuguese but she’s speaks very good Cantonese. And then from her, I also learned a lot of English.

FJO:  So Portuguese is not one of your five languages.

BCL:  No, at that time, we had resistance about learning the colonist language.  But I should have learned Portuguese, because then I could read Pessoa in Portuguese.

FJO:  The majority of the population of Macau is Cantonese-speaking Chinese, but the colonial rulers were Portuguese. These are two very different cultures.  But because both the Chinese and the Portuguese there were separated from their motherlands, in some ways they both developed their own cultures.

BC:  The Portuguese who were there they called Macanese.  They don’t really speak the same Portuguese as the people in Portugal; the language has changed.  They have their own subculture and their own patois that the Portuguese don’t know.  And they have poets.  Actually I have a piece where I have used that particular language called Macau Cantata. It uses all the different languages that have passed through Macau.  The famous Chinese poet and playwright Tang Xianzu was in Macau. We all know his Peony Pavilion. He has this description of Macau as the first place where East and West meet. And then [Matteo] Ricci; he went to China and he was stationed in Macau, because that was the only place that you could get access to the mainland. It’s a fascinating place.  In comparison to Hong Kong, Macau actually has its own genuine culture that is very different from any other place.  Of course Hong Kong also has its local culture, but it’s very different.  And, even now, you can go from one place to the other with no problem.

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FJO:  So I’m curious about how you first got exposed to music growing up in Macau.  Before you started studying piano, what were you listening to?  I have this strangely packaged CD that I got years ago that’s a collection of music from Macau that has a recording of your Saudades de Macau on it. But it also includes piano music by Father Aureo Castro and dance music by Pedro Lobo.

BCL: Pedro Lobo! We called him Dr. Lobo.  Every day at 12 o’clock, the radio program had his band on, which played a kind of jazz music. They also had a lot of pop musicians from the ‘50s. And Father Aureo—actually I was just in Macau not too long ago and it was the 55th anniversary of the music school he founded, so they had all kinds of activities and also played his music.  I was invited to do a lecture for the little kids.  It was a lot of fun.

“Listening to classical music was difficult, because there would be one concert a year.”

So I heard all that, and I also heard Cantonese music and The Beatles. Everything. I loved rock music.  But actually listening to classical music was difficult, because there would be one concert a year of classical music.  I had friends, so we borrowed records.  And my father loved music and had records of classical music.  The first concert I heard was Jean-Pierre Rampal playing the flute.  I didn’t hear any real live orchestral music until I was 16, when I went to Hong Kong for the first time.

FJO:  How much traditional Chinese music were you exposed to in Macau?

BCL:  Oh, there were all kinds of things.  And I also played a little on Chinese instruments.  I played the yangqin and the moon-shaped lute, but never very well. Then I played in the school band. I started out as a conductor, and then I learned to play baritone horn, because nobody wanted to play it, so I played it.  And I learned to play accordion in one day; I had to go on stage the next day.  So that was a lot of fun.

FJO:  So you were playing wind band music?

BCL:  Yeah, and we had our own transcriptions.  I actually arranged certain things.  I was 14 or 15. That was interesting because I got to learn various instruments.  I know how to play “Home, Sweet Home” on any instrument, but not very well.

FJO:  There have been at least two other composers with international reputations besides you who are from Macau. A lot of people probably don’t realize that Xian Xinghai was born in Macau, even though he became a very iconic composer in mainland China because of his role in the revolution and his Yellow River Cantata was turned into a piano concerto during the Cultural Revolution. It’s still played all the time.

BCL: He died very young.

FJO:  And then there’s Doming Lam, who I think is a very interesting composer.

BCL:  Absolutely, but he basically lives in Hong Kong.  Then he went to Canada for a while. He never really lived in Macau.

FJO:  I think in order to establish a career for himself, he had to leave Macau and go somewhere that had a larger musical scene.

BCL:  Macau is a very, very small place.  And it’s very hard to stay there forever.

FJO:  So you left Macau to study piano in Hong Kong.  But at that point, you still were not thinking of writing music.

“I just improvised; I never practiced.  Maybe that’s the beginning of my composition.”

BCL:  No. I wrote some little songs, and one time I sent one to a magazine but I never heard from them.  Since I don’t like to practice piano, I improvised.  I didn’t have a piano at home, so I practiced piano at school, right down in the hallway, and people would come and pass by.  My father wanted to make sure that I practiced, so he had a teacher [check in on me] and he had a little book.  Each time after I finished practicing he would say, “Very good” or “It doesn’t seem to be very good today.” But since he didn’t know anything about music, I’d just play some things, I just improvised; I never practiced.  Maybe that’s the beginning of my composition.

Bun-Ching Lam

FJO:  So many different biographies of you state that you didn’t actually start writing music until you arrived in the United States.

BCL:  Right.

FJO:  So I thought, even though you were born and raised in Macau and you studied in Hong Kong and eventually started spending a great deal of your time in France, since you started writing music here, if anyone feels the need to make any kind of nationalistic claims about your identity as a composer, a strong case could be made that you’re an American composer.

BCL: I could be.  I don’t know who I am. Sometimes in one of those ISCM things, they will say I’m a Portuguese composer.

FJO:  Really?

BCL:  Because I was born and raised in Macau. I don’t know what composer I am.  I’m just me.

FJO:  But your serious exposure to contemporary music happened in Hong Kong.  I know that you met Richard Tsang when you were there.

BCL:  Well, we were in the same class.  We were buddies. He started to write music first, and I was just a piano player.  The first time I had contact with contemporary music was when I was in the fourth year.  My piano teacher said, “You should play Schoenberg.” I actually found it quite ugly.  I was doing Opus 11.

In my second year, I went to University of Redlands as an exchange student. I was there only for one year and then I went back to Hong Kong to finish my degree there. But I wanted to learn about contemporary music, so I was playing in the new music ensemble and we were doing Cage and Barney Childs—he was the teacher.  And I learned electronic music. I just wanted to be exposed to different things.  One time, we did this John Cage thing and different music happened at the same time.  I said, “This is fun.”  That was actually in my first composition course. I studied with Barney, and I wrote a piece called Theme and Variations on a Chinese Folksong.  That was my first composition. In each variation, the style changes. Some of it sounds like Hindemith, but it sort of progressively gets more away from the tonal. It [uses] a simple tune [sings melody].  I don’t even know what the name is, but I always liked that tune.

FJO:  Do you still have a manuscript of it somewhere?

BCL:  I don’t think so.

FJO:  Maybe it’ll turn up somewhere.

BCL:  In the Yale Library.  Everything turns up there.

FJO:  Or at the Sacher Foundation.

BCL:  I doubt it very much.

FJO:  So with so many places that have been part of your life, do you consider any place to be home?

“I think home is where you park your suitcase.”

BCL:  Well, I think home is where you park your suitcase.  Your root is somewhere else.  But if I carry my root with me, it’s just dangling. It never goes anywhere; it’s just where I am. Nowadays people always say the DNA.  The DNA’s there.  So it doesn’t matter where I live.  The Chinese say, “When the leaves fall off, it goes back to the root.”  Maybe one of these days I will want to go back to live in Macau, because it’s true, each time I go back there, there’s a certain kind of familiarity.  Or if I go to China. Deep down, I’m certainly Chinese. Therefore, to answer your question, I’m a Chinese composer.  I always say, “You’re once Chinese, you’ll always be Chinese.”  That’s how I think.  Somehow it’s because of how I was brought up.  Certain kinds of Confucian thinking are ingrained in me, even though I like Chuang Zhu and Lao Tzu much better; that part of the philosophical outlook on life is ingrained.

FJO:  Well, if there’s anything that more pieces of yours have in common than anything else, it’s an association with Macau. And even in the last ten years, you’ve written three works that reference Macau. Aside from the Macau Cantata, which you mentioned, there’s also Five Views of Macau and Scenes from Old Macau.

BCL:  Definitely I like Macau, but there’s also a practical reason.  I was a composer-in-residence in Macau.  They wanted me to write Macau this, Macau that.  So I think of myself like the Respighi of Macau. I’m actually tired of it, so I’m no longer composer-in-residence.  Still, the next piece I’m working on is for the Macau Youth Orchestra.  It’s more interesting to see how I can relate to the young people.

FJO:  To get back to your formative years, I’m curious about what happened next after you wrote that first piece of music when you were studying with Barney Childs. You went back to Hong Kong, but you obviously got the composing bug since not long after that you came back here to pursue a graduate degree in composition.

BCL: I had borrowed some money from the school and I was totally broke. Then the last year there was a composition competition for songs and the prize was pretty high.  Richard Tsang was also applying for it, so I thought maybe I should write a song. Then if I win, I guess I can pay back my loan.  That’s how I started.  It was a very short song. I hid in the practice room and I was looking at all the French chansons. I found some harmonies and I made this song up.  Then I entered and I won.  So I said, that’s great.  It’s very lucrative being a composer.

FJO:  That’s very different from most people’s experiences.

BCL:  Well, that was the only time that I really won some money.  I’m still waiting for my MacArthur, but I’m not holding my breath.

FJO:  Yeah, they just announced this year’s winners, so maybe next year.

BCL:  Right, it’s great.  Fantastic.

FJO:  But okay, you won this competition and you paid back the loan.

BCL:  And I went to America.

FJO:  In order to pursue a degree in composition?

BCL:  No. I went to UC San Diego for a master’s and at that time they had a track system where you had to do different things.  I picked piano of course, because I applied as a pianist, and then they had theoretical study, and then there was some sort of extended technique.  But since I don’t like history because I don’t remember anything, I said, “Okay, I’ll try composition.”  At first, I was at the undergraduate composition seminar and Bernard Rands was the teacher.  So I wrote a piece for solo flute.  That was the assignment.  Everybody had to write a piece for solo flute.  And then the next assignment was a duet.  You add another line on top of that piece, so it would be a duet for two flutes.  I said, “Wow, by the time I’m 70, I will be writing a symphony.”  But then in the second quarter, I got promoted into the graduate seminar.  But I really didn’t have a portfolio.  All the people already were composing since they were born.  I was just a beginner.

FJO:  You were a beginner, but you were already studying with Bernard Rands.

BCL:  Well, he was employed to teach there, so he had to teach anybody.

FJO:  But you ultimately wound up studying composition with a lot of other very interesting people as well. We’ve actually done talks with quite a few of the people you studied with—Bernard Rands, Roger Reynolds, and Pauline Oliveros. They are so different from each other.

BCL:  Exactly.  And there was another person I studied with, Robert Erickson, who was totally different [from all of them].  I was in all of their seminars.   For me, it was fantastic that I got to learn from different people.

FJO:  And what’s fascinating is, although you came in without a portfolio of compositions in the beginning, within five years you were writing pieces that clearly have a distinct compositional identity, and which are still receiving performances, like the piccolo solo Bittersweet Music from 1981.  Of course, it helps that there isn’t a lot of solo piccolo repertoire.

BCL:  That’s right.  That’s why I pick those weird things to do.

FJO:  It’s a good idea to write a piece that can have that kind of circulation.  But still, it seems really unusual to me that you were able to create something that is so fully formed so soon after starting to write music.

BCL:  I don’t know.  I have no idea.  I think that one of the things that I already had was an idea about what I think music is.  And I haven’t really changed style. I’m always old fashioned because I like melodies. Even now, writing melodies is not fashionable. I’ve never been with any fashion.  I’m always out of fashion.  When you’re always out of fashion, you’re always in fashion because fashion is a very stupid thing.  Can you imagine now everybody is wearing bell bottom pants. That was in the 1960s. So now you have to get rid of all your skinny pants? Why would you want to do that?  The only people who make money are the people who manufacture it!

“When you’re always out of fashion, you’re always in fashion because fashion is a very stupid thing.”

Music is the same thing.  It was fashionable to write 12-tone music.  Now nobody writes 12-tone music except a few people in California, which used to be anti-12-tone music.  And now it’s all environmental—the cosmos and all those things.  Once it was fashionable to be Chinese, like 10 or 20 years ago. Now it’s fashionable to be Finnish or some other up-north people like Iceland, which is fantastic because everybody has something to offer.  So I like it.  I think it’s a great time.  People are open to different things.  But when you’re open to different things, other things get shut off.

Bun-Ching Lam

FJO:  So, would it be a fair assessment to say that you primarily compose by intuition, or is there some sort of secret system behind the pieces you’ve written? What causes a piece to get formed the way it does?

BCL:  I don’t know.  It’s getting progressively more difficult for me to write.  I’m writing a short piece now.  I love strange combinations, and this piece is for shakuhachi, recorder, an oud, a theorbo, and a kugo, which is a harp.  And I’m just racking my brain about how to make it work.  With each piece I’m just starting from scratch.  When it happens, it happens.  That’s why it takes me a long time to write a piece, because I don’t know what I’m doing.

FJO:  So would you say you come up with the idea of what the combination of the instruments is first, and then it leads you in a certain direction?

BCL:  Yes, but that happened to be the group that commissioned it.  There’s no repertoire; you just have to make it up.

FJO:  Interesting.  One of the things I find so fascinating about your work is how it embraces so many different cultural traditions. You’re Chinese and you’ve written a lot of works that involve Chinese instruments, as well as Chinese instruments in combination with Western instruments.  But you’ve also written works for Japanese instruments.  You mentioned this new piece has shakuhachi.  Plus you’ve written for gamelan, which is Indonesian, and for Middle Eastern instruments.  The entire world’s sounds are fair game.

BCL:  I think so.  It’s all available.  Just like nowadays, you don’t just eat Chinese food.  You eat Thai, Afghani, what have you, because everything is available, so why not use it?  I’m always curious, and I try anything at least once.

FJO:  Yet at the same time, and I guess this strikes to the whole notion of fashion, there’s a huge movement nowadays where people believe if you’re not from a culture, you can’t really understand that culture and what the larger meanings of things are from that culture, and therefore you shouldn’t be appropriating them.

“I’m always curious, and I try anything at least once.”

BCL:  Right.  That’s a big discussion. Like if you’re not black, you shouldn’t write about black culture. I don’t know.  I have no answer.  I’m not stealing; I’m just borrowing. And I’m not appropriating, because if I’m writing for shakuhachi, I’m not trying to be Japanese, or if I write for string quartet, I’m not pretending to be European.  So I don’t see any reason not to do it.  But you have to do it with respect. If as an American, you just write music that sounds like gamelan music and there is nothing really different, then maybe that could be a question.  I could be wrong.

FJO:  One thing that’s so interesting about your approach is the ways things blur together. By combining these different sound worlds, the result is music that would not have been possible from any of those places in isolation. I was listening again this morning to your song cycle Nachtgesänge, which is based on poetry by Friedrich Hölderlin. You use such an unusual combination of instruments.  You included a koto, which is Japanese, and also a saxophone, which though of European origin really came into its own in the USA. Hölderlin has been described as the most German of German poets, but you set his poetry using sonorities from all over the world. And in doing that, his poetry becomes—

BCL:  —something else. Yeah.  But I didn’t choose the instrumentation. It was for the CrossSound Festival in Alaska.  They have those players and so I chose that, but I have to find a rationale for how to combine these instruments, not only because of sound. I live with a German so that makes it work, I think. But actually the thinking is quite Chinese, because of the classification of the instruments by material.  I was thinking there’s wood, there’s brass, there’s metal, and then there’s something that’s neutral to combine them all together.  And the reason is because Hölderlin is a fantastic poet.  I also made a book with that text with some of my etchings. I learned about Hölderlin and this whole German Romantic world—how they expressed words was just fantastic, just the sounds of them. I just love it.

FJO:  So German must be one of your five languages then.

BCL:  Yes.  I understand almost everything, but when I speak everybody laughs because I just don’t say things the same way. But it’s grammatically correct, usually.

FJO:  If the unusual instrumental combinations you write for are the result of the people who are commissioning a work from you, you obviously don’t have a lot of say in that. But what if there was a combination that you felt wouldn’t work for your music?

BCL:  Then I just don’t accept the commission.

FJO:  So there have been times you’ve turned down commissions.

“Since I write slowly, sometimes I just have to say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do that.'”

BCL:  Yes, since I write slowly, sometimes I just have to say, “Sorry, I can’t do that.”  I still haven’t written a woodwind quintet.  It would be kind of fun to do, but that’s also very difficult because you right away think about these bad woodwind quintets that have been written.

FJO:  But the text is something that you usually choose, I imagine, although I know that you wrote a setting of Heinrich Heine for Tom Buckner, whose home we’re in now, because it was something that he wanted, so you chose that text as a gift to him.

BCL:  Everybody loves Heine.  It was a love song.  It was a present for Kamala and Tom for their wedding anniversary.  But I usually choose the text. I’ve written some Dada songs [with texts] by Hugh Ball.  I just love that silly nonsense; you can make anything out of it.  That was written in 1985, before any big commissions.

FJO:  You are interested in so many things, so you probably read more texts than the ones you wind up setting.  What makes a text cry out to you and make you want to set it to music?

BCL:  Well, I don’t read too terribly much, because I really don’t have that much time.  I’ll just see something. But it has to speak to me somehow; I have to see an image.  For instance, I’m learning French, so I’m paying more attention to French poets.  I also still use a lot of Chinese poems.

FJO:  But the thing that I find so fascinating, to take it back again to that Hölderlin setting, is the text that you choose doesn’t necessarily determine the kind of musical sound world that that text is in.  The idea that a Japanese instrument could be used to bring out the words of Hölderlin is quite interesting. I know that you have done some settings of Chinese poetry using Chinese instruments, but then you’ve also done Chinese settings that don’t use any Chinese instruments at all.

BCL:  Right.  I think the texts I do something with are very universal.  Mostly they are poems about love or about isolation.  Human emotion is common to every culture and every language.  Therefore music is a great way to illuminate those feelings and those emotions.  For instance, there’s one piece at the concert on November 16, which is the 30th anniversary for the Interpretation Series, called Conversation with My Soul; [the text is] by the great poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan.  I wanted to write a piece for Tom and she’s Tom’s close friend; that’s a present for her 91st birthday that Tom did for her.  I wanted to write another string quartet, but I thought it might be easier to add a baritone voice to it and, for me, it was to discover the meaning of her language. Sometimes it’s very obscure, because she’s Lebanese and English is her second language, just like me, so her use of language is very different from people like John Ashbery. And the syntax—sometimes you don’t know where you are!  Just like music, it’s ambiguous; you don’t know exactly what the meaning is.

FJO:  So have you ever set a text in a language that you don’t speak to some extent?

BCL:  I try not to.  It would be difficult to set something in Greek, because it’s like Greek to me.

FJO:  Curiously, one of my favorite pieces of yours is one from very early on, your solo percussion piece Lue.

BCL:  Wow, I didn’t know that you knew my music so well.  That makes me feel happy.

FJO:  Well, I thought it would be interesting to talk about since we’re talking about understanding different languages. To me that piece sounds so idiomatic for percussion, but back in 1983, when you wrote it, I can’t imagine that you would have had a ton of background with percussion instruments.

BCL:  Well, I do hit the table with the chopsticks, once in a while.  I don’t know. You just imagine.  You don’t have to draw a picture; you just know you have to reach from here to there in this time. That was a very extravagant piece.  That piece is not played very much because it costs a lot of money to rent the instruments.  But I was at Cornish, and my wonderful colleagues helped me and somehow it all worked.

FJO:  It’s interesting that it doesn’t get performed much because it’s one of the only pieces of yours that there are two different commercial recordings of.

BCL:  Is that right?

FJO:  There’s the first recording that was released on CRI decades ago and then a more recent one on Mutable.

BCL:  Right.  Well, it’s too expensive.  Nobody plays that.  They don’t want to move those things anymore.  There have been other performances in New Jersey because of a percussion teacher there.

FJO:  Raymond DesRoches.

BCL:  He’s great.

FJO:  You wrote a second percussion piece later on called Klang, which I’ve never heard and would love to hear.

BCL:  There was a commercial recording of it in Europe, but I don’t know how commercial it is, with a great percussionist, Fritz Hauser, a Swiss guy.  He just did a big festival in Lucerne and he commissioned that piece. The great thing is that he always had two bass drums.  I love kung fu books [even though] I don’t read too many of them; [in kung fu] human beings have a way to separate the body. You can have your left trying to control your right, so you try to separate yourself.  So that piece [Klang] is very difficult to play because he has to do all these things. So I had fun doing that piece, but very few people play that piece also.  I think he was the only person who played it.

FJO:  I suppose that’s the opposite of the piece you wrote for piccolo, Bittersweet Music, which many people have performed.

BCL:  Yeah.  Maybe.  It’s short.  And it’s bittersweet, more sweet than bitter.

FJO:  You’ve written three pieces with that title.  The third one is for bass flute, which is a lot less common.

BCL:  Yeah, a lot of people don’t have bass flute, so I don’t think that piece has been played very much.

FJO:  There is at least one video of it online which is really nice.  Another piece that I wanted to talk with you a bit about is …Like Water, which has also been recorded twice.  It’s a trio of Western instruments—violin, piano, and percussion—but once again, it’s such a seamless blur of East and West, Asian, European, and American traditions.  If I didn’t know it was your music, I’d be hard-pressed to figure out where this music came from; I’d have no idea.

BCL:  Oh, that’s great.  Thank you.  I’m from Mars!

FJO:  Though it’s seamless, from minute to minute it goes through so many different stylistic sound worlds, so I’m wondering what your roadmap for that piece was.

“The problem with dance music is that you write something and then it’s too short or too long.”

BCL:  Well, that piece was written for dance.  It was a collaboration with the choreographer June Watanabe.  The problem with dance music is that you write something and then it’s too short or too long.  You can’t just add a couple of minutes here or there, except Stravinsky who just adds more repeats!  She wanted a piece that had something to do with water.  So I just wrote pieces for her. Each day, I wrote one, more or less.  I’d just get up in the morning and say, “Okay, today I’ll write one.” Then one after the other, because I had a deadline.  That helps too, once in a while. Instead of just dreaming about a piece, you actually have to work on it and finish it.  So that’s how it all came about.  And then it was for The Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio, and they are wonderful musicians; they can play anything.

FJO:  You’ve mostly written pieces for smaller ensembles, but I wanted to talk with you a bit about the orchestra, because you have written several orchestra pieces and have also conducted them. Earlier in this conversation you were talking about writing a piece when you studied with Bernard Rands that started as a solo and then became a duo, and you imagined that it would eventually become a symphony.

BCL:  Well, I still haven’t written a symphony, so I’m still waiting.

FJO:  Do you want to?

BCL:  I don’t know.  It’s too difficult to write a symphony.

FJO:  You’ve written concertos, though.

BCL:  Yeah.

FJO:  Including two pipa concertos.

BCL:  Actually both of them will be performed in Germany at the end of this month, which is very rare.

FJO:  Together on the same concert?

BCL:  Yes.

FJO:  Wow.

BCL:  They’re going to do it three times.  So this is a great treat for me.

FJO:  That’s fantastic.  So are there a lot of performances of your music in Europe?

BCL:  No, not really.  Once in a while.

FJO:  Does it help to be based there a good deal of the time?

BCL:  I don’t think so.

FJO:  So then what led you to spend so much of your time in Paris?

BCL:  The food is better!

FJO:  There’s some pretty good food in New York, too.

BCL:  It’s true, but I don’t live in New York anymore.  I’m kidding, but in terms of ingredients, it’s still better [in Paris].  But that’s not really the main thing; it’s the culture. Since I left New York, Paris seems to be a good city to be in right now.

FJO:   I’ve enjoyed the times that I’ve been there. And, at this point, I imagine you are probably also able to find musicians there who play pipa and shakuhachi and any other instrument you’d want to write for.

BCL:  Well, these other musicians are in Seattle or New York.  I think for the variety of multicultural things, the United States is still the best.  In Germany, there are some people.  Wu Wei is there.  And I just did a piece for a pipa player in Geneva.  There are so many pipa players everywhere now, and they’re all very, very good.

FJO:  Are they all Chinese?

BCL:  Yes.

FJO:  There’s now all this repertoire for Asian instruments that’s part of Western contemporary music, either in combination with Western instruments or just for those instruments, even pieces that are being composed by people who are not originally from Asia. But most of the players are still Asian, even though there are now some really terrific shakuhachi players who are not Asian. With the other instruments, like pipa, that hasn’t happened so much yet.

BCL:  I think it’s going to change soon.  Hasn’t Manhattan School of Music started a Chinese music program?  And in the Midwest, there are centers.  There are Confucius Institutes all over the world.  They all have music programs.  So it’s changing.  It’s going to take a while, but before too long, it might be very cool to learn to play pipa.  The Silk Road is everywhere, so people may want to learn that.

Bun-Ching Lam

FJO:  Now in terms of big projects, you said writing a symphony is very hard.  But you’ve done two rather large music-theater type pieces.  The one that I’m more familiar with is The Child God.  It’s a big piece.

BCL:  That’s only half an hour.

FJO:  Yeah, but many symphonies are about a half an hour, unless you want to be Mahler.

“I don’t want to be Mahler. I don’t want to be Respighi, either. I want to be me.”

BCL:  No, I don’t want to be Mahler.  You cannot be Mahler.  I don’t want to be Respighi, either.  I want to be me.  But Mahler is such a great composer; I’m not in the same league.

FJO:  So what pieces would you want to write if you were given the opportunity to write them?

BCL:  I don’t really have any goal or wish, just what comes to mind. I have to work on this youth orchestra piece.  That will be 25 minutes.  So that can be a symphony.

FJO:  There you go.  There’s your symphony.

BCL:  Yeah, but I don’t want to call it a symphony.  It just has too much implication somehow.  Symphonies, symphonias, everybody playing together—that’s the original definition.  I want to start with number nine, and I will die right away.

FJO:  Well I hope that doesn’t happen.  So don’t write that one yet.

BCL:  Yeah, I’m postponing it.  Until I’m 95, then it’s about time to go.

Daria Semegen: So Many Awareness Pixels Going On at the Same Time

Featuring video presentations and photography (unless otherwise noted)
by Molly Sheridan
Conversation transcribed by Julia Lu

Back in the fall of 2000, a 1976 LP with the curious title Electronic Music Winners got something of a second life when it was revealed that Radiohead had sampled two of the tracks from it in the song “Idioteque” from their then just-released album Kid A—specifically Arthur Krieger’s Short Piece and Paul Lansky’s earliest computer composition mild und leise, both of which were on the album’s second side. The story goes that Jonny Greenwood found the LP in a used record bin while on tour in the United States. While the news sent folks scrambling around to look for the then long out of print record (which now can still fetch a fair sum on sites like eBay and Discogs, presumably because of the Radiohead connection), it actually got me to buy Kid A (and soon thereafter everything else in Radiohead’s discography) because I was a big fan of that Electronic Music Winners LP, having bought my copy for a dollar at a Salvation Army store when I was in high school.  But it also made me wonder what might have happened had Greenwood sampled material from the album’s first side, specifically a piece with a rather formalistic name, Electronic Composition No. 1, by Daria Semegen, which had always been my favorite track on it. That piece, along with a longer electronic piece called Arc, which I had fallen in love with when I listened to it on LP at the Columbia University music library as an undergrad, had long been the only music I had ever heard by Daria Semegen, but I always wanted to hear more.

Then about a little over a month ago, I attended the BMI Student Composer Awards ceremony and reception. It’s always a great evening, not just because it’s an opportunity to meet all the new awardees, but also because, from time to time, people who have won the award in previous years show up to honor their new award compatriots. When BMI Foundation President Deirdre Chadwick announced from the podium that one of the previous winners in attendance that evening was Daria Semegen, my jaw dropped. Semegen, it turns out, won the award twice, in 1967 and 1969, for compositions that had nothing to do with electronic music—a duo for flute and piano and two song cycles (for soprano and baritone respectively, both scored for large chamber ensembles). So as soon as the ceremony ended, I rushed up to Semegen, whom I had never previously met, and told her what a fan I was of those two electronic pieces. And she said, “Well, if you ever want to see a real electronic music studio, come out and visit me at Stony Brook University.” She went on to describe some of the vintage synthesizers and oscillators there, as well as the splicing stations for reel-to-reel tapes, and I was transfixed.

Frustratingly, there isn’t a ton of detailed information about Daria Semegen either online or off-line. There has never been a commercially released recording (on LP or CD) devoted exclusively to her music, and the handful of pieces by her that appear on compilations are now mostly out of print. She doesn’t have her own website, and the page about her on Wikipedia is somewhat scant, as is the entry in the 1980 Grove Dictionary of American Music. But she does figure prominently in Women Composers and Music Technology in the United States: Crossing the Line (Routledge 2006) by Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner (whose 1991 D.M.A. dissertation for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was devoted to Semegen’s output), although not in most of the standard musicological literature on electronic music. And scores for nine of Semegen’s acoustic compositions—solo piano pieces as well as works for chamber ensembles (including the pieces for which she received her two BMI Student Composer Awards)—are available through the American Composers Alliance (who proved extremely helpful to me in preparing my talk with her). Other than that, there’s a short biography of her on the website for Stony Brook University, where she has taught since 1974.

But I got the sense after spending a fascinating afternoon chatting with her that the typical goalposts by which so many careerist composers measure their success do not really matter to her.  “Basically I share, but that is not my main drive,” she quipped toward the end of our talk.  “I don’t sit around and think about, “Hey, I’m going to be sharing this.” You listen to Electronic Composition No. 1¸ and that gets pretty bizarre.  When I was making some of those sounds, I would say, “Whoa, this is really kicking it around here.  Gee, I wonder how an audience would react?”  But then I’d basically let them worry about it.  I’m not going to tell them what to do or how to react.  That’s not my job!”

I do, however, feel that part of my job in life is to call attention to people who have created extraordinary music and have insightful things to say about it, and Daria Semegen is certainly one of them. I wish we could have continued talking for several hours, and I look forward to revisiting her studio one of these days and learning more. But in the meantime, there’s a lot of information to process here.


Daria Semegen in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
In the Electronic Music Studio at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York
June 14, 2018 at 1:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Frank J. Oteri: I think you were five or six years old when you immigrated to the United States. Do you have any early memories from before you arrived here?

Daria Semegen:  Oh yeah, definitely.  I remember riding on a baby elephant at a zoo.  For me it was a really out-of-this-world experience, so I’ll never forget that.  I also remember running on a low wall and then falling on the right side of my face.  That’s something to remember, childhood accidents.  And then other traumas—my dad committed suicide in the refugee camp we were in. He was sick. He had appendicitis and peritonitis. They did not have enough antibiotics in those days, and so he possibly had an infection in the brain.  So that happened and that was a very bizarre experience because I also experienced the different way people were behaving, as well as different ways of dressing—the whole ceremonial thing with funerals.  Then for a year, I was wearing a black band on my left arm signifying a death.

FJO:  I know there are people who wear all black for a period of time after a death of someone significant in their lives, but I had never heard of wearing just a band.

DS:  It isn’t done these days, but I wore the band. I also generally had dark clothes.  I choose to wear dark clothes now for a variety of reasons, one of them being that I see the world outside myself as where I want to see colorful things.  It would be too much if I had to deal with managing a colorist wardrobe. I also relate in a different way to colors such as black and white. I even tell my students that one technique to understand something is to push away a lot of other things from one’s consciousness.  I go into a mode automatically that I taught myself, especially when I want to appreciate sonic things, any kind of sounds, which is really like starting from a blank sheet of paper.  So it’s a very important technique, especially when re-hearing sounds and appreciating them—meaning understanding them and feeling them intuitively or technically, depending on what purpose you set out to approach these sounds.  I do it as tabula rasa, which means an erased blackboard, a blank sheet of paper.  It’s a wonderful mode to be able to snap into without having other things crowding you. Your judgment can be fresher and you can really enjoy that experience or not, depending on what is going on with these sounds.  You can have a more authentic experience rather than being influenced all the time by everything, because we’re constantly being assaulted by so many other things going on.

“I think our audio and visual world, as well as our reactions to it, are coming from defense mechanisms.”

If you’re someone who’s sensitive in different ways, you will have so many awareness pixels going on at the same time that you have to manage the situation in order to have a really authentic, focused awareness of whatever you’re dealing with as an artist.  I think our audio and visual world, as well as our reactions to it, are coming from defense mechanisms.  Say I’m walking in the woods and I become more alert.  It’s because it’s unfamiliar; it’s really a kind of experimental environment if I don’t know this place or have any particular set expectations. The alertness is there in terms of the appreciation of different things.  Beauty and danger is this type of alertness that is there when I’m dealing with appreciating—meaning really experiencing and trying to understand—visual and audio art.

FJO:  It’s amazing how you arrived at such a deeply conceptualized approach to creating and experiencing other people’s creations all from telling the story of wearing a black arm band after your father died and then deciding to wear dark clothes throughout your life. That experience was clearly very significant for you.

DS:  That was just one landmark event.  I also have the experience of being someone who could not speak the language of the country I was in because in the home, we were speaking a different language.  Out there was either West Germany or America, these two different places.  So I had to observe, I had to listen and watch, in order to understand what was going on.  When I first went to an American school, I could not speak English. It’s a very different experience, and it involves listening and learning, especially kids being very curious about their world, their situation, and people’s expressions, their tone of voice, all of these things.  I would watch and listen much more than verbally communicate.

Daria Semegen in her electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

Daria Semegen in her electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

FJO:  So what language did you grow up speaking at home?

DS:  I would speak Ukrainian.  I also can manage different Slavic languages, because it’s really a family of languages. During my Fulbright scholar year, I went to Poland specifically to be with Lutosławski, whose music I had heard at orchestral concerts as an undergrad at the Eastman School of Music.  We had Rochester Philharmonic performances, so I had heard his Trois Poèmes d’Henri Michaux and also Jeux Vénitiens and I was totally blown away with the sound, the complexity, and the expression, the nuances, and the subtleties; this is without having seen any of the scores.  Anyway, when I applied for a Fulbright, I actually passed Czechoslovakian language.  I had to be language approved and at the University of Rochester, they only had a Czechoslovak scholar, so I had to speak and read in that language that I had never read before, but later I had to really learn Polish.

FJO:  They had Czech, but they didn’t have Ukrainian or Russian?

DS:  Well, maybe they had Russian, but the person they had was a professor of Slavic languages.

FJO:  But of course, we’re jumping way ahead in your life story, so let’s go back to your speaking Ukrainian at home growing up. Aside from what you were saying about that language sounding totally different than the German and English you were exposed to in the outside world, it also looks different since Ukrainian doesn’t use the same alphabet.

DS:  Of course not.  It’s Cyrillic.

FJO:  So you had a double whammy. In addition to not being able to understand the language, you couldn’t even read the letters to get a sense of how it sounded.

DS:  That’s right.

FJO:  Perhaps in some way this made you susceptible to being more open to and empathic towards completely new ways to experience sound.

“We are every day and every moment, a different listener and a different viewer.”

DS:  Empathic, to me, means becoming more connected, and appreciating, to me, means understanding more in different situations and at different times, because we are every day and every moment, a different listener and a different viewer, a different observer.  So I never have a fixed idea of things being only a particular way.  They could be a little bit different the next time I experience them.  And I’m not upset by that fact.  I’m intrigued by the fact that these things can be different and varied. There is an interesting variance when I re-appreciate different art objects, for instance such as paintings or videos.  They’re all different, unique experiences within the general aspect of supposedly knowing these things.

FJO:  Of course with a painting or a video, although your perception of it will vary each time you experience it, the work is an unchanging set object.

DS:  That’s correct.

FJO:  But with music, you have this extra layer. If it’s a performed piece of music, a piece of music that is interpreted by musicians other than yourself (and even if it’s yourself), it’s never going to be exactly the same twice.  Of course, that becomes a different issue in fixed media electronic music, and navigating between these two realms has been a duality in your creative life.  If you’re writing pieces for musicians who are going interpret it, maybe they’re going to hold a note a little longer, play it a little faster, put some sort of element of themselves in it. This is very different from something that exists in an invariable form.  Yet, as you point out, perception will always be different when you come back to it.

DS:  Yes, it is.  I don’t place particularly one value or another on fixed media or performed works.  I think these are different experiences in terms of how they’re being thought about, conceived, and what they are as finished products.  Fixed media to me is really having the opportunity to get things the way you’d like them without compromising, which is what I usually end up having to do if I’m dealing with live performance.

But in my pieces with instruments and electronic sounds, I don’t want the electronic sounds to sound like an accompaniment to a live instrument.  That’s just doesn’t work for me.  I tend to compose the electronic part as a piece almost on its own.  And I like to have the instrumentalists, if possible, improvise, so their creativity is involved with the fixed media.  It’s a kind of response and also a combination of complement and contrast to different degrees as the player chooses to interpret.

FJO:  It’s also really highlighting the fixed and non-fixed natures of these two different realms. The piece involves fixed media which, by its nature, always stays the same, but the player brings something new to it each time.

DS:  Exactly.

FJO:  To bring this conversation back to your childhood for just a little while longer, I’m curious about your earliest musical memory.

DS:  One memory I have is my reaction to very early piano lessons when I was seven or eight.

FJO:  But you were already in the States by then.

DS:  Yes.

A vintage patch cord analog synthesizer at Daria Semegen's electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

It seems like a great distance from Daria Semegen’s earliest music training, piano lessons, to this vintage patch cord analog synthesizer in her electronic music studio at Stony Brook University. But after learning about her earliest sonic memory, it all makes sense.

FJO:  Do you have any music related memories from before you came to America.

DS:  Well, I know that people sang.  I usually would be around adults having meetings because my father was involved in journalism.  He was a lawyer originally, and also he taught school as my mother did.  But we were in a refugee camp.  We lived in three or four of these places, being moved to different ones.  So that was an interesting disruption and interruption, and meant traveling around.  I thought that this was a normal way of being, and it was interesting for me.  Perhaps adult refugee people would be miserable, but I think for kids, this was a very interesting oddball experience.

I remember one particular thing—a guy moving a ladder around, and the sounds that that made.  What he was doing was improvising electrical wiring connections between different living spaces, made up rooms whose walls were Army blankets.  You’d have a large hall in a building, which had these separate dwelling places, whose walls were blankets.  And this guy was making some kind of shielding.  Later on I figured out what he was doing, but it was fascinating to me. I guess he was connecting light bulbs with each other.  Suddenly these lights went on.  I thought it was fantastic.  It was really fun to see that, and see how somebody can make something like this as really an improv.  Of course, when you’re a kid, you don’t know what that is, or what steps it takes, but this thing is happening, and later on, I understood better what was going on.  And I remembered the interesting noise-scraping sounds on the floor with this ladder.  He would move it along several times.  I was totally fascinated with this odd experience.

FJO:  I love that this earliest musical memory is of something really experimental and unusual. And one could claim that it pre-destined you for a life devoted to exploring sonic phenomena.

DS:  Well, that’s called interpretation.

FJO:  Of course, but those kinds of early memories are the things that stick and have a lasting impact.  It’s like the famous story of La Monte Young listening, fascinated, to the drones that were created by the electrical power transformers in Idaho as a little boy, which eventually left an indelible mark on all of his music.

DS:  There’s a wonderful scene in a Satyajit Ray movie with electrical wires humming on these electronic grids in the middle of vast fields with a train that’s coming in the distance, and then you hear the sound, and it’s kind of a Doppler effect. The Doppler effect is also in the Pierre Schaeffer piece, the train piece.

FJO:  One of the earliest examples of musique concrète.

DS:  Yes.

FJO:  Which was actually created right around the time you were born, entering into an existence when that way of making music became a possibility.

DS:  Mhmm.

A reel-to-reel containing recordings of several classic 1950s tape music compositions by Luciano Berio, Henri Pousseur, and Bruno Maderna is one of the treasures on display in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

A reel-to-reel containing recordings of several classic 1950s tape music compositions by Luciano Berio, Henri Pousseur, and Bruno Maderna is one of the treasures on display in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

FJO:  But of course at that time you wouldn’t have known about any of that. And soon after that, you left Europe and came to the United States where you mentioned something about piano lessons when you were seven or eight.

DS:  Oh, that was very interesting to me.  My mother decided to get a piano as basically a piece of furniture, because this was in vogue—everyone should have a piano and a kid who’s practicing or can play tunes.  So I was taking piano lessons. It was particularly convenient for me because we were living on the third floor of an apartment building and the piano teacher was on the first floor.  So I merely had to slide a banister a couple of times to get to my piano lessons.

“My piano teacher wasn’t always thrilled when I’d come in with a little sketch of something.”

As a child, you’re learning the different note names, coordinating with your body positions, and learning what’s called technique.  But I found out that music had something to do with paper.  It was like a drawing to me.  And so right away I wanted to try to this out. All this stuff started coming together, but I was always being drawn away from the idea of only focusing on the instrument itself and instead was really starting to focus on how these things looked.  So it was a visual experience, as well as connecting it with sounds.  The possibility of varying these things became very interesting to me.  So I would re-write some of these tunes that I was learning, and since this was taking up some of my time, my piano teacher wasn’t always thrilled when I’d come in with a little sketch of something, because that was not considered the goal of what I was supposed to be paying attention to as a piano student, which was practicing and perfecting, not necessarily varying something and being creative with it.

FJO:  So your teacher never remarked that maybe you’re a composer.

DS:  Oh, hell no.

FJO:  So when did the concept of being a composer enter your consciousness?

DS:  I gradually did these things on my own.  And after listening to recordings, I became interested in what this music looked like.  So I ordered some pocket scores so I could see the music notation.  I had a few different scores—Haydn symphonies, Mozart and Beethoven string quartets.  I decided to make a little project for myself.  I asked the music shop person to order me music paper so I could copy the scores, which were tiny, into a bigger size.  I don’t know why I did that.  I just wanted to be with this stuff as notation and to try to understand it in some way.  It was a kind of experiment, but I actually learned a hell of a lot from that in terms of how the material is organized, which instruments are playing when and why, and how this expression is being managed by the composer.  When I was a kid, I was not necessarily having all of these descriptions or vocabulary come to me right away, but I was getting intense impressions and non-verbalized insights that built a kind of intuitive base for appreciating, meaning knowing different things, and also comparing.

FJO:  And at some point, it morphed into composition.

DS:  Oh, this was going on all the time because I would be writing small pieces for piano and then I wrote a couple of string quartet movements.  These things were done on my own, including two orchestral movements.  Then, when I was a freshman in high school, I asked to study theory and so I began studying with a school music supervisor in my area who was also an Episcopal organist and a choir director, and he was the conductor of the civic symphony.  So they played these orchestral movements.  At one of their concerts, they played Respighi and a Beethoven symphony. I went to their rehearsals.  It was great for me to do that because I had listened to these pieces on recordings.  I was given a set of Toscanini Beethoven Symphonies with the NBC Symphony.  My stepfather was associated with a radio station.  He was given a Saturday show, a Ukrainian program on which I sometimes would recite poetry, by the way.  That’s another thing.  But this was interesting, going to rehearsals and learning the musical culture—what the etiquette is and how things are managed.  Observing is a fascinating experience for me.

A group of "benders" on top of a canister.

A group of “benders” on top of a canister in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University is one of the many personal “intuitive” quirks scattered around the space.

FJO:  It’s extraordinary that you had an experience hearing music you wrote for orchestra live so early in your life.

DS:  Very.

FJO:  It’s interesting to me because orchestral music doesn’t seem to have remained a focus for you as a composer, even though you had this early experience.

DS:  Well, it was.  Later on, as an undergrad at Eastman, I had written a three-movement, large orchestral piece called Triptych for Orchestra that had won an award. They had a symposium and that piece was played there.  I also have a piece for orchestra and baritone voice. I have different ensemble pieces, as well as instrumental music.  My first experiences were really with instruments.  They weren’t with electronics, except for a record player.  This came later, from my tendency to experiment and search for new things.  It’s basically curiosity, being inspired by certain things and asking a few questions—what can I do with this?  And how? I would not worry about everything being perfect right away.  It’s possible to not have certain kinds of boundaries, which makes it then possible to think and experience beyond the current stage of experiences that I’ve had.  And that was very interesting for me.

When I was a [college] sophomore, I think, because this was 1965, one of my upperclassmen was Bob Ludwig—the audio engineer who’s got a zillion Grammys by now.  He was given a couple of Ampex portable machines by, I think, his uncle.  He became interested in doing some kind of project, so he came to me and he said, “Hey, you have any ideas for what we can do with these machines?  I want to record et cetera, and try to learn how to edit.”  So I said, “Okay, let me get an idea.” I put together a kind of spatial notation piece for six instruments and then had the idea where these instruments would play and we would record.  So we recorded.  Then we would mess around with the tape, meaning editing.  We took splicings and changed the tape in different ways.  We’re talking really basic, non-studio work, really very experimental, approaching some kind of tape music.  We literally glued together the tape part, then had the instruments play live from the score with the tape parts.  The piece is called Six Plus.

FJO:  I’ve read about it.  I’ve never heard it, but I know of its existence.  When you did that, were you aware of Pierre Schaeffer and all the musique concrète pieces?

“I had never heard the words ‘electronic music.’ There were no courses in this thing. This was basically experimenting from scratch.”

DS:  No.  I had never heard the words “electronic music.”  There were no courses in this thing.  This was basically experimenting from scratch.  What happened after that is some students in town who were from the Rochester Institute of Technology, RIT, were in photography and other visual arts.  And by the way, the term visual arts didn’t exist.  These students had this big studio where they’re taking slides and sorting them.  And they were going to have a show with five projectors.  They explained to me what they had in mind.  They wanted a composer who would work on a sound score.  So I said okay. I didn’t think of it as writing the music from scratch.  I said, “What do you have here as sounds that you want me to work with?”  And they said, “Well, here’s a bunch of records.”  I made a soundtrack for them using tape, but it was really ad-libbing and trying things out, seeing what would happen, and basically learning how to organize and create an expression or expressions that would respond to and be compatible, or not, in different ways with what was going on in their visual expression.

FJO: I’ve looked at some of your earliest instrumental scores. There’s one that probably pre-dates this.  You have a series of pieces that you compiled in the 1960s, but I imagine they’re significantly earlier than that, the Five Early Pieces for solo piano.

DS:  I must have been a sophomore or a junior at Eastman.  They were written after I got bored with the kinds of student piano literature that existed. One of my friends, who was teaching at the Hochstein Music School in town, went away for a few weeks and said, “Will you take my piano students?” My instrument was piano, so I said okay. I went over there and decided that if I’m going to do this for a bunch of weeks, and they have this boring music to play as etudes, let me write my own stuff.  That’s where the Five Early Pieces come from.  So these were not virtuoso pieces.

FJO:  Sure.  But don’t be too dismissive of them. When Peter Schickele gave the keynote address at the Chamber Music America conference some years back, he lamented that so few composers exploring new compositional techniques wrote easier pieces for young players.

DS:  Oh yeah?

FJO:  Such pieces are really a way to introduce these techniques to musicians. And I think your pieces do that.  One of them is in septimal time, and the last one is actually a 12-tone piece.

DS:  That’s right. It’s a 12-tone piece for kids. And it’s actually not unpleasant to play it. It has lyricism in it as well.  I have another piece that I wrote, which is something like a 17-minute long movement for piano and violin, called Music for Violin and Piano.  And I used a few phrases from that 12-tone study for piano students.  I used these phrases toward the end of the piece, because they are very lyrical and they fit into that place in the piece.

FJO:  The other thing I was wondering about when I was looking at the score for that piece is how you were first exposed to 12-tone music?  Was it when you were at Eastman?

DS: It was actually a dilemma for me at Tanglewood.  I was a student there.  So many things happened to me the summer after freshman year and also during sophomore year.  But I think the summer after freshman year, I ended up at Tanglewood with people around like Aaron Copland, Donald Martino, Gunther Schuller, and Elliott Carter who was giving talks on his Double Concerto, which was presented there.  So this was very fascinating for me, and it was like hitting a wall of this suddenly very complex, chromatic music.  So I had little conversations with Schuller asking about 12-tone music.  I was interested in knowing why people chose this way of expression.  And he really couldn’t answer this.  That is stuff that I had to discover on my own.  I had spent two solid years in that phenomenal Sibley Music Library at Eastman, looking and listening to every 20th-century piece I could get a hold of, and in this way learned a lot merely from observation.  Much more than from taking a class, let’s say. At that point, it really was the most valuable thing I could have done because that gradually revealed to me lots of details. Then I started trying these things out on my own.  More than reading a book about something, or being told about something, it was really experiencing a certain reality and coming to different realizations.

FJO:  Of course the other thing that happened when you were at Eastman is you studied with Samuel Adler, who is one of the most significant authorities on orchestration.  Did that have any impact?

DS:  He was a very perceptive person, and he would let me do whatever I was going to do because I was doing things with intent.  Although what I was writing was not at all in his stylistic practice, and I was doing experimentation, he could appreciate my situation let’s say.  I was just doing what I was doing.  So it was not a matter of teaching so much as a matter of suggestion here and there, which I think is very valuable—to have someone stand out of the way, and then make different comments here and there, and in some cases, little practical things such as maybe not two double basses, but three double basses because of certain pitch situations where possibly they may be perceived out of tune or out of focus.  So these little tidbits, and later on, I think in junior year, I got into the graduate orchestration class which I wanted to be in, which I knew would be a lot better than being in instrumentation class.

I tried a couple of weeks of that with Aldo Provenzano, who was visiting from Juilliard and was a chain smoking, Henry Mancini/101 Strings-type arranger and composer.  I really did not need what I considered baby shit level.  By that time I had written a couple of orchestra movements and was into a long orchestral piece with everything in it, including contrabassoon.  It was ridiculous.  I wanted to show that I could get into an orchestration class.  How absurd.  I was told, well you’ve got to write an orchestral piece, so I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”  This is the way they want it, here it is.  Boom!

In that class with grads, there was a lab orchestra every week.  That was the deal.  So I could do my experimental organizing and arranging and trying out orchestral effects with an orchestra there.  I had volunteers in my dorm.  My dorm friends copying the parts for my one-minute, or two-minute, or three-minute musical experiments every week.

FJO:  Wow.

DS:  I think that kind of thing was also fabulous because Sam Adler was conducting and we were getting recordings.  It would be taped.

FJO:  One of the most ambitious pieces you wrote during that time was Lieder auf der Flucht, a song cycle for soprano and eight instruments with German poetry, which actually got you your first BMI Student Composer Award back in 1967.

DS:  Yeah.  That was one.  And then there was another one.  I guess there were several.  And I think for that, I had sent in a couple.  In a way, I was very inexperienced as a freshman and sophomore. I remember meeting Sam Adler for a lesson and he asked me, “Are you applying to BMI?  Are you applying to something else?”  And I said, “I don’t know.  What is that?”  And he said, “Don’t come back for a lesson next week unless you’ve mailed out this stuff.”  He was behaving in a very annoying way— like, “What do you mean you didn’t apply?”  So I said, “Well, I didn’t apply because the piece I wrote was kind of short.  Don’t they want really long pieces?”  He said, “Come on.  Send this thing in.” So I said, “Maybe I’ll send in two pieces.”

FJO: You must have also sent in your flute and piano duo, Quattro, because that piece was also acknowledged that year.

“I remember meeting Sam Adler for a lesson and he asked me, ‘Are you applying to BMI?’
And I said, ‘I don’t know.  What is that?’ And he said, ‘Don’t come back for a lesson next week unless you’ve mailed out this stuff.’”

DS:  Oh, there’s also that.  They were written very near each other, and they’re cool pieces.  So I sent that in with the song cycle, but my idea was, “Unless a piece is 15-minutes long, why bother sending it?”—which is absurd.

FJO:  A striking aspect of that song cycle, which was your first really substantive vocal piece, is that you chose to set another language instead of English.  You set German.

DS:  That’s because what English feels like for me is not the same as German.  And it’s not the same as French.  I also have songs in French.  I have songs in English, but English for me has a different intensity than much more intense languages like German, French, and Polish for instance.  Once I learned Polish, I was reading Polish poetry; it’s no wonder that they have Nobelists who were poets, because it’s really splendid stuff.  Even the sound of it, the nuances are way beyond anything in English.  It may be not nice to say that, but in terms of the comparative experience, the nuances in different languages vary.  And the details in languages such as Polish give it much more intensity for me.  It’s a kind of increased thesaurus of feelings that are available in certain languages.

FJO:  So you’re fresh out of Eastman.  You’ve got your degree.  You’re off to Poland on a Fulbright after you pass the Czech language exam and therefore, weirdly as we discussed, you were allowed to go to Poland to study with Lutosławski.  You’d mentioned that you really admired his Jeux Venitiens. There’s a piece of yours called Jeux des Quatres; it’s a chamber piece, but it’s scored for a very odd instrumental combination.

DS:  Clarinet, cello, piano, trombone.

FJO:  It’s full of extended techniques, and there’s indeterminacy in it as well.  One of the pages looks like a sort of mobile.

DS:  This highly drunk page of gestures, which is one of the movements.

FJO: There definitely seems to be a relationship to Lutosławski in that piece. Was that one of the pieces you were working on when you were studying with him?

DS:  No, that was the year after.  At that point I was at Yale as a grad student. So this was a piece which was different from Lutosławski, but having experienced Lutosławski was part of that difference.  I was pushing in this other way, this other direction of writing scores.  The visual object was very important to getting the sonic result—why that notation and why not some other notation?

FJO:  But then when you got to Yale, you became really deeply immersed in electronic music.

DS:  I started becoming involved. There was a very rudimentary studio.  There was this oddball situation of an ARP synthesizer.  A big whopper ARP, so not a mini, and I thought it was awfully clumsy in different ways.  I also found the ARP sonically too homogenous, believe it or not.  I didn’t describe it to myself that way because it was too early for me to realize why I wasn’t terribly attracted to this thing, which seemed to be able to do all sorts of things.  But in terms of expression, it was not the most exciting thing.  What I did have in there were a few oscillators, which could be made to fool around with each other in different ways.  And these were not part of a synthesizer; they were just an analog, mini-studio.  Then there were filters and noise generators, and also a spring reverb that was kind of strange sounding.  But the strangeness actually enhanced some of my loop sounds that I was making from scratch, from splicing.  I did a lot of splicing. It gave me enough time to hear things and be able to get an up-close-and-personal experience with the sounds because there was absolutely no automaticity involved.

Daria Semegen still manipulates sound using reel-to-reel tapes and teaches her students to do so as well. And, after more than a half century of experience, she has well-tested preferences for what the best angles are for splicing. This is why there is a slab of wood positioned on this reel-to-reel machine (one of four at her Electronic Music Studio at Stony Brook University) which enables people working with the tape deck to precisely eyeball where to position a razor blade in order to make a splice on the tape.

Daria Semegen still manipulates sound using reel-to-reel tapes and teaches her students to do so as well. And, after more than a half century of experience, she has well-tested preferences for what the best angles are for splicing. This is why there is a slab of wood positioned on this reel-to-reel machine (one of four at her Electronic Music Studio at Stony Brook University) which enables people working with the tape deck to precisely eyeball where to position a razor blade in order to make a splice on the tape.

FJO:  You already mentioned doing this piece at Eastman for the six players and messing around with tape, so that was really your first electro-acoustic piece.

DS:  Yeah.

FJO: But it was quite a transition to go from being a composer who was involved with playing the piano and working with an orchestra who did one experimental piece involving manipulating taped sounds to being somebody who knows how to cut and splice tape and mess around with oscillators.  These seem like totally different skill sets.

DS:  Oh, I think it’s part of putting things together.  I also realize, for instance, my Electronic Composition No. 1, which is pretty elaborate, is named that because it is an experience that to me was in a way parallel to visual art composition.  It was much more about construction, rather than a conventional musical composition that stays in its own little prescribed world of what’s expected and what will be subject to a lot of rules and regulations.

“Tonal music is a world that has definite, prescribed behaviors, etiquettes, and expectations.”

We know, for instance, that tonal music is a world that has definite, prescribed behaviors, etiquettes, and expectations. On the whiteboard is [the phrase] “tonal obligations,” which is what I advise students to be aware of when they are writing music which is essentially not tonal, and then they put in something which creates the psychological expectation of tonal music.  Awareness is so vital in terms of the sonic expression.  So I was dealing with this other array of possibilities that was not coming from that world and that I could organize in different ways instead of dealing with absolute pitches and absolute rhythms.  Working in this way was a fascinating experience for me.

The whiteboard in Daria Semegen's electronic music studio at Stony Brook University which includes the phrase "tonal obligations" as well as a couple of twelve-tone rows and a diatonic scale.

The whiteboard in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

FJO:  Writing music for you stemmed from being obsessed with figuring out how notation works and how that then gets translated into sound.  But electronic music is conceptualized in a very different way.  There have been attempts to notate it, but it sort of defies notation, even though there are these bizarre scores for some of the early electronic pieces by Ligeti and Stockhausen, which could probably never be used to recreate a performance.

DS:  Oh, it’s absurd.

FJO:  Right?  Crazy.  But once upon a time, it had to be written down in some form in order to obtain a copyright for it.

DS:  That’s right.  Even if you wrote BS, which a lot of these scores were, only a title page where you scribbled something, and then wrote copyright C and your name.  As you point out, otherwise you couldn’t get a copyright.

FJO:  So is there a score for Electronic Composition No. 1 floating around?

DS:  You don’t need a score.

FJO:  No, but is there one?

DS:  No.  Why would I need it? It’s impossible to notate all of the things that are going on in the piece.  It would just be a superficial skeletal sketch.  I’ve had students who would write analyses of that piece. For instance, one student analyzed densities. The piece has so many parameters going on.  And for me, a parameter is any area that’s available to be varied that you can realize and work with.  That means you have to be aware that a certain area is a viable, working zone for that particular piece.

FJO:  So, in the creation of it, did you make any written-down sketches?

DS: No need.  For me, the most important thing in doing electronic music is that I don’t need some kind of thing on paper.  This is purely a sonic art, just as visual art would be in working with colors, rather than painting by numbers.  You can have a lot of in between things happening, which are not having to comport with conventional ways of writing or visualizing the thing. You can be as specific or as vague as you need to be for musical expression at any moment in your sonic work.

FJO:  So in a way, it must have been greatly liberating for you since you were so fixated on notation.

DS:  Oh, it was not the intent—”Hey, I’m bored with notation; let me break away.”  This was like, “Wow, I don’t even have to pay any attention to notation.  I can just listen.” Now that’s the thrill of it all in the studio.  For me, this is really the purest way of dealing with musical sounds, where you’re only dealing with the sounds.  You’re not being distracted by visual stuff, even though I’ve done soundtracks with visual things and also with choreography.  But creating the electronic music pieces by themselves is not dependent on having to translate a notation or to re-translate the sounds into a notation except if somebody wants to do this for analytical purposes.  The visual stuff is not the piece.

FJO:  Then of course, the other thing is you had the experience of participating in an orchestration lab where you had musicians play whatever you brought in for them every week.  Most people have to wait a lot longer than that. Even folks who receive a commission to write an orchestra piece usually have to turn in the piece many months in advance, and then they eventually get to hear the piece or simply hear a lot of people struggling.  Others may write a piece and it could be more than a decade before they hear it.  Whereas if you create an electronic thing—

DS:  It’s there. So the immediacy of that is very much like mixing your own colors if you’re a painter.  Or creating shapes if you’re a sculptor, or even in working with light as a medium, which is an interesting kind of thing.  Years ago I became aware of light in museum exhibits, and I realized this is an extremely important factor in creating the expression of the visual art, whether it’s a sculpture or whether it’s a painting hanging on a wall.  The color of the light, the shading—the Kelvins now as we say—is part of the expression in showing a visual art piece.

FJO:  To get back to Electronic Composition No. 1. You gave it that title, but it’s not the first electronic piece you did.

DS:  There’s actually a sketch before that which is from Yale.  In Electronic Composition No. 1, I use sounds from the Yale studio, but the rest of the sounds and manipulation is from the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.

FJO:  So was Trill Study a Yale piece?

DS:  Oh, no.  Trill Study was after. It was during the composition of a score for an animation called Out of IntoTrill Study is an intense loop piece.  The trill is literally spliced.  Would you believe that it is more intense a trill than anything from a synthesizer?  It’s very easy on a Buchla synthesizer to create a trill. But it’s not got the same bite—meaning the timbral color of the attack points when you’re alternating from one note to another note of the two-note trill.

The Buchla Synthesizer at Daria Semegen's Electronic Music Studio at Stony Brook University.

The Buchla Synthesizer at Daria Semegen’s Electronic Music Studio at Stony Brook University.

By comparative listening, I said, “Hey, what would this trill be like if I actually spliced the freaking thing together?” It’s a lot more work, but once you have it spliced, you have this beautiful sounding passage and then you can do all kinds of looping and variable speed to create different lengths of loops, and have several loops on different tape recorders, just making sound clouds.

Then recording the result of that, doing some improv and then organizing phrases from that by chopping stuff out and putting it in a different order.  So it’s a lot for me like the visual arts.  There’s something that you can experience with that, but the ultimate thing is: what does it sound like?  If the mechanical uniformity of something like a repeated pattern on any synthesizer or system is too perfect, it doesn’t sound nuanced.

“By comparative listening, I said, ‘Hey, what would this trill be like if I actually spliced the freaking thing together?’”

Now mind you, I’m not trying to sound like natural instruments.  I’m trying to appreciate the aesthetic qualities that I experience with those instruments and trying to break the uniformity and the expectation of uniformity in the more mechanistic musical world of electronic gadgets—which can make very perfect things for you, but those things can be too perfect. So it’s better for me to have spliced that trill. That’s my one loop splice; one loop can create other loops in variance with that.

FJO:  Electronic Composition No. 1 was a watershed piece for you in a lot of ways.  At that point, you were working at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center established by Luening and Ussachevsky, which is a legendary place.

DS:  Mostly Ussachevsky, who actually had training in engineering from Pomona College, California, and a Ph.D. from Eastman later on.  He was very much instrumental in the actual kinks of the place, and the tone, the ambience, the welcoming nature of that place, in encouraging composers, really worldwide, who could come and work there if they were interested.  I think it was run in a way that encouraged creative possibilities.

FJO:  Now when you were at Yale, you didn’t have access to a studio on that level, but you did work with Bülent Arel, who had also created work at the Columbia-Princeton center.

DS:  That Yale studio was rudimentary, and it also had that giant Arp which was not engaging to work with.  I think it was an ergonomics issue.  I had a similar issue with Peter Zinovieff’s machine from his electronic music lab in Britain, which he had loaned to Ussachevsky. This giant synthesizer was put into our faculty studio that I worked in.  And so there it was.  It had wonderful capabilities, but was somewhat ergonomically tedious to work with.

“When some systems become ergonomically too gadgety, it does not intrigue me very much.”

I need a certain degree of immediacy. Getting sonic results now in some of the things that I do obviously takes more time, but when some systems become ergonomically too gadgety, it does not intrigue me very much.  Software often has problems in that way, because the people who design the software have a different way of working than I do, different degrees of intuiting what they go for first and what happens next. Remember I was talking about starting tabula rasa, and then putting certain things in.  I’m also focused on organizing things that I choose if the software allows me to.  When things are too classified, it become impractical.  So I like to organize my gadgets for each piece in a different way.  In a way, it’s organizing your own studio of materials in the software.

A vintage ARP 2600 is still in use in Daria Semegen's electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

A vintage ARP 2600 is still in use in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

FJO:  Of course it’s funny talking about this in the context of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, because the whole thing got started with the ergonomically impractical giant Mark II.

DS:  Yes. That RCA Mark II used rollers, kind of like a piano roll that you would type.  So they had two typewriters with rolls for that.

FJO:  Did you ever work on that?

DS:  No, very few people did.  Milton Babbitt.  And then Wuorinen had a piece on there, but that was a one-time deal.  It was a machine that Milton worked on.

FJO:  So what machines were you working on then?

DS:  Oh, the analog studio.  And there was a Buchla 100 there, and that was terrific.  And that’s used in the Out of Into score.  So yes, a lot of sounds from that place with some beautiful machines, including a terrific filter that was so incredibly discreet.  It was a slider, a kind of graphic filter-type machine, where I could get wonderful sound changes in time.  If I wanted my sound expression in filtering to change in a certain kind of intensity, I could get that from this type of filter.  It was one of a kind.  I’m sure that it’s in storage somewhere.  I don’t think anybody would want to throw it out.

Some of the extraordinary vintage equipment in Daria Semegen's electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

Some of the extraordinary vintage equipment in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

There are some incredible pieces of equipment sonically, like Elektro-Mess-Technik plate reverb units.  We have one of those here, which is this large gray box with a handle. That’s a very special sound.  We also have several models of the giant reverb plate from the same company, EMT, that are in storage.  Those have to be in a separate room, because otherwise such a reverb unit will pick up sounds from the studio through the walls of the unit.

FJO:  To go back to the early 1970s at the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center, you had also mentioned that you were still cutting and splicing reel to reels when you were there.

DS:  Yeah.

FJO:  But since synthesizers were now on the market and were getting smaller and smaller—to the point that people were starting to set up studios in their own homes and even travel around with Moogs and Buchlas—wasn’t it somewhat old fashioned at that point to still be working that way?

DS:  I think that perhaps is a typical perception of things, but I think in terms of the experience creatively, of working with devices.  I tend not to like to work boxed into one box. Whatever work I’m doing on a Buchla or any software, that is only the beginning of what I do.  I have to do a tremendous amount of editing and varying in order to get to a completion with a lot of these sounds that I use.  Patterns, textures, and combinations of timbre—it’s not enough for me to limit myself to the Buchla and for my piece to be about that.  It is not going to be my piece sticking with only one type of expression or one unit.  It involves different types of comparative listening and different listening techniques, which are not conventional ear training.  Then choosing sounds, characteristics, and expressions through comparisons.  Comparative listening is very important.

“Editing is a constituent part of what my pieces are about.”

There are all these techniques that are involved in editing sound materials, and paying attention to things like attack characteristics and the expression of simultaneities—slices of sound, as well as how long the sound landscapes work.  And then what their densities are as they vary and what sorts of expressions they create.  For instance, for me, sonic intensity is only one single parameter.  So I’m aware of that through the piece and in designing and choosing different sound components.  I feel that my sound sources regardless of what they are, or even whether they are analog or digital, doesn’t matter as much as having the possibility to control these things in different ways once they are stored, let’s say.  Because I work with stored sounds, basically on tape or digitally.  Editing is a constituent part of what my pieces are about.

FJO:  I’m going to jump ahead to 1990 then, because what you just said reminds me of a fascinating statement you made in the CD booklet notes for the recording of a piece for MIDI grand piano that you wrote for Loretta Goldberg called Rhapsody: “These new tools cannot change or solve the perplexing compositional problems often encountered in creating a new work, whose ultimate purpose is to communicate with my audience once more with feeling.”

DS:  That’s right.

FJO:  That sentiment is worlds away from “who cares if you listen”!

“You cannot own your sounds or your work too much and be so possessive that you will not change things and ignore your intuitive reactions.”

DS:  Oh, I know.  But I think Milton would say that this was overblown, or improperly interpreted, et cetera.  And, of course, he felt it was sensationalized in various ways.  But in giving a bit of a perspective on that—who is the initial audience to my sounds?  Who is that?  Me.  I have to be the first listener to my sounds.  And I modify them according to the reactions that I have as a listener who is, again, approaching the experience of listening without being, let me say, possessive about the sounds.  I tell my students that you cannot own your sounds or your work too much and be so possessive that you will not change things and ignore your intuitive reactions.  I think intuitive reactions are vital in creating a personal fingerprint on your art instead of being so possessive that you own it too much to improve it.

A collection of loops created by Stony Brook students using magnetic tape saturate a wall in Daria Semegen's electronic music studio.

A collection of loops created by Stony Brook students using magnetic tape saturate a wall in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio.

FJO:  Now in terms of taking work and giving it a personal fingerprint, one of the pieces of yours I find super fascinating and wonderful is Arc. And yet this was a piece that was created to accompany dancers, and the choreography was already completed before you composed this piece. You had to make your music precisely fit with that.

DS:  That’s right. It was very interesting. I was given large graph paper, almost like Chinese scrolls, and each square was a beat. I had these little graph paper squares with annotations by the choreographer Mimi Garrard indicating things like lighting changes—because this choreography was also synchronized with a digitally controlled lighting system which was called CORTLI, as in courtly dancing, but it was also an acronym.

A page from the movement and lighting "score" for Arc which was fixed before Daria Semegen began composing the music for it. (Image courtesy Daria Semegen.)

A page from the movement and lighting “score” for Arc which was fixed before Daria Semegen began composing the music for it. (Image courtesy Daria Semegen.)

It was put together at Bell Labs by James Seawright, who was the head of visual arts at Princeton and was also on the staff at Columbia-Princeton as one of their technical people.  He’s a phenomenal kinetic sculptor.  Just amazing.  I remember as a kid at Eastman I would look through Time magazine and I saw a picture of Jimmy Seawright.  I didn’t know who he was, but he was there with one of his electronic sculptures, and there was a little write up about it.  I had no idea that six or so years later I’d be collaborating with James Seawright and doing two scores for two different choreographies, including Arc.  Anyway, the scores that I came up with had to be really on target in terms of the tempo and their work.  Arc consists of an A-B-C-B-A tempo shape, let’s say, starting with slow movements on the outer ends and then faster, and then the fastest.

FJO:  Arc has deeply resonated with me for decades, and I’ve sometimes wondered—especially after reading that comment of yours about communication and feeling—whether a piece like this could somehow serve as a gateway for listeners who love the standard orchestra and chamber music repertoire but might not be initially amenable to electronic music.

DS:  It’s more accessible.  It’s more familiar.  But the timbral world there is not; it’s other earthly, let’s say, when compared with instrumental sounds.  It’s a simpler score in different ways than something like Electronic Composition No. 1 and things like Arabesque, which is way different.  Arc has more clearly displayed sounds that you can hear as they change and modify, morph in expression with timbre, which was interesting.  And it’s a Buchla piece.

An archival photo from the original Mimi Garrard Dance Theatre production of Arc in May of 1977 which featured a portable computer-controlled lighting system by Mimi Ganard and James Seawright and an electronic musical score by Daria Semegen. (Photo courtesy Daria Semegen.)

An archival photo from the original Mimi Garrard Dance Theatre production of Arc in May of 1977 which featured a portable computer-controlled lighting system by Mimi Ganard and James Seawright and an electronic musical score by Daria Semegen. (Photo courtesy Daria Semegen.)

FJO:  Arabesque is a much more recent piece. But when I was looking at a score of the second movement of your set of Three Piano Pieces from the 1960s, the one that jumps all over the place, I was struck by how reminiscent it was to Arabesque.

DS:  That aesthetic?

FJO:  Yeah.

DS:  You got it!

FJO:  Of course, in the electronic realm there are many things that you can do that you couldn’t do in quite the same way in a solo piano piece. You’re not limited to the timbres of a piano. You’re constantly manipulating timbre, and the electronic medium is also not limited to 12-tone equal temperament. Arabesque is filled with all sorts of microtonal intervals. But the gestures are still somewhat similar. It also doesn’t sound like any other electronic music I know from what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, the post-analog era. You’re still continuing to explore all those wonderful old-school electronic music sounds, yet your music has continued to evolve within that medium.

“I don’t think of old school and new school or in between schools.”

DS:  I don’t think of old school and new school or in between schools.  I simply relate to the material in my piece rather than worrying about or being aware of this or that school.  What you describe in this piano piece that’s way early is a musical behavior that is toccata-like.  Well, there you go.  If you’re going to compare it to body language musically, then you can say, “Well, yeah.  This piece [Arabesque] is kind of toccata-like.” But it’s only a section of the piece and that describes a sort of body language, which I’m aware of in terms of how things move musically.

FJO:  Okay, old school and new school are probably the wrong words for me to be using to explain this, but here we are, we’re sitting in this amazing studio with reel-to-reel machines.  You know, I haven’t really seen a lot of those around elsewhere so much these days.

DS:  Well, maybe people don’t know how to work with them!  And, of course, this is only one part of the experience.  We also have the digital world.  We also have digital editing available. To my taste, people don’t use it intricately enough. They could be experimenting with digital editing in a way that goes deeper and gives a greater array of possibilities to choose from, and that is an exciting thing to do.  That’s what I like to do with digital editing because it quickly expands the choices that I have, but I have to instigate the changes myself, because hey, the job of a composer is to choose!

Various vintage oscillators and reverb units surround a state of the art digital mixing console.

Analog and digital equipment co-exists in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

FJO:  So one of the choices you’ve made is to still work with reel to reels.

DS:  Yes, depending on what techniques I’m using.  Because, for instance, I can very easily make elaborate improvisations in a studio that create more complex material or generations of complexity.  Let’s say you’re starting with original simpler material, going to several generations of layers.  And then you can extract chunks from that to be used in other ways.

“The job of a composer is to choose!”

I think of improv as a very viable technique.  When you hear my pieces, they don’t sound improvised; they sound deliberate because the sounds were deliberately chosen. But then we go to consider how these sounds were made.  That’s where anything goes.  It could be improv. It could be something that’s just the opposite, something very precise.  I go between these two different worlds of improvisation and precision, using randomness as a tool to generate material of different characters.  And not staying in one particular catechism of rules.

FJO:  That’s a very inspiring thing, not only from a creative standpoint but also from a pedagogical one. So we should conclude by talking a bit about teaching.  You’ve been here at Stony Brook since 1974.

DS:  Yes.

FJO:  That’s a very long time—44 years.

DS:  Mhmm.

FJO:  And although the studio has grown and has lots of newer equipment, there is equipment here that goes back to when you first got here, and stuff from even earlier than that, that you still use and that your students can also use.

DS:  That’s right.  It’s nice to have an array of possibilities available.  The instruments that you have also influence your perception, your thinking, and the way you can work.  For instance, my digital editing has a lot to do with my experiences splicing tapes.  I used to mess around, changing transients, by cutting slivers off the attack points of tape just to see what the heck would happen.  And then using different angle cuts on the tape attacks or sometimes endings.  So doing these little playing-around experiments are all lessons in sonic experiences.  Because ultimately that’s what happens: You make changes.  You listen to it.  My digital editing is very much influenced by this.  I also have one piano piece, which is influenced by working with electronic sound textures.  I explained that a little bit in a program note. These two seemingly disparate worlds are all interconnected here and there, sometimes more intensely or less intensely.  All these things exist.  So it’s having in my head these various experiences, including this.

FJO:  So a final question.  You said the audience begins with you.

“I’m not going to tell an audience what to do or how to react. That’s not my job!”

DS:  Yeah, I’ll be the first listener.  Then basically I share, but that is not my main drive.  I don’t sit around and think about, “Hey, I’m going to be sharing this.” You listen to Electronic Composition No. 1¸ and that gets pretty bizarre.  When I was making some of those sounds, I would say, “Whoa, this is really kicking it around here.  Gee, I wonder how an audience would react?”  But then I’d basically let them worry about it.  I’m not going to tell them what to do or how to react.  That’s not my job!

Daria Semegen with a bunch of wires in her mouth sitting in front of the Buchla synthesizer at the Stony Brook Electronic Music Center.

Beth Anderson: Just Dropping In

History teaches us that no matter how meticulously we plan, something unexpected will inevitably occur. And if we take the exact opposite approach to careful preparation, which is to completely embrace serendipity and “go with the flow,” life can be an amazing adventure. Take, for example, the life of Kentucky born and raised composer Beth Anderson.

The only child born to constantly quarreling parents who raised her on a family farm between Mt. Sterling and North Middletown in Montgomery County, Anderson did not have a great deal of access to music early on. But her grandmother, who lived on the other side of the county, owned a Mason and Hamlin upright piano which fascinated Anderson so much that she was given a toy piano for Christmas at the age of three. Just before her seventh birthday, her parents sold the farm and the family moved to the town of Mt. Sterling. Shortly thereafter her parents divorced, and as a consolation, Anderson started piano lessons with a local teacher in town; one of the first pieces she learned to play was Scarf Dance by Cécile Chaminade. Around that time she also began to write short piano pieces as well.

“I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music,” Anderson acknowledged when we visited her in her apartment across the street from the Brooklyn Museum. But perhaps an even more significant chance encounter than the one with Chaminade was finding a copy of John Cage’s book Silence in the Mt. Sterling Public Library some years later when she started high school. As she remembered, “I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read. I looked up every name. I used it as a catalog of what to care about. He was my guy.”

Against Anderson’s wishes, she acquiesced to her mother’s plan for her to attend the University of Kentucky and again, as luck would have it, John Cage and Merce Cunningham showed up there for a week-long residency in 1968. That initial encounter with Cage validated her own compositional instincts, and she decided to leave Kentucky and head to the West Coast. But once she was in California, she tried to randomly connect to Lou Harrison and soon discovered that pure happenstance doesn’t always yield the best results, as she told us:

I had a friend who had a friend who was driving a race car, and he had to be down in the Aptos area, where Lou lived, at a very early hour. He dropped me off at six o’clock in the morning, and I walked up and knocked on the door. I hadn’t told them I was coming, because I didn’t know I was coming until the night before and I didn’t have the phone number. So I just knocked on the door, and Bill Colvig, Lou’s companion, got up and let me in, and went to start water for tea, and went to talk to Lou, to get him up and come talk to me, because I explained what I was there for. Lou was clearly not having it. He didn’t want to get up. He didn’t know who I was, or why I was there bothering them at dawn. Eventually he came out and we had a little conversation and a little tea. … But he wasn’t at all interested in being my teacher. … That was my experience of Lou in 1969. And then, in ’74, I met him again at the Cabrillo Festival, and … then we were friends. But before that, I think I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.

Still, once she was at Mills, pure chance led her to study with Terry Riley, who had only just begun teaching, and Robert Ashley. Infectious melodies and conceptual work inspired by text would be hallmarks of Beth Anderson’s own compositional style.

Beth then relocated again, to New York City, where she co-edited the legendary Ear magazine, spearheaded various initiatives to promote the music of female composers, and served as a piano accompanist for numerous dance companies while she continued to write pieces that explored converting the letters of a text into musical pitches and left the durations up to the performers. Eventually though, she abandoned this experimental approach and began to compose works that showcased unabashed tunefulness and regular rhythms. And yet, all this music is also the result of a form of serendipity, albeit one that is admittedly more controlled, as she elaborated:

I write little shreds and tatters and then figure out how to have more of this and less of that, and cut them into each other. I can write a whole section that was actually on a drone, like on a C, and then another whole section that was on F. Then I would cut them into each other, and I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music. People hear them and hear the harmonic movement, but it wasn’t really movement. It was just cut-ups.

Our own encounter with Beth Anderson this past month was also, by and large, a product of chance. Back in January at the Chamber Music America conference, I ran into her and she mentioned that she was writing her memoirs. Then in March, she sent me an email to ask if I knew of anyone who’d be willing to read them through for her before she attempted to approach book publishers. Since I love to read, I volunteered, and she showed up unannounced at my office to hand deliver a copy. On a whim, I started reading it on the subway that same evening. I was so compelled by her story that I couldn’t put it down and I finished the 258-page manuscript within a couple of days. I had known Anderson for many years and had heard a great deal of her music. I was always intrigued, but didn’t fully grasp it on some level. Yet after reading the story of her life, everything finally made sense—the shift in compositional style, the seemingly “normal” sounding music that becomes less and less normal the more carefully you listen to it, all of it.

“I wasn’t into planning,” she explained. “I didn’t seem to understand the concept, and I still sort of don’t. I mean, I brought you that book the other day, and you were totally surprised. I just sort of drop in.”


April 6, 2018 at 1:00 p.m.
Beth Anderson in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Anderson’s apartment in Brooklyn
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  We’ve known each other for a very long time, but I feel like I know you so much better now after having read the first draft of your memoirs.  So thank you so much for letting me into your world that way.  It was a fascinating trip, and it has helped me to understand so much more about you and your music than I did before. And it also inspired me to want to talk to you about it.  Many people like to feel they know something about the composers whose music they care about, but it isn’t always positive. The more I’ve learned about Wagner, the less I’ve wanted to hear his music.

Beth Anderson:  There is that.  But sometimes it’s fun to know something about the person.  I want my music to be paid more attention to.  I felt like I’d sort of dropped out. It’s nice to have another way to engage an imaginary public by talking about my life.  Obviously, if nobody reads it, it won’t have any positive effect on the number of people that listen to my music, but if a lot of people do, then maybe it would.

FJO:  I do think when people know more about a composer, whether it’s some detail about that person’s life or even just a photo, it is possible to have more empathy with that composer’s music. I think this was a fundamental idea that led to the creation of Meet The Composer in 1974. If we want people to think composers are relevant to our world we must show that the people who actually create it represent the broad and diverse community we live in.  One of the things that struck me in your memoir was how you learned about Cécile Chaminade while you were still a beginning pianist. I think that set you on a path that you might otherwise not have followed if every composer you studied had been an old dead guy.

“I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music.”

BA:  I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music.  That was cool.  But it took a long time to find another one.  They just did not show up in my practicing Bach, Beethoven, and Liszt, until I found Pauline Oliveros.  And there was a big space between Chaminade and Oliveros.

FJO:  But before you learned about Pauline Oliveros you also studied with Helen Lipscomb and learned that she was also a composer.

BA:  But the only things I’d ever heard of hers were a trio and her teaching pieces.  She did not have a big concert output, as far as I knew.  I think that either the music is lost or somebody else besides me has it.  One of her relatives sent me the Trio—that same trio, as though it were her whole output—and wanted me to be the keeper of it because I was the only person they could find on the internet who mentioned her name, which is tragic.  I had hoped that the University of Kentucky would have her stuff, because she lived in town forever.

FJO:  Even though there was this long time between finding women who wrote music, I was struck by something you wrote about your mindset at the time you had discovered Cécile Chaminade: you didn’t realize at that point—because why would you as a little girl growing up who just learned a piece composed by a woman—that there was this really huge disparity between the performances of music by male and female composers.

BA:  And the availability of their music—until the ‘70s, when that set of three records came out called Women’s Work. It was sitting in the window of a big book and record store on Fifth Avenue [in Manhattan]; I was walking down the street and I almost fell over myself.  My God!  Women composers.  So cool.  There just weren’t any records.  I had found Chaminade in a John Thompson book, and I didn’t find anything except Scarf Dance.  It’s not like you could go down to the Mount Sterling Public Library [in Kentucky] and find Ruth Crawford Seeger or anybody else.  So it was very exciting.  It took a long time for that stuff to start coming out, and the musicologists are doing a great job bringing it forward, inch by inch.  But Jeannie Pool, a friend of mine from the distant past, was trying to get a master’s writing about women composers, and her committee told her that this was not something that was appropriate.

FJO:  What reason did they give her?

BA:  There weren’t any primary sources.  There wasn’t any music. They thought that it was unimportant and that she wouldn’t be able to find any stuff to write about.  So she put out a little booklet about women composers which was very nice.  She got a master’s eventually, but in California with different people.  I’m not sure what she actually ended up writing about.  But in New York, she was definitely told not to do it.

FJO:  That’s terrible.  To return to the Mount Sterling Public Library and the things that you did manage to find there in your formative years, it’s interesting how deeply some of the things that you found so early on stuck with you—like John Cage’s book Silence.  You grew up in Kentucky, which is where bluegrass music began. You do seem to have an affinity for similar harmonies in your own music from many decades later, yet—as far as I know—you were not directly exposed to any of that music. You wrote about an uncle who loved opera.

Framed photos of various members of Beth Anderson's family hang on a wall near the entrance to her apartment.

BA:  My uncle hated country music and my mother hated country music.  I wasn’t allowed to listen to the Mount Sterling radio station, which actually had people from the hills coming down doing live singing on the radio there.  That was discouraged. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a live bluegrass concert.  I’d hear it in movies or something, but that’s about it.  The music I was aware of was popular music, and piano music [I was studying], and stuff from the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s that my mother sang, so it took a while to get around to other stuff.  And hymns.  I was big on church music at the time, because they paid me to show up and play.

FJO:  And yet for whatever reason, I hear some kind of relationship between your music and bluegrass, as well as the older music from which bluegrass derived, old timey music. And yet it was not because you were immersed in it.

BA:  Well, I love folk music.  I was a big Joan Baez freak.  My favorite song was “Old Blue.”  I used to have a big old dog named Blue, and she and I used to sing it together.  Every time you say the word blue, she would howl.  So, it was a chorus.

FJO:  I was struck by your list of the three earliest songs that you remember hearing: “Love and Marriage,” “Lover, Come Back to Me,” and Rosemary Clooney singing “This Old House.” What about those three songs stuck with you?

BA:  I think it was the ideas behind the songs more than the actual tunes, because my parents were so busy getting divorced and re-married, and we did live in an old house, then we lost the old house so there were a lot of house and divorce stories going on in my life.

FJO:  And music became central to your life after their final divorce from each other.

BA:  That’s what I got.  I finally got that piano.  My grandmother’s piano came to live with us.

FJO:  But even before that, you had toy instruments and you tinkered with them.  It was almost like you were set up to become an experimental music composer.

BA:  I used to think that all those toy instruments ruined my ears as a child because I was clearly set up to become a microtonal composer.  Those things are so far off, especially the harp.  That was awful.  It jangled and circled around a pitch; the strings were colored rubber bands.  It was a bad instrument.

Beth Anderson, as a young girl, holding a cat and hearing a hat outside on a farm.

A very young Beth Anderson with her kitty at Sideview Farm in Montgomery County, Kentucky c. 1954. (Photo by Marjorie Celeste Hoskins Anderson, Beth Anderson’s mother, courtesy Beth Anderson.)

FJO:  So, looking back to the very beginning of you creating your own music, you obviously experimented with the toy instruments. But there’s no surviving music composed for them by you.  Did you know about the John Cage toy piano suite?

BA:  Not yet, but I performed it on my MFA recital and various moments after that.  I love toys.

FJO:  But perhaps it was only when you started taking piano lessons and had to learn to read music that other people had written that you consciously started thinking about creating your own things.

BA:  Yes, I thought it was fun to write stuff down. As soon as I got a pad of music paper, I was off, not that anybody thought it was a good idea.  It takes away from your time practicing, and everybody wanted me to practice more and write less.

FJO:  Your mother played the piano, but it was basically a hobby for her.  Yet it seems to me that from pretty early on there was this idea that you were going to be a musician.

BA:  Well that’s what I thought, but every year my mother would say, “Do you want to quit?”  It cost her money and it was money she didn’t wish to spend, and she didn’t see any reason for me continuing on with this.  She wanted me to have piano lessons, the way she wanted me to have ballet and tap.  She wanted me to have a certain grace, what little girls are supposed to have who grow up and marry doctors or whatever.  But she didn’t expect it to be a career, and she was mildly appalled that I kept at it, and at it, and at it.  It was not a good thing.  Unlike Prokofiev’s family, who kept pushing and pushing.  His family was so helpful.  Mine was not.

FJO:  But since you were an only child, I think that in some ways music became a kind of surrogate sibling to you, a constant companion.

BA:  Well, it certainly gave me something to entertain myself with that didn’t require other people.

FJO:  But it’s interesting that even though your family didn’t want you to do music, they thought that playing piano was better than writing music.

BA:  Well, according to my teachers.  My mother didn’t care one way or another.  She just was hoping I would quit.  She wanted me to play the flute, because she saw that as social and getting out of the house, and doing something with other people, so she was willing to keep paying two dollars a month for the flute forever.

A group of recorders standing on a bureau with a mirror and various personal effects of Beth Anderson.

FJO:  As it turned out, you wound up playing flute for years in wind bands, even in college.  A very big part of your formative experience with music was playing in wind bands.

BA:  And marching band was my primary exercise for many years.  That was the world’s most exhausting activity as far as I could tell.

FJO:  It also exposed you to a lot of repertoire that you might not have been exposed to otherwise. Certainly much different repertoire than the piano music that you were playing.

BA:  Yes.  If I had been a good enough flutist, I could have eventually played in the orchestra at Henry Clay.  But I wasn’t one of those two girls.  We had a sea of 30 flutes. The fact that I was eighth chair was pretty good;  they had some really good flute players.

FJO:  So your school had an orchestra as well as a wind band?

“The fact that I was eighth chair was pretty good; they had some really good flute players.”

BA:  Yeah. And Henry Clay in Lexington had a really good symphonic band. We marched in the Cherry Blossom parade in Washington one year with the cherry blossoms falling from the sky.  It was so magical.  Definitely the best experience I ever had with marching.

FJO:  And you stayed with it for years and years, even after you could have done other stuff!  What was the appeal?

BA:  Well, in college as a music major, you had to have an ensemble activity, and I could already play flute.  So I just stayed with the band instead of switching to chorus. Not that I didn’t sing in chorus. I was also in Madame Butterfly one summer.  I was one of those girls in a lavender kimono with an umbrella.  I liked singing, but I stayed with the band.

FJO:  One thing that I find so incongruous about your early musical studies is that when you were studying the piano you were basically playing music exclusively by old dead men, but in band you were playing newer music, undoubtedly including some music by living composers, though probably not stuff that would have sounded like Webern and Stockhausen.

BA:  No, but there was Persichetti.  There was an awful lot of Leroy Anderson, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Sousa, and re-writes of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture.  I don’t know why that seemed to come year after year with those clarinets going forever and ever.

FJO:  The reason I bring this up is that it seems so whacky that it was one of your early band teachers who first introduced you to 12-tone music.  That seems like a very odd person to be the person who did that.

BA:  Mr. [Richard] Borchardt. Well, he was a special guy.  I wish I knew more about him.  He’s not with us anymore.  It was [during] a summer band clinic of some sort—we were practicing the 1812 Overture and there was some kind of little composition class.  I, of course, got involved with that, and he chose to teach us how to do 12-tone music.  I thought that it was the coolest thing in the world.  So I wrote this quartet right away, and he put it on the show with the 1812 Overture.  That was kind of a fun side by side.

FJO:  Does that piece survive?

BA:  Possibly.  But it’s not in Finale, I’ll tell you.  And I don’t know where it is.

FJO:  So you won’t be taking it out to show us.

BA:  I’m hoping not to.  It wasn’t a great a piece, but it was hilarious because it kept being performed. There was a wine glass at the end that was supposed to break, but it never broke.

FJO:  Yeah, I love that story.  It’s what actually made me want to hear the piece.

BA:  With the wine glass hitting the metal and not breaking, just going thump.

FJO:  Maybe you should try it again with a cheaper wine glass.

BA:  Oh, I think that’s the point.  It was cheap, and therefore it wouldn’t break.  It was too tough.  It bounced.  You have to get an expensive, really elegant one.

FJO:  One that could cost more than hiring a musician to throw it!  But aside from the curiosity factor of the wine glass at the end, there isn’t a lot of 12-tone band music.  So it’s notable that the person who wanted to put you in that direction was a band person.

BA:  Well, I taught for Young Audiences a little bit.  It’s a lot easier to teach something that’s coding or that has a system than to say, “Give me your heart,” in a clarinet solo to a child who doesn’t know what their heart is or even how to write for clarinet for that matter.  So it was much easier to tell us, “Take these notes, put them in some weird order, and then turn them upside down” and stuff. You could talk about it, so it’s easier to teach.

FJO:  Considering how much band experience you had, it’s surprising that you didn’t wind up writing more band music.

BA:  The only other thing I did was a Suite for Winds and Percussion, and that was a re-write of music I wrote for a film score.  I just took it and turned it into that because Robert Kogan, who had an orchestra in Staten Island, had asked for apiece that would not use his strings because the strings weren’t very strong at that point.  So he wanted me to just use the rest of the people.  So it’s not exactly a real band; it’s for orchestral winds and percussion.

FJO:  An orchestra minus the strings, like the first movement of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto. Curiously though, in addition to being turned onto 12-tone music by your band director and then writing a 12-tone band piece, when you were enrolled at the University of Kentucky, one of the legendary band composers, John Barnes Chance, taught there.  His Second Symphony and his Variations on a Korean Folk Song are really terrific pieces. But I suppose that by the time you got to study with him, your head was somewhere else.

BA:  Yeah, I was into Webern and Cage. I really wasn’t trying to hang out around Korean folk songs.  I was going in a different direction. I wanted to know about electronic music desperately at that point, and he made fun of that.  He thought it was humorous. He could do it, it’s just that what he was doing it with was so basic that it was absurd.  It was useful for the theater department, but it wasn’t exactly something he would call his music.

FJO:  So what made you so curious about electronic music?  How did you even become aware that it existed?

BA:  I don’t know. Maybe John Cage talked about it in his books.  I got to UK (University of Kentucky) when I was 16 and started working in the music library. I was reading Source, and I had a wonderful music history teacher, Kathleen Atkins. She played Tod Dockstader in class. That was my introduction to real electronic music, music that took faucets dripping and turned it into something else.  I love Tod Dockstader!  He doesn’t seem to be the big hit to everybody else that he was to me.  Then I started hearing everybody else. Kathy wanted to build an electronic studio at UK, and they wouldn’t give her the money.  So I left.  When I went back to school, I went to Davis, and they had an electronic music studio, and I studied with Jerome Rosen. I think his level of interest in electronic music was trying to help us learn how to make advertisements using electronic music, because he was always assigning things that were 30 seconds or one minute.  He didn’t want to hear a ten-minute electronic piece.  He wanted to hear some tiny little gem that would somehow excite him.  Then, of course, I finally got to Mills, where they had much more space and an interest in bigger pieces and different styles.

FJO:  Let’s stay for a little bit longer at the University of Kentucky and those early years before you went to California.  You were able to learn about Tod Dockstader, which is amazing because that music was not very widely distributed at the time.  It wasn’t available everywhere, but it got to you.  John Cage’s Silence, which was published by Wesleyan University Press, also reached you.

BA:  In high school.

FJO:  Which is amazing. And also Source Magazine.

“I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read.”

BA:  They had a great a music library.  They used to have a lot of money for it, and now they’ve got more, because there’s some lady down there in Kentucky that supports a lot of things, including that music library. The last time I was down there, I went over to see what was up, and it’s gorgeous.  They have every periodical, even Fiddle Tune News; it’s that big.  They’ve got all of it.  And it’s not like when I was in NYU; I would go to look up a magazine and somebody had stolen half of the issues.  I couldn’t find the whole run of anything.  There were just huge holes in their collection.  I hope they fixed that.  But UK didn’t have that problem.  They had a lot of stuff.

FJO:  So if somebody was interested, they could find these things and go down that route.  They could know that these things exist. That’s really important in terms of developing a sense and a knowledge base, finding that stuff on your own rather than just being told about it.  I think it was really important for your personal development that you found those things on your own.

BA:  Well, I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read.  I looked up every name.  I used it as a catalog of what to care about.  He was my guy.

FJO:  And then by dumb luck, pure serendipity, you go to the University of Kentucky, and he has a residency there.

BA:  He shows up, and then I dropped out of school. And I come back and he’s there.  He was at Davis for a term.  It was freaky and wonderful.

FJO:  One of the big revelations to me in reading your memoir is that your life has been this chain of seemingly pure accidents that completely flow into each other. You take these sudden turns and then you’re somewhere else, but it seems totally natural even though it’s totally unexpected.  Interestingly, it’s similar to a lot of your music, which has been described by other people as collage oriented. I think that word doesn’t give an accurate sense of what it is, because when you think collage, you think these things don’t belong together, but in your music they do.  It’s like they’re carefully woven together, even though they’re not connected. So you don’t realize that they shouldn’t work together, but they do, and it’s kind of the same way your life has unfolded.

BA:  And the quilt.

A detail from a quilt hanging on one of the walls in Beth Anderson's apartment.

FJO:  Yes, exactly, we’ll get to that, too, in a bit.  You initially didn’t want to go to the University of Kentucky, but your mother wanted you to go there. You wanted to go somewhere else because you were interested in John Cage. But then suddenly Cage was at the University of Kentucky.

BA:  And the only reason I didn’t study with Ned Rorem was because I forgot to ask him to hang out and wait for me.  The only reason I didn’t study with Pauline Oliveros is because I got a ride past her when I was hitchhiking. I always say, “Well, that’s the universe.”  The universe was just going with it, whatever it was.  I wasn’t into planning.  I didn’t seem to understand the concept, and I still sort of don’t.  I mean, I brought you that book the other day, and you were totally surprised.  I just sort of drop in.

FJO:  And now here we are talking.  This happened the same way!  It’s interesting that you also had read Ned Rorem pretty early on, around the same time you were reading Cage.  I think of Rorem as a radical composer in a lot of ways, but a lot of people didn’t, especially at that time. They thought he was an old-fashioned composer because he never gave up tonality and he never gave up writing beautiful melodies. There was a real braveness to sticking to his guns and writing the music he wanted to write.  And you learned about him and his music relatively early on.  So in addition to all the avant-garde experimental music you were learning about, you also had a role model for going against the grain and writing really beautiful music, which is what you ultimately wound up doing.

BA:  Well, Cage and Rorem went different places.  But I thought they were both radicals, and I fell in love with Rorem’s stuff through playing for singers.  At UK, that was their idea of modern music, Vaughn Williams and Ned Rorem.  And the stuff was gorgeous.  What’s not to like?  And of course, his books were hilarious and wonderful.  I wanted to go to Paris.  I wanted to know all these wild and crazy people.

FJO:  I feel like Rorem’s influence has even found its way into the writing style of your memoir.  You’re just telling the story of your life the way he did, in a very honest and sincere way.

BA:  I just don’t know some other way to do it.  I haven’t read his books since I was very young, so I don’t think I actually tried to go in that direction.  I’m just doing it the way I know how.

FJO:  In terms of not planning, it’s very interesting how this played out in terms of possible role models you could have had as teachers.  Cage was a certain kind of a role model.  So were Pauline Oliveros, Ned Rorem, and Lou Harrison, a composer who found a way to be experimental and beautiful at the same time, writing music that was really original but also very immediate and very moving. And you tried to connect with Lou Harrison when you came to California, but it didn’t quite work out.

BA:  [My then composition teacher] Richard Swift and I talked and clearly I wasn’t interested in writing 12-tone music when I was studying with him and that’s what he wrote. So you would think we would not go together as a great teacher-student duo. So he thought that I would like to study with Lou Harrison, and he said, “Why don’t you go see him?”  I didn’t have any money to figure out how to get there by paying for the bus, but I had a friend who had a friend who was driving a race car, and he had to be down in the Aptos area, where Lou lived, at a very early hour.  He dropped me off at six o’clock in the morning, and I walked up and knocked on the door.  I hadn’t told them I was coming, because I didn’t know I was coming until the night before and I didn’t have the phone number. So I just knocked on the door, and Bill Colvig, Lou’s companion, got up and let me in, and went to start water for tea, and went to talk to Lou, to get him up and come talk to me, because I explained what I was there for.

“I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.”

Lou was clearly not having it.  He didn’t want to get up.  He didn’t know who I was, or why I was there bothering them at dawn.  Eventually he came out and we had a little conversation and a little tea, and he agreed with me that perhaps I would enjoy meeting the gardener at UC Santa Cruz that Cage talked about in his books and that yes, in fact there were communes in the hills around Aptos and Santa Cruz and that, if I hitched around, I’d eventually find somebody that would take me to one of these places.  But he wasn’t at all interested in being my teacher and having me come and sit at his knee.  And Bill—I didn’t know anything about building instruments.  I thought it would be fun, but I was starting from zero.  I’d never built a bird house, much less anything else with wood.  So they just sent me on my way after a couple of hours, and I hitched down to the beach to wait for the guy to come pick me up at the end of the day. And that was my experience of Lou in 1969.  And then, in ’74, I met him again at the Cabrillo Festival, and he really liked my piece, and then we were friends.  But before that, I think I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.

FJO:  That doesn’t seem like a good way to make a first impression.

BA:  But if the universe spoke to him and said, “Yes, take this girl and help her,”  then something could have happened.  But the universe failed to so speak and so duh.

FJO:  At least he woke up and spoke to you.

BA:  Yes, that was very kind.  And Bill was terrific.  He really tried.

FJO:  Your first encounter with Pauline Oliveros was also really bizarre.

BA:  Yes. I’d been wanting to actually meet her for a while. I created this independent study with Nate Rubin at Mills, so I was going to interview Pauline and write a paper about her. Once again, I got some crazy ride down to San Diego, and these people took me to a Salvation Army for some reason.  They wanted to buy something, and in there I found this big scroll.  It was a paint by numbers scroll of a toreador and a bull.  I bought this thing for a dime, and I thought. “Oooh, this is so cool.  I got this thing about a bull, and I’m going to see this woman who’s so brave and tough.”  I thought it was a great simultaneity, and I went to see Pauline.  They dropped me off at her house, and I went in. She was expecting me; I had written her a letter.  But she had a concert that night, and on the days of concerts, she did not talk.  So there she was not talking, for the whole day, and I spent the whole day in her house.  She had this huge cage with multiple birds in it, and they were squawking. Then the women from her women’s ensemble were there.  They were cooking things to serve at the end of the concert.  So there were the birds, the other women, and the cooking, but Pauline never said a word the whole day I was there.  So I wrote the paper about that.

FJO:  But at least you did let her know in advance that you were visiting her.  So it wasn’t like your first encounter with Lou Harrison.  So perhaps by then you had learned your lesson.

BA:  Well yes, I had managed somehow by 23 or something to figure out you might want to send a letter.  And, in fact, I did bring her some of my really early, awful music, and she turned the pages.  She didn’t say a word, but she looked, and I gave her copies of them.   And she smiled at me. That was fine.  That was sufficient.

FJO:  So how did you first become aware of Pauline Oliveros?  Was that at the University of Kentucky also?

BA:  Yeah, at UK, she was on the flip side of [the LP recording of] Come Out by Steve Reich.

FJO:  Right.

BA:  And Kathy Atkins played it for us in music history class.

FJO:  Wow.

BA:  And, you know, it wasn’t that I was so wild about the piece; I was so wild that a woman composer exists, another one.  Here’s another one!

FJO:  Parallel to your life as a composer, you’ve been a strong advocate for women composers.  During your student days, you put together a festival. Then when you first came to New York—I know I’m jumping ahead here—you were the co-founder of a project called Meet The Woman Composer and got the blessing of John Duffy, who had only recently founded Meet The Composer.

Sorrel Hays (center) and Beth Anderson (right) holding award certificates standing with Julia Smith (left) who is holding a Meet The Woman Composer brochure.

Julia Smith (left) presenting the National Federation of Music Clubs Award of Merit for contributions to women in music to Sorrel Hays (center) and Beth Anderson (right) for Meet The Woman Composer in 1977. (Photo courtesy Beth Anderson.)

BA:  Well, Bob Ashley basically set up that first festival, but he told me I was in charge.  He’d already decided who he wanted to invite. It was a cool array, and you could not find three more distinct people—Vivian Fine, Pauline Oliveros, and Charlotte Moorman.  That was a great group.  Then when I came to New York, Doris Hays, now known as Sorrel [Hays], was soon to be starting this thing, but she wanted me to do it with her at the New School. She got all the funding from John Duffy for that.  Apparently his organization had not existed long, so the idea that he would give us most of his money for the year was really astounding.  He was very supportive.  We did those evenings—10 or 15, I don’t know anymore—of all those women.  And all these musicologists came and wrote articles about them, so it was useful to do.  Then [many years later], B.C. Vermeersch at Greenwich House wanted me to do a women composers series at Greenwich House, and that went on for ten years.  So, yes, I liked the idea of putting together concerts of women’s music because it’s not heard as much as people currently think it is.

FJO:  There are organizations like IAWM, which I think does a lot of really tremendous work, but I know some younger composers who do not want to identify themselves that way.  “I’m a composer and I happen to be a woman, but I’m not a woman composer.  There’s no need for this.” Then you see something like the announcement of the Cleveland Orchestra’s 2018-19 season.  There’s not a single piece by a woman on it. It’s been that way year after year.  Same with the 2018-19 Boston Symphony season.  It seems pretty clear that there’s a real problem.

BA:  You think?

FJO:  If there shouldn’t be concerts of just women composers, why are there so many concerts of just men composers?

“There are piles of music that should be performed that aren’t.”

BA:  All the time.  Or a whole festival, like a hundred composers, and two of them are women.  They think they’ve done a big thing, that they’ve got two.  That’s ridiculous.  Somebody was telling me that he taught composition in Australia and all of his students were women.  I don’t know, are men getting out of the field because it’s so badly paid?  One wonders.  Aaron Copland used to say there were no women composers, which is crazy, or that there were no good ones.  None that have been properly educated. There are piles!  The Baltimore Symphony apparently has been doing all these statistics, and women are just a very, very small percentage.  If you take the ratio of men to women among living composers that are performed by the big orchestras in this country, it’s 85 to 15.  It’s not great, but it’s not terrible.  But if you take the amount of women that are performed, dead or alive, it’s like one percent.  Think of all the wonderful women that are dead that have written fabulous things I would love to hear, for the very first time, like Mary Howe.  Usually orchestras are good at holding onto the past and presenting that.  There are just piles of music that should be performed that aren’t.

FJO:  Part of the reason things are the way they are, which rarely gets spoken of, is the economics of it all—the economics of obtaining the music, as well as the time for rehearsing it.  I’m a big fan of the music of Louise Farrenc, a 19th-century French composer who wrote three symphonies, as well as the first-ever piece for piano and wind quintet.  That alone should earn her a place in the repertoire.

BA:  I played a lovely trio of hers once.

FJO:  It’s wonderful music.  But there are no modern editions of the symphonies.  You can get them from one place that charges a crazy rental fee.  Then, since the players don’t know the piece, they’ll need more time to learn it.  But if they just played Brahms again, they’ve already played it a million times so they can rehearse it only twice and it’ll sound pretty good.  Playing an old unfamiliar piece is kind of the same as playing a new piece.  Worse, because then it goes to the marketing department and they don’t know the name.

BA:  But Henze, which you can imagine would take quite a bit of doing to get on, they will rehearse that to the ends of the earth.  They will rehearse anything big that’s dissonant and difficult.  They understand that they have to rehearse that, and they’re willing to do that for the guys.  But if it’s just a beautiful piece by an antique composer who happens to be a woman, it’s too much of a struggle.  You just can’t keep doing the Beethoven Third all the time—lovely piece, but enough.

FJO:  Do the Farrenc Third instead!

BA:  Florence Price, also. There are so many people.

FJO:  I’m very happy to hear you saying this because as important as it is to do music by living composers, if we really want to learn about the full history of music, we need to pay attention to historical women composers as well and embrace them as part of the canon, if we’re going to have a canon.

BA:  Instead of an AK-47.

FJO:  So how to advocate for this stuff?  One issue is making sure that there are editions that are not only available but also affordable.  A lot of the older music is now showing up on sites like IMSLP.org, so it is possible to easily obtain some of this music.  But then there are also rules to consider. Musicians in most professional orchestras will only play from parts where the paper is a certain size; you can’t just print things out on 8 ½” by 11” sheets, because that’s too small.

BA:  Well, that explains why my pieces aren’t performed because they’re only 8 ½” by 11” paper.  I can make them bigger.  No problem.

FJO:  You definitely should.  Which is a good segue to get us back to talking about your music and how you came to write the music you write.  Connecting with Lou Harrison and Pauline Oliveros ultimately didn’t work out, but you did study for a time with both Terry Riley and Robert Ashley.

BA:  I studied with Terry Riley the first semester he was at Mills; he was new to teaching.  Terry taught me what was called cyclic composition, which was South Indian singing. He sang and then we sang. It was just copying, which was the teaching method of the time.  But I loved the fact that there was a tal—a rhythm, a beat. Cage was sort of against it.  He didn’t like regularly recurring meters, and Terry was trying to figure out what you could do within the meter that was interesting. Terry kept using scale steps and putting things together in interesting ways.  The whole thing came out sounding very beautiful, because it had this beautiful big drone underneath it.

“I kept hanging on to this thing that I kept seeing as a process that Robert Ashley kept saying wasn’t a process.”

My oratorio Joan had a big A drone underneath it, partially for the singers so that they could find their pitches relative to the A.  That was my plan.  Not so easy, but it gave them an A at least.  So Terry had a big effect on me, but not right away.  I kept hanging on to this thing that I kept seeing as a process that Ashley kept saying wasn’t a process.  I was coding words. I like changing one thing into something else, layering things like sedimentary rock.  I like to have the same thing done different ways, so that the text that you would hear somebody singing would be changed into the pitches for the instruments, then the meaning of the text would be another text. They’d all be layered, or there’d be some weirdo video thing that would explain the text as another layer.  I like layers.  Anyway, Mr. Ashley did not see that as a process.  I guess he saw it as a layered collage, which is certainly a way you could think about it.

FJO:  It sounds like a process to me.  I’m very curious about this idea of turning letters into pitches and being so focused on pitch, but not so much on rhythm.

BA:  The rhythm was improvised by the player.  But I was giving them the pitches and the rules. I would have some rule like, if you leap up from A to E, and got to the end of the word, then you would come back down a half step, then go on to the next word.

FJO:  There were also pieces where you’d have certain pitches drop out over time. You’d begin with all these pitches, and eventually have way fewer.

BA:  That was a modulating coding system designed just for Joan.  It started with just the white notes on the piano from A to A, and then you kept decoding the same text, but you kept using one less letter from the alphabet until you ended up with just A-B-A-B-A-B, B-B-B-B.  A-A-A-A.  And AAAA.

FJO:  This also sounds similar to what you did in a later piece that you wrote for solo ocarina called Preparation for the Dominant. You have a bunch of pitches in the beginning, but then fewer as time goes by.  You have this sort of attrition of pitch.

BA:  Do I?

FJO:  That’s how it sounded when I heard it.  I think it’s a very interesting idea, and I think it also sounds really good.  There’s a rigor to it, but there’s also a freedom to it at the same time, which is maybe why Ashley didn’t think of it as a process.  But the best processes are the ones that allow you to do your own thing with them.

BA:  Yeah, like Schoenberg actually broke his own rules.  I love that.

FJO:  Exactly.  And there are parallel fifths in Bach if you look hard enough for them.

BA:  Yay!

FJO:  Rules only get you so far, but then you need to make music with them.  Maybe that’s something that the folks who were so obsessed with process-oriented music in the mid-century lost track of, the process is a means to an end, but not necessarily an end in and of itself.

BA:  That sounds reasonable.

FJO:  Well, it certainly seems to be the way that your music has played out.

BA:  I like that.

FJO:  I only know Joan from the keyboard version that’s on the Pogus CD of your music.

BA:  Which had one performance consequently.

FJO:  But there was also the performance at Cabrillo of the original version.

BA:  KPFA has a recording, and probably Other Minds has it now, because Charles Amirkhanian was in charge of all that.  They also have the original She Wrote from Gertrude Stein’s 100th birthday concert in ’74.  I was complaining online recently, “This should be somewhere, and I’ll never hear it again.” And Charles wrote me back and said, “Oh!  Cut it out.  I’ve got it.  You can hear it by clicking here.”  They probably have Joan somewhere, too.

FJO:  It would be so great for that to be out in the world.

BA:  Well, you know, it is kind of afflicted by those naked guys, the timpani players, that ran through the middle of it and made the whole audience laugh and carry on.  The idea that the critic Robert Commanday thought that that was something in the piece was particularly bizarre.

FJO:  Well, how would he know?

BA:  I don’t know.  Everybody else talked to me—the man from the Santa Cruz Sentinel, as well as the critic from the Tribune.  So they knew.  But Commanday didn’t ask.  He was a don’t ask, don’t tell kind of guy.

FJO:  There has been this crazy idea in music criticism that if you talk to the musicians performing a piece or the composer, you’re somehow tainted and you’re going to be influenced so you’re not going to have objective criticism.

BA:  I hate that.

FJO:  And heaven forbid you’re friends with these people, or worse, that you actually perform or compose music yourself.

BA:  Or that you actually know something about it. Now you’re supposed to have a degree in American studies, and you’re supposed to have a general drift of the culture, but you’re not supposed to actually know anything about it.  I think that’s appalling.  I loved it when Eric Salzman and Virgil Thomson, people who actually wrote music, wrote music criticism.  You would know what their biases were, because you’d go listen to their own music.  And you could see it.  But if you have somebody that has a degree in sociology writing about music, then you don’t even know that their favorite composer is Philip Glass.  I used to think that they should list their favorite composers at the top of their columns, so that you would know.  Well, if they like this, this, and this, then there’s no big surprise that they didn’t like that.  I thought it would be very helpful.  But the only way you could get that sense of bias would be to read them for a long time.  Then you would see over time what they liked, and what they didn’t like.  But I don’t think that there’s a lot of purity.

When I moved to New York, Mr. [John] Rockwell was the best friend of my friend Charles Shere.  They had both done symphony or opera broadcasts together in San Francisco.  Charles stayed on the West Coast, and John came to New York.  When I moved here, Charles said, “You’ll have to meet my wonderful friend John Rockwell.”  So I called him up the moment I arrived, and I said, “I’m a friend of Charles, and I’m a composer. I would love to meet you.” And he said, “Oh yes, come to tea.”  Then the next day, he called back and he said, “Are you moving to New York?” And I said yes.  And he said, “Well, then I can’t talk to you.”  And that was that.  He wanted to continue that purity, that separation of church and state somehow.  But I think that it’s a poor thing.  I think you need to talk to composers—especially if you can’t read music or can’t play an instrument.  That wonderful man from The Washington Post, Joseph McLellan, said that he wrote a guitar piece so that he would have the experience of having written something. He could actually play an instrument, and they shockingly allowed him to write criticism for The Washington Post.  But he mainly reviewed parties.  Apparently he was the social guy.  He went to five parties a week, and then they also let him review concerts.

FJO:  You also had a career as a music journalist yourself. You were involved with Ear magazine in its formative years. I’ve always considered Ear one of role models for NewMusicBox.

BA:  Well, it is certainly the same kind of exhaustive experience that you’re never done.  You do this one, and then the next one’s coming up and how can you get people to give you the stuff that you need for the next issue. I used to have to go over to people’s houses and stand over them, waiting for people to write their articles because people wouldn’t do it.  They would say, “Oh, yeah.  I’ll do it.”  And it wouldn’t happen. But basically Ear was about promoting. I’m not sure we ever wrote anything negative.  I can’t remember if we did.  But we were boosters for sure.  And we were saying, “This is what’s happening.  Isn’t this fun?  Come play with us.”

FJO:  And Ear also had this very key idea that the people involved in making the music should be the spokespeople for it, which I think is a very important thing and a very different model from the separation of church and state, the armchair critic who can’t talk to you if you’re someone he or she might potentially review.  Well, it was almost always he, always a man.

BA:  Well, there aren’t a lot of women critics.

FJO:  But then you had an experience of actually writing criticism that wasn’t exclusively positive when you wrote about the entire New Music America festival.

BA:  Oh, that was a disaster.  I didn’t mean harm, but I think I was thoroughly hated.  The Kitchen never recovered from that, although some people thought it was a great thing because I was the only person that reviewed everything.  And not just the concerts, but also the [panel discussions of the] Music Critics Association, which I found really intriguing.  I loved hearing the critics read their papers, not having practiced them.  They didn’t see performing as something you might want to rehearse.  But anyway, Reports from the Front was something I created because I wanted to participate in the festival at The Kitchen in ’79, and I didn’t think that anybody would see it as negative because I was just saying whatever came into my mind.  It was so clear that it wasn’t thought out and it wasn’t directed in a negative way.  I was trying to describe stuff, and compare stuff to other performances of the same pieces. I thought I was so unimportant that nobody would take it badly, but people did.  It angered the whole downtown scene in one fell swoop, in nine days.

FJO:  And it also angered the music critics, right?

“I never think about—or never have thought about—consequences.”

BA:  Oh yeah, there was that.  There were so many times in my life that it would have been a good idea to be quiet, or to just not be there.  But I never think about—or never have thought about—consequences.  I think about it a little bit more now at this age than I did at that age.

FJO:  Despite the lesson of Pauline Oliveros being silent the whole day.

BA:  Yes.  She sure is a great teacher.  I should have paid more attention.

FJO: Before we completely leave California and keep talking about your life in New York, I was curious if you were at all connected with any of the extremely innovative things that were happening in so-called pop music there at the time. Not only was it a golden era in terms of the amazing things people were doing with electronics, plus early minimalism and all the conceptual pieces, California was the epicenter of psychedelia. Were you connected to any of that music? Were you aware that it was happening?

BA:  I listened to pop music from ’57 to ’69. Acid rock like Steppenwolf and Blue Cheer—I loved that stuff.  But, by then, I was over the edge into Stockhausen and Cage, so that was the direction my listening went.

Beth Anderson holding the original 45rpm recording of her text sound piece "I Can't Stand It" which she performed with drummer Wharton Tiers.

FJO:  All of the seismic shifts in your life feel somehow connected.  There was the move from Kentucky to California.  Then the move to New York.  Those are physical, corporeal things.  But there’s another event that happened once you were in New York, which is perhaps the most important shift of all—how you thought about yourself as a composer. And I think that it relates to your dabbling in music criticism.  You reached a point where you decided to write music that was intentionally pretty as opposed to something that adhered to some high concept.  You approached it initially with an almost revolutionary zeal, being an advocate for beauty. I think it’s possible to hear all of your work as a related continuum, but at the time it seemed like a huge chasm.

BA:  I don’t really understand it myself.  I know that I was doing this kind of thing.  I came to New York, and even in my second concert at The Kitchen in ’79, I was still decoding the word “skate,” all the possible definitions of the word skate [in my composition Skate Suite].  But I also did songs that were actually freely written.  At the same time, part of it was [flutist] Andrew Bolotowsky’s influence that everything had to be on staves.  If I wrote music on staves the way he wanted it done, I had to assign the rhythms, so that took away the player’s improvisatorial input.  I could have coded the rhythms, but I didn’t.  I just did them freely.  I was still decoding pitches [from words], but then I made up my own rhythms.

Then I met Michael Sahl, and he had very powerful opinions about harmony.  His music was very harmonically centered, even more than it was melodically. He was big into this heavy jazz piano, bass, and drums kind of feeling underneath it that I never really got into. I liked cutting up and collaging things, but he still had an influence.

“I want to see you turn on a dime, schizophrenically, and be somewhere else.”

Some people see my music, that’s now in Finale, and when they see the cut-ups they want to finish and stop [the phrase]—lift the bow, then go on. Even though I don’t put a fermata over it, people want to do that because they were taught to do that. But some of my pieces have so many cut-ups in them, if you do that, a five-minute piece becomes a ten-minute piece.  It just drags deathly into the ground. That’s the absolute opposite of what I want.  I want the thing to lie against itself.  I want to see you turn on a dime, schizophrenically, and be somewhere else. So, don’t do that people!

FJO:  When a performance of your music is seamless, the effect can be similar to the hemiolas in Brahms or even Carter’s metric modulation; the sudden shifts are very satisfying musical surprises. In some ways, it’s like looking very carefully at the patterns that are sewn on quilts. Quilts have these purposeful incongruities in them because they’re made by human beings so you will get these things that don’t quite line up, and that’s the joy of what a quilt is.

BA:  Especially a crazy quilt. There’s a whole lot of different patterns of quilts that are traditional, historic, antique patterns.  But those aren’t the ones that are the most interesting to me.  I like crazy quilts best.

A view of the entire quilt hanging on one of the wall's oin Beth Anderson's living room behind a couch and in between two posters.

FJO:  Well, one of my all-time favorite pieces of yours is this big solo piano piece, Quilt Music.  I assume you gave it that name because you heard that connection.

BA:  Yes, it’s like a swale for piano, because the quilt is just another word for that.  It’s equivalent to me.  Anyway.  Yes, I’m glad you like it.

FJO:  Tell me more about how it’s put together.

BA:  I have no idea.  I’d have to get the score and stare at it.  You know, it’s old.  I mean, it’s long ago and far away.

FJO:  Alright, but since you said it’s like a swale, I’m curious. At some point, you started calling pieces swales.

BA:  In 1984. That’s the year that the horse named Swale won the Kentucky Derby, the first Saturday in May.  And I never heard the word before, so I looked it up in the dictionary. At the time, I was writing a string quartet, and I thought that was a great name for it.  I wanted to dedicate it to Mr. James Roy, because he had been so kind to me.  He worked at BMI, and he was a friend I could go talk to in the middle of the day without an appointment.  He was another one of those people I could drop in on for no reason, and he would see me.  So I named it Pennyroyal Swale.  I wanted to use his name somewhere in there.

That’s how the first one came to be.  Then I wrote another one that Dave Soldier’s string quartet played the first time.  The next year they wanted to do another one, so I wrote one for Rosalie Calabrese [who was the manager of the American Composers Alliance]. I named it Rosemary Swale.  Rosemary is actually an interesting herb because you can use it to cook and it’s also some kind of an ingredient in the fixative in perfume.  Practical and artsy and that’s Rosalie.  So Rosemary Swale was that one.  And then there got to be lots more.

On top of one of her tables, Beth Anderson keeps a drawing of her performing on the piano with flutist Andrew Bolotowski and a couple of toy horses.

FJO:  So what is a swale for you musically?

BA:  Well, that is a collage.  There’s no question.  I write little shreds and tatters and then figure out how to have more of this and less of that, and cut them into each other.  I can write a whole section that was actually on a drone, like on a C, and then another whole section that was on F.  Then I would cut them into each other, and I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music.  People hear them and hear the harmonic movement, but it wasn’t really movement.  It was just cut-ups.

FJO:  But not every piece of yours since then is called a swale.  I thought it was very interesting to hear you just say that Quilt Music is a swale, even though you didn’t call it one.  What distinguishes swales from the non-swales?  I know there was a piece of yours, The Eighth Ancestor, that was performed during the ISCM World Music Days that predates your first swale, but it has a similar form to them.

BA:  It was cut-ups. It was from like ’79 or ’80, so I didn’t have the word yet.  But I was definitely doing cut-ups, and part of cut-ups comes from not having the time.  I wasn’t the kind of composer that took three notes and made it into a symphony.  I wasn’t interested in developing the theme and making variations.  I was working all those jobs for dancers, so I would write down things that I had just played while they were teaching the next thing. I was just writing like a crazy person while they were teaching the next thing, looking at them out of the corner out of my eye so I’d know what to play next.  Then at the end of the day, I would have piles of these little scraps of paper. I would take them home and try to figure out how to connect them, or just connect them or cut them up.  Then I could make them into pieces.

FJO:  So when you were playing piano for all those dance classes, you were just improvising?

BA:  Mhmm.

FJO:  Luckily you were able to remember and reconstruct a lot of that music.

“I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music.”

BA: Well, I think I was a pretty boring dance accompanist, but I did do it for 20 years, so apparently I got away with it.  I had certain kinds of things that I did in F, and certain kinds of things I did in B-flat, A-minor, and D-minor; that stuff would just spool out.  I had massive amounts that I could play forever—pliés in D-minor, across the floors in B-flat.

FJO:  Do you think that working with all those dancers might have led you to create music that had a more regular rhythmic pulse. You mentioned that Andrew Bolotowski wanting you to write music using standard notation is what led you to give up this idea of having improvised rhythms, but you were already forced into creating things that had regular rhythms when you were working with these dancers because that’s what they needed.

BA:  For sure.

FJO:  Could that have had an impact on why your music went the way it did?

BA:  Absolutely.  Years and years of banging out things in three, or four, or six, or twelve, unless you work for Merce Cunningham, in which case all bets are off.

In front of a group of paintings there is a grand piano in Beth Anderson's living room with piles of sheet music on the lid and stand.

FJO:  You also wrote the songs for a couple of Off-Off-Broadway musicals in the early 1980s, which is a genre that prizes catchy melodies. When I was 16, some high school classmates and I rented out the Carter Hotel Theatre for a week and presented a musical I wrote, so I was very intrigued to learn that one of your musicals, Elizabeth Rex: or, The Well-Bred Mother Goes to Camp, ran for nearly a month there.

BA:  Oh my God. That’s so fun. Isn’t it now the Cheetah Gentleman’s Club? The Carter Hotel was the dirtiest hotel in America. This was not an impressive venue, but it was very close to Broadway!

FJO:  Are there recordings of those shows?

BA:  Well, there certainly are shreds and tatters of the words and music, but the people on stage were not hired for their musicality. They looked like the part.

FJO:  Elizabeth Rex was about this woman who tries to get her daughter not to be a lesbian, so she takes her to see a priest and it turns out that he’s secretly gay.

BA:  I love it, but now there’d be all these questions about whether it’s making fun of priests fooling around with the altar boys. And it was pre-AIDS.  But it was a very funny show, and I think it could be done as a period piece.  We’ll see if somebody might want to do it.  And Fat Opera could definitely be done as a cabaret show.  It doesn’t need to be done as a musical.

FJO:  All in all, I think you wrote three musicals.

BA:  Yeah, the first one [Nirvana Manor] has a cast of 20, so that was huge.

FJO:  To return to the piece of yours that was performed on the ISCM World Music Days. It was interesting that the piece was chosen by one of the adjudicators at the time, Fred Rzewski, based on what was a misunderstanding of your intentions in the piece. He thought that your return to totality and regular rhythms was a form of irony.

BA:  I think he thought it was political, because he’s very political.

FJO: But in a way, it was political, I mean, you wrote a manifesto on why you aspired to write music that was beautiful that is very political.

BA:  But it wasn’t Communist.  It wasn’t Stalin, Mao, whoever, and it wasn’t Hindemith—Music for Use. It was just me doing what I did.  Michael [Sahl] taught me actually at the ISCM to go around saying, “Je fais la musique de la petite femme blanche”—I make the little white girl’s music—as a defense against people saying you have no craftsmanship; you’re not sophisticated.  This was the response I got from people there, so I was trying to let it fall off of me like water from a duck.

A series of six photos from 1979 of Michael Sahl and Beth Anderson laughing.

Michael Sahl and Beth Anderson in 1979. (Photos courtesy Beth Anderson.)

FJO:  But there was someone in the audience who did like the piece, a very significant Belgian composer.

BA:  Yes, Boudewijn Buckinx, whom I love.  But he was far away in a booth.  It wasn’t apparent to me that there was anybody there who liked that piece except Michael and me.

FJO:  However, despite your feeling such negativity from most of the people there, you stuck to your guns and you stayed on this path, undeterred by what these folks or anyone else thought about your music. And now, decades later, there are four CDs out in the world that are devoted exclusively to your music and several pieces of yours included on other recordings, including orchestra pieces. It’s not as much as it should be and I know it’s not as much as you wish, but all in all, it’s a pretty good track record compared to the trajectory of many other composers.

BA:  Well, I really wanted the CDs out so that these pieces wouldn’t just exist in my head or on these falling apart tapes from the distant past.  I thought I was going to die at the time, so I really wanted them out before I died.  I didn’t think my husband was going to put them out afterwards.

FJO:  I know that you were quite sick several years ago.

BA:  Yes, but “she recovered!”  So onward.  But yes, I very glad that the CDs are out, and I would like to do more, but I haven’t organized it yet.  My husband assures me that I should not do CDs, that nobody’s buying CDs, which is certainly true.  I should only make things for streaming.  But then how do you send a CD to a radio station if you don’t have a CD?

Beth Anderson laughing.

FJO:  We’re living in a very weird transitional time. A lot of people claim they have the answers, but I don’t think anybody really knows where it’s going.  I’m personally thrilled that you made sure these CDs got released. Of course, people stumble upon music online all the time these days, but I love the idea that it is also possible that somebody could chance upon one of these recordings in, say, a library in some small town in Kentucky.

BA:  Yes.

FJO:  It could change that person’s life, just like stumbling upon a book by John Cage changed your life. The same is true with these memoirs you’ve written, which is why I think it’s important that they are published at some point.

“There are not a lot of memoirs of women composers out in the universe, despite Ethel Smyth doing like 12 or something.”

BA:  There are not a lot of memoirs of women composers out in the universe, despite Ethel Smyth doing like 12 or something.  It seems like there’s a space for that in the universe potentially.  And somebody could find the book.  It’s like I found Eric Salzman’s book on 20th-century music and all these other books that were so important to me as a child.  Even when you’re not living in the center of the universe, you can find books and recordings in libraries.  I’m a big library person.

FJO:  But of course now with the internet, anybody can find anything anywhere, apparently.

BA:  If you know what to look for.  The thing about libraries is, you would fall across them because it was red or something. I read all the books in the Mount Sterling Public Library on theosophy because every one of them was a bright color.  I’d see all these old books, and there’d be a bright red one or yellow or blue or green.  On the internet, you need to know what you’re looking for a little bit.

FJO:  Hopefully people will find your music online through reading and seeing and hearing this talk that we’ve just done.

BA:  That would be cool.

 

Barbara White: A Plea for Compassion

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.


February 8, 2018 at 2:30 p.m.
Barbara White in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in White’s home in Princeton, New Jersey
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

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.

“I’ll sometimes hit a wrong note and like it.”

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.

Barbara White sitting in her studio with her upright piano in back of her.

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.

“What got me back into playing was actually working with the shakuhachi.”

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.

BW:  Right.

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.

Several of Barbara White's flute including a pennywhistle and a shakuhachi.

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.

BW:  True.

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?

“I like to get physically involved in the music.”

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.

A bas-relief in Barbara White's kitchen.

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.

BW:  Exactly.

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.

“A bystander is passive and is watching, doing nothing…”

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.

A bookcase in Barbara White's studio.

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.

BW:  Yes.

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.

“Female opera characters are often said to be victims.”

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.

A set of miniature houses is on one of Barbara White's shelves.

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.

A framed map of Cape Breton Island.

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.

He’ll say, “I can’t believe you can write that down.” And I’ll say, “I can’t believe you don’t have to.”

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.

Traditional Japanese shakuhachi musical notation.

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.

“It is helpful for me to just say yes to them.”

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.

A view of the second floor of Barbara White's house in Princeton.

Milford Graves: Sounding the Universe

It is difficult to place Milford Graves into a category. He is lauded as a master drummer of the 1960s avant-garde jazz scene, credited with inventing the martial arts form yara, and is established as both an herbalist and acupuncturist in New York City. Additionally, Graves is a passionate researcher of human biology and brings that knowledge to all of his work.

Milford Graves’s music career began with improvisation. As a young kid, he taught himself to play by experimenting with the sounds he could make on a drum set in the foyer of his home in Jamaica, Queens. His professional career began around 1961 with the McKinley-Graves Band, a funky Latin jazz ensemble he co-led in the neighborhood.  The following year, he led the Milford Graves Latino Quintet with pianist Chick Corea, bassist Lyle Atkinson, conga artist Bill Fitch, and saxophonist Pete Yellen. His career accelerated to place him in the New York Art Quartet, which led him to create two independently released records with pianist Don Pullen. By his mid-twenties, Graves was recognized by artists such as Philly Jo Jones, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach as a drummer with an innovative approach to the instrument, as well as a unique voice in the music scene. His residency at Slugs in 1967 with Albert Ayler is still discussed among musicians today, as is his performance with Ayler at John Coltrane’s funeral.  Graves went on to teach at Bennington College for 39 years and is recognized as professor emeritus by the institution.

Yet, to understand his music one must also inquire into the full scope of his creative pursuits.  Within athletic communities he is known for bringing his ambidextrous drumming into the martial arts through the creation of yara, an improvised martial art that focuses on flexibility and dexterity.  Graves taught yara at his studio in Queens from 1971 to 2000. Similarly, numerous people have visited Graves over the years for his acupuncture practice and to study herbalism. During my first lesson with Graves, he used software that he engineered to record my heartbeat and play back a melody that was derived from my EKG.

When I was first introduced to Milford Graves’s work, I defaulted to the mode of thinking I was accustomed to—that of genre. Even as I was searching for a concept of universal music, I couldn’t help but perceive Graves’s polymathic interests within the stilted categories of martial arts, herbalism, and avant-garde jazz. As I spent more and more time with the artist, I became increasingly unsatisfied with my understanding of his work. Graves employs the scientific method and a vast understanding of biology within his music. He draws connections between analog and digital motions—continuous motions vs. striking different points—in both the martial arts and drumming. He publishes essays, creates works of sculpture, and has recently played drums in a live experiment for non-embryonic stem cells. Yet, this is merely a list of actions taken, and I have long felt that each one is an expression of something much more profound. As I prepared for my recent conversation with Graves, I identified three fundamentals that permeate his work: energy, freedom, and healing.

Miford Graves and Aakash Mittal

Miford Graves and Aakash Mittal

Energy

At its core, Milford Graves’s work sculpts energy. This became evident to me during a previous visit to his house when he was doing some healing work on one of his martial arts students. Graves had recorded the electrical signal from an injured muscle and was feeding the signal back to the damaged tissue with the aid of an acupuncture needle and some wire. The goal was to aid the healing process by using electrical stimulation and specific harmonic frequencies to regenerate the damaged tissue. While this was taking place, we were simultaneously listening to a sonificiation of the damaged tissue’s signal using software Graves had coded. He explained to me that the sound of the speaker, the image of the waveform, and the electricity in the needle were all different expressions of the same signal. This was a revelatory moment for me with regard to understanding Graves’s work. Each of the disciplines he utilizes functions as an expression of energy. That energy can manifest kinetically through the martial arts or sonically on the drum set. The kinetic motion of yara can be applied with sticks in hand to a cymbal, creating a sonification of the martial arts form itself. Similarly the vibration of the drums can be translated into soundless motion. Graves utilizes this approach among his various interests. In his essay “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions,” which was published in John Zorn’s anthology Arcana V, Graves concludes with a statement about the importance of consuming watercress and parsley in order to “transmit high quality solar energy into the biological system.” In his work, Graves applies the relationship of eating food to creating electricity within the body, a process that also pumps the heart and sounds the drum. Whether he is tending his garden, practicing acupuncture, or playing improvised music, Milford Graves approaches each activity as a harmonic of the same fundamental.

Freedom

Milford Graves’s drumming is often associated with the “free-jazz” movement of the 1960s. On the surface, this is often described as a freedom from the previous era’s harmonic structure and traditional forms. When I further explored that musical community, it became evident that the word freedom was used in a much larger context. Among the freedoms that emerge are freedom of thought, freedom of the spirit, and freedom of sound. Albums such as John Coltrane’s Intersteller Space and Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity traversed the boundaries of music and entered the realm of trance experience and conceptual journey. Within this context, Milford Graves offered a unique perspective on freedom. Through his understanding of the fundamentals of energy, Graves’s music incorporates a freedom of motion that stretches beyond traditional audience/performer dynamics. In the New York jazz scene today, a story circulates about the time Milford Graves picked up John Zorn mid-solo and carried him around the stage while Zorn continued improvising. Through the improvised use of his voice and storytelling, Graves’s performances come across as a joyous ritual that loosens up the listener and offers the first step down the path of freedom. The experience of Graves’s multidisciplinary work suggests a freedom from the limiting nature of our mind, which is compelled to categorize and shape the world around us. As Graves re-harmonizes those shapes and brings us back to the fundamental, I believe we are given a glimpse of what true freedom means.

Healing

Artists frequently talk about the healing power of music, but it rarely goes beyond simple conversation. Milford Graves has taken it upon himself to do the research behind it. As I learn more about Graves’s work, I find that his use of energy and freedom is often purposed for healing. His understanding of a listener’s automatic sub-vocalization and the effect the vibrating tympanic membrane (part of the ear drum) can have on other organs informs his improvisations. This results in musical performances that could be perceived as a sonic massage as well as a concert. In this way, Graves is successfully bridging scientific, artistic, and spiritual methodologies in order to free people from societal constraints and remind them of the energy that already exists within. This leads us to what I find to be one of the most challenging aspects of understanding his work. Rather than contributing a body of compositions to an archive or entertaining audiences with his virtuosity, Graves is primarily interested in collaborating with biology itself. This results in a music that mutates, adapts, and transforms in the same manner that our heartbeat fluctuates in reaction to our bloodstream or our various organs create a polyrhythm of life processes.  Janina Wellmann writes in her book The Form of Becoming that “[t]he tension of organic life finds temporary resolutions in rhythm, but always, in its onward aspiration, points forward into the future.” Graves’s work draws from the rhythms of movement, energy, and sound to support transformation and propel the journey forward.

The pathway outside Milford Graves's home.

Creative Spaces

I walk up toward Milford Graves’s house on a chilly and grey day in January. Among a row of ordinary houses and barren twisted trees sits a single house decorated with a mosaic of colored stones and glass that ascends the walls and accentuates the windows. In a recent public interview with Graves, the writer John Corbett referred to this house as a secular “temple.” The house is a work of art in and of itself. From a distance the designs appear to be geometric, but on a closer inspection each mosaic is filled with frenetic momentum and the unique shape of each piece hints of arrhythmia. The golden ratio—expressed as a nautilus shell—is painted next to the front door. It is a meeting place for creative people from various disciplines and walks of life brought together by Milford Graves. I know from my previous visits that I need to approach our conversation as an improviser rather than as an interviewer. Before entering the house, I meditate on the one question I want to approach within our talk: how does Milford Graves utilize music, the martial arts, and biology to sculpt energy, gain freedom, and create healing in the world? Then I open the door and walk inside.


January 11, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.
Milford Graves in conversation with Aakash Mittal
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
With performance footage courtesy Jake Meginsky and Neil Young
Transcription by Julia Lu

Aakash Mittal:  I was watching a trailer for the new documentary about your work, I believe it’s called Milford Graves Full Mantis, and there are some clips in there of you doing yara. I think one might even have been in the yard over here.

Milford Graves:  Yeah, one was in the yard, and the other one was in the back before it was changed.

AM:  You had this motion going on.  I can’t even describe it.  It was fluid, but in your control.

MG:  Oh, no.  That was in Japan when some Japanese musicians were doing a form of martial arts they call shintaido.  They wanted to see what yara was, so we went out in this little area there. I said, “This would be a great area, with the bamboo background.” And I did my motion, because it was on a little slope there. That’s when I went down and disappeared.  The ground wasn’t even, so your balance had to be right because it was uneven.

AM:  That’s really cool.  What it reminded me of was the last time we talked, you were talking about the yawning reflex and the relaxed state, and creating from a place you call the parasympathetic nervous system—how you have to have that relaxed yawn feeling and the sound that comes with it, and you’re thinking about that in your sound. When I saw that video clip, it felt like you were moving in that same way.

MG:  Well, it had something to do with the physiological process. However, that was 1977 and I was just happy to be in Japan and to be around the element I was around—and the people. It was such a great feeling when people from the Far East would come and then martial artists—Chinese, Japanese, and Korean martial artists. Here I am in the Far East putting on a little demonstration.  I have to be very relaxed. People had a much more linear and stiff style of motion.  Shintaido was much more relaxed, but people were doing aikido, so I said, “You gotta be relaxed.”  I just didn’t have the stress factor.  I felt like being in New York.  You look at other martial artists watching you, and you see their facial expressions: “What is that stuff? That’s not tradition.”  I looked out there, and I saw some serious-looking people watching me and some smiles, and that was it.  That was my physiological system: just to relax.

AM:  So were they into it?  What was their reaction?  You said that they were smiling?  Did you get any feedback?

MG:  Well, I was invited as a special guest for them, to demonstrate improvisation and to play with Japanese musicians.  So students were watching the kind of movement I was doing because of the rhythm.  They had to connect that with the music, because of the way I would play. So I think their interest was: “If he’s not playing his drums, what kind of motion will he be doing in martial arts?”  And they were able to ride with it.  They took the ride with me.  And I think that’s why they were smiling.  It was like, this is how you do it—not so much martial arts but ARTS.  There was an art to it.  You take the military aspect out, the fighting aspect out, and just see an artist doing it without trying to be correct from an intellectual or science perspective.

AM:  You’re able to distill out just the creative art form: the movement.

MG:  Right.  The fundamental.  If you want to deal with the harmonics on the fundamental, then you can take that and become a ballroom dancer, a concert stage dancer, or you can become someone who wants to deal with the fighting aspect of it.  But that’s just the harmonics.  I was dealing with the fundamental.  Now how do you want to shape the fundamental or the harmonics you were dealing with from the fundamental?  The fundamental is to get your body just to relax so you can focus.  Then I said okay, I can take from this fundamental, I can use it in really different ways.

AM:  So the harmonics are the form that the fundamental shapes itself into.

MG:  Right.

AM:  That seems like another connection between the way you’re thinking about martial arts in a universal manner, as well as music and all the other activities that you’re a part of.

MG:  Yes.

AM:  You’re not even thinking about them idiomatically.  You’re dealing with it in terms of what is the fundamental, what are the harmonic shapes, whatever the practice is.

MG:  Right.  That’s it.  You have a harmonic, but you may not be able to do all the other shapes, because you don’t understand the fundamental.

AM:  Sorry, that’s just mind blowing already.  How do you understand what the fundamental is of what you were doing physically there?  Maybe it’s not even about the physical; maybe it’s about something else.

“Resistance is the thing that makes you feel like you’re struggling to do what you do.”

MG:  First of all, you’re not feeling any resistance.  Resistance is the thing that makes you feel like you’re struggling to do what you do.  That’s the most basic thing.  It’s like at the point when you’re tired.  You’re just real tired, and you’re in a standing position. We’ve all experienced this.  You may sit down in a chair and say, “Ahh.”  But then you move—“ahh, eeh, ahh”—and say, “You know what, I have to get into bed.”  And when you get into that bed, “AAH.”  This is it.  Just before the point where you’re asleep, if something falls off the table, or somebody knocks on your door hard, or you hear somebody screaming outside, you can jump up real fast and be alert.  But if you were sound asleep, someone would say to you, “Didn’t you hear that person outside? They were in danger.  They were screaming.”  You don’t want to get to that point in your relaxation.  So when I’ve got that feeling I’m in my bed but I can still respond, that’s when I know it’s happening.  I get to that point where I’m standing up like that, I’m in a vertical position, and I want to get to almost horizontal. I almost get there, but I’m just dangling.  I feel so good.  But raargh!—[I can] just shoot on out, right from there.

AM:  And do you get into that same relaxed state when you’re playing drums?

MG:  Yes.  That’s when you can achieve the full energy that I deal with.

AM:  You were saying that when you were in Japan doing that particular demonstration, they were wanting to see how an artist would translate it. They knew you as a musician, and they wanted to see how it translated into what you did physically in martial arts.

MG:  Yeah, because they knew I did that.

AM:  So how has the martial arts practice influenced your drum playing?

MG:  A few years ago I had a very abstract answer.  I said, “Well just do it, and you will find out.”  It was very abstract.  You know, that’s the way you clean up when you can’t really precisely say.  Well, the kind of martial arts that I wanted to develop was based on my experience as a teenager and in my early stages of growing up in the area here, South Jamaica, and then moving into the housing projects when I was eight or nine-years old.  Before I did that, we had little kid wrestling, because I grew up around a family that was called a very tough family—large people, close to 20 people in the family.  And they had a military life. At least one was a sergeant in the Army, so he came home and the house was like a military barracks, so it was rough and tough.  Then when I got to the housing project, we had these body punching arts. We played basketball, but then when the basketball game was over, everybody said, “Sham battle!”  Everybody started getting up there punching each other in the arms and chest. The face was off limits, but when somebody was getting frustrated because they couldn’t punch you in the chest, they would sneak and punch you right in the jaw and almost a real fight would take place.  But you participated in these things because if you didn’t, you should have stayed off the playground. Maybe four guys would grab you and stretch you out and punch you all in the arms and muscles and stuff like that.  So basketball was tough and rough.  It wasn’t like the rules you played by when you played in high school or college ball when you’ve got a referee.  You know, you got hacked.  If you drove through, if you did a drive to the basket, all this fancy stuff, all these turns and angle movements they’d be doing, it was rough to do that because they’d knock you down and really try to hurt you.  And they’d say, “Don’t come here driving like that again. We’re not going to let you look good.”

I remember a whole lot of experiences.  One of the things that I got out of that was I’m not afraid to get up there and sham battle.  There were guys around us who physically were intimidating.  They had the muscles and always kept certain kinds of facial expressions.  And they had that kind of voice, like the bully guys.  When you’re sitting in the basketball court at the housing project, you may have 15 or 20 guys out there.  And they would come over and say, “Come on, let’s sham box.”  And you were hesitant, but then you say to yourself, “Well, it’s not a real fight.  So this guy’s not going to hurt me.”  And I found that some guys that I thought were real tough guys, they weren’t tough guys.  They just psychologically gave you that impression. So it gave me confidence.  When you don’t participate and you just look at images, it could be intimidating.  You have to participate in the event to see what it’s about.

So when I did the martial arts, I said, “This is going to be just beyond a fighting situation.  I’m going to set this up. I want to set up a system where people truly become their so-called warrior within.”  You get to the point where you really intimidate people. I used to get people to come in and some of my students said they trusted me.  They said, “I don’t think you would hurt me.”  And even with that said, I would scare people.  I would take them down. I’d do a takedown, a wrestling technique: I’d get on top of them and put my chest across their face.  They said, “Professor, I can’t breathe; you’re smothering me.” But they were more intimidated by the fact of the potential than that they thought they wouldn’t be able to breathe.

I watched the mixed martial arts UFC.  I just like to see how people react to any kind of danger.  And you see these tough guys come up, and they get in bad positions sometimes.  They get in these chokehold positions, and somebody said, “Wow, they tapped out real fast because they potentially panicked.”

This is beyond fighting, in a sense. How do you react when that crisis comes?  How do you react when pain comes to your body from an illness?  Do you run out to the doctor right away?  Or do you go internally and try to control that pain?  I see people go out to meditate. They think if you do these chants, you can meditate the pain away.  Yeah, that’s easily said, but put a person in a pain position, and then tell them to try to chant and meditate, and see if it works.  So, it’s non-functional.  I try to make it more functional.  Put a person in that position, and I can tell by the pressure, they can breathe.  But they’re seeing potentially, “Wow, I may not be able to breathe.”  Then I’ll let them relax a little and then I’ll let them come back.  The second time they’re not so quick to say that; they try to see how to get out of this.

So I’ve used that as a situation, for you to be attacked by a foreign agent in a sense.  And a foreign agent could be from pathology.  It could be bacteria.  It could be a virus.  So when you get this thing, you don’t panic.  You say, “Okay, well, I think I can handle this.  I can deal with this.”  Then you can release what you have inside.

But to do these different kind of so-called art forms, to be able to increase your thought process or neuroplasticity, you have to put yourself in the position whereas you’re not intellectualizing on it.  So that’s what I did with the arts—martial arts.  It wasn’t just to go out there to say, “Well, I can fight.  I can hurt somebody.  I can protect myself.”  It was beyond that.  I wanted you to have a confrontation with something that was real.  Instead of you being a one-cell organism or a piece of DNA—we’re talking bacteria, funguses, viruses—think of yourself as a multi-cellular piece of bacteria or virus. When you see that person in front of you, or that competition you’re going to have in a sparring session, you have to look at each other.  If you touch the body, it’s like therapeutic massage or active massage.  So when you get on the floor, you don’t say, “Oh, that’s my enemy.”

“I wanted you to have a confrontation with something that was real.”

When you see somebody, sometimes it’s somebody you may know, sometimes, somebody you may not know.  A lot of times you say, “Are you feeling okay?”  And the person says, “Well, I’m not feeling too good today.”  I say, “Yes, I noticed that.  You just don’t look like you.  Is there something bothering you?  Are you sick?  Are you going through any emotional stress?”  What do you do when somebody’s like that?  You give them some advice.  Maybe you need a great medicinal soup.  Take some herbs, you know. Or you need some rest. Or if they’re stressed out from some kind of other factors, [you tell them] don’t let that bug you.  That happened to me before.  This is how I mostly calm myself down.  So the martial arts come, and we’re supposed to look at each other and we’re supposed to say, “You know what, I think you need a massage treatment.”  When we test the body, or we grab the body, and hit certain points and grab certain points, you’re not doing a destructive touch.  I’m trying to massage them back in again. And when it’s over, both people will look at each other and say, “Thank God. I feel great. I feel good.”

If you’re out there in the street, you don’t have to destroy anybody.  You’re a healing martial artist, a constructive martial artist, not a destructive martial artist.  The softer forms like tai chi, some people don’t think it’s a fighting form. By the way, you just don’t do tai chi.  You may put some aikido in there.  You have to mix it, the different martial arts styles. You can’t get just locked into one style, because all of them have some value.  If in a confrontation, if somebody is in the street and grabs you, the philosophy I have is that I may stop that person, grab him up, touch certain points and then melt him right down, sedate him.  If you use acupuncture when you’re doing acupuncture massage for a tonification or sedation, you’ve got to know when to tonify somebody, you’ve got to know when to sedate somebody.  In this case, it’s not so much tonifying somebody, because if somebody’s aggressive, they don’t need to be tonified.  They need to be sedated.  So there are ways just to sedate, but if you don’t understand the healing aspect or the constructive aspect, then you’re not going to know how to sedate somebody in a real confrontation.  You just don’t want to be somebody who learns a martial art to go out and be a bully and hurt somebody.  I think that’s wrong.

Various bottles herbs in tinctures that Milford Graves keeps in his home.

AM:  You’ve talked about before how with music, it’s just changing the pressure in the air, and that affects the tympanic membrane.  I’m curious if the way you’re thinking about massaging physically also happens sonically, or if you’re thinking about that at all in terms of the way the sound might massage either the mind or, through the energy, maybe even the body.

GM:  Okay, we need to backtrack to answer that question with the martial arts and the playing. Two things were said to me by the Japanese.  One was a photographer.  He was a great photographer, I thought; everybody thought he was great.  He used to follow me around Japan.  This was about 1981, but he [first] saw me four years earlier in ’77.  I came back to do this solo and he came over to me and said, “Wow. Before you were very good, but now, you’re much better.”  I said, “I would hope so.  I hope I’m developing after four years.”  And then he made this statement, “You’re so fluid—relaxed and so fluid.”

The second guy who said it to me was one of the [most] respected Japanese internal martial artists who was an official representative for internal martial arts, Chinese martial arts.  He came to the performance, that same one in 1981.  He came back stage, and he said, “You do every punch there is to do in Chinese martial arts.”  He looked at my flow and he thought it was from martial arts.  And I said, “Okay, so what I used to do was instead of doing—again—a nonfunctional tai chi, just getting up in the air and doing certain kinds of movements, I would get down to my drum set and I’d go—ting-raww—frapt!—I would keep that whole flow and go around.  If I was doing a sword technique, I would practice my sword stuff and with the strokes like—thwap!—like this here.  There I would exchange a stick, so if I’m hitting down here—pop!—and hitting the cymbal—shhhap!—the strokes like this here.  I was directing the energy in a very precise, meaningful way, so they helped each other out.  I would hit the sound and just get it, make it go like—rat-a-tat-a-rot-a-toko!

So that’s how I was interchanging them.  I was using the form, because with both things, I’m using body motion.  The photographer enjoyed me from imagining just the flow, and said, “Oh wow, the way he’s flowing.”  [The other guy] saw that and he thought of martial arts.  One of the guys I met from the aikido family over there wanted me to play talking drum and do some drumming stuff for his aikido class.  They wanted to be able to do the movements of the drummers.  They realized it was a rhythm thing that was missing, you know.  I was doing it in a very empty way; that was just timing.  It was putting me on a timer, so that’s how I locked all that in.

One of Milford Graves's drums on a shelf in a bookcase underneath two rows of books which is next to a Japanese scroll.

AM:  Ah, so he saw the martial arts in your drumming. When you’re playing drums, do you think of it as the word I learned when I was doing karate—the kata, which is like the pre-composed form that you have to work through? You’re improvising, so maybe you don’t think about it that way.

GM:  Well, you don’t fight with kata, you don’t use a kata.  That’s not a fighting form.  As an artist, a performing artist, a stage artist, some people think the performance starts when you come out on stage.  So if you’re a dancer, it’s the first steps you do.  If you’re an instrumentalist, it’s the first sound that comes out of your instrument.  But the performance starts, it could be a day before, two days before, three days before.  When you come on that stage, it starts before you even make one motion.  When you’re coming out there, you have to be generating as soon as you walk out on that stage.  The worst thing I see is people come out and start distributing their music charts to people on stage.  The audience is watching that!  Even if you fix your horn, if you’re touching your horn, you have to do it in a way that has theater and drama to it.

The way I interpret kata is I would go from a so-called hard style to a soft style.  I would come and I would do hard karate.  I’d come out—Eeuuooahh!—to show I had that look.  And I see people like, “Whoah!”  They flinch out, because it looks like I’m going to rip you out; I’m going to go through you.  I say [sings phrase].  Bah.  And so kata is like an eagle posture.  A kata is to get your attention.  It’s not fighting or a block.  You’re only doing that to set somebody up.  They see that door or they see this fist; that’s what kata is.  Look at me! It’s almost like hypnotizing them.  And you do just the opposite.  It’s not hard or hard, it’s hard-soft, soft-hard.  You may look just like you’re very soft then—bam!—you come out like this here.  You see?  So tai chi you may be like this here, but inside you’re ready to explode.  If you see a nuclear bomb or you stand next to a nuclear bomb, it looks like it can’t do anything.  But if you set the trigger mechanism off, my gracious, look at the damage.  I say, do you know internally what’s in that nuclear bomb and the damage you can do?  That’s tai chi.  The real internal arts.  You’re ready to explode.  And sometimes you look like you’re going to explode. That’s the whole process that goes on inside.  Everything is moving very quick.

AM:  So the performance begins with the energy inside of you.

GM:  Right.

AM:  Days before the performance.

GM:  Right.  Right.  Get ready.

Various computer monitors in Milford Graves's studio.

AM:  How do you cultivate that energy?  I know that’s something you think about, because you’ve written about it in an essay in terms of food. What you’re consuming matters. You’re also talking about a lot of heavier stuff there, in terms of energy and relationships.

GM: I find myself talking to more people about this now.  I tell people, “Why are you doing what you do?” when people come and they want to do this.  They want to elevate to this level, that level, and then all they have to do is say one thing to me, “I’ve got to see how I can make some money off of this.”  Then I say, “You’re not going to do it then. You don’t really have a divine, deep commitment.”

“People are trusting musicians to do the same thing the cook’s doing.”

Some things you do may not make a lot of money because you’ve got to be dedicated towards doing it.  You’ve got to know why you’re doing it.  You’ve got to know the importance of what you’re doing.  As far as music and being a musician, I tell people, “Why do you play music?  What’s your purpose?  If you’re going to play music and just use it as a mechanism to be able to pay your rent and all of that, I have no problem with that.  Only time I have a problem is when you tell me you want to reach this so-called cosmic or celestial higher level.  You know what I mean?  You want to get people to be able to visualize and transform in this kind of state and that kind of state?”  I say, “You’re not going to do it like that, because you’re going to fail to realize your importance.”

You go to a restaurant. I don’t think people realize when they walk through that door in a restaurant: you’re not cooking your own food.  Someone else is cooking that food. You’re trusting that person in that kitchen to be correct. You don’t know exactly what they’re doing.  If you’re a chef, cook, whatever, you’ve got to say, “Wait a minute, these people are coming here and I’m making food for them to be able to put inside of their bodies to allow them to maintain their life processes that require certain nutrients.  I’ve got to be responsible here.  These people are trusting me.”

As a musician, what do you think you’re doing? Are you trying to win a critics’ poll or get a Grammy? I think people are trusting us, trusting the musicians to do the same thing the cook’s doing.  They want their vibratory system to be fed.  They’re coming in there, you know what I mean?  You got your food, that’s why you see the combinations of restaurants having a band in there sometimes.  And it’s got to be a band that doesn’t cause you to regurgitate your food, or get a spasm in your esophagus because it’s too crazy.  So they want more soft, cooled-out music.  They have nice relaxing music with people eating.  That combination’s always been there—that mouth and that ear have always worked as a combinational thing there.  So you’ve got to get that ear vibrating. We’re vibrators.  You know?  You’re not a saxophone player; you’re not a drummer.  We are there to make that ear drum vibrate, to convert [the sound] into electrical energy.  The brain gets it. Ah, okay, now we’re cool.  We can do our job, man.  And we can energize the whole body.

Once you realize that, then you’re going to say, “I have an obligation.  I have a responsibility.  People are trusting me.”  You do a concert, you see people coming into the hall sitting around, they’re coming in to say, “Turn me on.  Feed me.  I’m here.”  If you come over there to trip on yourself, you’re this person without knowing that you have a responsibility to keep the folks vibrating.  If they vibrate, then maybe the whole planet will all vibrate.  Any culture that wipes out the arts is in trouble, and I think we’re seeing that right here with young kids in school and how they’re taking the arts out.  We’re wiping the whole vibratory system out.

In one area in Graves's studio there is a diagram of hands, a photo of fingers, and an anatomical model of a human body.

AM:  I appreciate how you talk about arts education in medical terms, how it is essential. One of the problems in our culture is we are taught to view the arts as a form of entertainment. Some people are taught to appreciate it on a deeper level, but you’re talking about it not just as spiritual, but as a physical and medical need.

MG:  Well, what we were talking about is the entertainment part.  We’re working on the superficial part of the body.  We’re basically working on a lot of the motor system.  So we get all the motor and muscles and everything moving, but we forget about the cellular level.  The cellular level also has to be fed, but then you’re taking away from the entertainment aspect.  We just do one side; we don’t do the full situation.  If you’re talking about so-called creative arts, abstract arts, you’re not talking on a cellular level.  You know, it’s not going to be as defined; whereas, you see, in the entertainment perspective, if you try to take the art and put it on graphs, and try to put mathematics to it, you’re not going to get the true benefit. I’ve been dealing with people, how do you put numbers to it?

“We are there to make that ear drum vibrate.”

You’ve got to the get to the point where you trust each other.  As a musician, you’ve got to trust each other to get on the stage and get this tremendous feeling happening.  When it’s over, someone will say, “Well, what note did you play?”  I don’t know what note I played.  I just play and don’t worry about it.

Some people just don’t trust that they can do it.  It’s extremely difficult to improvise, to be spontaneous and improvise, make changes in a very small amount of time and space and then come back and make another change in a small space of time and don’t repeat what you do.  After 15 or 20 minutes, you have made it through all of these different changes and so on, but what’s amazing is how when you walk out your door in the morning, you may spend an hour or two traveling.  Think about this.  You’re going to make all kinds of adjustments.  You’re capable of doing it.  But you’re told you can’t do it.  It’s like a little child. The parent takes care of the child.  You don’t know how to cross the street yet.  Then after a certain time, you’re supposed to mature in a way that you’re able to see if you’re walking 20 blocks, that you’re ready to make any changes that can take place.  But when it comes to certain things, like something specific in music, you’re taught that you have study this and you have to study that; you can’t do this.

I remember up in Bennington, when I talked to some of the classical musicians who were teachers there, they would say, “I wish I could improvise.”  And I’m saying, “Wow, they can’t improvise?”  I’m trying to figure this out.  It really hit me.  It made me realize: they’ve been taught piano lessons or violin lessons since they were like three, four, five-years old and they were always taught that you have to follow these kind of rules.  You have to do it this way and that way.  That’s horrible.

AM:  To back up a little bit, it sounds like one of the things you said earlier—that part of your music is about resonating on the cellular level. It sounds like your entire vision and goal of what you’re creating artistically through music and through martial arts isn’t even necessarily in the same category or place as goals that musicians typically have.  Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I was just curious about what you’re saying in terms of your goal of vibrating people on the cellular level, or on a level even more microscopic.

MG:  Well, I’ll tell you what.  When I was coming down the stairs, I was thinking about the two of you down here, and I said, “Something’s happening right now.”  People have been contacting me now, and all of a sudden, it’s like an onslaught.  One promoter told me I’m going to do this festival. We got into a conversation and I said, “It was nice of you to think about me. People had almost erased me out of history. They’re making these historical statements and I’m not even mentioned.” So the person said, “Well, people are ready for you now.”

I was told back in the last century, in the late ‘60s, that my concept of music was in the next century.  And of course, I didn’t want to hear that.  And then 2000 came, and I was trying to find that person to say I think you were right!  Things are starting to develop.  Sometimes it’s not for you to say what you want to do or who you are.  Maybe we all have instructions.  Some higher power that we may not realize. I just feel like I’m carrying out orders from another kind of power. No one ever told me to do this or do that.  It just felt that what I’m doing now is developing it to another level, and the reason I’m developing it to another level is because of people.  I’m not sitting outside wanting to be an oddball.  People talk to me about coming in. They say I want to study with you because of this or because of that.  I’m just naturally doing this.  I want to work on it now because I know I can do that.  People think you’re doing something great, but the feedback is not great.  I was looking at it passing the wrong way.  I can’t fault the people.  I guess they’re just not ready for it yet.  That’s what people were telling me.  They’re not ready.  So I said, “Have some patience.” All you have to do is talk to people my age that I grew up with and they’ll always say, “Milford was always eccentric. This guy was always unorthodox.”  I never thought about it.  I guess I was.  I would always challenge the situation.  If something came up, I said, “Let’s think of another way to do this here.”  So I think I found my mission.  What some people have told me, either directly or indirectly, is they may not understand what I’m doing, but they say, “I respect you because you didn’t deviate.  You’re still doing what you do.  Other people just went for the money.”

“I’m not sitting outside wanting to be an oddball. People talk to me about coming in.”

A long time ago I used to listen to some of the older musicians saying, “Wow, I wish I would have not been playing commercial.  I wish I would have done this, and I wish would have done that.”  In the late ‘60s, Papa Jo Jones told me something, and it really hit me hard. First of all, we were at this political meeting and I didn’t expect to see Papa Jo Jones there.  Then he started talking to me. He said, “We want to do some of that avant-garde playing, too.”  Gee whiz, Papa Jo Jones knows me!  I didn’t think Papa Jo knew me. Then he started talking about Count Basie and all of these things and he said, “They want to make money.”  Then I said, “Okay, Papa, I’ve got to leave.” And Papa just said, “Where are you going?”  I said, “I’m going over here to Seventh Avenue.  I got to get the train to Brooklyn.”  And he said, “I’m going that way, young man.”

And I went that way. He wouldn’t even allow me to buy a token.  He bought a token. I’m impressed with this.  He’s Papa Jo the legend and he’s treating me like royalty.  When those old bebop guys were talking about the so-called free jazz players, they didn’t really dislike us.  They were just saying, “Wow, that’s what we wanted to do. But these young guys coming up now can do it and get away with it.  We couldn’t back in the ‘40s.”  I always wonder what these guys would sound like if they would have kept developing their skill level.  You never know what that person could have been.

So I said to myself, “I’m going to keep developing myself because I want to see what I would develop into.”  Right now there are certain things I can do on the instrument that I couldn’t do then.  I used to think about it.  “Wow, that’d be great if you could play with this hand doing this and this doing that and all this here stuff.”  Now it’s coming so easy, because I stayed with it.  My conviction was: what would the arts be like if artists were allowed to develop ourselves? What would the planet be like now?  How would the people be vibrating?  The educational system in this country is the worst.   We don’t have the innovation.  Creativity’s needed again.  We’ve got to rise to another occasion.  When you wipe out the arts, which is stimulating the vibratory system, it’s going to cause a real slowdown.  That’s what I see now, the feedback I’m getting, like when people come over to me and say certain things when I do performances.  I stayed in there to try to see them the way a human would vibrate inside.  It’s not just Milford Graves—that brings in the ego thing.  Other people say, “Well, that’s his thing.  That’s not my thing.”  I always say, “This is our thing!”  I’m trying to bypass it and I’m trying to follow certain rules, and that’s when the physiological process comes in.  There’s a publication now, I won’t knock the publication, but it’s The Jazz of Physics.  For me, it should be jazz, but if you want to use any kind of science name, it should be physiology not the jazz of physics—that’s a machine, that’s outside of the body.  You know what I mean?  You don’t reduce the human body to a mechanical device.

AM:  At the last interview we did, we talked somewhat more idiomatically about all the different things that you are interested in and how they connect.  And I’ve been thinking about it ever since then.  What struck me was that the one thread through all of your interests is energy—and not just managing energy, but sculpting energy or creating with energy.  I was wondering if you’d speak about that a little bit because it seems like when you’re dealing with acupuncture, you talk about energy.  When you’re dealing with martial arts, you talk about kinetic energy.  When you’re talking about music, you’re talking about sonic, vibratory energy.  Maybe these are also, like you called it, harmonics of another fundamental that’s even lower than all of those disciplines.

MG:  Well, if you’re just going to translate energy to “the ability to do work,” that’s one thing. Like on a construction site, you have workers there and you’re telling the workers, “Come on, you’ve got to get this pipe lined up.”  “But I feel out of it.  I just don’t have energy. I cannot pick up this other section of this pipe to connect it.”  I always say that whenever you see humans doing something on the outside, it’s probably just a reflection of what’s going on inside.  So how do you connect these different pathways in the body with a certain kind of energy?  Now certain pathways call for a major work ethic.  It has to be a work ethic. To be able to create that ability to deal with energy, there’s got to be a whole lot of different mechanisms involved in there.  So you’ve got to have a lot of vibratory things going on.  Vibratory motion.  You’ve got to activate the inactive areas, different parts of the body.

“You don’t even know what light is, if you can’t see.”

I just had a conversation about body healing and morphologic fields.  It may be impossible to deal with the so-called morphologic fields, in a sense that you can create a new liver or can create a new heart.  Some people say, “That’s impossible.”  I don’t think it’s impossible. Instead you should just say, “Well, I don’t know how to do it,” because you don’t know how to do it.  Why would you say it’s impossible to do if you can create this energy? I mean, they demonstrated it in the physical world. Einstein had something going on!  But you have to interpret. The energy is one thing, but how are you going to interpret the mass?  How you are going to interpret what light is?  You don’t even know what light is, if you can’t see.  So it’s a visionary thing.  Right?  As soon as you turn off these lights, it’s dark.  You may know from being in that environment where everything is.  You can walk around and grab a seat here, but if that’s your first time, when those lights go out, you don’t know where the heck anything is.  So light really is about your ability to visualize.  So you have to turn the whole mechanism that’s dealing with light; you have to look inside.

The whole morphological aspect of what’s going on is so you get a way of seeing nature’s design, the patterns that nature has.  What you’ve got to say is there’s a possibility that we can connect this with this and connect that with that.  This is something I’ve been talking about for the longest time.  It’s very interesting that a person can have a certain kind of mythology. A female is capable of nurturing a baby, once that sperm and that egg come together; it’s amazing.  People just take stuff for granted.  That little small ovum can mix with a waggling little tadpole-looking type of thing and make a human being.  Unbelievable.  But it’s coming from inside of us.  Everybody thinks it’s the reproductive organs, but there are other factors in the brain that are controlling that.  You’ve got the pituitary gland and all these other organisms that are connected.  They still don’t know a lot about the brain, the whole circuitry.  On a global perspective, if you can stop killing each other, fighting each other and can come together and work together as human folks and work on the planet, then the planet will help out the whole solar system, help out all other galaxies, all the universes. Once you all know how to do that, the ruler will give you the key to how to deal with morphogenic fields and how to reproduce another kidney.  You don’t need a kidney transplant or a liver transplant.  We will be able to reproduce another one, but it takes a tremendous amount of work to energize that person. It’s almost like a person that’s just worn out and has nothing they can lift.  All of a sudden—Boom!—they’ve become really alert again.  There are many ways to do it, when you’re going to stimulate.  You can use acupuncture. You can use plant foods. You can use visual things.  But the key is you get the body active and moving.  It has to be a holistic, total involvement of the body.  You’re not going to have one little thing working and not the other thing working; it’s a collaborative aspect that has to take place in the body.  Everybody has got to be working towards this.  What I mean by energy is to get all of these different areas of the body activated.  And then once the complementary thing’s going on, that’s the only way a morphogenic field can happen. Your heart, when it acts from a pumping perspective, to pump blood out, is sending nutrients throughout the whole body.  So everything’s got to be coordinated for your body to work as a whole.  One little organ can be disrupted, and then you have a problem.

A globe of the earth as well as globes of other planets and satellites in our solar system sits in front of a shelf filled with cassettes of Milford Graves's performances.

AM:  Another thing I wanted to ask you about is that I’ve never heard you identify as a composer specifically. But from my perspective, I feel you could be equally thought of as a composer, but you’re using biological processes as your form.  And not even as a form where you take the superficial sound and notate it, but you’re actually trying to compose biologically. You’re composing with energy. You’ve created so much that involves improvisation, structure, form, and things that evolve along continuums. To my mind you combine the martial arts, acupuncture, herbology, and sound into—I don’t know what you would call it—a composition of the universe itself.

MG:  Well, if we’re talking about the paper composer, I think that’s a class structure.  Sometimes you do things and then people can be enlightened about what you’re doing, or it can hurt. Sometimes you’ve got to say, “What is it really about that I’m doing?”

I remember an experience I had with Jimmy Giuffre around 1965.  There was a book out called Where’s the Time? by a journalist, Martin Williams; he may be still around. He wrote this book about the different rehearsal bands that Jimmy Giuffre put together.  Joe Chambers was doing some of the rehearsals, and I did about three rehearsals with him. I wanted to take the challenge, because Jimmy Giuffre had this reputation.  So I went up to his house, and he had these charts. I knew he was doing some Ornette Coleman stuff, but when I looked at the chart, I said, “Jimmy, this is a little different.”  He was trying to write the melody down for the drums.  This was not a standard way you would notate for the drummer—try and hit the side of the shell, the edge of the rim.  He was trying to get all these different pitches out.  And just for the basic melody of the head, we followed the instructions.  But I told Jimmy, “Look, I will play the rhythm.  I’ll do my best with the sounds.”  I should have been able to read that the way I wanted to, because I’m the new kid on the block and I’m going to be controversial.  After that, he’d probably go around and say Milford Graves doesn’t know how to read music and want to fire me. That wouldn’t have bothered me.  But then I thought I did bad.  So I took the chart home. I told my wife, “I’m going to my room and look at this guy’s music.”  I spent less than a half an hour [there].   I remember leaving the room.  My wife says, “You’re finished?”  “I’m finished.  I see where he’s coming from now.”  I sketched out what he wanted, so when I came back the next day I played it. Don Friedman was on piano and Barre Phillips was on bass. It was a quartet.  After it was over, Don Friedman said, “Wow, how’d you get that so fast?”  I thought I was doing bad.  He said it took us a little while to get all this stuff together.  And I felt real good after that. It wasn’t so bad after all.  But then what happened was, they had an improvisational section. Jimmy Giuffre walked in. I wanted to go up there and see the challenge, man.  When he came to improvising those sections, I improvised off of the head.  So Jimmy said, “Wow.”  He listened to the recording we did there and he said, “Could you rewrite the head for me, rewrite the drum parts?  Because the way you improvise, that’s how I want the drums to be played.” So he didn’t want to write it like that, but he didn’t want no regular dang-dang-ga-dang.  So when I was playing, I heard something and I said, “This is what I would be hearing.”  But then after that there, I saw him at a concert and he said, “So when are you coming back?”  I said, “You know, I don’t know.”  He said, “Well, I want to see if you can read my charts now.  I got some other stuff.”  It was like a competitive thing.  So I just said that’s it.  No more gigs.  I don’t need to go there no more.  But I was listening to what he wanted to hear from the drum perspective.  All the tonal changes, I can do that with all that stuff.  You don’t have to be hitting it all over.  You can stay on the membrane and play the melody out like I do now.  You can play that stuff right from there.

So that was just one experience I had. I had a few more of the same. “Wow, that’s a composer? So what are these guys about?”  It’s almost like an ego trip.  I know some composer may say, “What is this Graves talking about? This guy don’t know what the heck he’s talking about.  Who does he think he is?” I would say just think about what you’re doing.  You sit down, you may spend days or months, and you are telling your story, and then you finish your story, in a musical way, and then you want to give me a piece of your music that’s talking about what you feel, what you want to express, and you’re saying, play me.  I’m bothered with that, like what [someone else] feels doesn’t [matter]. Or when somebody gives you a composition, you add something in. I had that experience, too.  They say, “Well, that’s not written.  That shouldn’t be in there.” What do you mean?  Your music caused me to feel that, and I thought it was cool to put that in.  So if we’re driving in an automobile, and we have to get some place in an emergency—let’s suppose we’re transporting somebody to the hospital or something—and you make a left turn.  I say, “No, to get to the hospital, you have to make a right turn.”  “Well no, that’s the way we do it.  It’s a left turn.  You’re not listening to me.”  That’s the same thing as music composition. You may do something and I don’t think that’s the way.  You’re not even screwing up, man.  If you do it this way, that adds onto it.

“A composer to me—that’s a responsible situation.  A composer to me is just like a teacher.”

I’ve [also] had that experience with a conductor.  They said that I made the track on this particular recording.  They said the way you was playing, that made the thing.  If I would have done it the other way, it was too dry.  But that person wanted to act like they have control.  They wrote all the music and they conducted. So I said, “You’re not giving me respect.”  When I hire a band, I respect you.  A composer to me—that’s a responsible situation.  A composer to me is just like a teacher.  If you’re in a classroom with students, they’re expecting you to teach them.  And if you’re teaching a subject, and they can’t understand that subject, you don’t go and say, “Oh, you’re stupid.  I’m going to fail you.”  You’re supposed to talk to that person and say, “What kind of difficulties are you having?”  And if they say, “I don’t like history.” Well, say, “Let’s talk about history.  Could you tell me something that happened five years ago?  Is there anything you remember five years ago that you don’t like?”  “Oh, I remember something five years ago. I will never forget that.”  “But that’s history.  It’s important that you don’t forget that.  So you don’t repeat that mistake you made.”

Books, tools, and musical diagrams share space in Milford Graves's studio

Or if it’s a math problem—I’m going to tell you something real fast. In the 1970s, I went up to IS 201.  A friend of mine was an assistant principal at that time.  He wanted me to do three workshops in the summer for these kids up in Harlem.  So I went up, and I had a pocket full of change.  I took the hand drums, congas, and all of that.  I’m going to teach these kids these rhythms, but I don’t know if these kids know about eighth notes, quarter notes, and all that technical talk.  So I said, “We’re going to play a rhythm, but we’re going to pulse beats first.  I’m going to hit the drum four times.  One-two-three-four.  Every time you hit the drum, think of a quarter, a quarter, a quarter, and a quarter.”  I had four quarters out.  Then I said, “How many quarters make a dollar?”  They knew that.  They may be failing in school, but they know how to count that money.  “Oh, that’s one dollar.”  So I had a one dollar bill.  I said, “So that’s a one dollar bill. What’s a one dollar bill, compared to counting four twenty-five cent coins?”  I just boom and don’t hit the drum no more times.  But I quietly say, “Count four.  ONE-two-three-four.  That’s a dollar.  So how do you write a dollar?”  They write what they call a whole note in music.  “That’s all, you got a dollar.  You got a little circle like this here.”

Then I took the quarters and said, “Now, we’re going to play each pulse beat twice as fast.  We’re going to count eight.  We got that whole dollar, now we’ve got to make sure that we’re going to divide this one dollar bill eight times.” I had some dimes and some pennies.  So I took out the dimes and said, “How many dimes and pennies makes twenty-five cents?”  Take out a dime.  Take out the five pennies.  “Alright?”  Anyway, I lined them all up and I took two of the students and said, “Look, we’re going to share this twenty-five cents.  You get a dime and you get a dime, but how are we going to share these five pennies between the two of you?  If I give you two pennies, I give you three pennies.  You may get upset, because he got one more penny than you.”  And they’re looking and I said, “I tell you what, anybody got any scissors here?  Let’s cut this other penny in half.”  And they laughed because they know no scissors can cut that penny.  But if I do that, you’re going to get half of a penny.  So you’ve got a dime, then another penny is eleven, another’s twelve; you got twelve and a half.  And we added all that up and in an hour’s time, guess what, I had those kids doing fractions.  It blew them away.  It blew the parents away. I said. “Yeah, you all can do fractions, but you can’t do non-functional fractions.  Don’t mean nothing if you just write numbers!”

That’s a teacher.  That’s a conductor.  If you come to me as a musician, then I may say, “Here, you play.”  You’ve got more? I say, “I think we’ve got something.”  Then I’ll get down and participate with you.  Then I’ll say, “We’re going to try this; we’re going to try that.”  I’ll lay out something to see how you’re going to respond to it.  You didn’t respond.  I left something open for you.  There was no conversation taking place.  It could be for many reasons.  But I’m going to try to get inside you and inspire you to want to play and make stuff come out of you that you really didn’t have.  That’s the conductor, or composer. And if you don’t need help, I don’t have to tell you what to do.  But if you need some help, maybe I’ll give you some suggestions.  But to out and out come out and not think about what someone can do because you wrote all this music? Then you hear this person in another kind of setting and say, “Wow. I didn’t know you could play like that.”  Yeah, you didn’t allow me to play like that, because you already dictated what you wanted.

That’s why I’m devoted to improvisational, spontaneous music.  And I think that’s what we need on the planet right now.  I think people have to get deeper inside themselves. We all have the potential to be smart and intelligent, and we’ve got to bring it out of people. To resolve some of these major problems we have on the planet, we have to have more people working.

“When it really comes time for a major crisis, everybody has to participate.”

I was just telling somebody yesterday that when there’s peace, then they tell people,  “Oh, we don’t need you.  We have all these regulations; we don’t need your help.”  But when 9/11 came, and what did they do?  They asked for the public’s help because the military, the police, and everybody realized that they couldn’t watch everything.  If anything looks suspicious, just call this number and let us know.  So you’re really saying that when it really comes time for a major crisis, everybody has to participate.  If you want to find out the cures for cancer and all this stuff here, you have to start from an early stage in elementary school exposing these kids to oncology, neurology, all these things, in the classroom.  Make little toys, little games, so everybody can participate. You talk about trial and error. Somebody out of that is going to come up, it could be a five-year old kid, and say, “Well, what if you did this and did that?”  Somebody will say, “Wow, we never thought of that.”  That’s why I’m saying: we have to bring out the innovative and creative potential of what we as humans have, and you’re not going to do it by constantly putting a harness on somebody and saying you’re not allowed to express yourself or do what you do.

The elaborately ornamented exterior of Milford Graves's home.

Michael J. Schumacher: Composing is Listening

Michael J. Schumacher’s 2002 artist statement on the website of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts is a very succinct summary of his aesthetics:

I am interested in context, in defining boundaries and not crossing them. A piano piece is one thing, a sound installation another. The forms are different, the audience is different. The time, the place, it all has to be taken into account. Ultimately, we’re all collaborating with whomever’s participating.

Nevertheless, Schumacher engages in an extremely wide range of music-making—from immersive Room Pieces and other sound installations to collaborations with choreographer Liz Gerring to composing and performing all the “songs” for his indie “dance pop” (for lack of a better term) band diNMachine. In Schumacher’s home in Sunset Park, where we visited him to have an extensive conversation about his musical activities, there are tons of speakers everywhere and a great collection of vintage synthesizers, but also a grand piano in the middle of his living room as well as a small bust of the composer Franz Schubert that’s just hanging out near a window in his dining room.

“I love lots of kinds of music; I’m just aware of the differences,” Schumacher explained when I asked him about the wide variety of his musical endeavors. “I don’t think that leads to only liking one particular kind of approach.  I happen to have really fallen in love with computer algorithms.  I have to say that.  It opened up a way of listening for me that was really fantastic, and it stays fantastic now.  But I was in rock bands as a kid.  I played in some bands up until I was in my 30s. And I improvised a lot. I like having that outlet for that part of my musical being.”

Although Schumacher is deeply interested and involved with a wide range of musical styles, he firmly believes that certain kinds of music-making work better in certain kinds of spaces and that doing the wrong music in the wrong space is unfair to audiences and musicians alike, since it sets up unfulfillable expectations.

“A concert hall is a place for storytelling, but it’s a place where you know the story,” he asserted.  “You know it’s going to be an arc form.  You know there’s going to be a climax and a resolution.  And you’re enjoying that in a place of comfort, in a place of audition, a place watching a storyteller—whether it’s a conductor or an actual person telling the story—and this unfolds in a very predictable way.  Your body’s relationship to that is key: being in a seat and looking forward orients you towards a certain way of perceiving time.”

Schumacher’s deep concern for how sound installations and other primarily electronic music creations—both his own and those created by others—were perceived led him to establish several performance spaces designed specifically for such work, most notably Diapason in New York City.

“The first one was Studio 5 Beekman,” Schumacher remembered. “It was a little office space.  You entered, and there was a small foyer.  This kind of gave you a little bit of a buffer between the world and then the gallery, which was behind a door, beyond the foyer.  That little buffer was very nice, because it let people kind of take a breath.  For me it was also for limiting vision.  Turn the lights down.  It doesn’t have to be dark, but just make the visual less explicit.  I used to use a red light bulb, which got misinterpreted as a kind of gesture of some sort, but I just felt it was a dark color that allowed you to see without making the visual too much of a thing.  I think personally in those situations, it’s not good to have a lot of sound coming from outside.  If people want that, I suppose you can have a space like that, but for the most part I feel people want to be able to control the environment and not have to deal with sirens and things like that.”

Unfortunately after more than a decade, Diapason proved unsustainable and now Schumacher is contemplating hosting sound installations for a small invited audience in his own home. It’s a far more intimate environment than the theaters which present the Liz Gerring dances he scores or the clubs where his band diNMachine might typically perform. And he is well aware that those spaces result in different ways of perceiving which are best served by different approaches to making music. But, he’s also aware that not everyone listens to music the same way, regardless of the space, and is eager to create things that have an impact for anyone who hears them.

“If we’re talking about the ideal listener-viewer, I think that’s one thing.  If we’re talking about a typical audience, that’s another. Both are obviously important.”

December 6, 2017 at 2:00 p.m.
Michael J. Schumacher in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: The homepage of your website has a sequence of photos of all these objects: a teapot with an audio speaker in it; two circuit boards interconnected; and, perhaps the most striking one, a Philadelphia Cream Cheese container. It’s tantalizing, but none of those things have audio links on them, so I suppose that’s just to whet people’s appetites.

Michael J. Schumacher:  I think at some point I did have audio where each object would be a separate channel, and as you clicked on more [of them], you’d get more of the piece.  I don’t know what happened to that.  I don’t really manage my own website; I don’t know how.  My girlfriend does that.  Sometimes things get disconnected or something changes, and it takes us a while to figure out that it happened and to fix it.

FJO:  Wow, that’s a pity.  I would have loved to have clicked on all of those images to hear all those sounds together. So they’re all one piece?

MJS:  Well, the way I work in general is I’m basically writing one piece all the time.  I’m just adding things to it, and then whenever I present it, it’s a part of that piece.  That’s how I look at that realm of the multi-channel stuff; [those sounds] would have been a particular group of things that would belong to this larger concept.

“The way I work in general is I’m basically writing one piece all the time.”

FJO:  So all those things make different sounds, but what were those sounds?

MJS:  Well, they’re all just speakers; they’re not instruments.  I use these objects—the cream cheese container or the teapot—to create a resonant body. I travel with these little drivers and can improvise a resonator on the spot.  I can go to Lisbon and put the speakers in beer glasses or garbage cans or things like that.  But I sometimes get attached to certain resonators, like the Philadelphia Cream Cheese container.

FJO:  I can imagine that a teapot could have some effective acoustic properties based on its shape, but what’s so special about a Philadelphia Cream Cheese container?

MJS:  Well, I think when they designed the container, they were clearly thinking acoustically: something works.  It came from Costco.

Schumacher's Philadelphia Cream Cheese speaker

FJO:  Even though the audio links on those images are currently not working, you’ve made so much of your music available through your amazingly generous and seemingly limitless SoundCloud page. However, about a week ago I started embarking on a plan to listen to every one of the files you uploaded to that page in order—I failed because there’s so much material there. But I also failed because as I was scrolling through the files, I came across one called Middl which had a waveform that immediately made me want to hear it. Most waveforms are somewhat random looking and nondescript, at least to me, but this one had a striking regularity to it. It was unlike any kind of SoundCloud waveform I’d ever seen.  So I jumped ahead.  I cheated on my own listening plan, because I had to hear what that thing sounded like.  And it was a really transformative hour of my life.  It sounds to me like it starts with a telephone dial tone.  Is that what it is?

MJS:  No.

FJO:  What is it?

MJS:  It’s a synthesizer oscillator, and it’s being played by a computer.  The oscillator is a kind of additive synthesizer with eight partials, and these partials are being manipulated by the computer.  So it’s pretty simple.

FJO:  It sounded so much like a telephone dial tone to me—so much so that since hearing it, I can’t interface with an actual telephone in the same way.  I’m now giving it all these musical associations.

MJS:  That’s really good.  I’ve actually tapped into something.

FJO: But apparently not intentionally.

MJS:  No.  Or maybe it was.  Maybe that was my La Monte Young moment of listening to the wires and having it inspire me.

Some of the hardware Schumacher uses to create his music.

FJO:  Another sound file I listened to had a similar effect on me. It was a sound file for the Riga 2014 Room Piece, which also lasted a bit more than an hour. After the file ended, I took off my headphones and walked down the hall.  I was washing my hands in the bathroom sink, and when I turned off the water I was suddenly transfixed by another sound I couldn’t immediately place. The room was completely empty, but there was this steady sound. Maybe it was a heat pipe. But it didn’t matter. I just wanted to listen to it, and it was because I had just listened to your Room Piece. Of course, there’s a whole history of pieces that make us more attuned to the sounds around us that most of us take for granted, starting with John Cage’s 4’33”. All of Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening projects were also part of this tradition. But whereas Cage and Oliveros’s reasons for pursuing a more expansive way to listen seem almost political and even spiritual, the relationship to the larger sonic environment that your music opened me up to has been purely aesthetic; it just made me focus on some interesting sounds.

MJS:  I think a lot about listening; for me, composing is listening and so it’s how you listen and how you respond to the potential meaning in a sound.  I think that what’s become really interesting since Cage is how much you can do in that regard: how and where you can find meaning; how you can juxtapose meanings; how you can suggest resonances beyond sonic resonances to real life associations. This explosion of meaning also includes pre-Cage sound—the relationship between a D and an A, or a D and B-flat. That also has meaning. What’s so exciting about making music now is you’re really—I don’t want to say manipulating, because I don’t try to manipulate meaning. I try to suggest ways that listeners can explore meaning.

“For me, composing is listening.”

FJO:  When you talk about certain sounds being pre-Cage, people listening to that D and that A in the era before Cage and Oliveros were generally listening unquestioningly to a disembodied, abstract, and perhaps idealized relationship between certain sounds typically through the filter of somebody playing an instrument or somebody singing, either themselves or someone else in their home or in a concert hall. But obviously when any musician makes these intentional sounds there’s all this other sound that’s happening, too, much of which is unintentional but just as present.  And I guess in the world we live in now, what we could call the post-deep listening moment, we are at least aware that every sound that’s around us is something that obviously we can hear, even if we’re not consciously listening to it. So how does that change the relationship of what a composer does—for you?

MJS:  These sounds that are outside the specific performance that are accompanying it in some way can be invited in or in some way interact with the performance.  I think it can work both ways.  You can be in a situation and somebody making a sound or some sound coming from the environment can affect your reception of the “musical” sounds.  Let’s just call them musical sounds.  On the other hand, the musical sounds can affect your reception of these other sounds.  So what I like to work with are short, suggestive sounds that can expose meanings in sounds outside the performance. A simple example would be if I play a short note on the piano and by coincidence—and it’s amazing how often this happens—you might hear a car horn in the distance, and that car horn might be the same pitch.  And so the mind relates the two.  In an abstract way, not in a way that it’s saying that’s a car horn, but in a way that it’s saying that’s a B.  That’s the same pitch.  That’s a musical thing, an abstract or musical way of perceiving that car horn.  I really like that, and so I like to put out there enough information that the whole sonic environment can participate in that reception of sound.  Not just a level of concrete associations, but also in these abstract associations like rhythm and pitch.  The other reason to have short events is because they articulate a time-space kind of situation, as do most of the sounds we hear in the environment.  Very few sounds in the environment are steady and non-stop.  If they are, after a while we tend to ignore them.  Most of the sounds we perceive are perceived momentarily, and we’re jumping from one to another.

FJO:  That’s sort of the opposite of the drone aesthetic.

MJS:  Not really, because drones—like La Monte Young’s drones—are incredibly active.  When you’re listening deeply to them, you’re listening to lots of things inside the drone.  For me, a drone is actually exactly that.  It’s just maybe a different way of approaching it.  I think, in both cases, we’re talking about really heightening the moment and trying for a kind of perceptual present.

FJO:  I grew up in New York City amidst 24/7 loud Midtown Manhattan traffic; I had to train myself to be able to fall asleep with the noises of sirens and everything else.  I remember the first time I ever took a trip to the countryside and there were crickets.  I could not fall asleep because it was a constant sound, and it was too close to a musical experience for me.  But of course, a musical experience could also be a completely random assortment of sounds, but I was able to disassociate that. I guess that speaks to what you were saying about how, if you’re not really paying attention, a drone might seem like this constant thing, but there’s lots of other stuff in it.

MJS:  I think that at the beginning, the point of the drone is that superficially it seems like nothing is going on.  But what it’s doing is it’s giving you this time dimension of really saying, “Okay, now I’ve been listening to this for five minutes, and suddenly I’m hearing things that I didn’t hear before.  And then the more I do that, the more I hear in this apparently monolithic sound.”  There are all these details that can only be only accessed through it—first of all—being so-called unchanging, but also giving the listener the time to contemplate.

FJO:  There’s a piece of yours that sort of does that in a weird way.  But maybe, once again, what I thought I was hearing is not quite what you were doing, like how Middl isn’t a dial tone. The piece is called Chiu.

MJS:  That’s a piece Tom Chiu and I performed together.

FJO:  Aha!  Okay.  That’s why it’s called that.  And I hear his violin, but what it sounds like you’ve done to it is created some kind of artificial simulacrum of a Doppler effect.  At least that’s what it sounded like to me.

MJS:  Well, that was a jam. I played my synthesizer.  It’s the same synthesizer that I use in Middl.  It’s made by Mark Verbos, who used to be here in Brooklyn and now has moved to Berlin.  It’s a fantastic Buchla-inspired approach to synthesizer making.  It was an improv, but we rehearsed a bit.  It was really kind of Tom’s composition.  And he has this way of playing—I guess that’s what you hear as the Doppler, this kind of slow pitch bend, kind of this constant, constantly shifting, almost glissing pitch world.

One of Schumacher's synthesizers connected to a speaker made from a Bush Beans can.

FJO: So that was all him and was just a product of the improvisation?

MJS:  Yeah.

FJO:  So once again, I made all these incorrect inferences about what I was hearing.  This is the weird thing about disembodied sound, whether you’re hearing something on a recording and there aren’t a lot of program notes for it or you’re listening on your headphones on a website with no additional information. These experiences are very different from being in a space and watching a performance or a sound installation and seeing how it works as you’re listening to it.  There’s only so much your ears can tell you about what’s going on; the eyes give away the secrets.

MJS:  They can, but sometimes with synthesizers you don’t; sometimes the player doesn’t know what’s going on.  At least I don’t. I mean, I have no idea.

FJO:  In the very beginning of our talk you were saying the images on the homepage of your website originally linked to sound files, and someone presumably could turn one of them on, but when you turned a second one on, the first one would still be on and then you’d have this cumulative effect of all that sound.  In essence, the Room Pieces also work this way because you have these different sonic modules that all exist separately but the piece is about the cumulative effect of hearing them all spatially in a particular space.  It isn’t necessarily duration-based, which makes it something you wouldn’t listen to for causality in the same way as other musical compositions.

MJS:  What do you mean by “in the same way”?

FJO:  Well, like the D and the A you mentioned before. Let’s say there’s a car that’s suddenly on B-flat, and that’s totally random, but you might—because of how your mind perceives time-based musical relationships—think you’re hearing a flat six if you hear it after the D and the A.  There’s a perception of a developmental relationship, a relationship between the third sound and those other two sounds because of the order they are in.

“I didn’t want a sense of utter randomness…  That’s where I really don’t agree with Cage.”

MJS:  That is what I’ve been trying to do with the Room Pieces.  These are algorithmic, generative compositions, and they’re modular.  But the approach was to create coincidental occurrences of that sort.  The range of sounds and the exploration of pitch and rhythm was intended to raise the question: are these intentional events?  Was this composed?  I didn’t want a sense of utter randomness, just the sense that none of it has any relationship.  That’s where I really don’t agree with Cage; I guess you could say it in that way. I think he was pretty adamant about wanting to completely cancel out this idea of relationships between sounds.  What it’s all about for me is creating these relationships, but it’s not about necessarily creating a progression or any structure that is really only interpretable in one way.  It’s really about creating the possibilities for these relationships, like a kind of drawing where you connect the dots—each listener would come up with his or her own drawing.

Schumacher's laptop displaying a software program that works out his algorithms.

FJO:  So you want those relationships to be there, but you don’t necessarily want to determine what they are.  It’s for the listener to determine.

MJS:  Right.

FJO:  There’s a wonderful comment that Julian Cawley made in one of the program essays published in the CD booklet for the XI collection of the Room Pieces: “His music changes, but it doesn’t progress.”  Is that a fair assessment of all the work that you’re doing?

MJS:  Well, definitely the Room Pieces, but lately I’ve been getting away from that approach. For 20 years I was just determined never to edit what happened, just to let it happen and not to get involved in that post-production level of saying, “Okay, I like this, but it’s not really working here, so I’m going to change it up and I’m going to add this.”  I really tried to keep it very strictly algorithmic and generative.  But lately, in the last I would say ten years, I’ve been interested in getting into the details, especially spatialization and really exploring outside of that algorithmic process how I can really look at those details of how the sounds exist in space and how they relate to each other, moving on to more deterministic pieces.

FJO:  So would it be toward things that have literally more of a beginning, middle, and end, that actually develop, that actually have a start point and end point?

MJS:  Yeah.  I think some of the new pieces on Contour Editions are definitely that way.

FJO:  Disagree with me if you think I’m off the mark on this, but it seems there’s a distinction that’s key to all of this: the difference between musical composition or musical performance on the one hand and sound installation, sound art, or even instrument design on the other.  A performance or a composition is fixed in its duration.  The order of the sounds that an audience hears and how long they are listening to these sounds is determined for them.  There’s a clear beginning, middle, and end. Whereas with a sound installation, people can theoretically walk into it whenever they want and can stay however long they want.  So the message it’s trying to convey has to be different than a progression of events over time.

MJS:  Right.  It’s a big issue in terms of making sure that listeners perceive what you think they should be perceiving, and in the right timeframe.  So 30 minutes, 45 minutes, or 5 minutes, what’s a minimum amount of time to be able to understand the piece? Is it a problem then if you leave out things? Is it really necessary for the person to wait ten minutes for something important to happen?  Is that something you want to avoid?  Those are obviously key questions.  I was lucky to have my own space, but if you’re presenting these works in museums or other settings where people are constantly moving through, and they’re really encouraged to move through and not to sit down necessarily for an hour—although obviously with video art people do that—that’s an added layer of things you need to account for.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you’re concerned about whether people will get it if they’re only there for five or ten minutes. Of course you can never assume someone is going to get your piece, even if it’s in a concert hall, on a program, and it’s a functionally tonal string quartet.  You can’t really control how people perceive anything.

“Schoenberg and his 12-tone technique is the beginning of process composition.”

MJS:  My feeling is that this whole trend toward sound art and sound installation is coming out of the concert hall’s dominance as a listening space. For me, it starts with Schoenberg.  Schoenberg and his 12-tone technique is the beginning of process composition.  Even in his case, it’s taking the ego out of the process in a sense, obviously.

FJO:  Wow.

MJS:  It’s a stretch with Schoenberg, but there’s still that hint of: “Okay, here’s this process, 12 notes.  I’ve used 11, doesn’t matter.  I have to use the twelfth.  It doesn’t matter what I think.  I’ve decided that the twelfth note is going to be one I didn’t use.” So that’s process that overcomes his taste—in a sense—and his ego.  For me, it starts there. And Cage is essentially the same thing.  It’s chance, but this was proven in the ‘50s, basically you get the same thing.  It’s a process and the result is going to be a surprise, both to the composer and, in a sense, to the audience.  Unlike classical composition where as soon as you hear a bar or two of Mozart, your brain knows what the next six bars are going to be in a sense.  That’s the beauty; that’s why it’s so relaxing to listen to because you sit there and you hear eight bars in advance. It’s kind of like knowing the future.  You’ve been given a little bit of a peek into the future and that relaxes you.  That makes you feel kind of secure.

This idea of every next step being a little bit of a mystery is a fundamentally different way of perceiving the world and perceiving music, and I think it’s completely wrong to do that in a concert hall.  And I think that people sense this.  A concert hall is a place for storytelling, but it’s a place where you know the story.  You know it’s going to be an arc form.  You know there’s going to be a climax and a resolution.  And you’re enjoying that in a place of comfort, in a place of audition, a place watching a storyteller—whether it’s a conductor or an actual person telling the story—and this unfolds in a very predictable way.  Your body’s relationship to that is key: being in a seat and looking forward orients you towards a certain way of perceiving time.

So my feeling is that composers started to sense this disconnect between where they were required to show their work and the kind of work they were interested in making, which was based on these processes that everybody was inventing from about 1945 on.  Basically the job of every composer was to invent the process, invent their own methodology, so I feel like the intuitive response to that was to invent new spaces. Part of that is radio space. In Germany and [other parts of] Europe, you get more of the experimentation in radio-based listening spaces, either the radio itself or maybe these sort of black box spaces that they would perform in.  In more extreme cases, like Stockhausen, he would go into caves and what not.  They were searching for these places where the space placed the body in an orientation towards the sound that allowed it to really be perceived in a way that connected to the process of composing it. My focus has been to try to understand the very many ways of listening, of apprehending sound, and how they relate to architecture and to the body and to try to create situations where we can help listeners understand what it is that they’re perceiving.

FJO:  I was thinking along similar lines over the weekend.  I went to the sound installation exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design in Manhattan in Columbus Circle.

MJS:  Did Charlie Morrow have something to do with it?

FJO:  Not as far as I know. I didn’t know most of the people who were involved with this except for Benton Bainbridge, but there was some very interesting work there. What I found even more interesting than the work, however, were how many people there were interacting with what were, in several cases, some really whacked out sounds, perhaps sounds that they might not have heard before or might not have had a context for.  And they were really enjoying it.  People of all ages—young children, teenagers, even some elderly people. There was an interactive piece called Polyphonic Playground that was created by the London-based collective Studio PSK where people made sounds by climbing bars or sitting on swings.  That was cool.  There was also this incredible contraption on a wall with all these disembodied guitar strings attached to pickups.  It was done by an Israeli-born artist who now lives here named Naama Tsabar; she used to play in punk bands but now more of her work is installation-based.

Anyway, some of these guitar strings were tuned to really resonant low tones, but you hear them all together from various people plucking them all at once and it creates some incredibly dissonant chords.  Yet everybody was enjoying it.  If people were to hear the same thing in a concert hall, would they appreciate it as much?  If it was a New York Philharmonic subscription series concert, there probably would have been loads of people walking out.

MJS:  Exactly.

FJO:  Why is that?

MJS:  I think these are really very old habits—and not in a bad way, just human habits. I once made a list of listening paradigms.  I’m not a scientist; I’m not a researcher in this way.  This is just kind of stuff that comes off the top of my head.  So I’m not claiming this to be true or anything.  I’m just thinking about it. Think of sitting by the camp fire and listening to somebody telling a story—somebody with a gift for telling a story, but understanding that that camp fire offers both security but also danger because just beyond the darkness there could be anything, an animal or a gangster, something.  So there is that sense of “What’s behind me?  What could potentially encroach on our sense of comfort?”  A storyteller is going to take advantage of that, a person who’s got a sensitivity to that is going to maybe then tell a scary story or something, that will bring in the darkness, bring in the rear, so to speak.  You oppose that with the concert hall where that does not exist.  In the concert hall we’re enclosed.  We’re completely safe.  We are perhaps a little bit impinged on by our neighbors, so that we feel a little bit self-conscious.  So that’s something.  All of these things contribute. Think of a political meeting in a town square where there’s a speaker, but there’s also a lot of participation from the audience.  People acknowledge their neighbors and encourage each other to talk back to the speaker, so it becomes a back and forth kind of thing.  Or a rock concert—that’s a different kind of thing.  All of these are paradigms, and they become models for listening that you can carry over into other situations.  You can listen to your stereo, but you can pretend it’s the concert hall.  Do you remember the way people used to listen to records? They would bring the record home, put it on, and sit in a comfortable chair with their speakers there, as if they were in the concert hall—my dad used to do that—and they would listen to the whole record.  It was 20 minutes of sitting there listening.  They wouldn’t put it on and go do the dishes like people do now because they know they can just keep playing the stack of CDs that is never ending, or the MP3s or whatever.

“In the concert hall we’re enclosed.  We’re completely safe.”

Another aspect of this is musical structure.  Take a look at Philip Glass’s music.  At the beginning, he was very much in the art world.  He was doing a lot of his performances in art galleries.  The take away form of one of the early pieces, if you put it in a sound editor or something, is like a bar.  It’s a flat sound.  As soon as he got commissioned to do the Violin Concerto—and that’s in a concert hall—then suddenly you’ve got that arc form.  Suddenly, it’s a standard concerto. It’s in his language, but you’ve got that climax. He was clearly intuitively responding, “Okay, now I’m in a concert hall.  I can’t do this thing that I do in the gallery where people are walking around.”  Physically, they were in a completely different orientation; they didn’t feel hemmed in like at a concert hall. So they didn’t have those same expectations of structure.  But as soon as he was doing the concert hall piece, then it was like, “Now I have to rethink this.”

FJO:  In terms of your own background and how you got into all of this stuff—you studied the piano growing up. Later you went the typical composer-training route.  You went to Indiana University, then on to Juilliard to study with Vincent Persichetti, one of the great—albeit largely unsung—masters of the sonata form: 12 great piano sonatas, 9 symphonies; it’s all very much about the concert hall.

MJS:  Yeah.

FJO:  You even wrote a symphony and a string quartet.  I was desperately trying to find places I could hear them.

MJS:  You won’t. They were student pieces.

FJO:  At what point did you have this aha moment of wanting to do something else?

MJS:  At Indiana, they had a great studio.  I was always into electronic music.  I even had synthesizers when I was in high school.  I would go to sleep with my headphones playing drones essentially. I had no idea of any of that, but that’s just what came out of the synthesizer.  I just turned it on and held a note down, then played with the filters and the LFOs and stuff.  So I was always into that. Then at IU, Xenakis had left the year before I got there, but I think he might have developed the studio a little bit and so I was working and I made a piece called Nature and Static.  This was a piece that had two parts.  One was what I called “Nature,” which had basically five or seven parts that were just playing the same minimal melody, but with different timbres.  And they just kind of intersected in a very minimal way, not unlike that Middl piece you know, but the idea was completely intuitive.  It was that you’d listen into it and you would hear this multiplicity of sounds in this very simple texture—and that I associated with nature, because nature to me was simple, but complex.  Then the other half was “Static,” which was a loop—much more of an electronic music or man-made kind of a loop.  And I processed it, so it got kind of big and loud.  For my recital, I performed a piano piece with string quartet, and this piece Nature and Static, and I turned the lights off for the electronic piece.

At that point, it occurred to me that I had to do something because it isn’t right to have people sitting in these chairs listening to this.  They should be closing their eyes and listening as if immersed in the sound.  It felt wrong to be doing it in the concert hall, but you know, you do what you can.  You turn the lights off, or whatever.  Then at Juilliard, I organized some electronic concerts at Paul Hall. But when I set the speakers up, I was also struck by the inappropriateness of that space for what we were doing.  It was just people looking around. My teacher Bernard Heiden said, “The thing I like about electronic music is when something goes wrong.”  He liked when the tape recorder broke, something dramatic.  I think it struck everybody; it’s nice good music and whatever, but regardless, it just doesn’t work in this space.

FJO:  So even as a student you were envisioning a venue like Diapason.

MJS:  Yeah. Obviously the Dream House was a big inspiration and to see that people were already doing this to a large extent. Still, New York didn’t have a dedicated sound space.  Even though Paula Cooper and other places would occasionally do sound works, we didn’t have a dedicated gallery or space for experimenting with sound.

FJO:  So ideally what was in your mind, in terms of how you put this thing together? What were the attributes that made that a more ideal space for hearing this kind of music?

MJS:  Well, the first one was Studio 5 Beekman.  That was down near City Hall.  It was a little office space.  You entered, and there was a small foyer.  This kind of gave you a little bit of a buffer between the world and then the gallery, which was behind a door, beyond the foyer.  That little buffer was very nice, because it let people kind of take a breath.  For me it was also for limiting vision.  Turn the lights down.  It doesn’t have to be dark, but just make the visual less explicit.  I used to use a red light bulb, which got misinterpreted as a kind of gesture of some sort, but I just felt it was a dark color that allowed you to see without making the visual too much of a thing.  I think personally in those situations, it’s not good to have a lot of sound coming from outside.  If people want that, I suppose you can have a space like that, but for the most part I feel people want to be able to control the environment and not have to deal with sirens and things like that.

FJO:  So Diapason eventually became a really significant venue for this stuff, but it is no more.

MJS:  Well, it was supported by my friends Kirk and Liz [Gerring] Radke.  Liz is a choreographer who I’ve been working with since the ‘80s and her husband Kirk is a really generous supporter of the arts and funded this space. We continued in that way and were also getting funding from New York State and from the city and from private foundations.  This went on for about 15 years.  But at some point, Kirk pulled out.  So I lost that funding, and that really was paying the rent; everything else was paying the artists.  So that really hurt, and for a while I tried to continue with my own money, but I couldn’t sustain it.

What I had tried to do, in the years when it was clear that Kirk was going to pull out, was I wanted to get somebody to be a real business director, a kind of executive director who would fundraise and get that part of it together because I wasn’t really good at it.  I felt if I could find that person, then they could really get the whole thing on its feet financially, be able to pay themselves a salary, be able to pay the artists, and keep the rent paid.  We were over at Industry City the last few years.  We were before our time there because people had a really hard time coming out there.  The subway was not cooperating.  People would complain—especially coming from North Brooklyn: Williamsburg and Greenpoint—that it would take them two hours to get there.  So the audience went way down.  So that was bad, too.  Now it’s a bustling place where people come on the weekends.  If we were there now, we would actually get a walk-in audience.  It would have been fantastic.  But we were basically five years too early for that.

FJO:  There really is still no place that is quite like the space that you had for this kind of work. So do you envision it ever reopening or doing something else like it?

MJS:  The last two or three incarnations were really quite great spaces. We had the two listening rooms and pretty good sound isolation.  I had a really great group of people helping me, like Daniel Neumann and Wolfgang Gil.  But I don’t know.  I could see doing it again.  I’m very interested in this question of bringing sound environments or installations into people’s homes, and that’s kind of the way I would try to do it if I did it again.  I was thinking even of having events here [in my home]—inviting an artist to give a presentation here, with a house multi-channel system, and then inviting a small audience and basically trying to use that to help that artist get the work out, to present the work to people who might help in then getting it out to a bigger audience.

Schumacher's very attentive dog near one of his electric keyboards.

FJO:  Given that that’s been such a focus of your work—the directionality of sounds and such a sensitivity to how and where sounds are experienced—it’s fascinating to me that you also perform in and create all the music for what, for better or worse, I’ll call a rock band.  It’s a somewhat inaccurate shorthand for what diNMachine is, but in terms of its performance situation, it operates like a rock band.  There is a group of musicians performing in real time and there’s an audience.  Or there’s a recording. In all cases, it’s a group doing somewhat fixed things that have a beginning, middle, and end.  The band doesn’t perform in concert spaces like the comfort zones we were talking about earlier; they’re performing in louder, club-type environments in which there’s often no sound insolation either from the world outside or from the audience members themselves, which raises all sorts of other listening issues.

“I love lots of kinds of music. I’m just aware of the differences.”

MJS:  Well, I love pop music.  And I love classical music and going to concerts. I love lots of kinds of music. I’m just aware of the differences.  I don’t think that leads to only liking one particular kind of approach.  I happen to have really fallen in love with computer algorithms.  I have to say that.  It opened up a way of listening for me that was really fantastic, and it stays fantastic now.  But I was in rock bands as a kid.  I played in some bands up until I was in my 30s. And I improvised a lot. I like having that outlet for that part of my musical being.

FJO:  The title for last year’s diNMachine album, The Opposites of Unity, is a very apt one given your openness to all these different styles and listening paradigms.  It isn’t necessarily about just one thing.

MJS:  Right.

FJO:  But there’s one track, “Jabbr Wawky,” that’s basically hip hop and another one, “Brisé,” which could well have been one of your Room Pieces to some extent.

MJS:  Yeah, it probably was derived from one. But even in “Jabbr Wawky,” there are a lot of environmental sounds.

FJO:  So the lines do get blurry even in the context of what you’re doing within the framework of the band.  I noticed that diNMachine has a new album coming out in early 2018. Will it be following a similar path?

MJS:  Well, the band has been reduced.  It’s now a duo, which makes it a lot easier.  It was kind of expensive. I try to pay people if they’re going to play my music for me.  So now, as a duo, I feel like this can go on and I don’t have to stress about it.  We can play when we get gigs.  We can rehearse pretty easily.  We live pretty close to each other and so I’m a weekend rock musician rather than trying to do this professionally.  Although, of course, I’m trying to do this professionally, but it just makes it more manageable.  Anyway, the music took a little bit of a turn towards what I’m calling synth and drums—not bass and drums, or drum and bass.  Drums and synth.  Those are really the two featured things—a lot of these songs are analog synthesizers and drums.  They don’t have guitar or saxophone; the first record had lots of various instrumentation.

FJO:  You say they’re songs, but there are still no vocals.

MJS:  It’s mostly instrumental.

FJO:  Do you perceive of this as dance music to some extent?

MJS:  I think you can dance to it for sure, definitely.  It’s got a very strong beat. You can also listen to it. That’s another interesting issue, because dance music shouldn’t be too complicated.  When the head gets too involved, the hips have a problem.

FJO:  The material for diNMachine consists of concrete pieces, even though elements of your other work come in.  Obviously when someone’s listening in a club, they’re not listening in the same way as they would in a concert hall, but listeners would still assume more causality than they would in, say, a sound installation, because of its mode of presentation.

MJS:  Well, the way that I write them usually is I improvise on my synthesizer and I just keep the tape running, so to speak, and then I’ll find some riff that I like or some section or some sound, and that will become the basis of one of these songs.  Generally, I’ll figure out the tempo and add a drum track, and then I’ll write a bass line.  Sometimes I’ll throw that synthesizer sound into Melodyne, which is a pitch-detection software used mostly to correct singers or instruments that are out of tune.  It’s not monophonic; it can read multiple notes at once.  When it first came out, the way they advertised it was they’d have a guitar, and they’d show how the Melodyne could see each note in the guitar chord and correct individually.  It was a breakthrough software when it came out.  Now, other software does that.

FJO:  It’s like a fancier Autotune, basically.

MJS:  Exactly.  But what I’ll do is I’ll throw the synthesizer in Melodyne, and it will score it.  It’ll figure out what the pitches are, but it will be wrong most of the time because the synthesizer’s very complex. Even if you’re doing a bass line, the overtone structure is very complicated and Melodyne has a lot of trouble with that.  So I’ll take that score that Melodyne has derived from the synthesizer, then I’ll throw it into a string pad, or something like that, or a piano.  And it will come out with this piano version of what the synthesizer did, which can be really cool because it kind of comments on what the synthesizer did and doesn’t quite get it right, but you can tell that it’s trying to get it right.  Then sometimes I’ll play that live.  What I really like to do is have my basis of the song and then I’ll just kind of blindfold it: drag sounds into the session and just see what happens—see what gets layered on top of it and come up with sometimes very bizarre, unpredictable things.  I won’t keep it if it’s too strange, but it’s incredible how many times something will just work in that situation.

FJO:  So in a way, it is designed so that people listen in to it rather than simply listen to it, as you were describing earlier.

MJS:  Yeah, and I’m very interested in structure. I call it free composition rather than free improvisation.  It’s like the idea of transition.  Wagner said that composition is the art of transition, and I take that really seriously.  La Monte Young said transition is for bad composers.  I’m siding with Wagner there.  I think transitions are what it’s all about.  And especially in these diNMachine songs, I’m really interested in—well, I’ve got this section of the song, what’s this next section going to be?  How different can I make it from the first section?  But where it still makes sense.

A Moog oscillator

FJO:  There’s a statement that you have on your website that’s almost like your compositional manifesto, I think.  You aim to draw the listener’s attention to sounds that you’ve created by presenting it “at the rate of every half second or less, which is the same tempo as a typical melody line.”  I thought that was interesting because the way most of us hear a melody is one dimensional; it’s a single line that’s moving over time. But your idea of manipulating sonic elements, which could be a two-dimensional plane or more likely, given your interest in directionality, a three-dimensional field, is basically to grab listeners in the same way that they’d be grabbed by a melody by controlling the durations of the various components they are hearing over that time.

MJS:  Right.  Exactly.

FJO:  And the way you do that is by the speed of change of the sound.

MJS:  Right.

FJO:  Your most recent recording, Variations, which came out on Contour Editions earlier this year, definitely sounds much more developmentally oriented to me, so maybe that gets to what you were saying earlier about getting away from a strictly algorithmic approach.

MJS: I’ve definitely been moving on. I still use it in the process, but it’s a step in the process more and more, rather than the end.  I’ve learned a lot from the diNMachine thing in terms of working with sound because in a sense, with multi-speakers, you’re never really mixing like you do in stereo.  It’s actually a lot easier to just throw sounds around and you don’t have to worry about their balance in the stereo field.  Working exclusively in stereo for a number of years now has taught me enormous amounts about this, and I’ve been trying to apply it to the multi-channel stuff.  It’s really opened my ears, too, and opened up a lot of new possibilities.

FJO:  You talked about creating home environments. This is very different from recordings people listen to in their homes, including all of yours, which are mixed down to stereo. I would think that really misses the spatialization which is a key element in so much of your work. Maybe your recordings should ideally be issued in 5.1 surround sound.

“I’m not such a fan of 5.1.”

MJS:  That’s why Richard [Garet] released the tracks in an 8-channel version.  It’s not surround.  I opted not to do that because I’m not such a fan of 5.1. And I don’t really believe that people are setting it up correctly.  It’s just like stereo, only not as developed in a way.

FJO:  Interesting.  So, it’s okay to listen to something you’ve created to be experienced spatially on a computer with headphones?

MJS:  Not so much. I put a lot of time into the stereo version.

FJO:  So listening to these tracks on a computer is sort of like looking at photographs of paintings.

MJS:  Yeah, like a reference or something.  I had the eight tracks, and I created eight spaces in the stereo field with different characteristics. Then I put the tracks into those eight spaces.  So it’s not just panning them around; it’s really trying to get depth and a sense that there are these eight separate spaces in it.  That’s another thing I really would like to continue working with.  And actually working with people who understand it a lot more than I do and who have software chops and can maybe design specific things that I can use.

FJO:  Getting back to dance music, albeit of a very different sort, for years you’ve collaborated with the choreographer Liz Gerring. You had mentioned needing to keep things simpler if it’s being danced to, in a pop/club context. Clearly in these pieces, they’re all professional dancers and there’s a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk that happens between the choreography and music. However, once again, this is something that exists in time and in a space where people are sitting in seats observing the work.  Ideally they’re listening to the music and it is a key element, but a dance audience is primarily there to see the dance and so the music has a somewhat subordinate role to it. I imagine that some of these considerations might make you create sound in a different way.

MJS:  I have to say Liz is amazing to work with.  She’s an amazing collaborator.  She regards the music as absolutely equal to the dance. Maybe not absolutely equal, but there’s no point in debating whether it’s 60/ 40 or whatever; they’re the two elements that are paramount in the work. So the music is an important element, and it’s what we’ve been grappling with all these years in this relationship.

We started from the Cage-Cunningham aesthetic of doing dance installations, where Liz would dance for three to four hours and I would improvise on my laptop at the same time, but not necessarily in any way interacting with what she was doing.  But over the years we’ve talked a lot about what we want to do.  How do we want to work on this relationship?  Do we want the music to reflect what’s going on in the dance?  To what extent?  In what ways?  We’re lucky that we’re very much on the same page aesthetically. We have a similar kind of feeling about art and work, and at this point each piece is approached in a determined way to do it better than we did the last time—to be more collaborative, to think more about that relationship and to do something innovative or interesting in that relationship.  Sometimes there are constraints based on the practicality of doing a theater piece, but it’s a completely different way of working. It’s not a defined or set way of working; it’s changing all the time.  There are elements both of what I do in the band as well as the installation approach.  You can’t really pin it down.  We’re always exploring, so it’s always different but it’s got elements of other things that I do as well.

FJO:  We talked about the concert hall and Schoenberg and Cage and all that stuff, and it sort of being anathema to an audience that is used to hearing pieces by Mozart for which they can reasonably predict what the next eight measures are going to be. Yet, if you’re in a space for a dance performance, I think as a composer writing for dance you can get away with doing a lot more. Audiences for dance performance will listen to a Cage score; Cunningham had huge audiences. Is it the visual element?  Does being able to look at something besides the musicians playing their instruments—or, in the case of more experimental electronic music, twisting knobs or sitting in front of a laptop—help bring audiences into those sounds more?  I don’t know.

MJS:  I don’t know.  If we’re talking about the ideal listener-viewer, I think that’s one thing.  If we’re talking about a typical audience, that’s another. Both are obviously important.  Not everybody can be an ideal, educated listener-viewer, but I think that regardless of what the audience is going to think or perceive, it’s really up to us to be very sensitive to the relationship of the sound and the dance.  And not to use the distraction—so to speak—of the dance, or of the visuals as a way to get away with things that don’t really work with the dance.

If we’re going to be really sensitive to what’s going on, one thing is surround sound.  I like to use surround.  But it’s problematic because the viewers are looking at a stage most of the time and to start throwing things in the back is going to compete with that.  Not that that’s a bad thing, but you have to be careful and you have to acknowledge that that creates a dissonance with the typical attitude of the viewer.  That’s why in movies they’re very careful about how they use surround sound.  It’s actually mandated in the spec for a surround sound that only effects like bombs exploding and things like that are going to be used on the rear channel.  Everything else is in the front: dialogue, music, diegetic sound—what’s called Foley.

FJO:  I guess the way around that would be to have a dance performance that is not on a proscenium stage where you have people moving all around in a space.

MJS:  Exactly. We’re actually actively looking to do that.  It’s hard to play with a proscenium stage.  That’s the thing.  That’s what Liz really grapples with because she’s not particularly a theater person that wants that perspective on the movement. She wants to go beyond what is typical in the theater. I haven’t thought about it that much, but I would imagine that it parallels the development of music where you had ballet in the theater and that established a certain way of presenting movement and the relationship with the dancers and what not.

FJO:  Once again with classical ballet, viewers probably would know what the next eight moves are going to be.  This brings us full circle.

MJS:  Yeah.

A bookcase in Schumacher's hallway that is filled with speakers and a hat on top of one of them.