Category: Conversations

Libby Larsen: Communicating Through Music

[Ed. note: This conversation between composer and American Composers Forum co-founder Libby Larsen and Richard Kessler, then the Executive Director of the American Music Center, was originally published on the American Music Center’s website on February 1, 1999. It was the fifth in a series of interviews entitled “Music In The First Person” that was published in the year before the launch of NewMusicBox on May 1, 1999. “In The First Person” served as the model for one of the primary components of NewMusicBox which still continues on the site as “Cover.”]

1. A Musical Upbringing

RICHARD KESSLER: What led you to become a composer?

LIBBY LARSEN: A long and deep-seeded desire to communicate through sound. It’s my own sense of (…I don’t want this to sound corny…) just being alive. That’s really what led me to it. The path that led me was a series of lucky self-discoveries, actually, because no one ever encouraged me to be a composer (which is not unusual for composers). Most composers find themselves on their paths. But I’ve always had great desires to just tell everybody what I see and what I feel, and what’s going on. To do that through music seemed to me the most elegant and most deeply communicative way.

I had a very typical Midwestern kid upbringing in terms of music, which means playing an instrument (in my case, piano) and singing in a choir. When I was young, it seemed that all Midwestern kids sang in choirs! It’s part of this region’s Scandinavian heritage. I also was very lucky in that I learned to read and write music in first grade as did everybody in my grade school. I went to a Catholic grade school before the Vatican II Council, and we all learned to read and write so that we could sing Gregorian chant for daily services.

It didn’t really occur to me that not everybody in the world could read and write music for quite some time. Composing for me was very natural, as natural as drawing pictures and writing essays. It was natural for every kid in our school . . . Isn’t that interesting?

I had a natural interest in rhythm. When I began to hear rhythms and words that caught my attention, I started writing them down and manipulating them on paper. I had no thought about writing love songs. Some of the more typical paths to composition come through songwriting, through piano playing, or being in a garage band. Mine really came through an interest in words and rhythm and the ability to notate those. It developed really from age 7-on. But it never occurred to me that to be a composer had a definition, or a root, or a path, or a profession until college, when I began to study music theory and just found true beauty in theory. And then the connection was made. I became aware of many, many, ways of constructing pieces to express emotion and energy. And once that happened for me, I knew I was a composer.

RK: So this predisposition towards rhythm was there, right from the very beginning.

LL: From the very beginning, and I think it has to do with the fact that I learned Gregorian Chant which is free of meter. The rhythm has everything to with the flow of the Chant, as it exists in the space in which it is being performed. So I had a very solid grounding in timeless flow — does that make sense?

RK: Sure — without bar lines.

LL: Yes. At the same time, when I was 7, I started taking piano. I became really fascinated with real theoretical questions derived from Western notation: How does time function in a finite section called a measure and given a meter? So I became fascinated with rhythm through a natural grounding in Chant.

RK: So, in some sense, the freedom was the first thing that you became immersed in and then the rigor emerged as you started studying the piano. Does that make sense?

LL: That’s perfect, thank you!

2. Being a Good Citizen for Music

RK: I’d like to move on to what we’re calling “The Good Citizen” question. Among composers, you are considered to be a good citizen, and that’s something that we’re very interested in at The American Music Center. The Center was founded by six composers who were good citizens. In order to create a community for new American music, they formed the Center in 1939. You’ve also served on a number of Boards of musical organizations and co-founded the Minnesota Composers Forum (now the American Composers Forum). At this time, with some years to look back on (and certainly to look forward to), how do you see your role as a composer within a larger community?

LL: It hasn’t changed very much since the early 1970s. I was puzzled then because I knew that the art form I was pursuing was monastic and was challenged by its own need for creative solitude. After all, notation as we know it developed in the monasteries. The academic university system is a natural evolution of the monasteries.

I was puzzled that a composer like myself was actually faced with a choice in the 1970s… a choice of language… musical language. In fact, a trained composer can chose any language she or he likes. It’s not an instinctual thing. While instincts inform voice, you choose to write 12-tone, or aleatoric, or like Wagner, etc. What bothered me is that the choice of language also seemed to determine a choice of place in community and society. A rigorous academic language carries incredible and profound beauty in its mechanics. But choosing it also means a serious challenge in reaching a person who’s naturally curious about music but has no technical training to understand the language. I said to myself, “Well, now, that is an investigation worth spending your life on.” Composers who are so well trained and have such a deep desire to communicate through writing music ought to be able to communicate in many different venues. If they have a voice and a passion and a desire, they ought to be able to find venues ranging from the most sophisticated professional orchestra to the community choir in the smallest of communities. All those venues are available, and yet there seems to be a definite artificial choice that has been struck here.

I decided that part of the challenge was that we composers ourselves aren’t very skilled in telling people how beautiful the art form is. The actual process of composing is a different way of thinking than many other professions. I felt that composers needed to articulate our art form in a way that we weren’t addressing. It seemed to me that the way to do this was to just get out and walk around where people were producing music, to be on boards of directors of organizations that produce concerts. They seem to be having real trouble producing the music of living composers. The only way to solve the problem is to go to the root of the problem and learn what the thinking is so that we can articulate the value of the composer in the culture.

RK: Then you’re not just making a comment from the outside, you’re a part of it. This is a particularly interesting discussion to me because we’re trying to position the Center as a place to facilitate and provoke discussion, a place that examines the perceptions and misconceptions of this art form. That’s why we’re heading towards an Internet magazine; that’s what we hope to do with it. We even (in some ways) view it as a guerrilla action.

LL: Richard, I like your thinking.

RK: We’ll see how it goes, we have a long way to go before we get there, but when I hear you speak about this, I can say I’m 100% with you. In part, this is what I hope to see the American Music Center become. It’s really the promotion or advocacy part, and then there’s a support part that’s about grants and helping people with direct services and workshops.

LL: Right — the tools create an advocacy structure and help composers to write their best music.

3. Radio and the Music Business

RK: How has the music business changed? You, I know, started in the early 70s?

LL: Yes. It’s changed tremendously, I think. In public concerts (concerts produced outside the university system), I have witnessed the growth of the concert industry from 1960 to the present. It’s an interesting matrix of concert production, the recording industry, public radio, and music conservatory educational approaches. I think it’s a natural evolution and an interesting challenge for composers. In 1960, the concert industry was not a year-round business that it is now. Certain ways of doing business, certain ways of thinking about concerts, and certain ways of thinking about marketing concerts have developed in the last 30 years and have, I think, become overly concerned with commercial marketing in an effort to apply commercial marketing techniques to a non-commercial endeavor.

The result of this kind of thinking and its aftermath are things like the Denver Project. Have you heard about it? The Denver Project was a marketing research effort directed by WCFR-FM, a classical radio station in Denver, Colorado, which was trying to determine the listening habits and preferences of its perceived market. Using typical commercial market research methods, they determined that the general population prefers classical music to be light and buoyant and played in the background as an accompaniment to everyday life activities. Rather than broadcasting an entire piece of music, such as a symphony, the Report suggested that audiences prefer pieces to be broken up into smaller doses. It went further to recommend what kinds of music should be played at what hours of the day, and made recommendations about the nature of dissonance in music. They “discovered” that people don’t want dissonance before 9 o’clock in the morning and that people don’t like to listen to the singing voice broadcast over the radio.

All this is based on a fundamental shift in public radio’s perception of how its listeners actually listen to music. Many radio stations throughout the country have adopted some of the findings of the Denver Project in various configurations. Have you noticed your radio station changing in the last ten years? They’re no longer broadcasting full symphonies… There is a new perception of audience preference which developed without in-depth psychological research and resulted in a new programming strategy called “modal music.”

RK: Three-minute pieces…?

LL: And single movements…

It’s a direct outgrowth of this commercial marketing research venture. All based on the belief that public radio wants a mass audience. Why? To sell ads? They’re not selling things. They’re getting grants and what have you. In recent years, the classical music industry became convinced that counting the number of people receiving their product (…they call it product now…) is a way of measuring success. And when this happens, it entirely changes the role of the composer in the concert community.

This kind of thinking has permeated the non-profit concert world. We now use marketing techniques to support salaries based on for-profit values at non-profit organizations.

RK: I was wondering, by any chance, if you’re familiar with Frank Oteri’s speech at the public radio conference last year where he got up and talked about the need and success of programming new music. He even had a list — The Century List of pieces that could be played — new music that could be played on the radio of varying lengths.

Frank is the Editor and Publisher of our new magazine.

LL: Oh fabulous!

RK: You’ve really been taking a look, focusing on a particular element (of how the music’s changed) and it’s the pressures of mass audiences, commercialization…

LL: Right, and the confusion of marketplace with community, which is a very serious, and I think very contemporary, issue. As more and more organizations seek to find community and define community, there is a temptation to confuse community with marketplace. I’m quite concerned at the moment about the National Endowment for the Arts. Not for the usual reasons, but I’m concerned that in fact the issue of confusing marketplace with community is going to be central very soon.

If success is measured in quantitative terms, it may happen that the Endowment and attendant foundations and some of the organizations begin to talk about artistic and commercial partnerships as a way of reaching community. This can be interesting, but it’s also very dangerous. If, let’s say, the New York Philharmonic puts in a grant to the NEA to become the orchestra for six Paramount films, that’s a commercial venture which can be viewed as an artistic venture for the Philharmonic. The New York Philharmonic would not consider this venture central to its mission, but it could confuse the monetary and quantitative success with its own artistic goals. Do you see what I’m saying?

RK: Absolutely, and the implications of it. If organizations continue to have more non-musician types in influential positions who are heading towards nothing but bottom-line financial issues, it begins to change the direction, the goal, the sort of prime reason that the orchestra has existed for 150 some-odd years.

LL: Yes, that’s true, and I think that the prime directive for many arts organizations is very subtly in jeopardy right now because of exactly what you said. If the central definition of success for the people running the organizations is quantifiable and statistical more than it is conceptual and qualitative…if that balance is tipped too far towards short-term profit strategies, then artists will probably cease to work in those organizations, and a whole new era will dawn. It will be the next thing, whatever it is.

4. How to Measure Success

RK: And we’ve already seen groups of artists who have left those arenas. Steve Reich isn’t writing for orchestra. There are all sorts of people who have absolutely left. One thing I think is particularly interesting about this conversation is how to measure success. If you are measuring success, that means that you’re also measuring failure or different levels of success. It also has great implications on the grand psyche of this field.

LL: You’re right, Richard.

RK: If this is being used as any kind of measure of success, then it means that people in some ways are viewing themselves as failures or the field as a failure. What does it mean to create a piece of music if it’s not commercially successful?

LL: Exactly, and do you feel that (back to this question of language), the language has changed quite a bit since the 1970s, even again, but most of the rhetoric being written about what composers are working on today is in relation to commercial success? Composers are increasingly faced with the issue of commercial success. Which is of course an oxymoron in the non-profit world.

RK: Absolutely! Without a doubt.

LL: If we don’t compose pieces of music that fit right into the format of orchestras or opera companies, where the most successful operas are masterpieces of 19th century convention (production convention), then are we failures as artists? Right now, arts organizations are telling us, in fact, we are.

RK: Well, you can imagine how prime this is to the Center, and how key this is to the Center. This has been an issue of the Center that concerns all kinds of composers, a Center that has a library where there are pieces that haven’t been performed, where people are regularly depositing their scores. What validates whether or not they’re composers? These are tremendous issues in terms of the history of new American music.

LL: And in fact that may be the central issue to the America Music Center: the whole question of whether or not a piece of music is successful by its public deliverance; or whether or not the compositional process constitutes the success of the piece. And then, what value is musical process alone in the culture? The American Music Center has always been a place where anybody who declares “I am a composer” feels an amount of success if a score can be received for the library.

RK: But this particular discussion somehow has to be broadened. It has to include more people. It is this issue that is dogging the everyday composer. It’s this issue that’s dogging the people who are wondering how to measure success, and it’s rarely spoken about, in fact.

LL: No, but maybe this is a dialogue we should really try to foster. It hurts a little everyday when you think the music you’re writing has no meaning, or is not successful. It hurts a little everyday. And too many months of hurting a little everyday, and too many years is very unhealthy personally, for the art form, and for the culture.

RK: I think people certainly have to look inside and think about the reasons they compose. Composers also have to work at getting people to hear their music and networking to find people who will be interesting in presenting their work.

LL: Yes, right, I agree.

5. Women in Music

RK: I want to get onto another very big question. Basically, if you look at the statistics concerning performance of concert music, the statistics clearly prove that there are remarkably fewer performances of works by women composers than men. It’s staggering, the numbers, and it’s been this way for decades.

LL: Which set of concert statistics are you looking at?

RK: Take a look at the data put out in the last five or ten years by the American Symphony Orchestra League. I believe also, some things you see about chamber music. Take a look at catalogs. Take a look at our membership. You’ll see that there are more men than women. It used to be this way in many fields. But you’re seeing some remarkable changes in rock. You’re seeing remarkable changes in country music. I know many talented young-to-mid career women composers, but we’re still looking at a predominant number of performances coming from male composers. You’re probably still looking at a predominant number of teaching positions held by men. What do you think of all this? To what do you attribute this imbalance, and do you perceive any changes taking place for women concert composers?

LL: The statistics that I’ve studied show the same thing you described. When people ask the question — “How is it for women composers?” — you’ll hear many people saying, “Oh, it’s hardly a question anymore. Things have gotten so good for women composers; there’s a lot of representation for women composers.” And in fact, the statistics don’t bear that out at all. I accept an average of four residencies in colleges every year. I’ve noticed over the past twelve years that there is a definite pattern. In the graduate schools, you have a handful of graduate composers, maybe one or two are women, and maybe ten or twelve are men. The questions that I hear from women composers are quite different than the questions I get from men. Once we move beyond the technical and aesthetic questions of composing, the personal questions are quite different.

RK: How so?

LL: Generally the men ask about the business of composing and the young women ask about the lifestyle. Because of a thousand years of history, I think it’s easier for young men to envision themselves as composers. Even if they don’t know what that means, there has been a thousand years and a very long list of role models to emulate. Young women find it more difficult for them to envision their whole lives as composers, even though we have a few models. There are only a few models. There isn’t a critical mass of these adventurers (…which is what composers are, adventurers…). I ask the young women, “Well, look around you, how is it for the people around you?” And most of them describe rather traditional gender models that are available to them in the universities. Hardly any of them envision a professional life outside the universities. It’s difficult for a composer anyway, but for some reason, women seem to have a harder time visualizing surviving on their own. That’s part of it. Another part is that the art of performance is really a social art. To succeed you have to strike up good working relationships with performers and conductors, and it’s very difficult to do with integrity…very difficult.

RK: Well, it makes sense – with performers, there’s mixing going on. They know each other. They freelance. They get together. They join groups, any number of things.

LL: Right, and a composer can mix with performers with some regularity. But to try to mix with conductors, it is difficult. You have to meet them in social situations which often are dominated by ingrained gender stereotypes. And so to establish yourself as an intellectual partner to the conductor is a difficult task.

RK: Do you see any changes brewing? Do you see anything occurring with younger women. Do you see any signs, or does this thing continue to roll?

LL: While I see great artistry and vigor with many young women composers, I think it’s going to continue to roll until there is a critical mass of women who are also in administration positions and the power positions. We’ve got to see many more women on the podium. There are a number of really fine women conductors who ought to be considered for major positions. And do you see that happening?

RK: Well, Jo Ann Falletta got appointed at the Buffalo Philharmonic, and Marin Alsop has the Colorado Symphony, but otherwise women conductors rarely move up the ladder. Even the ones that everyone thought were even heading towards those positions, like Catherine Comet or Gisèle Ben-Dor. It’s the most capricious, hard-to-understand ladder I’ve ever seen. It’s very bizarre, almost mystical. What a system!

LL: In composition, we have two Pulitzer Prize winners, and there ought to be more. I don’t think it’s malicious. I think it’s ingrained.

RK: What do you attribute that to? In terms of kids studying music, for instance, there are more and more music education programs and more teachers being hired. More and more partnerships between schools and musical organizations are emerging, such as the SPCO Connect Program. That’s one where during the early grades, the curriculum is very heavy with basic composition: using basic sounds and letting kids manipulate these sounds. And when you look at that you think it should be an absolute even playing field, there should be no predetermining factor. These kids are collecting sounds. They have this thing called the Sound Museum. They collect their sounds and they draw pictures of them. They have any number of composers and musicians going into the classrooms, helping them understand how they can put together and create all sorts of things. So you look at that, and it’s dead even gender-wise. Now, these are kids today. What kids were doing, if they were even doing that, ten or 15 years ago, that’s another story.

LL: Right. Kind of like my grade school experience where everybody wrote music.

RK: So where do you think the trigger and the filter occur?

LL: In lower school, things tend not to be gender biased at all. But the kids are still taught that Beethoven is the best composer who ever lived. And the canon of composers’ names that they’re still being given already sets the thing in motion, because they’re all men. Nowadays people may add Hildegaard von Bingen, but Hildegaard is so distant from anybody’s current life experience. It is very difficult to equate a visionary abbess who composed chant with a modern young girl’s life path! Then you move into instruments, and the gender stereotyping that goes on in assigning kids instruments is unbelievable. The boys are headed towards brass and percussion; the girls are steered towards flutes, clarinets, a little percussion, and maybe one or two saxophones. Maybe some brave girl tries the double bass. And then the kids start to learn jazz and the girls are often filtered out by senior high school. If they go on in orchestra, then they’ll head into their school orchestras or into their youth orchestras where the compositional canon is overwhelmingly male again.

6. Advice for Younger Composers

RK: What advice would you give to younger composers? (This could lead directly from what we were just discussing in terms of gender issues, or it could be just for younger composers, period.)

LL: The best advice I have to offer is to establish wonderful relationships with great performers. And to nurture those relationships and always work towards and with performance, work with performance.

RK: But you know what a young composer will say… How do you do that? I’m just starting out. I just got out of school. I just had a couple of performances in school with some of the student groups. I’ll keep in touch with my colleagues, hopefully their careers will expand, but how do I make new contacts? How do I get to meet the Juilliard Quartet? How do I get to meet the Kronos Quartet? How do I get to meet Dawn Upshaw? What do I do now?

LL: I know how difficult this is. You have to become part of the musical community in which you live and work. It’s a matter of developing relationships, and that takes many acts of courage. Each new relationship really is an act of courage. If you admire particular performers, and you’d like to work with them at some point, it may take years, but the ability to develop and maintain good respectful working relationships is really what the art of music is about in the performing world. Don’t you think?

RK: I do. I think it’s the most difficult thing, however.

LL: It is, it’s very frightening and there’s no formula for it, but if you believe in your own music, then others will too.

RK: No, there’s no formula, and in addition to that, you’re looking at all sorts of subsets, and people who clearly see the subsets. The other day, I was speaking to a composer (who shall go nameless) about the academic world. (The university world is separate to a great degree.) She said to me that she and her friends had formed a little community of younger composers and had kind of given up on the university world. And so the issue is not for us to discuss necessarily how to change that, but the fact that that does exist, even. Not only are composers faced with just simply having to get out there, having to meet people, having to be confident in their work, asking someone to listen to their tape, or to look at the score, or to play it. In addition to all that, they’re looking at minefields that have to do with subsets and sub-communities; it’s almost a tribal culture in a way.

LL: It really is. You just have to be able to hang out in that world. And there are some worlds that you just can’t hang out in, no matter how hard you try. It takes time. I think the big mistake for a young composer is to think that (…getting back to the question of when are you successful…) you ought to be successful by the time you’re thirty. But we get and give a lot of messages: the BMI Awards, the ASCAP awards. Even within our own very well meaning fields, we create a definition of failure.

RK: Without a doubt. The person I was talking about had a similar discussion with me and she felt that the awards are really misunderstood.

LL: There should just be awards for good work. So why is there an age limit to them? It’s a double standard. But the young composer can feel a pressure to succeed defined by prizes and milestones and reinforced by well-meaning people. It’s self-imposed, but the pressure is definitely within the field.

RK: Often these competitions are an affirmation. This gets back to what we were talking about before. I played in this quintet for 15 years and we won all sorts of competitions. But the thing we were looking for was a Naumburg Award, which we finally won in 1990. We were only the second brass quintet ever to have won that. That did something: we felt like we had arrived, we felt as if we now had a right to talk to whomever we wanted to talk to, or to try. Was our work any better after the Naumburg? Did we play any better at the Naumburg Concert than we did a year-and-a-half before that? The most important thing is about the internal voice, the inner voice, and what the Naumburg did for our inner voices and our image of ourselves. But what if someone doesn’t win these things? Does that mean their inner voice is going to be shaky for a while? There are tremendous questions of confidence. There are tremendous questions for trying to wade through waters, especially in an emerging period.

LL: That’s right. I avoided entering any competitions. I didn’t even apply for most of the programs we created at the Forum. I didn’t want the pressure of the prize undermining my own path to finding music that affirmed my reason for writing it. Although, at the same time, a prize can be affirming.

RK: Well, it can be, but it can be false too; it’s a trap. You’ve got to feel comfortable with what you’re doing. You’ve got to build that somehow. If that means finding some way to make that happen, that may work for some people. You saw it as a tool, and you probably understood that it’s double-edged.

LL: Yes, it is double-edged, because you may begin to believe it. And more than that, other people begin to believe that the prize is a measure of your success. And that’s really dangerous because expectation can threaten your creative voice. Then you’ve got some real problems. For a young composer, it’s important to feel very comfortable that your own voice is growing, and that you’ve mastered the techniques to help it grow, and that you’re finding the performers who believe in your voice and want to grow with you. That’s real success.

RK: Well, it’s understanding the process. Someone has to help you see the process and understand your place in it, or the point at which you’re in that process.

LL: Yes, we need to re-discover how to teach composing as a process of personal growth as well as technical mastery.

7. Music and Spoken American English

RK: In describing your music, you were once quoted as saying that, “It can be recognized by its rhythm more than anything else.” You also described how music in general can be derived from the rhythms and pitches of spoken American English. How does this play out in your process, and eventually in your work?

LL: Let me discuss the piece I’m composing right now. These questions are in the front of my mind. I’m working on a string symphony, a piece I’ve wanted to compose for a long time. The Minnesota Orchestra commissioned it.

I believe that the music that grows over time in a culture grows out of the language those people speak. Instruments evolve out of a culture in order to express the culture through sound.

With the exception of the violin becoming a fiddle and the contrabass becoming a plucked bass, I see that the core of the orchestra (the strings) are instruments which have not naturally, found their way into the ensembles that have developed American Musics (…ragtime, gospel, big-band, country-western, rock-and-roll…). And these are the ensembles that accompany the singing of words in American English. And so I’m wondering what, if anything, a string orchestra has to do with American English? American English is more rhythmic than melodic. It’s truncated and full of body language punctuation. I’m not sure that we have a sense of what is lyrical in this culture we’re forming other than moments of nostalgia.

My string symphony asks the question: What is the lyricism of American life and American English, and what, if anything, does this have to do with a European evolved string section?

RK: I’ve often wondered about contemporary opera, and its lack of that sort of “killer aria.” I went to see Emmeline, which I enjoyed very much. I walked away from it thinking that it had, certainly in the story itself, very dramatic moments where the story almost brought down the house, where there were just tremendous moments. But when you compare that to Tosca, there isn’t the moment for the audience to stop and break out into applause and say “Aaahh!” and embrace the performers or throw things at the performers if they didn’t like what they did. And you’re exactly right. You do hear works that try to reach for melodic high points — “killer arias” — and they wind up sounding like Hollywood, or old-fashioned. What does that mean? What impact does that have on the form itself? What does that say about the form? You’ve articulated that in a very different way. What are you finding about writing the piece, from this being one of the questions about the lyricism of strings in our age?

LL: I’ve been finding that it’s very difficult to find an original lyricism for orchestral strings that flows naturally out of American English. You know, I was thinking, where in our concerts do we wildly break out into applause? Where the music starts, and everybody breaks out into applause? Where is it for you?

RK: Well, it happens in jazz concerts all the time. I mean, they don’t break out wildly, but sometimes it’s polite applause for a performer.

LL: A really great solo, and everybody’s just going crazy…

RK: It happened at the end of Joseph Schwantner‘s Percussion Concerto. There’s no doubt that the audience went crazy. It’s an incredible piece of music. When I was in Vienna for a conference, I went to see Tosca, and people burst out. There was this incredible reaction when they sing particular arias. And it happens at rock concerts, absolutely — the popular form has retained that.

LL: Yes, they have retained it. I was thinking of Springsteen concerts. You know, the band strikes up and everybody just goes, “YES!” But it’s not about words; it’s about something else. Schwantner’s Concerto is not about words.

RK: Although rap music is about words. It’s about words and rhythm and not about lyricism.

LL: Isn’t that curious?

RK: So why is it, you can have a popular piece (…these questions apply to other forms as well, I think, to a certain extent, they apply to musical theater…) that there are all sorts of questions about. You know, people say, well, why don’t they write something like Guys and Dolls? Well, if you try to write something like Guys and Dolls, it sounds like it’s completely out of place and corny. But a lot of the popular forms are able to retain this. They’re able to retain soaring melodies.

LL: Well a lot of the popular composers (Hank Williams, for instance) create from instruments that aren’t approached through classical performance tradition. When Hank Williams sings “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” the guitars accompanying him speak and enhance the language that he sings, the way he sings it. So, in his songs, the instruments, the language, and the melodies evolved symbiotically. It’s worth talking about.

RK: It is, it’s actually another very complicated and deep discussion, and we’ll have to do a “Part Two” one day.

Dave Liebman: Unabashed Eclectic

[Ed. note: This conversation between saxophonist, composer, band leader and one-time Miles Davis sideman Dave Liebman and Richard Kessler, then the Executive Director of the American Music Center, was originally published on the American Music Center’s website on January 1, 1999. It was the fourth in a series of interviews entitled “Music In The First Person” that was published in the year before the launch of NewMusicBox on May 1, 1999. “In The First Person” served as the model for one of the primary components of NewMusicBox which still continues on the site as “Cover.”]

1. Jazz in the 1990s

RICHARD KESSLER: How do you feel about the recent growth and interest in jazz?

DAVE LIEBMAN: It’s a double-sided coin. By appealing to the wider public, jazz gets watered down by necessity. What people consider jazz — which ranges from the commercial type you hear on easy listening stations to a lot of nostalgia-type jazz — is not, for the most part, the jazz I consider artistic.

In order to have more people like something, the language has to become more common, and in that watering down, you’re going to lose a certain depth of what was there in the first place. It’s funny in a way, because when jazz started out it was entertainment. The reason jazz was popular in the ’30s was that it happened to fit with what people wanted to do: dance and listen to the radio and so forth. That changed, of course, and became much more of an esoteric thing in the ’60s and into the ’70s. Now it’s swung around the other way to become another arm of the entertainment business.

The positive side is that more people are aware of it, the negative side of it is that what they’re getting isn’t the real deal. On the other hand, there’s always the potential for those who are getting into it to go further and become more educated and more sophisticated in their tastes, and that’s the hope we hold out for as musicians.

RK: I read with great interest your thoughts about the pressures that commercial entertainment interests can have on art. What are your thoughts and concerns about the growth of corporate sponsors and global entertainment in jazz?

DL: I think it’s a terrible thing. I mean, most jazz musicians’ lifestyles in the early days, if anything, were not part of ordinary middle-class life, and for them to be controlled financially by the system is probably the worst thing that can happen to the art. And it’s going on even in the education system. We’re having a big debate now in some of our journals about the record business getting in on the International Association of Jazz Educators (I.A.J.E.) convention, and how they’ve taken over a couple of the evening’s performances. But we’re just catching up with the rest of the world. This is happening everywhere. It’s an unfortunate by-product of the age we live in.

RK: I think to some extent what you’re talking about is deeper than some people even see. It’s the issue of for-profit education, of a financial market seeing education as one of the next great frontiers of investment and earnings, and that’s a potent force that can change things. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad, but a lot of people find it disconcerting at least.

DL: Well, definitely some of us middle-aged dinosaurs remember jazz not being institutionalized at all. I’m one of the last of a generation that didn’t have jazz education in the school system as a matter of course. From the ’70s on, everybody had it, and for the last 30 years we’ve accepted it. But we all need to be part of the education system. All the musicians you talk to are teachers somehow, and many of us are making a good part of our living by doing it, so we can’t debunk what we’ve become. The thing we need to consider is that when it gets into the institution, it becomes academized. And once that happens someone says, “Oh it’s a package, let’s just take it over.” One thing definitely leads to another. It’s an inevitable cost and I don’t see how we can get away from it.

RK: Do you think it’s changing the way people play, the fact that there’s sort of a jazz education institution as opposed to let’s say, a Charlie Parker learning to play jazz in the Jay McShann band?

DL: I talk about this all the time, this question is usually put this way: What do you think of the so-called “Young Lions” movement that occurred in the ’90? The recording industry took these guys and raised them up to the pinnacle of fame (and often to the detriment of people of my generation, who were right in the middle – not old enough and not young enough). My answer is: You can’t blame these guys because they’re a product of the conformist society we’ve been living in since the ’70s and ’80s. It used to be when you recorded on Blue Note or any of those labels in the ’60s and you had your first record, the unspoken pressure was to do something different. And now the unspoken pressure — and even spoken — is to do something like. So therefore, in that respect, it’s obvious that younger musicians are attempting to join the crowd rather than fight it in order to be whatever they have to be.

This whole institutionalization has resulted in conformity, which in an art form that especially prides itself on its individuality is probably the worst thing that can happen. Individuality is the most important aspect of jazz; to be yourself is the whole point. From the first note, you’re supposed to be able to tell that it’s John Jones rather than John Henry. And now, with that not being the value system, we kind of lost the whole essence of jazz in a certain way.

2. The Historical Continuum in Jazz

RK: In your writings you have covered the idea of a historical continuum in jazz. You certainly see things from that historical continuum.

DL: I was an American history major, and I tell you it really influenced my thinking.

RK: How do you characterize today, the late ’90s, as part of this continuum?

DL: Well, it’s the retro-cycle, the cycle of recollection: looking back and reassessing all that happened.

Jazz seems to move in 10-year cycles. The ’40s were kind of innovative; the ’50s (really until the end) were not. I mean, it was what Bird [Ed.: Charlie Parker] put down being explored in various tentacles. And then the ’60s were quite, quite heavy, while then the ’70s were a retrenchment period. Unfortunately the ’80s went back to the other side, which should have been a rebellion. In a sense, it was a rebellion against the ’70s, against the fusion part of the ’70s. It was about: “Let’s get back to the roots.”

I can’t really say much has happened in the ’90s. The one really positive thing (…and this may be come to light in a few years as a reaction to the ’80s…) is this incredible influx of world music influences not just upon jazz, but also pop. To me, the only recourse that music has is to look outside of its borders. I don’t see any other future except to look to the other parts of the world beyond the western axis. They learn our language; we learn their language. It’s intermarriage physically, musically and culturally. That’s the hope. And this has been the first time that it’s been so prevalent. The ’60s was the beginning of that kind of thing, but now it’s become a kind of fad, this intercultural musical thing. And I think it’s very positive. Maybe the ’90s will be looked upon as a bit of rebellion against the retrenchment of the ’80s. I’m not sure.

3. Unique Voices in Jazz

RK: Many people believe or feel that there are fewer unique voices in jazz today, that the days of instant recognition for new artists — in a way that you hear Coltrane, you instantly know it’s Coltrane — are over. Do you agree? What do you think about that perception?

DL: Well, that’s exactly what we’re talking about, the institutionalization of it, being taught by rote. That’s the negative side of it. You come out sounding like whatever the norm is, in whatever style. And the search for individuality…let’s put it this way: It becomes a longer process to find individuality. Whereas when you didn’t have a school system and the books and the how-to stuff so prevalent, you had no choice but to be yourself and to carry through whatever you heard around you. If you were in New York or Chicago, you heard certain people, they influenced you, but you basically were a combination of yourself and what you heard.

Now with the whole oral tradition being put down on paper and video and so forth it becomes much more difficult at the beginning. But my contention (and this is what I teach to those who get to the level where I can really speak about aesthetics) is that there’s a lot of water under the bridge. It might be more difficult to come up with unique trumpet or saxophone tones because there’ve been, let’s say, 20 or 30 styles, whereas 15 years ago, there were only 10. That might be true, but if you look hard within yourself, and you look outside of your own little world and go a little further, there’s no reason why you can’t turn out something that is you. It might just take longer these days.

So I’m always optimistic that someone will, but my problem is that most of them go in there not wanting that. And that’s part of the attitude of, “Well, let’s be a jazz major in school,” like English literature or psychology in the ’60s. It has some positive things, because it does teach you a lot about a lot of music, but it’s not about having an original voice. It’s about vocation, not art. And the whole thing is really the difference between craft and art. We’re in that age where craft is being touted and elevated to the level of art, and it’s just not.

RK: Many people believe or feel that there are fewer unique voices in jazz today, that the days of instant recognition for new artists — in a way that you hear Coltrane, you instantly know it’s Coltrane — are over. Do you agree? What do you think about that perception?

DL: Well, that’s exactly what we’re talking about, the institutionalization of it, being taught by rote. That’s the negative side of it. You come out sounding like whatever the norm is, in whatever style. And the search for individuality…let’s put it this way: It becomes a longer process to find individuality. Whereas when you didn’t have a school system and the books and the how-to stuff so prevalent, you had no choice but to be yourself and to carry through whatever you heard around you. If you were in New York or Chicago, you heard certain people, they influenced you, but you basically were a combination of yourself and what you heard.

Now with the whole oral tradition being put down on paper and video and so forth it becomes much more difficult at the beginning. But my contention (and this is what I teach to those who get to the level where I can really speak about aesthetics) is that there’s a lot of water under the bridge. It might be more difficult to come up with unique trumpet or saxophone tones because there’ve been, let’s say, 20 or 30 styles, whereas 15 years ago, there were only 10. That might be true, but if you look hard within yourself, and you look outside of your own little world and go a little further, there’s no reason why you can’t turn out something that is you. It might just take longer these days.

So I’m always optimistic that someone will, but my problem is that most of them go in there not wanting that. And that’s part of the attitude of, “Well, let’s be a jazz major in school,” like English literature or psychology in the ’60s. It has some positive things, because it does teach you a lot about a lot of music, but it’s not about having an original voice. It’s about vocation, not art. And the whole thing is really the difference between craft and art. We’re in that age where craft is being touted and elevated to the level of art, and it’s just not.

4. Changing Audiences

RK: Well, let’s turn it around from the performer to the listener, to the audience. You’re a musical creator. How do you think audiences are changing? There’s a noticeable shift in the pop world towards rhythm much less than melody and harmony. If you listen to rap (although rap is starting to evolve), the harmony’s becoming more complex and the melody’s probably becoming a little more complex. There’s a lot of pop becoming dominated by rhythm in ways we haven’t seen in this century. Do you perceive a difference in the audience?

DL: No question about it. I mean, when I started out in the late ’60s, and into the ’70s, it used to be (…well, it’s always been…) musicians, fellow artists, intellectual-type people and their cronies who you played for. And of course, a certain sprinkling of nightlife people. The audience I’m talking about was there to really hear the advancement, the evolution, the intricacies of the music. I mean, musicians and non-musicians alike were still interested in how it was changing, and they were probably seeing it through the eyes of their art or their intellectual interests.

Now, as we slowly turn into a non-intellectual culture, your audience’s attention span is quite small and you have an audience that can’t really listen to this music for the most part, except the musicians. That’s basically who I’m playing for, because it’s really gone into the entertainment thing. It’s not the people’s fault. It’s the culture. I mean, nobody’s sitting down listening to a full record anymore. First of all, 60 minutes is impossible — nobody has time — and jazz absolutely demands rapt attention and intensity of listening.

That’s completely the opposite of what’s going on. I always say to my students, “Listen, the people don’t know anything. In fact, most of the musicians hardly know, so you cannot play to them, you have to make a decision at some point in your life who you’re playing for because in fact, that is probably the most important decision you will make which will determine your career. Or what you would like you career to be.” If you’re playing for the people, that’s definitely the decision you make. Now, I have no problem with entertainment. It is, after all, entertainment that people are paying for. But if you’re playing for the art then you’ve also made a decision and you’d better be in for the long run, and you’d better learn how to make a living some other way for a while. It’s really black-and-white; it’s not gray anymore.

RK: When do you think it will occur that jazz players will start having light shows and concerts that look like rock concerts?

DL: Well, it has occurred. I mean, Pat Metheny does it. Weather Report did it in kind of an antique way in the ’70s. With the technology, that’s just part of getting out on stage in front of 10,000 people. You have to do that.

See, here’s the real problem: it’s gotten too big. And the question is, did it have to? Well, of course, society took it that way. Should it? is the real question, and in my very strong opinion, jazz is not meant for many people. It is not supposed to be a popular music. It’s supposed to be played for a few hundred at the most. It is absolutely an esoteric art form, and you know, I get into discussions, because everyone says “Oh, what a terrible view to have,” but I have no problem with that because that’s what I, and probably several other people and certainly some musicians, are interested in. I have no problem playing for those few people around the world and being in contact with them like a small and private club. It’s not to be excluding or prejudicial, but it’s the way it is. And I’m not against those who look further. You want to play in a style that attracts 5,000 — or even 50,000 — I have no problem with that.

My point is, make a very clear decision somewhere along the line for yourself as an artist about whom you want to play for. It’s almost a number. You can almost say, “I wish to play for 5,000-plus people” and that determines almost exactly how you’re going to play. In a sense, I could put a line between that and link it on a piece of paper to style and music: what you have to wear, who you have to talk to, how you have to talk. I mean it could almost go down like that. So, really, by determining that, you have determined your stance. And there’s enough around for everybody. That’s the good thing about our age. There is room for specialization. You can get a shoe made that’s one of a kind, and there are probably five people who’ll wear it. And you can have music for five people, or 50, or 500, and probably make a living at it. I don’t have a problem with that, I just think it should be clear.

RK: Yeah, although how can anybody who has a halfway deep understanding about jazz compare going to the Vanguard to going to Alice Tully Hall or Avery Fisher?

DL: I don’t see it as a problem. It’s what’s relative and what’s proper in proportion. It’s music that doesn’t speak to everybody, and I don’t see it as a problem. I think there are people who are very interested in the intricacies of what I do or what Coltrane was doing in ’66 or ’67, let’s say. And there’s nothing wrong with that. And now with the media, with the technology and communication, we can reach those people in Indonesia or eight people in Chicago, so really that’s the problem of our time: how to link up to those who want that specialized need? How do you find your audience? And that’s not unlike any other business. I think they’re out there, I’m just not sure they’re at the North Sea Festival or reading Downbeat Magazine anymore, that’s all.

5. Miles

RK: When you look back on your time with Miles, what stands out in your memory?

DL: I’m doing a clinic tomorrow out here in Allentown (Pennsylvania) that’s called the Dark Magnus Workshop. And this guy here that runs a school for kids thought it would be great to run something about that period of Miles I was involved in which has gotten a lot of attention nowadays because of re-releases and the rappers and people discovering the early ’70s and Miles.

RK: Rappers discovering Bitches Brew?

DL: Well, Bitches Brew and on. Especially the stage I was in was even more chaotic than Bitches Brew. Get Up With It and On the Corner and all that and they’re discovering this and seeing it as a harbinger of what they’ve been doing. Not only rap, but let’s say acid jazz and all that. I was just thinking that probably the one thing that I remember most or that I got out of it besides musical things was that Miles couldn’t care less. You have to keep in proportion the fact that he did change mid-course from pure jazz to rock-fusion, but he didn’t seem to really give a shit about the audience.

RK: At that point, he used to turn his back on the audience.

DL: He really didn’t care. I mean, he really played for the musicians. He was a very canny and sly kind of guy, and in the back of his mind, he knew what was gettin’ over, and what wasn’t. But I got to tell you, my time with him wasn’t a very popular period. It wasn’t like people were standing, clapping, and cheering. No standing ovations; no encores. I mean, we went on, did our fifty, or hour, or hour-and-ten depending on the night, and walked off and people were mostly like dribbling or dragging out of the place. They were hardly applauding even. The music was a shock.

RK: Some of them must’ve been resentful.

DL: Well, it was a shock. Some of it was incoherent. Technologically, it wasn’t refined. It was loud and raucous. And it was not really organized very tightly, which is probably what the charm of it is now, in a certain way. But in that period, it was very off-putting. I mean, he just kept doing it. Personally, I would’ve been hard-pressed to keep going out night after night and not let that passive reaction have an effect upon what I would present as an artist. And I must say that was an amazing lesson to me. Of course, he was Miles, with 30 years behind him; he didn’t have to care anymore what people thought. But to see somebody go out and just do what he wanted to, regardless of the reaction, was amazing. And it made me think very differently about it. This is Miles Davis, after all. This isn’t somebody on my corner. This is Miles Davis who’s playing for himself and a few people. And I guess that’s one of the kind of ways my vision has been formed.

6. Younger Artists & Underappreciated Artists

RK: Who are some of the younger artists that you find interesting?

DL: I enjoy a young saxophone player — well, I guess he’s not so young anymore, Ellery Eskelin, who’s been around quite a bit. He took some lessons from me years ago; he uses an accordionist and is kind of into free things. There’s a fine saxophone player named Tony Malaby who’s been around. A good writer named Joey Sellars has also been around. I mean, New York is full of interesting music; I just don’t get down and hear a lot of people. Paris is full of interesting music, mixtures of African and Vietnamese, and rock stuff. There’s a lot of great stuff going on… and there’s a lot of hype going on. They’re all trying to find their niche. I think there’s a place for all of that stuff.

The thing about jazz I hope will always be there is that a guy goes out on a tightrope with maybe a safety net below him… which you hope is a drummer and bass and piano… but he’s basically balancing himself. He’s taking chances; he’s taking a step. He may fall, but he comes back. And it’s that process you don’t hear in world music in the same way. You don’t hear (…certainly in classical or pop music…) that chance, that bravery, that courage. The good ones are those who know what they’re doing and their next step isn’t going to be off the tightrope. To witness that live (…because records, forget about it, it’s over now with digital editing; nothing’s real anymore…) is an amazing, existential experience that I hope will not be lost. That spirit of questing, of looking, of searching, of not being afraid to miss the note, miss the chord, get lost, play out of tune, whatever. Because you know you’re searching; you’re not afraid to fall because you know you have enough musicianship to recover. I hope that will still exist.

RK: Who were some of the great jazz artists of the past that go unappreciated, unrecognized? Or have just become lost through history?

DL: There’s a guy who’s unappreciated named Tisziji Muñoz, a guitar player who kinds plays out of a Santana/Sonny Sharrock vibe. On an historical level, Hank Mobley, an incredible improviser who played with Miles, did a lot of great records and was really a deep improviser who never got the accolades. Paul Bley is another great who is known primarily in Europe. He works a lot and he’s famous in Europe. He has a real revolutionary approach, but I think he hasn’t gotten his due respect. Lennie Tristano is another for sure, due to maybe the school of thought he was attached to. Being blind, it wasn’t easy for him to get around. But I studied with him, and I have to say he was a genius. He was unbelievable… the things he did in the’50s.

There are so many people who don’t get recognition. I just came across a guy named Bob Graetinger who wrote for Stan Kenton and died very young from a drug overdose. In 1947, he wrote music that is still unapproachable as far as complexity with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, with strings and woodwinds and so forth. There are unknown guys that come along. (It’s true in classical music too, guys come along like Mompou.) Guys come along that you never heard about who just didn’t hit the imagination or didn’t take care of business or whatever. There are so many of them. And in music like jazz, it’s really great when you find a guy who’s undiscovered and you say, “God, what a body of work!” and you go into it, and it becomes a source that’s not known. That’s one of the ways that you can try to find an original and personal voice, to find some sources that are not so standardized and not so well known. And of course this doesn’t mean that Charlie Parker should not be studied, but it means that when you find someone who’s not so obvious… my God, you have a gold mine of influences to dig into. That’s something we all try to look out for. In fact, if there’s anything that musicians talk about, it’s probably “Did you hear this thing by this guy?” or “I just heard a tape, I never heard of it before.”

7. Liebman as Composer & Listener

RK: I’ve known your work for years and admired it as a performing artist. I also (from one particular album) know your work as a straight composer because bass trombonist Dave Taylor is an old friend of mine. I used to do a lot of playing with him. Where does your work as a composer fit in with your career right now?

DL: I am an unabashed eclectic. The ’60s was a period when someone like myself, without much looking, could find music from everywhere without having to go to Bali to do it. In the same day you could listen to Ravi Shankar, John Coltrane and Buddhist music. Coltrane took me first. But then I was exposed by friends and the kind of people I was referring to earlier who said, “Man you gotta get this Tibetan chant, you gotta get this gamelan music, or check out Bartók’s violin concerto, etc.” I learned about things that normally wouldn’t have come down the pike 10 years earlier, not to somebody like myself of my generation. So that affected me and made me really like all this music and find that I could (or would like to) express myself in various idioms. And they range of course from straight jazz (from be-bop to all styles) to free jazz to classical (I mean contemporary 20th-century classical) to pop and world music.

The thing you’re talking about with Dave is one of those aspects (trombone with string quartet); I just love the sound of quartets. I haven’t done brass yet because I don’t know the instruments that well, but I’ve done several things for three or four woodwinds and strings. Especially in jazz, three to four voices intrigue me. It’s the string quartet in essence. I’m not a classical music expert, but when you talk to guys they say, “Look, in the end, the string quartet will tell you the whole thing anyway.” It’s a cut-down version of the real deal, and in the final analysis I feel that three or four voices is really what you want to hear. It takes into account the whole scene: you’ve got your chord, you’ve got your harmony, and so forth, taking the rhythm out of the question here. And that’s why I was very interested in Dave Taylor: he heard a string quartet I did and he approached me. That’s how that particular piece, “Remembrance” [Ed: published by Advance Music], came about.

I’ve done several things in that genre, and I’ll tell you, next week, I’m going to Dublin doing three very nice nights. One is a concerto (written for me by Bill Pobbins); the next night, I’m doing string quartets (several of mine and a new one by a composer); and then the third night, we’re playing jazz in a club. So that is exactly what I would like to do. That is for me a perfect week artistically, because it allows me to manifest myself in all those various ways. And I think the challenge, for any artist, is to be yourself within various genres and backgrounds. Coltrane did it for 15 years; Miles did it for 30 or 40. And to me, that’s really the challenge: to be yourself; to have your voice; to have something of worth to say; and to surround yourself in (hopefully) interesting and challenging backgrounds that are different and changeable. In some ways it has been bad: it has diffused my audience and my critical appeal, because there are those who like one aspect of my music.

RK: So you haven’t focused on a market?

DL: If you look at my recording discography, I am among maybe three or four other people (like Steve Lacy or David Murray) who are on literally dozens of labels. It’s because one producer likes one aspect of your work, another guy likes another. If you work on it enough, you can spread yourself out. And that’s been the bad part from the business standpoint. On the other hand, I know that in the long run, doing what I’m doing is going to be OK as far as the public is concerned. It’s just that you’ve got to add on another 10-to-15 years because you didn’t stay in one style, and because you weren’t in one clique. I’ve really made sure of that now that I can see it. I don’t belong to any school of thinking. I wasn’t part of M-Base or part of this or that. We started out together in the late ’60s in a kind of situation a lot of guys together playing free jazz, but then I just found my own voice. I can’t compare myself to anybody else, and I feel very proud of that. And now it’s too late to change.

RK: What are you listening to today?

DL: Well, to be realistic, with the little time I have, I’m usually listening to my own stuff, or editing, or trying to catch up with what I have to do. Like right now, I’m sitting downstairs about to listen to the string quartet that I have to play next week. I mean, people like us have very little time to listen to things of choice. The second area I usually listen to is tapes of students or people who send me their stuff to check out. If I just turned off the hose and said, “No tapes, no CDs,” I would probably have time to listen. I’d love to get back into Mompou and this Graetinger-thing with Kenton because it has been on my mind, or something that’s apropos to a mixed project I’m doing, and so forth.

But being a teacher and an educator is part of my personality, and I feel a debt to it. I answer everybody. They send me tapes and I might write three or four words quite quickly, but I’m in connection with a lot of people — student types or musicians who want me to hear their music. So that takes a lot of time, and it keeps piling up. Every couple of months I leaf through and just listen and make comments when necessary when I feel it has to be. So sometimes I can’t even listen to the things I want to. For example: yesterday I talked to the guy over at Verve, and he’s going to send me something called 20th Century Genius (Art Tatum) that he says is unbelievable. I have the box that came out last year, Coltrane Live at the Vanguard, but I still haven’t listened to the outtakes. Because I’m so busy and involved, I just don’t have the time to concentrate, and I haven’t had it for probably 10 or 15 years. It’s a terrible, unfortunate part of being an artist today, because so much time is spent on business and logistics and the mechanical aspects of getting your stuff out there. That’s just the way it goes. I don’t have a manager; I do it myself.

8. Upcoming Projects

RK: What are some other projects you have on the back burner?

DL: The next release is on a label called Arkadia. It’s with Pat Metheny and it’s called Water, Giver of Life. I’m portraying the element of water in various manifestations and writing programmatically, which I like to do. So I want to complete the cycle of the four elements over the years on some label or another somehow and the next one I’m looking into is Earth. I have some themes that I have used for a ballet a couple of years ago called The Stones. I don’t know what’s really going on in general, maybe it’s living out in the country (…I’ve been here in the Poconos for about 10 years…). I see my perspective changing towards outside of me as I mature. But I’m also a very subject-literal minded person. I mean I like a subject. Give me a subject; say “blue” and I paint blue. I see my interests moving away from the personal view, the personal theme which was so much of the first ten, twenty years. It’s more of what’s around you.

And I’ve done a record lately called The Tree, a record called Time Immemorial, this water thing, and then Earth and Fire and so forth. I’m trying just to paint the things that are around me in music. If I have a subject, it makes it much easier for me to get to the heart of the matter rather than just perform a musical exercise (which other guys do very well and I respect that). I like a subject. It could be very literal or figurative, but it really helps me out. So right now I’m going to try and produce a cycle over the next three years.

RK: Great. I have no more questions, but you know it’s a funny thing you mentioned Dave Taylor. You remind me of Dave Taylor. You know Dave’s from Brooklyn, by the way…

DL: You’re Jewish too, right?

RK: I am.

DL: Happy New Year!

RK: Yes, Happy New Year.

DL: Happy year 5,000-something.

RK: Happy 5,734-something. Anything else you want to talk about?

9. The International Scene

DL: I’m at a point where I’ve been around for a while. I’m an “established” artist, at least among those who know, and you have to be careful not to be sour grapes on anything that comes after your time. It’s like your father’s stuff: “Well, you know the good old days.” You start talking to your kids like that: It’s not the same, therefore it’s less. I think about that all the time when I get these kind of questions, about the way it’s changing, and the demographics and the corporate stuff and all that which we spoke about. It’s terribly negative from the standpoint of what this art form purports to be, of what people like us are trying to do.

On the other hand, I really have to try to come up with the positive side, which as I mentioned, is influencing the world. The education thing has to be good in the end. People knowing something have to turn out better than not knowing something. So I’m always tempering my remarks about the loss of individuality and of standardization and everything with the fact that we live in an incredible period of openness and communication and availability of knowledge. Maybe things aren’t right now, but someday the scales will balance the negative side of this period we’re living in. And I think that’s important to everyone. When we get negative and say, “Where are the good old days?” or “Nobody’s really playing it like that anymore,” we gotta remember that the other side of that is an incredible explosion of knowledge and opportunity. I must say the most positive thing I’ve done has been the teaching.

In 1989, I founded an organization that we named International Association of Schools of Jazz. (It’s on my web site.) After all my traveling and teaching (…I did so much of it in the ’80s…), I saw that so many people were doing the same thing, especially in Europe, and the boundaries, borders, were really separating people. It was amazing that they didn’t know each other two hours away from Germany to France. And I took it upon myself to put these people I knew together. In 1989, we organized, and 10 years later we have this wonderful association. We have schools from 35 countries — I mean Slovakia, Lithuania, Japan, etc. — that meet once a year. We have a meeting where students come. We have a newsletter, a magazine. My point is that by my exposure to these teachers and students from all these countries I really see that the future of jazz is outside of America. It truly lies in those places where it’s still considered a new thing. That what’s going to revitalize (or let’s say continue to vitalize), this music: input from cultures that you would never think would have anything to do with jazz or western music as we know it. It’s happening in pop a little bit, and I really believe that in jazz it’s going to be a little purer, on a higher level. I really think that that’s the future.

It’s not that America is over, or finished, but the truth is that the birthplace of the music has had its time. It had its hundred years, or whatever, and the innovators were here and are done. But for this music to exist and go on, it had to get infusions from other cultures and other peoples, and it’s happening. A lot of people in America are not aware of it because they’re insulated and they don’t get out, but people like myself, and people who travel to a lot of countries and teach, are. There are young people who are really for the most part optimistic because they are bringing something to it. It may be a Danish folk song in a jazz style, but it’s an attempt to bring what they have to the music they’re learning. And I think that’s a very positive thing.

RK: I’ll tell you, I was in Vienna last week at a conference for the International Association of Music Information Centers and we went for a day trip to Bratislava where the mayor had us to lunch. We got to the town square and a jazz band was playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I mean there’s a trip: you’re looking at a place where Liszt lived and all of a sudden you walk into the square and hear this. And it’s a good band too!

DL: And probably in a school down the street, somebody’s talking about Charlie Parker. This thing is happening. People here are just not aware of it because America is a fortress. But this is happening, I see it through this organization. There’s attention towards internationalization of this music. I mean, we’re working with UNICEF. In the mid-’80s I was so blue about the business that I was applying to law schools to get out of the whole scene. But I realized that what would make me personally feel good was not so much just the music (…’cause I’d already understood that music was a very personal, egotistical self-entertaining thing…), but something that could be international and that could use the power and energy of the music for communication. It’s very simple. And that’s really what propelled me into this teaching thing in the ’80s. If there’s one thing that makes me feel optimistic about this situation we discussed earlier, it’s the internationalization of jazz on a level so unprecedented that you have no idea how much is going on. It’s really incredible.

RK: These are terrific sentiments. Thank you for your time and the candid thoughts.

Paul Kellogg: Life Beyond Bohème, Carmen, and Traviata

[Ed. note: This conversation between Paul Kellogg, then Artistic Director of both Glimmerglass Opera (now the Glimmerglass Festival) and New York City Opera, and Richard Kessler, then the Executive Director of the American Music Center, was originally published on the American Music Center’s website on October 1, 1998. It was the third in a series of interviews entitled “Music In The First Person” that was published in the year before the launch of NewMusicBox on May 1, 1999. “In The First Person” served as the model for one of the primary components of NewMusicBox which still continues on the site as “Cover.”]

RICHARD KESSLER: What it is like to lead two very different opera companies?

PAUL KELLOGG: I’m often asked this question, and I always have to correct the question itself because actually I’m leading the City Opera as general and artistic director, but serving Glimmerglass as artistic director only. I’m not handling the day to day business, which is fortunate. Frankly, I couldn’t possibly do both. But it’s a situation that’s unique, as far as I know — it offers opportunities for both companies that are in themselves fairly unique. For Glimmerglass, in rural, undeveloped, upstate New York, the cooperation between City Opera and Glimmerglass provides secure, reliable funding every year because we share production costs. For City Opera it provides the opportunity to bring well-developed productions to the State Theater stage. It’s very expensive and very difficult to rehearse at City Opera — we simply can’t get the stage enough. But Glimmerglass has a different situation where the stage is available. It’s a house that’s controlled by the company itself, and not shared with anyone else. So we have time to develop productions there, look at them on stage, decide what works and what doesn’t work, and make changes, and this results in a much tighter, better, more physical production. It also gives the director and cast an opportunity to get a work solidly in their minds and bodies by the time the work opens. All in all, it’s a very good cooperation between the two companies.

RK: How do you view the role of opera in contemporary society?

PK: It’s odd. Five years ago I might have said that the role of opera is decreasing in importance; that other things are coming along to capture the imagination of young people; that television has had a nearly fatal influence on the performing arts generally and on opera in particular; that the audience was aging. Now I see things quite differently. It has something to do with a real explosion of interest in opera among young people. I’m not entirely sure why this is happening, but it is clearly there — certainly at these two houses. It may have something to do with the fact that opera here is perceived as being presented in a contemporary, relevant way. It may also have to do with repertory choices. I have to say that at City Opera it is not contemporary music that draws young people most enthusiastically, but Bohème, Carmen, and Butterfly — the standard, traditional dating operas. The effect of getting people into an opera house for the first time is that very often — I won’t say inevitably, but certainly very often-they decide to come back. And overall, through all our repertory, there are more young people in this house now than I’ve seen over the years. So what does this say about the role of opera in contemporary society? I think that these people are seeing that opera presents ideas and feelings in a way that isn’t just intellectual, and that isn’t just abstract and that it has access to our deepest beings through both the intellect and the feelings, which delivers a kind of double force. Perhaps for that reason we’re seeing a more open and more receptive audience than a few years ago.

RK: In every one of these interviews we are asking a few questions that remain constant from interview to interview. For instance: what music are you listening to today? It’s interesting: Thomas Hampson started talking about Reba McEntire (although that never comment never made it into the final interview). Steve Reich mentioned Arvo Pärt. We’ve asked a variation of this question to every interviewee so far.

This next question has to do with the repertoire. For the most part the core stand of the opera repertoire has not expanded significantly since the early part of this century. For the orchestra, (for the symphonic form it’s a little bit later), what strikes you most about this? Do you think that in the years to come we will see more new works fully embraced by artists, organizations, and, most importantly, audiences?

PK: Of course opera lost its preeminence as an entertainment form in this century. There are other art forms: films, television (if it can be called an art form these days, although it has the potential to be)…

RK: It is on occasion…

PK: Theater, the musical comedy: all of these things compete, in a sense, for people’s time. I suppose something more or less moribund can’t be expected to grow. However, there has frequently been a lag between the creation of a work and wide public acceptance. One can’t really expect a new piece to jump into the core repertory immediately. I haven’t fathomed just why opera audiences in this century, particularly in this country, became so conservative unless it has to do with the growing aura of elitism surrounding opera, and its vast expense to produce which bred timidity in producers. This timidity seems to exist less where government funding is secure and generous, but the opera audience remains in large part tradition-bound even there.

Then too new music for a long time was associated with something dry and academic and tonal and foreign to the experience of most operagoers, and a wide suspiciousness developed. Happily a great deal of good contemporary composition is moving in the direction of accessibility, which will help. We hope to make the public aware of this direction and much of the fine work that’s already been written and neglected.

RK: The diversity among the writing is remarkable at this point.

PK: Absolutely.

RK: Although a gap still remains. The whole reason we at the Center have decided to create an Internet magazine for new music is because we feel that there’s a tremendous lack of communication sources specifically geared for new music. There are many people out there with negative perceptions of new music that were forged in the 1950s/60s; they still have a perception of new music and of opera — and I think that’s part of what you were talking about — a narrow perception of opera.

PK: Part of the problem is that new music grew into an intellectual ghetto and lost its popular audience. Like everybody else and every other activity in our society, people are nervous about intellectualizing; they’re uncomfortable in an atmosphere that seems heavily intellectualized. To break down that barrier is one of our many responsibilities now in producing opera.

RK: What are your plans here at City Opera for the next few years? I know that you have some very interesting plans afoot — with artists like Terence McNally and Michael Torke.

PK: Absolutely. Well, we have commissioned new works, and are talking to other composers about works in all sorts of compositional and dramatic styles. The new work that’s already underway involves three young-ish American composers, Michael Torke, Deborah Drattel, and Robert Beaser, each writing one-act operas to libretti by established American playwrights: Terence McNally, Wendy Wasserstein and A.R. Gurney, all centering around incidents in Central Park. I think that’s really a lovely project — we’re all having great fun with it. We’ll be producing a new work being written in another vein by Charles Wuorinen to a libretto by James Fenton based on the Salmon Rushdie novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories that will be coming along toward the end of the year 2000. I’m talking to other composers about work as well. Tobias Picker‘s Emmeline this season had a great success in this very large theater. One of the things that we face at the State Theater, which has 2700 seats and is expensive to operate in, is that it’s a major financial undertaking for us to put on a new work that has no built-in audience. We do it, however, because we believe it’s our obligation to, and because we like the work, and because we want the public to know what it is, and to get to learn to like it. How are they going to get to know what a new work is like unless they get the chance to hear it? Frankly it is a little impractical to be doing something that is considered experimental (I suppose) in a theater like this one. I’m hoping, in this little race we’re on, that we can convert large numbers of the public to this kind of music before we lose our shirts financially.

Another thing we’re very interested in doing at City Opera is establishing a kind of core repertory of American works. We’ve begun this, in fact. This season, 1998-99, will bring both Lizzie Borden by Jack Beeson and Of Mice and Men by Carlisle Floyd which I and many of us here consider core American repertory. It’s something that we should be doing in this house. I’m also glad to see the Met is also bringing Susannah into its season next year. Only if major companies take this kind of stand will a core repertory be introduced to this country.

RK: I went to see the premiere of The Rake’s Progress at the Met. It’s a fifty-year-old piece, at least. And it seemed that if someone had said: “This is brand-new,” or “This has just been written yesterday,” or “This is the premiere performance,” I would’ve believed it. I find this to be both positive and negative. Positive in regards to Stravinsky and his great work, and to the production itself, negative perhaps considering the repertory issue again — it hearkens back to the second question about the repertory slowing down its expansion. It makes one wonder about the state of a musical form when a work composed 50 years ago seems as if it was practically brand-new. Has this ever occurred to you?

PK: Well, it’s interesting. I had something of the same experience with Paul Bunyan when we first did it at Glimmerglass in 1995. I had the sense that this is a new work, that it’s something fresh, and surprising, and I think a lot of the audience did. Now Britten, for whatever reason, even the Britten of 1940 written in a kind of operetta vein, is hard for some people today to understand and grasp. I do not understand that, but it’s there. There’s a prejudice against works by Britten. I’m passionate about Britten — I think he’s one of the great opera composers of all time and we’re hoping to do an Albert Herring in the State Theater in two years. We’ve already done Turn of The Screw and I want to do one day A Midsummer’s Nights Dream, although the Met now has done it (and very well too, I must say). We have an obligation to a composer of our time who is one of the great composers of all time. We have to fulfill that obligation by presenting his work. But the audience has got to come along with us sooner or later!

RK: Again, it’s a perception/actuality question — there’s a game there. At any rate it’s clear that you’re trying to create a certain image for City Opera. And I might ask you later to address that more specifically. But first: what do you think about new technologies? How do you think that they will alter the way music is created, performed, and (perhaps most importantly) accessed?

PK: Well, there are technologies not yet dreamt of that will undoubtedly make enormous changes in the field itself — in composition, in performance, in public perception. Certainly the most important thing that’s happened to opera in the last 100 years, perhaps, (or that takes us back to the turn of the century, which was our start-off date here) has been surtitles. Surtitles have increased the audience’s understanding and involvement in a work not only dramatically, but also in what the music is doing at a given moment, because opera is, after all, words and music — and if you don’t understand the words, what the music is doing is irrelevant and pointless. So why should anyone come to the opera who doesn’t know what’s happening? That may be a radical thing to say.

RK: No, I think it makes perfect sense.

PK: But surtitles have certainly increased audiences, I think they’re responsible for the younger audiences we’re seeing, and responsible for the enthusiasm that people have about opera today, and a new sense of its relevance.

RK: When you get home, and you think to yourself, “Oh, I don’t want to spend time thinking about Glimmerglass, City Opera, or this baritone or that piece”, what music do you listen to?

PK: Well, it’s always business in the sense that what I listen to (except very rarely, when I have time to listen for pleasure) in the car when I have long stretches of time on the road driving back and forth between Cooperstown and New York is opera that we may want to do in years to come — I’m always scouting the repertory. I’m doing that at something of a disadvantage, because it does help to have the libretto in front of you when you’re planning work.

I do listen for pleasure, it’s frankly another kind of music altogether. It tends to be lieder — Tom Hampson, actually, quite a lot — artsong forms which create a very different atmosphere. They provide a kind of relief from opera’s rather large demands. I listen to some contemporary song composers. I think there are several of them now who are writing beautiful songs. Robert Beaser is one, John Musto, Ricky Ian Gordon. Composers are increasingly writing for the voice, and doing it with great understanding, in ways that are expanding the form.

RK: What other works have you been looking at that you’re interested in? You talked about Carlisle Floyd, and there are others. What other works do you think have not had their due?

PK: Well, we’re reviving Virgil Thomson‘s The Mother of Us All, which is a perfectly charming, very moving American work of intelligence and distinction. It hasn’t had its due. There are many people now writing operas that don’t get performed and won’t ever get known, and your heart breaks for them, because companies (even a company that’s as well-disposed to contemporary music as we are at City Opera) just don’t have time in schedules that need to be balanced and can’t afford to produce new works, much less commission and produce new works. So a lot of very, very good writing is not being heard today. I do think that once a work gets produced, it does at least exist out there somehow. And the chance of its being done again is much greater. Composers feel (increasingly, I think) that having a work performed once is not of much use to them because they’ve spent all this time and have worked to do something that, by its very nature, will disappear once the curtain comes down. But the work does exist, nevertheless, and other companies will come back to it in time, I believe, if it’s worth something. There are many people — I’m one of them — who do look at work that has been produced and for which there is no subsequent performance planned. Emmeline was an example this year, and Paul Bunyan was another example of a work that had very little life before we did it at Glimmerglass in 1995. Now it’s been produced at Covent Garden, and it’s being considered by other companies, not because we did it at Glimmerglass, but just because its time seems to have come.

RK: You obviously have come up with an image of what City Opera is. You are obviously shaping that, and heading in a certain direction. How would you describe it? How would you invite someone to come to the City Opera? What would you say?

PK: A question like this I think is almost best answered by people’s experience with the company once they’ve gotten here. They see what’s happening, they get a sense of the company. (Let me start this answer again, because I was just talking about this at lunch with someone today when we were talking about what City Opera really is…)

RK: Perfect!

PK: An opera company establishes its image in people’s minds through its repertory, through its artists, and also interestingly, through its audience, apart from the kind of PR spin that a publicity department puts on its press releases that describe the company. But quite apart from that, a repertory speaks most loudly about what a company is doing. If a company like City Opera produces five or six 20th-century works in a season of sixteen operas, there is an interest being expressed in the music of our time. Now, opera has been around for 400 years, so a well-balanced repertory is going to include other periods as well as the contemporary. When a third of a company’s works are contemporary, then it says something about the interest that a company has. Other veins that we explore here are unusual repertory pieces that haven’t been done in New York particularly often, if at all. Iphigénie en Tauride was an example of that. Next season we’re doing Intermezzo by Strauss, a 20th century work that’s seldom performed. It’s certainly not new — it’s almost seventy-five years old and has not been given a fully staged performance in New York, interestingly enough. It’s a great, wonderfully involving theatrical evening.

We want to show people that there is life beyond Bohème, Carmen, and Traviata, however wonderful those three operas are (and they certainly are extraordinary pieces). But there is an operatic world to be explored beyond that, and we’re going to do that exploration, and do it in ways that first of all, are first-quality musically and involving dramatically and theatrically. Does that answer your question?

RK: Yes, absolutely. That’s great. Is there anything else you’d like to say? Anything you’ve missed?

PK: I’d like to get back to an earlier question: The second element that people look at when they decide what an opera company really is, is who the artists are. In our case, our artists are for the most part young and American, and this in and of itself makes a statement about a company’s image. We hire stage directors, conductors, and designers who work together as a team before a production opens, and we try as much as possible to build an ensemble out of the cast, and give lots and lots of rehearsal time, so that what one hears and sees on stage is cohesive, and that’s something we want City Opera to be known for: a company whose productions have a kind of polish and finish, a cohesive and immediately recognizable dramatic style.

Thomas Hampson: Singing American Songs

[Ed. note: This conversation between American baritone Thomas Hampson and Richard Kessler, then the Executive Director of the American Music Center, was originally published on the American Music Center’s website on August 1, 1998. It was the second in a series of interviews entitled “Music In The First Person” published in the year before the launch of NewMusicBox on May 1, 1999. “In The First Person” served as the model for one of the primary components of NewMusicBox which still continues on the site as “Cover.”]

1. American Song: A Diary of Experiences and Emotions

RICHARD KESSLER: What attracts you to American song?

THOMAS HAMPSON: I think the first thing is, really, what attracts me to song? Song is such a huge and fascinating world, and I never quite understand, especially with “art song,” why it seems to be such a “specialist” idea. To me, song is such a natural mix of thought and symbols expressed through words — poetry — encased in a musical framing that becomes something quite different from either music or a poem. I don’t know why people think that it’s so difficult to be “into” the world of song, or involved with it. Maybe they don’t. But the fascinating part of song — and this is especially true of American songs — is that it immediately becomes a diary of experiences and emotions.

American song especially fascinates me. I consider American song to be comprised not only of American poetry and American music; but it is also incredibly dependent on the social, historical, or literary issues of the epoch that has borne the music and poetry.

Sometimes there are great ironies between poetic sources and compositional sources. When I think of 19th-century poets in 20th-century musical hands, it’s really quite fascinating. Sometimes the music updates the poetry, but most often, it just goes to the heart of the emotion or intellectual effort of that poem, and it transcends time. That’s why I think song is somehow a diary that illuminates our own experiences as human beings, while at the same time reflecting particular times in our nation’s history where an awakening process, the maturation that we’ve been going through for the last couple of hundred years, is particularly poignant.

RK: What about the performer’s issues, the intimacy of performing song in recital? How is that different from being on-stage in front of one or two hundred people?

TH: Well, there is quite a difference, but it’s a difference of emphasis, really. One is macro, one is micro; one is the private thoughts of an individual, and the other is a portrait of the individual in a particular circumstance. I don’t see how you can separate them; it just depends on what you are articulating at that time as a performer.

The performance could portray, in a theatrical sense, the inside life of a character. For instance, if I sing the Winterreise, I may very well convey the kind of private emotion of, say, a character in a Wagner opera. Not the Wanderer, but any one of those characters. Or, conversely, if I’m doing songs that reflect personal thoughts and emotions, my character could turn around and take on a role more suited to a larger opera.

Singing songs would do well as a more substantial study for young opera singers. I think that ballad narration — telling a story or articulating specific emotions so that you almost have to set up your own drama — is an especially valuable and fascinating experience for singers in preparation for the theatrical experience. In the theatrical experience, you are just one part of a larger picture — you’re working in an ensemble situation with other artists, other colleagues, a conductor, and a producer. But in this type of experience, I’ve always found it interesting to define the private, personal story of the character I’m playing. If I’m singing Posa, I think: What sort of shoes does he have? What books has he read? What kind of schooling did he have? What kind of wife did he have? And that’s where background materials can become very interesting, especially for operas that are historically founded, like Don Carlos.

It’s a fun intertwining of both worlds, and, clearly in song, you have a greater expanse of emotion: very quiet; very loud; very dramatic; very personal. Sometimes you sing in the first person, sometimes in the third person, sometimes even in the second person; it can be quite interesting.

RK: I’m going to continue to ask you about American music, but first I’d like to say that I particularly enjoyed your Aaron Copland album with Dawn Upshaw and the SPCO. I love that album; I listen to it regularly.

TH: Well, I appreciate that. I love the album, too. We had a lot of fun doing it and unfortunately, we haven’t worked with Hugh Wolff since. But that was a wonderful experience, and they’re a great band. He had a deft touch. It was fun.

RK: And in your success with the music of Stephen Foster, you, in some ways, highlighted him toward the end of this century in ways that certainly no one else had, and sort of brought him back out to the forefront.

TH: Well, it’s funny; people like Deems Taylor, for instance, were really at the forefront — let’s not forget this guy. I think the fun thing about Foster is that if you say “Stephen Foster,” everybody sort of jumps to an immediate conclusion. He’s really — and I think I’ve used this metaphor before — the trunk of the tree. His life is interesting, and yet the most interesting thing about him is that he probably wasn’t very interesting. It’s really quite astounding what a strange personality this boy had, but he articulated for us a kind of naïve separation from reality, an escape. I think he was more of a musical genius-locus than people give him credit for. I don’t think it’s a huge genius, but there’s a genius in the directness of his music. I think the sentiments that he articulated are more endemic to the 19th century for all races, not only the “white salon balladeer.” He carried an enormous impact for the African-Americans, as well as the Irish immigrants and Scottish immigrants. In a lot of ways, he articulated the immigrant longing in this country as immigrants became citizens.

RK: Well, he offers an opportunity for people to begin to understand that particular time through song. The interesting thing is that people readily head towards books to begin to understand or examine history. They often don’t see that music can present that to them, as well. Foster stands for that. He’s such a potent entry point to that time.

TH: Absolutely.

RK: Which other American composers interest you?

TH: Well, I’ve come across so many interesting ones. I’m fascinated by Charles Griffes. He is still not very well known, but I think the quality of his songs is pretty spectacular. I know his German output better than anything else, but I think he had a lot of French influence. And again, here we come to the diary idea. The reasons why Griffes went from German expressionism into French orientalism were numerous. For one, we can’t forget the tremendous impact of Admiral Perry’s opening of the Far East. This had a huge influence on everyone from Mahler to Van Gogh. A new exotic atmosphere came into play. But also, when the war really hit, even World War I, it was a such nasty time. German was forbidden to be sung in the opera house. And the songs that Griffes had been writing up to that point were based on Heine, Uhland, and Goethe texts, as well as those of his colleagues, like MacDowell. MacDowell was dead by then, but Griffes just stopped in his tracks. There were no more German texts, so they shifted into English and Fiona MacLeod, and into French symbolist, Debussy-esque kind of music. I’m giving a general explanation here, but these things didn’t happen in isolation. Especially in American song, there are always contemporary social historical perspectives that are reflected either through the composer’s eyes, or through the text that the composer then sets. So, it always has sort of a diary feel about it, and Griffes is no different. I think Griffes is fascinating.

Of course, I adore Charles Ives, and I’m amused by him. I think the real study of Ives’s songs is still to be done. I think that it’s unfair, if not unwise, to simply treat him as a block. Although, I would probably say that about every composer. I get so tired, in talking about song in whatever country, of making reference only to the composer. I think it’s wrong, unfair, and limiting in terms of the musical language that the composer found. And Ives is no different. There are a lot of songs that Ives wrote to simply send out to people who didn’t know the difference. And that’s when I get interested in how that worked, because some of the songs are just complete bullshit. He would then write a note that basically said, “If you take this song seriously, then you’re probably stupider than I am.” It’s really quite funny. And there’s also a diary element there, because there are a lot of very personal and ironic remarks that Charles Ives, in his sort of self-deprecating and certainly cynical humor, is sending out in his publications. Rather than just having this 114 book of his, I think someone should just tear it apart and make Italienisches Liederbuch-style dialogues out of different subjects. I tried it once with Dawn Upshaw in a recital; we did and it worked very well. It was fun.

In other early 20th-century music, I think John Duke is a fantastic American composer, and all too unknown. I’m also very fond of John Alden Carpenter, as well as composers like Haggemann. I don’t want to get into a pyramid listing of American composers, but I think Virgil Thomson is a completely forgotten master of the song genre. There are so many songs out there, but the disparate quality is curious: there are a lot of composers who have written some good songs, but there are very few composers who have consistently written good songs. And some of that is not their fault. Some of it is endemic to the period that the composer belonged to. Ernst Bacon wrote some very good songs, and he wrote some very silly songs — silly meaning not great — though they might have been taken more seriously in their time.

There are a couple of wonderful female composers. Elinor Remick Warren is one of my favorites. She wrote fantastic oratorios that I’ve recorded, and also some terrific songs. “We Two” by Walt Whitman is a fantastic song. Also, Celius Dougherty .What was fascinating about doing the Walt Whitman album was going through all sorts of different composers. There are just all sorts of jewels out there. But I think they belong to a particular context, and that’s what I’ve been trying to concentrate on in my programming, and in how I look at American song. I look at it more through epochs and themes and literary circles than through any one composer’s eyes. Even as much as I love Samuel Barber and Charles Ives, I just don’t think that a whole evening of any one composer’s music would do them justice. I think an American composer is always more interesting in the context of either his or her own period, or when paired with a completely contrasting voice. But that’s part of the American spirit anyway — to show where the round side of the edge is, and vice versa. As a culture, we’re always sort of mesmerized by opposites.

2. The New Repertoire: A Paradigm Shift

RK: The core standard repertoire for opera has not expanded significantly since the early part of this century. The same could be said for the orchestral repertoire, where any consistent expansion seems to have ended in the 1950s. What strikes you most about this? Do you think that the coming years will see more new works fully embraced by artist organizations and, most importantly, audiences?

TH: I do. I think there’s a lot of good news out there right now. I actually think the avant-garde is something very exciting and accessible. I’ve certainly listened to a great deal of the avant-garde music and have had some experience as a singer. We’ve got some fantastic songwriters lurking out there. John Musto is fantastic. Ricky Ian Gordon, Stephen Paulus, Richard Danielpour, Mr. Brewbaker (Daniel), and John Adams — I’m so crazy about John Adams. I think the minimalists broke the mold. They were the first ones to really shake us up and say, “Yes, there is something completely different out here to be had.” Steve Reich started all of that, and then, of course, Philip Glass. If I have a wrong historical perspective, please forgive me — I’m just a stupid singer!

Something very exciting started happening in the late 1970s and early 1980s that broke us out of what seemed to me to be a backwards-looking, self-defeating academic fight. There just seemed to be such a huge exploration of theories, from about the 1930s to the 1960s, that broke the music scene down into polemics and schools. Sometimes some very interesting things happened, without a doubt, but most of it was probably brain food more than emotional food. And song probably belongs more to emotional substance than to intellectual substance. Now, that betrays a certain personal attitude. But what’s happened now, with breaking out of different schools of thought — with the polytonalities, polyrhythms, and even polymotivations of thoughts, and the way the poems are structured and set to music — reinstates the value of melody, which I think is inextricably linked to the life of song. And when I say melody, I mean that we have better ears now. We now recognize things as melody that we perhaps wouldn’t have recognized in the 1950s. It’s curious that Samuel Barber, who was so vehemently chastised as old-fashioned and unnecessarily romantic, is now recognized as an absolute genius for his melodic writing, and certainly for voice leading and counterpoint, as well. The man was just true to a different calling. He’s probably having a much stronger impact now than he did during his lifetime.

RK: You know, it’s interesting that you mention Steve Reich and Philip Glass. I interviewed Steve Reich just a couple of weeks ago.

TH: That must’ve been fascinating.

RK: It was! Steve’s career emerged not through the music world, but through the art world. He got his first breaks in the 1960s through art galleries, where, in some ways, the otherwise established music world was inaccessible to him. All of a sudden, he was able to key into another audience. The audience at the galleries seemed open to hearing something different.

TH: He also had a tremendous break, of course, with the electronic world as well.

RK: Absolutely.

TH: I’ve had a couple of long conversations with Luciano Berio about this subject, and also about Steve Reich, of whom he’s very fond.

RK: Yes, he was at one point a student of Berio’s. There’s a remarkable anecdote where Berio was looking over some of Reich’s work, and Reich was sort of struggling to write tonal music. He had still been experimenting with atonal work, and was just beginning to find his voice as a composer. Berio just looked at the score and said, “If you want to write tonal music, why don’t you just write tonal music?”

TH: Yeah, exactly! That’s sounds like Luciano. If it’s a good tune, write it!

RK: I’m going to ask a question that’s off the beaten path, but it’s been provoked by something you said. Earlier you spoke about melody. I think you are certainly correct that melody is emerging more than ever before in contemporary concert music, but in pop music, melody appears to be less important than ever before. In rap music and other forms like ska, it seems that melody and harmony take a back seat to rhythm.

TH: Well, I would have to agree with you. I find it in some ways amusing. What’s happened is that the musical structure of pop music has become infinitely less interesting than it was in the 1970s. Think of what Steely Dan was writing — Asia — and even Blood Sweat and Tears or Fleetwood Mac. Fleetwood Mac! I went to High School listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “Bare Trees,” which was one of those earth-shattering albums! It’s unbelievable! These guys were writing serious music. Even Eddy Gomez, the fantastic jazz drummer, is a Juilliard graduate; and a lot of these guys are Juilliard hacks — and I mean that in the best sense of the word.

RK: I understand that. I’m a Juilliard graduate.

TH: But what irritates me a little bit — or perhaps I find it curious — is that a lot of this music on Broadway which is getting raves and winning Tonys is just simply innocuous. People look at a Jerome Kern score and say, “What am I supposed to do with this heady music?” and I just find that absurd.

And then there is the whole rap movement. I mean, if you actually want to get to rap, then go back and look at the Monteverdi madrigals. Every generation probably thinks themselves a little too clever, and I do think one of the great challenges at the end of the 20th century is, in fact, to discover the humility of tradition. We take ourselves so seriously, and assume that everything that we come up with is really cutting-edge and has never been done before. That’s just not true. Maybe it’s because we haven’t paid attention to historical perspectives. We think that all of our political problems are so unique. Sometimes I wonder if we haven’t sort of thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Although, jazz has certainly gone its own way. I think that jazz has probably had the most significant effect on classical music over that last fifteen or twenty years of any type of music.

RK: It’s remarkable.

TH: I think it’s fascinating; it’s wonderful. And the Americans embrace it. Over here in Europe, they’re still fighting the battle of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. But it’s getting better. EMI is doing a huge competition to help contemporary composers, and there’s going to be big play-off in April. I’ll go sit on a jury and we’ll decide what piece works best. The fun part is that there are three CD’s with nine different composers and their works — some people I’ve never heard of, and some people I have. When I sit and listen to these different musical ideas, it is curious that with practically all of them, the thing that immediately grabs you — and this goes back to your point — is the manipulation of pulse. That manipulation either accents or “detoxifies” the harmonic ingenuity. But in some ways, it seems to grab people more, and it seems to be more accessible. We’re living in a time when that seems to be more relevant than harmony. I’m not sure what else we can do with harmony within the system that hasn’t already been done; there’s nothing shocking left.

RK: I agree.

TH: And maybe that’s actually good, because I think that audacity for the sake of audacity is pretty boring. It’s like Confucius saying that boredom is the endless search for novelty. It may very well be that we’ll finally give up on that and actually start trying to articulate the human experience through music again. Who knows?

3. Arts Education Programs and the Future of Music

RK: Well, some of these things run in cycles. But pop music is another story. There was an recent article in The New York Times about pop music and the recording industry. It said that kids who are purchasing albums today may purchase the debut album of an artist, but are not necessarily interested in becoming a fan; they won’t necessarily pick up the second or third CD of a given band or solo act. It also said that the promotion of pop music had become focused on individual songs, rather than on albums and the development of careers. Some of the reason that they believe this was happening is that the corporations that own the record companies are not willing to allow the companies to spend the resources necessary to develop the artist’s careers. In the case of a Bruce Springsteen, it took a number of albums for him to start to make it; that’s probably the case for most artists. This is a profound change in the pop world, but it also says something more general about people listening to music.

TH: Well, that’s a huge subject, and I think it’s endemic not just to the pop world, but also to the book world. I heard the exact same argument on “Book Span” — great authors saying, “Well, if I were under the same kind of stress that young authors are under today!” Investing in careers and talent is no longer interesting in the book industry or the pop industry, and that’s also exactly what is happening — what has already happened, to a great degree — in the classical industry.

A lot of it is due to an overriding belief that if someone is business-clever or understands the ebb and flow of bottom-line charts, that somehow that’s more important and responsible than any hobby they may be into, be it reading books or listening to music. I think we’re experiencing a flip of the needle kind of thing. We’ve gone to the drastic other side where the bean counters are suddenly dictating the form of the business. And yet those same bean counters wouldn’t even have a job if they hadn’t been inaugurated by people with a great romantic spirit of wanting to try to record music, write music, or write books. I do think that the needle is going to flip back a little bit; not because I’m such an optimist, because I’m probably not. I like to sort of grovel in melancholy like anyone else! But I honestly think that we’re in a very exciting time right now, a hot bed of innovation. With the “everything goes” mentality, someone is going to spring up with something very clever in terms of uniting interesting songwriters and music writers with publications and distributions.

We’re going to crack the paradigm problem. The old paradigm is certainly being shifted and it’s causing some tremendous pain, some of which you’ve already articulated. But at the same time, we are going push through it. We are going to do something new. We’re going to put something better together. We’re going to figure out a way to get record sales up by getting the prices to go down, and if the distribution is correct, we can do it. It is going to take a certain amount of readjustment to the notion of education and of normality, certainly.

And some of the great old sacred cows may have to go. You earlier referred to the lack of change in the symphonic and opera repertoire, which to some extent is true. But if there has been a change, a significant change or new breath, it has certainly happened in the last five or ten years. And that’s very exciting. One of the reasons that the time for innovation is so ripe is that we’ve actually had more new operas written now than fifteen or twenty years ago. I know of more new operas being written now, and they are truly operas in the American operatic sense.

RK: Well, one of the questions, especially for us at the American Music Center, is that there’s been a tremendous amount of commissioning, particularly over the last half of the century, yet the number of works that have entered the repertoire is remarkably small. Why?

TH: It is curious: I’ve been part of some interesting Uraufführungen (world premieres) and you sit there and say, “Well, is this going to become part of the repertoire?” I think everybody’s excited to have that first shot, to have that first listening, but it is similar to the Danielpour piece (Elegies): it’s a very good piece, but is it necessarily going to be something that someone else is going to want to do? Part of the problem is that the orchestra of the next organization has to say, “Aha! This is a great piece our public wants to hear.” Yet even if that’s the case, the organization has no bells and whistles to sell it with. So everything about the piece becomes more determined than the piece itself. That belies a marketing mentality cancer that we’ve got to break. That’s the paradigm that has to shift. Are we selling subscriptions series to people, or are we providing people with the repertoire they want to hear that season? There’s a big problem there.

RK: I went to a performance recently of Joseph Schwantner‘s Concerto for Percussion, which I believe is a remarkable piece of music. I immediately thought that this work could easily become standard repertoire. But you really hit the nail on the head: there are questions of marketing paradigms, of audiences vs. individuals. There are issues of audience development.

TH: Well, this is what happens when you take the guts out of a little arts education program, which is what America used to have; programs where free and open dialogue for elementary and high school music students was not only offered but also was considered viable, valuable, and interesting. You didn’t have to become a musician, and you didn’t have to be particularly intelligent, but you sang songs, you listened to things, you might have been taken to concerts and music programs. But now, all those programs have been cut. Nobody can afford them anymore.

In Spokane, WA, where I come from, I wonder if they bus kids in to afternoon rehearsals of the symphony. In whatever city it might be, I can imagine the two things that would happen. One: the schools can’t afford the gasoline for the buses. Two: the kids are so incredibly unruly that they honestly don’t know how to behave in a rehearsal. They think that the opera house or the symphony center is the same place as the cinema, where they can leave popcorn on the floor. Another problem is that the minute you say rehearsals, the orchestra unions come in and say, “Wait a minute. If you’re going to have kids listening to rehearsals, that means there has to be one extra rehearsal, because it has to be a real performance, as well, and it has to be top-quality.”

If we don’t have a radical shift in the basic attitude toward what a normal hearing experience is, and the intrinsic value of it, then it’s going to be the short road. And that does give me some concern. Arts education is no less valuable as a collective training than school sports. It’s just as important to explore the imagination through literature, poetry, and song as it is to develop young bodies, and develop attitudes of teamwork and a team mentality through sports. And I have absolutely no grind against sports.

RK: It’s not an either/or.

TH: Exactly, it’s not an either/or. But the people who are cutting the programs are making it into an either/or. It always comes down to the “bottom line” problem. But the real bottom line is that every major genius personality in the 20th century — even dear Stephen Hawking, who wasn’t always terrifically handicapped in his life — has been a romantic, liberal arts-dedicated, renaissance-thinking person. Einstein’s letters contain some of the most beautiful thoughts, not only on the intimate details of his very fascinating personal life, but also on the importance of humanity, great imagination — and that the only thing limiting us is how we limit ourselves. Yet, we take all of that away from students and say, “Oh, no. They have to learn the bytes and the bits, and run laps and play baseball. Other things like music and languages are just nonsense. That’s hobby time.”

Art history is, of course, the worst. We wonder why they need to be able to look at a painting and tell if it’s from the 15th or the 17th century. “Giotto was certainly an interesting guy, but how can he justify his existence for me in 1997?” Here is that societal conceit I was talking about. And this year, so many people are saying, “Well, what relevance does Franz Schubert have for me today?” To me, that is one of the most audaciously “respectless” questions!

RK: It’s a tremendous conceit of the times.

TH: Well, yes. My responsibility is to ask the question, “What relevance do I have to Franz Schubert?” And it’s not just because I have so much respect for him. I feel that we have a responsibility to understand those that have been here before us. We’re not experiencing anything new — the paradigm is different; the context is different, the tools are perhaps different — but the motivation is still there. You still get up and put one leg in your trousers first and whether it’s a toga or a pair of Calvin Klein jeans, it doesn’t matter. This is something Joseph Campbell was treating. All of these things find a tremendous fruition in music and literature. And then you get to the intimate, boiling down to song. And I think all of these huge things that we are talking about, are in fact, endemic to song in its final form. And that’s what poetry is. The language of that, and music is the context in which that dialogue and that manipulation of poetic context becomes so fascinating. Nothing, as far as I’m concerned, lives in isolation. It just doesn’t. But that’s the false mentality of academia. That’s exactly what the problem is. We keep thinking that, by grinding on things tighter, in marketing or otherwise, by defining it closer and getting more specific — even the critical world is doing this to us — that we’re going to come to a greater illumination. We’re not. We’re going to come into building neighborhoods with these ubiquitous cul-de-sacs of big houses. That’s what we’re getting into, and that’s very dangerous. That’s one of the most exciting things about the web, because the web has just blown that wide open.

RK: And it will continue.

TH: Absolutely. And, of course, there’s the problem of trusting what’s on the web, but that will weed itself out to some extent. Criticism will become more ubiquitous, which is very useful because it should then become a point of dialogue and not a point of polemic. That’s what criticism used to be. This sort of table-waving beckmesserian attitude that we have in general criticism today is so unhealthy.

RK: It’s less a part of a process helping to further define a field; it’s no longer a means to an end.

TH: No, it’s a means unto its own end.

RK: Absolutely. But I do want you to know that you’ve given us some tremendous quotes about arts education and the need for it. The good news about arts education today is that the support for it is growing tremendously. Programs are being restored in ways that are much better than what had been there before: the integrated curriculum approach, a liberal arts humanities-based approach to the arts where kids are exploring, learning, creating in music, in theater. There are many truly remarkable things taking place, such as the increasing number of artists are going into the classrooms, supporting and extending learning.

TH: Recently, I collaborated with the “I Hear America” singing tape. The idea is to get the video in schools and libraries across the country as back-up material. They said, “Yes, well, back-up material is fine, but we’d like to develop it with you as a teaching tool.” So, Carla Maria [Carla Maria Sullwold is Hampson’s personal assistant] and I are having those kinds of discussions with WNET and some other forums — similar to what you’ve been talking about.

RK: The best definition I ever heard of curriculum was: a way of life. And there’s always the question of how one enters the curriculum. What kind of entry points exist for students at various ages so that they can digest and incorporate this material, make it their own.

TH: Yes.

RK: I read that you had received an award over at the National Arts Club, and you had given a speech about the power of the imagination. At that point I knew that I had a book that I was going to send to you, written by Maxine Green, who is going to do an essay for the American Music: In The First Person. She’s a professor emeritus of Teachers College, one of the people who created the Lincoln Center Institute, and a true leader in exploring the role of the imagination in education and life: how the imagination is activated, how to connect with it. Maxine’s book is titled: Releasing The Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change

TH: I’d love to have it.

RK: I’ll send it off.

4. The New Audience: Visual + Aural

RK: Recent studies have indicated — and these studies have been widely disseminated — that audiences for opera are not only growing but getting younger. What do you attribute this to?

TH: Yes, isn’t that exciting news? Well, perhaps we are seeing some of the success of these arts programs taking hold. Talking completely as a lay person here, I get the feeling that, not only is there a general fascination in opera, with the circus attitude of it, or “phenominality” of it all — it’s a huge art form — but I honestly think that there is also a reinvigorated interest in the dramatic context and theatrical experience within the musical realm. In some ways, we may very well be seeing some of this rejuvenation in opera because of a boredom with the rather platitudinous works that have been happening in music theater lately. I would like to believe that there is an instinctual need for substance that goes in waves. There’s a group mentality that’s going on, especially in the States, that says, “No, there’s got to be something else that is more reflective, that is deeper, that is more intense, that has something more to offer.” And opera does offer a theatrical music experience so complex and enriching because, it requires you to think and feel on several different levels. I’ve never really understood why people have thought that opera was inaccessible. I don’t think it’s inaccessible — I think it is sometimes difficult to understand.

What is also curious is that the studies show that people who go to concerts are not necessarily likely to buy records, but that people who buy records probably will go to a concert. In other words, the souvenir buyer is not really of prime importance to the record industry. It also hints at the distinct difference between the electronic experience and the visual experience. To me, the only worthwhile-ness of all this media is that it highlights the visual experience: the orchestra tunes up, the lights go out, the curtain comes up, and you’re into it.

RK: Yes, well, audiophiles spend exorbitant amounts of money. There’s a particular adjective: palpable, the “palpability” issue. How palpable? How close is a recording, even though it can never be close enough? How close is it to the real thing? How palpable is it? And the continued quest to get the next digital to analog converter or the next set of speakers or sub-woofer that will make it closer…

TH: I go in the other direction. I’m still hooked on some of those great old LP’s. I know they’re collector’s items. I’m a huge old-time audio nut.

RK: There’s very little that sounds better, there’s no doubt about it.

TH: Exactly. What’s fun is to pit the best of the old against the best of the new. The best of the old always wins. The most extraordinary experience I’ve ever had in my life was with a fantastic 4-track stereo, with a reel-to-reel tape of some of those Chicago Symphony performances that then came out on living stereo. To hear them on 4-track tape, reel-to-reel tape — I think London put them out then — was unbelievable. You really heard the third cellist sniffling because he had a cold. They created an incredible stereo picture with that huge boom mike on top of the conductor — back when the conductors had to know something about balance.

RK: Well, those Mercury recordings, some of them, let’s say Kubelik and the Chicago Symphony, are absolutely remarkable. They are just now getting re-released on CD. This is what people continue to hope that the digital medium will become, something closer to the analog medium. But again, yesterday there was another article in The New York Times — it may have been the same article we were talking about earlier — that talked about the Lincoln Center Library removing its LP collection because things are now on CD.

TH: I think that’s a huge mistake. It’s not even a matter of the hiss; because most people don’t hear it. It’s just that a lot of people don’t think it’s valuable to hear the air of the hall. And that’s exactly what I want to hear; that’s what’s exciting to me! It’s kind of like what Mahler said about music. He said most of what music has to do with is not in the notes, and I just find that so absolutely revelatory.

RK: Unfortunately it’s something that many people are confused about.

TH: But I think we’re living in a time of a — God forbid the phrase — new age consciousness, because every generation is itself an inherently new age. I mean, I do happen to be very esoterically inclined, but I think there probably is a new age. I don’t know if you read the book Generations, but it discusses an interesting paradigm that comes back every few hundred years. We are now coming to a search for depth and context, a sort of “where’s the meat” attitude, that is splashing into the arts, and is certainly splashing into American music. I think we’re on the brink of some really interesting developments. All the horrifying numbers are pointing to something else we haven’t quite figured out yet.

RK: Yes, it’s hard to see what’s coming, but there are interesting things developing. How do you feel the new technologies will alter the way music is created, performed, and accessed?

TH: Well, I think this is an interesting take, because your question is actually more about how technology has affected the way that music is performed. And certainly technology, especially in the recording industry, has always been the saving grace of numbers. I mean, let’s not forget that the LP marketed in the 1970s, or actually the early 1980s, was just about to become extinct. There were huge problems, and then, all of a sudden, here came this digital process with these little silver disks, and of course, it was amazing. It made everybody’s systems sound fantastic. But as to how it has affected the creation of music, you would have thought that it would’ve given birth to more composers, because records theoretically should’ve become more ubiquitous. What is curious is that what the digital process and CDs have actually done is opened up the archives. A lot of things were simply not “hearable” anymore. There were radio programs and LP’s that would never have been listened to which suddenly turned into this great phenomenon of “never released, never heard before recordings from some Tuesday in 1944.” And that’s exciting.

Somehow, I feel that this, too, is part of this paradigm shift that I’m talking about. We’ve got to hook up all of these things to make them useful, not detrimental. In terms of record sales, why should Abaddo with a new Beethoven necessarily be a competition to Furtwängler or Mengelberg. It should be instead an extension, a dialogue. But criticism is still caught up in marketing and still caught up with, “What’s the best Beethoven cycle?” Part of the reason that they do that is to sell donuts, and another part is because nobody is really concentrating on what Beethoven was doing. They are instead concentrating on the performance of Beethoven. Again, it comes back to the question of what relevance Beethoven has for me in 1997, and we’ve got to shift that the other way around.

Technology should’ve had a liberating effect on composers, as well, but the problem with technology is that we’re still somewhat captivated by the event of the production, rather than what’s being produced. Then it’s back to the mentality of “the first performance of something in New York is not going to be interesting in Los Angeles,” because, God forbid, its already had it’s first performance in New York.

It seems that the new technologies have had an influence on electronic music, though I don’t know anything about it. I’m not particularly a friend of synthesizers. For me, electronic music is, for the most part, too accurate. I really like the plus-minus quotient of any note that’s being played. The electronic reproduction of music, either visually and aurally or just aurally, is something that cannot be underestimated. We will have to see.

The Internet and also Internet broadcasts with FM broadcasting are going to have a huge effect, no doubt, and probably a positive one. It’s most likely going to first have an amazing effect on licensing. What it also might very well do is reinvigorate radio across the country, which I think is vastly needed.

RK: Well, yes, a different form.

TH: Exactly. And then you also have something that’s a bit more ubiquitous, and I think that the more ubiquity you have, the greater the listening experience, which in turn, fortifies new composers.

5. The Internet: A Launching Pad for New Music

RK: I’ve been toying with the idea of launching a competition of music written for the Internet. I’ve mentioned it to people and they’ve said, “Well, what exactly does that mean?”

TH: My thoughts exactly.

RK: “What exactly does that mean?” Well, the funny thing is, I’m not sure. And maybe that’s good. Some of the bandwidth issues will begin to be solved so that we’ll be able to access more music in shorter amounts of time. Then all sorts of things will come into play. You’ll be able to access video and audio. There’ll be texts. Who knows what will come down the pike. And my feeling is that I’d like to sort of put this competition out there and leave it open. We would certainly work with some of the technology corporations, and see what composers would come up with. Who knows what it might mean. I don’t know whether we’ll move on this sooner or later, but I’ve been thinking that this is the vanguard of a new era. People will start to access music through their computer and their television, and will begin to create new sounds and merge text and audio and visual elements in ways that might never have been done before.

TH: Well, this is more down my path. To me, the big challenge is actually in reinvigorating what already exists. I’m not sure we need to create a new music, but reinvigorating the catalogue can be done simply through the Internet, with its immediate accessibility of audiovisual material, which connects the dots for people. This is really exciting that you’re able to do what you’re doing on the net; that there’s a whole new kind of cyber world out there. It’s amazing to be able to turn on a new television set and be able to pull up immediate screen information about what you’re listening to and why you’re listening to it. It all has a “connectibility.” You might even be able to also simultaneously pull up some sort of connective visual art, adding another element to the imaginative process. Although it sounds like bells and whistles, it actually could become a more integral renaissance experience. It’s what concert life should be about. It should be tied to any community’s basic connection to their museums and their symphonies. I find this very exciting.

And bandwidth is one thing, but quite frankly all of this can’t happen until we get enough support going from FM stations. I live at the Essex House and I have said to them, “Why can’t you people put together cable radio? When I turn on classical radio and walk around my room, putting my clothes away, why must the signal migrate? What am I supposed to do? Wear an aluminum hat so this doesn’t happen?” It’s absurd! And they agreed. Of course they need to do that, but it’s simply not a priority for them. They said that cost is the first problem since most people don’t even listen to the radio. Look at New York! We’ve got two stations, at best; actually, more like one and a half! What we’re talking about here, of course, when we talk about repertoire, is programming, accessibility, and ubiquity. And so, we’re obviously talking about programmers and radio stations who are just scared to death of anything but Vivaldi‘s Four Seasons. It would be interesting to do a study of some of the major classisal stations-simply to know how many of the symphonies of Mozart or the songs of Schubert they have actually ever played. I understand exactly the mentality and the problems involved; I’m just saying this is the challenge for me.

RK: For years, I have been involved in classical music. But, today I turn on the classical radio stations and recognize few of the pieces! I often marvel at that.

TH: Scary.

RK: They find the most banal pieces, the things that are really nothing but wallpaper music, because that music might be played in a restaurant as background music, or at a party. As a sort of extension of this subject, Marilyn Bergman is going to do a column for us. During a recent discussion about the nature of her column for In The First Person, she talked about living in an era where people are not hearing as wide a range of music as they did in previous times. Not too long ago, you might have been riding in a car and you’d turn the dial and come across all sorts of musical styles. And, all of a sudden, you might hit on a sound that you’d never heard before and discover something new. And who knows where that might lead you. But in this day and age, she talked about people having their radio stations preset for a lifetime, thus limiting or eliminating their musical discoveries.

TH: Oh, sure. Environmental control.

RK: She also wanted to write about what that means in terms of people perhaps going through a lifetime and never hearing Mozart. That returns to the issue of arts education and the vital importance of being exposed to and participating in many different forms of music, art, and literature.

6. Mentors and Collaborators

TH: Well, along these lines, if you want a great reinforcement to your argument about carrying forth traditions and yet going into the future, I wanted to ask if you’ve been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and been through the Degas collection.

RK: Yes, I have.

TH: The great artist is contemporary, yet also incorporates aspects of his great mentors. We tend to think that everybody lives in isolation, and should live in isolation. There’s an absolutely ridiculous notion in voice pedagogy that you shouldn’t listen to recordings of singers because, God forbid, you might imitate them! But this isn’t a joke; it’s the prevalent attitude of probably 80% of the voice teachers across the country. I’m about to write a huge scathing letter to the National Association of Teachers of Singing because I finally realize that this attitude is more pervasive than I thought it was. I thought it was just a couple of low-sided individuals, but apparently it’s just become a standard attitude. Have you ever heard of anything so absurd in your life?

RK: Many instrumental teachers deal with music and technique in way that is rigidly separate. They wouldn’t necessarily use a Bach piece to teach both technique and music. Some teachers don’t see technique for what it really is, nothing but a means to an end, the end being the music.

TH: These are the same people that don’t understand that, as fascinating as a triad in its manipulations can be, there’s always a bigger purpose for which a triad exists. And if you can’t play a triad properly, or understand it, then you probably won’t ever get to why it exists. And it’s the same thing with singing. Everybody wants to learn how to sing but why do you want to learn how to sing? What are you trying to say? “Well, uh…whatever I’m being paid for.” It’s crazy.

RK: Well, especially with young kids, children left to their own devices will create music spontaneously. They just start singing.

TH: Yes. People like Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin just fascinate me. I wish I had their kind of talent. I just marvel at what they can bring out of somebody, all of us actually, to help us realize what innate creative spirits we have.

RK: Last week, you premiered Elegies by Richard Danielpour. What was it like to work on that brand new song cycle?

TH: Well, I’ve had the privilege, at least four or five times, of being involved with composers as they’re writing something. It’s always illuminating to hear how different people hear music; to hear how the creator hears his own music. And, sort of an extension of that is working with people like Berio or Bernstein, who have such huge intellects. Especially someone like Berio, who, I think, actually sometimes hears the music as a composer and as a musician in his head — both subjectively in his imagination and objectively as far as what’s happening around him. This has a huge influence on him as a conductor, of course. It’s a fascinating process.

Also, to be around people like Stephen Paulus or Conrad Susa is inspiring. Conrad Susa’s operatic performances are especially fascinating because they really make you think about what it must’ve been like back then. Some of these guys were working with Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Verdi recording their works, and you realize what a fluid process it is. The longer something lives, the more importance it takes on — I mean, Mozart operas become something tantamount to the Bible or the Koran. God forbid you should manupulate an eighth note. Of course, now we have schools of thought on how eighth notes of Mozart should be pronounced versus eight notes of sombody else’s.

It seems to me, though, that the disciples of the prophets tend to screw things up a bit. Any creative intellect is essentially some kind of prophet, and it’s always the fluidity and the compromise, the accessibility and the functionality of their creation that seems to preoccupy them more than anything else. The creativity always seems to be part of the process of expression. And as that piece endures, it becomes more a part of the performance tradition, and the expression becomes something that is in juxtaposition to the last expression of that piece. But the first couple of times out, it’s whether or not you actually are playing the piece correctly; you’re simply trying to play what is written.

The process of working with a composer seems to be infinitely more flexible, more filled with dialogue, more loving, more interesting, than what we often do to pieces that are twenty-five years old or a hundred and fifty years old, where it’s more a matter of what school or style the piece belongs to. So, in working with Richard Danielpour, I saw some of the articulation of text and discovered what he was really after. It’s very frustrating for these guys; in fact, I can’t imagine anything worse. Can you imagine trying to articulate what these guys want to say about human experience with a bunch of sticks and dots inside of a bunch of lines? It’s absurd. And that’s why somebody like Mahler says, “Look, folks, it’s about what’s between the notes. That’s what’s interesting in music.”

It was interesting to have conversations with Richard about how I articulate text and use words, and especially the way I feel about language. A lot of our words are more beautiful than we give them credit for. And Richard actually changed some of the notation based upon that, not very much, but some. And that kind of creative dialogue, the flexibility of the search for expression is what rings my chime; is what’s so wonderful about working with contemporary composers.

RK: That’s a beautiful statement, really. I was at the opening night of the The Rake’s Progress, I remember you were also there. I was startled by the performance, it seemed so new and fresh. It seemed like a world premiere, as if it had just been written. I enjoyed it very much.

TH: I did too. I actually felt kind of the same way. Julius Rudel was sitting with me, and I said to him, “Why isn’t this better known?” Well, I know why it’s not better known, but it just seemed to be infinitely more accessible than it used to be. I think the problem has always been the book. As fascinating as it often is, there are some real stretches of the imagination, and some philosophical subjects that just don’t live innately in the piece. You have to know what he’s trying to say, and then see it in a metaphorical context on the stage. And that always involves more work than most opera audiences are willing to do.

RK: Without a doubt.

TH: So they always sort of giggle at the bread machine and chortle at the beard, you know. I thought John Miller’s production was fantastic. The asylum set was like a Hogarth painting come to life — it just drove me nuts.

7. The Sound of Music: Environmental Control and Toys

RK: What are you listening to today?

TH: Well, if I turn on the radio at the Essex House, I listen to whatever’s on. At night I like to listen to jazz. I probably won’t listen to radio performances of operas or symphonies. I tend to be more of an environmental control person in my apartment, meaning that I have CD’s around me all the time. And other than either searching for program ideas or “awaring” myself to a possibility, I don’t listen to very much vocal music. I tend to listen to, in the classical field, probably more piano music than anything. I’m a huge piano freak and have my favorite pianists. I’m wild about Friedrich Gulda which might seem to be a contradiction since I also think that Alfred Brendel is pretty amazing, and of course, the two hate each other.

RK: What stereo equipment are you using?

TH: It’s all very high-end. I’m using a Threshold ClassA pre-amp and amp, Vienna Acoustic speakers, Meridian CD player that is from Great Britian and a SME30 turntable also from Great Britain. What equipment are you using?

RK: Well, I don’t have a turntable. I’ve got a pair of speakers that you can’t buy anymore, called vortex screens that Albert Von Schweikert designed. He now has a new company company, and is hugely successful. I bought directly from him; I think he built them in his garage!

TH: Are these the panels, the tall panels?

RK: No, they’re big boxes — just big dynamic speakers. But they were a great bargain at the time and one of my first big purchases in the audio world. I’m also running a McCormick DNA-1 amp, and a McCormick TLC passive pre-amp. And I’ve got the Parasound DAC2000 — top of the line D/A converter, and the PS Audio Lambda CD transport. That’s the whole thing.

TH: That’s some pretty serious equipment.

RK: It’s nice, considering that when I was younger and couldn’t even afford a boom box. I had to sneak time on my roommate’s equipment!

TH: Well, we certainly support the old theorem: the only difference between men and boys is the cost of their toys.

RK: Absolutely. Well, I really do want to thank you. This has been an absolute pleasure!

TH: We certainly touched on so many subjects. What you’re doing is great and I hope I can help.

RK: Well, you already have. Thank you!

Steve Reich in Conversation with Richard Kessler

[Ed. note: This conversation between Steve Reich and Richard Kessler, then the Executive Director of the American Music Center, was originally published on the American Music Center’s website on July 1, 1998. It was the first of a series of interviews entitled “Music In The First Person” published in the year before the launch of NewMusicBox on May 1, 1999. “In The First Person” served as the model for one of the primary components of NewMusicBox which still continues on the site as “Cover.”]

1. Starting Out

RICHARD KESSLER: How do you feel the music business has changed over the last thirty years?

STEVE REICH: Well, thirty years ago I had just returned to New York City from San Francisco. Basically, John Cage was the most important thing in town; Morton Feldman was active; The younger people were James Tenney and Phil Corner and Malcolm Goldstein, and Charles Wuorinen. At that time, the American composers were either under the “downtown” influence of John Cage or the “uptown” influence of Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio and company. But the sad fact is that musically, everybody was under the influence of music that was not “pulsitile,” [not with a regular beat]. You can’t tap your foot to either Boulez or John Cage, nor could you know where you were tonally. The idea of cadence, any sense of tonal center, melody in any sense of the word — including even some Schoenberg — was pretty hard to put your ear on. So I felt sort of out of it and very much alone.

I had contact with Terry Riley, and LaMonte Young was active, but we weren’t very close at that time. So, there was precious little outside of the individual musicians that I worked with at that time. Arthur Murphy, the pianist and composer out of Juilliard, and Jon Gibson, the reed player (now playing with Philip Glass) who had played with me and Terry Riley back in San Francisco in the early sixties, [were active]. That was really my musical universe. I was working on getting the finished form of “Piano Phase”. I’d done the (tape) piece, “Its Gonna Rain,” out in San Francisco and then had come back [to New York].

I was really just getting my own music together for the first time, and it was very exciting. It was a given that I wasn’t going to get a call from anyone at Carnegie Hall or any other institution asking me to come and perform, so fortunately I began to know some painters and sculptors who later became known as “minimal” artists; people like Sol LeWitt and Robert Smithson, who I didn’t know that well, but who was part of that. Paula Cooper was running The Park Place Gallery, and some artists there invited me to give a concert, first in ’66 with the tape pieces and then again in ’67. I remember the Park Place Gallery concerts were a big success and people like Robert Rauschenberg came. A lot of people that were bound up in the Judson scene were there — painters, sculptors, filmmakers, choreographers. But I can’t think of any composers who were, except Phil Corner and James Tenney who were playing.

At that point I was acquiring an audience, basically of artists. In the long run that’s a good way to begin. I would say this to other composers: if you’re 25, and some dancer is 25, and some filmmaker is 25, or some video artist or painter or sculptor is 25, in some ways you’re going to be “swimming in the same soup” by being contemporary. And I think it’s a good, healthy thing — especially as you’re getting started. By all means, go to galleries; go to dance concerts and so on, as a social activity and as an artistic activity, because there’s no formula for what is going to give you understanding of the culture around you. Those artists are where you’re going to get the clearest messages that to with something inside of you, because you’re all alive at the same time, you’ve gone through the same experiences, you’re a part of the same generation in the same country.

To make a long story short, painters and sculptors helped me get gigs. Sol LeWitt bought a score of four organs and some other scores. I used that money to buy the Glockenspiels for “Drumming.” Bruce Nauman helped me get a concert at the Whitney. Richard Sierra helped with that concert and one at the Guggenheim. Michael Snow, the filmmaker, was part of that whole group. This was an exciting and very stimulating situation.

I think painters and sculptors react to music, more naively, in a sense, because their politics are a lot different from our politics. It’s very hard for one composer to listen to another composer without somehow bringing his own mind-set to the music he’s listening to. It’s not that it’s impossible. And that’s only natural, whereas someone in another art field is going to listen to it very naively, in a sense (you hope), and that’s a worthwhile, unbiased opinion. Ultimately, it’s a naive opinion that rules the roost. Stravinsky used to say that if the audience’s reaction was positive, he knew that that’s okay. We’re not so stupid after all!

Now, the most significant difference [in the past thirty years], and I see this in music schools here or in Europe, is that when I went to school there was one way of writing music that was discussed; today, you can write like Mahler and you can say “I’m like David Del Tredici” or John Corigliano or even John Adams for that matter, or you can write like me and Glass and other people, and you can write even rock and roll or techno. All of these things, and others, and the gradations between them are “grist for the mill,” and fairly so. Whether that’s better or worse, who’s to say? But it’s vastly different.

I also think that in the late fifties and early sixties the ambition of becoming a composer clearly lacked any economic expectations. When I decided to become a composer, I expected to have a hard time financially, and even when I got my MA, I felt that I didn’t want to teach, but that I had to have that insurance policy. If I didn’t survive [as a composer], I would fall back on teaching. In those days an MA was significant . Now you have to get a Doctorate! Fortunately, I was able to do part time jobs.

RK: You drove a cab?

SR: Well, yes I drove a cab in San Francisco, and in New York I worked as a part-time social worker. Phil Glass and I had a moving company for a short period of time. I did all kinds of odd jobs: I taught briefly at the New School and the School of Visual Arts but by 1972 I started making a living as a performer in my own ensemble. I would never have thought that it was how I was going to survive financially. It was a complete wonder.

If I had to give any advice to composers, I would say be involved in the performance of your own music, whether you’re a conductor conducting, or whether you are a musician playing. Or, if you’re not talented enough to do either, program a drum machine, or run the amplification board (which I do and which I’ve written myself out of). Just being involved with the performance of your own music will guarantee, insofar as you can guarantee it, that you’re getting the kind of performances that you don’t have to constantly apologize for when you give your friends the tape. And the more you’re involved in it, the better the performances are, the more reflective they are of what you had in mind, and the more likely they are to convey your musical ideas to other people.

2. Audiences

RK: You started talking about the art world, and what I’ve always noticed is that going to a concert of yours over the years, or, let’s say, to Phil Glass’s 30th Anniversary Concert a couple of weeks ago at Avery Fischer-you see a very different audience than you would for, say, the Vienna Philharmonic, or even the San Francisco Symphony playing new music. A very, very different audience. And that audience to me looks like it’s more connected with the art world: younger people who undoubtedly go to the Guggenheim and who go to the Whitney.

SR: Is the audience so typical to “pigeon-hole”? There are professors and there are students.

RK: But one thing’s for sure: as a group, they’re younger.

SR: Yes. with no doubt, and I’m delighted to see this.

RK: What do you think about this?

SR: I think it’s great but everyone has to write music that, in a sense, is who they are. If they try to do it otherwise, then in the long or the short run they will fail. I could mention names, but I won’t. But there are composers who adopt the “style-of-the-month” (and we know who they are and we could even run down the months and the different styles!) and everyone says “Oh, now he/she is doing this. Tuesday, minimalism…” The bottom line is that it doesn’t work! It doesn’t work because whatever it is that people have inside of themselves that’s really joined to some emotional and intellectual perspective on music — that’s what people want. They want the real you and they know when you’re not giving it. How? I don’t know how it works, but it works.

3. Orchestras and Acoustics

RK: But why would a younger crowd go to hear your music and not necessarily go to hear the London Symphony performing…

SR: My music!

RK: That’s very true.

SR: Well, I think, for my money, The London Symphony Orchestra is the best orchestra around for the music I write. But I’ve stopped writing for the orchestra in 1987 when I was writing the “Four Sections,” which I think is a reasonably successful piece for orchestra. At that time, I realized a number of things. Number one: the orchestra is not my orchestra in a purely acoustical, musical sense. The basic idea of the orchestra is that you will get more volume by doubling, and we’ll make balances between the brass, which are naturally loud, the woodwinds, which are reasonably loud, and the strings, which aren’t, by simply doubling the same parts. So when the little girl says to Mom, “Why are all these people playing the same line?” the answer is “to make it louder.”

Well, there is a price to pay for that, and it is the rhythmic agility: everyone is slightly sharp or slightly flat, because they’re human beings, and the note is literally fatter. If you put it on an oscilloscope you’d see, well, it’s wider. And you feel that. The sound of a string section is drastically different from the sound of a solo violin. I began to realize that what I’d been doing over the years was simply to use the microphone to make balances, not to make the music louder, but so that I could have a singer who’s singing in an early music style or a pop style, which is basically small voice, no vibrato, to be heard over percussion and keyboards). Well, when you amplify, it’s very simple.

But in that simple little fact, what you’re doing is turning over the history of the orchestra: The orchestra begins roughly around the time of Haydn. There are thirty-five or forty musicians, then the clarinets come in, and then Beethoven puts in the trombones, so you’ve got to have more strings to balance that off. Then comes Wagner and huge brass, expanded winds to balance that and then it stops. And basically the Wagner orchestra, the eighteen firsts and sixteen seconds and so on, is still with us. It made perfectly good sense for Haydn to have what he had. It made perfectly good sense for Beethoven to have what he had. And it made perfectly good sense for Wagner to have what he had. But once the microphone was invented, there was a complete other possibility: you could either use an acoustical organization created for an acoustical reality, and if you want it louder, you have more people doing it, [or you can amplify].

The invention of the microphone introduced new possibilities. Besides, I’m sixty-one years old; I grew up listening to more recorded music than I did live music (and I dare say I was the first of a generation where almost all the composers after me would have that precise experience). I realized I was used to the sound of music coming out of a loudspeaker. Now, everyone is quick to tell you that there’s a lot wrong with that, but there are a lot of things that are very interesting, as well: the little details of execution; the slide on the string; the sound of the resin on the bow. The little intimate details of the performance come to us because the microphone is very close to the player. So you create the possibility for a great deal of detail, if you keep the texture clear enough, where that stuff is giving you little bits of energy, if you like. You hear every bow stroke; you hear the articulation in the clarinet reed, etc., and you don’t think about that but it gets to you. So when you use amplification, it just becomes a reality of the performance.

And if you take the same piece, like “Tehillim” which was done by my group with solo strings amplified and then Mehta did it with twelve firsts (violins), it still feels like “what’s this big, heavy thing that we’re trying to pull along with this small ensemble inside of it.” And that’s partly my own fault too, for going for the glory of the New York Philharmonic and realizing that it was subverting the music. It took most of the eighties for me to become clear with that because back then my own ensemble had gotten larger after “Music for Eighteen Musicians,” and I was thinking: “Well, this is ridiculous. I can’t travel around the world with an orchestra or anything like that. If I want to write for the orchestra, write for the orchestra.” I was thinking: “Oh, three oboes interlocking and three clarinets interlocking and three strings” — but each of the three strings was eight people. So “The Desert Music” was to me the most successful piece I did that way. The string orchestra is divided in three and the percussion goes in the center, right in front of the composer, or right in front of the conductor (that’s a slip!). Right in front of the conductor, in a piece where the ictus, the beat, is going all the time. If the strings around the percussion can hear it, then it’s fine. If you put the percussion sixty feet away from the conductor in the back of the hall, and the strings are sitting right next to the conductor, he’s beating what the percussionist is playing but the 60-foot delay in the sound causes the whole orchestra to not be together. It’s impossible. So I rearranged the orchestra this way. The result: well, if you have an enormous amount of rehearsal, you can get a reasonably good result, but it guarantees that no one is ever going to play the piece because they’ve got to completely re-seat the orchestra; they’ve got all the electronic paraphernalia; they’d take one look and say “Well, what else have you got?” So I began to realize that my musical acoustical difficulties were also intimately tied with the sociology and practical realities of stagecraft. Also, if you introduce electronics, they might do it once, on commission, and then you can kiss it good-bye. Then I began to realize that my orchestra is my ensemble and there are all these wonderful European ensembles like it, such as the Ensemble Modern, London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Schoenberg Ensemble, Klang Forum Wien, Ictus Ensemble, Avanti Ensemble, and they’re growing like mushrooms all over Europe.

RK: What are your thoughts about the orchestral repertoire issue? The orchestra industry is certainly of — or will be of-importance to our readers. The orchestra industry is facing many challenges: for all intents and purposes, the repertoire stopped expanding in the fifties. There are a small number of works that have entered the core repertoire in the past 30 years. There are many people in the industry wondering what to do about aging audiences, a repertoire that isn’t growing, and composers like you, who aren’t interested in writing for it the medium. What do you make of all this? You talked a little about the social and cultural context earlier…

SR: I feel that the orchestra is no more important and is just another variation on promusica antiqua. It’s very important that early music, like Perotin, be heard. For me it’s just as important that Perotin be heard as it is that Mozart be heard. As a matter of fact, I personally would much rather hear Perotin than Mozart. But whether you like it or not, these guys are both very, very important composers in their age. They were the top of their historical period. Why should we hear more Brahms than Josquin? Because there’s an organization that plays it that’s absorbing so much money. But if you were to just weigh it on the musical scales, you’d say “Well, it depends on your stylistic preference, but this is great music and that’s great music.” My feeling is, and I know there are others who’ve voiced similar ideas, that it would be interesting if there were fewer orchestras, and other musicians would simply go and form whatever kind of groups they want to form. Those orchestras would be larger and encompass all the history of western music. For example: you’d have a group of about 120 musicians that would include a baroque and early music group directed by music director A, who is not an orchestral romantic specialist. Then you would have the large romantic orchestra, with a few gambists from the early music group who might want to sit in the cello section — that would have one of the name conductors in the classical and romantic field. Then you’d have a new music ensemble with a separate music director, another one of the conductors who we could name, with somewhere between fifteen and forty people, again including some crossover from the early music group and from the other orchestra; This sort of large center, sort of like a medical center, would be able to tour. These three major groups would have a couple of venues: a large two-thousand-seater, and a one-thousand-seater, and would employ 120 or more musicians. They would pool their advertising muscle and their appeal to a much wider musical taste.

We’re now seeing pop record departments selling medieval music — how about that! Who would’ve thought that Gregorian chant was going to be a hot numero in any form! Well, live and learn. I think that’s great. No matter how you look at it, I think it would be a very interesting way to go. If you had a regular opportunity to do Gabrieli and also do some Wagner, what’s wrong? And you could go out in different groups. Everything that players in orchestras complain about, the routine and repetitions, wouldn’t be completely solved, but the people who want to change that would have the possibility in the extended repertoire, the extended number of chamber-sized ensembles that were under one aegis.

One of the most wonderful orchestral events I’ve ever been to was one Michael Tilson Thomas did in June of 1996, where he had a festival including The Grateful Dead (sans Jerry Garcia). On the greatest day, I did “Clapping Music” with one of the percussionists out there and Meredith Monk sang; they did Lou Harrison‘s organ concerto; they did an improvisation on Henry Cowell‘s “Tone Cluster” with Michael Tilson Thomas and members of The Grateful Dead, and half the audience was “deadheads” who were dead quiet and listening to everything, really getting off on it. The orchestra itself never came out and appeared as an orchestra, but all these ensembles were right there. This is what every orchestra has within itself, but somehow it can never find the scheduling and the marketing expertise to present itself that way. Anyway, it’s certainly possible and perhaps it will happen.

Personally, I don’t go to orchestral concerts. I don’t listen to that repertoire — I say it over and over again. Back in 1955, when I studied music history at Cornell University with William Austin, he taught it like this: He started with Gregorian chant, we went up to the death of Bach and Handel in 1750, and jumped to Debussy, Duke Ellington, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Charlie Parker, Bartók, the works. And then we went back in the Spring semester and we did Haydn to Wagner. He used to say that he saw a continuity in the back-to-Bach of Stravinsky and the whole neoclassicism of the earlier part of the twentieth century, and an awareness of earlier music in the fifties. Beginning with the Swingle Singers, there was a neo-baroque revival — a sensitivity to the authentic instrumentation that began then. There was something in the Zeitgeist that people were saying “We’re really tuned in to hearing early music.” Alfred Deller was the first counter-tenor to appear at that time. I loved Ella Fitzgerald and I loved Joan Baez and I loved Alfred Deller and I loved Glenn Gould. So what else is new? That was one mentality, and the other mentality was the growth of German classicism and romanticism. And I think there’s a certain truth to that. The sonata allegro form appears really in the classical period: sonatas are not the same sonatas in the baroque period, so the kind of discursive, developmental thinking that goes on from 1750 anywhere on up to Schoenberg is really a body of thinking quite different from what preceded it, and in a sense, from what followed it.

RK: I thought it was interesting reading other interviews you gave, where you were talking about the French impressionists, Debussy, also talking about Stravinsky, also taking about Charlie Parker.

SR: Right. That’s a communality right there.

RK: And the Parker connection, Parker studied Stravinsky and the French impressionists.

SR: Well, you can hear it. When I was a kid, I realized later, you could go into an elevator and you’d hear something that was sort of a rip-off of Ravel, you know? And you’d hear it in the movies. [Sometimes I hear] really great music like Parker and Miles Davis and realize, well, that dominant 11th with the tonic on top of it that I used in ‘Four Organs,’ is in Thelonious Monk and it’s in Debussy, too. It was a way of loosening up tonality without leading to complete chromaticism. It seems to me there’s a fork in the road: this way Wagner, that way Debussy. And I think that most Americans, consciously or unconsciously, have traveled one of these “roads (for example, Aaron Copland). It’s like saying “I want to stretch tonality but I’m not getting rid of it.” Of course, there are the Americans who did follow the German direction (Charles Ives is probably an exception, because you could probably argue that he was closer to the German tradition than not. But he is an odd case).

RK: Yeah, he sounds very German, particularly in, say, his Second Symphony.

SR: But, nevertheless, what we love about Ives, the quoting of the hymn tunes, the polytonality which is really not at all those techniques.

RK: And he struggled with it.

SR: Yeah, I think he did but I think that most of the other people didn’t, like Gershwin and Copland. If you take a look at “minimal” music — referring to Ravel in particular, you’ll see a lot of repeated material in the middle register with a different bass. It’s just modally re-harmonized. Well, you know, welcome to the club, man, just an offshoot of French impressionism!

RK: Do you still feel indifferent towards Mahler?

SR: Yeah, well, I don’t feel indifferent to him — I really have a hard time, I really want to turn the radio station off and leave the room or not go to the concert. It’s not just Mahler, I’m not interested in Brahms, either. There are pieces of Beethoven’s I really love.

RK: It’s a language that doesn’t speak to you?

SR: Basically, what happens, if you look in simple terms — Haydn has a regularity of beat, and a very clear triadic texture, with a few seasonings here and there, but as the music, particularly after Beethoven, gets more and more chromatic, it also gets less and less rhythmic. The two go together until the rhythm becomes gesture, and therefore the conductor becomes of paramount importance, (which is why in the nineteenth century the conductor became such a colossus). It’s hard to think of a Haydn conductor. With Haydn as your war horse, you don’t go very far! When the gesture of the music rather that its ictus became the dominant thing, you see this floating tonality which reaches its apotheosis somewhere between the end of Wagner and the beginning of Schoenberg.

RK: It’s interesting that Bernstein was a great conductor of Haydn.

SR: Well, I like Haydn. I like Haydn more than Mozart, but what can I say?

4. Music as Language

RK: Would you describe music as a language that requires study or experience in order to decode, in order to enjoy? One person sits down and listens to a slow movement of Bach and finds it to be extraordinarily beautiful and another person sits down and listens to it and hears nothing! Is it a language issue? Is it just a matter of what strikes you?

SR: Well, you’re asking a question that I don’t think anyone has answered satisfactorily since the dawn of…

RK: So then it’s a good question?

SR: It’s a good question. But you know that I’m not going to have an answer. When I was first giving concerts in Germany in the early to middle seventies, people attacked music as mechanical and said it didn’t have a language, in a sense of a discursive language. I remember a letter I wrote to this guy in Stuttgart about it. I said that I don’t think that (Beethoven’s 5th motive) “da da da daaa” is fate knocking at the door, I think that it’s an incredible four-note motive, that what’s remarkable is that it continues through the scherzo and into the last movement. It’s the motive; it’s not really a melody, it’s a beginning of motivic organization, as opposed to introducing an imaginary text into music, and saying “Well, what does it mean?” The opening motive in the Fifth Symphony is four notes followed by four more. That’s what it means. It doesn’t have a verbal translation. Some people would say that it had a philosophical idea which he then translated into music. I think that’s absurd.

There’s language of music in terms of “Do you have perfect pitch? Can you write down what you hear?” Those are very real skills. You have different degrees of it. I’m very moderately skilled in that direction. I don’t have perfect pitch, and I can write down slowly if it’s easy. That’s why I’ve worked all my life as a composer with real sound. I work with the instrument, and once I knew that Stravinsky composed at the piano I said “Okay, whatever my limits, I don’t have to be completely ashamed!” And therefore orchestration and composition are one and the same thing for me because I’ll just try it on this, try it on that. But certainly someone who has perfect pitch like Arthur Murphy — he literally could go to hear Bill Evans and immediately write what he heard down on the napkin. He had an enormous talent, and some people have this.

Vincent Persichetti, whom I studied with, was one of those musicians who you just felt could do anything. He’d look at your piece and immediately improvise in its style. One would like to think that the greatest composers will always have this. And I think in a sense that’s true. I imagine that Bach must’ve been this way and Beethoven must’ve been this way. But I don’t think Eric Satie was that way, and he made a real contribution. I know I’m not that way and I hope I make some small contribution. At the highest level that’s absolutely true that in terms of people perceiving music, well, musicians do hear more than non-musicians. There’s no question about it. And we know exactly what they hear and some people hear more and some people hear less.

RK: Does it lead to feeling?

SR: Well, we go back to Bach again. I have one book of Bach’s letters, “The Bach Reader,” which is probably one of the most boring books ever compiled on Earth. I love it! “This trumpet player is insufferable. I need more firewood. Can we get a new choir? I need more firewood. We need some more money. That trumpet player…” I enjoy this! This feels autobiographical; I can relate to this! And he said “What’s most important? “Das Effekt,” the effect. Now, if Bach can say that, then we can do no better. I think the effect of music on the human being is the most important thing about music, and the thing that is the most difficult to discuss. I think that at a certain point, while they’re mapping the genome, scientists may very well be able to play a piece of music and find out exactly what’s happening in various people’s hearts or minds. Also, there are people who are more sensitive to music and there are people who are less sensitive to music — sometimes it goes with their musicality and sometimes, in a funny way, it doesn’t. So, you’re either musically talented or you’re not. Arthur [Murphy] was very talented in certain ways and then he had certain personal problems which made it impossible for him to function as a musician. Other people, like me, have very minimal talents really, but somehow have an incredible ability to just burn-in, concentration-wise, and do the best with what little they have. It also depends on what you’re doing: I’m not that great a player, so there was no future for me as a performer in music, and some composers I admire are like that. And there are others who are really great musicians — again, people who have been a member of the “style of the month club” — who conduct orchestras and I think have perfect pitch and certainly can write things down rapidly. But they seem like a waste of time.

RK: Another take on the question: can you teach someone to like something?

SR: I don’t think so, no. I think you can teach people in general to understand music better. Copland’s book was a very good book in terms of how to listen to music, how to follow a sonata allegro form. That accomplishes something, but it doesn’t make someone who didn’t like the slow movement in the Bach that you mentioned like it.

5. Music and Technology

RK: How do you feel the new technologies are going to alter the way music is created, performed and accessed?

SR: It’s part of a continuum. First there was the perfection of the organ. And then a vast literature for organ music, then the invention of the piano created a whole new kind of keyboard literature. Electronics have had an enormous effect on popular music, it’s very clear to see. And by now almost every composer I know who’s my age or younger works with a computer in various ways. The possibility of playing back through midi, the possibility of orchestrating with that — I used to play everything on every instrument I was able to or have musicians down and try things out on instruments. Now, I find, with the proper samples of orchestral instruments, that I can actually do solid orchestration by trying it out on midi. My big problem that I could never solve is: does the oboe go over the clarinet or does the clarinet go over the oboe? The answer is “What’s the context?” I used to have a musician, who was a Broadway doubler, play English horn, oboe, all the clarinets, and flutes and we’d just record it multi-track. But now I’ve found that I can in fact go a long way working with some samples that came out of McGill University that are solo instruments well recorded. This is how I did the opening of “City Life”: there’s sort of a poor man’s “Symphony of Winds” in the beginning there. I figured, “If this works out in rehearsal, I’m with this program.” And it did.

RK: It’s very beautiful. It really is.

SR: So, I think the computer makes a difference, but it didn’t make anyone who wasn’t a good composer a good one. People say “Oh, now they’ve got this, they can do so and so.” Yeah, you can now have people churning out a lot of garbage faster and in a prettier looking score. You can definitely produce it quicker, but copy and paste ain’t gonna make you a good composer.

RK: What about the idea of music going directly into the Internet? A composer working in a room with midi or who knows what else, and literally, the performance venue is the Internet itself?

SR: I’m not even on the net because I feel that if I have one more means of communication, I will cease to be a composer and just be corresponding all day. I don’t know, but I think that will absolutely come to pass and would make a profound difference in what we now call the record industry.

6. New Works

RK: What are you currently working on?

SR: I’m working on the next collaboration with Beryl Korot, the video artist, after “The Cave.” And after “The Cave” I did “City Life” and I did “Nagoya Marimbas” and “Proverb.” And now I’m working on a piece called “Three Tales.” Specifically the first act and I’m rather late because of all the time spent with my sixtieth birthday and the 10 CD set and so on and so forth. The “Three Tales” are “Hindenburg,” “Bikini,” and “Dolly,” as in cloned sheep. So it’s a look at technology in the twentieth century from the first third of the century, to the middle of the century to the end.

RK: By “Bikini,” you mean the islands?

SR: I mean Bikini atoll, and the testing of the A-bomb, and maybe the bathing suit, too because it’s named after the island. That’s all anybody knows now. “Oh, you mean underwear.” “No, not entirely.”

RK: It took me a second to get it.

SR: I know. That’s why it’s good. It’s like “Oooh, I see.” Anyway, right now I’m working on “Hindenburg” and it’s quite different than “The Cave.” Musically, it’s different because in “The Cave” and in “Different Trains” I would record interviews with people about the holocaust and about my train trips as a child in the thirties and forties here in the States. And in “The Cave” I asked people about the biblical characters, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael. As these people answered, so I wrote. Their speech melody became, literally, the melody that I wrote. Of course, I chose what I wanted to, but I would never change their speech melody. I felt that, because of the subject matter in “The Cave” being religious subject matter and in the “Different Trains” the piece being an homage to people dead and alive, it just had to be that way. I could pick what I wanted, but I had to leave it the way it was. And I did, and I think it served those pieces very well. In “Hindenburg” and in “Three Tales” in general the basic idea is “Okay, I want to be in three flats. I want to be at quarter note equals 144. And if you’re not there, I’m going to change you”. So, for instance, there’s a very famous radio announcer — when the Hindenburg crashed there was one guy with a microphone: “It flashed and it’s crashing! It’s crashing. Oh, terrible!”

RK: “Oh, the humanity,” was a cry of that radio announcer.

SR: Exactly. He wasn’t speaking in three flats. But I needed him that way! So I made a few little adjustments…The piece opens with a typed out headline in the New York Times: “Hindenberg Burns In Lakehurst Crash, 21 Known Dead Twelve Missing, 64 Escaped.” And then a quote from the German ambassador: ” It could not have been a technical matter.” Which is what the German ambassador said to the New York Times, when asked what had gone wrong.

So, the music is more characteristic of what I do. It sets up a tempo and you get a head of steam going, rhythmically, instead of the constant changes of key, constant changes of tempo in both “Different Trains” and “The Cave.” That’s what I’m working on now. “Hindenburg” is going to be premiered at Spoleto in South Carolina in May 1998, Munich in September 1998, and then it will be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October 1998. The whole three act piece is slated for world premiere in 2001.

RK: This is kind of a weird question but, I figured I’d throw it at you anyway. You’re a giant in new music, there’s no doubt about it. How does it feel? Thirty years ago, you were out there driving a cab and doing social work . Thirty years later…

SR: Well, I feel I’ve been enormously fortunate. I think of Belá Bartók dying penniless in Mt. Sinai hospital. I was fortunate enough to join Boosey & Hawkes when Sylvia Goldstein was still there as their lawyer. And she told me “You know, we sent Bartók a hundred dollars in those days as extra money in the royalties.” And about a month later, they got a check for a hundred dollars back and a letter saying “You’ve made an error.” You hear that and it sends shivers up your spine. We think “Oh, Bart—k, he’s the staple of repertoire,” but he wasn’t in 1945 when he died. I’ve been very fortunate. John Cage was eating mushrooms until he was in his fifties, certainly. I just feel that God has been very good to me, and the musical public and the musical industry have been very, very good to me. I feel enormously fortunate. That’s really all I can say that makes any sense.

RK: I think it’s been music’s fortune.

SR: Thank you.