Category: Conversations

Thea Musgrave: Where The Practicality Comes In

One of the most delightful afternoons I’ve had this year was spent visiting Thea Musgrave in her New York apartment, located in a landmarked building on the Upper West Side. That 1899 edifice, once The Ansonia Hotel and now simply the Ansonia, has counted among its tenants Enrico Caruso, Igor Stravinsky, and Serge Rachmaninoff, as well as Babe Ruth, Theodore Dreiser, and Natalie Portman. Though today the building is one of the city’s most glorious architectural marvels, its history is loaded with some incredibly bizarre stories.  That building’s mix of grandeur and narrative intrigue proved to be a very apt setting for a conversation with this distinguished, soon-to-be nonagenarian composer (“Each birthday, I’m going to take a year off”) who turned out to also be one of the greatest raconteurs I’ve ever encountered.

Musgrave had so many stories to tell: almost flunking out of the University of Edinburgh for writing a too “adventurous piece” which Nadia Boulanger subsequently saw promise in; sharing space with electronic music pioneer Daphne Oram who put “recording equipment in the gent’s bathroom”; having a dream in the 1960s about conducting an orchestra in which members started defying her and playing other music, which ultimately turned into her theatrical Clarinet Concerto; including a huge chorus of local children in the Virginia Opera premiere of A Christmas Chorus to ensure that “the parents will all come so you’ll sell out the house”; and never giving a thought to being a “female composer” until she moved to the United States in the early 1970s and people here made such a fuss about it.

Read on for her further elaborations of each of these experiences and many, many more. Better yet, watch and listen to all the video footage of her we’ve included here, since listening to her reminisce is even more entertaining. However, in addition to how pleasurable it is to listen to her various quips, they are also full of tons of take away value for other composers or, for that matter, anyone else dedicated to an artistic pursuit since at the root of all of Musgrave’s anecdotes is a deep sense of practicality.

“If something sounds very easy and is difficult to play, that’s a no-no,” she remembered telling her students at Queens College. “However, if something sounds very difficult and it’s relatively easy to play, that’s great.  So, go for it.  Don’t write unnecessarily difficult things.”

But that doesn’t mean she believes in avoiding risk-taking.

“Sometimes you have to follow your crazy ideas and just go with it to see what happens,” she acknowledged toward the end of our visit with her.  “I used to say to my students that we all have this critic sitting on our shoulder who’s very fierce and rather nasty.  When you’re beginning a work, you take this person—him, it’s always a he—you take him to the door and you say bye-bye.  I don’t want to see you just now.  So when you have an idea, you say, ‘Well, let’s just put it there. Maybe if I did that, then that would happen.  And on the other hand, if I did this then that could happen.’ You don’t say that’s a stupid idea right off.  You leave it, and you get all these ideas and put them down to be looked at.  And eventually you bring him back in and say, ‘Now help me to evaluate what I’ve got here.’”

October 4, 2017 at 1:00 p.m.
Thea Musgrave in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Video by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  As I was listening again to recordings of many of your compositions and studying your scores over the course of the past few weeks in preparation for our conversation today, I was struck by how open-minded and yet practical your music is.

“Don’t write unnecessarily difficult things.”

Thea Musgrave:  Well, I’m Scottish, so that’s where the practicality comes in.  I always used to say to my students when I taught here at Queens College for CUNY for some 15 years: “If something sounds very easy and is difficult to play, that’s a no-no.  However, if something sounds very difficult and it’s relatively easy to play, that’s great.  So, go for it.  Don’t write unnecessarily difficult things.”  So that’s what I’ve been applying for myself.  I also think that when you write, particularly for an orchestra, orchestras don’t have time to mess around with difficult notations and things that are very unnecessarily complicated.  I like to have my orchestral pieces basically sight-readable by a good professional orchestra.  When you come to the rehearsal, you spend the time on making the phrases flow and getting the balances right so they all know to hear each other.  Good orchestras, they’re smart.  So they know what to listen for and they adjust.  That’s where you should spend the time.  Not working out notation.  However, you can do some exciting new things, which I did for certain reasons, which maybe we’ll come to in a moment.

FJO:  We definitely will.  But before we do, I wonder if you’d agree that part of the practicality of your music stems from the fact that you have not been dogmatically beholden to any of the so-called “isms” that were so pervasive in the 20th century.

TM:  Yes, but I explored them.  There was a period when 12-tone-ism was very powerful and very interesting.  There were a lot of wonderful pieces.  And so I explored that for a while, but it wasn’t for me.  My friend Richard [Rodney] Bennett really lived in that world and did some absolutely fabulous things.  I didn’t stay there, but I think the idea of how it worked has influenced me.

Carlisle Floyd, Thea Musgrave and Richard Rodney Bennett standing together.

Thea Musgrave (center) with Carlisle Floyd (left) and Richard Rodney Bennett (right), date unknown.
(Photo courtesy Thea Musgrave.)

FJO:  You might take some aspects from somewhere. You mentioned 12-tone writing. Electronic music is also something that you’ve explored to your own ends and have done some very interesting things with.

TM:  I didn’t have an electronic studio, so the important thing for me was to meet somebody.  And in London, there was Daphne Oram, who started the BBC Radiophonic Workshop way back when.  She said in the early days she used to have to work at night when the place was basically closed, so she would have the recording equipment in the gent’s bathroom, and then would be running down the corridor with the mic to get the distance effect.  All this, of course, you don’t need now.  But I remember working in her studio, and we had loops hanging up all around. Young people now working in this have no idea what it was like when it was all new.

And when I was studying in Paris in the ‘50s, we talked about musique électronique and musique concrète. Electronic music, which was basically sound waves, was very boring to work with; musique concrète, which was from live sounds—that’s what I liked.  I didn’t like the sine waves; they were not interesting in themselves.  But that was really the beginning of things. When I was a kid, we didn’t have television.  You went to the movies to see what was happening in the war.  You didn’t have television at home, let alone not having internet.  People can’t imagine that now.

I wrote this radio opera called An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, which of course is a well-known story here about the American Civil War by Ambrose Bierce.  And, as I had learned by listening to the radio, wonderful plays were done with incredible sound effects, and sometimes with music. I thought, “Okay, we’ll have music and we’ll also have sound effects in this opera.”  So there’s horses galloping, dogs barking, soldiers marching, and stuff like that.  There were two levels in this opera.  One was a real-life level.  So I had spoken voices of certain characters.  But central characters, like Peyton Farquhar who was an Ambrose Bierce character, could speak as he is in the outside world, but in the internal world he sings and he’s accompanied by a chamber orchestra.  He hears what’s in the outside world, but they don’t hear his comments and feelings.  It was wonderful to work on these two levels.

FJO:  You conceived of it for radio, but has it ever been staged?

TM:  It’s difficult to stage because of what it’s about, but it actually has been done. It’s tricky because of the nature of the story.

FJO:  Before we go into greater detail about some of your other pieces, I’m curious about how you first became exposed to various things that were going on in music during your early years, especially since you mentioned that you learned about things from the radio and news reels about the Second World War that would only be something you’d be able to see in a movie theater. You were already studying music before the war and continued to do so afterwards. The way that history is presented to us now, it’s as if there was a sea change in musical composition right after the war. Of course, Schoenberg and other composers of the Second Viennese School were writing 12-tone music and their work was not completely unknown. After the war, however, there was a real flowering of this music but there also seemed to be much more polarization between composers who embraced that approach and composers who didn’t. The neoclassicists and the serialists seemed to be opposing camps that didn’t speak to each other. And the folks who were creating music using chance procedures were in their own separate camp. Or so the story goes. But I wonder how perceptible those animosities really were to people at the time.

“Here there’s no way you can know everybody; this country is so vast.”

TM:  Well, in Britain, we spoke to each other actually.  And music by chance happened a little later.  I knew most of the composers around in Britain at that time.  I’ve lost touch now because I’ve been here for so long.  Here there’s no way you can know everybody; this country is so vast—there are pockets of composers in Chicago, Boston, New York, Houston, whatever.  I like meeting other composers and comparing notes, as Richard [Bennett] and I did all through our adult lives. It was wonderful to have that kind of exchange, because he was a wonderful musician. Not only did he write 12-tone music when he was writing so-called serious music, but of course he wrote all those fabulous music scores for the movies.

A 1965 photo of Malcolm Williamson, Richard Rodney Bennett, Thea Musgrave, and Peter Maxwell Davies at a cafe; Musgrave and Maxwell Davies are drinking from teacups.

(from left to right) Malcolm Williamson, Richard Rodney Bennett, Thea Musgrave, and Peter Maxwell Davies at London’s Cafe Boulevard on April 9, 1965. (Photo courtesy Thea Musgrave.)

FJO:  When you were growing up in Scotland, how connected was the musical life in Scotland to the rest of the United Kingdom?

TM:  Well, I went to university in Edinburgh and then I went straight to Paris from there.  The auld alliance! I lived in Paris for four years.  It’s not true anymore, but in those days you really had to be in London.  So after Paris, I came back and I settled in London.  Things happened from London, even though there was a BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and so on.  I think most decisions seemed to have happened in London.  So people lived there.  I think it’s different now. People live in different places, and with the internet one can be connected in other ways.

What was wonderful about the BBC Scottish was that it had a policy—and I hope it still exists—of helping young composers learn their craft, because although you can learn a lot in school, then comes the practicality of learning how to write for an orchestra and how an orchestra functions.  And in those days, in the late ‘50s, the assistant conductor was Colin Davis.  So one of my early works was conducted by Colin Davis. He was a clarinet player and was married to a singer in those days, and had just started to conduct. That’s where I began to learn how to work with an orchestra, the BBC Scottish—thank you!

FJO: And the reason you went to Paris before that was to study with Nadia Boulanger.

TM:  That was wonderful!  What’s really funny and I think quite influential for me is when I was at university, Donald Francis Tovey had brought over a composer from Vienna—I think realizing something terrible was about to happen—Hans Gál.  So I was studying composition with him.  I wrote some rather staid pieces, and then I started getting more adventurous. For my degree, I wrote a much more adventurous piece and apparently they nearly failed me.  They passed me because they’d seen the conventional pieces before that.  Now when I went to Boulanger, I showed her the old fashioned pieces, and she sort of looked and said, “Qu’est-que c’est que ça?  And I said, “Well, I do have this.” And I showed her the thing that I had tried to do.  “Ah,” she said.  “I understand.  I see that you have ideas; now we have to learn a little bit of technique.”  She understood that there was something there that could be developed, which they had not seen.

“For my degree, I wrote a much more adventurous piece and apparently they nearly failed me.”

So that’s how it started with her.  She was fabulous.  I really knew her very well, because I was there four years.  I saw her absolutely every single week.  I went for my hour’s lesson, and then at the Conservatoire. Because she was not primarily a composer, though her sister had been, she was not allowed to teach composition.  Can you imagine? And she taught Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, and many, many other people.  So instead, she taught the cours d’accompagnement—piano accompaniment—which turned into a composition class: how to arrange things, doing figured bass, sight reading from a score, and all those sorts of things.  It was not normal piano accompaniment.  And so that was really wonderful.

FJO:  So all these people who studied composition with her were studying privately with her.

TM:  Yes.  They had the option to go to Conservatoire—whether they did or not I have no idea—but she had her classes at home in a great big sitting room with an organ right there and, of course, a piano which is where she sat. And I sat to one side.  Then you could talk about what you’d been working on, and she’d go over it.  What to me is very interesting was I had come from Edinburgh. To me, Donald Francis Tovey is a god and one of the most important people in my musical life, though I never met him.  He died in ’40 and I arrived in ’47.  I studied with his assistant, Mary Grierson.  I did piano with her.  But I think I read absolutely every single word he ever wrote.  So what I learned from him was what he called long-term harmonic planning.  In other words, the overall direction of things are mainly from a harmonic point of view.  Whereas, with Nadia, although of course she knew that, it was much more detailed, how a moment goes to the next.  Those two together is what it takes.

Nadia Boulanger (seated in front of a piano) with a large group of students.

Nadia Boulanger’s 1953 class at the Paris Conservatoire; Thea Musgrave is standing in the back row.

FJO:  So tell me more about that piece that almost got you failed in Scotland that Nadia saw the promise in.

TM:  I have no idea what it is.  I’ve lost it. It was probably terrible, but somehow she saw something.

FJO:  Was it an orchestra piece?

TM:  I absolutely don’t remember.

FJO:  That’s a pity, because it seems like that piece was perhaps the earliest example of that very elusive and perhaps inexplicable phenomenon of you finding your own voice as a composer. How this happens and how to develop it is a very important lesson.

Pencils, a pair of glasses, scissors, a box of tissues and a sheet of music manuscript paper on a desk.

Thea Musgrave’s composing desk.

TM:  I’ll tell you one of the main sources which is, again, very extraordinary.  I always tell my students, “Don’t forget about coincidences.”  In the ‘60s, round about ’64, ’65, a long time ago, I had a dream one night.  I had just started conducting, and in my dream I was conducting an orchestra and suddenly one of the players stood up and defied me.  I tried to go on and couldn’t. Then I suddenly said, “Brass, stand up.  And shut him up.”  I woke up and I burst out laughing.  That night, I went out to dinner with some friends which we’d already arranged and I said, “I had the most hilarious dream.” I told them and we all had a good laugh about it.  I swear to you, the very next morning, a letter arrived in the post from Birmingham, England.  Would I write an orchestra piece for the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra?  So guess what?  I wrote a piece, and halfway through, the clarinet player stands up and does something quite different.  Then he/she gets other people to stand up by suggesting tunes that they might like to play.  There are about five or six players standing up. Finally the conductor gets the brass to their feet, and things are resolved and they sit down.  Some years later that work had its premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Ormandy asked me to conduct.  I said, “Yes, that’s wonderful.  How exciting! I’m honored,” and all those things.  So two hours rehearsal.  I told him, “I can do it in two hours if I have half an hour with six players.”  I arrived that morning and there were the six players sort of saying, “The Philadelphia Orchestra is really good.  We don’t do sectional rehearsals with this orchestra.  What’s this?”  So I said to them, “I’ve asked you to come because you defy the conductor, and you’re independent of the conductor.”  “Oh.”  “I want to explain to you what I’m doing, and how you are doing something slightly different.”  So we went through it all, and they did their bit so that they would see what was happening. I was conducting and they couldn’t hear anything because the orchestra wasn’t there, but when the rest of the orchestra came in, they were all set.

FJO:  Now so when you say they defy the conductor and they asked other players to play tunes they like, is this an indeterminate thing?  Can they play any tune they want?

TM:  No, no.  It’s all worked out.  This is one of the things about being practical.  I arranged a way of doing the score which is not in a tempo.  There are big, big long bars, and I always put a big arrow with a big black center.  And that means the conductor gives the downbeat.  At that point, the players continue to play in the same tempo, but they’re not necessarily together.  So it’s like a cadenza, but several people are playing.  They don’t necessarily match.  And then the conductor or the player can give cues.  If the conductor gives cues, there’s a sort of hollow arrow, so I point there to the horn or here to the cello or here to the brass.  Or whatever.  The part of the soloist—in this case a clarinet—will be written on a separate line.  What they are doing is underneath, but they all see the clarinet and so they know, “Okay, now I switch to this.”  That’s how the score works.

FJO:  But that still means that no two performances are ever going to be exactly the same.

TM:  Right.

FJO:  So in that sense, it is indeterminate music.

“Any live performance is never exactly the same, even if it’s with the same players.”

TM:  Well, any live performance is never exactly the same, even if it’s with the same players.  It’s always a little bit different, thank goodness.  But this reminds me of something.  When I was starting out and was very inexperienced and didn’t quite know how to hear my scores, I was very jealous of painters because a painter finishes his painting and invites friends in to look.  And they all say, “Geez, that’s wonderful.  How nice!”  Well, if I put a score of my music up, who’s going to read it?  Very few people.  Even for musicians, it’s difficult to read an orchestral score.  So I was jealous of painters.  But then I discovered performers.  It’s like writing a play.  You can read a play, but you don’t really know what it sounds like until you have great actors.  They transform it.  And the same with music.  You have great performers.  I’ve been lucky to have worked with some of them.  They transform it, and again, it’s not exactly the same every time. They take a little bit more room around this phrase or, if there’s something a little bit improvised, they might do something a little different.  And so on.  So the performers are intrinsic to the whole thing.

FJO:  Even more than it resembles a play, the Clarinet Concerto is almost like choreography in terms of the way the soloist is required to maneuver from section to section. And I imagine that this is something that gets, at least in part, transformed by the personality of the soloist. The person who premiered it was one of the great performers.

TM:  A wonderful performer, Gervase de Peyer.  The Clarinet Concerto is like a concerto grosso.  There are the tutti sections where everybody is together and then there are solo concertante sections, where Gervase played—here to start with, and then he moved through the violas and second violins over there and played in that section.  So he’s controlling the players in that part of the orchestra by this system of cues.  They follow not because he’s conducting, but by the way he played his cues.  And then there are these black arrows I talked about for the conductor to hold the synchronization points together.  Then there’s another tutti section during which Gervase went over to play with the horns and other clarinets and I forget what else.  Oh yes, I brought in a new instrument.  When I was in Paris, I went to a dance company and I heard an accordion played with a clarinet, and I thought, that’s wonderful.  It blends really well.  So I brought in an accordion.  Then there’s that concertante section and again, another tutti section.  Gervase goes far stage right, this being my left hand, but it’s stage right if you’re looking at the orchestra, playing there with the harp and percussion. I think the flute, even though the flute’s over here, joins in, and then finally comes back to the start.  So he made a circle of the orchestra.

FJO: Another piece of yours which involves spatialization and which was also premiered by a very famous soloist, was your equally fascinating Horn Concerto.

TM:  Oh, Barry Tuckwell.  Gervase de Peyer and Barry were actually both in the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Players at a certain point, even though they both came from London.  Well, Barry comes from Australia, but he was living in London.  It’s really funny.  He was coming back, flying over the Atlantic, and he suddenly thought, “You know, a horn can do quartertones.”  Because of our very strange music system, some of the notes are out of tune.  A G-flat and an F-sharp are different pitches.  When you do it on the piano, of course, you can’t change the pitch. But if you’re a singer or a player, you alter pitch a little bit because of the harmonies.  Pianists can’t.  It’s very interesting if you tune up to a C, in octaves.  You get a C to C.  If you tune up in perfect fifths, and they are true, you arrive at a B-sharp, which is not the same note as a C.  There’s a word for that.  I forget what it is.

FJO:  The Pythagorean comma.

TM:  Whatever, yes.  Anyway, it’s not the same note, and that’s why piano tuners have to tune the fifth a tiny bit flat, so that you have a beat in there of like one nanosecond or something like that.  So horn valves are tuned exactly and they adjust; that’s how you can make a quartertone scale because you’re using these out of tune harmonics.  So in the middle of the concerto to have ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba—twelve notes going down—is totally fabulous.  And I did it in some other places.  Horn players have looked at me and said, “What’s this?  This can’t be done.”  I said, “Well, I hope I got the fingerings right.  They’re actually Barry’s fingerings, so you know, it should be okay.”

FJO:  In addition to those wonderful quartertones, the other really unusual aspect of the piece is that at one point the horn section plays in the audience.

TM:  They go out into the hall, and that’s also funny. It’s halfway though the cadenza. I didn’t write the notes in, I just wrote gestures. And then there are real pitches, then it’s another gesture.  When we did it in the Albert Hall, which is a big hall, Barry disappeared and I thought, “What’s happened?” He came back a little bit out of breath, and I said, “Barry, are you okay?”  He said, “Well, I was just checking how long it would take a horn player from the platform to get out into the back of the hall to the new place where they have to stand.  I can always lengthen those little gestures if I need to, to give the horn players time to get there.”

FJO:  There’s a funny story you mentioned to someone you did an interview with some years ago about how in one of the performances of that piece, the horn players were actually blocking the exits.

TM:  That was in Hong Kong.  I didn’t know about it, but one of the Hong Kong people came to Barry and said, “What happens if the people here don’t like it?”  And Barry said, as quick as a flash, “Well, they may not.  But there’s a horn player guarding every exit so they can’t get out.”  I love that.  He didn’t tell me.  I heard about it years later.

FJO:  Now, one thing about all this that I have to confess is that although I know both of these pieces, I have only listened to them on recordings.  I have never witnessed either of them in a live performance.

TM:  It was done with the New York Phil with Sarah Caldwell, but she changed the seating.  She brought them all to the front, which wasn’t the point.  But whatever.

FJO: But the point I want to make here is that they sound fabulous on recordings, but obviously if listeners are not seeing all these thing you’ve been describing, they’re missing a very important aspect of your conception of these pieces.

TM:  Well, we have to have lots of live performances.

FJO:  Ideally, but at least nowadays there are other ways people can watch performances; there are many performances posted to YouTube, Vimeo, and other platforms. Although the sound quality for a lot of them is terrible, at least people could see the visual aspect. There are also DVDs, Blu-ray discs, etc. But all this begs the question: you’re a composer, so the key element for you is still ultimately sound, right? You mentioned artists being able to show their paintings to people, whereas composers can’t show people a score and expect them to appreciate it. But we do have recordings, although if they’re just audio recordings they’ll be missing an important ingredient in several of your works.

TM:  What can I say?  The music has to sound right.  If the sound quality is awful, that’s really off putting. But I think the visual element can add to it.  Recently the Horn Concerto was done in London with Martin Owen, another wonderful player.  I was talking to him beforehand and I said, “Your part is cued into these players. They’re way out in the audience, but you don’t have to worry about it at all.  Just play the way you would play comfortably, dramatically, it’s yours.  You don’t have to worry at all.  However, if you feel you can do a little signal, like you do in chamber music, in the direction of the player who is responding, the audience will hear it better because they’ll see it.”  They’ll see Martin giving the cue over there.  And they’ll look, and then they’ll hear the horn responding.  They’ll hear it better.  It adds to the drama and hopefully to the audience’s enjoyment and appreciation.  But it’s not actually necessary.

A cabinet filled with CD recordings of Thea Musgrave's music.

A cabinet filled with CD recordings of Thea Musgrave’s music.

FJO:  Interesting.  Another divide among composers, beyond all the “isms,” is between composers of instrumental music and composers of vocal music, particularly dramatic vocal music such as opera or musical theater. Years ago we did a talk with Joan Tower and she claimed that although there are a few very notable exceptions, the majority of composers are on one side of the fence or the other. She was about to write her first choral piece at the time, and it turned out that it was quite wonderful, but she thought of herself as an instrumental composer. You’ve been equally in both worlds.

TM:  Oh yes, like Britten was.  And I’ve written a lot of choral music.  But they’re different sound worlds, and they need a different kind of attention.

FJO: Although we have not yet talked about any of your operas, the way that you approach a lot of the instrumental pieces that we have been talking about is in a narrative, almost theatrical way, like what you were just saying about seeing a player respond to a cue adding to the drama.

TM:  That happens in chamber music when there’s no conductor.  In a quartet, the leader with the bow will say now and give an upbeat. There’s nothing new about that.  It’s just that the horn didn’t have to do that, but I said it just helps the audience to hear.

FJO:  Well even though it’s done all the time, it’s mostly taken for granted I think. But you’ve actually foregrounded this phenomenon in your music.

“I decided to call it the dramatization of the orchestra.”

TM:  When I started doing this, I thought, “Oh, I have to have a word.” So I called it “dramatic abstract” because we’ve been talking about the Horn Concerto and the Clarinet Concerto and they’re not programmatic pieces.  They have a form, but it’s abstract.  However, I’ve written other pieces where they’re not abstract; it’s programmatic, like Turbulent Landscapes, which is based on pictures of Turner and so on, and so I decided to call it the dramatization of the orchestra.

FJO:  One of my favorite pieces of yours actually is a concerto you wrote for marimba and wind ensemble.

TM:  Journey Through a Japanese Landscape–a concerto for solo percussion and an orchestra without strings! It was very exciting to work with Evelyn Glennie.  Have you met her?

FJO:  I did an interview with her many years ago.

TM:  You know, she’s really deaf, but she lip reads just extraordinarily.  She heard, I think, until she was about 11 or 12, so she has a nice Scot accent, which you will have heard.  And she’s from Aberdeen, I think.  When I wrote this piece for her, I never talked to her about her deafness.  I thought, that’s it.  I know about it.  So the only thing I did differently was not to give her aural cues.  She takes visual cues, or cues from the conductor, but not aural cues from other members of the orchestra.  She gives them, because they can hear, but she doesn’t take them.

FJO: I love her recording of it and I also recently discovered a great performance of it online by this group based in Portugal. Because it’s scored just for winds, it theoretically could get many more performances than an orchestra piece and certainly more rehearsals, since there are so many wind bands all over the country as well as all over the world and they don’t have the same kind of limitations on rehearsal time that orchestras do.

TM:  I haven’t done very much with the wind band, just a couple of pieces. But it’s always exciting to work on a slightly less familiar medium, for me that is–makes me consider new ideas. I like to work with everything.  You know, just what happens, what comes along.

FJO: You mentioned that you’ve written a lot of choral music. That’s another medium where you can explore more unconventional ideas since, if it’s a school ensemble, you can rehearse the whole semester. And the same is also true with many community choruses.

TM:  I love it. But I did one very unusual piece which I don’t recommend, again for practical reasons. I don’t know if you’ve come across Voices of Power and Protest.  It’s an anti-war piece for which I wrote the words. Part of it’s on YouTube. It’s not complete; for some reason they weren’t allowed to do the whole thing.  Anyway, an opera chorus is used to memorizing and being blocked, and is usually accompanied by an orchestra.  A [stand alone] chorus is not used to being blocked.  They’re usually standing in rows, and they’re on book and are often unaccompanied, or maybe with a piano or organ.  I thought it would be great if they could be off book and would become the set themselves.  It’s a piece about civil wars.  At one point, the chorus comes into two lines and makes a wall between two singers, two brothers who are separated like in the American Civil War.  Then some of these are prisoners, so the singers surround this person.  And so on.  I made a libretto where the chorus could act it out by the way they moved and the shapes that they made.  Harold Rosenbaum did it with his New York Virtuoso Singers and Dottie Danner directed it. It was done right here in the hall at Ethical Culture and was really fabulous.  However, it’s really not practical because they have to have many, many more rehearsals to be off book. It was very expensive to put on, so I can’t get that work going.  Eventually it maybe could be done with a much bigger chorus surrounding on book, and then the soloists would have to be off book, because there are some solo parts, but then the group of singers would do the movement and make the shapes that a big chorus could surround, something like that.  But I was very excited by that work. Harold did a wonderful job, and it was done at the U.N. as well as [at the New York Society for] Ethical Culture.

FJO: You’ve written a lot of imminently practical choral pieces though. I’m quite fond of the series of pieces you wrote based on poems that you read in the subway.

TM: Oh, On the Underground.  I was going out to Richmond in London to meet some viol players, because I didn’t know much about viols and I had to learn about the frets and all this kind of thing. While I was going—in the Tube we call it—they have poetry up on the thing.  There are one or two in New York, but they’re too full of ads.  There’s very few, but in London there were a lot at one time.  I saw this poem, and I thought, “Oh, I want to set that.” So I quickly got started writing it down, and you know, then the Tube got there, and so what am I going to do? Then I found a book in the bookstore called On the Underground with all the poems that were up on the Tubes.  So I did three sets of Undergrounds.  And all the poems came from what actually you can see on the Underground, including one by Edwin Morgan about a seat with a small hole in it and under that there is a tank with piranha fish and the passengers get eaten. There are some absolutely hilarious and gory ones, as well as beautiful ones.

Thea Musgrave sitting across from FJO.

FJO:  Getting back to your idea of dramatizing an orchestra, or any instrumental ensemble for that matter, music obviously can convey emotions even when there are no words.

TM:  Of course.

FJO:  But usually it can only directly communicate what it is, as it were—the sounds of the instruments, the form.  Music communicates music.  You’ve played around with that idea in a dramatic way, too.  One aspect of many of your pieces is that they reference snippets of pre-existing music.  One particularly interesting example of this is Memento Vitae, something you wrote for the Beethoven bicentenary in 1970, which uses passages from the Sixth Symphony and also from the Opus 135 String Quartet.

TM:  Using quotes.

FJO:  I think in doing that you’re able to conjure up a sound world, provided the audience knows the pre-existing music.  That music become a signifier that has a dramatic meaning.  People will think, “Ah, Beethoven.” Whereas if you just had chords that were your own chords exclusively, they would just mean those chords.

TM:  It’s like in a book you read with quotes from other people.  It refers back to another time. Not that you can copy that other time—it is then and relived now—but you can quote and then comment. There’s usually a dramatic reason for doing it.  I’ve done that sometimes.  I think Charles Ives did that.

FJO:  Yes, quite famously. There’s a whole cottage industry among musicologists of trying to figure out what all these quotes are because some of the tunes he referenced didn’t survive.

TM:  You know, something very interesting, Rabbie Burns—Robert Burns as you say it, we say Rabbie Burns. There’s something you perhaps don’t know, and I didn’t know it either, then I found it by chance because I wanted to use some of his tunes when I did Songs for a Winter’s Evening.  I found out there were tunes that existed way back when, and he then wrote the words to preserve the tunes.  He wrote the words to existing tunes.  These tunes were often fiddle tunes, so they had a very wide range which was difficult for ordinary people like me to sing.  So in the 19th century, they kept the words and re-wrote some of the tunes—much more banal.  I went back to the original tunes for Songs for a Winter’s Evening, which are wonderful and sometimes with interesting scales—not just the normal diatonic scale, but the Lydian mode or something like that.  They’re fascinating.  However, I didn’t just set the tunes.  I had the tunes somewhere in the orchestra, sometimes in the voice, but sometimes not in the voice.  Sometimes they’re singing words, not to the tunes but to something else, but the tune is always lurking there.

FJO:  So this begs the question: how important is it that members of an audience hearing a piece of yours that references some pre-existing music know what that music is?

TM:  Well, any Scot would know some of these tunes or they would recognize that there was a tune there even if they didn’t already know it.

FJO:  But an American wouldn’t.

TM:  Ah, they might.  You all sing Auld Lang Syne.

FJO:  Yes.

TM:  Everybody does.

FJO:  Another example, which for me is one of the most effective ways that you used a pre-existing tune, is in your opera based on Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  You used “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen.” That tune becomes sort of an idée fixe throughout the entire opera.  You change the harmonies underneath it, or you use a hunk of it, and then another hunk again.  It becomes a musical commentary on the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge.  And it works so effectively I think because we all know this tune.

TM:  Well, if you don’t know the tune, perhaps you get to know it.

FJO:  You do hear it a lot.

“I decided it would be really nice to have kids involved. The parents will all come so you’ll sell out the house.”

TM:  The other thing was I decided it would be really nice to have kids involved.  My husband, Peter [Mark], who conducted the premiere in Virginia, said, “Wait a minute. That’s a lot of rehearsal time.”  So the next thing I said was, “Don’t worry. This is what I’m planning to do.  They don’t have to be in costume, because they don’t actually go on stage.  They just have to have a very simple something, maybe a head dress of some sort, one or two may carry lanterns.  And all they have to sing is ‘God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen.’”  They come on through the audience at the very end of the opera.  They just come slowly down the aisle, up to where the stage is, and that’s when the opera ends.  And I said, “You know what, the parents will all come so you’ll sell out the house.”  I’m not Scot for nothing.

FJO:  That’s practicality.  Now, in Mary, Queen of Scots, it sounds like you’re also using some Elizabethan music, but I can’t place what it is.

TM:  Well, you know what, at one point I needed a pavanne.  We were in Santa Barbara and I thought I can’t be bothered to get in the car—this was before the internet—and drive out to the university, find a pavanne, and drive back.  So I’ll just invent one.  It’s not a real one.  I mean it’s real, but it’s mine.  I saved myself a trip 20 miles out to the university and back, half an hour there and half an hour back.  I didn’t have an hour to spare.  That’s what happened.

FJO:  Here I was, scratching my head, thinking I should have known what it was since it seemed like it has some real dramatic meaning in the opera.

TM:  It’s just a pavanne.  Just for dancing.

FJO:  But it could have had some additional coded meaning, depending on whether it was an English pavanne or a Scottish pavanne, since the opera is all about events that ultimately led to their unification.

TM:  Nothing like that.  Just laziness.

FJO:  Oh well. Another interesting story I came across related to this opera is that after it premiered in Scotland there was talk of doing the American premiere at the Virginia Opera. This was shortly after your husband Peter became the company’s artistic director. You tried to talk the company out of doing it. This might be the first instance I know of any composer trying to discourage a performance.

TM:  I said to Peter, “You can’t do it.”  This is his company.  A contemporary opera? Norfolk’s not ready for that.  And Walter Chrysler, who made the Chrysler Building, was living in Norfolk with his wife.  She came to Edinburgh to see the premiere, which I was conducting.  She happened to be sitting next to Plácido [Domingo], which she rather liked.  When she came back, she said, “What’s good enough for Edinburgh is good enough for Norfolk.”  She told Walter that and so the president of the board, Edythe Harrison, decided they would do it.  I didn’t encourage it.  I was very nervous.  I wanted Peter not to have problems with bringing in his wife’s opera.  But in Richmond, they said, “Next time we should have a Richmond composer.  Not a Norfolk composer.”  That’s what they said.  You wouldn’t believe it.

FJO:  This unification story is obviously very significant in the history of Scotland, but now with the way the world is going, with various independence movements around the world, it seems more universal as well as very timely.

TM:  It was Mary Queen of Scots’ son who united the two kingdoms in 1603. And now Brexit happened! There was a vote for Scotland about a year before to separate.  I couldn’t vote, because I live here in America, but at that point, I would have stayed together.  Now I don’t know what I would do.

FJO:  Well, I guess why it’s so important is that in many ways King James’s mother was really a catalyst for a lot of these things.  She had her eye on the throne of England. She had been married to the king of France, which almost united France and Scotland. There was all this intrigue.

TM:  It’s a very complicated story.  Somebody else started the libretto, but I took over for a very simple reason.  She was a much better writer than I am, but I said to her, “For this aria, this poetry here is just too long dramatically.  It has to be cut.”  “Oh, those are my best words!”  I said, “I know, but it’s too long.” You need to have moments, but they can’t go on too long.  So, at that moment, I thought I’m going to do my own [libretto].  I’m not a great poet, but I make sure the right word with the right vowel sound is on the high note and so on, move it around so it matches the musical line that I want to do.  The words come first, but then you can alter them.  And when you write about history, you sort of have to be accurate.  You can cheat a little bit because you can’t do everything, but there came the moment when Mary lost her husband and she marries Bothwell. I said to her, “Mary, don’t marry Bothwell. Can’t you see it’s really stupid to do that?”  Well, she didn’t take my advice, and then look what happened!

FJO:  You can’t rewrite history.

TM:  You can’t go back.  You can’t change that now.

FJO:  Well, I suppose you could.  You could have gone in the direction of speculative fiction and alternate reality.

TM:  Whatever.  Yeah, what if such and such had happened?

FJO:  But that would have been a very different opera than the one you wrote, which is really an historical panorama. There are so many characters in it.  It’s called Mary, Queen of Scots, but she’s actually just one of many significant characters.

TM:  It’s really her and her half-brother [James Stuart]. He was a bastard and could not really be king.  Then there’s Morton and Ruthven, who were James’s henchmen, then Bothwell.  Those are the prime characters.  And then Darnley, her husband, and Riccio who’s a musician. But it’s really Mary and James’s struggle.

FJO:  To me it seems more an ensemble piece than it is about Mary, even though you named it after her and she does get that great high note at the end.

TM:  It revolves around her.  Her arrival at Leith in the fog.  Nobody’s there.  It’s her arrival and her departure.  At the end of the opera, her child is just a baby, and she has to get out fast.  A portcullis comes down upstage. Everybody’s left behind and she’s downstage in front of the portcullis.  At the last minute, she reaches back for her baby and she’s separated by this curtain.  She can’t go back.  So there she is in the hands of Elizabeth and the baby who eventually unites the two kingdoms is left in Scotland.

FJO:  That high note she sings towards the end sounds monstrously difficult.  Is that an example of something that is actually easier to do than it sounds, as opposed to something that really is very difficult?

TM: Well, if she hadn’t sung it, I would have changed the note.

FJO:  You would have changed it?

TM:  Yes, of course.  Sometimes I put in ossia.  You need the performers to be comfortable.  Most singers have a top C.  I mean sopranos, dramatic sopranos like Ashley [Putnam].  It’s not a problem.  If it had been a problem, then I’d have said sing an A instead.  What’s the deal?

FJO:  Wow, well the deal for me as a listener was that was the most exciting moment of the entire opera.

“Of course, you want the top C, but if it comes out as a screech, you don’t want it.”

TM:  Sure.  Of course, you want the top C, but if it comes out as a screech, you don’t want it.  You don’t want the singer to be embarrassed.  I’ll tell you a funny story, which is relevant.  When I was studying with Copland—my first visit to the States was to study with Aaron at Tanglewood—during our lessons he said, “When I wrote my Clarinet Concerto, I wrote in this top A way up for Benny Goodman.  And Benny Goodman said to me, ‘I can’t play that.’”  And Aaron said to him, “Well, I’ve heard you play that note.”  He said, “Ah, when I’m improvising. If I’m in the mood, I can play it. But sometimes I’m not in the mood and I don’t play it.”  Several years later, Peter and I were in Santa Barbara.  We happened to meet Benny Goodman.  So I sat him down, and I said, “I have to ask you if this true.”  So I told him the story, I said, “Is it true that Aaron said this and you said that?”  He said, “Of course.”

So it’s the same thing.  When you do a cadenza or something free, you have the freedom for a player— like Barry [Tuckwell] in the cadenza in the Horn Concerto can sometimes go way up high, if he’s in the mood that day.  But he doesn’t have to do it if he’s not in the mood.  So there are moments it’s appropriate.  There are moments it’s not appropriate. Of course I prefer the top C, but if Ashley felt she was not going to sing it beautifully, an A is fine.  Not as good, but it’s okay.  But she never did that; she was right there.  She was wonderful.  It was right at the beginning of her career.  She was in her 20s.

FJO:  I’m very glad it got preserved on a recording, even though now it’s out of print.

TM:  A recording’s different.  If the tape is bad, you can re-do a take.  But you know something, that Mary, Queen of Scots recording that you heard is one single take on one single night.  The musicians’ union allowed us one take—period.  We were not allowed to re-record anything. Actually, there are a couple of errors.  I think the chorus came in wrong once.  I don’t remember.  It doesn’t matter; they corrected it very quickly.

FJO:  Wow. It definitely feels very much like a live recording, which is actually very refreshing and somehow more exciting.

TM:  That’s right. When players know they’re recording, in a recording session, they play just a little bit more carefully.  Because they don’t want to make mistakes.  They don’t go for it.  This was a live performance with a big audience, and they went for it.  Yes, there are some errors, but that’s the excitement, which is wonderful.  That’s why you go to live performances—to hear the real thing.

FJO:  But now if people want to hear Mary, Queen of Scots, the only way is to track down that recording, which is now out of print.

TM:  Well, the trouble is it went from the Virginia Opera to Moss Records, and then it went to Novello. There was a fire and the master was destroyed.  I still have some copies of the LP, because those were the days of the LP, so you can make copies of copies. The CD is actually not quite as good as the LP; the LP is actually slightly better.

FJO:  I hope that the master has survived for A Christmas Carol.

TM:  Yes, that wasn’t in the fire. And there were several takes, so we could choose.

FJO:  That also needs to be reissued.

TM: Yeah.

A toy piano rests on top of files of Musgrave's music

FJO:  And you’ve written many other operas, but none of the other evening-length operas have been recorded commercially.  I wish there was a commercial recording of your Harriet Tubman opera Harriet, the Woman Called Moses. I’ve never heard a note of it, and I’d love to learn more about it.

TM:  Well, what happened was Gordon Davidson, a very famous person in Los Angeles, ran the whole theater world out there.  He was the director and was wonderful.  And he said, “Harriet is a young person who’s going into a new world.  I don’t want an established, wonderful black singer.  I want somebody who’s in the same kind of situation, starting out.”  So Peter auditioned a number of people and finally found Cynthia Heyman, this young singer who was singing in the Santa Fe Young Artists Program.  Very inexperienced, but a wonderful voice.  We flew out to Los Angeles so Gordon could meet her.

In the fall we did it.  She came and lived in Norfolk for several months and studied.  About four or five days before we opened, she slipped on stage and broke her leg.  So she had a crutch, and she went to Gordon and said, “If you don’t let me go on, I’ll sue you.”  So he said, “What are we going to do?” We had a cover, but Cynthia was determined.  So Gordon said, “Tell you what.  We will go to New York and we will find a dancer who will be a kind of alter ego.  She came in and they quickly built her a costume, but we didn’t find the right hat.  So we said, “Okay, they’ll share the hat.”

At the beginning of the second act where Harriet is being chased by slave capturers, Cynthia obviously couldn’t do that with her crutch.  So she stood stage left, gave her hat to this dancer, the dancer did all the action and escaped from the slave capturers.  Then as she went off stage, she handed the hat back to Cynthia.  You know, tears come to my eyes.  It was so moving.  One of the people in the audience came up after and said, “Cynthia really broke her leg?  I thought that her being on crutches was a metaphor for being a slave.”  Can you imagine?  That was a great moment.  Unintended, but a great moment.

FJO:  I wish I could have seen that.

TM:  I did a chamber orchestra version which is called The Story of Harriet Tubman where there’s spoken dialogue and sometimes, like Brecht used to do, the main character will talk about Harriet in the third person. When she sing, it’s “I.”  But when she’s speaking, it’s “she.”  The characters set up the scene by talking about it.  And sometimes members of the chorus say a few words.  The whole thing is in one act.  It’s much shorter.  It was done in Mobile, and now here in New York; Utopia Opera’s going to do that this coming season.

FJO:  Fantastic!

TM:  They want to do the big one, but I don’t know if they really can because it’s got chorus and orchestra and so on, but Will Remmers is extraordinary.  He’s determined to do it, so I don’t know which version they’ll do.  But either one, I’m absolutely thrilled. It’s either this season or the beginning of next season.

FJO:  And Simón Bolívar and Pontalba are two other operas of yours I’ve still yet to hear.

TM:  Thank you for trying. Bolívar is an incredible story. I got all the books and had his own words, and I can read it sort of.  But I don’t speak Spanish, so I wrote the libretto in English.  Then I thought it really should be in Spanish.  So I thought I have to have somebody.  So Gordon Davidson introduced me to Lillian Groag, a playwright and an actress who lives in L.A. She’s actually Argentinian, so she’s a native speaker.  The first time we met was in the late ‘80s, I think.  She came up to Santa Barbara where we were living, and we started working together.  It was very interesting.  At one point, I forget who says it, Bolívar or somebody else, “Decisions made today cast a long shadow.”  There are nice ahh vowels and good consonants.  But Lillian said, “I can’t do that in Spanish.”  So I said, “We’re not going to do a translation word for word.  Let’s make a version which sort of means the same thing, but not exactly word for word.”  So, she looked back at it and said, “Las decisiones de hoy te seguirán mañana.” Decisions of today follow you tomorrow.  “Mañana” for “cast a long shadow.”  The same kinds of vowels and consonants.  It works perfectly.  So that’s how we worked all through the opera.  Sometimes I’d alter the English, so that I could have the right word to match the Spanish word on the right top note.  But I never called it a translation.  I called it a version. I said I want it be wonderful Spanish.  It’s got to sound natural.  It was an absolutely fascinating collaboration.  I loved every moment of it.  And she had directed plays, so she was very experienced in that, but she’d never actually directed an opera.  So Peter brought her in the previous year to do something else, so she’d get her feet wet.  I think she did a Tosca. Then she directed Bolívar at the premiere.  That was wonderful. And then she became a great friend.

FJO:  It’s very nice to hear about this collaboration, especially after learning that you initially had a librettist with Mary, Queen of Scots, but then you went on to write your own libretto because it was too frustrating having that give and take.  You’ve actually written the librettos for all of your operas after that, except in this one instance.

TM:  Yes.  Before that, I had worked with other people.  But then I enjoyed doing it.  I’m not a great writer.  I’m an okay writer.  But for me, the words really had to go with the music. I cheated once in Mary, Queen of Scots.  I have James sing at the end of his big aria “Rule I must.”  So it’s “Ruuuule I Muuusssst.”  Good vowel at the end consonant cut off.  Well, I didn’t want to put “Rule I must” in the libretto.  The written words looked so phony, so I put “I must rule.”  But that’s not what’s in the score.  Don’t tell anybody.

FJO:  You just did.

TM:  Right.  I cheated.

FJO:  You’ve written three large pieces based on stories that are very much American or Pan-American themed: Harriet Tubman, Simón Bolívar, and the Baroness de Pontalba in New Orleans.

TM:  Nah’lins.  I had to learn how to say that.  It’s not New Orleans.  It’s Nah’lins.  One syllable.  I had to be trained by my friends there how to pronounce this word.

FJO:  The current mode of thinking is that we see everything, we create everything, we do everything through the prism of our own identity. I have very mixed feelings about that way of thinking, and it seems like you do, too. Whenever people have asked you if you think of yourself as a Scottish composer or an American composer, you’ve balked at that, which you’ve also done when people ask you about being a female composer. There’s your famous quote, “Yes I am a woman, and yes I am a composer, but rarely at the same time.”

TM:  Apparently I said that to my dear friend Claire Brook, whom I knew for many years. She was also a student of Boulanger and lived in New York with her husband, and worked for Norton as the head of music books.  Apparently I said that to her and we had a good laugh about it.  She quoted me somewhere, so it has become famous.  I feel very strongly that identity is where you are as a kid and where you have grown up.  Those memories and influences are there in your whole formation for life.  However, when you move somewhere different, or you meet other people, that influences that somewhat.  It changes you; you think in different ways.  Since I’ve come to America, I think in slightly different ways.  But nevertheless, the core is still where I grew up, who my parents were, how I lived as a kid.  With all of us, it has to be like that.  You can’t cheat on that.  You can grow, and you develop, and you can develop in different ways, and you have some choice in how you develop.

FJO:  So where does gender fit into that?  Or does it?

TM:  I think it’s nurture or nature.  I think women have to make up their minds what they want to do.  Women bear kids, but they don’t necessarily have to look after them.  In the 19th century in Britain in middle class families, they all had nannies.  They didn’t actually bring up the children themselves.  The children had to behave themselves and appeared at dinner time, and they had to sort of sit quietly and not say too much.  That doesn’t happen now.  Very poor families, that was different.  They didn’t have nannies, but they had to be on their own much more, because the parents probably had to go out and work.  So you make choices.  I think women have the choice, as men can have the choice, of what they do and how they do it.  Why not?

“Only when I came here, people said, ‘Oh, you’re a woman composer.’ I said, ‘Really? I never thought of that.'”

It’s very funny, when I was in Britain I never really thought about that question because I studied with a woman.  My first teacher in Edinburgh was Mary Grierson, who was Tovey’s assistant, and then Nadia in Paris.  And a lot of my friends were women. Priaulx Rainier and Lizzie Lutyens, whose dad was a famous architect who did New Delhi—Edwin Lutyens.  That’s why we had to go to India; I wanted to see Liz’s father’s work.  Excellent.  Of course I knew men composers, too, and we talked about composing.  We never really talked—I’m a woman, so I do something different.  No way.  We were composers.  There are also gay composers.  Where does that fit in?  I think it’s not a very interesting question.  Only when I came here, people said, “Oh, you’re a woman composer.”  I said, “Really?  I never thought of that.”

FJO:  Now one thing that you have to be thinking about and certainly your publishing company is making a big deal about it, is you’re turning 90 next year.

The covers for Novello's two Thea Musgrave at Ninety catalogs--one for instrumental works and one for operas.

The covers for Novello’s two Thea Musgrave at Ninety catalogs–one for her instrumental works and one for her operas.

TM:  Turning 90.  Yeah, that’s another question.  I mean, I think I’m going to go backwards now.  Each birthday, I’m going to take a year off.  But that happens to men too, okay.

FJO:  Yes.  We actually recently did a talk for NewMusicBox with another one-time Boulanger student, George Walker, who’s 95 and just completed his fifth symphony.

TM:  Oh wow.

FJO:  He’s still actively composing and so are you.  It’s wonderful, but it also begs a question. You talked about how your childhood experiences formed who you are. But is there something that you feel—having reached this stage, having composed for decades, and having all this experience—that you can do now as a composer that you couldn’t do before?  Has the passage of time changed you?

TM:  Yes, of course.  But you know something very extraordinary happened recently.  I’m not sure it quite answers your question, but I’ll tell you about it.  In the summer we go to escape the summer heat.  We go out to California. When I just got there in the middle of July, I got an email from somebody I didn’t recognize. I nearly didn’t open the email because there’s all this hacking and so on.  But then I saw it was copied to somebody who is a great friend of mine, so I opened it.  The letter said, “Are you interested in a commission?”  So, I answered, “It all depends.”

Then I got this long email from this person who’s obviously a therapist, because my friend is a therapist. She had been to a performance of one of my works about ten years ago, something to do with light, she said.  She liked it so much that she and her husband had then gone to London to hear it when it was repeated there a year or two later.  Well, she’s lost her husband and she’s dying of lung cancer.  She wants to leave something of beauty in the world, so she wanted to commission me to write something to do with light and something with an important cello part for her friend Josephine Knight.

So, I thought, “What can she be thinking about? Something of beauty in the world?” My thought then went to Journey Into Light, which is the name of the piece that she heard, and I suddenly thought, “What happens if I put a cello in there instead of a singer?”  And I started.  Then I thought, “I can’t do this. Nothing’s been arranged. I haven’t told my publisher.” But I kept saying if the cello did this, then I could do that.  I was writing the piece. So I emailed my publisher and told them what had happened.  “Do you know Josephine Knight?”  “Yes, of course.  She’s wonderful.  Go ahead.”  And I got going.  Well, I still haven’t had a contract.  I finished the piece in six weeks, which I never do, and we have a first performance arranged on February 3 with the BBC Philharmonic with Josephine Knight.  I have never written anything as fast as that, ever.  In part it’s because it’s sort of based on the other piece; some of the material is repeated. But it’s not the same piece.  It has become something different because I didn’t have the words, you know.  There’s no singer.  The words aren’t there.  So there are certain themes, like the Dies Irae. You were talking about themes.  Well, I’ve used that theme in quite a number of works.  It’s for death and for the anger.  God is angered, Dies Irae.  So here it is.  It was already in Journey Into Light.  I decided I’m not going to give it the same title, so I called it From Darkness Into the Light.  And what happens is that certain instruments represent the darkness. The darkness is not necessarily death.  It’s to do with any kind of difficult decision that you’re faced with and how you come to terms with it.  So the cellist is coming to terms and finally comes to terms with the horn player, who’s been leading the darkness.  They end in the light, and I found a wonderful way of doing this light.

Then, next coincidence, I come back here and there’s a pile of mail.  Mostly bullshit, you know, all the fundraising things that you get. And in the middle of it, I see this thing from my friend Nicholas Daniel, who has a festival in Leicester, England.  I open it up to see what Nick’s doing this year, and you know the title of the festival?  “From Darkness to Light.”  So, I write to him, “Darling, you’ve stolen my title.  What’s this?”  And he writes, “Bitch, you stole my title!”  When he was a kid, he had a beautiful soprano voice.  He sang in Salisbury Cathedral at Easter time.  All the lights of the cathedral would be turned off, and there would be one person with a single candle going up in a procession.  And he said, “That was what illuminated my childhood.”  So that’s why he called it that.  Talk about coincidence! I mean, nobody knew about this.  This is a brand new work.  I hadn’t told him about it or anything.  So, there we are.  I don’t think I could have done that earlier.

“I believe in going with crazy ideas and not just rubbing them off the plate right away.”

Also I think sometimes, like when I had this dream I told you about of the player rebelling, sometimes you have to follow your crazy ideas and just go with it to see what happens.  I used to say to my students that we all have this critic sitting on our shoulder who’s very fierce and rather nasty.  When you’re beginning a work, you take this person—him, it’s always a he—you take him to the door and you say bye-bye.  I don’t want to see you just now.  So when you have an idea, you say, “Well, let’s just put it there. Maybe if I did that, then that would happen.  And on the other hand, if I did this then that could happen.” You don’t say that’s a stupid idea right off.  You leave it, and you get all these ideas and put them down to be looked at.  And eventually you bring him back in and say, “Now help me to evaluate what I’ve got here.”

Another thing Boulanger always said to me—you didn’t write on computers in those days; you wrote with pencil and paper, or pen and paper—she said don’t ever erase anything, because sometimes you go back to the very earliest idea, and there’s the nugget of something that’s absolutely essential to the thing.  You don’t say that’s a bad idea.  You put it there and something will come out of it.  So I believe in going with crazy ideas and not just rubbing them off the plate right away.

FJO:  That’s fantastic.

FJO facing Peter Mark and Thea Musgrave who are seated next to each other on a couch.

After we finished recording our conversation, Thea’s husband Peter Mark joined her on their couch and we continued chatting more informally.

Stefania de Kenessey: 20 Years After Rewriting History

On March 20, 1997, composer Stefania de Kenessey launched the first Derriere Guard Festival at The Kitchen, a shrine to cutting edge performance in New York City. It was a bold move for a festival whose explicit goal was “to return to long-forgotten, long-abandoned ideas rooted in history and tradition” since “abstract painting, fractured architecture, free-form poetry and dissonant music, concepts which had once been revolutionary, eventually evolved into the status quo.”

I still remember the disdain this festival elicited from folks on seemingly opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum—the so-called “uptowners” and the so-called “downtowners.” People sometimes point to the first Bang on a Can Festival in 1987, which paired works by Babbitt and Reich, as the death-knell of the upown/downtown divide, even though these composers didn’t interact with one other. I personally like to think NewMusicBox, which launched in 1999, helped bring the two sides together. But the first time these sides seemed to actually agree on anything was in their hatred for the Derriere Guard two years earlier.

Why did they hate it so much? Were they offended? I still remember the stationary for the press release whose logo is accurately described in one of the few reports of that first festival that still appears online as “a hand shielding a pair of buttocks.” (My search for a JPEG of that logo has thus far been in vain.) Or were they somehow afraid of what de Kenessey and her compatriots were claiming in their promotional materials at the time? (E.g. “Musical modernism has been a failure: in spite of determined attempts by established musical institutions, by intellectuals and by critics, the newly configured aesthetic – music as organized, structured sound – did not take hold among the listening public.”)

Just as the uptown/downtown cold war has long since thawed, twenty years later, this too all seems like water under the bridge. And the Derriere Guard’s ringleader, Stefania de Kenessey, is now extremely inclusive in her own aesthetics, which we discovered when we visited her in her Upper West Side apartment last month. We also learned that her favorite teacher was Milton Babbitt!

“I can support somebody who’s writing noise or grunge music or electronica or whatever,” said de Kenessey who, in addition to her own compositional activities, is the program director for the contemporary music program for the Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School. “When I go to concerts, or when I listen to the work that’s being done, it’s just all over the map.  Stylistically it’s wonderful.  I love it.  I love the variety.  But I don’t get the feeling that there’s kind of—what I was calling earlier—a lingua franca of new music.  Some people embrace pop.  Some people still embrace serialism.  Some people embrace dissonance.  Some people embrace consonance.  Some people embrace the European idea of a narrative kind of music.  Some people think that it should really be kind of cyclical and non-narrative.”

According to de Kenessey, the current range of new music has rendered the Derriere Guard movement no longer necessary, which is why even though there was a big 10th anniversary celebration of the launch of the movement a decade ago, there were no events to mark the 20th anniversary earlier this year. Music history has moved on and so has de Kenessey.

In fact, since the dawn of the 21st century, de Kenessey has embraced percussion—in fact, a drum set sits proudly next to a grand piano in her apartment—and in the past few years she has gotten extremely interested in electronic sound reproduction.

“There is a genuine difference between electronically mediated sound and acoustic sound,” de Kenessey explained.  “I don’t know what I think about that divide yet, but certainly 20 years ago electronically mediated sounds were just not that good.  They were not that pleasing.  But the technological advances that have occurred in the last two decades are phenomenal.  So the quality of sound you can make now, even with relatively simple software and relatively inexpensive speakers, is just phenomenal.  One of the things I’m doing right now is I’m teaching myself Logic Pro, and the next couple of projects I’m going to work on are going to be using electronically created and electronically mediated sound.”

As for the more polemical aspects of the Derriere Guard, these too seem to have been tempered somewhat in de Kenessey’s thinking.

“I didn’t have a strict ideology,” de Kenessey maintained.  “It was not like you had to write music in a certain way or to paint in a certain way.  The idea was simply to let these new kinds of artistic endeavors have a place to flourish … I really just wanted to kick down some walls and open up some venues.  Why could only dissonant, harsh, terrible things be represented in The Kitchen?  It’s not monolithic.  You don’t have to dress in black any more to enter its halls.  That’s partly why I had Tom Wolfe there in all white.  I’m being silly here, but you know what I mean.  It’s just to allow a kind of a multiplicity of voices to be honored in a way that I don’t think was as routine as it is today.  I really do think that the establishment itself has been more fragmented in its understanding of what is possible, and what is honorable and interesting to support. You’re much more likely now to go to a concert and hear new pieces on it of very different stylistic bents.  Thirty years ago, it would have been a pretty safe bet what you might have heard.”


September 15, 2017 at 11:00 a.m.
Stefania de Kenessey in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: Last month it suddenly dawned on me that this year marks the 20th anniversary of your Derriere Guard movement.

Stefania de Kenessey:  I know! When you sent me that email, I was actually flummoxed to realize that—that it’s been since ’97 that it started.  It’s hard to believe how time passes.

FJO:  The world was a very different place in a lot of different ways, but I still remember distinctly how angry certain people in the new music community were when you launched the first Derriere Guard Festival. And it was people on many different sides aesthetically, both folks coming from the so-called uptown and the so-called downtown. People on both sides who could never agree on anything agreed that what you were doing was outrageous.  And they seemed really upset about it.  Why do you think that what you were doing made them so upset?

The Derriere Guard “wasn’t about having an ideological vision that I wanted to impose on the musical community.”

SdK:  I’m not quite sure.  It was meant to be both a serious and a humorous gesture, but not an antagonistic one which is part of the reason I held it at The Kitchen.  The whole point of having it at The Kitchen was to show that this is a kind of avant-garde.  So my only point in the Derriere Guard, besides to have a sense of humor, as the name indicates, was to really open doors to a kind of music that was just not able to be represented in the way that I thought it deserved to be represented.  I never wanted to change the uptown aesthetic.  I never wanted to change the downtown aesthetic.  It wasn’t about having an ideological vision that I wanted to impose on the musical community, by any stretch of the imagination.  I just thought it was time to allow certain other kinds of music, that were not getting their fair share, to also be heard.  That’s it.  End of story.  That was the only point of the festival.  And I thought we did it.  And it was fun.

FJO:  From around that same time there was a British visual art movement called Stuckism. Were you aware of these folks?

SdK:  No, much to my shame.

FJO:  It’s a very interesting parallel to this.  It was started by a painter who calls himself Billy Childish. He’s a bit of a prankster.  According to the official story of all of this, in the late 1980s he was dating a now very famous conceptual artist, Tracey Emin, and she told him that his paintings were stuck in the past.  Apparently she yelled, “Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!” He wanted to return visual art to portraiture, landscape painting, and other kinds of things that she and many other of his contemporaries thought was anachronistic. So he decided to call what he was doing Stuckism.

SdK:  Oh, that’s funny.

FJO:  Yes, and when he wrote a Stuckist Manifesto and organized exhibitions of Stuckist artists in London, everybody in the British art world was completely incensed by it, so it definitely does seem to me related to what you were doing to some extent. I think in both cases, people in certain corners of the so-called avant-garde perhaps felt a little bit threatened about all of this even if you just said that wasn’t what it was about.

SdK:  I mean, it certainly wasn’t my intention for it to be threatening or ideologically prescriptive.  I just always thought that the idea of a so-called avant-garde that is ensconced at, say, Lincoln Center or the Whitney Museum, is an oxymoron.  Right?  I mean, it doesn’t mean it’s not great art or not great music, but it’s not avant-garde if it’s at Lincoln Center.  Right?  By definition.  The avant-garde should be somehow at the edges, pushing the envelope.  And you cannot be doing that if you’re embraced and supported by the very establishment. So to begin with, I think we need to have a sense of humor about the term avant-garde and reconsider its meaning.  Also, modernism had a very, very powerful and deservedly very strong influence in the 20th century, but it was not the only way to think about music and not the only way to write music.

I myself studied with Milton Babbitt, so it’s not like I don’t respect or know something about modernism. I think he was a brilliant, brilliant exponent of it.  But it also left certain kinds of music and music-making by the wayside.  I think in any kind of revolution it’s important to—what’s that old cliché—don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. For me, that was the idea of certain kinds of melodic constructions, certain kinds of relatively simple and consonant, beautiful harmonies.  It’s not impossible to imagine a music which is modern and forward-looking that still uses those “old-fashioned” features.  Right?  One of the things I tried to do with the Derriere Guard, and one of the things I really do believe in, is that the act of using melodies, the act of using consonant harmonies, is not in and of itself a political statement.  It is not right wing.  It is not left wing.  It’s not forward-looking.  It’s not backward-looking.  It can be what you make of it.  And you need to let people simply work in that idiom if they choose to.  You just need to give them a space in which to do it.  And I think 20 years ago, it was difficult to find that space.  There were very few venues that would support that.  To be writing the kind of music that I was writing, or to be painting the kinds of canvases that my painter friends were painting, or writing the kinds of poetry that had meter and narrative that my poet friends were doing was thought to be sort of off the beaten path or slightly crazy.

“History will tell what becomes favored by audiences.”

Ten years ago, it was maybe a little eccentric. And I think now it’s absolutely acceptable to do it, even if it’s not part of the establishment necessarily these days, which is why I don’t need a 20th Derriere Guard Festival.  We needed one 20 years ago, just to make a statement.  Then we had a 10th anniversary festival to kind of recap, or remember what we had done. But now I feel like it’s in the air.  We’ve accomplished what we wanted to do, which is simply to create a space where this kind of work can happen and can be acknowledged.  That’s it.  History will tell what becomes favored by audiences; you cannot predict which way things will go.  But you have to give a multiplicity of voices and a multiplicity of styles space.  I think that’s a laudable thing to do and it shouldn’t be threatening.

FJO:  But there are some provocations in the Derriere Guard’s original mission statement. To quote from it:  “Concepts which had once been revolutionary, eventually evolved into the status quo.  In such a situation, the most proactive, radical act was simply … to return to long-forgotten, long-abandoned ideas rooted in history and tradition.”

SdK:  I haven’t looked at that mission statement in 15 years at least.  But yes, it can be radical to do something as simple as write something with a beautiful melody in C-minor.  The trick is how to make it not simply a replica of the past.  I have no interest in simply returning to the past.  I don’t want to be put back in a corset.  That’s not my idea of revisiting history in any meaningful sense.  But it doesn’t mean that you can’t necessarily use certain elements selectively and intelligently from the past, that those are crasser techniques that aren’t valid in this day and age.  If you look at so-called popular music, it has never abandoned those kinds of historically grounded precepts that so-called art music didn’t abandon necessarily, but certainly pushed to the side for a long time.

FJO:  It’s hard to claim that tonality was long forgotten and long abandoned when there were a bunch of really significant composers in America in the last century who never actually abandoned tonality.

SdK:  Right.  And at the time of the Derriere Guard Festival, I remember some people saying what we need to do is write an alternate history of 20th-century music, because in fact it was not simply the 12-tone school that evolved and went in certain directions.  There was always an alternate history that was not being sufficiently acknowledged, or sufficiently supported.

FJO:  Samuel Barber was a tonal composer and for a while was one of the most successful composers in America.  When the new Metropolitan Opera House opened, he was the composer who got the commission to write a new work to inaugurate it. So it wasn’t like it wasn’t supported by the establishment.

SdK:  But that was in the ‘60s.

FJO: Even after that, Ned Rorem, who never abandoned tonality, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976.  But I take your point to some extent—to read music history, to take a look at it from the way that historians write it, it’s too messy for there to be multiple paths. So when Arnold Schoenberg was coming up with the 12-tone theory and Josef Matthias Hauer was doing so independently of him, other Viennese composers, like Franz Schmidt and Karl Weigl, never abandoned tonality.  Richard Strauss certainly never did. Nowadays some people like to claim that Richard Strauss is the forefather of post-modernism.  They’ve retroactively claimed him so that there could be a larger narrative arc of history, and I suppose that’s the role of historians.  But reality is much messier. That said, maybe I’m making inferences here, but I did think that 20 years ago you were trying to make an historical statement. That mission statement certainly feels like a manifesto to some extent.

SdK:  Well, I think it was very important to establish that there should be a place for a kind of music—and in the other arts as well—which uses these techniques from the past in ways that were hopefully not repetitive of the past. We were really interested in moving music and the other arts forward in a way that was not being done, or was not being acknowledged—I thought at the time—in a way that it deserved, to be just let loose to blossom and to flourish.  So yes, I was trying to be provocative in that sense.  Sometimes you want to give history a little kick, to kick it forward a few inches.  One of the senses that I’ve always had is that in the 20th century we came to value innovation as the hallmark of genius.  You always have to be doing something new and something that has never been done before.  I wanted to establish the idea that maybe you can do something that really is genuinely new by simply using things that have been done. When I do my 20th-century history course at The New School, once we get to the end of all these things that have been done in terms of innovation, one of the most unkind assignments I can give to my students is to ask them to go and write a piece using a technique that no one has thought of.  It’s really damned difficult to come up with something.  Right?  What do you do that’s innovative at the end of a century where innovation per se has been one of the focal points of development? It becomes a different kind of problem, right?

“We came to value innovation as the hallmark of genius.”

History is a messy thing, and it’s very messy when you’re in the midst of it.  It’s very difficult to see clearly.  And I think one of the important things to do is not to be monolithic about it. Especially at this moment in history there’s such a multiplicity of styles and such a multiplicity of voices.  It’s particularly incumbent on us to have that broad palette available and supported.

FJO:  And history also keeps getting rewritten.

SdK:  Sure.

FJO:  Curiously, of all people, Arnold Schoenberg who established the 12-tone system and is hailed as an innovator and a torchbearer for the avant-garde, famously claimed that Brahms was a progressive composer.  Yet in the 19th century, the path that was considered progressive versus the path that was considered retrogressive was Wagner versus Brahms.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  Schoenberg basically rewrote that history and said that if you analyze the organic structure of the way Brahms’s themes developed, it was really a more forward-looking idea than what Wagner was doing, which was just wandering around aimlessly without any structural underpinning.

SdK:  Well, that’s one way of understanding it.  Another one is to understand the end of the 19th century as not actually being bifurcated quite the way that it seemed to be.  The differences between Wagner and Brahms are in some ways radical and in some ways not at all.  It really depends on historic stance and historic understanding.  And those do change with time.  There’s no question about that.

Stefania de Kenessey talking with Frank J. Oteri.

FJO:  So I’ll be a provocateur.

SdK:  Go, go, go.

FJO:  It might be possible then with the hindsight of history, maybe even 20 years from now, to say that the music that you were composing back in 1997 and have continued to write up until now and the music of serial and post-serial composers, plus the music of the minimalists as well as the followers of John Cage—maybe all of this isn’t as different as we think.  They might sound very different, but maybe they’re not all that different.

SdK:  Well, I think you’re right in some sense.  I think the surfaces are obviously quite different.  So there are genuine differences to be claimed.  But I also think that the multiplicity of styles, and the search for what I would call a lingua franca in music, is certainly what unites everybody in the 20th century, or even the beginning of the 21st century.  There is no commonly spoken or commonly understood musical idiom. So if you meet somebody and they say, “Oh, I’ve been listening to music,” or “I’m writing a piece,” the first question is “What kind of music?  Is it classical?  Is it pop?”  Then if it’s pop, what pop? It’s the first question.  I don’t think that would have been the first question in the 18th century or even the 19th.

“A commonly spoken musical language is not one we can take for granted anymore.”

The sense of having a commonly understood or a commonly spoken musical language is not one we can take for granted anymore.  That’s both a blessing and a curse.  The blessing is that we can know about music from the 12th century to the 20th.  I know something about African drumming and something about classical Indian music.  The sheer volume of information that’s available to people is staggering. And you can’t do all of those things simultaneously, so you have to make choices.  But that availability of huge amounts of stylistic information is wonderful.  On the other hand, it also means that we’re all searching, because you either do what your teacher told you to do, or demonstrated as what to be doing, or you have to go out on your own and start questing for something that makes sense to you.  So there isn’t that possibility that was probably much more common in past centuries, and probably in other cultures as well, where you’d enter a tradition—you’d learn from your teachers and you’d continue that tradition.  You’d make innovations, but within that tradition.  That’s no longer true.

FJO:  In terms of historical lineage, it’s interesting to look at composers from the generation before us who were apostates to modernism, like George Rochberg or David Del Tredici. They were both castigated for returning to tonality when they first did, even though they’ve both become iconic.  I think part of why it was so shocking to people is they were both such good serial composers, so they were members of the faith who had defected so it was really heavy. I’m curious about this in terms of your development. I knew that you went to Princeton and that you were at Yale before that.  And when you were at Princeton, you studied with Babbitt.  So were you a 12-tone composer back in the day?  Did you start off writing this kind of stuff?

SdK:  Never.  I always admired it.  I always knew about it, but I have never written 12-tone music and never desired to do so.  I almost went and studied with Rochberg.  I went to Princeton for a variety of reasons, but one of them was they kept asking me to come. Finally I went and I was interviewed by Milton Babbitt.  And I said “I’m very honored to be asked to study here, but why should I come here of all places to get my Ph.D.?  I write very tonal music. I’m not particularly interested in 12-tone music or electronic music, and I kind of doubt that that will happen to me in the next couple of years.  So why should I come here?”  And he looked at me, and he said, “Well, for a couple of reasons.  One, I think you’re very talented.  Two, if you come here, you will find that we spend as much time talking about Bach and Brahms as we do about Schoenberg and Webern.  And three, if you come here, I will take you under my wing.”  So that was a very, very nice offer and not to be refused.

At the same time, I had applied to other places.  The other place I was considering was Penn where George Rochberg was teaching.  He was the one that people were pushing me to study with. I decided not to go to Penn for two reasons.  One, it was just a master’s program at that point, and they weren’t funding it the same way. Princeton made me a very generous offer.  But the other reason, the more substantive one, was that when I spoke with George, he said that he had returned to tonality, but he felt—and he felt very strongly about this—that tonality was in some sense finished and the only thing that could be done with it was to imitate tonal examples from the past.  He really wanted to write a Beethoven movement, a Bartók movement, a Stravinsky movement, a blues.  He wanted to sort of mimic those styles and was not interested in the conversation that I had with them.  We talked for quite a while about trying to figure out a way to go through those and come up with an individual, distinct style.  And for better or for worse, I’ve been trying to do that most of my life.  I didn’t want to just write a pseudo-Beethoven quartet. That’s absolutely necessary to develop skill, but then you want to try to move beyond that and develop what you think is your individual voice, and he was not really interested in that.  He really saw the return to tonality as an homage to the past.  I wanted to think of the return to tonality as moving forward into the future.  I’m mincing words here, but I think you understand what I mean.

FJO:  It’s so interesting because one of the things I found striking about your music when I first heard it—and the same is true for Michael Dellaira and Eric Ewazen, whose music you also featured in that initial Derriere Guard Festival—is that it doesn’t smack of irony; it doesn’t sound like post-modernism.  It isn’t about referencing.  It isn’t like Schnittke or how tonal melodies reappear in the Alice pieces of David Del Tredici.  I think David has moved beyond that in his own music, to like a full-fledged, almost kind of crazed other path that history could have taken beyond romanticism now, in the music he’s writing in the last, say, 25 years or so, but his initial re-entrance to tonality was aesthetically similar to what Rochberg was doing at that same time.

SdK:  I tried to position it as something post-post-modern.  There was modernism and then post-modernism, which returns to the past but kind of ironically. The same thing happened in architecture.  You get columns again, but they’re in the wrong place.  Things of that sort.  The question for me is: How do you build new buildings which may have columns, but in a more organic way?  How do you write music which may have melodies and harmonies that somehow represent elements of the past, but in a novel way, rather than in an ironic or pastiche manner?  So that was the idea.  That’s why I focused on those kinds of composers, rather than paying homage to clearly incredibly talented composers like Ned Rorem or David Del Tredici or to the minimalists who kind of opened up the door that I think the Derriere Guard was then able to open up further, if that’s the right metaphor.

FJO:  But even though the music itself is not ironic, calling it Derriere Guard spelled G-U-A-R-D, and having as your symbol a little cartoon of a butt, was a bit ironic.

SdK:  Yeah, of course.  Well, I think it was hard for me to have a movement which is not really a movement. I didn’t have a strict ideology.  It was not like you had to write music in a certain way or to paint in a certain way.  The idea was simply to let these new kinds of artistic endeavors have a place to flourish. There are huge divergences between the music of Eric Ewazen and Michael Dellaira and myself and all sorts of other people.  And that’s good.  That’s fine.  That’s wonderful.  I don’t have any problem.  It was just to give a place for that music to flourish. So to give it a serious term was going to give it a kind of ideological credence that I was not looking for.  I really just wanted to kick down some walls and open up some venues.

“You don’t have to dress in black any more.”

Why could only dissonant, harsh, terrible things be represented in The Kitchen?  It’s not monolithic.  You don’t have to dress in black any more to enter its halls.  That’s partly why I had Tom Wolfe there in all white.  I’m being silly here, but you know what I mean.  It’s just to allow a kind of a multiplicity of voices to be honored in a way that I don’t think was as routine as it is today.  I really do think that the establishment itself has been more fragmented in its understanding of what is possible, and what is honorable and interesting to support. You’re much more likely now to go to a concert and hear new pieces on it of very different stylistic bents.  Thirty years ago, it would have been a pretty safe bet what you might have heard.

FJO:  Depending on what neighborhood you were in.

SdK:  Exactly.  That’s what I mean.

FJO:  Yet if you have a concert and you call it a new music concert, you shouldn’t know what you’re going hear.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  If you know what you’re going hear, then how is it a new music concert?

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  That, in fact, is ironic.

SdK:  Yeah.

Stefania de Kenessey standing in front of a red staircase.

FJO:  Alright, so to get to this place, you never wanted to write 12-tone music.  Yet you studied someone who is hailed as the father of total serialism. That’s another irony. So few of Milton Babbitt’s students actually pursued his compositional path. And he didn’t want them to. He wanted people to pursue their own paths.  He wasn’t interested in creating clones.

SdK:  Yes.

FJO: He was so open minded.  He was also obsessed with Broadway theater music.

SdK:  And Chinese food.

FJO:  Yes, and baseball.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  But by the time you were studying with him, you were already well on your path. So when did you first start writing music?  When did you get this idea in your head that you wanted to be a composer?  How did you discover this music?  You and I are roughly the same generation; classical music of any kind wasn’t something that was necessarily nearby when we were growing up.

SdK:  Well, yes and no.  I grew up mostly in the States, but I was actually born in Budapest.  When I was three-years old, my mother decided I was too skinny.  The pediatrician told her to make sure I got regular exercise, so she enrolled me in a rhythmic gymnastics school in Budapest, which was part rhythmic gymnastics, part ballet, part modern dance.  And there was a little old lady at the piano.  Probably not as old as I now remember her being from my vantage point.  She sat at the piano and played music with which I just fell in love when I was three.  And I remember literally falling in love.  I still remember to this day that whenever we weren’t doing exercises I would crawl underneath the piano and just let the sounds wash over me.  And from that day on, two things happened.  One, I started to be able to hear music in my head that I hadn’t heard in those classes.  My recollection is they were either two or three times a week for either two or three hours.  So it was a lot of stuff going on, and lots of music.  I also started to pay attention to what she was playing.  She was playing from real scores.  She never improvised. It turned out to be mostly 18th- and 19th-century stuff.  Some 17th-century repertoire as well.  So following that, I also made my parents let me audition for a music school founded by Zoltán Kodály, so I grew up on Bartók and Kodály. By the time I was 10 or 11, I knew some Schoenberg, some Webern, Shostakovich, and some Stravinsky. So to me, a lot of the discoveries that my peers were making in college about music—the radical music of, say, 1900 to 1930—was part of my lingua franca growing up as a child.  So there was to me nothing particularly revelatory or difficult about dissonant music.

FJO:  Yet you weren’t attracted to it.

“I didn’t fall in love with Schoenberg and Webern.”

SdK:  I wasn’t as attracted to it as I was to the other kinds.  So like I said, it is our blessing and our curse that we have available to us a huge of palette of sounds.  And you might have to make some choices because you can’t do all things all the time.  For me the choice was that I fell in love with the music of, say, Monteverdi and Mozart in ways that I didn’t fall in love with Schoenberg and Webern.  I admire Schoenberg and Webern.  I teach them all the time.  It’s not for lack of respect or lack of understanding, but what I love is just a different kind of music.  And that was always part of my upbringing.  So my path is a little bit different from the typical path because of that particular history.

FJO:  Well, to take it back to the years you were studying, and even the years leading up to formation of the Derriere Guard, to aspire to write music that sounds like, say, Rachmaninoff would have been considered old-fashioned.  Right? Yet to write music that sounds like Webern would not be considered old-fashioned.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  But this is ridiculous because A, they were contemporaries, and B, they’re both long dead.

SdK:  Correct.

FJO:  So they’re both the past.

SdK:  Yes.  You’re absolutely right.  That’s why I try to have a sense of humor about it.  That’s why it’s the Derriere Guard with a humorous name because some of the things we do, if you think about it in a more sophisticated way, don’t make any sense.  They’re just sometimes silly.  Music of the ‘20s is long, long gone, no matter what style it was in.  And the ‘30s and the ‘40s.  And now even the ‘60s and the ‘70s.  I have lots of students who are really proud of themselves because they know some things from the 1960s.  That’s amusing.

FJO:  So in terms of your own music—

SdK:  —I always wrote tonal music.

FJO:  Was there any resistance to it with composition teachers you had?

SdK:  Yes, always. All my composition teachers except for Milton Babbitt.  Sooner or later, they’d say, “This is wonderful, but for the next class, or next lesson, would you be interested in bringing in something along the lines of—” and those lines were typically what they’d been doing.  So that’s why Milton was my favorite teacher, by far. I would bring him, say, a piano trio, and we’d sit down and he’d say, “That transition from the first theme to the second theme, when you’re moving from C to G-flat, do you think that transition is long enough given the harmonic terrain you’re trying to traverse?”  We’d sit and talk about that.  It was absolute heaven.  It really was.  He helped me to think about my music on its own terms.  And that’s the best thing a composition teacher can do is to help, in so far as possible, each composer develop his or her own individual voice.  You can only do that by working on the thing that they are trying to produce.  And working on making that better.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you mention a piano trio, because one of my favorite earlier pieces of yours is a piano trio called Traveling Light.  It’s a gorgeous piece.

SdK:  Oh, that’s very sweet.  Thank you.

FJO:  But what I find even more interesting about it than thinking it sounds gorgeous is that there is harmonic motion in it that I don’t think could have been written in the 19th century.

SdK:  Well, that whole piece is actually modal.  It’s technically in A-major, but it’s got two sharps, so in fact it’s not in A-major in a conventional 19th-century sense.  There are, of course, composers in the 19th century who wrote modal music—Fauré is the prime example of that—but they typically don’t take those harmonic constructions and use them in functional ways.  So one of the things I was doing back then, if I have to explain it theoretically, is taking modal harmonies and modal chords and creating a sense of functional harmony using them.  There are no tonic-dominant relationships.  There is no V-I cadence in that entire piece, for instance.  So instead of veering right towards the dominant, it keeps going leftwards towards the subdominant.  The harmonic motions are always off if you’re measuring them by 19th-century standards.  So yes, in some ways there’s no way that could have been written in the 19th century and that’s exactly what I was playing with.

FJO:  And that was your idea of finding a new path.

SdK:  Well, it was my way of finding a new path at that time.  But yes, I was trying to find a new path.  And I was having great fun with it because I thought I was doing something that nobody had done before.  It was fun.  On the surface of it, it doesn’t sound “radical” or “new” in any sense.  It’s, you know, a piano trio.  Nobody opens up the piano and plays with the strings inside, the violin is just played with the bow. There’s no novelty in that sense.  But I think in fact I had a great time with it because I wrote this long piece where there are no normative harmonic relations among the themes or the instruments or the overall progression.  I had a great time, and I still think it doesn’t duplicate the past even as it participates in the past.  So it’s at least my way of trying to take elements from the past and really shoving them into the future.

FJO:  I’d like to unpack something else you were saying. You said you had no interest in doing serial music.  You also said you had no interest in doing electronic music.  It seems to me that your aesthetics at that time, and the aesthetics of the Derriere Guard overall, were about more than just re-embracing tonality.  You kind of hit on this when you said that nobody is going inside the piano.  The aesthetic was about focusing on certain instrumental sonorities that, even though they are very much still with us, had been developed in the past and also intentionally not using electronics.  Is that a fair assessment?

SdK:  I think that’s fair to say, though again, this is where things do evolve.  Most of the music I’ve written in the last 20 years has been for acoustic instruments and standard instruments.  There’s no question of that.  But in part, that was because there is a genuine difference between electronically mediated sound and acoustic sound.  So that’s number one.  I don’t know what I think about that divide yet, but certainly 20 years ago electronically mediated sounds were just not that good.  They were not that pleasing.  But the technological advances that have occurred in the last two decades are phenomenal.  So the quality of sound you can make now, even with relatively simple software and relatively inexpensive speakers, is just phenomenal.  One of the things I’m doing right now is I’m teaching myself Logic Pro, and the next couple of projects I’m going to work on are going to be using electronically created and electronically mediated sound.

FJO:  Really?

SdK:  Yes, absolutely.

FJO:  Wow.

“The quality of electronically produced sounds was not great. My analogy was always the difference between frozen peas and fresh peas.”

SdK:  So things do change, and they do shift.  Again it wasn’t so much ideological, I just wanted to make sounds that I considered to be really beautiful.  I felt the quality of electronically produced sounds was not great.  My analogy was always the difference between frozen peas and fresh peas.  I eat frozen peas when I need to.  I will dunk them into something. But if you can get fresh peas, it’s just a world of difference.  And now the difference to me is much, much less.  It’s almost imperceptible at times, so I think we’re entering a new terrain, I actually do, which is why it’s always difficult to predict the future.  You never know.  And anybody who pretends to is being silly.

FJO:  But, of course, the other schism is between using electronic sounds to mimic the sounds that we’re already familiar with versus electronic sound offering the possibility to create entirely new sounds.  Maybe new is the wrong word here, but rather sounds that exist on their own terms rather than trying to replicate and never quite getting right things that are already done so well on acoustic instruments.

SdK:  No, I think we are entering a new world of sound.  I think it’s going to be possible—it is possible—to create new sonorities that are, by my standards, very beautiful, but are not replications of standardized sounds. Actually one of the genuine revelations I had this summer is I went to Prague for the first time, and I heard a performance of Figaro in the house that Mozart premiered Don Giovanni in. The revelation to me was that the combination of instruments in the pit—and it was not a large pit—and the voices on the stage was the most perfect combination of Mozart-ian sounds I’d ever heard.  It became clear to me that he really was writing music for that medium.  The voices didn’t have to be loud.  The orchestra didn’t need to be large in order to sound absolutely plush and full.  And the interplay between them was acoustically perfect.  Mozart really was writing for the medium.  One of the things that has inspired me to do is to start to think about writing for the medium.  And frankly, a lot of my music is being heard on computers and computer speakers these days, or on film scores, or even the opera that I wrote, The Bonfire of the Vanities, which we’re now editing so it can be viewed in a theater or shown to opera companies as a filmed product.  A lot of the sounds that we listen to and create are actually being mediated electronically and at the same time, I’m not writing for that.  And that’s a mistake.  So I’m working on actually moving in that direction.

FJO:  That’s so interesting.  Well, one of things that triggered this thought for me was hearing what Artis Wodehouse did with your solo piano piece Sunburst on a Disklavier.  It was extraordinary.  It really worked, but it became a slightly different piece than how I first heard it—performed on a grand piano, which is how you originally conceived it.  Perhaps because of the associations we have with player pianos as antique curiosities, anything that resembles that sound world sounds like it’s from another era. So even though she was using a very contemporary technology on a piece that embraces the harmonic vocabulary of an earlier era, it conjured an earlier technology which actually made it sound older to me than when I heard it performed on a piano.

SdK:  Interesting. That’s funny. The Disklavier itself is an unusual thing if you think about it as an object—a piano that is a piano, but not really a piano.  So it occupies a very strange space in sort of aesthetic or philosophical terms in the history of instruments.

FJO:  But it also made me wonder what kind of a piece you might write had you written something that was originally intended for that medium.

SdK:  Well, it should be different.  I think it should be different.  I didn’t write it specifically for that, so I don’t know what I would do, but yes.  I think I need to start being more responsive to changes in the medium, or the media that are available to me.

FJO:  The other thing about the Derriere Guard aesthetic that perhaps I’m just inferring is it also has to do with performance practice to some extent, the performing aspect of how people play this music and what your preferred sound is for the way this music is played.  And it seems to me that a lot of the music that I’ve heard on recordings and in live performance, it’s really about embracing the performance techniques of players who play the standard repertoire and using performance techniques that are specifically associated with that, like singing with vibrato or playing instruments with a lot of rubato instead of singing with a pure tone or being metronomically precise. So it seems that part of your aesthetic in the way this music is performed is that it is probably more ideally served by players who play older repertoire than people who are “contemporary music specialists.”  Is that fair?

SdK:  That’s absolutely correct.  You’ve hit the nail on the head.  For me, the music needs to breathe in certain kinds of ways, so metronomic exactness of rhythm or tempo is not something that suits the music particularly well.  That’s also part of the reason why I’ve gravitated more and more towards working with singers, because singers take for granted that what they do is inflected by the meaning of the text that they’re singing.  So they will not hesitate to take an extra breath here or to stretch something out there because the emotional context or the word requires it.  Whereas, an instrumentalist might.  And you cannot put in, at the end of every phrase, that it’s the conclusion of a phrase, so make it sound like like the conclusion of a phrase.  Let it just pull back a little bit.  You can’t put those kinds of instructions in the score constantly.  It’s intrusive, and it also takes away the immediacy of the performance, the heat of the moment.

One of my favorite anecdotes about Beethoven is that he was reported never to have performed his pieces the same way twice.  That’s an extraordinary thing.  He was performing his own music.  Presumably, he knew how it went.  But in the heat of the moment, each phrase is going to be slightly different.  And sometimes the fortissimo might be much louder than the others.  And if it is, that might influence a quiet moment coming up.  So if you’re going to have a live performance, let the human being really inflect that live performance.  What I do with that once I get to start writing electronic music is actually particularly interesting.  Because that’s where you set up your tempo and everything is kind of precise in a way that human beings aren’t.  Or they strive to be, but you know, they have to work at it.

A manuscript for a vocal setting by Stefania de Kenessey sits on top of her piano next to a sheet with the text she is setting.

FJO:  And if you’re going to be doing electronic music and incorporating singers into that, you would probably want to use amplification for the singers.

SdK:  Probably.

FJO:  The technique of singing with a microphone is so different.

SdK:  Completely different.

FJO:  Vibrato doesn’t come across too well when it’s amplified.

SdK:  But I’m not a huge fan of vibrato either. I don’t particularly love those big, hooty voices that you hear at the Met.  I understand they’re needed to carry into the stratosphere, but I much prefer smaller voices and more pure, clean tones.  So that I’m totally okay with. But the question of how to make the time a little bit malleable to match the singers is one that is a very complex and vexing one and one that I haven’t solved.  The next opera project, which is just really in its infancy although I have a call to my librettist this afternoon, is we want to write a piece where I would write the score electronically and then we would have the singers sing on top of that for live performances.  How we do this yet, I don’t know.  So don’t ask me.  The details will be figured out, but we are moving in a different direction and in that direction specifically. But I don’t have the answer yet; I’m sorry.  That’s why it’s fun to be an artist because you set up a problem and you work with it. I have this goal, so it’ll keep me busy for the next couple of months.

FJO:  So you say you gravitate toward vocal music because singers know how to respond to a text. I also wonder if you also gravitate toward vocal music because having a text makes the music that much more directly communicative to people.

“To analyze one’s own motivations is the most difficult thing in the world.”

SdK:  Could be.  I don’t know.  To analyze one’s own motivations is the most difficult thing in the world. On the other hand, I would say for the first 10-15 years that I was out in the world and producing music, it was all instrumental.  I wrote piano trios and sonatas, a clarinet quintet and a string quartet—all instrumental stuff.  I’m actually a latecomer to vocal music, in terms of the trajectory of my own career.  I really come out of that Germanic tradition of motivic building and construction.  I moved into the vocal realm, and now I sort of write music on, if anything, the Italian model. I hate these nationalistic labels.  They’re not particularly useful.  But the idea is of these beautiful melodies that you can kind of remember, even sing, engagingly and with pleasure.  But it’s taken a long, long time to have come to that.

FJO:  But interestingly, you mentioned a clarinet quintet. It’s called Shades of Darkness. And your piano trio is named Traveling Light.  You didn’t call any of your pieces, say, Piano Sonata No. 4.

SdK:  Yes, except I did, and then one of my early mentors, Richard Hundley—I had a couple of lessons with him—said, “You’ve got to put different titles on these, otherwise they’ll never catch on.”

FJO:  I agree with him.

SdK:  So I went back, and I listened to my pieces again, and I thought, “What are titles that would actually exemplify what this might be about to a listener?” Originally it was just Clarinet Quintet in G-minor, opus whatever, 13.  Suite for Oboe and Piano.  Not Magic Forest Dances.  All of them had plain, vanilla titles.

FJO:  And opus numbers, too?

SdK:  Yeah.

FJO:  Wow.

SdK:  Yeah.  Because that’s what serious composers did back then.  And around 1990, I stopped numbering because it just got too complicated. I couldn’t care less anymore, and I started giving them titles anyway, so I stopped.  I have no idea where my oeuvre stands.

FJO:  Well, to go back to something you said earlier about the language of music and this desire in the 20th century to constantly innovate and come up with a new idea. One of the functions of art, whether it’s a poem or a painting or a piece of music, if you’re presenting this for an audience, for viewers, for readers, it’s got to communicate in some way.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  So how does that communication happen for the person receiving the work? If I picked up any of the books on your shelves, I’d be able to read them since they’re in English and I’ve spoken and read English all my life. But if one of those books was in Hungarian, I’d be lost since I don’t speak Hungarian.  I wouldn’t get much from it. I’d just be seeing random combinations of letters. Music is sort of tricky because it doesn’t mean anything specific, so we have to metaphorically attach meanings to it, which I think is part of why titles are important.

SdK:  It helps.

FJO:  Yes, and it helps because it grounds it in a way that makes it more comprehensible. But there’s a larger kind of communication here as well, which I think the whole idea of Derriere Guard was trying to tap into, the idea about having recognizable chords and discernible melodies.  It seems to me that part of that was about wanting to communicate more?  But that’s something you haven’t said yet.

SdK:  Sure.  I mean it’s the only reason to write music, for me. It’s not for my drawer or to create a construction of sounds in a particular way, but to communicate to audiences and to move them.  To give them beauty.  To give them pleasure.  To make them think.  All of those things.  I think one of the big problems—I won’t say failures, but one of the serious problems—of 20th-century art music is that it left its audience behind.  And it was not because audiences weren’t trying.  I think the notion in the ‘20s and ‘30s that audiences simply needed to be educated by hearing more and more of this music and being exposed to it, then they would come around, didn’t prove to be true.  There is something about certain kinds of music which are just too difficult, too dissonant, too problematic. If they communicate, they communicate something to an audience that audiences are not able to take in.  So I do think the problem is how to reach audiences, and if we don’t have an audience, then there’s no point in writing music. If nobody’s listening, what are you doing?

FJO: Now you’ve done a lot of vocal music.  You’ve done this beautiful setting of poetry by Dana Gioia.

SdK:  Oh, thank you.

FJO:  The second song in that cycle was another example where I thought, “Okay, this couldn’t possibly be 19th-century music, because it’s filled with all these ninth chords.  Then it ends with this blaring ninth.  That would have been considered tonally unstable.  But to our 21st-century ears, which have lived through a century of pop music where for a decade every song was nothing but major seven chords, those chords aren’t unstable at all.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  Tonality and how we perceive music is really associative and experiential, much like language.

SdK:  Okay.

FJO:  We can communicate with each other because these are words we’ve heard before and that we’ve said before, so there’s no problem communicating. I think we underestimate how music can function that way, too.  There is this kind of associative listening.  You hear something going a certain way, and you’re able to follow it because you’ve heard other things that did it.  Then when it goes somewhere different, like when you subverted harmonic relationships in Traveling Light

SdK: —No leading tones.

FJO:  Yes, you can follow that, because you were expecting it to do certain things from other pieces you’ve heard.  Whereas, if you have a piece that’s in a totally new system, someone who is listening to it is not going to hear what’s new about it because there’s no associative listening that they can go back and say, “Oh, well this references that, but then does something else.”

SdK: That’s true.  Although I actually was just speaking about this to a friend of mine.  One of the interesting things to me now is that the popular music that we’ve been listening to for the last 20, 30 years is this constant amalgam of both what we would call tonal music and modal music.  Half the songs have leading tones, but half of them don’t.  They just have flats.  I think for listeners today, they’re equivalent in a way that they weren’t equivalent to me when I was a child.  I could really hear tonality and tonal music, blues, driving rock and roll, and Eastern European folk music, as all really somehow distinct.  But I think they’re no longer distinct to contemporary ears.  And that speaks to your point that the reference points are very different today.  In that sense, they’re more open and more engaged.  But tonality still persists.  There is something about those damn triads and the fifths. It’s hard to get rid of that stuff as being somehow elementally pleasurable.  And I think elementally pleasurable and intelligent should not be opposites.  I think they can be combined and really innovative in interesting ways.

FJO:  So then who’s the audience for this music?

“There’s a thirst for a kind of new music that has some of the sophistication of the past, but is also fresh sounding and speaks to contemporary concerns.”

SdK:  I would love for it to be a relatively broad audience, not just the few thousand who would go to concerts.  Obviously not the millions and millions who have never heard Beethoven or Monteverdi.  But something in between. I do think there’s a large group of people in between who’ve heard music of the past, of the classical canon, but feel that it’s very, very distant.  And the only other kind of music they know is pop music of, say, the last 30 years.  Maybe some jazz from the ‘30s, stuff like that.  I think there’s a huge gap and a huge opening, a thirst for a kind of new music that has some of the sophistication of the past, but is also fresh sounding and speaks to contemporary concerns.  So that’s my goal.  Whether one meets that goal is another question or another story.  But that’s certainly the audience that I try to speak to.

FJO:  So, I’d like to talk about your opera, Bonfire of the Vanities, which was based on a very famous book.  And that book was also made into a famous movie, so theoretically it’s something that has a hook for the general public.

SdK:  That’s partly why I was interested in it and, of course, I loved the novel.  I don’t think there was a single chapter when I wasn’t bent over with laughter.  Although, you’d be surprised. I would say people 35 and over have heard of it, but the younger generation has not heard of the book—or the movie, for that matter.  So again, times are changing.  They really are.  The book doesn’t have the kind of resonance for younger people that it does for me or our generation.

<Bonfire of the Vanities, the opera, trailer footage (excerpts from concert 2-10-14) from Burgeon & Flourish, LLC on Vimeo.

FJO:  Another thing I thought is that when you set a text, whether it’s poetry or a storyline that’s been adapted into the libretto for an opera, there are certain things in the original work that help guide where you go musically.  When I learned that you were writing an opera based on this novel, I was slightly surprised. I initially thought that Bonfire of the Vanities is very urban and gritty and quite far away from your sound world, but it actually isn’t. People’s immediate association with operatic singing in a tonal context is with the 19th century, the gilded age. People nowadays don’t sound like that. However, that sound world also has specific class associations and that’s actually a big part of what that book is about. So I’m wondering if that was an ingredient in terms of you wanting to write music that reflected the status of these characters in some way.

SdK:  I wanted to write an opera along the lines of, say, Carmen, which has some terrific tunes and has a nitty-gritty series of events.  In Bonfire, there’s a black kid who eventually gets run over and he dies. It’s a horrible story on some levels, but it’s still ironic and satiric and makes fun of the upper class.  And I thought that’s the kind of story that doesn’t get told very often in opera.  How cool would it be to write an opera that is in some sense very operatic.  The soprano has to do pianissimo high Cs.  It has all those trappings, but also is going to attract people who don’t normally come to the world of opera and sort of pull them into this world that’s more sophisticated than the kind of music that they listen to outside the opera house.

So, in that sense, the conjunction of differing kinds of class or stylistic endeavors was deliberate.  And I also used a trap set in that, for instance.  Not in all the numbers, but a bunch of them have drums, and it kicks into rhythm the way good rock and roll does at appropriate moments.  Again, I’m toying with how to maintain a level of contrapuntal and structural sophistication that I associate with music of the past, but bring it into the present, or the future, with both sonorities—drum sets and singing styles—that are a little less operatic.  And subject matter that is entirely contemporary and can resonate with contemporary audiences. So I don’t know if that answers your question or not.  But in that sense, it’s a stylistic blend of different things that are associated with different classes.

FJO:  That definitely answered it.  I was struck when we walked into the apartment.  I saw the grand piano and I saw the trap set.  That was the first thing that I noticed.

SdK:  That’s me.

A grand piano and a drum set are side by side in Stefania de Kenessey's living room.

FJO:  People talk about the 20th century and say Schoenberg emancipated dissonance, but I think the larger thing that happened in the 20th century was embracing percussion on equal terms to other instrumental sonorities.  When I went back and I listened to your two 9/11 memorial song cycles, I was struck by very prominent foregrounded percussion in both of those cycles.  And, once again, I thought to myself that there’s no way anyone could say this music could have been written in the 19th century, because it wouldn’t have been.  People would not have foregrounded percussion that way.

SdK:  Right, the European tradition doesn’t do that.  Correct.  Yeah.  And that’s a real mistake. Again, I’m coming relatively late to this.  It’s just been the last 10-15 years that I’ve been doing this.  But yeah, the rhythmic component of music—which is so important and such a source of pleasure by the way, raw physical pleasure—is not a part of the European canon.  There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be.  Just because you have a drum set doesn’t mean you can only do a groove.  One of the things I was working on in those songs, and in other works as well, is to use percussion in a way that actually goes along with the narrative arc that I’ve created.  It’s not just a groove that you start and then you know exactly where it’s going to end three minutes later.  The idea is to progress along with the rest of the musical material.  But that’s eminently doable.  There’s no reason why that can’t be done.

FJO:  Nowadays you are teaching, so you’re now in the position with students that Milton Babbitt was in with you.  You mentioned that you present Schoenberg and Webern in your music history class.  In terms of teaching composition, what paths are your students taking?  Do you try to guide them in certain ways?  Or let them be themselves?  How do you do for them what Milton did for you and what maybe the others didn’t do for you in terms of not being supportive?

SdK:  First of all, I really believe you have to let individual voices blossom on their own because just teaching them to be me, when I barely know who I am, is a difficult proposition and not particularly useful.  But I also believe in teaching techniques.  Craft is important.  You have to know what you’re doing at that basic physical level.  What I try to do more than anything else is to teach them to problematizes, or think about issues that are relevant in any kind of music.  For instance, in the spring, I’m going to be teaching a composition and analysis class.  And the analysis will be to make them listen to certain kinds of music, and look at certain kinds of compositional devices or problems.  And sometimes they’re very simple, but they’re things they don’t think of.

“You have to let individual voices blossom on their own.”

For instance, I ask them to listen to Debussy’s Afternoon of a Fawn and it turns out of course that the flute melody is never presented the same way. Well, the first two iterations are almost identical, but none of the others are.  So the first thing they have to do is write a melody which begins the same way, but goes in five different directions.  That’s something which problematizes an issue: What is melodic construction like?  It makes them acquire craft, because you have to be able to write a melody in five different, very distinct ways, but it also enables them to write music in any style or genre they like.  It’s not prescriptive. It can be rock-ish.  It can be electronic-ish.  It can be classical-ish.  I don’t care about the -ish.  Look at melody and melodic shape and what it means to vary it considerably and what it does to narrative structure long term, if you have melodies that progress in different ways.  So that’s one way of encouraging people to write music which I don’t think makes them write music like me or like Debussy, or like anything else.  It enables them to develop their own style, even as they learn certain kinds of technical abilities.  And that’s just kind of emblematic of the kinds of things I do.  I set up compositional problems for them, and then ask them to solve it in their own voice, and then I help them in their own voice.  But the compositional problem also lifts it out of the realm of personal expression. At some point, you want to express yourself, but you also want to just be able to make mistakes—try out stuff and goof around, try this and have that fail, and just develop a sense of craft.  So I’m very, very eager to do that, and I stress that a lot.

FJO:  Have you ever had any students who’ve wanted to write atonal or 12-tone music?

SdK:  Not too many is the honest answer.  You have to remember, I’m teaching at Eugene Lang College, not at Mannes College of Music.  Some of them go into music history or music theory or composition, but many of them wind up going into popular music, either as producers or performers or creators.  They tend to veer in that direction.  Not exclusively, but they tend to.

FJO:  I’m curious though, what your advice would be to a composer who did want to go in that direction.  Could you be the Milton Babbitt for that person?

SdK:  Absolutely.  I mean, if I can be, if I can support somebody who’s writing noise or grunge music or electronica or whatever, which are not my daily bread and butter, I certainly can do 12-tone music.  So yes.  The example I just gave you of writing a melody that goes in five different directions; that could be a 12-tone exercise easily.  In terms of the kind of aesthetic precepts that students bring with them, I think it’s very important to let them experience those and enrich them and let them blossom.  Otherwise, you’re getting in the way and not helping.

FJO:  So to the larger question, to return it full circle, you said there is no need to do a 20th anniversary of Derriere Guard. So, do you feel people’s perceptions have changed about what new music means?

SdK:  Which people?

FJO:  People, the community, the audience for it. I mean, what does new music mean now?

SdK:  I don’t know.  I’m being facetious in answering because I think it’s a very confusing and confused time.  I think new music can kind of mean almost anything these days.  Which is both wonderful and terrifying, because it can mean anything.  I think in some ways a lot of possibilities have opened up, but I’m also less and less sure that new music as a concept is as meaningful as it was, say, 20 years ago.  So I’m not sure.  I’m not sure what’s happening with what we mean by new music.  I’m not sure what’s happening with concert music or art music.  It’s a very interesting and difficult time.

FJO:  You know, we’re almost 20 years into a new century at this point, a new millennium. When we look back to the year 1917, Schoenberg and his followers were saying that the 19th century is the past.  For us, the 20th century is that now.

SdK:  The past.  Right.

FJO:  So, are there hallmarks of the 21st century that are distinct from the 20th?  Could we now say, “Oh well, that’s stuff that was called new music, but that’s actually old music.  And new music now is something else.”  Are we there yet?

SdK:  I don’t think so.  I think from my vantage point at least we’re still in that phase of what I would call post-post-modern experimentation—of trying to find something that kind of unifies us all.  And I don’t think we’ve come to that point.  Maybe we never will.  Maybe that’s the future.  Or maybe there are only going to be different kinds of new musics.  That’s also possible.  I don’t know.  When I go to concerts, or when I listen to the work that’s being done, it’s just all over the map.  Stylistically it’s wonderful.  I love it.  I love the variety.  But I don’t get the feeling that there’s kind of—what I was calling earlier—a lingua franca of new music.  Some people embrace pop.  Some people still embrace serialism.  Some people embrace dissonance.  Some people embrace consonance.  Some people embrace the European idea of a narrative kind of music.  Some people think that it should really be kind of cyclical and non-narrative.  I don’t have the sense, at least right now, that we’re any better at finding an answer to how to combine those things than we were, say, 10-15 years ago.

FJO:  So earlier, when we were talking about the difference between Brahms and Wagner and how we can now see the similarities. Maybe we can’t say that yet with all of the music that’s happening now, but I imagine one day somebody might.

SdK:  Yeah, you were saying that earlier.  I think that’s possible.  But I do think that perhaps the range of sounds that we’re exploring today is larger than the range of sounds being explored between Brahms and Wagner.  I mean, you could put those guys in the same room and describe the parameters with which they worked.  If you tried to do the equivalent for all the new music today, you would need a stadium to house all those parameters.  So I think you are right to some extent, but I also think the playing field has increased and has gotten so large—again, that’s one of the blessings and one of the curses of our era is that there’s so much variety out there that’s possible. There’s a huge variety of sonorities, and approaches to sonorities, and approaches to audiences, and to subject matter.  So I don’t have that sense of clarity or even of semi-clarity that I would say I can impose on the world of Brahms and Wagner.

FJO:  And then when you open it up to other genres—is the word genre even relevant to 21st-century music?

SdK:  Right.  I don’t know.  I suspect not.  I think we’re seeing a genuine revolution in all sorts of ways in music.  Again, partly because of the wealth of sounds that are available to us and are known to us, and partly because the way in which we make sound is less and less the way sound used to be made, which is by learning to play acoustic instruments.  I’m always struck by my students: I give them 24 hours and they will return with a passable version of a pop song very nicely produced.  They may not play any instrument or sing.  They don’t have any music notation.  They don’t play an instrument, never have played guitar, piano, anything.  They know how to manipulate sounds via Ableton Live or Logic Pro or whatever program they’re using.  So it really is a different world out there, and I’m not quite sure how all these pieces fit together yet.  I really am not.

FJO:  But part of the whole Derriere Guard aesthetic was about not wanting to lose the things of the world before all of this.  The sound of a violin.  The sound of a piano being played on the keys.  Sounds that are not amplified.  Where does that fit in with this new world we’re now in?

“The great beauty of Bach or Beethoven or Brahms is that it’s just as pleasurable to my brain as it is to my heart and ears.”

SdK:  Well A, I’m not sure, but B I don’t think that stuff will ever disappear.  The love for that will certainly never disappear.  There’s no question of that.  To what extent that will be a major centerpiece of artistic endeavors, it’s hard to say. There’s less and less support for high art—I hate that term, but there it is.  So I don’t know to what extent that will flourish any more than in a corner.  There’s always the danger of it being turned into a museum piece. For me, part of the beauty of that old tradition is certainly the sound of a violin or the sound of a piano, but it’s also a level of what I would call complexity married to beauty in kind of a 50-50 melt. Obviously I can’t actually demonstrate quantifiably that it’s 50-50.  But for me, the great beauty of Bach or Beethoven or Brahms is that it’s just as pleasurable to my brain as it is to my heart and ears.  It’s really a 50-50 combination of those two.  And that is the thing that’s crucial to me in my music.  How one does that—it’s not uninteresting, but that’s not the question for me; it is how to maintain that.  And to me personally, that’s the important thing, and that’s what I try to do in Bonfire of the Vanities: write something that on the surface has some beautiful melodies and really transports you into the worlds of these people.  But if you listen, it actually has a kind of complexity to it that would not be embarrassing if it were played after a Mozart opera.  I’m trying to do both, and that to me is the heart and soul of all of what I think cannot be or should not be jettisoned from the history of Western music.

George Walker: Concise and Precise

The shocking massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015 prompted composer George Walker to pay tribute to its nine victims in his latest orchestra work, Sinfonia No. 5.

“I decided I would write my own texts, a few lines given to five different speakers, and to show a photo of Charleston,” Walker explained when we visited him at his home in Montclair, New Jersey. “I had been to Charleston before the massacre, but I was uncertain that I had been in the church where the massacre occurred. I found out that I had not, but the horrific events that occurred there and elsewhere will always remain etched in my imagination.”

While it’s certainly not the first time a composer felt compelled to create music in response to a great tragedy, what makes Walker’s case much rarer is that when he completed the composition last year he was 94 years old. When we visited Juan Orrego-Salas in 2014, just a few weeks after his 95th birthday, he told us he stopped composing shortly after he turned 90, claiming that he had written all he had to write. Admittedly, there have been some significant works by nonagenarians—Havergal Brian’s last two symphonies, Jeronimas Kačinskas’s fourth string quartet, Leo Ornstein’s last two piano sonatas, and tons of pieces by Elliott Carter, who then went on to compose 18 works after his 100th birthday. But, to the best of my knowledge, Walker’s new symphonic work is the only such piece by a living composer that age. Certainly, it’s the only work by a prominent living nonagenarian whose music has been featured on dozens of recordings and who has received the Pulitzer Prize in Music.

But what perhaps makes Walker’s story even more unusual is that while he is now arguably the eldest statesman among still-active composers, he began his career as a child prodigy. He started studying the piano at the age of five, composing as a teenager, and had become something of a cause célèbre by his early 20s. He made his New York piano recital debut at Town Hall at the age of 23 in a program of mostly standard repertoire, which also featured three of his own compositions. In a review published the following morning in The New York Times, Walker was hailed as “an authentic talent of marked individuality and fine musical insight.” The following year, Walker’s still popular Lyric for String Orchestra (originally titled Lament), which he had arranged from a movement of his first string quartet written in memory of his grandmother, received its premiere in a radio broadcast conducted by his Curtis classmate and good friend Seymour Lipkin.

“Seymour had always wanted to be a conductor,” Walker remembered. “I said to him, ‘If I add a double bass to the second movement of my string quartet, would you play it?’ Just like that. … It was just right on the spot. And he said yes. So I rushed home and put the parts together and gave it to him and they played it.”

Following this initial success, Walker began a wide range of works, spanning repertoire for solo piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, chorus, and numerous songs. Throughout the ensuing seven decades, he has remained a staunch champion of traditional classical forms—to date, he was written ten sonatas, two string quartets, and formidable concertos for piano, violin, cello, and trombone. Yet his music has been hardly retrogressive. “When you can’t get beyond Sibelius, you’re an idiot!” he animatedly quipped at one point. And over the course of nearly three quarters of a century, his music grew considerably more complex, often veering toward atonality. He even briefly flirted with serialism in his 1960 solo piano composition Spatials. “I always felt that there are certain limitations to 12-tone music, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a short work that was strict,” he opined. “[O]ne can achieve a certain freshness within the limitations of the repetitions of the kind of sonorities that one can expect from 12-tone music, because it doesn’t go on for too long.”

If there’s any quality that distinguishes all of Walker’s music it’s its conciseness and preciseness. Maybe that’s why he has now composed five relatively brief works he has titled sinfonias and has eschewed the composition of large-scale symphonies. “Things that are overly embellished, or that are too rich, just don’t suit my temperament,” he acknowledged. “The sinfonias are all extremely concise works.… [T]he idea of conciseness as opposed to an extended work was always in my mind when writing these pieces; I thought that they also might be easy to program, which they have not been.”

There was a somewhat uncharacteristic touch of disappointment in Walker’s voice as he said this—Walker is always extremely poised and disciplined. His aesthetics remained seemingly impervious to passing trends. But he’s now 95 and has still not been able to secure a date for the premiere performance of Sinfonia No. 5. However, never one to wait for others to make things happen, Walker hired an orchestra, the Sinfonia Varsovia, and a conductor, Ian Hobson—who together have now recorded virtually all of Walker’s orchestral compositions for Albany Records—to make a studio recording of his new work so at least he can hear it. He’s hoping to release it within the year so others can listen to it as well. He played us the first proof following our lengthy discussion through a high-end audio system that takes pride of place in his living room. It is visceral music, totally appropriate given the subject matter to which he was responding. But there are also moments of tenderness and beauty. It is music that offers hope, which is extremely cathartic, even though, for Walker, beauty might be a by-product but it is not an explicit goal.

“I don’t think in terms of creating beauty,” Walker pointed out. “If the effect is such that people get a sense that this is beautiful, that’s fine. But they’re missing so much. I want to create elegant structures.”

George Walker in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Walker’s home in Montclair, New Jersey
August 18, 2017—11:30 a.m.
Video presentations by Molly Sheridan

Photography by Molly Sheridan and Frank Schramm (where noted)
Plus historic photos, courtesy of George Walker, which also appear in George Walker’s autobiography
George Walker: Reminiscences of an American Composer and Pianist
Conversation transcribed by Julia Lu


Frank J. Oteri:  In an interview with Thomas May that was published in Strings magazine at the end of June, you mentioned that you began composing just to release energy after long hours of practicing the piano.  It’s pretty amazing to me that some of the first fruits of that part-time release of energy were your gorgeous Prelude and Caprice for piano.  But it’s more amazing to me that you almost didn’t become a composer.  We’re very lucky that you did.

George Walker:  Yes, it’s rather astonishing. One of my reasons for being in college was to have the opportunity of playing on the tennis team, which I had done and given up; I played freshman tennis.  In my autobiography I mentioned that I met another freshman in my first year at the Oberlin Conservatory; his name was Bob Crane.  I asked Bob, “What’s your major?”  And he said composition.

George Walker's photo and a quote about him that appeared in the 1937 Yearbook of Dunbar High School in Washington. D.C.

From the 1937 Yearbook of Dunbar High School in Washington. D.C.

I’d never heard of anyone majoring in composition.  My limited background had been associating with persons who were interested in learning how to play the piano. And in Washington, D.C., where I grew up, I had two close friends who studied the violin. But not composition.  So then I asked him, “What are you writing?”  And he said a fandango.  I’d never heard of a fandango before.  I had a strong background with French and Latin, so I knew it wasn’t French and I knew it wasn’t Latin.  It sounded Spanish.

“I’d never heard of anyone majoring in composition.”

Then in my junior year at Oberlin, I had been fortunate in obtaining the very first job I ever had in my life.  I had become the organist for the Oberlin Theological Seminary.  When I came to Oberlin, I had not ever played the organ. My first organ teacher was Arthur Crowley. He sensed that I could be an organist and I played in an organ recital in my very first year. Then I studied with Arthur Poister, who had played from memory all the works of Bach. So I got to know many of the great Bach works; I had a great respect for Bach. And I played a work of Leo Sowerby from memory on a month’s notice, the Passacaglia from his symphony.  As the organist for the Oberlin Theological Seminary, I had access to the organ at any time of the day, particularly at night.  I would go almost every night and improvise on the organ, like Bach.  I had a morning service five days a week in which I would play hymns.  And at the end of each service, I would improvise something.

FJO: Did you write any of those down?

GW:  I never wrote down anything.  The improvisation was my earliest attempt at exploring harmonic developments that were unusual to conclude.  In my music, I think in almost every piece, there’s a different type of cadence.  So there’s a carryover from that.

FJO:  Another thing you said in that interview with Thomas May was that you thought that studying composition would make you a better pianist.  But I think, in fact, what happened was that playing the piano and also playing the organ early on made you a better composer.  It made you write idiomatically for instruments and to be sensitive, and, because the organ literature is so filled with counterpoint, it inspired you to create music that is filled with inner voices.

GW: But then I decided that I was going to discontinue my organ studies because I had been chosen to play Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the Oberlin Conservatory Orchestra, and I wanted to concentrate on my senior recital.  So in making the decision to discontinue with the organ, I thought I’d try one semester of composition to see what it’s like.  So the very first semester of my senior year, I took composition with Normand Lockwood, who was the composition teacher there. In that one semester I was introduced to some songs of Charles Ives and, not to Le Sacre du Printemps by Stravinsky, but to his Symphony of Psalms.  The semester was spent essentially going from writing a single vocal line to writing a line with accompaniment, then finding a text and setting that text.  The song that I set to the text of Paul Lawrence Dunbar [“Response”] emanates from that.

FJO:  It’s that early?

GW:  That early.

FJO:  It’s a beautiful song.

George Walker at a piano pensively studying a score in 1941.

George Walker at a piano pensively studying a score in 1941.

GW:  Shortly after that, after I discontinued my lessons, I wrote the Caprice. The Prelude and Caprice are linked together, but the Prelude was written for my New York debut; the Caprice was the first work I ever wrote for piano. Then when I went to Curtis, I wanted to be able to spend five hours a day practicing the piano. At Oberlin, I was involved in so many more things, just even going from building to building and looking for a piano to practice on. But the classes at Curtis were less significant in terms of what one was expected to do for them and in them. I had a lesson a week with [Rudolf] Serkin, then I’d go back home and practice. I found myself walking almost a mile to the library to listen to recordings at night, but still I had a lot of energy.  Then one day I encountered one of the students at Curtis and in the conversation I found out that he was studying composition with Rosario Scalero.  I asked him what he was writing, and he said he was doing counterpoint.  I had had four years of counterpoint at Oberlin along with fugue and canon, so I thought, “Well, if that’s all he’s doing, I can do that!”  I spoke to [the registrar] Jane Hill, who scheduled everything, and I asked her if it would be possible for me to submit something to Scalero to be considered to be a student of his, even though he’d already selected his students for that year.  And she said she would be willing to do it.  So the two pieces that I submitted were “Response” and the Caprice.

The program for George Walker's debut piano recital at New York's Town Hall: J.S. Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp minor from WTC Bk II; Beethoven's Sonata opus 101; Robert Schumann's Kreisleriana; (intermission); three pieces by Walker (receiving their world premiere performances); Chopin's Barcarolle plus four etudes (C-sharp minor, G-flat major, G-flat minor, and B minorf); and Prokofieff's Toccata, opus 11.

The program for George Walker’s debut piano recital at New York’s Town Hall on November 13, 1945 included the world premiere performances of three short original compositions by Walker.

FJO:  To go back even earlier than when you were at Oberlin, to be so immersed in the sound world of classical music growing up in D.C. was very unusual.  Although recordings were starting to become available of some of the standard repertoire, they still weren’t very common.  So I’m curious about how you came to know and love this music. I know there was a piano in your home growing up.

GW:  Music came into my life from what my mother had. The books that she had acquired and I assume that she must have bought when she was in high school or after she was in high school.  She bought the piano that I first started to bang on. My first teacher, when I started out, had me playing things out of [John] Thompson, but there was a certain curiosity I suppose for me when I learned that I could read music.  When I found that I could do that, I started to explore and I went through everything that mother had acquired. I would ask her when she would go downtown to do shopping to look for certain things, and she would go to the music store and bring them back.

FJO:  So maybe you’d play one piece by a composer and then you would want to play the others.  When did you start making those associations?

GW:  For some reason, I think I had a sort of innate taste for what I liked, and I chose what I liked.  Schirmer Music, for example, used to have several excerpts of works printed on the back of sheet music that you would buy. I would play through those and I’d say to myself, “I like this.” I think I developed a sense of discrimination quite early about what I liked and what I didn’t think was worth anything.

FJO:  What would be an example of that?

GW:  Well, when I started with my second piano teacher, I was introduced to a lot of what was considered contemporary music like Cyril Scott, [Selim] Palmgren, [Edvard] Grieg, and [Erno] Dohnányi. Cyril Scott with those luscious chords was too luscious for me.

FJO:  Why were they too luscious?

GW:  I don’t know whether there’s something innate that relates to my father, who was very direct, almost taciturn, very precise. But things that are overly embellished, or that are too rich, just don’t suit my temperament.

FJO:  Interesting.  It’s also interesting that your parents were always fine about you becoming a musician. They were both completely supportive.

“Things that are overly embellished, or that are too rich, just don’t suit my temperament.”

GW:  They never said anything to the contrary.

FJO:  And your father was a doctor.

GW:  Yes.

FJO:  He didn’t want you to become a doctor?

GW:  My father never broached the idea of my taking over his office, which was downstairs, or even taking courses that would lead to a medical degree.  I knew his friends.  I was very fond of his friends— physicians, dentists, West Indians.  There was something so remarkable about my father.

FJO:  You were also very close to your grandmother.

GW:  Yes.

FJO:  Her death prompted you to write the work that became your first huge success as a composer, the gorgeous Lyric for Strings, which is a string orchestra arrangement of one of the movements from your first string quartet.  I’m curious how that piece came about.

GW:  I had been fortunate in being given a Town Hall recital by Efrem Zimbalist. After that recital, which was very successful, I played the Third Piano Concerto of Rachmaninoff with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and that was very successful.  I had graduated from Curtis, and since I was living in Philadelphia, I asked at Curtis if I could continue to study with Rosario Scalero.  I still had the use of my piano, which was loaned from Curtis, but I didn’t want to study with Serkin; I didn’t want to study the piano. I had obtained the diploma in piano and composition, so this was a rather unusual request, but they were so nice.  When they agreed to the idea, I had already decided that I would like to write a string quartet.  This came about, I think, in part because the summer after my first year at Curtis, my mother insisted that although I was at Curtis, and although it’s a very prestigious institution, I should have a master’s degree, which I would not be getting from Curtis.  So I went [back] to Oberlin in the summer to begin work on a master’s degree, and I met a person with whom I was supposed to be studying composition, Ludwig Lenel.  He was actually the godson of the great German organist and musicologist Albert Schweitzer. I had been introduced to Lenel by my teacher Arthur Poister when he first came over from Germany because Poister wanted me to show Lenel how the organ in our chapel worked.  He was a composer of sorts, so I was going to take composition along with piano towards a master’s degree. It was not a very happy choice.  But in talking with him about composition, he brought up the Ravel String Quartet. I knew the Debussy String Quartet.  I listened to the Ravel and I never heard the use of so many things in that work before.  It fascinated me.  I didn’t want to write like Ravel and I didn’t want to write like Debussy, but the medium [then] fascinated me more so than writing any other work. My graduation piece for my diploma in composition was a violin sonata.

FJO:  That’s a work you no longer acknowledge.

GW:  That’s correct. I thought there was a little taste of Brahms in there, which I didn’t want to expose.

George Walker's grand piano.

A score for a later Sonata for Violin and Piano, which George Walker still acknowledges, sits on his piano.

FJO:  Did you destroy the piece, or did you save it?

GW:  I never saved it.  It was performed, and it was reviewed very well.  Scalero liked it.  Scalero suggested I send it to the Bearns Prize at Columbia University; he liked it that much.  It was the only time anybody at Curtis had ever suggested that I submit anything for an award.  But I didn’t feel that it had enough of an individualist quality to it, so I didn’t keep it.  I didn’t know what I could do after that, so I concentrated on the string quartet.

FJO:  And as you were writing it, your grandmother with whom you were very close, died.

GW:  When she passed, it was like a realization that our family was crumbling. She and my mother were like sisters. Without my grandmother, my mother had no one to talk to.  My father was not a very talkative person, and he was in and out of the house.  He had patients.  He was downstairs in the basement, or he was out doing this or that. My grandmother lived in our house.  She was in her late ’80s or early ‘90s. When we were going off to school in the morning at eight o’clock, she was downstairs sitting down and having breakfast with us every morning. And every morning, she was in the kitchen helping my mother peel potatoes or apples. Many times she was washing dishes, and I was wiping dishes for her.  Yet she never went out of the house. For someone to have endured what she had to have endured, not to have even talked about it, and yet, when I would say Toscanini is on in ten minutes, she and my mother would come into the library and listen.

FJO:  So it’s so fitting that you memorialized her by taking a movement from your string quartet and arranging it for string orchestra and that it actually received its premiere on the radio.  She would have loved the music that you wrote.

GW:  Yes.

FJO:  But how did it wind up getting premiered on the radio?

GW:  I was in the so-called Common Room at Curtis and I saw Seymour Lipkin. We were very close friends—Seymour and I began to study with Serkin at the same time.  After my audition to enter Curtis, my father had met me at Penn Station, taken a cab, and he waited for me until after the audition. I’ll never forget, it was raining just like today, and my father had his rubbers wrapped up in a newspaper, and we were about to leave. Just as we got to the door, we were called back by the registrar and asked to go upstairs.  We went upstairs and were ushered into a room, and there the secretary Mr. Mathis said, “We want to tell you that you’ve been accepted.” And in two minutes, in comes Seymour and they tell him the same thing.  He had been a student at Curtis, but it has always been a rule that when your teacher leaves for any reason at all, his students are out.  So Seymour had to audition again and Serkin had taken him.

Anyway, in the Common Room Seymour tells me, “I’m conducting these concerts on the radio with a string orchestra.”  It turned out to be some concerts sponsored by a bank.  Seymour had always wanted to be a conductor.  And I said to him, “If I add a double bass to the second movement of my string quartet, would you play it?” Just like that.  I’d never spoken to anybody about that. Of course I knew Barber had done that, but I never talked about it in front of anybody else.  It was just right on the spot.  And he said yes.  So I rushed home and put the parts together and gave it to him and they played it. It was called Lament because of my grandmother.

FJO:  What made you change the name from Lament to Lyric?

GW:  Because I knew there was a work of Howard Hanson called Lament for Beowulf  So when the conductor at the Mellon Art Gallery, Richard Bales, chose to do it on a program, I changed it to Adagio, and he played it, and it was reviewed as Adagio.  But that was too close to the Barber so I decided against retaining that title.

FJO:  But there are loads of Adagios and there are also loads of Laments. In fact, you wrote a gorgeous art song called “Lament.”

GW:  That was the title of a Countee Cullen poem I found after I moved to New Jersey. I came here in ’69.  I don’t remember how I got that volume of poems; it must have been from the ’70s, but I have it here.

Outside George Walker's house in Montclair, New Jersey.

The house in Montclair, New Jersey, where George Walker has lived since 1969 (photo by Frank Schramm).

FJO:  There’s a comment you made about writing music in your autobiography that I’d like to talk more about with you. You wrote that writing music is not so much about inspiration as it is about the force of will.

GW:  Yes, I had to make up my mind about what I wanted to do because I realized that for me, the beginning is so important. The beginning consists of finding the right notes and finding the right rhythm, then trying to determine what the character of that beginning is and how it will progress. I can’t say that I can translate anything that I see or read or hear into that without trying to script what will fit satisfactorily in a way that will give me the confidence to continue.

FJO:  You also said recently to somebody that when you compose music, that’s the time that the ideas come—the notes, the rhythms, and everything. If you’re not working on a specific piece of music, you don’t necessarily have music running through your head.

GW:  Things change.  I find right now with my obsession with the Sinfonia No. 5 that I’m constantly rethinking what I have done and trying to find alternatives that I could have chosen. It’s become almost a bit annoying that I just can’t completely put it aside.  But I think that has been an unusual type of diversion from the way I normally work. In the past, I’ve always avoided trying to keep ideas in my head.

FJO:  Just for the sheer practicality of wanting to move on to the next piece after you finish writing something?

GW:  Yes.

FJO:  But what you say about force of will rather than inspiration and being able to compartmentalize when you create a musical idea is very contrary to the myth that many people believe about composing music. You must have this tune in your head that you have to get out.  And you rush home to a piece of paper or you write it in the back of a car.  For you, it’s always been much more systematic. You compose only during certain hours in the day. Maybe this came about because you began composing after hours of practice, and you had to have specific time set aside for composing.

GW:  Well, I do have ideas that come to me. Sometimes I feel lazy if I don’t find a piece of paper and a pencil and put them down, but it doesn’t mean—and I have tried this—that they turn out to be significant.  And I don’t actually work every day by any means.  Sometimes I don’t work over a period of time.  I only jot down a few notes at a time.  But what I do find is that I can come back and pick up where I left off.  There is continuity despite the discontinuity in terms of time. I’m not at a loss when I sit down and find that after six notes, I don’t know where I am.

George Walker's hand holding a pencil and writing on a page of music notation paper.

George Walker writing music (photo by Frank Schramm).

“I can come back and pick up where I left off. There is continuity despite the discontinuity in terms of time.”

FJO:  What’s so interesting about the whole inspiration question and the myth of inspiration is that it also ties into the belief in how something beautiful is created, as well as the whole notion of what beauty is. I think of pieces like the First String Quartet and the Lyric, but also the Cello Sonata and the Trombone Concerto. To my ears, these are all extremely beautiful pieces.  But you probably didn’t start out having a specific melody in your head for any of them.  These beautiful melodies emerged from what you were putting together when you came up with the structure for these pieces.

GW:  Yes. And, as a matter fact, I don’t think in terms of creating beauty.  I can understand how people may get a little annoyed about the fact that I seem to be more concerned about things like the technical aspect of composition, but I think that is what enables me to find the things that somehow manage to become a part of the fabric that people recognize. As I look back, I think about so many things in almost every work that people do not notice that are very important. For example, in the Trombone Concerto, there’s a consistent dissonance in the first moment, but people aren’t affected by that dissonance.  And when the trombone melody comes in, the melodic aspects are so unconventional; I’m using nine or ten different notes in that melody. That’s the same with the Passacaglia of my Address for orchestra. The great C minor Passacaglia for organ by Bach is so conventional in its use of tonic relationships. When you have something that’s literally modulating and comes back, to be able to do something like that is, to me, more interesting as a composer. If the effect is such that people get a sense that this is beautiful, that’s fine.  I want to create elegant structures.

FJO:  So listeners being able to discern this level of detail is important to you.

GW:  It is very important.

“I don’t think in terms of creating beauty… but if the effect is such that people get a sense that this is beautiful, that’s fine.”

FJO:  But a lot of people who listen to music, especially now and even among people who love this music, don’t necessarily have the training to recognize this level of detail.

GW:  That’s right.

FJO:  There are also a lot of people who don’t know about this music or don’t listen to it because they feel that they don’t have the training to appreciate it.  We’re losing a lot of potential listeners who might love your music, if only they heard it.

GW:  Yes.  I do feel that at this point it’s wonderful that people should have the opportunity to hear the music whether it’s on YouTube or the radio or whatever, just to hear it whatever way they can.  I don’t like the idea of people not paying for music, but I’m more than resigned to it at this point because it’s the only way.  I feel great satisfaction to know that it’s possible for them to hear it.

FJO:  But if they’re not noticing the details you wish they could comprehend, what can we do to have people hear it in a deeper way for you? What would be an ideal listening experience for somebody listening to your music?

GW:  I think the only ideal situation is just listening to it more than once.

FJO:  Repeated listening is very important.

GW:  Yes.

A collage of album covers featuring 20 different recordings containing George Walker's music.

Some of the CD and LP covers of recordings featuring the music of George Walker.

FJO:  You mentioned Address, which is a phenomenal orchestra piece and it was a huge success when it was finally performed, nearly a decade after it was written.  It took a long time for the whole piece to be performed.  That piece was completed around the time of your studies with Nadia Boulanger.  So many very different composers studied with Boulanger. Some of them credit her with improving their contrapuntal skills, but this was already a key feature in your music from your years of studying organ music and studying counterpoint. Others say they learned all these interesting chords, but you mentioned that you were not interested in luscious chords.  Still others claimed that she helped them to find their own voice. You already wrestled with this issue when you discarded your early violin sonata.  So what did Nadia Boulanger give to you as a teacher?

GW:  From the outset, Nadia Boulanger, in the very first lesson said, “You’re a composer.” She said, “Your music has power.”  The other composers—Carter and Piston and all of them—were green about counterpoint and doing harmony.  I didn’t have to do that.  I just brought in whatever I wanted to and showed it to her. She had nothing to say except, “Keep going.”  But it was she who arranged for me to play my First Piano Sonata in Paris. And she arranged for me to play it in Fontainebleau after she’d given me a scholarship.  She arranged to send the First Sonata to the Lili Boulanger Competition.  She paid to send it herself directly to Piston.  She wrote a letter of recommendation for a second year of study, which was turned down by the USIS.  The recommendation meant nothing to them.  She did everything she could for me.

FJO:  So, even if you already knew the direction you wanted to take as a composer, she was an important mentor for you.

GW:  Yes. She had the realization that I was capable from my first song.  I didn’t show her any big works.  She never saw my Trombone Concerto. The first things that I showed her were my songs.  I showed her “A Bereaved Maid” and she said that’s a masterpiece.  She saw the two piano sonatas.  That was enough.

A handwritten letter to George Walker from Nadia Boulanger.

A letter to George Walker from Nadia Boulanger, written on September 29, 1958.

FJO:  There was an evolution happening in your music that had already started before your studies with her; it almost seems like those studies were a detour and that your music ultimately went in a direction that had nothing to do with her.  Your music in the 1950s was getting more and more chromatic.

GW:  Well, something that was pointed out to me is the Lyric is not necessarily a simple piece.  It alternates between major and modal. In touching upon modes, it became chromatic. But the chromaticism comes about from my interest in expanding the harmonic vocabulary to include dissonance as a part of the harmonic palette, not in dissonance that is totally disconnected from something.  One of the extraordinary things about Mozart was the way that he could move from the diatonic into the chromatic and back again.  You don’t have that in Beethoven.

“Chromaticism comes about from my interest in expanding the harmonic vocabulary.”

FJO: There’s an anecdote you tell in your autobiography, from before you were studying with Boulanger and were pursuing a D.M.A. at the Eastman School, about buying a used LP recording of the Berg Violin Concerto. That was your introduction to 12-tone music.

GW: I had actually discovered this second hand recording of the Berg. It was not a very good recording. [Eastman’s director] Howard Hanson had an absolute disdain and dislike for 12-tone music. So at Eastman, no one was writing 12-tone music, except this one poor fellow who was dismissed.

FJO:  He was dismissed for writing 12-tone music?

GW:  Every year they would have this series of readings with Hanson. And this one student composer had a piece. Hanson had a stack of pieces and when he would finish a piece, he would put the score on the stack and turn around, call the composer, and so on.  But when he finished the piece of this student composer, he just put it on the stack and never bothered to call him over.

FJO:  So you were very brave to want to want to go in this direction as composer. [They both laugh.] So when did you first have the idea of using a tone row in your music?

GW:  In 1960.  I always felt that there are certain limitations to 12-tone music, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a short work that was strict, because by that time, composers had started to realize they can’t be too strict about it and started letting in things they liked over something that really doesn’t sound so good.  So I wrote Spatials. It’s a work that is in variation form and is strict—and is short, which I thought would make it something that would enable one to understand that one can achieve a certain freshness within the limitations of the repetitions of the kind of sonorities that one can expect from 12-tone music, because it doesn’t go on for too long.

“There are certain limitations to 12-tone music.”

FJO:  So that’s the only piece of yours that’s really strictly 12-tone.

GW:  Yes.

FJO:  But, to my ear, 12-tone techniques seem to also inform the Second String Quartet.  Is that true?

GW:  No.  The first movement of the Second String Quartet is intended to be a kind of singular, lyrical expression of each instrument, with a certain freedom so that it may sound as if it has some relationship to something you might find in Carter, but I was not thinking in terms of 12-tone.

FJO:  I was curious because it sounds—to me at least—like it had a 12-tone underpinning, but then you somehow subverted it, especially in the last movement, which is this wonderful fugue. All of a sudden these atonal lines start moving in a completely strict fugal motion, which is a tonal idea. So I imagined that you somehow created this wonderful synthesis between the 12-tone method and tonal construction, which seemed like the ultimate homage to having listened to the Berg Violin Concerto, because in that piece Berg was also attempting a reconciliation of the 12-tone system with Baroque counterpoint, as well as a very lush late-19th century Romantic sound world.

GW:  What I have done, and this is one of the aspects of form that I was alluding to, is to use a fugue where there are modulatory aspects to the subject and the answer.  I take what is a part of a sonata form and put in some new material.  So you have something that is linear and something harmonic that is not related to the fugal material, and then it comes back to the fugal material.  So there is this alternation between different formal period types.

FJO:  Despite being so interested in chromaticism, you have remained very dedicated to using the quintessential compositional structure for exploring diatonic tonality—the sonata form.  You’ve written five piano sonatas as well as two violin sonatas, a cello sonata, and a viola sonata, plus concertos for trombone, violin, cello, and piano.  You’re clearly very committed to these classical 18th-century forms.

GW:  Well it’s because there’s a solidity there that one can come back to and find things, time after time, that are interesting.  One hates to think in terms of just Western civilization, but this accumulation of techniques has not only been discovered, but has been found to work so well. One should attempt to find a way to continue with it rather than to throw everything out and say, “Let’s start over again.” With what?  It’s going back to attempting to create a wheel that already exists.  You don’t know how to put the spokes in the wheel. Although so much has been done, it seems to me that there’s still the possibility that one can find ways of extending what has already been done. It’s not the end, like Scalero thinking, “Oh, we’ve come to Sibelius; that’s the end.”  That’s absolute nonsense. When you can’t get beyond Sibelius, you’re an idiot! I don’t care.  There are wonderful things in the [Sibelius] Fourth Symphony; it happens to be my favorite, but please don’t disregard all the other works. You can’t listen to Stravinsky? You can’t listen to Gershwin?  Oh, please.

“When you can’t get beyond Sibelius, you’re an idiot!”

FJO:  Yet, one of the things I find interesting about your catalog of compositions is that you have now written five pieces that you’ve given the title Sinfonia; you seem to rather purposefully avoid using the English translation of that Italian word, symphony.

GW:  I thought by calling these works sinfonias that I would focus on the fact that these were not works in or were an extension of the romantic tradition, large-scale works. They are quite the opposite.  The sinfonias are all extremely concise works. The first one, which unfortunately has never had a professional performance after it was commissioned by the Fromm Foundation, is only two movements. I cannot understand why it has not been programmed.  But the idea of conciseness as opposed to an extended work was always in my mind when writing these pieces; I thought that they also might be easy to program, which they have not been.

FJO:  Address, which has so rarely been performed in its entirety, even though it only lasts about 20 minutes, is longer than any of your sinfonias.

GW:  Exactly.  Right.  Address is a more conventional three-movement work.  It’s actually connected to Lilacs. The second movement of the Address is a kind of elegy that is related to Gettysburg.

FJO: I didn’t know that, although of course, I knew that Lilacs was based on Walt Whitman’s famous poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” which was written to eulogize Abraham Lincoln shortly after his assassination toward the end of the Civil War. Frighteningly, the deep-seated animosities of that era seem very current once again these days, especially in the wake of the recent tragedy in Charlottesville. It struck me when I learned that your Sinfonia No. 5 was inspired by the horrible massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015 that, sadly, it’s an extremely timely piece of music.

George Walker sitting in a chair in his living room.

George Walker at home (photo by Frank Schramm).

GW:  This score is just like most of my scores. I don’t start out with an idea or even with a title until I get into the work. It was only after I had started the work that it occurred to me that here is an opportunity to introduce something [about this]. I decided I would write my own texts, a few lines given to five different speakers, and to show a photo of Charleston. This was a port where slaves were often brought.  I had been to Charleston before the massacre, but I was uncertain that I had been in the church where the massacre occurred. I found out that I had not, but the horrific events that occurred there and elsewhere will always remain etched in my imagination.  I have not witnessed them, but there is this reference in the music.

“I don’t start out with an idea or even with a title until I get into the work.”

FJO:  It seems that one of the only ways we can overcome these horrific events is to increase people’s awareness of them, and that is something that artists—poets, novelists, filmmakers, choreographers, painters, sculptors, composers—can perhaps do in ways that can make very specific tragedies somehow more universally resonant. An effective artistic statement created in response to such a horrible event can have the power to make people think and question and hopefully not repeat these events in history.

GW:  Well, the unfortunate thing is that you have these marketing people for the orchestras who don’t understand the importance.  And you have these artistic administrators who don’t understand that this is a timely thing.  They’re only interested, of course, in filling seats and the best way to do it is to get something that has some immediate popular appeal.  They don’t want this kind of thing on their programs.  They don’t want it.  I’ve been trying to get orchestras to do it.  They won’t do it.

FJO:  I read somewhere that it’s going to be performed by the National Symphony.

GW:  In two years.  They had a chance to do it next season; they won’t do it.  I don’t have even a specific date.  They won’t do it here in New Jersey.  They won’t do it in Philadelphia.  They won’t do it in Austin.

FJO:  It should be done during Spoleto, in Charleston.

GW:  Yeah, but they don’t have an orchestra that’s good enough.  I’ve been trying for two years just to get someone to put it in a slot.  One likes to think that artists can change things. Well, come on.  We can’t change things.  Look.  I’ve been trying to change things. My piece Canvas was trying to change things, but I got one performance after the premiere of Canvas.

FJO:  And Canvas is a piece for wind band.  Wind band pieces usually get picked up by groups all over the country.

GW:  Exactly.  Yes.

FJO:  But it has not been?

GW:  It has not been.

George Walker running down a narrow hallway

George Walker has long continued along his own path and he remains determined despite whatever challenges attempt to impede him. Here he is running through a corridor at Carnegie Hall to a meeting with conductor Simon Rattle in the Maestro’s Suite in November 2015 (photo by Frank Schramm).

FJO:  At least Lilacs has now been done quite a few times.  And there are now two recordings of it.

GW:  Yes, but still, initially Lilacs was not done at all except for a performance out in California by a community orchestra.  Then, when they wanted to do one movement of Address in Atlanta, I said no, so then they decided to do Lilacs. Then there was a conductor, William Houston, who was on the faculty at William Paterson College here in New Jersey who had just been obsessed with the idea of doing Lilacs, so he did Lilacs there.  And about three months ago, it was done again in California.  There haven’t been that many performances of Lilacs at all.

FJO:  The fact that the vocal part could be sung either by a soprano or a tenor actually increases the possibilities for doing it.

GW:  Absolutely.

FJO:  And, of course the text for it is one of the great American poems and it has been set by several composers who’ve used it as a eulogy for many people besides Lincoln. When FDR died at the end of World War II, Hindemith set this poem for chorus and orchestra to memorialize him as well as all the people who died in the war. And Roger Sessions’s setting of it was dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Your setting of it is much more compact than either of these and it is more intimate as well—there’s just one singer instead of a full chorus. I guess this also goes to what you were saying about wanting to be concise and precise.  You also used only four of the poem’s thirteen stanzas, so it’s much shorter than the Hindemith and Sessions settings.

“The repertoire for single voice and orchestra is extremely limited.”

GW:  It had to do with the commission and the fact that it was written to honor Roland Hayes, a singer who had achieved international recognition eventually for his incorporation of spirituals in classical musical programs. So there was never any question of using a chorus. But I was extremely happy to be able to compose a work for voice and orchestra because the repertoire for single voice and orchestra is extremely limited.  You have the Last Songs of Strauss and the Barber Knoxville [Summer of 1915].  I’d like it to be part of that repertoire.

Historic photo of soprano Faye Robinson, George Walker, and conductor Seiji Ozawa with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on the stage of Orchestra Hall in Boston in 1996.

George Walker takes a bow with soprano Faye Robinson (left), conductor Seiji Ozawa (right) and the members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra following the world premiere performance of Lilacs on February 1, 1996. A mere two months later, the work was awarded the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in Music. [Note: According to George Walker’s autobiography, since Lilacs was commissioned to honor the celebrated black tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1977), it was originally supposed to be sung by tenor. But the tenor that Ozawa chose for the solo part, Vinson Cole, was unable to sing it and, with Walker’s permission, a soprano, Faye Robinson, was chosen to sing the premiere. So now the work can be performed by a soprano or tenor.]

FJO: My favorite moment in Lilacs is probably in the last movement where you have this very detailed orchestra sonority of flutes, woodblock, and pizzicato strings accompanying the line “Sing on, sing on you gray-brown bird.” It’s wonderfully evocative.

GW: Yes, and that’s where the spiritual comes in.  I was very happy to be able to incorporate that.

FJO: You spoke before about people not hearing all the details in your music.  But if people would listen to your pieces many times, they’d be more able to hear some of these subtle details.  When I was listening again to your Violin Concerto earlier this week, I was suddenly riveted at the end of the second movement by one single harpsichord chord.  It’s the only time you can hear the harpsichord in the whole piece.  It’s just there as a punctuation, but it’s very effective once you know it’s there.  That’s another very precise orchestration detail.

GW:  That’s right.  And in Lilacs, there’s something that is not heard. It’s so irritating. At the very end in the score, there’s a maraca. I’ve told conductors to get them to play it louder, and the conductor will say, “Well, I hear it.”  Well, you may hear it, but I don’t hear it. And it’s not on the recording.  Somehow you have to deal with these people who don’t want to take the time to make certain things come out.  That’s very significant, the maracas at the end.

FJO:  Being so committed to this level of detail and not getting it can be very frustrating.

George Walker sitting in the audience of a concert hall with a score of one of his orchestral compositions.

George Walker, like all composers who write for the orchestra, sits in the audience during a rehearsal of his music, studying his score and patiently waiting to offer comments to the conductor (photo by Frank Schramm).

GW:  It’s frustrating because there’s no way even to irritate them.  It’s all over.  People like to think you’re collaborating with the conductor.  You’re not collaborating.  He’s standing up there.  And you go up and you say, “Please can you ask them to play it louder.”  “Yeah, O.K. Play it louder.”  But when I come back up and say, “I didn’t hear it.”  “Well, I heard it.”  Well, what can you do?  The session is over.  Then you have these compromises where they don’t want to hire someone to play the one chord in the harpsichord, because they have someone who’s playing the piano. But he can’t get over to the harpsichord in time.

FJO:  I guess that’s an argument for writing more chamber music because with chamber music, you can usually get what you want.

GW:  Yes.

FJO:  We talked a bit about your string quartets, which are extremely detailed. I’d like to talk a bit more about your many songs for solo voice and piano, which you have written throughout your life. It’s an extremely intimate combination, but you can do so much with it. And you do.  Your text setting is very effective and you’ve set some really great poems—Emily Dickinson, a setting of a poem by Thomas Wyatt that I think is wonderfully eerie and powerful, your early Paul Laurence Dunbar setting we talked about, and—one of my favorites—that “Lament” by Countee Cullen that you said you set after getting a book of his poems in the 1970s.  So when you’re reading, does that move you to hear music in your head for certain poems?  How do you choose a text that you set to music?

GW:  It depends on the subject matter, but also upon the rhythm of the verse and the consistency of the meaning in the text.  I have a feeling for the vowels in the words and I can extend them, maybe use a melisma and somehow make that poem more enticing. It’s not just a literal repetition of the words; somehow it has an aura. It’s a combination that I feel is associated with the idea of lieder where you have equal parts.  The accompaniment is as important as the vocal line.

FJO:  Considering how sensitive your text setting is, both in all of your songs and in Lilacs, it’s a shame that you never wrote an opera.

GW:  I had an opera course with Menotti, and I was an opera coach at Eastman.  Even with my background, I don’t know that I could manage it. To a certain extent, I realize that my independence is a deficit; I just cannot collaborate with people. I know what composers have had to go through with collaboration.  I have a friend who told me all the problems he has had composing an opera. And I could never really decide on the subject I wanted to choose.  I’ve turned down subjects offered to me.  So it’s not likely I’m going to tackle one.

“I realize that my independence is a deficit; I just cannot collaborate with people.”

FJO:  So what are you working on now?

GW:  Nothing right now. I’m really just essentially trying to get a recording out.

FJO:  Of the Sinfonia No. 5? There’s a studio recording of it?

GW:  I have a first proof. You want to hear it?

FJO:  Yes, I’d love to listen to it when we finish talking. This is very exciting.  Even if a live performance has not been scheduled until 2018, people will still be able to hear this piece on a recording.  And it’s a piece that you just completed last year at the age of 94.  This is very rare. There have been only a handful of people who have composed music past the age of 90.  Leo Ornstein wrote two piano sonatas. The British composer Havergal Brian was writing music in his 90s. And Elliot Carter was still composing at the age of 103.  You still seem to be at the height of your powers as a composer. Your Sinfonia No. 4, which you wrote at the age of 89, is extraordinary.  I can’t say anything conclusive about the Fifth Sinfonia until after I’ve heard it, but from just peering through the score you showed me before we started this conversation, it seems like you’re still searching, you’re still wanting to grow and expand, which I think is very inspiring to all composers.

GW:  Yes, I just don’t want to repeat myself.  That has always been in the back of my mind.  Having somehow found things that I think have a certain individuality, I want to find a way to twist and turn them so that they don’t sound as if they’re something that I’ve used before.  That is an aspect of the conversation that I think all composers are faced with after a while.  People say, “If only Mozart would have lived and kept on writing.”  But his style would not have changed that much.

The high-end audio speakers in George Walker's living room.

After we finished talking, George Walker played for us a rough edit of the in-process recording of his Sinfonia No. 5. It was a visceral sonic experience.

Chris Brown: Models are Never Complete

Despite his fascination with extremely dense structures, California-based composer Chris Brown is surprisingly tolerant about loosely interpreting them. Chalk it up to being realistic about expectations, or a musical career that has been equally devoted to composing and improvising, but to Brown “the loose comes with the tight.” That seemingly contradictory dichotomy informs everything he creates, whether it’s designing elaborate electronic feedback systems that respond to live performances and transform them in real time or—for his solo piano tour-de-force Six Primes—calculating a complete integration of pitch and meter involving 13-limit just intonation and a corresponding polyrhythm of, say, 13 against 7.

“I’ve always felt that being a new music composer, part of the idea is to be an explorer,” Brown admitted when we chatted with him in a Lower East Side hotel room at a break before a rehearsal during his week-long residency at The Stone.  “It’s so exciting and fresh to be at that point where you have this experience that is new.  It’s not easy to get there.  It takes a lot of discipline, but actually to have the discipline is the virtue itself, to basically be following something, testing yourself, looking for something that’s new, until eventually you find it.”

Yet despite Brown’s dedication and deep commitment to uncharted musical relationships that are often extraordinarily difficult to perform, Brown is hardly a stickler for precision.

“If you played it perfectly, like a computer, it wouldn’t sound that good,” he explained. “I always say when I’m working with musicians, think of these as targets. … It’s not about getting more purity.  There’s always this element that’s a little out of control. … If we’re playing a waltz, it’s not a strict one-two-three; there’s a little push-me pull-you in there.”

Brown firmly believes that the human element is central and that computers should never replace people.  As he put it, “It’s really important that we don’t lose the distinction of what the model is rather than the thing it’s modeled on. I think it’s pretty dangerous to do that, actually.”

So for Brown, musical complexity is ultimately just a means to an end which is about giving listeners greater control of their own experiences with what they are hearing. In the program notes for a CD recording of his electro-acoustic sound installation Talking Drum, Brown claimed that he reason he is attracted to complex music is “because it allows each listener the freedom to take their own path in exploring a sound field.”

Brown’s aesthetics grew out of his decades of experience as an improviser—over the years he’s collaborated with an extremely wide range of musicians including Wayne Horvitz, Wadada Leo Smith, and Butch Morris—and from being one of the six composers who collectively create live networked computer music as The Hub. Long before he got involved in any of these projects, Brown was an aspiring concert pianist who was obsessed with Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto which he performed with the Santa Cruz Symphony as an undergrad. Now he has come to realize that even standard classical works are not monoliths.

“Everybody in that Schumann Piano Concerto is hearing something slightly different, too, but there’s this idea somehow that this is an object that’s self-contained,” he pointed out.  “It’s actually an instruction for a ritual that sounds different every time it’s done.  Compositions are more or less instructions for what they should do, but I’m not going to presume that they’re going to do it exactly the same way every time.”

Chris Brown’s first album was released in 1989, ironically the same year as the birth of another musical artist who shares his name, a Grammy Award-winning and Billboard chart-topping R & B singer-songwriter and rapper.  This situation has led to some funny anecdotes involving mistaken identity—calls to his Mills College office requesting he perform Sweet Sixteen parties—as well as glitches on search engines including the one on Amazon.

“These are basically search algorithm anomalies,” he conceded wryly. To me it’s yet another reason to heed his advice about machines and not to overly rely on them to solve all the world’s problems.


Chris Brown in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded at Off Soho Suites Hotel, New York, NY
June 22, 2017—3:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu.

Frank J. Oteri:  Once I knew you were coming to New York City for a week-long residency at The Stone and that we’d have a chance to have a conversation, I started looking around to see if there were any recordings of your music that I hadn’t yet heard. When I did a search on Amazon, I kept getting an R & B singer-songwriter and rapper named Chris Brown, who was actually born the year that the first CD under your name was released.

Chris Brown:  Say no more.

FJO:  I brought it up because I think it raises some interesting issues about celebrity. There is now somebody so famous who has your name, and you’ve had a significant career as a composer for years before he was born.  But maybe there’s a silver lining in it. Perhaps it’s brought other people to your music who might not otherwise have known about it—people who were looking for the other Chris Brown, especially on Amazon since both your recordings and his show up together.

CB:  These are basically search algorithm anomalies, but the story behind that is that when the famous Chris Brown started to become famous, I started getting recorded messages on my office phone machine at Mills, because people would search for Chris Brown’s music and it would take them to the music department at Mills.  They would basically be fan gushes for the most part.  Sometimes they would involve vocalizing, because they were trying to get a chance to record.  Sometimes they would ask if he could play their Sweet Sixteen party.  There were tons of them.  At the beginning, every day, there were long messages of crying and doing anything so that they could get close to Chris Brown in spite of the fact that my message was always a professorial greeting.  It didn’t matter.  So it was a hassle.  Occasionally I would engage with the people by saying this is not the right Chris Brown and trying to send them somewhere else.

It’s a common name. When I was growing up, there weren’t that many Chrises, but somehow it got really popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  Anyway, these days not much happens, except that what it’s really meant is kind of a blackout for me on internet searches.  It’s hard to find me if somebody’s looking.  Since I started working at Mills, the first thing that David Rosenboom said to me when I came in is there’s thing called the internet and you should get an email account.  Everybody was making funny little handles for themselves as names.  From that day, mine was cbmuse for Chris Brown Music.  I still have that same email address at Mills.edu.  So I go by cbmuse.  That’s the best I can do.  Sometimes some websites say Christopher Owen Brown, using the John Luther Adams approach to too many John Adamses.  It’s kind of a drag, but on the other hand, it’s a little bit like living on the West Coast anyway, which is that you’re out of the main commercial aspect of your field, which is really in New York. On the West Coast, there’s not as much traffic so you have more time and space.  To some extent, you’re not so much about your handle; you still get to be an individual and be yourself. I could have made a new identity for myself, but I sort of felt like I don’t want to do that.  I’ve always gone by Chris Brown.  I’ve never really attached to Christopher Brown.  Maybe this is a longer answer than you were looking for.

FJO:  It’s more than I thought I’d get. I thought it could have led to talking about your piece Rogue Wave, which features a DJ. Perhaps Rouge Wave could be a gateway piece for the fans of the other Chris Brown to discover your music.

CB:  I don’t think that happens though.  That was not an attempt to do something commercial.  I could talk about that if you like, since we’re on it.  Basically, the DJ on it, Eddie Def, was somebody I met through a gig where I was playing John Zorn’s music at a rock club in San Francisco and through Mike Patton, who knew about him. He invited Eddie to play in the session and he just blew me away.  I was playing samples and he was playing samples.  I was playing mine off my Mac IIci, with a little keyboard, and he was playing off records.  He was cutting faster than I was some of the time.  Usually you think, “Okay, I’ve a got a sample in every key. I can go from one to the other very quickly.”  He just matched me with every change.  So we got to be friends and really liked each other.  We did a number of projects together.  That was just one of them. He’s a total virtuoso, so that’s why I did a piece with him.

FJO:  You’ve worked with so many different kinds of musicians over the years.  From a stylistic perspective, it’s been very open-ended.  The very first recording I ever heard you on, which was around the time it came out, was Wayne Horvitz’s This New Generation, which is a fascinating record because it mixes these really out there sounds with really accessible grooves and tunes.

CB:  I knew Wayne from college at UC Santa Cruz. He was kind of the ringmaster of the improv scene in the early ‘70s in Santa Cruz.  I wasn’t quite in that group, but I would join it and I picked up a lot about what was going on in improvised music through participating with them in some of their jam sessions.  Wayne and I were friends, so when he moved to New York, I’d sometimes come to visit him.  Eventually, he moved out of New York to San Francisco.  I had an apartment available in my building, so he lived in it.  He was basically living above us. He was continuing to do studio projects, and this was one of them.  He had his little studio setup upstairs and one day he said, “Would you come upstairs and record a couple of tracks for me?” He played his stuff and he asked me to play one of the electro-acoustic instruments that I built, so I did.  I didn’t think too much more of it than that, but then it appeared on this Electra-Nonesuch record and there was a little check for it. It was my little taste of that part of the new music scene that was going on in New York.  Eventually Wayne moved out and now he lives in Seattle. We still see each other occasionally.  It’s an old friendship.

FJO:  You’ve actually done quite a bit of work with people who have been associated with the jazz community, even though I know that word is a limiting word, just like classical is a limiting word. You’ve worked with many pioneers of improvisational music, including Wadada Leo Smith and Butch Morris, and you were also a member of the Glenn Spearman Double Trio, which was a very interesting group.  It’s very sad.  He died very young.

CB:  Very.

FJO:  So how did you become involved with improvised music?

CB:  Well, I was a classically trained pianist and I eventually wound up winning a scholarship and played the [Robert] Schumann Piano Concerto with the Santa Cruz Symphony. But I was starting to realize that that was not going to be my future because I was interested in humanities and the new wave of philosophy—Norman O. Brown.  I got to study with him when I was there, and he told me I should really check out John Cage because he was a friend of Cage’s: “If you’re doing music, you should know what this is.”  So I went out and got the books, and I was completely beguiled and entranced by them.  It was a whole new way of listening to sound as well as music, or music as sound, erasing the boundary.  So I was very influenced by that, but almost at the same time I was getting to know these other friends in the department who were coming more out of rock backgrounds.  They were influenced by people like Cecil Taylor and the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the free jazz improvisers.  These jam sessions that Wayne would run were in some way related.  There were a lot of influences on that musical strain, but that’s where I started improvising.

To me, improvisation seems like the most natural thing in the world.

I was also studying with Gordon Mumma and with a composer named William Brooks, who was a Cage scholar as well as a great vocalist and somebody who’d studied with Kenneth Gaburo. With Brooks, I took a course that was an improvisation workshop where the starting point was no instruments, just movement and words—that part was from the Gaburo influence.  That was a semester of every night getting together and improvising with an ensemble.  I think it was eight people.  I’d love if that had been documented.  I have never seen or heard it since then, but it influenced me quite a bit.  To me, improvisation seems like the most natural thing in the world. Why wouldn’t a musician want to do it?  Then, on the other side of this, people from the New York school were coming by and were really trying to distinguish what they did from improvisation.  I think there was a bit of an uptown/downtown split there.  They were trying to say this is more like classical music and not like improvisation.  It’s a discipline of a different nature.  Ultimately I think it’s a class difference that was being asserted.  And I think Cage had something to do with that, trying to distinguish what he did from jazz.  He was trying to get away from jazz.

I didn’t have much of a jazz background, but I had an appreciation for it growing up in Chicago. I had some records.  At the beginning I’d say my taste in jazz was a little more Herbie Hancock influenced than Cecil Taylor.  But once I discovered Cecil Taylor, when I put that next to Karlheinz Stockhausen, I started to see that this is really kind of the same. This is music of the same time.  It may have been made in totally different ways, and it results from a different energy and feeling from those things, but it’s not that different.  And it seems to me that there’s more in common than there is not.  So I really never felt there was that boundary.  So I participated in sessions with musicians who were improvising with or without pre-designed structures. It was just something I did.

Once I discovered Cecil Taylor, when I put that next to Karlheinz Stockhausen, I started to see that this is really kind of the same.

The first serious professional group I got involved with was a group called Confluence.  This came about in the late 1970s with some of my older friends from Santa Cruz, who’d gone down and gotten master’s degrees at UC San Diego. It was another interesting convergence of these two sides of the world.  They worked with David Tudor on Rainforest, the piece where you attach transducers to an object, pick up the sound after it’s gone through the object, and then amplify it again.  Sometimes there’s enough sound out of the object itself that it has an acoustic manifestation.  Anyway, it’s a fantastic piece and they were basically bringing that practice into an improvisation setting.  The rule of the group was no pre-set compositional design and no non-homemade instruments.  You must start with an instrument you made yourself and usually those instruments were electro-acoustic, so they had pickups on them, somewhat more or less like Rainforest instruments.  The other people in that group were Tom Nunn and David Poyourow.  When David got out of school he wanted to move up to the Bay Area and continue this group.  One of the members of it then had been another designer, a very interesting instrument maker named Prent Rodgers.  And he bailed.  He didn’t want to be a part of it.  So they needed a new member.  So David asked me if I’d be interested, and I was.  I always had wanted to get more involved with electronic music, but being pretty much a classical nerd, I didn’t really have the chops for the technology.  David, on the other hand, came from that background.  His father was a master auto mechanic, from the electrical side all the way to the mechanical side. David really put that skill into his instrument building practice and then he taught it to me, basically.  He showed me how to solder, and I learned from Tom how to weld, because some of these instruments were made out of sheet metal with bronze brazing rods.  I started building those instruments in a sort of tradition they’d begun, searching for my own path with it, which eventually came about when I started taking pianos apart and making electric percussion instruments from it.

So, long story short, I was an improviser before I was a notes-on-paper composer.  That’s how I got into composing.  I started making music directly with instruments and with sound.  It was only as that developed further that I started wanting to structure them more.

FJO:  So you composed no original music before you started improvising?

CB:  There were a few attempts, but they were always fairly close to either Cageian influence or a minimalist influence.  I was trying out these different styles.  Early on, I was a follower and appreciator of Steve Reich’s music. Another thing I did while I was at Santa Cruz was play the hell out of Piano Phase.  We’d go into a practice room and play for hours, trying to perfect those phase transitions with two upright pianos.  I was also aware of Steve’s interest in music from Bali and from Africa. These were things that I appreciated also.

FJO:  I know that you spent some time in your childhood in the Philippines.

CB:  I grew up between the years of five and nine in the Philippines.  It wasn’t a long time, as life goes, but it was also where I started playing the piano.  I was five years old in the Philippines and taking piano lessons there.  I was quite taken with the culture, or with the cultural experience I had let’s say, while I was there.  I went to school with Filipino kids, and it was not isolated in some kind of American compound.  I grew up on the campus of the University of the Philippines, which is a beautiful area outside of the main city, Manila.

FJO:  Did you get to hear any traditional music?

Being an improviser is a great way to get into a cultural interaction.

CB:  Very little because the Philippines had their music colonized.  It exists though, and later I reconnected with musicians at that school, particularly José Maceda, which is another long story in my history.  I’ve made music with Filipino instruments and Filipino composers.  One of the nice things about being an improviser is that collaboration comes much easier than if you’re trying to control everything about the design of the piece of music, so I’ve collaborated with a lot of people all over the place, including performances before we really knew what we were doing.  It’s an exploratory thing you do with people, and it’s a great way to get into a cultural interaction.

Chris Brown in performance with Vietnamese-American multi-instrumentalist Vanessa Vân-Ánh Võ at San Francisco Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum on April 13, 2017

FJO:  I want to get back to your comment about your first pieces being either Cageian or influenced by minimalism.  I found an early piano piece of yours called Sparks on your website, which is definitely a minimalist piece, but it’s a hell of a lot more dissonant than anything Reich would have written at that time. It’s based on creating gradual variance through repetition, but you’re fleshing out pitch relations in ways that those composers wouldn’t necessarily have done.

CB:  I’m very glad you brought that up.  I think that was probably the first piece that I still like and that has a quality to it that was original to me.  From Reich I was used to the idea of a piece of music as a continuous flow of repetitive action.  But it really came out of tuning pianos, basically banging on those top notes of the piano as you’re trying to get them into tune. I started to hear the timbre up there as being something that splits into different levels.  You can actually hear the pitch if you care to attend to it.  A lot of times the pitch is hard to get into tune there, especially with pianos that have three strings [per note]. They’re never perfectly in tune.  They’re also basically really tight, so their harmonic overtones are stretched.  They’re wider than they should be.  They’re inharmonic, rather than harmonic, so it’s a kind of a timbral event.  So what I was doing was kind of droning on a particular timbre that exists at the top of the piano, trying to move into a kind of trance state while I was moving as fast as I can repeating these notes. The piece starts at the very top two notes, and then it starts widening its scope, until it goes down an octave, and then it moves back up.  It was a process-oriented piece.  There wasn’t a defined harmonic spectrum to it except that which is created when you make that shape over a chromatically tuned top octave of the piano.  It didn’t have the score.  It was something that was in my brain.  It would be a little different every time, but basically it was a process, like a Steve Reich process piece, one of the earliest ones.

FJO:  So when did you create the notated score for it?

CB:  Well, I tried a couple of times, but it wasn’t very satisfactory. I made the first version for a pianist who lives in Germany named Jennifer Hymer. She played it first probably around 2000. Then 15 years later, another pianist at Mills—Julie Moon—played it, and she played the heck out of it. So now there is a score, but I still feel like I need to fix that score.

FJO:  I think it’s really cool, and I was thrilled that there was a score for it online that I could see. You also included a recording of it.

CB:  I just don’t think the score reflects as well as it could what the piece is about.  I always intended for there to be a little bit of freedom in it that isn’t apparent when you just write one set of notes going to the next set of notes.  There has to be a certain sensibility that needs to be described better.

FJO:  Bouncing off of this, though it might seem like a strange connection to make, when I heard that piece and thought about how it’s taking this idea of really hardcore early minimalist process music, but adding more layers of dissonance to it, it seemed in keeping with a quote that you have in your notes for the published recording of Talking Drum, which I thought was very interesting:  “I favor densely complex music, because it allows each listener the freedom to take their own path in exploring a sound field.”  I found that quote very inspiring because it focuses on the listener and giving the listener more choices about what to focus on.

CB:  I think I still agree with that. I’m not always quite going for the most complex thing I can find, but I do have an attraction to it. Most of the pieces that I do wind up being pretty complicated in terms of how I get to the result I’m after, even though those results may require more or less active listening. I was kind of struck last night by the performance I did of Six Primes with Zeena Parkins and Nate Wooley. The harmonic aspect of the music is much more prominent and much more beauty-oriented than the piano version is. When I play the piano version, it’s more about the intensity of the rhythms and of the dissonance of the piano, as opposed to the more harmonious timbre of the harp or the continuous and purer sound of the trumpet; the timbre makes the way that you play the notes different.

An excerpt from Chris Brown, Zeena Parkins and Nate Wooley’s trio performance of Structures from Six Primes at The Stone on June 21, 2017.

FJO: But I think also that this strikes to the heart of the difference between composition and improvisation.  I find it very interesting that you’ve gravitated toward these really completely free and open structures as an improviser, but your notated compositions are so highly structured.  There’s so much going on, and in a piece like Six Primes, you’re reflecting these ratios not just in the pitch relations, but also in the rhythmic relationships. Such complicated polyrhythms are much harder to do in the moment.

CB:  Of course.  But that’s why I’m doing it. I’m interested in doing things that haven’t been done before.  I’ve always felt that being a new music composer, part of the idea is to be an explorer.  Sometimes that motivation is going to get warped by the marketing of the music or by the necessity to make a career, but that was always what I was attracted to about it. From the first moment that I heard Cage’s music, I said, “This is an inventor.  This is somebody who’s inventing something new.”  It’s so exciting and fresh to be at that point where you have this experience that is new.  It’s not easy to get there.  It takes a lot of discipline, but actually to have the discipline is the virtue itself, to basically be following something, testing yourself, looking for something that’s new, until eventually you find it.

I’ve always felt that being a new music composer, part of the idea is to be an explorer.

This is the third cycle of me learning to play these pieces. At first, I just wanted to know it was possible. And next, I wanted to record it. This time, I’m looking to do a tour where I can perform it more than once. Each time I do it, it gets easier. At this point, I’m finally getting to what I want, for example with 13 against 7, I know perfectly how it sounds, but I don’t have to play it mechanically. It can breathe like any other rhythm does, but it has an identity that I can recognize because I’ve been doing it long enough. It seems strange to me that music is almost entirely dominated by divisions of two and three. We have five every once in a while, but most people can’t really do a five against four, except for percussionists. There are a lot of complex groupings of notes in Chopin, but those are gestures, almost improvisational gestures I think, rather than actual overlays of divisions of a beat. Some of this is influenced by my love and interest for African-based musics that have this complexity of rhythm that is simply beyond the capability of a standard European-trained musician, actually getting into the divisions of the time and executing them perfectly and doing them so much that they become second nature so that they can be alive in performance, rather than just reproduced. It’s a big challenge, but I’m looking for a challenge and I’m looking for a new experience that way.

An excerpt from Chris Brown’s premiere solo piano performance of Six Primes in San Francisco in 2014.

FJO:  So do you think you will eventually be able to improvise those polyrhythms?

CB:  Maybe, eventually, but I think you have to learn it first. The improvising part is after you’ve learned to do the thing already.  Yesterday I was improvising some of the time. What you do is you start playing one of the layers of the music. In Six Primes part of the idea is you have this 13 against 7, but 13 kind of exists as a faster tempo of the music, and 7 is a slower one.  They’re just geared and connected at certain places, but at any one time in your brain, while you’re playing that rhythm, it might be a little bit more involved in inflecting the 13 than the 7. Sometimes, when things are really pure, you get a feeling for both of them and they’re kind of talking to each other.  As a performer, I would say that that’s the goal.  It’s probably rarer than I wish at this point.  But the only way you can get there is by lots of practice and eventually it starts happening by itself.  I think it’s the same as if you’re playing the Schumann Piano Concerto.  You’re not aware of every gesture you’re making to make that music.  You’ve put it into your body, and it kind of comes out by rote.  You know you’re experiencing the flow of the music, and your body knows how to do it because you trained it.  So it’s the same with Six Primes, but it’s just the materials are different and the focus is different.

An excerpt from Chris Brown's piano score for Six Primes

An excerpt from the piano score for Six Primes © 2014 by Chris Brown (BMI). Published by Frog Peak Music. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted with permission.

FJO:  And similarly to listen to it, you might not necessarily hear that’s what’s going on.  But maybe that’s okay.

CB:  Yes, that goes to the quote that there’s a multi-focal way of listening that I’m promoting; the music isn’t designed to have one focal point. It’s designed to have many layers and that basically means that listeners are encouraged to explore themselves. It’s an active listening rather than that you should be listening primarily to this part and not aware of that part.

The music isn’t designed to have one focal point.

FJO:  In a way, this idea of having such an integral relationship between pitches and rhythms is almost a kind of serialism, but the results are completely different. I also think your aesthetics, and what you’re saying about how one listens to it, is totally different.

CB:  I wouldn’t say it’s modeled on that, but I do like the heavy use of structure. It’s a sculptural aspect of making music. I do a lot of pre-composition. This stuff isn’t just springing out of nowhere. Six Primes actually has a very methodical formal design that’s explained in the notes to the CD. The basic idea is that you have these six prime numbers: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, and 13. Those are the first six prime numbers. They’re related to intervals that are tuned by relationships that include that number as their highest prime factor. I know that sounds mathematical, but I’m trying to say it as efficiently as possible. For example, the interval of a perfect fifth is made of a relationship of a frequency that’s in the ratio of 3 to 2. So the highest prime of that ratio is a 3. Similarly, a major third is defined by the ratio of 5 to 4. So 5 is the highest prime. There’s also the 2 in there, but the 5 is the higher prime and that defines the major third. There are other intervals that are related to it, such as a 6 to 5, which is a minor third, where the 5 is also the highest prime. And 5 to 3, the major sixth, etc. Basically Western music is based around using 2, 3, and 5 and intervals that are related to that. Intervals that use 7 as the highest prime are recognizable to most western music listeners, but they’re also out of tune by as much as a third of a semi-tone. Usually people start saying, “Oh, I like the sound of that. I can hear it. It’s a harmony, but it sounds a little weird.” Particularly the 7 to 6 interval, which is a minor third that’s smaller than any of the standard ones that Western people are used to, is very attractive to most people but also kind of curious and possibly scary. When you take it to 11, you get into things that are halfway between the semitones of the equal tempered chromatic scale. And 13 is somewhere even beyond that. Okay, so there are all these intervals. The tuning for Six Primes is a twelve-note scale that contains at least two pitches from each of these first six prime factors, which results in a total of 75 unique intervals between each note and every other one in the set.

The cover for the CD of Six Primes

Last year, New World Records released a CD of Chris Brown performing Six Primes.
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FJO:  Cellists and violinists tune their instruments all the time and since their instruments have an open neck, any pitch is equally possible. The same is true for singers. But pianists play keyboards that are restricted to 12 pitches per octave and that are tuned to 12-tone equal temperament. And since pianists rarely tune their own instruments, 12-tone equal temperament is basically a pre-condition for making music and it’s really hard to think beyond it. As a classically-trained pianist, how were you able to open your ears to other possibilities?

CB: It was hard. It was very frustrating. It took me a long time, and it started by learning to tune my instrument myself. The first thing was what are these pitches? Why do I not understand what everybody’s talking about when they’re talking about in tune and out of tune? I’m just not listening to it, because I’m playing on an instrument that’s usually somewhat out of tune. Basically pianists don’t develop the same kind of ear that violinists have to because they don’t have to tune the pitch with every note. So I was frustrated by my being walled off from that. But I guess not frustrated enough to pick up the violin and change instruments.

While I was an undergraduate and started getting interested through Cage in 20th-century American music, I discovered Henry Cowell’s piano music, the tone cluster pieces, and I loved them.  I just took to them like a duck to water, and I got to be good at it.  I had a beautiful experience playing some of his toughest tone cluster pieces at the bicentennial celebration of him in Menlo Park in 1976. I really bonded with that music and played it like I owned it.  I could play it on the spot. I had it memorized.   The roar of a tone cluster coming out of the piano was like liberation to me.

FJO:  And you recorded some of those for New Albion at some point.

CB:  That came out of a concert Sarah Cahill put together of different pianists playing; it was nice that that came out.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you mention Cowell because he was another one of these people like Wayne Horvitz who could take really totally whacked out ideas and find a way to make them sound very immediate and very accessible. It’s never off-putting, it’s more like “Oh, that’s pretty cool.” It might consist of banging all over the piano, but it’s also got a tune that you can walk away humming.

CB:  I like that a lot about Cowell.  He’s kind of unaffected in the way that something attracted him. He wrote these tunes when he was a teenager, for one thing.  But he wrote tunes for the rest of his life, too.  Sometimes he wrote pieces that have no tune at all.  The piece Antimony, for example, is amazingly harsh. There’s definitely some proto-Stockhausen there, but it’s not serial.  I think that the ability to not feel like you need to restrict yourself to any particular part of the language that you happen to be employing at the moment is something that is really an admirable achievement.  There’s something so tight about the Western tradition that once you start developing this personal language, you must not waver, that this is the thing that you have to offer and it’s the projection of your personality, how will you be recognized otherwise? I think that’s ultimately a straightjacket, so I’ve always admired people like Cowell and Anthony Braxton. Yesterday I was talking to Nate Wooley about the latest pieces that Braxton is putting out where he’s entirely abandoned the pulse; it’s all become just pure melody. He’s changing.  Why do we think that’s a bad idea?  Eclecticism—if you can do it well and can do it without feeling like you’re just making a collage with stuff you don’t understand—is the highest form, to be able to integrate more than one kind of musical experience into your work.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you started veered into a discussion about discovering Cowell’s piano music after I asked you about how you got away from 12-tone equal temperament. Most of Cowell’s music was firmly rooted in 12-tone equal, but he did understand the world beyond it and even tried to explore synchronizing pitch and rhythmic ratios in his experiments with the rhythmicon that Leon Theremin had developed right before he was kidnapped him and brought back to the Soviet Union.

CB:  I was definitely influenced by [Cowell’s book] New Musical Resources. As I read about the higher harmonics and integrating them into chords, I would reflect back on what it sounds like when you play it on the piano.  It is very dissonant because of the tuning.  And I realized that.  So I thought, “Well, okay, he just never got there.  He didn’t learn to tune his own piano, maybe I should do that, you know.” I get that some in Six Primes, I think, because there’s an integral relationship between all the notes. Even though the strings are inharmonic, there’s more fusion in the upper harmonics that can happen.  So these very dissonant chords also sound connected to me.  They’re not dissonant in the same way that an equal tempered version of it is.  They have a different quality.

I’m also noticing from the other piece we played the night you attended that was using the Partch scale, if you build tone cluster chords within the Partch scale, you get things that sound practically like triads, only they buzz with a kind of fusion that you can only have when the integral version of major seconds is applied carefully.  You get all kinds of different chords out of that.  It’s wonderful.

FJO:  Now when you say Partch scale, we’re basically talking about 11-limit just intonation, in terms of the highest primes, since the highest prime in his scale is 11.

CB:  Right, but it’s more than that. He did restrict himself to the 11-limit, but he didn’t include everything that’s available within that.  He made careful, judicious selections so that he could have symmetrical possibilities inside of the scale.  It’s actually more carefully and interestingly foundationally selected than I knew before I really studied it closely.

FJO:  But he worked with his own instruments which were designed specifically to play his 43-note scale whereas you are playing this score on a standard 7-white, 5-black keyed keyboard.

CB:  I took an 88-key MIDI controller and I was using it to trigger two octaves of 43 notes.  So I’ve mapped two octaves to the 88 keys. It winds up being 86, but it is possible to do that. I’m thinking in the future of figuring out a way to be able to shift those octaves so I’m not stuck in the same two-octave range, which I haven’t done yet, but that’s kind of trivial programming-wise.

FJO:  Of course, the other problem with that is the associations the standard keyboard has with specific intervals.

CB:  You have to forget that part, and that’s why I didn’t do it in Six Primes.  And also, if I’d done it on an acoustic piano, it really messes up the string tension on the piano.

FJO:  Julian Carrillo re-tuned a piano to 96 equal and that piano still exists somewhere.

CB:  Yeah, but you can’t re-tune it easily, let’s put it that way. And it loses its character throughout the range because the character of the piano is set up by the variable tension of the different ranges of its strings.

FJO:  But aside even from that, it changes the basic dexterity of what it means to play an octave and what it means to play a fifth.  Once you throw all those relationships out the window, your fingers are not that big, even if you have the hands of Rachmaninoff.

CB:  It becomes a different technique for sure. I’m not trying to extend the technique. What I’m doing with this is essentially I’m making another chromelodeon, which was Partch’s instrument that he used to accompany his ensemble and to also give them the pitch references that they needed, especially the singers, to be able to execute the intervals that he was writing.

FJO:  Well that’s one of the things I’m curious about.  When you’re working with other musicians obviously you can re-tune the keyboard.  You can re-tune a piano, you can work with an electronic keyboard where all these things are pre-set. But the other night, you were working with a cellist who sang as well and an oboist.  To get these intervals on an oboe requires special fingerings, but most players don’t know them.  With a cello there’s no fretboard, so anything’s possible but you really have to hear the intervals in order to reproduce them.  That’s even truer for a singer.  So how do those things translate when you work with other musicians, and how accurate do those intervals need to be for you?

CB:  Those are two questions really.  But I think the key is that you’ve got to have musicians who are interested in being able to hear and to play them.  You can’t expect to write them and then just get exactly what you want from any musician.  Until we wake up 150 years from now and maybe everybody will be playing in the Partch scale so you could write it and everybody can do it!  That’s a fantasy, but I think we’re moving more in that direction.  There are more and more musicians who are interested in learning to play these intervals and all I’m doing is exploiting what’s there.  I’m interested in it.  I talk to my friends who are, and they want to learn how to play like that and that’s what’s happening.  It’s a great thing to be able to have that experience, but it’s not something you can create by yourself.  You have to work with the people who can play the instruments.  For example, you mentioned the oboe. I asked Kyle [Bruckmann] what fingerings he’s using.  “Shouldn’t I put this in the score?”  And he said, “Most of the time what I’m doing is really more about embouchure.  And it’s maybe something that’s not so easily described.”  So it comes down to he’s getting used to what he needs to do with his mouth to make this pitch come out; he’s basically looking at a cents deviation.  So I’ll write the note, and I’ll put how many cents from the pitch that he’s fingering, or the pitch that he knows needs to be sounded.  He’s playing it out of tune with what the horn is actually designed to create and he’s limited in the way that notes sound.  He can’t do fortissimo on each of these notes.  He’s working with an instrument that’s designed for a tuning that he’s trying to play outside of.  It’s crazy. But so far, I would say it’s challenging, but not frustrating so much if I’m translating his experience correctly.  He seems to be very eager to be able to do it, and he’s nailing the pitches.  Sometimes I test him against my electronic chromelodeon and he’s almost always right on the pitch. He’s looking at a meter while he’s playing.  It’s something that a musician couldn’t have done 10 or 15 years ago before those pitch meters became so cheap and readily available.

More and more musicians are interested in learning to play these intervals.

FJO:  James Tenney had this theory that people heard within certain bands of deviations. If you study historical tunings like Werckmeister III, the key of C has a major third that’s 390 cents. In equal temperament, it’s 400 cents which is way too sharp since a pure major third is 386. You can clearly hear the difference, but a third of 390 is close enough to 386 for most people.

CB:  I always say when I’m working with musicians, think of these as targets. If you played it perfectly, like a computer, it wouldn’t sound that good. For example, last night, we had to re-tune the harp to play in the Six Primes tuning. Anybody who knows about harp tuning realizes there’s seven strings in the octave and you get all the other notes by altering one semitone sharp or flat on one of those strings. So it was a very awkward translation. Basically we had a total of 10 of the 12 Six Primes pitches represented. Two of them we couldn’t get. And the ones that we had were sometimes as much as 10 cents out, which is definitely more than it should be to be an accurate representation. But again, this is where the loose comes in with the tight.

In certain cases that wouldn’t work, but in a lot of cases it does. A slight out-of-tuneness can result in a chorus effect as part of the music, and I like that; it gives a shimmer. It’s like Balinese tuning. If that’s what we have to accept on this note, well then so be it you know. It actually richens the music in a way. It’s not about getting more purity. That’s what I feel like. There’s a thing I never quite agreed with Lou Harrison about, because he was always saying these are the real pure sounds. These are the only right ones. But they can get kind of sterile by themselves. He didn’t like the way the Balinese mistuned things. But from all those years of tuning pianos, I love the sound of a string coming into tune, the changes that happen, it makes the music alive on a micro-level. It’s important to be able to hear where the in-tune place is, but to play around that place is part of what I like. I don’t expect it to be perfectly in tune. Maybe it’s because I play a piano and on the extreme ranges of the piano, you can’t help that the harmonics are out of tune. They just are. There’s always this element that’s a little out of control, as well as the part that we can master and make truly evoke harmonic relationships.

FJO:  Now in terms of those relationships, is that sense of flexibility and looseness true for these rhythms as well?  Could there be rubatos in 17?

I don’t expect it to be perfectly in tune.

CB:  Yeah, I think that’s what I was saying about being able to play the rhythm in a lively way.  They can shift.  They can talk to each other.  Little micro-adjustments to inflect the rhythm.  If we’re playing a waltz, it’s not a strict one-two-three; there’s a little push-me pull-you in there. That’s how you give energy to the piece.  I think that it’s hard to get there with these complex relationships, but it’s definitely possible.

FJO:  So is your microtonal music always based on just intonation?  Have you ever explored other equal temperaments?

CB:  I’ve looked at them, but they don’t interest me as much because I’m more attracted to the uneven divisions than to the even ones.  Within symmetrical divisions, you can represent all kinds of things and you can even make unevenness out of the evenness if you like.  But it seems like composers get drawn to the kind of symmetrical kinds of structures, rather than asymmetrical ones.  Symmetry is fine, but somehow it reminds me of the Leonardo figure inside the triangle and the circle.  It’s ultimately confining.  I like the roughness and the unevenness of harmonic relationships.

FJO:  We only briefly touched on electronics when you said that you had a rough start with it as a classical music nerd. But I was very intrigued the other night by how Kyle Bruckmann’s oboe performance was enhanced and transformed by real-time electronic manipulations the other night in Snakecharmer, and was very curious after you mentioned that you had figured out how to make this old piece work again. I know the recording that Willie Winant made of that piece that was released in 1989, but to my ears it sounds like a completely different piece.  I think I like the new piece even more because it sounds more like a snake charmer to me this time; I didn’t quite understand the title before.

CB:  There are three recorded versions of that old piece.

FJO:  That was the only one I’ve heard.

CB:  They’re on the Room record.

FJO:  I don’t know that record.

CB:  Okay, that was rare.  It was a Swiss release.  But that’s kind of an important one for me in my development with electro-acoustic and interactive music. I should get it to you.  Anyway, the basic idea is any soloist can be the snake charmer, the person who’s instigating the feedback network to go through its paces and sort of guiding it.  Probably the strangest was when Willie did it because he can’t sustain.  He’s basically playing percussion, and he’s just basically playing whatever he hears and interacting with it intuitively.  But another version of it was with Larry Ochs playing sopranino saxophone so that’s probably closer; you might hear the relationship there.  It’s more the traditional image of the snake charmer.  It sounds an awful lot like a high oboe; that was a good version.  There’s also the version that I performed, singing and whistling as the input.  Those were three different tracks, but they all start out in a similar way.  Basically the programming aspect is that it goes through a sequence of voices.  And each of those voices transposes the input that it’s receiving from the player in different intervals as the piece goes on.  So there’s a shape of starting with a high transposition going down to where it’s no transposition and below and up again.  It’s a simple sinusoid-type shape.  The next voice comes in and does the same thing with a slightly different rhythmic inflection, then two voices come in together and fill out the field.  That’s the beginning of Snakecharmer in every version so far.  There are about six different voicing changes which are in addition to transposing in slightly different ways to provide rhythmic inflections.  They only respond on the beat. Whatever sound is coming in when it’s time for them to play, that’s the sound that gets transposed.  There are four of these processes going on at once.  Once again, it’s that complexity going on in the chaos created by these different orderings, transpositions of the source.  The other thing is the reason it’s a feedback network is that there comes a point where the player is playing, the sound responds to it, and then the sound that it responds with is louder than what the player’s doing, and that follows itself.  So you start getting a kind of data encoded feedback network that I think of as the snake, an ouroboros snake that’s eating its own tail.

FJO:  How much improvisation is involved?

CB:  Quite a bit.  I’ve never provided a score. I just tell the person what’s going on and ask them to explore the responsiveness of the network. Usually I’m tweaking different values in response to what they’re doing, so it’s a bit of a duet.

FJO:  Taking it back to Talking Drum, you have these notes explaining how people are walking around in this environment. There are these field recordings, and then there are musicians who are responding to them.  I can partially hear that, but I’m not exactly sure what I’m hearing.  Maybe that’s the point of it to some extent.

CB:  That’s not quite right.  We have the recording called Talking Drum.  That is a post-performance production piece that uses things that were recorded at different Talking Drum performances.  That uses field recordings.  In a performance of Talking Drum, there are no field recordings. Basically, the idea is that there are four stations that are connected with one MIDI cable. That cable allows them to share the same tempo. At each of the stations is a laptop computer, and a pitch follower, and somebody who’s playing into the microphone. So, the software that’s running is a rhythmic program I designed that I can give a basic tempo and beat structure to that can change automatically at different points in time, but that also responds to input from the performer, the basic idea being that if the player plays on a beat that’s a downbeat, that beat will be strengthened in the next iteration of the cycle. It basically adjusts to what it hears in relationship to its own beat cycle. The idea of the multiplicity of those stations where that’s happening, is that they are integrated by staying on the same pulse through the cable. The idea is that the audience is moving around the space that this installation is in and the mix they hear is different in each location. As they move, it shifts. It’s as if they were in a big mixing console, turning up one station and then turning down the other. What I was trying to do was to create a big environment that an audience can actively explore in the same way that I’ve talked about creating this dense listening environment and asking people to listen to different parts on their own. That actually came about from the experience of going to Cuba in the early ’90s, and being at some rumba parties where there were a lot of musicians spread out in different places. I wandered around with a binaural recorder and I recorded the sound as I was moving. Then when I listened to the recording, I was getting this shifting, tumbling sound field and I thought: “There’s no way you could ever reproduce this in a studio. It’s a much richer immersive way of listening. Why can’t I use this as a way to model some experience for live performance or for live audiences?”

The cover for Chris Brown's CD Talking Drum.

In 2005, Pogus Productions issued a CD realization of Chris Brown’s Talking Drum
.

FJO:  It actually reminds me of when I first heard Inuksuit, the John Luther Adams piece for all the percussionists.  It was impossible to hear everything that was going on at any one moment as a listener. That’s part of the point of it which, in a way, frustrates the whole Western notion of a composition being a totality that a composer conceives, interpreters perform, and listeners are intended to experience in full like, say, the Robert Schumann Piano Concerto. Interpretations of the Schumann might differ and listeners might focus on different things at different times, but it is intended to be experienced as a graspable totality, and a closed system. Whereas creating a musical paradigm where you can never experience it all is more open-ended, it’s more like life itself since we can never fully experience everything that’s going on around us.  But I have to confess that as a listener I’m very omnivorous and voracious so it’s kind of frustrating, because I do want to hear it all!

Compositions are more or less instructions, but I’m not going to presume that they’re going to do it exactly the same way every time.

CB:  Sorry! I think that’s part of the Cage legacy, too. You don’t expect to have it all and what you have is a lot.  Everybody in that Schumann Piano Concerto is hearing something slightly different, too, but there’s this idea somehow that this is an object that’s self-contained.  It’s actually an instruction for a ritual that sounds different every time it’s done.  But I think the ritual aspect of making music is something that really interests me and I would hate to be without it.  Compositions are more or less instructions for what they should do, but I’m not going to presume that they’re going to do it exactly the same way every time.  Maybe some of them think they do, but I don’t think performing artists do that really. It’s mostly about making something that’s appropriate to the moment even if it’s coming from something that’s entirely determined in its tonal and rhythmic structure. That to me is what makes live music always more interesting than fixed media music.  It’s actually not an object.  It’s not something that doesn’t change as a result of being performed.   Of course, fixed media depends on how it’s projected.

FJO:  Perhaps an extreme example of that would be the kinds of work that you do as part of the Hub—electronic music created in real time by a group of people who are physically separated from each other yet all networked together but it’s really there’s no centralized control and that’s kind of part of the point of it.

CB:  That’s right.  The idea is to set up the composition process, if you can call it that. It’s not really the same as composing, but it’s a designing.  You’re designing a system that you believe will be an interesting one for these automated instruments to interact inside of.  What we do is usually a specification; each piece has verbal instructions about how to design a system to interact with the other systems.  Then we get it together and get them working and they start making the sound of that piece which is never the same exactly, but it’s always recognizable to us as the piece that it is, because it’s a behavior. I would say within our group we get used to the kinds of sounds that everybody chooses to use to play their role in the piece, so it starts to get an ad hoc like personality from those personal choices that each person makes.

An excerpt of a networked computer performance by John Bischoff, Chris Brown and Tim Perkis (co-founders of the legendary computer network band The Hub) from the Active Music Series in Oakland’s Duende, February 2014.

FJO:  In terms of focusing listening, and perhaps you’ll debate this with me, it seems that, as listeners, we’re trained to focus on a text when a piece has a text. If someone’s singing words, those words become the focal point.  I hadn’t heard much music of yours featuring a text, but I did hear your new Jackson Mac Low song cycle the other night.

CB:  I don’t write a lot of songs, but when I do I find it’s usually a pleasure to work with a pre-set structure that you admire; it’s like you’re dressing up what’s already there rather than having to decide where it goes next.  Of course, you’re making decisions—like what is this going to be, is it going to be different, how is going to be different, how is it going to be the same?—but it’s nice to have that kind of foundation to build on.  It’s like collaboration.

FJO:  I thought it was beautiful, and I thought Theresa Wong’s voice was gorgeous. It was exquisite to hear those intervals sung in a pure tone and her diction was perfect, which was even more amazing since she was simultaneously playing the cello. But, at the same time, the Stone has weird acoustics.  It’s a great place, but it’s a hole in the wall that isn’t really thought out in terms of sound design so it was obviously beyond your control. I was sitting in the second row and I know Jackson Mac Low’s poems. So when I focused in, I could hear every word she was pronouncing. But I still couldn’t quite hear the words clearly, as opposed to the vocals on Music of the Lost Cities where I heard every word, since obviously, in post-production, you can change the levels. But it made me wonder, especially since you have this idea of a listener getting lost in the maze of what’s going on, how important is it for you that the words are comprehensible?

Music of the Lost Cities from Johanna Poethig on Vimeo.

CB:  Maybe it’s just me, but even in the best of circumstances, I have trouble getting all the words in songs that are staged.  Maybe it’s because I’m listening as a composer, so I’m always more drawn to the totality than I am just to the words.  Most regular people who are into music mostly through song are very wrapped up in the words.  But I’m not sure Mac Low’s words work that way anyway.  I think they are musical and they are kind of ephemeral in the way that they glow at different points.  And if you don’t get every one of them, in terms of what its meaning is, it’s not surprising.  It’s kind of a musical and sonorous object of its own.  So I guess I’m not exceptionally worried about that, although in the recording, I probably do want a better projection of that part of the music than what happened at the Stone.  I was sitting behind her and I was not hearing exactly what the balance is.  In the Stone, there are two speakers that are not ideally set up for the audience, so it’s not always there the way exactly you want it to be.

FJO:  So is this song cycle going to be on the next recording you do?

Most regular people who are into music mostly through song are very wrapped up in the words.

CB:  I hope we’re going to record it this summer, actually.  It’ll be a chance to get everything exactly right.  I’m very pleased that people are recognizing the purity of these chords that are being generated through the group, but there hasn’t been a perfect performance yet.  Maybe there never will be.  But the recording will get closer than any other one will, and that’ll be nice to hear, too.

FJO:  It’s like the recording project of all the Ben Johnston string quartets that finally got done. For the 7th quartet, which was over a thousand different intervals, they were tuning to intervals they heard on headphones and using click tracks in order to be able to do it. And they recorded sections at a time and then patched it all together. Who knows if any group will ever be able to perform this piece live, but at least there’s finally an audio document of what Ben Johnston was hearing in his head.

CB:  I think that’s really a monumental release.  Ben Johnston’s the one who has forged the path for those of us trying to make Western instruments play Harry Partch and other kinds of just intonation relationships.  It’s fantastic.  But I think the other thing that seems to be true is that if you make a record of it, people will learn to play it.  For example, Zeena and Nate the other night, in preparation for that performance, I was sending them music-minus-one practice MP3 files so that they could basically hear the relationships that they should be playing.  It helps a lot.  Recordings also definitely help to get these rhythmic relationships. I often listen to Finale play them back, just to check myself to see if I’m doing them correctly.  A lot of times, I’m not.  It drifts a little bit.

FJO:  But you said before that that’s okay.

CB:  But I want to know where it’s drifting.  I want to know where the center is as part of my learning process.  I use a metronome a lot, and I use the score a lot to check myself, and get better at it.

FJO:  You’ve put several scores of yours on your website. Sparks is on there.  Six Primes is on there.  And there’s another piece that you have on there that’s a trio in 7-limit just intonation—Chiaroscuro. Theoretically anybody could download these scores, work out the tunings for their instruments and play them.

CB:  Sure. Go for it. But they’re published by Frog Peak, so they can get the official copy there. I would like to support my publisher. Because of the way that my compositional practice has developed, a lot of my scores are kind of a mess. I had a lot of scores, but I haven’t released them because they’re kind of incomplete. They often involve electronic components that are difficult to notate, and I haven’t really figured out the proper way to do that. Where there are interactive components, how do you notate that? I’m not that interested in making pieces for electronics where the electronics is fixed and the performer just synchs to it. There’s only one piece I’ve played where I really like doing that and that’s the Luc Ferrari piece Cellule 75 that I recorded where the tape is so much like a landscape that you can just vary your synchronization with it.

FJO:  It’s interesting to hear you say that because back in 1989, you said…

CB:  Okay.  Here it comes.

FJO:  “I want electronics to enhance our experience of acoustics and of playing instruments.  Extending what we already do, instead of trying to imitate, improve upon, or replace it.”

A model is never a complete reading of the world.

CB:  Yeah, that was important.  That came out at a time when the industry was definitely moving towards more and more electronic versions of all the instruments, usually cheap imitations.  Eventually those become personalities of their own, but it seems to me they always start like much lesser versions of the thing they’re modeled on.  Maybe it has something to do with this idea of models.  We’re moving more and more into a virtual reality kind of world and I think it’s really important that we don’t lose the distinction of what the model is rather than the thing it’s modeled on. I think it’s pretty dangerous to do that, actually.  The more people live in exclusively modeled environments, the more out of touch they’re going to get and probably the sicker they’re going to get because a model is never a complete reading of the world.  It’s a way to try to understand something about that world. If you’re a programmer, you’re always creating models.  In a sense, a synthesizer is modeled on an acoustic reality. But once it comes out of the box into the world, it’s its own thing.  It’s that distinction I’m trying to get at.  I think we’re often seduced by the idea that the synthesized thing will replace the real thing rather than the synthesized thing just becoming another reality.  That’s why I’m interested in mixing these things:  singing with the synthesis. Becoming part of a feedback system with a synthetic instrument embraces that into a space and into a physical interaction. That seems to be more of a holistic way of expanding our ability to play music with ourselves, with our models of ourselves, with each other through models, or just seeing the models execute music of its own.  The danger comes when you try to make them somehow perfect an idea of what reality is and it becomes the new reality instead of becoming just a new part of the real world.

Kristin Norderval: Permanent and Impermanent Sonic Moments

There is a long tradition of artists creating socially conscious work. Some would say it should be an obligation, especially now in these uncertain and divisive times. But addressing societal wrongs is perhaps the one common focus that unites decades of work created by composer/vocalist Kristen Norderval.

Norderval’s output has been extraordinarily diverse. Her activities include improvisations singing and transforming sounds on her laptop alongside other musicians, a song cycle featuring her own voice accompanied by the viol consort Parthenia, electronic scores for dance, sound installations involving upturned pianos or repurposed trash, and an evening-length opera, The Trials of Patricia Isasa, which premiered last year during the 2016 OPERA America conference in Montreal.

When we met with her across the street from her northern Manhattan apartment surrounded by nature in Inwood Hill Park (which she described as her back yard), she credited the central role that various progressive causes have played in inspiring her music: “As the eldest child of two political scientists, I have always been interested in politics and events in the world. Politics was in our house all the time. So I’ve always been aware and my music has been very centered in wherever we are as a society.”

One of her earliest realizations, soon after she began writing songs, inspired by Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joan Baez, Odetta, and Yoko Ono, was the lack of visible female role models for women who were interested in composing large-scale works. “I could see myself as a singer-songwriter,” she remembered. “I can see there’s an identity. Whereas a composer seemed like what you do if you write for orchestra or at least for string quartet, or these other things that I didn’t know. I didn’t know other female composers growing up, so it was hard to think I could be that.”

But she persevered, studying both composition and voice in Seattle at the Cornish School and the University of Washington, despite one of her teachers claiming there were no historically significant female composers: “I just knew that was wrong. … It can’t start with me; I’m not that brilliant. So I went looking as an undergraduate. When I did my recitals for voice, I always included female composers, like Hildegard, Strozzi, Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, up through the contemporary composers that I was discovering.”

One of contemporary composers she discovered was Pauline Oliveros who, during a campus talk for teachers, got the participants to perform one of her deep listening text scores. Norderval was astounded. Shortly afterwards in the school library, she read Oliveros’s introduction to her Sonic Meditations in which she outed herself. “’I am a human being, a lesbian, a two-legged person, living with cats.’ All these different categories. It really blew my mind because this was the ‘70s. I was out, but it was a very different time.” She went on to apprentice with Oliveros and worked with her for many years, ultimately organizing the last deep listening retreat that Oliveros was part of, in 2015, just a year before her death. Norderval’s immersion into Oliveros’s music and philosophy gave her an aesthetic framework that allowed her to embrace all sound, as well as to pay equal attention to sonic events that are permanent and impermanent.

“If I’m doing an improvisation, and it’s just for here and now, that’s my chosen impermanence,” Norderval explained. “Or if I write a score that has instructions and motives, so it can be done in different ways, the one version is impermanent, but the next version is just as valid. … The voice is always flexible, but … once you’ve got a sound file that’s a fixed sound file, it’s totally inflexible. It’s interesting to me to make a permeation, but also, when I’m working with pre-recorded sound files, I’m processing in the moment, often with several files, and choosing in that moment: Okay, I’m only going to use this little tiny bit of this file. Now I’m going to expand it to the whole thing. Now I’m going to pitch shift. Now I’m going to delay feedback—pretty basic processing tools, but everything is in the moment, so it’s like drawing from a palette that I know. I know the sound files, and I’ll do it in a different mix the next time. It’s like cooking up a different stew.”

Another inspiration for Norderval’s approach, especially for her fascinating installations—many of which she has created in collaboration with her partner, choreographer Jill Sigman—was working in Norway with a Sami sculptor named Iver Jåks who assembled Arctic stones, wood, reindeer horns, and leather and give curators free reign in putting them together. “I thought that was so wonderful,” Norderval recalled. “I remember a phone conversation we had—I ended up recording part of it and using it in a piece that I made about him—where he says, ‘I’m not going last forever; why should my artwork last forever?’”

But nowadays, she acknowledged, she has “come to a combination of notated and improvised.” One of the most precisely notated of her works is the opera The Trials of Patricia Isasa, which is based on the real-life story of a woman who was abducted during the Dirty Wars of the Argentinian dictatorship and who finally brought her torturers to justice 33 years later. It is a poignant and deeply moving work that, while being very much an important story for our own time, has deep resonances that will hopefully earn it a permanent place in the operatic repertoire.

“I think it’s very much our story because the U.S. was behind the whole Operation Condor that supported all those dictatorships,” she explained. “The Ford factory was encouraging the military dictatorship to impose certain economic policies, and they used the Ford factory as a place for torture. My feeling and [librettist] Naomi Wallace’s feeling was that when we look back at a story about this historical period—and it’s not that far back because 2009, when she got a conviction, is very close—it’s a way of saying this is what happened there and this is what could happen here. For me, the important part was the accountability part, because my concern for us as a nation is that we have had no accountability for an invasion of another country that was based on lies and no accountability for torture. The torture and war programs that are committed in all of our names are also related to our prison industrial complex, our mass incarceration, the fact that it’s only been 50 years since we dismantled the legal apartheid system of Jim Crow in this country. I was ten-years old when interracial marriage was finally legal. That’s crazy. People have been working to try to dismantle that ever since, and that’s the period we’re in now. We’re in the backlash period. We have to look with a big historical overview to see how to deal with those effects and issues with some kind of accountability. That, for me, was the story. And that is our story. That, plus Patricia was involved in the whole thing. So it’s our collective story.”


Kristin Norderval in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Inwood Hill Park, New York, NY
June 8, 2017—10:30 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  Here we are in the middle of all this nature, yet we’re still in New York City, a non-stop, high-tech, 21st-century urban metropolis. It seems like an apt place to talk with you about your music, since your music seems to have two different things going on within it which often seem to be in contradiction.  One is that it’s all about sheer physicality—mostly the sound of your voice, but it’s not just the sound of your voice. There’s this wonderful passage in your score for a dance piece called Rupture where a dancer is walking, literally, on eggshells.  And it creates a remarkable sound. I probably wouldn’t have realized how that sound was produced if I hadn’t seen it in an online video, but I think it’s an excellent example of paying a great deal of attention to the properties of sound created corporeally. However, you also employ a great deal of electronic manipulation of sound as well as electronically generated sounds in your work.  Those two things seem like opposites to me, but maybe they’re not for you.

Kristin Norderval: To me they don’t feel like opposites.  The technology of electronic sound recording allows us to bring all of nature’s sounds into our art music.  Also, working out that interest in physicality is one of the reasons that I worked for Jill Sigman, my partner, on Rupture.  Those sounds of the eggshells—that was her exploration of that.  So that becomes a sonic element, but it’s starting from her choreography.  That wasn’t in my score, actually; that was her physical exploration in the piece. But there’s a place where we overlap. Both of us are very interested in exploring physical presence: the quality of sound and how you do it, or the quality of movement and how you do it.

FJO:  Of course, in terms of being focused on physicality, your instrument is you, since you’re a singer.

KN:  That’s right.

FJO:  You also still actively sing other people’s music in addition to your own, so you really have a double life as a singer and as a composer. What came first, and how did you realize you had this instrument within you that was capable of such a wide range of sound?

KN:  That’s a big question.  The first memories that I have as a young, young kid—before I was two—are sounds.  And I was singing, people tell me, around two or maybe before.  So I was always singing. I started writing songs when I got my first guitar.  I used my babysitting money and bought a guitar at age ten and started writing songs.  So they’ve always been intertwined, but it’s gone through big changes in focus at different times in my life.  When I was writing songs for guitar and voice, or piano and voice, I was performing in coffee houses, doing that whole kind of thing.  I remember as a teenager saying, “I know how to write chord symbols and write out the words of my songs, but how do you actually write music?”  I could read music, because I’d been taking piano lessons, but I didn’t have the concept of how to actually notate music.  So my goal as a teenager was to try to figure out where I could go to learn to write down what I heard in my head and to be able to hear in my head what I saw on the page.  That was my goal when I went to the University of Washington.

FJO:  I don’t know your earliest music, but on your website you list a solo piano piece from 1980 with a very intriguing title—Aggressions. I’d love to hear that one day.

KN:  I’d have to dig that out of my archives. It’s a hand-written manuscript.

FJO:  Clearly you did figure out how to write down music that was in your head then, or at least some of it. But a great deal of the music that you do nowadays, which uses extended vocal techniques and electronic manipulations, is much more elusive in terms of music notation since a lot of it defies what that notation was developed to notate. When did those kinds of sounds come into your head?

KN:  As a kid, I loved the sound of my dad’s diesel car. I could tell the difference between motors and I loved being on a bus or in any kind of car when the windshield wipers were out of synch; it was fascinating to me.  All kinds of mechanical sounds were very interesting to me, which is another way that I think about electronics. If you go back to steam motors, maybe that’s not electricity, but for all those mechanical sounds, we need power to make them sound and so that’s always been a fascination of mine.  But how do you notate that?  It’s a good question.  It’s still a question to me.  I have things where there are instructions or, if it’s working with a sound itself, then the sound file is the thing.  How do you notate within a metrical or semi-metrical language something that has to be flexible enough to listen to the variances that happen in the sound, like the airplanes going over us?

FJO:  Right.  And obviously, notation’s the enemy of improvisation to some extent since musicians who are trained to be really good at seeing what’s on a page and replicating it precisely—which, mind you, is a really incredible skill to have—often find it somehow counterintuitive to be told they should come up with something on their own. It requires a different headspace.

KN:  I really like both.  There are places in my scores where it’s very specific, and it has to be metric and precise.  And there are other places where one thing is precise and another thing can be fluid over it and change with elbow room or breathing room or room for a different gesture.  Then there are some text scores. I was just working with a group of five actors in Oslo on a theater piece, and I worked with them on deep listening exercises.  My wonderful mentor Pauline Oliveros was a big influence on me.  That kind of listening work and work with improvisation is really central to getting people to the skill sets that they need to interpret a text instruction.  What are the tools you have to interpret that text instruction?  You can interpret it simply or you can interpret it in a more complex way.  That’s where training in improvisation or in listening to sound in a different way comes in.

FJO:  So to get back to high school.  You were a singer-songwriter, playing guitar, taking piano lessons, so obviously understanding how to read music, but not quite understanding how to make that work for your own work.  But you were also intrigued by windshield wiper sounds.  At that point, were you aware of people like Pauline Oliveros, Meredith Monk, or Joan La Barbara?

KN:  I was not.  But I was aware of Yoko Ono.  She was inspiring.  Of course the Beatles were also inspiring, but Yoko Ono was really inspiring!  I had her book Grapefruit in high school.  We were living at that time in Canada in a steel town—Hamilton, Ontario.  I worked with a Grotowski-based theater group for a summer and then continued with them past that.  That exploration of physical theater was really interesting.  But I was also interested in musicology.  I was interested in singing.  I was interested in ethnomusicology and composition. But I didn’t really know any professional musicians until I had checked around the States looking at music schools to try to figure out where I would go.  I ended up going to the University of Washington. They had a program where you could enter as a general music major and then decide over the course of your studies what you were going to major in.  I ended up auditioning for voice, piano, and composition, and I ended up getting a double degree in voice and in composition at the end of that.

That was the start of my opening up to singers like Jan DeGaetani and Leontyne Price.  I had a workshop with Kenneth Gaburo at Cornish which was just like opening the whole world.  I was in the improv group with Stuart Dempster at the University of Washington; he and William O. Smith, Bill Smith, were running that.  Bill Smith was my composition teacher, one of my important composition teachers, along with Diane Thome, who is a wonderful composer for instruments and electronics.  That was also where I was introduced to Pauline Oliveros.  She was giving a talk for teachers. I was there, I guess, on the recommendation of Stuart Dempster.

Pauline gave the audience the score of either the Tuning Meditation or one of the simpler deep listening text scores.  And I was astounded.  I thought, “They’re not going to do this!”  But they did.  She was so trusting in that it was going to be cool.  And it was.  It turned out really cool.  I remember going into the library at the University of Washington and finding a very early edition of her Sonic Meditations with her handwriting in that early score and a picture of her and her introduction where she outed herself: “I am a human being, a lesbian, a two-legged person, living with cats.” All these different categories. It really blew my mind because this was the ‘70s. I was out, but it was a very different time.  Then I had the pleasure of hearing her in San Francisco in concert. When I moved here to New York, I actually was able to work with her and do the whole deep listening apprentice work.  I ended up organizing the last deep listening retreat that she, Ione, and Heloise did together in the Arctic—in Norway in 2015.

FJO:  It’s hard to believe she’s gone.

KN:  Yeah.  Working with her changed the way I make music and the way I listen, the way I relate to all these sounds around us all the time.  She’s amazing.  And she’s still listening, as they say, and so are we.

FJO:  Even though you didn’t know any musicians growing up, your parents seemed to have been supportive of your going in this direction.

KN:  My mother was a very good amateur pianist.  I think as a young person she might have had dreams to follow music, but it wasn’t at all in the cards.  She’s Norwegian and she grew up in Nazi-occupied Norway during the Second World War, so there really wasn’t much opportunity for professional artists.  She went into political science and journalism. My dad was also a political scientist.  He was American.  He was also an amateur violinist, so I knew music.

FJO:  And he was also an instrument collector. You showed me some of his instruments in your apartment.

KN:  That’s right. There were instruments from Southeast Asia in my childhood home, plus recordings from Indonesia from various villages he’d gone to visit.  And home movies.  We lived in Malaysia for a while, and we were in Norway many summers and then lived there for a while when I was a teenager.  Then we lived in Canada and various places in the States.  So I had all kinds of musical influences.

A shelf in Norderval's apartment containing various art objects and musical instruments.

A shelf in Norderval’s apartment containing various art objects and musical instruments.

FJO:  We talk to a lot of composers about their role models. You mentioned Yoko Ono and Pauline Oliveros.

KN:  And Joni Mitchell.

FJO:  What’s interesting in terms of your role models is that all of the people you mentioned are women. We’ve talked to a lot of composers over the years and especially those from earlier generations, like Pauline, talked about the difficulty in finding female role models. It’s not like there weren’t role models.  There have been all of these significant female composers throughout history, but they’ve been relegated to footnotes.  I don’t need to tell you this; you’ve edited a collection of Clara Schumann’s songs. So I know that you’re aware of this history and there’s a certain empowerment through knowing that history, I would think.

KN:  Yes, there is.  I have to say, when I was writing songs for voice and piano and for voice and guitar, I had inspiration from Odetta, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, as well as Bob Dylan, the old blues singers, and Pete Seeger.  I was very influenced by all of that.  So I could see myself as a singer-songwriter.  I can see there’s an identity.  Whereas a composer seemed like what you do if you write for orchestra or at least for string quartet, or these other things that I didn’t know. I didn’t know other female composers growing up, so it was hard to think I could be that.  But it wasn’t so hard to think I can learn how to notate so that I can put what I have in my head onto paper.  It wasn’t a definition that way.  When I was preparing to try to get into the University of Washington, I took composition study at Cornish.  And I remember, I was asking this of my first composition teacher—I was notating some simple things, for solo piano and maybe something for a small instrumental trio combination—and I asked, “Who are the other women composers?”  And it was like, “There aren’t any of importance.”  I just knew that was wrong.  I totally knew that was wrong.  It can’t start with me; I’m not that brilliant.  So I went looking as an undergraduate.  When I did my recitals for voice, I always included female composers, like Hildegard, Strozzi, Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, up through the contemporary composers that I was discovering.

FJO:  No doubt the person who said this to you was a male composition teacher.

KN:  It was a male composition teacher.

A room with shelves of books, a chair, and in the middle, an upright piano with a triangular painting on top of it.

A piano is still the centerpiece of the living room in Norderval’s apartment.

FJO: Now was this around the time you composed a choral piece based on poetry by Emily Dickinson called Passenger of Infinity?

KN:  That piece actually came after I was finished with my undergraduate degree and I’d moved to San Francisco to do a master’s. Actually, I just worked first, then I got into the conservatory and did a master’s in voice. That was during the AIDS crisis. The San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Chorus was doing some commemoration concerts and fundraising concerts and dealing with the deaths of a lot of colleagues and friends and singing in a lot of funerals.  So they commissioned a work. That was written for them.  I recently just redid the last movement of that piece for a cappella [chorus]. The original version was SATB with piano accompaniment, but the last movement had a pretty simple piano accompaniment so I figured it could work as an a cappella piece.  A little chorus in Montreal, the chorus that sang in my opera in Montreal, just did that on a concert in December, the new a cappella version.

FJO:  Oooh, I want to hear that.  So you still keep that piece in circulation?

KN:  Well, I have the score, but it hasn’t been performed in the version that I did for San Francisco since the original performances.  I’m not the greatest about trying to promote and get re-performances or get my scores out there for multiple things.  I tend to write for specific occasions and specific ensembles or soloists, people that ask me for music. It’s a weakness of mine in terms of promotion, I guess.  But on the other hand, it’s a very personal thing.  The music becomes very much a part of that performer or that ensemble’s identity and experience.

Kristin Norderval standing beside a prehistoric glacial drill hole in Inwood Hill Park

Kristin Norderval standing beside a prehistoric glacial drill hole in Inwood Hill Park.

FJO:  That, of course, is the other contradiction in the world of notated music.  You create a lot of work that is intended to exist in the moment, but once you write something down, you fix it for all eternity theoretically. Suddenly there is the possibility for a piece to have an afterlife after the initial performance. It’s interesting that you don’t really think about that.

KN:  Maybe that’s because there’s that inherent contradiction.  I worked with a sculptor in Norway who is a Sami sculptor, he’s not alive anymore—Iver Jåks.  He would work with Arctic stones, wood, reindeer horn, leather woven in a traditional Sami way, and various other things.  He’d assemble these pieces and then say to a curator, “Okay, you put it together.  Here’s the sculpture.”  And I thought that was so wonderful.  We did a whole school tour with an ensemble up in the Arctic, taking his pieces and getting school children to act as curators and put together his sculptures.

Then I did the same with sound. I said, “Okay, let’s go record some sounds.  Now you put the sounds together.”  And it would be different for each group.  That was very liberating. I remember a phone conversation we had—I ended up recording part of it and using it in a piece that I made about him—where he says, “I’m not going last forever; why should my artwork last forever?”

FJO:  A lot of your work is impermanent. I’m thinking, in particular, of all of your sound installations, many of which defy replicability. You even have one you did outdoors using objects that had been thrown away that you called Our Lady of Detritus.

KN:  That was a collaboration with Jill.  We both wanted to work with this theme of repurposing and recycling and looking at waste and the issues of waste.  I had been working with hemispherical speakers and a small digital amp. I knew Holland Hopson had designed hemis for the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, so I used the recipe for the Princeton Laptop Orchestra’s small hemis that have digital amps built into them.  I wanted to see if it would be possible to run that on solar power.  So we contacted an engineer and figured out how many panels we needed and how many hours of daylight to charge up a big battery and how long we could perform on that battery.  It was a really interesting project to do.

FJO:  But a really hard piece to document.

KN: Yes, it was.

FJO:  I was particularly intrigued by piano, piano, pianissimo… because you’re not only changing people’s perceptions of what a piano sounds like, but also changing how we respond to them as visual objects by mounting all these broken pianos at different angles.

KN:  That piece came about as a study piece for my opera. I was already involved in the libretto development. I’d been to Buenos Aires, and I’d made a lot of interviews with Patricia Isasa and other survivors [of Argentina’s military dictatorship]—children of the disappeared, and the surviving mothers and grandmothers.  I wanted to do a study piece to start working with the sounds.  My very first image from my impulse to work with Patricia Isasa’s story was of a piece that would be for voice and a kind of trashed piano where the piano would have sounds created out of things that were to done to it coming through its own body.  I used the sound installation as a study for those piano sounds, then channeled those sounds through each of the pianos.  It’s an eight-channel installation and each piano has a transducer affixed to the soundboard, so the piano itself was the loudspeaker.  The sounds that were coming through the pianos were sounds that I had recorded of me doing things to the pianos.  Either scraping on the strings, detuning, hitting strings with metal objects, clipping strings, knocking on the boards.  Some of them are very intense physical sounds.  The idea was that the piano as a body was recounting its own sonic history.  It’s a very bourgeois instrument.  It’s an instrument that’s associated with a certain level of stability in society.  When things up-end that stability, it has a hard time existing in the same way.

FJO:  So the upturned pianos are a metaphor—

KN: —for all the upturned political upheaval.  There was also a sculpture in Buenos Aires where there are two units that are strangely balanced on each other, a sort of box/house unit.  That gave me an idea for these balancing things.  Then I asked Jill to come in and work with me.  So she helped in making the final configuration of the pianos in the space.  Then we had her painting, inscribing the names of the victims of the disappearances on the wall, over the whole week that we were there in the gallery.  She was painting every day that the installation was up and in the course of a week she only got through about 1,600 names.  If it takes a week to just write 1,600 names on a wall, it gives you more of a sense of the vastness of 30,000 people being disappeared.

FJO:  I’m very eager to talk with you about the opera in greater detail, but before we get there I find it fascinating that prior to you ever having had a work done on the stage of an opera house, you created an installation for the lobby of the Oslo Opera. Were there other performances going on in the house when that was done?

KN:  Yes.  Again, that was also very much Jill’s project. She was the main instigator in that particular project, Hut No. 6, as part of the CODA Dance Festival.  They had dance performances on the main stage, on the small stage, and all around the city.  Our piece was a performance installation in the lobby of the opera house that went on for over a week. We were there every day for five to six hours, interacting with everybody who came through the lobby.  My part was the sound installation that used a hand-powered generator—I used an old bicycle wheel to help people generate their own power.  And an installation inside of Jill’s hut that was ongoing that had interviews with people about how they felt about home in Oslo.  Then I was singing in the performances every day.

FJO:  What unites all of these projects, I think, is that they all go against the whole hagiography of the canon and this idea that the goal of making art is to create timeless masterpieces. These are very much things that were created for a specific time and place that are not necessarily capable of ever being done again, which is very different from pieces you’ve done which have notated scores.

KN:  Music actually functions on a lot of different levels for different pieces.  I want some of my pieces to exist past me.  So I would like to have a score that can be done by other people.  Other pieces are done specifically for a particular theater piece or a particular dance; it’s not going to be a repertory piece.  Other things are done as an improvisation in the moment.  They can exist as a recording and have a life on a CD, but they’ll never exist in real time again because that was that moment and it’s not re-creatable. 

One thing I want to comment on here brings us back to talking about role models and female composers.  I’ve told this story, so some people who know me will probably recognize it.  When I was doing my doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music, I was also working at the Library for the Performing Arts. My boss knew I was interested in women composers and how women composers have been represented in the music industry.  So she asked me to make an exhibition, in one of their big cases at the library, about women and recorded sound.  It was a real learning experience for me, because what I was seeing, when I’d go back and do the research, was that every single stage of recorded sound had female composers from that era, but when the technology changed, those female composers didn’t get re-recorded on the new technology.  We had a big push of recordings on LPs in the ‘80s and the ‘90s; women musicologists were bringing up historic scores and more female composers were getting trained and became able to record their own contemporary works.  But lots of stuff on LPs never made it to CD.  And a lot of stuff on CDs now hasn’t gone over to streaming, either it doesn’t go over or it doesn’t get credited.  Streaming information is not good.  You could have a collection of pieces on an album, and maybe you just have last names.  How do you find out who’s who?  I have recordings with Monique Buzzarté in our ensemble ZANANA, but you can’t search for Norderval on Spotify or other streaming searches.  It has to be only ZANANA.  Then maybe they credit me as a performer in the duo.  So there are a lot of problems with actually knowing what existed at various times and making it over to the next stage.  Who decides what is worth keeping and archiving?

FJO:  I’m going to tell you something that’s probably going to make you very mad; it made me very mad.  Just about a week ago, I chanced upon a blog post which was a few years old, but it was linked from a much more recent post, which is how I found it.  It was posted by a woman in England who is a musicologist, but she was just starting out when she wrote it.  It was a 2014 post.  Anyway, the post described how when she was in a library looking at older editions of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, she saw that each of the earlier editions had a number of female composers in them, but then when you went to the next edition—

KN:  —they disappeared. Same thing.  Exactly.  Yeah.

FJO:  So I found her email and wrote to her.  I wanted her to know that when I was asked to update the articles about chamber music and orchestra music for the new edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music, I also added in female composers who were not mentioned in earlier editions.  I also asked her for a list of the female composers whose biographies had appeared in one of the editions of Grove but were omitted in later editions but sadly she didn’t keep a list since she wrote that post before she embraced the musicological discipline of strict note taking. At some point, we’re going to have to have a group of researchers reconstruct this list to find out who all these composers are. But it does tie into this notion of impermanence that we were talking about earlier.

KN:  But there’s a difference. There are different kinds of impermanence.  If I say I’m doing an improvisation, and it’s just for here and now, that’s my chosen impermanence.  Or if I write a score that has instructions and motives, so it can be done in different ways, the one version is impermanent, but the next version is just as valid.  But the impermanence of just being not taken care of is a different thing.  I think of composers like Eleanor Hovda.  What an amazing composer!  Her work hasn’t been highlighted and preserved in the way that it should be for that amazing level of work.  She’s just one person right off the top of my head.

A shelf of scores in Kristin Norderval's living room.

A shelf of scores in Kristin Norderval’s living room.

FJO:  There are tons of stories like that. So what can be done to safeguard your work so that it isn’t lost?  Is that an issue for you?

KN:  Maybe it’s not an issue about my work, but it’s an issue of education in general for composers, especially for female composers, for composers of color, and for composers who are working in non-mainstream ways.  I think we have a crisis of education right now at all kinds of levels.  When I was growing up and moving around, at every single school I went to in all these different towns that we lived in, I would choose a new instrument in the school band.  So I learned a lot, not very well, but enough.  But there are no school bands anymore.  That’s not a part of public education.

FJO:  Well, there actually are still quite a few really amazing school bands.

KN:  Yeah, but it’s not automatic.  It’s not seen as part of what we really need to be full human beings.

FJO:  That’s definitely true, and it is unfortunate.  But for the past two years I’ve attended the Midwest Clinic, which is a major event for wind bands and other community, school, and military ensembles.  There were some amazing groups from high schools.  Last year there was a string orchestra from a high school in Nevada that played Penderecki’s Threnody and it was incredible. But, sure, this isn’t happening everywhere.  Music isn’t valued as much as it ought to be, and I think it’s a larger societal problem because one of the things that music teaches you is the lesson of listening, to get outside yourself and to actually pay attention to someone else’s thoughts.  If you can’t get outside yourself, you’re just in an echo chamber, which is the zeitgeist now in part because we don’t learn how to listen to music in the same way.

KN:  Or even doing it and making it together.

FJO:  There’s a special kind of listening I think that comes when you’re making music with somebody else.  You have to listen, especially in an improvisatory context.  I want to talk about that in terms of the improvisatory projects you’ve done—both the duo with Monique Buzzarté and the more recent trio recording that came out last year with two musicians I hadn’t heard before.  With projects like that, I imagine there’s a whole lot of listening to each other that has to go on in the moment.  But before you go into the studio to create work like that, how much pre-planning is there?  How much rehearsal?

KN:  For the recording Parrhésie with flutist Ida Heidel and pianist Nusch Werchowska, we spent time listening together outside the recording studio and doing slow walks, opening up our ears to the environment and to each other.  Then there were certain texts that we might say are an inspiration.  Let’s use this for how we focus in, even if the improvisation didn’t contain a specific text. There were some where I’m singing text, but there are some where we had just taken a line and, okay, that’s what we’re going to all focus on.  We’d spend a moment, and then we’d go.  The pre-planning is different in different situations.  With Monique and my work, some of the pieces were completely free in the moment and others had a structure that we had worked out, that had some things fixed in terms of motives or direction or that kind of thing.

FJO:  So if you’re doing a tour to promote these albums, what do you do when people ask you to play what’s on the album? You can’t.

KN:  Right, not really.  But both on my solo album and on the ZANANA album, there are some pieces that we could do.  It would be a little different, but they have a structure that is repeatable and you would recognize it as the same piece.  But others were just created then and there.

FJO:  Now what I found so interesting about the solo album is that in your program notes you described some tracks as being pre-existing electronic pieces that you just sang over when you mixed them in the studio. So they became something else in the moment.  It’s a way of taking something that was fixed and permanent and making it more organic and alive.

KN:  That’s interesting.  I wasn’t thinking about it specifically like that.  The voice is always flexible, but the tape—once you’ve got a sound file that’s a fixed sound file—it’s totally inflexible. It’s interesting to me to make a permeation, but also, when I’m working with pre-recorded sound files, I’m processing in the moment often with several files and choosing in that moment: Okay, I’m only going to use this little tiny bit of this file.  Now I’m going to expand it to the whole thing.  Now I’m going to pitch shift.  Now I’m going to delay feedback—pretty basic processing tools, but everything is in the moment so it’s like drawing from a palette that I know.   I know the sound files, and I’ll do it in a different mix the next time.  It’s like cooking up a different stew.

FJO:  At the heart of it all is a spirit of collaboration—even those solo pieces.  What I found so interesting about the solo pieces is that you’re collaborating with yourself.

KN:  Yeah, on the computer which sometimes gives me things that I’m surprised by, then I get to respond to what it’s given me.

FJO:  This is me then; this is me now.  You’re in a dialogue with yourself.

KN:  Right.

FJO:  But it also erases this idea: Oh, I’m a composer and I create these masterpieces in my room; I’m not influenced by anybody, and these pieces are completely mine and now you must do what I wrote, for all eternity.

KN:  But I have come to a combination of notated and improvised, and I’ve realized I actually have some specific ideas about the improvisation.  So in the process of working with another performer, I either give instructions verbally, or I think now I need to add that to my instructions on the score because you’re improvising, but I didn’t really mean that.

FJO:  So it’s possible that people can perform things wrong or incorrectly?

KN:  It’s possible that they would perform things that aren’t in the range that I would prefer, and then I have to figure out how to re-articulate my preferences.

FJO:  Now, to get back to this idea of collaboration.  A lot of works—even many of your solo pieces—grew out of works that were collaborative to some extent, since they were created to be presented with film and dance.

KN:  And theater.

A laptop and overgrown plants on a desk.

A laptop and plants peacefully coexist on Norderval’s work desk.

FJO:  You’ve done tons of work with Jill Sigman, who is somebody with a very similar aesthetic to yours. Her choreography really comes out of this idea of a raw physicality that is also somehow being altered.  I’m thinking of Papoose, which I find wonderful and disturbing at the same time, because it’s doing things with a body that are obviously natural but also somewhat unexpected. It’s almost like what you do when you take your voice and then manipulate it electronically. It’s taking it to another space.

KN:  Yeah.  Totally.  I learn from those collaborations a lot.  It opens up ways of thinking about development and processing and contrasts.

FJO:  A lot of your pieces don’t involve text, but when you do have a text, you’re also collaborating with the text.

KN:  Right.

FJO:  Going all the way back to that early Emily Dickinson piece of yours again—those words already existed. But you’re adding something to them which theoretically brings certain things out and it also becomes something else in the process.  It’s sort of an involuntary collaboration, since she’s not around to collaborate with.  Similarly in Nothing Proved, the piece you wrote for Parthenia that you’re in the studio recording this week, you worked with texts by Elizabeth I before she was a queen. Once again, she had no say in the music you composed, since she’s been dead for hundreds of years.  But because she wrote that text, it ties your hands in terms of what you can do.

KN:  Yes, it does, certainly rhythmically. Well, you could consciously go against the rhythm of speech in terms of accents on syllables, but then it’s going to have a particular effect that you’re ac-cen-ting other sy-lla-bles. I like to keep the intelligibility of the text.  Usually there’s something in a particular text that I choose that is already giving me melodic content.  I’m hearing some beginning of a motive right away.  I have no idea where it comes from. My piece Elegy: for Gaza is from a poem by Timothy O’Donnell; I read that poem in The Nation on the 1 train and it was already singing to me.  So I had to do this.  I had to find out who this guy is, write to him, and get his permission.  There are pieces like that that just jump out.  Then, there are other times, like in the opera, where there are certain places I had that relationship but there are also other places where I had to find ways to include a text because it’s important to further the story, or it’s part of the relationship of the characters, and so I had to find a way to deal with a lot more text than I’m usually dealing with in a song cycle or a single work with text.

The score for Norderval's composition Nothing Proved

An excerpt from the score for Norderval’s song cycle Nothing Proved which she performed with the viol consort Parthenia.

FJO:  With your opera The Trials of Patricia Isasa, you’re dealing with something else as well.

KN:  A living person.

FJO:  And a true story.

KN:  Yes.

FJO:  A really horrible story that has, I don’t know if I’d call it a happy ending, but at least some resolution.

KN:  A victorious ending.

FJO:  You said earlier that at first you conceived of a piece for voice and a trashed piano and then it evolved into an opera. I’m curious about that transformation, but also how you first became acquainted with Patricia Isasa’s story and what made you want to create music inspired by it.

KN:  I’m going to tell you the long story.

FJO: I love long stories.

KN:  As the eldest child of two political scientists, I have always been interested in politics and events in the world. Politics was in our house all the time.  So I’ve always been aware and my music has been very centered in wherever we are as a society.  But after 9/11 it became even more so.  I did a lot of pieces where I felt like I had to give expression to where we are going and why we invaded a country based on lies, why this stuff is happening and there’s no accountability.  One of my big pieces that I did in Oslo was a multimedia piece that came out of my disgust over Abu Ghraib and the whole situation with renditions, the kidnapping of people from all kinds of places and sending them off to black sites.  And my question was: How is it that Western Europe and North America and all these other nations are going along with this? How does it happen that populations are sucked into agreeing to these policies that are obviously abhorrent and against international law?  I researched the torture memos.  I started looking at all of the work that the Center for Constitutional Rights was doing.  I got a lot of information about what was going on.  That piece was a collaboration with Jill, another dancer in Norway, actors, a sculptor, and some other musicians in Europe. At the end of that piece, I felt I knew a lot about torture and wasn’t done with it.  It wasn’t enough to explore what it is about us that makes us drawn into groupthink.  Was there somewhere I could explore how we see accountability?  I was keeping my eyes and ears open for a potential subject.

At some point, I was thinking I wanted to do a piece on Chelsea Manning, but it was before the trial, so it wasn’t a finished story.  It was in process.  Then in 2010, I heard an interview with Patricia Isasa on Democracy Now where she was recounting her recent victory, in December 2009—successfully prosecuting and convicting six powerful people in Argentina who had been part of renditions, torture, and murder during the Dirty Wars of the military dictatorship.  Her case had come 33 years after her abduction.  I thought, “Wow, that’s amazing!”  Her spirit, her strength of character—she had so much energy, so much conviction, and she got a conviction!  So I was inspired by that.  I found her website and I wrote to her.  And I got a response.  The next thing we were writing back and forth. At that point, I didn’t know it was going to be an opera, but I knew I wanted to work with her story somehow.  She was coming to New York, and I said, “Come and let’s talk.”  And she ended up staying with me.  For several days, we just talked and talked and I recorded interviews.  Then I started trying to work with those interviews.

At a certain point, I realized that this really is such a big story and such a difficult topic, so it really needs an excellent writer to put this together.  So then I was going through who I knew—what plays do I know?  I liked the work of Naomi Wallace very much, but I’d never met her.  But again, I took cold contact with her through her publisher.  She ended up agreeing to a workshop period that I was able to organize in Oslo with a retired dramaturg from the Norwegian [National] Opera.  No strings attached.  I said, “We’ll work for a week; if we can get something together and we hit it off, we’ll take it further.  If we don’t, we all go off and do our own thing.” And she was very generous.  It was an amazing process.  We came away from the first week with a rough idea of the course that we wanted to look at.  We fleshed out what we wanted to center on in the storytelling.  I came away with several aria-type texts, and I wrote three character studies.  Those three character studies were done by Ensemble Pi; they ended up in the opera pretty much as is.  Then the process of working with Naomi over the next year on the full text was great, and it went from there.

FJO:  It was very fortuitous that it was staged in Montreal last year during OPERA America’s annual conference, which will hopefully lead to more productions of it in the future. I wish I could have been there for that, but luckily the company put a video recording of the whole thing online which also hopefully will get more people excited about it.

KN:  Thank you.

FJO:  One of the things I find so fascinating about the opera, and I say this in a positive way, is that in some ways it’s your most conventional piece.

KN:  Yes, it is.

FJO:  But there’s also something that’s very unconventional about it—the main character is actually three different roles. There are three Patricias.  There’s Patricia, the 16-year old who’s abducted.  There’s the Patricia of the near present, who manages to get a conviction of these people.  And those are two different singing roles on stage, and they even sing duets with each other.

KN:  The inner self that is propelling you forward to do something.  When Naomi had the first draft of the libretto finished, I went to Argentina and read it through for Patricia. We sat on a roof in Buenos Aires. Where I had little bits of motives, I sang; otherwise, I just read. That was really, really interesting.  There were some things that she made comments about, but she could totally relate to this thing of having the two characters.  That was good to have her blessing.  She had come to one workshop in Oslo, too, before that first draft was finished.

FJO: And then there’s a third Patricia. She’s in the opera as herself as well. In addition to the two singers on stage, documentary footage of the real Patricia’s image and voice is projected to the audience. That definitely makes the story seem more real and more impactful.  But there’s also the impact of the actual music, which sounds very different from a lot of your music.  There are Argentinian elements in it—tango-ish sounds at times, a bandoneón.

KN:  That was partly in response to the text and the subject and partly that I knew I wanted to work with these instruments that would locate it geographically and timewise. I felt like I needed to use the instruments, but I needed to meet them on my own terms.  I didn’t want to imitate tangos, but I do have a tango-inspired section in the courtroom because it felt like a dance.  It’s a court theater.  I listened to a lot of tango and a lot of nuevo tango.  I also listened to a lot of other Argentine composers, especially composers that were working with the sounds of Buenos Aires.

FJO:  There’s a big debate these days in the visual art community about who has the right to tell someone else’s story. There’s been a huge brouhaha over this abstract painting by Dana Schutz inspired by the famous photo of Emmett Till’s open coffin that’s in the Whitney Biennial.  Then there was an installation sculpture that recreated a scaffold that was the site of a massacre of Native Americans that was being set up at the Walker in Minneapolis but was later removed and destroyed with the consent of the artist after protests from members of the Dakota tribe. In our current climate, it’s possible that someone might question a North American’s desire to create a work based on this Latin American story.

KN:  I think it’s very much our story because the U.S. was behind the whole Operation Condor that supported all those dictatorships.  That comes out in certain places in the opera.  The Ford factory was encouraging the military dictatorship to impose certain economic policies, and they used the Ford factory as a place for torture.  So it’s very much an American story.  My feeling and Naomi Wallace’s feeling was that when we look back at a story about this historical period—and it’s not that far back because 2009, when she got a conviction, is very close—it’s a way of saying this is what happened there and this is what could happen here.

For me, the important part was the accountability part because my concern for us as a nation is that we have had no accountability for an invasion of another country that was based on lies and no accountability for torture.  The torture and war programs that are committed in all of our names are also related to our prison industrial complex, our mass incarceration, the fact that it’s only been 50 years since we dismantled the legal apartheid system of Jim Crow in this country.  I was ten-years old when interracial marriage was finally legal.  That’s crazy.  People have been working to try to dismantle that ever since, and that’s the period we’re in now.  We’re in the backlash period.  We have to look with a big historical overview to see how to deal with those effects and issues with some kind of accountability.  That, for me, was the story.  And that is our story.  That, plus Patricia was involved in the whole thing.  So it’s our collective story.

Kristin Norderval standing by a broken light post in Inwood Hill park

Kristin Norderval in Inwood Hill park

Sky Macklay: Why I Love Weird Contemporary Music

Sky Macklay has been receiving a great deal of attention for her string quartet Many Many Cadences which, as per its title, involves a relentless chain of cadences—some of which are completed and some of which listeners who are acculturated to the canon of Western classical music perceive as such by being able to infer the missing sonic links. This piece fetched Macklay a 2016 ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award and its premiere recording, by the Spektral Quartet, was nominated for a 2017 Grammy.  In September, it will be performed by the Utrecht String Quartet during the Gaudeamus Muziekweek in Utrecht, where it’s in the running for the 2017 Gaudeamus Prize, and in November it will be performed by the Bozzini Quartet during the 2017 ISCM World New Music Days in Vancouver.

Macklay first came to my attention five years ago after receiving New Music USA funding for a quirky orchestral piece she wrote to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the founding of Lexington, Massachusetts called Dissolving Bands, a work which earned her the 2013 Leo Kaplan Award, the top honor in the Morton Gould Awards. When I read the then 24-year-old composer’s description of it as a musical rendering of the “tension, instability, and unpredictability of life in colonial America on the cusp of revolution,” I knew I needed to hear it. The music she wrote is sometimes reminiscent of the sound world of the maverick New England composer Charles Ives, but Macklay is a maverick in her own right as I kept discovering the more familiar I became with the rest of her compositional output.

She’s made it very easy to discover her music on her own website, which offers audio recordings—and sometimes video recordings and musical scores—for 17 different compositions which range from a wacky sound installation comprised of industrial fans channeling air into either large heavy duty garbage bags or air mattresses stuffed full of deconstructed harmonicas to a provocative chamber opera whose three characters are two spermatozoa and a uterus.  As she acknowledged when we visited her New York City apartment just weeks before her move to Chicago, she usually comes up with a generative concept prior to creating a note of music:

Oftentimes it comes to me like a flash of inspiration. I then figure out the details of how that will work and can bring it to life. That’s the excitement of composing for me. I am a very conceptual composer.  I like structuralist ideas that I can flesh out formally; that’s really how I work.  It could be a combination of a sonic concept and a formal concept usually.  Maybe sometimes also an extra-musical concept.

Macklay’s extra-musical concepts are often highly charged politically. In Lessina, Levlin, Levlite, Levora, a speaking violinist (whom she requires to be male) simultaneous bows various figurations while reciting a list of FDA-approved female contraceptive devices and drugs, pharmaceutical companies’ advertising slogans for them, side effects from taking them, and user reviews.

“I think that’s a really common and traumatic experience in a lot of women’s lives,” she explained. “So making that into music was a way to share that experience mostly with men who don’t understand that experience on a deep level.”

Another work, Sing Their Names for unaccompanied chorus, was created in response to the recent police killings of black people. Its text is simply a list of victims’ names.

“I saw a poster that had a list of just pictures and names of people who had been killed by police, and I thought that I could make a memorial out of it,” Macklay said.  “I wanted to be abstract in that most of the time you can’t really understand the names in the piece, but maybe a few of them emerge in the end that you can hear. … The abstracted syllables of the people’s names is a metaphor for erasure and the lack of visibility of the humans involved, and then in the end it’s maybe a little more visible.  I think of it as a sacred piece that is supposed to be a requiem-like meditation on the people’s lives.”

Sometimes, however, the concept is purely musical, as in her stunning violin and piano duo FastLowHighSlow, in which fast and slow music are presented simultaneously as are the extreme registers of both instruments. She got so excited by the idea of exploring every possible permutation of those two binaries that after the work’s initial performance she added an additional optional movement which presents every possibility at the same time, although to do so ultimately required a second violinist and a second pianist.

“It’s definitely not the most practical movement, which is why it’s optional,” she acknowledged.

But despite Macklay’s love for esoteric concepts (read on to find out why she subdivided an ensemble into two groups tuned approximately a quarter tone apart), it all stems from a desire to communicate visceral experiences that can engage listeners. She is particularly excited by introducing younger people to the rich resources of contemporary music, which she does through teaching at The Walden School as well as creating music for student ensembles.

“I love weird contemporary music and sharing it with the next generation,” she explained. “I think a lot of it is sharing my own personal perspective on it—just show how much a particular sound excites me and how beautiful I think it is.  I think that’s sort of contagious, or at least let’s people perceive it as a beautiful thing, or something that some person thinks is a beautiful thing. I also think that exposure, experience, experiential education, and experiential pieces are really a great way to do outreach. … That’s something I think more composers should do: write music that has a participatory role for amateur musicians, or for just audience members.”

Sky Macklay in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Macklay’s NYC apartment
May 10, 2017—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu


Frank J. Oteri: Thank you for including so much information about your music on your website, not just recordings but even scores for most of the pieces. It really helped me get to know your work and, because of that, there are so many details I want to talk about with you.

Sky Macklay:  I like to share all the information and be transparent. Sometimes you can make great connections through that. So I like to put the scores up there, at least for the pieces that I’m done with.  But sometimes I have a performance and I think I’ll probably make revisions, so I don’t put up the score.  In November, I was part of the NEM Forum with Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne in Montreal, and I wrote a large ensemble piece for them called Microvariations. It uses a lot of the same ideas as Many Many Cadences, but with two groups tuned microtonally apart from each other. I wasn’t very satisfied with it compositionally.  I thought I missed some opportunities to orchestrate in a way that made those microtonal harmonies more audible.  It was not as vivid as I wanted.  But somebody from the Society of Contemporary Music in Montreal heard it, and they’re going to do it again in Montreal.  So now I have a chance to totally revise it and perfect it. That’s a really great opportunity. How I love to work the most is to have a performance, have a chance to perfect it, and then that’ll be the real final version.

FJO:  So that’s why the score for Microvariations is not online. I really wanted to see that score.  Since you said it draws on an idea from Many Many Cadences, I’d like to find out more about that. In both pieces it sounds like you’ve taken a bunch of brief, disjunct musical phrases and stitched them together by implying relationships between them that people immersed in listening to common practice tonality would perceive. In a very extensive interview that Brendon Howe did with you for VAN magazine last year, you said that you were annoyed because a lot of people were so focused on the fast succession of tonal cadences in the opening of Many Many Cadences that they missed what you think is the most significant aspect of that piece. Of course, a composer can’t ultimately control what listeners are going to think a piece is about, and you did call it Many Many Cadences, so people are going to focus on that.

SM:  I don’t think that people in general misunderstood what it was about.  I’m happy with how audiences received it. I think most people definitely took in the whole picture.  I was just ranting about the way it was portrayed in “the media,” the publicity that that particular album got, how in so many reviews of the album the reviewers only described the beginning and didn’t describe the trajectory of the piece, what happens to that opening material.  I definitely feel for the reviewers, because I know they are trying to keep their word count down so they just describe it real quick in a way that people would relate to.

FJO: Both Many Many Cadences and Microvariations wind up not sounding at all like pointillistic music because the missing links between the musical phrases are implied and we’re somehow able to perceive them.

SM:  Our brain fills them in. I’m fascinated with perception and tapping into the habits that our brains have. But I don’t really think of them as disjunct moments in time.  They are connected by their staccato attacks, and they’re connected by our brain by their proximity and the historical idea of cadences.

FJO:  In terms of how Microvariations expands on this idea, it sounds like there are actual references to standard repertoire pieces in it, but I can’t identify any of them.

SM:  The timpani is referencing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with all the rhythmic octaves, so there are definitely references, but not any direct quotes.  If you took any common practice period piece and did a Schenkerian analysis of it and reduced it to its most foundational, tonal elements, that’s sort of what you would get.  Like Many Many Cadences, it would just sound like those chords.

FJO:  I’m curious about the way you used microtonality in Microvariations.  By dividing the ensemble into two groups that are not in tune with each other, you’re playing around with the notion of absolute pitch not being absolute.  Nowadays musicians are trained to play the A above middle C at 440 Hz, but it wasn’t always that way.  Pitch was lower. In certain places it has even gone higher. But how does that play out in terms of what you’re doing?

SM:  First of all, it creates clashes of approximately a quarter tone among them. Sometimes I have one person from the higher group and one person from the lower group playing in unison. It sounds like a de-tuned unison, and I think that’s a really great sound.  I want to definitely take advantage of that more.  But then, the way it coalesces in this piece is we have a motive in a pitch level, and then something in this other pitch level.  It goes back and forth, and then when they come together, they sound so spicy together. It also uses a lot of chords that are in just intonation, spectral chords that I orchestrated thinking, “Okay, this group is about a quarter tone flatter, so members of this group could play the seventh partial of the harmonic series.”  Of course there are lots of adjustments, but it’s finding the overlap where their pitch levels would be in tune in the harmonic series.

FJO:  Classically trained musicians have a real resistance to being “out of tune.”  How did you navigate that?

SM: In my experience in Montreal, the musicians were down for it. It definitely has a precedent. I had all of the winds tune their instruments down a quarter tone.  The brass players had no problems with it.  The clarinets and oboes maybe had the most trouble because their instruments are more affected by the extreme tuning.  It’s definitely a little wonky with wind instruments. If you pull out the tube, not everything is perfectly in tune all along the instrument.  It messes up the perfect adjustments that the players are used to making.  I play oboe, so I’m aware of that.  I embrace it and say, “If your timbre is a little wilder than usual, just go with it.  Don’t worry about a super refined tone.”  They definitely just went with it and adapted.  I think the tendency was they would get a little higher as the piece went on.  They would start creeping up to the strings, but I had the conductor remind them to relax and keep the pitch down.  It was a conscious thing they had to keep thinking about, but then they did a great job.

FJO:  But a lot of classical players dread that people are going to think they’re out of tune.  How do you navigate that—being out of tune is actually being in tune for this piece?

SM:  I try to make it a clear rhetorical reason in my music, something that’s obvious enough. The differently tuned pitches will play enough of a role that people listening to it will know this is obviously the way it’s supposed to be. In this day and age, so many people are doing microtonality, I think that attitude is definitely fading.  Pretty much every musician that I work with is very open to alternative tunings.

FJO:  But when you get a commission from the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic after your Gaudeamus and ISCM performances, you might encounter some resistance if you ask the players to veer outside 12-tone equal temperament.

SM:  Well, I don’t really work with orchestras that much at this point in my life.  I’m sure orchestras are generally more conservative than chamber music people who specialize in contemporary music.

FJO:  The first piece of yours I ever heard, Dissolving Bands, is an orchestral piece and it is not microtonal. So was microtonality not part of your musical language at that point, or did you figure that it wouldn’t work in the context of writing for orchestra?

SM:  I was definitely interested in microtonality at that point, but it didn’t seem important for what I was working with for that particular piece.  I was trying to write a successful piece for orchestra that would fit with the Lexington Symphony. I don’t remember being held back by anything that came to mind, but I suppose with an orchestra, I’d definitely be more conservative with microtones.

A work table with a closed laptop, an additional computer keyboard and large-scale monitor, headphones, and printed musical scores.

Sky Macklay’s composing desk

FJO:  As far as I can tell, Dissolving Bands is the earliest piece that you still put out there.

SM:  Well, if you go back through my SoundCloud account, you can find some earlier pieces.  But that one is my first mature piece.

FJO:  So that’s Opus 1?

SM:  Yes.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you begin your catalog with that, especially since it received a lot of recognition; it got the top honors, the Leo Kaplan Award, in the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards competition. Of course that makes listeners curious to know what came before it, how you got to that point as a composer, but they can’t if you don’t want those earlier pieces to be done at this point.

SM:  Oh, I would consider some of them maybe.  There’s actually one piece before that that’s on my website—Döppelganger.  It’s for two oboes and—

FJO:  —and organ.

SM: I actually made the version for two oboes and organ in 2014, I think. But the original version, for two oboes and chamber ensemble, is from 2012 or 2011.  Then I kept working with that idea in different instrumentations.

FJO:  But only Döppelganger III, the one for two oboes and organ, is on your website.  I was going to ask about one and two.

SM:  Well, Döppelganger I is on my SoundCloud.  An oldie, but goodie.

FJO:  So that piece you’d still encourage people to play.

SM:  Yeah.

FJO:  The Döppelganger pieces all involve oboe, so they’re very personal.  You’re an oboist.

SM:  Yes.

FJO:  What came first, playing oboe or composing?

SM:  Oboe came first.  I always really loved music, and when I was a kid I was in choir. I started playing oboe when I was ten, and I was really into it. Then I started getting serious about piano at 12 and studied pretty seriously in my teens.  I started composing when I was 17 or 18, not that early.  One of my creative outlets before that was that my friends and I had sort of a movie-making collective called AnimeSpoof.com; we did spoofs of anime, but also other funny movies.  I sometimes did music for that and then late in high school, I started writing songs.  I became serious about composing my sophomore year of college and became a composition major. But I always kept playing oboe and was serious about that, too, and kept studying it through my master’s degree.

FJO: And you still play oboe.

SM:  Yeah.

FJO:  So did you start out writing pieces for you to play yourself and then it gradually morphed into writing music for others?

SM:  Well, my earliest pieces were songs for voice and piano, but they weren’t always for me. I remember in my first composition class that my first piece was for oboe and accessories. My next piece was for marimba and voice. Then I branched out writing for all kinds of instrumentations. My final project for that class was for trombone choir.  That was a disastrous piece because it’s not very idiomatic for trombone.  It was very high and contrapuntal, so it totally fell apart in the performance.

FJO:  How many trombones?

SM:  I think there were maybe ten parts, but I honestly don’t remember. That’s definitely in the trash bin.

FJO:  But you went on to write a piece for multiple oboes called Inner Life of Song which I think is pretty incredible.  There’s no date on the score or in your notes, so I don’t know when that piece happened.

SM:  I think I wrote that in 2015.

The score for Sky Macklay's composition Inner Life of Song

FJO:  I love how open-ended it is. It can be for any number of oboists, and it’s a graphic, indeterminate, conceptual score.  It is instruction-based, rather than something with a lot of complex notation, so it seems like it could be put together relatively easily.

SM:  Definitely.  That’s the idea. It’s a communal experience. It’s very experiential. Of course an audience can listen to it, but it’s more about the experience of the performers and their listening because it’s a deep listening piece where I want them to really feel the collective multiphonics and get deep into the inner life of the sounds. It’s very approachable for students who’ve never played multiphonics before.  They can just try them out, and if they mess up in the performance, or they don’t speak in the performance, it’s okay, because there are usually other people playing at the same time.  I hope that wherever there’s a large group of oboists, like at a double reed festival or in studio class, they could play that piece.  It’s my offering to groups of oboe players who want to have a collective experience playing multiphonics. There’s an International Double Reed Society Conference.  And then there are also regional double reed days that a lot of universities have.

FJO:  I imagine it’s much harder to put together a performance of one of the Döppelganger pieces. I studied the score for the third one, and it looks pretty hard. That’s not something that could be done by a pick-up group.

SM:  That is a virtuosic piece for sure.  But I personally like to play that piece a lot, so I’ve played it with my teacher from Memphis and with lots of different oboe friends.  It’s a nice bonding experience with other oboists.

FJO:  Most of your other pieces don’t really involve the oboe, so you don’t really perform in them.  Even though you still play oboe, composing became your main activity.  So when did that happen?

SM: I really started identifying as a composer in my sophomore year of college. I’ve definitely liked writing for myself, but I saw that as a small part of my work as a composer.  I have written one more piece that’s oboe-centric called Sixty Degree Mirrors.  I don’t have that on my website, but I’m going to be making a recording of it with Ghost Ensemble in June, so I’ll definitely put that up when I have the nice new recording.

FJO:  What’s the story with that piece?

SM:  It’s for flute, oboe, accordion, harp, bass, and viola.  It’s called Sixty Degree Mirrors because that’s the angle of the mirrors in a kaleidoscope. All these little sound objects are played and repeated with slight variations.  It’s a very fractured form. Imagine different things in mirrors.  Then, at the end, a lot of it is based around multiphonic harmonies in the oboe and flute together.

FJO:  Your titles frequently seem to reflect a core structural element in the music. It seems there’s often a really intense concept which generates the music, so I’m wondering what generates those concepts. Does a title come to you before the music or perhaps a concept that you flesh out sonically and then title?

SM:  Maybe not exactly the title, but a little kernel of an idea. Oftentimes it comes to me like a flash of inspiration. I then figure out the details of how that will work and can bring it to life. That’s the excitement of composing for me. I am a very conceptual composer.  I like structuralist ideas that I can flesh out formally; that’s really how I work.  It could be a combination of a sonic concept and a formal concept.  Maybe sometimes also an extra-musical concept.

FJO:  When I was looking at your score for The Braid, I spotted something that really seemed like a musical parallel to the concept of braiding, which is the really detailed undulations of the dynamics. Each of the musicians start out playing super quiet, getting slightly louder but still quiet, then going back to being super quiet, but at different times.  It’s like contrapuntal dynamic levels. It’s a very strange idea, but I imagine it came from having an idea about braiding and then trying to figure out how to make it work musically.

The score for Sky Macklay’s composition The Braid which shows her extensive use of subtle dynamic fluctuations.

SM:  I have to give credit where credit is due and say that I got that idea from Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet. She has little dynamic fluctuations and intertwining voices. I also wanted to use different timbres that can really blend together. It’s a piece for cello, percussion, and clarinet. I wanted to hear the beating between those instruments and play with the subtle threshold of being able to distinguish them as different instruments.  I think I thought of the concept of the braid, but not the term braid, then I did it and I thought of the actual word for it.

FJO:  I should have recognized the connection with Ruth Crawford Seeger, but I didn’t. Although, to get back to Dissolving Bands, at times it sounds quite reminiscent of Charles Ives.

SM:  Definitely.  It’s a very New England-y piece, because it was for the celebration of the town of Lexington, Massachusetts.  So I definitely channeled some Ivesian ideas.

FJO:  And in FastLowHighSlow, I feel like you’re channeling Elliott Carter.

SM:  I wasn’t thinking of that at all, but I think that’s a perfectly valid connection to make.  What do you see as the connection?

FJO:  The superimposition of fast and slow music simultaneously, which is something Carter explored a lot in his string quartets.

SM:  Right.

FJO: Each of the movements is a different permutation of these fast/slow/high/low possibilities. So did the idea come first or did the music come first?

SM:  I knew I was writing the piece for violin and piano, but definitely the concept came first, trying to have very obviously slow music cohabitate with very obviously fast music.  I’m really into binaries and trying to explore extremes of musical axes like pitch and speed.  So I thought I could have this boundary of duration: in two minutes, I’ll have as much fast music and slow music as possible within the bounds of these two instruments. Then I knew I would name it something like FastLowHighSlow because, like you said, that describes the concept and the whole persona of the piece.

FJO:  Hearing music that’s simultaneously fast and slow is very disorienting.

SM:  Well usually the fast dominates, I think.  We hear that as the foreground because it’s very active. One of the reasons why I wanted to repeat the exact same material in the different movements is then I think it dawns on the audience that there’s this slow thing that was in the first movement but now it’s in the totally slow movement. They can trace that and have a deeper understanding of the form after hearing multiple movements.

FJO:  And then you have an optional fifth movement that requires two violinists and two pianists.

SM:  At the premier performance, my friend Susanna realized that there are these musical motives that are repeated, four musical things together in different permutations, but only with two instruments.  And she said, “You could have all four of them together if you had two violinists and two pianists.” I totally agreed. That really makes sense formally to kick it to the logical extreme. It would also be very climactic and exciting to have four people for the last movement—piano four hands and two violinists. There actually has been a performance with the optional fifth movement at my concert at Spectrum in October.  It was really awesome.

FJO:  So are these two additional people hidden somewhere?  How does that work?

SM:  The second pianist, Mila [Henry], was turning pages for Jacob [Greenberg], so the page turner became the second pianist.  And then Erica [Dicker] came up from the front row [and joined Josh Modney]. It probably wasn’t a surprise because it said their names in the program, but it could have been a total surprise.

FJO:  Yeah, I think it would be better if it was a surprise.  Maybe wait to give people a program after the concert’s over.

SM:  I like that idea.

FJO:  Or perhaps it could be done with pre-recorded tracks.

SM:  I don’t think that would be as good.  I think it would be kind of weird to add an electronic element.  It’s better live.

FJO:  It’s just harder to have two more people.  Violin and piano duos are very common, but there aren’t a lot of ensembles made up of two violinists and two pianists.

SM:  Yeah.  It’s definitely not the most practical movement, which is why it’s optional. Maybe not with an established violin and piano duo who do a lot of recitals everywhere, but any time it’s possible with piano and violin friends it could happen.

FJO:  So even if you weren’t consciously channeling Carter in FastLowHighSlow, you’ve also channeled Alice Coltrane in a piece you wrote for youth orchestra which you called—quite directly—Ode to Alice, and in White/Waves you very indirectly channeled Beyoncé.

SM:  Yeah.

FJO:  When the electronic component first appears [in White/Waves] it sounds a lot like a theremin, but then all of a sudden there’s a giant full-range sound. I thought it was really cool, so I looked at the score to see how you notated it and you simply have this phrase “convolved Beyoncé sound” which is something I don’t completely understand and never would have associated with that sound.

SM:  I’m actually glad that it’s not too obvious sonically, but the way I achieved many of those sounds in the electronics part is that I took a chord from “Pretty Hurts” by Beyoncé and used convolution to combine it with ocean wave sounds.  The Beyoncé chord is the impulse response. It’s like hacking the impulse response reverb to harmonize the noisy sound through the tone-filled sound.  Convolution is a reverb hack that you can do in a convolution reverb module like, for example, in Logic. The space designer is a convolution reverb, meaning that the reverb takes a replica of a space by using an impulse response—taking a loud sound in a space that can algorithmically be applied to the sound to make it sound like it’s in that space.  For an impulse response, you usually use a really short one-sample loud sound, but you can use convolution in a different, more creative way by instead of using just a one-sample loud sound for the impulse response, you can use any sound for the impulse response, like a chord from Beyoncé. Or you could convolve Michael Jackson and bees. Anytime you take a noisy sound and mix it with a sonorous sound, it sort of imbues the noisy sound with the tone of the harmonious sound.

FJO:  So you sampled a Beyoncé recording, but it’s almost the opposite of the way a sample is used in pop music. Those samples are usually about being audibly recognizable reference points, which is why rights need to be cleared in order to use them. But I can’t imagine that anyone would be able to hear that what you’ve done is based on a sample.

SM:  I hope not.  I hope Beyoncé doesn’t get mad. My justification for why it’s okay is hopefully that it’s not very noticeable.  People can’t tell that it’s Beyoncé.  It’s more like using her beautiful B-major chord as a harmonic tool.

FJO:  But if you’re going to sample something and people can’t tell, then what’s the point of sampling it?  Isn’t part of the point of sampling to reference something in order to make a commentary on it and turn it into something else?

SM:  But I’m actually not referencing Beyoncé in this piece.  It just happened that I wanted to use it sonically. I could have used a chord from many other possible places, which is why Beyoncé is not in the program notes or anything.  It’s just a sound that I made that happened to come from that place. I don’t know if it’s that important that it is that chord in a way.  I just was experimenting with different convolution ingredients and that one sounded great, so I went with it. I knew I wanted a big sonorous pop chord. That was the qualification that I was looking for and I found a good example of that in “Pretty Hurts,” so I tried it.  It worked great and I went with it.

FJO:  It’s funny because when I heard that chord it reminded me of the sounds that R. Luke DuBois got from collapsing the full pitch and timbral ranges of pop songs and distilling them into single chords in his piece Billboard. There as well, if you didn’t read his program notes, you’d probably have no idea where those chords came from even though they matter to him and also matter to the structure of his piece, which is derived from how long each No. 1 hit song stayed on the Billboard chart.

SM:  I’m very into the catalogue and big data-style pieces that Luke is doing. I think that’s really fascinating.  But in this case it is just all about the sound and I wasn’t trying to be referential at all.

FJO:  Pop music seems utterly removed from your own sound world as a composer. Do you actively listen to Beyoncé or anyone else in pop music?

SM:  I definitely love Beyoncé, and I’m really into that album. It’s part of my life for sure.

FJO:  But in a way, your use of that chord is an aberration. It’s not your usual method of working. It’s less about the sound following from a concept.  The sound is its own thing.  You put it in as an ingredient, but there’s no larger metaphor for why it’s there.

SM:  Right.

FJO:  But still, you’d never sit around playing the oboe or the piano and come up with something and think, “Oh, I want to turn this into a piece.”

SM:  Usually not, although that’s somewhat what happened with Döppelganger. I was playing a really high G to A-flat trill. I found a cool fingering that made it really easy to do.  But that was more of an outlier.

FJO:  Now the only other thing that I have heard in your music thus far that’s anywhere close to the lushness of that full-range convolved Beyoncé sample is what you’ve done in your sound installations with all the harmonicas, which you first did at the Waseca Art Center in Minnesota and then at Judson Memorial Church in New York City.

SM:  I consider Harmonibots and MEGA-ORGAN two different pieces. They have the same sonic and production concept, so they’re a part of the same series.  The concept is I create inflatable sculptures and I then affix deconstructed harmonicas to holes in the sculpture. You take off the outside case and the inhale reeds and just leave the exhale reeds, so the comb channels the air through the reeds properly.  I use heavy duty fans.  I have a bunch of them in my room.  I’m trying to get rid of them now, or find a place to store them. I’m very attached to them, but for logistical reasons, I think I have to get rid of them.

An orange-colored Ridgid Air Mover

One of those heavy duty fans.

All you have to do is fill the sculpture with a lot of air pressure. Then the harmonicas will play all ten notes at the same time.  Pitchwise it’s just three octaves of a major triad and then one extra tonic note on the top.  I organize the harmonicas into different keys, basically. In Harmonibots there’s a big section of C harmonicas, a big section of G harmonicas, a big section of A, and then a dissonant corner where there is a mixture of B-flat, D, and E-flat harmonicas.  Then I used a home automation system that I repurposed for the motion sensors.  When people trigger them, basically then it turns on certain sections of the harmonibots. It’s a very simple machine. The air turns on.  They fill up. They make a beautiful sonorous chord. Then, when there’s no motion, they deflate and make a sagging decrescendo. Because of the different tonal centers, you can create different harmonies by exciting different sections. So for Harmonibots, which I did in Minnesota, the sculptures were made of garbage bags and they were kind of tall. Part of the piece was watching them unfurl and grow upwards.  I thought of them like a fungus or like an animal, but they’re very fragile.

For MEGA-ORGAN, I wanted to make it more interactive. I wanted to encourage people to change the articulation by physically laying on, squishing, and touching the bots—in MEGA-ORGAN, I call them the bellow beds because it’s drawing from this metaphor of the organ.  People can play the beds like bellows.  And the timbre really sounds like an organ, so that really connected well with the idea at Judson. At Judson Memorial Church, their organ doesn’t work anymore. This piece was up next to the shell of the organ, and I visually integrated the mega-organ into the space and see it as a sort of revitalization and re-sonification of their organ.

FJO:  Since these pieces are installations, they have no precise beginning or end.  People can stay there for as short or as long a time as they want.  But I feel like it would have a lot more impact the longer you’re listening and the more details you hear, like the clashes of these different tonal centers overlapping.  Did people spend a lot of time wandering around the sounds, or just pass by?

SM:  I think it totally varied. Some people would just stay for a few minutes, but some people stayed for hours.  The most audiophile nerdy people stayed for hours and hours; it was very self-selecting. The nice thing about an installation is you can make it however long you’re into it.  And, of course, I agree that I think it’s more fun the longer you stay there.

Two of the sculptures in MEGA-ORGAN were like little tents that have a bunch of harmonicas inside. That was the most intense listening space, because if you put your head inside, they were blowing right at your ears.  It was really loud in there, and it would be a really big D-major chord. Then, when you’d step out, all of a sudden you were able to hear the rest of the chords, so you could sort of just design your own tonal adventure in a way.

My original concept was I was going to precisely tune them in some way to make it more microtonal, but then once I stared working with them I realized that I didn’t need to do that. They’re so unstable that it wouldn’t really stick anyway; the tuning of mass-produced harmonicas is not very precise.  Then I realized that because it’s not precise, it’s really complex and microtonal the way that I wanted it anyway, like, right out of the box.  If you have 20 harmonicas in the same key, they’re not going to produce a perfectly in-tune triad.  It’s a very detailed dis-chorus-y microtonal sound, which is perfect because then when you move your head around, you just hear totally different pitches popping out.  That worked out really well without me changing the tuning of the harmonicas.

FJO:  How many harmonicas do you need to build one of these installations?

SM:  Well, Harmonibots had I think about 80, and MEGA-ORGAN has like 110.

FJO:  Where’d you get the harmonicas?

SM:  From Amazon.

FJO:  Harmonicas are cheap, but once you start adding them up it can get pretty expensive.

SM:  Yeah, it is definitely expensive.  I had a commission from the International Alliance for Women in Music for Harmonibots, and I went over budget.  And then for MEGA-ORGAN, I had a project grant from New Music USA, and I went over budget again.  But it’s okay.  It’s worth it to me.

FJO:  You need to get rid of all the industrial fans because you’re about to move to Chicago, but are you keeping all the harmonicas?  They’re smaller, but over a hundred is a lot and since you’ve deconstructed them you really can’t use them as harmonicas again. They could only be used in another incarnation of this series of installations.

A deconstructed harmonica affixed to an air mattress.

A deconstructed harmonica affixed to an air mattress for Sky Macklay’s installation MEGA-ORGAN.

SM:  Well, all the harmonicas that I used in Harmonibots, I used again in MEGA-ORGAN, and now I’m planning to save them and use them again for the next installation. I don’t know when that’ll be, but I do plan to do another one, so I’ll definitely repurpose them for the next installation. I don’t really want to think about that yet. Doing an installation is so much work, and it’s such a headache moving all the stuff everywhere. I just need a break from that for a while, but I’ll definitely do it in the future again.

FJO:  Even though in these cases you don’t have to deal with the whole rehearsal process with musicians for really hard music, the amount of planning is massive and it’s laborious production work.

SM:  To build the mega-organ I made the sculptures out of a composite bunch of air mattresses that need to be connected together, so I cut them apart and re-melted them together using a technique where you have two strips of tin foil and you put them around the two pieces of plastic and use an iron to melt them together. And then you only get a little bit of it melted together.  You have to be very precise, so it’s a very long and laborious process.  I became like a craftsperson melting these giant sculptures together. It’s really fun, but it’s something that I can’t and don’t want to do all the time.

FJO:  And it’s another one of these things where you can’t completely know what it’s going to sound like until you’ve got them all there.  It’s very different than hearing, say, a string quartet in your brain and then fleshing it out on paper.  Instead these installations are very much in the spirit of Cageian experimental music.  We’re going to set all these things up and then we’re going to find out what it sounds like.

SM:  Well, before I did Harmonibots, I had the original idea and I just started making prototypes. So I sort of knew what it would sound like just from my experience making them in the past.  But definitely—the whole composite piece, the space, and how people would play with it, was definitely going into the unknown.

FJO:  We haven’t talked about pieces involving texts yet, but you’ve done a lot of very unusual things with text. When you have a text, it’s a lot easier for an audience to perceive the concept of the work because the words are something people can latch onto.  Take something as abstract and yet as direct as your choral piece Sing Their Names.  By just having the chorus sing just names of people who were killed, without any additional commentary, you’ve made a very powerful statement that’s also emotional without in any way being sentimental, which is very difficult to do especially when dealing with such a sensitive subject.

SM:  I knew that I had to be very careful if I was going to write a piece relating to Black Lives Matter. I saw a poster that had a list of just pictures and names of people who had been killed by police, and I thought that I could make a memorial out of it.  I know that a lot of other artists and composers are making music relating to Black Lives Matter, and so I saw this as a contribution to a genre that already exists and is growing.  I wanted to be abstract in that most of the time you can’t really understand the names in the piece, but maybe a few of them emerge in the end that you can hear.  Basically my musical material was octave leaps that go up chromatically and a melody in parallel fifths.  The process of the piece is that slowly, over time, the micro-polyphonic octave leap-y part morphs into the parallel fifth chorale part.  The reason I picked those musical materials is octave leaps are very energetic yet static.  So I saw it as a metaphor for the pace of progress, basically, the kind of almost futile feeling whenever you hear of another person being killed by the police feels like the octave leaps—no progress, basically.  Similarly the parallel fifth melody is static, but it’s a much calmer sound, maybe a bit of hope. The abstracted syllables of the people’s names are a metaphor for erasure and the lack of visibility of the humans involved, and then in the end it’s maybe a little more visible.  Those are the ideas I was dealing with. I think of it as a sacred piece that is supposed to be a requiem-like meditation on the people’s lives.

FJO:  I recently thought of your choral piece in the context of this huge controversy over the display at this year’s Whitney Biennial of Open Casket, Dana Schutz’s painting that was inspired by a photograph from the funeral of Emmett Till, a black man who was beaten to death and whose face was disfigured beyond recognition in the process.

SM:  I haven’t gone to it, but I know about the controversy.

FJO:  I find it troubling that many people believe Schutz had no right to make such a painting because she’s a white person and this is not her story to tell.  I think we all should be outraged that this man was killed this way.  This story belongs to everyone and everyone should pay attention to it.  I think a lot of people don’t know who Emmett Till was, certainly younger people who weren’t around when he was brutally murdered in the 1950s.  If this painting raises the public consciousness that this thing happened and that we should all be outraged about it, I think it’s making an important statement.

SM:  I agree that we should all be outraged about it.  I guess I’m inclined to listen to the people who are saying this is exploitive use of the black experience, because we should listen to black people if they say to white artists that that’s exploitive.  When I started reading about this particular issue, I started self-reflecting and thinking, “Did I do that?”  I hope not. I hope it’s a little less appropriative. Sorry, but I don’t really have a great answer to that.

FJO:  But as artists, we have to be able to tell the stories of what’s going on in our society.  I don’t think any one group of people owns that narrative. If anything, we need to embrace all of these narratives. I think both Schutz’s painting and your choral piece call attention to deep wrongs by abstracting them in ways which allows space for people to reflect and feel the weight of these tragedies.

SM:  Of course.  I totally get what you’re saying about everybody chiming in on important issues of our time.  But I think the problem that activists have pinpointed with the painting is that maybe this artist is profiting as an artist from using this highly charged image in a way that’s yuckily commodified. I guess that’s one way it could be seen as appropriation.

FJO:  But the artist made it a point to state that this painting is not for sale.  I don’t mean to put you on the spot with this, but there could be parallel scenarios for your choral piece. Let’s say it gets done all over the place.  You sell the sheet music and you also get performance royalties.  Someone could turn around and say you’re profiting from this thing.

SM: I would say that I see this particular work in the context of other works in a similar genre that other artists are contributing to this body of music about Black Lives Matter. If I actually did profit off this piece, which I haven’t so far, I would donate the profits to Black Lives Matter.

FJO:  To take this in another direction, it’s very clear that the text is very important even though for most of the time it’s not audible.  In Fly’s Eyes, you created your own language, which raises some interesting issues vis-à-vis text setting.  In both pieces, you’ve gone against the grain. For Singing Their Names, your music captures the spirit of the text by not making it clear. In Fly’s Eyes, the text setting is clear, but it’s complete gibberish. The music marries the text, but the text actually has no meaning.

SM:  The way that I actually made the text is I made a mixture of Latin, English, and animal sounds to give voice to different animals.  The meaning of the text didn’t really matter; it was more the emotive quality that a voice can give. Babies can portray a huge range of emotions with their voices; it’s not about the semantic detail.

FJO:  With Glossolalia, you were working with a pre-existing text.  But once again, it’s not really clear from the setting what the text is about.  And, in a way, the setting is about it not being clear.  Even the title, Glossolalia, means speaking in tongues, so it’s about obfuscation to some extent.

SM:  With that piece, the poem itself is very surreal and abstract. It’s just sort of a list of words and a list of malapropisms. It makes sense as a glossolalia, but maybe not as a narrative.

FJO:  With an opera, of course, there is a much greater expectation regarding narrative. You wrote an opera this past year and so you really had to foreground a text in a way that you had never done before.  But the story you foregrounded in your opera Why We Bleed is a very peculiar one. There have been a lot of very overtly sexual operas in the last decade, but I don’t think there’s ever been one where the three singers are two spermatozoa and a uterus.

SM:  The idea originally came from an article by an evolutionary biologist named Suzanne Sadedin called “How The Woman Got Her Period.” In that, she dramatizes the evolutionary reason why women menstruate—this concept of the zygote being an adversarial creature. The woman’s body has to vet and decide is this particular zygote is genetically a good investment. Considering all the risk and work that goes into pregnancy, is this particular zygote worth it?  The way that Suzanne Sadedin wrote this article was extremely evocative and character-driven. So I thought wow, this is very dramatic. There’s a lot of deep possibility for symbolically dealing with reproductive rights’ issues, so I just decided to go with that story. My friend Emily Roller wrote the libretto, so she and I worked together on that.

FJO:  So it was your idea but you chose not to write your own libretto, even though you’ve created your own texts for other pieces.

SM:  With something like an opera, I would prefer to work with a librettist. I really like Emily’s work and value her ideas.  I like to write a little bit, but I don’t think I want to write my own libretto.  That’s a whole different craft.

Why We Bleed – Macklay/Roller from American Opera Projects on Vimeo.

FJO:  The opera is relatively easy to put together—three singers and a piano—but I imagine if it had a full production, you’d want to maybe flesh it out more, orchestrate it and stage it. What would it look like on stage?  How could you represent it?

SM:  I definitely have plans for a fully-staged version of it.  I’m not sure how much it’ll stay the same and how much it’ll change, but I am doing an opera with the University of Illinois Opera next year that will have a full sinfonietta and be more staged. The main costume/set piece is the uterus’ costume. Imagine a dress that’s so long that it flows across the whole stage and becomes this giant tapestry and curtain that engulfs the whole space. That’s how I’m imagining her costume will be, her costume and the entire curtain-y tapestry thing that creates the whole set.

FJO:  So there’s going to be a staged production of Why We Bleed in Chicago next year?

SM:  Well, I’m not exactly sure if I will define it as the same opera.  It might be so different that it becomes a different piece.  We might have another character.  But I will be doing some opera that deals with the same themes in Urbana-Champaign.

FJO:  Another piece you did, Lessina, Levlin, Levlite, Levora for speaking violinist, is also super provocative in terms of dealing with sexual politics. But for that you used a found text.

SM:  I went through a process with the text first.  I looked up all the FDA-approved devices and drugs for contraception. The first text was just saying the names of them.  The second layer was adding advertising slogans for those particular devices and drugs.  Then the third layer was adding the side effects, like at the end of the ad, you know, they have “heart attack, cramps, nipple discharge, high blood pressure in a quiet voice.  For the fourth layer of text, I looked at reviews online of these devices and drugs, and added the users’ reports of their personal reactions and side effects.  The whole piece was inspired by personal experience and my own struggle dealing with the medical, industrial, pharmaceutical complex and the way that that intersects with or intersected with my own body.  I think that’s a really common and traumatic experience in a lot of women’s lives, so making that into music was a way to share that experience mostly with men who don’t understand that experience on a deep level.

FJO:  I thought it was really interesting that it wasn’t a piece, say, for women’s chorus.  It was a piece for a guy who’s playing the violin and sort of stating all of this at the same time.  I imagine it’s pretty hard to do.

SM:  Yeah.  I think Josh [Modney] definitely rose to the challenge, and he likes doing it. The hard thing was nailing the text expression.  The easy part was the violin part because the violin part’s very easy.

FJO:  Do you want it to always be performed by a man?  Is that the point?

SM:  Yeah, that’s part of it.

FJO:  You’ve pretty much written every piece we’ve been talking about in only a few years, which is a lot considering everything else you’ve been doing—completing your degree at Columbia, teaching at The Walden School, and now you’re in the midst of a move to Chicago.

SM: In the last five years I’ve pretty much written all those pieces.  I do have a really busy life. I’m stressed a lot.  I’m always behind on my deadlines.  I’m always scrambling to get the next thing done.  I have to just say no to some more things in the next few years and focus my time a little more intentionally on projects that I really love, that are really are good for my career and artistically satisfying.

FJO:  We’ve been talking about pieces emanating from getting an idea and then fleshing it out musically, but sometimes I imagine what happens even before that is that somebody wants a piece and there’s a commission involved.  We didn’t talk about Density Dancity, which I think is extraordinary—it’s nothing but chains of multiphonics.  It’s a crazy, crazy piece.  But I don’t imagine that you said, “Oh gee, I want to write a piece for tenor sax and piano.”  I imagine that the player came to you and said, “Could you write me a piece?”

SM:  Yeah, that’s what happened.  Jim [Fusik] and Karl [Larson]’s duo commissioned me to write that piece and I was very happy about it.  I play oboe with a lot of chained together multiphonics.  I wanted to work out a similar thing with tenor sax.  That happens a lot.  I love collaborating with people. Each new opportunity that comes with a musical relationship is amazing. I think that’s weaved into the whole process of getting an idea and fleshing it out which is usually before, “Will you write a piece for me? Here’s the instrumentation.”

FJO:  Sometimes saying yes to something maybe doesn’t get you a performance in Carnegie Hall, but it could lead to other things that might ultimately be more rewarding. For example, Ode to Alice, which is very different from most of your pieces, was written for a student group and perhaps because of that—correct me if I’m wrong—maybe you can’t do all the wild, crazy, extended techniques and microtones and things that you might want to do, but it allowed you to focus in another way.  Based on the performance you have up online, the students who did it put tons of work into making it happen and, looking at the score, it is not at all basic music by any stretch of the imagination.

SM:  I am very open to and excited about writing for student ensembles or amateur ensembles, because I think these are great opportunities for building community through contemporary music and just having great social experiences. This is why I love weird contemporary music and sharing it with the next generation.  So with Ode to Alice, definitely I felt like this was a piece that’s my music. Maybe it’s a little technically easier than other pieces, but it’s not an easy piece. Totally, like you said, they puts lots of work into it.  The students sometimes have these wild noisy solos and they really did a great job; they weren’t fazed by the extended techniques.  I definitely thank their teacher, Dan Shaud, for being a great advocate of contemporary music.  They’re going to play it in Niagara Falls next week.  So it’s going to go to Canada.

FJO:  I’d love to follow up on what you just said about liking weird contemporary music. I grew up in an environment where contemporary music was perceived of as this weird, off-putting thing, but I think there’s an attitude today that it’s not this weird, off-putting thing; it’s actually kind of cool and fascinating and actually more interesting than the stuff that isn’t weird.  So how do you convey that enthusiasm to somebody who hasn’t heard it and doesn’t know what it is? How do you present yourself as a citizen of the world to turn people on to all these crazy ideas—like two sections of an ensemble being a quarter tone out of tune with each other, which is a pretty kooky idea?

SM: I think a lot of it is sharing my own personal perspective on it—just show how much a particular sound excites me and how beautiful I think it is. I think that’s sort of contagious, or at least let’s people perceive it as a beautiful thing, or something that some person thinks is a beautiful thing. I also think that exposure, experience, experiential education, and experiential pieces are really a great way to do outreach. I participated in a workshop version of this new piece Pan by Marcos Balter that has audience participation with tons of people, and that’s something I think more composers should do: write music that has a participatory role for amateur musicians or for just audience members.  Doing Harmonibots and MEGA-ORGAN are really important parts of my outreach because people can engage with them on all kinds of different levels.  They can be the nerdy audiophile who likes to hear the different tones for three hours, or they can be the person who likes to just fall onto the mattress and hear the sound change, and that will maybe hook them to try other pieces of mine or other composers. The ideal listener for me is just somebody who is willing to go there with me, to listen deeply, to try to follow my trajectory for the piece, and who is willing to be surprised or be actively listening and making predictions or making inferences. That’s all I ask.

Headphones on top of a Columbia University notebook on Sky Macklay's desk

Béla Fleck: Things That Sound Right

Nowadays American musical creators can aesthetically do pretty much anything they want to do, but there have been few musicians who have embraced as wide a range of musical idioms as Béla Fleck. While he first made a name for himself as a teenager playing newgrass (a harmonically and rhythmically progressive off-shoot from bluegrass), he quickly began exploring jazz and soon reached a huge audience with his band The Flecktones, which merged jazz, bluegrass, funk, and lots of other musical ingredients into something that no one could quite define. In the past 20 years, he has collaborated with traditional musicians from India and China, as well as multiple nations in Africa. He has also begun composing works to perform with classical chamber music ensembles and symphony orchestras. In March, Rounder Records released a recording of his second banjo concerto, Juno Concerto.

“I’ve realized that I only make my life poorer by deciding there’s something I’m not interested in,” Fleck opined when we met up with him in between another interview and a soundcheck for a concert in New Jersey later that evening. “Your life gets richer the more things you decide you like.”

Yet despite the extraordinary variety of the musical projects he has been participating in since the late 1970s, everything he’s done revolves around the banjo, an instrument he has been obsessed with since he heard it on TV while watching The Beverly Hillbillies as a young boy growing up in New York City. His grandfather bought him a banjo right before he entered 10th grade at the High School of Music and Art, but there were few opportunities for him to explore playing the banjo there. He recalled getting nowhere with the French horn before they decided to put him in the chorus where he “screeched.” Nevertheless, he “became a non-stop, type-A, freakazoid, play-all-the-time, addicted dude,” took private lessons with “monster genius” Tony Trischka, and within just three years he “could play exactly like him.” In his senior year he navigated his way through the tricky banjo part in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at a school concert. But he didn’t apply to any colleges and as soon as he graduated from high school, he embarked on a professional music career.

“I wanted to go play the banjo, not go to college where nobody could teach me about the banjo,” he remembered.  On Trischka’s recommendation, he was hired by the Boston-based band Tasty Licks and recorded his first album with them while still a teenager. But he quickly realized that he needed to do more than imitate his teacher.

“That wasn’t going to get me anywhere,” he realized. “So I started having to dice out these parts of myself that I loved so much and that I learned from [Trischka].” At this point he also started to compose his own music. That first album he appeared on, Tasty Licks eponymous 1978 LP, features Fleck’s first recorded original composition “Reading in the Dark.”

“At the time, I was trying to write things that were complex and hard intentionally,” he admitted.  “I haven’t heard that in a long time, and I’m a little scared of what it would sound like if I listened to it now.  If you listen to some of Tony’s music from that time, you would hear where maybe I was just cracking out from what he did a little bit, but it could have been something he did, too.  But I was starting to use some of my new techniques, a few licks that were idiomatic to me.”

Wanting to get closer to the roots of bluegrass music led Fleck to move down South—first to Lexington, Kentucky, and then to Nashville, where he still makes his home. Yet ironically, instead of playing with more traditionally oriented musicians, he went from performing with the progressive Spectrum to the even more radical New Grass Revival to his own uncategorizable Flecktones. Yet despite all the innovations, he has always been extremely mindful of his antecedents.

“Time makes something traditional,” Fleck said. “I’m trying to come up with something that has some reason to exist, not just do new stuff to do new stuff.  … I feel good that the things that I’ve contributed feel, to me at least, like they’re supposed to be that way.  They’re not just, ‘How hard can I play?  How difficult can I make things?’ but there’s some integrity to why I wanted to do them and why they’re on the banjo rather than some other instrument.”

Béla Fleck has found ways to make his instrument “sound right” whether he’s improvising duets with jazz great Chick Corea, fusing Indian, Chinese, and Appalachian idioms with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Jie-Bing Chen, accompanying the legendary Malian singer Oumou Sangare, or playing with a symphony orchestra. According to him, “If the banjo was going to have any place in this world, there needed to be a banjo concerto.”

But nowadays he spends most of his time making music with his wife, Abigail Washburn, an innovative singer-songwriter who, of course, is also a banjo virtuoso.

“She plays in a different style from me, what we call clawhammer; I play three-finger,” Fleck explained. “They’ve almost never historically played together.  So what we’ve got within our household is an opportunity to create something that’s never been before.”


Béla Fleck in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded at the offices of Razor & Tie, NYC
April 7, 2017—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  You were named Béla Anton Leoš Fleck, after Bartók, Webern, and Janáček—three very important 20th-century composers. That’s a lot of weight.

Béla Fleck:  It is.  It gets even more complicated since, soon after I got that name, my mother and my father split up. I never saw him again until my 40s, when I went and searched him out.  So it was complex. In fact, I wasn’t even interested in that music for a while because of that.  It took me a while to go back and start to listen to Bartók with more of an open ear.  I finally did that when I was starting to write my first banjo concerto.  So I got all these names, but no influence.  Nobody was showing me why I was named those things.  Ironically, my mother remarried a cellist. Those weren’t necessarily his guys, but there was some classical music in my world at that point because he liked to play string quartets and quintets, and go and play with orchestras and stuff like that.  So I would hear him do that.  But I didn’t really think it had a lot to do with me and my musical identity because I had secretly fallen in love with the banjo.  I’d learned some guitar and I was playing some folk songs, Beatles songs, Simon & Garfunkel songs, and a few blues scales.  I actually loved the banjo, but I hadn’t told anybody because it wasn’t a very popular thing.  But the banjo sounded so amazing and fast and complex. I didn’t imagine that I could ever play it.  It was just a secret love.

FJO:  It’s funny to hear you say that you only came to Bartók recently, since I think of Bartók as someone who took folk music traditions and completely transformed them in a way that’s not completely unlike what you have done. And also, his music was chock-full of unusual scales and odd meters, which are also things I hear in your music going all the way back to your earliest recordings.

BF:  People have said that to me, “You and Bartók have so much in common; it’s cool that your name is Béla.” And I’d be like, “Cool.”  I only heard little bits of it.  It’s an acquired taste, like coffee. The first time you drink it, it’s like, “I don’t know why anybody likes this.” A little later you’re like, “It’s pretty good.” Then pretty soon it’s like, “I gotta have it; it’s so good.”  Bartók for me was kind of like that.  When I finally got into it, the harshness [I heard] at first stopped being harsh completely and it became so badass and cool, so interesting and deep and rich. So I’m a big fan of him all the way around, and I’m proud to be named after him.

FJO:  How about Janáček and Webern?

BF:  I don’t know much about their music.  I’ve listened to a little bit of it.  It didn’t hit me. I need to give it more time.  I haven’t put in the time. I’ve had a lot of other things that really did hit me squarely in the chest and changed me so that I couldn’t not do that.  I was just so in love with the sound of the banjo and bluegrass, and then I was in love with certain jazz and certain classical music that hit me that way.  Others didn’t.  But eventually time rolls on and you’re ready for some things that you weren’t ready for at another point in your life.  That’s how it was for me with Bartók.

FJO:  Now in terms of the banjo hitting you, you grew up in New York City.  That’s not an instrument you would have found here very much, at least not then.

BF:  Well, there was the folk boom—or the folk scare, as some people like to call it—which was happening, so it wasn’t totally alien. There were actually a lot of New Yorkers playing the banjo.  But in my world, where I was going to school and just among normal kids, nobody was into that kind of music.  I had just happened to hear it on a television show; The Beverly Hillbillies came on and it was Earl Scruggs.

Scruggs had taken a technique that was starting to become used in his region and exploded it into this comprehensive way of playing the banjo that changed the history of the instrument and brought a lot of people to that instrument. It was kind of dying out. The banjo has a long history, coming from Africa with the slaves originally and working its way into becoming the instrument of America in the late 1800s, the instrument everybody had around.  People were playing classical music on it. There were banjo orchestras.  It was in the early days of jazz.  It was in Louis Armstrong’s early groups and Jelly Roll Morton’s, before the guitar took over. It was also this Appalachian instrument in old time music. Then it morphed into this bluegrass music offshoot, which was kind of a performance art.  It wasn’t really a folk music; it was music that was designed to be played on microphones in front of people, but built out of folk music.

“I just became a non-stop, type-A, freakazoid, play-all-the-time, addicted dude.”

But I had nothing to do with any of that until I was 15. I think because he knew I’d been playing guitar and because “Dueling Banjos” became so huge because of that movie Deliverance, my grandfather, who lived in Peekskill, got me a banjo. It was just a garage sale banjo, a cheap little nothing, but when I went up to visit him, which was the day before I started high school at Music and Art up on 135th Street, I was so shocked and amazed and excited to see this instrument in front of me that I never would have had the nerve to go get.  So the fuse was lit. Someone showed me how to tune it on the train on the way home and I just became a non-stop, type-A, freakazoid, play-all-the-time, addicted dude.  Before that, when I played guitar, it wasn’t like that for me.  I was a kid who was interested in something, but I wasn’t on fire.  The banjo was different.  When I finally got the banjo, everything else went away.

FJO:  You went to the High School of Music and Art. I went there, too, so I know that there are no banjo classes there.

BF:  Right.  Yeah. But ironically, Eric Weissberg, the guy who played “Dueling Banjos,” went to Music and Art as well.

FJO:  I didn’t know that. Wow.

BF:  Yeah, he was there quite a while before I was there.

FJO:  I came in as a pianist-composer, so they threw me in the vocal department because they didn’t know what else to do with me. They could always use more voices in the chorus.

BF:  That’s what they did with me. I got in on guitar, playing “Here Comes the Sun”—I had a nice fingerpicking version.  And they said, “Okay, you have some musical aptitude.”  I remember there was a rating system of one to four, and I think I was a two.  I was definitely not in the ones, but I could tap back when they would give me rhythms. Then, I think I had to sing back some pitches.  I could do all of that pretty well.  So they said, “Okay, we’ll teach you to be a musician.” They gave me a French horn and a mouthpiece and said, “Go in that room and come out when you can play an F.”  I just sat in the room and I never could get anything out of the instrument.  Finally they said, “There really aren’t enough boys in the choir.  Maybe we can put you in the choir.”  I was disappointed, but I went and I sang. I screeched all the way through high school. I think I would have been a baritone. I was not a tenor.  I couldn’t hit the pitches, and I didn’t know how to sing.  I didn’t know how to read, but I could sort of sing along with the guy next to me and watch. I knew if it was higher I had to go up, but I didn’t know what a fourth was or a third or how to do it. So I was around classical music, even though I wasn’t playing it on my banjo.  And then I took banjo lessons.

“I screeched all the way through high school.”

One cool thing that happened was that partway through senior year, they said, “Béla, come see the conductor.” He said, “You can get out of chorus if you want, if you will play in Rhapsody in Blue in the semi-annual recital.  We found a banjo part.  If you want to play this banjo part, you can get out of chorus for the rest of senior year.”  I didn’t really want to get out of chorus with all my friends, learning this German music and this French music. I was social and it was music.  So I said, “I’ll do both.”  So I did.  The part was somewhere in the middle of the piece. There were a couple of things I never could figure out, but I got to sit next to a girl I had a crush on who played the oboe.  And that was good enough for me.

FJO: But instead of going off to conservatory after you graduated from Music and Art, you wandered off to Boston and started playing in professional bands. You were already recording with them as a teenager.

BF:  Yeah, I came right out of high school into professional life.  I guess to toot my own horn, I started playing the day before high school and three years later, I came out and I was on a pretty high level.  My third banjo teacher was Tony Trischka. Tony is one of the monster geniuses of the banjo of this century.  I would argue he’s changed banjo technique and ideas as much as Earl Scruggs did.  He was the guy of that time, and I had had a few lessons with him. But by the end of high school, we’d be at a party and jam together, and someone would say, “If I close my eyes, I can’t tell which one is which.”  And it was true.  I was imitating him so well, I could play exactly like him by the time I was out of high school after playing for three years.  So I was moving fast.  I was also working on my own ideas and trying to think of what I could do that he hadn’t done. I realized there already was a Tony Trischka.  The guy who said, “I can’t tell which one is which”—maybe that’s not so good.  For a long time, that was my goal, to be playing just like him, but that wasn’t going to get me anywhere. So I started having to dice out these parts of myself that I loved so much and that I learned from him.  He goes by feel.  He finds these incredible, complex ideas, but it’s not like he’s going to sit around and play all the modes and scales up and down the banjo and do this sort of scholarly thing.  So I thought, “Well, there’s something.” I started working on these ways of playing the scales methodically that gave me a bunch of tools that Tony didn’t have—and really nobody had at that point. It gave me the ability to play virtually anything because I wasn’t stuck in these keys with certain centers that were rich and had a lot of things I could do but that had holes in the middle.  I was basically filling in all the holes that people weren’t using on the banjo and just making it more of a workable instrument that could fit into different kinds of music.  That became my thing that I could do.

FJO:  Because of the way the banjo is played and the way it’s tuned, it’s optimized for playing diatonic music in common time. But what you’ve done is created super chromatic music for it with loads of complex meters.  You’ve done all these counter-intuitive things, yet they sound completely idiomatic.

BF:  Actually that’s the part I’m most proud of.  You’ve just hit the things that I’m trying to do—things that sound right.  I’m trying to come up with something that has some reason to exist, not just do new stuff to do new stuff.  Again, if I was going to toot my own horn, I would say I feel good that the things that I’ve contributed feel, to me at least, like they’re supposed to be that way.  They’re not just, “How hard can I play?  How difficult can I make things?” but there’s some integrity to why I wanted to do them and why they’re on the banjo rather than some other instrument.  It’s something that the banjo told me to do, that was obvious and that should be that way.

“I’m trying to come up with something that has some reason to exist, not just do new stuff to do new stuff.”

FJO:  You’ve really been describing all of this stuff from a performer’s point of view, being a player on an instrument.  But when you say that it was important to you to do more than imitate someone else’s sound and do your own thing, that’s starting to sound like a composer.

BF: Hmm.

FJO:  It’s interesting that for the very first professional group you were with, Tasty Licks, on the first album you recorded together, there’s an original composition of yours called “Reading in the Dark.”  I can already hear your compositional voice in that—the constantly shifting keys, the metrical complexity. It feels like it’s about to crash, but it always holds together somehow.  You already had had those ideas.

BF:  At the time, I was trying to write things that were complex and hard intentionally.  I haven’t heard that in a long time, and I’m a little scared of what it would sound like if I listened to it now. [Since then] I have learned a lot about playing the banjo with a good tone and with good timing; having a tight rhythmic focus hadn’t become my focus yet, but the creativity was there. I was also very Tony influenced.  If you listen to some of Tony’s music from that time, you would hear where maybe I was just cracking out from what he did a little bit, but it could have been something he did, too.  But I was starting to use some of my new techniques, a few licks that were idiomatic to me.

The cover of the eponymous debut album of Tasty Licks released in 1978.

In addition to being the first recording featuring Béla Fleck, the eponymous debut album of Tasty Licks also features the earliest Fleck composition on record.

FJO:  One thing I’m curious about in all of this is that what got you interested in the music in the very beginning was hearing Earl Scruggs, who was the embodiment of traditional bluegrass.  It’s funny to call it traditional because, in a way, how Scruggs helped develop bluegrass out of Old Time music parallels how Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie developed bebop from swing.  It was a similar seismic moment where it was somehow avant-garde and traditional at the same time.  By the time you came on the scene, it was definitely traditional. But even though it was what you first heard, and what got you hooked, you gravitated toward the more avant-garde end of the spectrum—the progressive bluegrass scene in Boston instead of going to Kentucky or Tennessee or somewhere deep in Appalachia.

BF:  Right.  Well, I want to address one thing which is that Earl Scruggs was radical.  There’d never been anything like what he did before.  We call it traditional now because it was so right that it became imprinted on everybody.  Nobody had a problem with it.  Nobody was saying, like they have with Tony or even with me a little bit, but Tony a lot more, “That’s not how it’s supposed to go; that ain’t traditional.”  Nobody said that when Earl Scruggs came around.  They went, “Holy crap.  What just happened?”  It changed everybody’s perception about what a banjo was; it was incredible.  The thing about him is he’s so rooted in tradition. Even a lot of the songs he worked on were from before he came along, although he added a lot of new stuff to the repertoire. Time makes something traditional.  Now he’s traditional, but usually traditions are more than a hundred years old.  We’re not even close to a hundred years from when he got well known in the ‘40s.  That’ll be in another 30 years.

“Time makes something traditional.”

FJO:  O.K. This begs the question even more, considering how deeply you revere Scruggs.  If he was your hero, why didn’t you go to where he was instead of going to Boston?

BF:  Well, Earl was really not around very much.  He wasn’t out and seeable for a lot of the years when I was coming up.  He was out with his sons, but I wasn’t as interested in that music.  And I had become a Tony Trischka freak and a modern banjo freak, so I was interested in the people who had taken it to the next step.  I wasn’t that interested in Earl after the initial thing.  I got all into this new information that guys like Tony, Bill Keith, Bobby Thompson, and so many other wonderful banjo players brought new to the game—Eddie Adcock, Allen Munde, Ben Eldridge, so many people. It was such a rich field, full of people who, when you heard them start to play, you knew it was them.  J.D. Crowe.  Sonny Osborne.  It goes on and on.  At any rate, at this point, I was into modern.  I wanted to do new things.  I discovered in high school that if I played a Led Zeppelin song, people would go, “Yeah!”  But if I played bluegrass, they’d start flapping their arms. And I didn’t like that.  So I already had realized that there was something to this “new thing on the banjo” idea.

Anyway, Tony got an offer to join a band in Boston right after I got out of high school, and he couldn’t do it because he had roots in New York and wanted to stay.  But he said, “I’ve got this student that’s really hot; you should hire him.”  I had graduated in the spring and this was in December. What happened to me was actually so fortunate. My mother and my step-father had a child kind of unexpectedly as I became a senior in high school.  The world had changed so suddenly and now this was their new focus and nobody paid any attention to me.  So I didn’t apply to any colleges and nobody noticed.  Now, if you can understand that my mother was a school teacher and my father was the chairman of guidance counselors of the Brooklyn school system, and then imagine that their son never applied to colleges, you see how bizarre this is.  But I snuck under the wire and got to the end of school and then I was a free agent, which is exactly what I wanted to be.  I wanted to go play the banjo, not go to college where nobody could teach me about the banjo.  I didn’t want to go study theory.  I wanted to play the banjo.

“I wanted to go play the banjo, not go to college where nobody could teach me about the banjo.”

When they realized I hadn’t applied to schools, they were kind of dismayed and we found out that you could take courses at Juilliard if you just paid for them.  It’s called the Juilliard Extension School.  So they put me in a class that I went to starting in the fall, while I played little gigs around the city and tried to figure out how I was going to do this thing.  That’s when the call came to go to Boston and join a band up there.  There was a professional band that went around New England, and one of the guys in the band was a guy named Stacy Phillips who used to play with Tony Trischka in a band called Breakfast Special.  They were my heroes.  So I was going to get to play with one of my favorite musicians if I moved to Boston and joined this band.  Also, Berklee was up there.  There was a huge jazz scene up there.  I was excited about being part of that.  It was a great college town.  There was a music store called the Music Emporium.  There were jam sessions.  There were people playing traditional music of various kinds.  There was square dance music up there.  That scene was fun.  So anyway, I moved to Boston, and I was there for three years or so.  That was my first touring experience in a band that occasionally made it down south. I did a lot of New England touring, and I worked on my banjo playing in that band.

FJO:  And you had already gotten the attention of Rounder Records, which was founded maybe just only a few years before that.  And they put out a solo record of you already.  That was crazy.

BF:  Right, so that was part of the whole thing because the leader of the band was a guy named Jack Tottle. His girlfriend, Marian Leighton, was one of the three Rounder people.  I ended up living right across the hall from Marian and Jack and being part of that Rounder scene.  They were waiting for me to ripen.  They wanted to do a record with me when I was ready. I think that was wise on their part, but I wasn’t smart enough to understand that.  It was rankling that they hadn’t asked me.  At a certain point, I went and made a demo and let them know I was going to be presenting it to all the labels.  Then they immediately signed me before I could get away. I think it was a much better record than it would have been if I had done it right out of high school when I moved out there.

The cover of Béla Fleck's first solo record, Crossing The Tracks

In 1979, a year after his recording debut with the Tasty Licks, Rounder released Béla Fleck’s first solo album, Crossing The Tracks, which 38 years later still sounds fresh.

FJO:  Talk about having a long history, and we have a long way to go before we talk about the new recording of your second banjo concerto with the Colorado Symphony, but that album is also on Rounder.

BF:  I went back to them in the last decade. I’ve been through all the majors.  I was on Capitol with New Grass Revival, and I wanted to get away from Rounder when I started the Flecktones.  I had made eight solo records on Rounder. Some of them did well and some of them didn’t, but I wanted to be on a jazz label.  With the Flecktones, I didn’t want it to be a Rounder Record.  I needed to break from that scene.  So I went out.  We had Flecktones records on Warner Brothers, and then we went to Sony.  Then I was on MCA with Strength in Numbers.  I started to have all those experiences.  And then the music industry changed a lot. 

Basically what would happen is I would get signed and then I’d have these advocates, and we would have a great year or two. Then they would be fired, or things would change, and I’d be stuck with several more albums that I owed and nobody at the label that gave a crap about what I did.  That happened over and over again.  Then, I was getting ready to do an album—I can’t remember which one it was, it might have been the Christmas record with the Flecktones—and I wanted to take a meeting with Rounder because I had seen something they had done well.  I took a meeting and everybody was still there that had been there when I’d left twenty years ago.  That struck me.  And they were eager to have me back.  They’d been proud of everything I’d been doing and they started doing stuff with me.  They had much better results with some of those projects than I was having with the majors, so I’ve kept doing things with them.  I do a record at a time.  The first concerto record I did with Deutsche Grammophon—foolishly—because I wanted to get the banjo onto the major classical label of the world. But they didn’t do a good job.  They didn’t do anything.  So when I got the chance to make the second banjo concerto and I wanted to record it, I asked Rounder if they would do it, and they said they would.  They’ve already done way better than Deutsche Grammophon did because they know how to reach my audience.  There is no classical audience.  Nobody’s buying classical records.  This needs to be marketed to people that like my music and want to hear what I am doing with an orchestra.  We’re not going to sell a lot to folks who are hardcore classical listeners.  I wish we could, but I don’t know that that’s being realistic.

The cover of Béla Fleck's 2012 Deutsche Grammophon CD The Imposter

The first recording devoted exclusively to “classical” compositions by Béla Fleck was the 2012 Deutsche Grammophon release The Imposter, which features his first banjo concerto performed with the Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrerro as well as Night Flight Over Water, a quintet for banjo and string quartet performed with Brooklyn Rider.

FJO: A discussion of how music is marketed could eat up the rest of the day, but it actually makes me curious about how marketing and musical genre—which I believe is largely related to marketing—played out in another early band you were part of called Spectrum, whose records I’ve had for many years and still treasure.

BF:  You’re kidding.

FJO:  Especially Live in Japan. I love your performance of “Driving Nails in My Coffin.”

BF:  That’s cool to hear.  I never hear anybody talking about Spectrum. It’s kind of the forgotten band.

FJO:  Which is a shame because those records are great. But what’s particularly fascinating is that while on the one hand it sounds very much like traditional bluegrass, a lot of the material wasn’t. You performed songs by Paul Simon and Paul Anka, as well as stuff by Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, so it was really open-ended.

The cover of Spectrum's final album, Live in Japan, released in 1983.

The cover of Spectrum’s final album, Live in Japan, released in 1983, but unfortunately currently out of print.

BF:  Yeah, it was freedom in the cage.  The cage had gotten bigger and we were filling a hole in the bluegrass festival scene.  That was the only place we could work.  We didn’t seem to be druggy.  We were clean cut, nice gentlemen, but we played progressive—considered progressive—music.  We weren’t far out like New Grass Revival.  Glenn Lawson and Jimmy Gaudreau had been playing in J.D. Crowe’s band, after his great band—The New South—with Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, and Jerry Douglas, that was so popular. Wisely, J.D. didn’t try to follow that incredible band.  I’d say it’s on a level of Flatt and Scruggs in impact, but he didn’t try to copy it and do that band again.  He got a whole different sound.  And he got these guys and they went in a whole different direction.  Anyway, I moved to Kentucky, because I had the opportunity to work with some guys that worked with J.D., and I really wanted to get some of that true bluegrass feel.  Ironically, what I was trying to get from moving to Lexington was not what these guys wanted to do, but I still was going to get it.

“I knew I was a Yankee banjo player.”

What I moved to Kentucky for was to get around and to be part of the real traditional stuff.  I knew I was a Yankee banjo player.  I knew there was a stigma to that, and that there are some areas that Yankee banjo players don’t tend to be respected for the way the southern banjo players are.  What we’re usually talking about here is tone, time, and taste.  The three Ts.  It all comes from J.D. Crowe, but originally from Earl Scruggs—certain periods where his right hand and his tone were just so glorious, creamy, and solid, metronomic but with soul, and everybody was aspiring to play like that.  The northern players tended to have a lot of imagination.  A lot of great innovations were coming from there, but not only from there—Bobby Thompson wasn’t from there.  There were some great people like Bill Keith and Tony, but Tony was widely frowned upon by the bluegrass community as a whole.  And I was very aware of that. I said, I don’t want to be like that.  I want to be able to do everything.  J.D. Crowe had these great bands in which the people were playing pretty progressive music, but he was playing just like Earl.  Or in J.D. Crowe language, he was playing very traditional, and I thought there ought to be somebody who can play with those guys.  I think there’s a hole in that scene for a banjo player who does a little bit more, but I wanted to be able to do it with the authority that J.D. did it with.

So after those three years with Tasty Licks, we broke up and I played on the street for a summer, in Harvard Square, which was a lot of fun.  Then I got this chance to go to Kentucky.  So I moved down there and just spent all my time watching J.D. Crowe when I wasn’t on tour.  There was this Holiday Inn—Holiday Inn North it was called—on Newtown Pike, and they would put on a bluegrass band for three weeks, then they’d bring in another one from a different part of the country.  The top people would come in and play this place.  When they didn’t have Ralph Stanley or the Country Gentlemen or whoever, they would have J.D. Crowe because he was their in-town guy.  So when I was there, anytime I wasn’t out of town playing, I was at the Holiday Inn sitting, listening, and watching him, trying to understand how he got that sound and how he had that feel which I did not have.  I couldn’t do what he did, and he was a god to me.  I never got to sit with him and he never explained it to me, but I was very focused on him.

At that time, I also made a lot of friends in the bluegrass community who talked to me about banjo set up, about how to get a great sound out of a banjo.  There was a guy named Steve Cooley who was a great young banjo player and who, like me, was a big fan of Crowe.  Then I started studying all these old Flatt and Scruggs live shows, which is the next inner circle.  You get past the recordings everyone knows about and you start to get into these broadcasts and you get to hear how much greater he was than on the recordings.  It’s so badass.  All of a sudden that became really important to me, being able to play the banjo in a strong, traditional, powerful way, which I would say is a lot of southern influence.  The things that are great about southern banjo playing sort of crept into my style at that point.  And that’s the point when I got a call from Sam Bush and New Grass Revival to move to Nashville. Well, the band was originally in Kentucky, but we ended up moving to Nashville, and that was the next big change in my life after that.

FJO:  So although you wanted to get immersed in the tradition, you wound up playing in super progressive groups.  That first record you made with New Grass Revival, On the Boulevard, is full of chromatic stuff, and there’s even a Bob Marley tune on it. I’m not sure a bluegrass purist would even acknowledge this as bluegrass.

BF:  No.  They called it newgrass, and lot of bluegrass purists didn’t think newgrass was bluegrass.  But the thing about New Grass Revival is that they were at a whole other level.  They had been a fixture and a prime mover in the modernization of bluegrass.  Sam Bush was beloved by everyone across the board, whether you liked traditional or modern.  He was often called to play on traditional records, because he was simply the best mandolin player on the scene, especially in the south.  A lot of people also loved David Grisman, but he was in California and he was doing his own music. But Sam—as a mandolin player and a fiddle player and a force—was one of the greats of the generation.

It was even clear to Bill Monroe, who showed his regard for Sam by treating him with incredible disrespect.  He wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t think Sam was a force to be reckoned with.  He did the same thing to Earl Scruggs.  You know what I’m saying?  So Sam was the anointed one.

If Bill Monroe or Doc Watson wanted me to play with them, I wanted to make sure that I could play and they’d go, “Hey, he’s good at this stuff” and not judge me for being a modernist.  I wanted to have that, but you can’t change your spots.  I was gonna be a modernist and a guy from New York City, even if I tried to get rid of my accent around these guys and tried to get an old banjo. I think they respected me for trying, though, and for valuing what they did.

“I wanted to make sure that I could play and they’d go, ‘Hey, he’s good at this stuff’ and not judge me for being a modernist.”

Playing with Sam, I knew, was going to mean playing with one of the best musicians I had ever played with. Also, by joining that band and moving to Nashville, I would get to know a whole world of people I was really interested in—like Norman Blake and John Hartford, whom I was a huge fan of, and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and all the people who were doing that.  I would learn a lot about music that I didn’t know about yet.  Things I hadn’t valued yet.  Like blues and rock and gospel, things that those guys were really into—the Allman Brothers, all these things that I was not paying attention to because I was a New York jazzer at heart who loved bluegrass. That was also when I found the local great jazz guitar player, and I took lessons from him.  I went to play casual gigs, trying to learn jazz.  I was in the closet trying to continue my work on my scales at the same time.  I was a busy little boy.

The cover of Béla Fleck's 1984 LP Deviation

Béla Fleck’s 1984 LP Deviation, in which he is joined by the members of New Grass Revival, is miles away from newgrass but according to Fleck still isn’t quite jazz.

FJO:  All these different kinds of music came together for you in a solo record you did with the other members of New Grass Revival as sidemen called Deviation. I think it’s a very apt title because it doesn’t sound like any of the other music you had recorded up to that point. Now things have gotten so blurry, to some extent as a result of what you and many of the musicians you’ve worked with were doing then. But at that time, the barriers between different musical genres were a lot less penetrable. You mentioned that Sam Bush could travel back and forth between bluegrass and newgrass, but what was the difference?  What couldn’t you do in bluegrass, and what can’t you do in newgrass?  When does newgrass stop being newgrass?  I think most fans of newgrass would have thought that Deviation wasn’t newgrass. I’m inclined to call it a jazz record, but I’m sure there would have been jazz purists at the time who would have said it isn’t jazz either. Purism versus non-purism was a big issue back then, no matter what the genre was.

BF:  Yeah, it was.  I love Flatt and Scruggs.  I love early bluegrass. Most of the modernists do.  That music really reflects a time and a place and, now, a kind of looking backward.  But at the time, it was still reflective of some people’s actual lives.  They were singing about their lives, so it wasn’t some history thing.  So if somebody loves hearing that kind of music—which I love as well—and that’s what they want to hear, I don’t fault them for it.  It’s like somebody saying, “I want to listen to Louis Armstrong. ” Well, I like Louis Armstrong and I really like Charlie Parker.  I don’t fault anybody for liking what they like, but your life gets richer the more things you decide you like.  I’ve realized this because I’ve also been an elitist. I don’t listen to that, or I don’t listen to this, or whatever. That’s not good.  I’ve realized that I only make my life poorer by deciding there’s something I’m not interested in, that I’m above this.  But people do that.  We all do that.  The truth is you have the right to make those choices.  You don’t have to listen to everything just because someone tells you to.  This isn’t school.  This is your life.  You should listen to music that turns you on and makes you feel something and makes your life more complete.

“I don’t fault anybody for liking what they like, but your life gets richer the more things you decide you like.”

So, back to your actual question, I think newgrass expressed the truth for the people of that period.  And newgrass is a dated thing, too.  Newgrass is actually the music that was done after Flatt and Scruggs, not the music New Grass Revival did.  Sam Bush was going to bring back some of the music that the people that followed the originals did, go back to the sound that Jim and Jessie and the Osborne Brothers and the Country Gentlemen had, and work from there.  That’s why they called it New Grass Revival, which is interesting.  A lot of people say, “Oh, that’s newgrass.”  New Grass Revival is newgrass, but it became newgrass in people’s minds after a while because the name of the band was New Grass Revival.

FJO:  Looking back at that time now, there definitely was stuff that was even more progressive than newgrass, like perhaps what the Dillards were doing or Frank Wakefield or, as you already mentioned earlier, Tony Trischka.

BF:  Right.  For a while, you wouldn’t really call what Tony did newgrass, but by current standards, we can go back and go, “All that stuff kind of fits neatly into this box.”  That’s where people are stretching: dawg music—the stuff David Grisman was doing; what the Dillards were doing with drums; Herb Pederson; what New Grass Revival was doing; what Bill Keith was doing with Jim Rooney.  Call it what you want.  I don’t care.  It doesn’t matter.  You either like it or you don’t.

FJO:  Now in terms of calling something jazz, did you find acceptance from the jazz community when you began heading in that direction?

BF:  Back then I was clawing my way in.  I wanted to be in, and I wasn’t really up to the task yet.  I tried to put together some groups to try to do that.  I don’t think you could really call Deviation a jazz record.  I guess you could probably call it a pop instrumental record with jazzy overtones, but pop with bluegrass instruments.  I don’t know what to call it, but there’s not a lot of improvising, just a little bit.  Everybody had little solos, but it wasn’t open. When I think about jazz, I tend to think that improvisation is the core—conversation from every angle: the bass player talking to the horn player, the drummer playing to the saxophone player. There’s a discussion going on and people are making decisions on the fly.  To me, that’s a lot of what makes it jazz. But a lot of music is like that, not just jazz.

FJO:  Bluegrass is like that sometimes, especially when groups play instrumental breakdowns.

BF:  It can be, but there are more immovable things in bluegrass.  The mandolin is generally going to play the offbeat and play certain chord shapes generally.  They’re not going to play that different just because of what the banjo player does.  The bass player’s not going to walk.  He’s not going to have a lot of freedoms. He’s going to play within a certain set role.  It’s not like he’s spontaneously deciding what the harmony’s going to be for the soloist from the bass.  That’s not going to be going on in bluegrass.  At least not so far.  It tends to be that when people expand bluegrass, with the exception of dawg music, it’s pretty scripted.  There’s a lot of planning.  With Strength in Numbers or the Punch Brothers, it’s very scripted. In a way, it’s more like classical composition, mixing with pop and bluegrass.  So it’s not often as free as it might feel like it is.

FJO:  But with the Flecktones, you did introduce all those elements.

Béla Fleck (center) in performance with the Flecktones: Victor Wooten (far left, playing electric bass guitar), his Roy Wooten a.k.a. Future Man (far right, playing the Drumitar)

Béla Fleck (center) in performance with the Flecktones: Victor Wooten (far left, playing electric bass guitar), his Roy Wooten a.k.a. Future Man (far right, playing the Drumitar)

BF:  Yeah, I think you could call Flecktones a jazz group, if you were willing to call all the different kinds of music throughout from Louis Armstrong up all jazz.  Duke Ellington’s jazz.  Charlie Parker’s jazz.  Those are very different.  Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew is jazz.  Return to Forever is jazz.  Mahavishnu is jazz.  Is Shakti jazz?  I don’t know.  Maybe not.  I don’t know.  It’s very highly improvised, but is it jazz?  It’s probably more like Indian music.  We could be as different from jazz as Shakti was from jazz.  But that’s the world we were trying to claw our way into.  And we didn’t have such an easy time, especially at first, because it didn’t sound like it was necessarily jazz—a banjo player with a guy playing a drum machine guitar, a guy with a harmonica, and a funky bass player.  It was very confusing to people exactly what we were.  So for as much as we wanted to be embraced by the jazz world, it was very slow going.  The jazz guys would go, “Oh, okay.”  They weren’t going to fall all over themselves, but they didn’t hate us at all.  The musicians all seemed to like us and think it was pretty cool.  But luckily, regular people liked us.  And we would get on TV, and a bunch of people would go, “Wow.  That’s hip, whatever that is.”  We managed to get quite an audience pretty quick—against all odds, honestly.  So when people would say, “Béla sold out now.”  I’d feel like, “I sold out?”  You could not plan the Flecktones, and you could certainly not plan for them to be successful.  There was one time people said, “They added vocals.  Dave Matthews is on the record just to sell records.”  If you heard the track, it’s in 17/8.  And it didn’t sell any more than any other Flecktones records.  It would have been nice if it did, but it didn’t work out that way.

“We would get on TV, and a bunch of people would go, ‘Wow.  That’s hip, whatever that is.'”

FJO:  One of the greatest things in the world would be to get people on the street humming in 17/8.

BF:  That’s what’s always been exciting to the Flecktones—can we get people feeling an odd meter as if it’s not odd at all? Dave Brubeck did it wonderfully on “Take Five.”  There’s a pop sensibility, too.  We’re all kind of creatures of the pop world.  The guys were into James Brown, and I was into the Beatles. Howard was into Bulgarian music. It was a lot of different things coming together in that band.

excerpt from the leadsheet of Béla Fleck's composition

An excerpt from the published leadsheet of one of Béla Fleck’s most popular compositions, “Sunset Road,” which appeared on the first Flecktones album and which the Flecktones also later recorded with Branford Marsalis. Copyright © 1991 FLECK MUSIC (BMI)/Administered by BUG. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

FJO:  Now in terms of making contributions to different musical traditions, you mentioned Shakti, which was really about John McLaughlin immersing himself completely into classical Indian music and performing with some of the greatest Indian musicians, like L. Shankar and Zakir Hussain. So I have to bring up your own Tabula Rasa, which is probably one of my all-time favorite recordings of yours.

BF:  Thank you.  That’s another hidden one not too many people know about.

FJO:  It’s such a fluid synthesis, not just between Indian music and bluegrass, as per the dedication on the album to Ravi Shankar and Earl Scruggs; traditional Chinese music is also at the core of this music. It really is a fluid trio between you, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and Jie-Bing Chen.

BF:  I didn’t do the dedication; that was from the record company guy named Kavi [Kavichandran] Alexander.  He’s a cool guy and he has this wonderful recording technique.  He records stereo in a beautiful church in Santa Barbara. He arranges the musicians in front of the mic until it’s in balance.  He’s got a good ear for that, so maybe the mridangam player is back here and you’re over here because you’re louder, that whole weird thing that you have to do to record on one mic.  But then the room fills up with sound and it all comes into that microphone and he records it to tape, and it sounds awesome.  Part of the cement and connectivity has to do with that great recording approach and also the fact that you’ve got to sit there and play the music right in each other’s faces and really listen to each other since you’re super close to each other.

Béla Fleck, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Jie-Bing Chen on the cover of the CD Tabula Rasa

On Tabula Rasa, Béla Fleck, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and Jie-Bing Chen seamless weave Appalachian, Karnatic and classical Chinese traditional music.

FJO:  What’s so wonderful to me about that record is how it references three seemingly very different musical traditions in a way that’s faithful to all of them, yet it’s completely fluid. A word that we haven’t yet used in our conversation with each other today is fusion. In terms of what the word actually means, I think it’s very positive, but critics coined this term and many have used the term quite disparagingly.

BF:  Because they got tired of rock drums with jazz and the way that the jazz players couldn’t have a conversation with the drummer.  It just became very bombastic. They called it fusion, and they got tired of it.  I understand why it happened.  The original fusioneers’ music was actually very interactive and responsive and very jazzy. There’s a lot of great music that came out of that. Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever were really special for that time and they hold up really well, as well as a lot of eras of jazz held up.  But what came after, when people started to imitate them—it just became a sea of sameness and less freedom and interactivity in the conversations that were happening in the music.  And I think that to the people that love jazz, fusion became a bad word because they weren’t seeing the things that they loved in the music anymore.

FJO:  Someone who was a key creative force in that music—in fact he was the founder of Return to Forever—is Chick Corea, but he’s also done tons of straight-ahead jazz and was also part of a free improvisational quartet with Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul. He’s even performed standard repertoire classical compositions and also composed his own works for chamber ensembles and orchestras. You’ve played some extraordinary duets with him in recent years, but you’ve been into his music for a very long time. You played his composition “Spain” on your very first solo album back in 1979, and it later became part of the repertoire of the Flecktones. So he seems to have been an important musical hero to you from the beginning.

BF:  Oh my God, he still is.  He’s a great example of somebody who not only is super talented, but is super good at being himself.  He has the strength to be himself over and over again, whether it’s popular or not, because what he does is very wide-ranging and a lot of things he loves to do are not for everybody.  When he likes to play his crazy atonal stuff, he can do it like nobody in the world. That’s not the easiest stuff to sell.  But he also has put a high premium on communication.  He’s learned that—and he knew this all along—there’s nothing wrong with playing beautiful music that people like, like the music he did with Gary Burton, or different periods in his life when he’s tried to do music that’s more consonant.  He doesn’t see it as one being better or worse than the other.  They are just a lot of different expressions for different times and different feelings.  And he’s gone after a lot of different things. So I’ve always listened to everything he does. I’m always curious and I also find it very inspiring because of his tight rhythmic command of the piano. You could either accuse it of being too perfect or too rhythmically tight, or you could say, “Holy cow, nobody in the world plays like that!” You know it’s him from the first second, and it gets you if you’re a rhythmic-based person.  It gets you in a way no other piano player can get you.  He has always gotten me that way.  So the banjo being a sharp-attack instrument, like his acoustic piano or his Fender Rhodes, I thought that’s more of a template for how I’d like to play the banjo.  Not that I ever could or ever will.  He also does a lot of short, stabby things that don’t use the whole piano. A lot of piano players have a hard time using just part of the piano; they’ve got to the use the whole thing.  But you don’t have to use everything.  You don’t have to use the whole orchestra.  You can use just a violin for a while. Because of the limitations of the tuning, I couldn’t get the banjo to do a lot of the things the piano could do or a lot of instruments can do. He showed me that I didn’t have to do that; a lot of that came from listening to him.

“I was a stalker.  I would go to his shows and go to sound check and try to sneak in or try to meet him after the show.”

When we finally met, that was incredible.  I was a stalker.  I would go to his shows and go to sound check and try to sneak in or try to meet him after the show.  I gave him some bluegrass records I made.  Then I ran into him at the Grammys and introduced myself again, and he had seen the “Sinister Minister” video when the Flecktones finally came up out of the ground. Anyway, one day I was playing at the Newport Jazz Festival and his agent came up to me and said, “Next year, Chick is thinking about doing these duets with three different people and he was wondering if you might consider. You’re on his list of possibilities.”  And I said, “Count me in.”  I just dropped everything, and we went and made this record and started touring together as a duo.  This was a dream come true.

We’ve done a lot.  He seemed to like me, and he’s given me a lot of rope to learn how to do the things that I’m not as good at.  We do a lot of the same repertoire, so I’ve been able to get better at it, and I’m throwing new things at him now that he’s interested in.  On the last tour, I taught him a really cool Bill Monroe tune, and he was really all over that.  It’s turned into a really great relationship.  We’ve been playing for seven or eight years now.  Almost every year we get together and do a month or a couple of weeks. This year it’ll be the same.  We’ll be going to Europe as a duo in July, and then in August, we’re going to put the Flecktones and his electric band together and do a couple of weeks of summer touring.  So that’ll be a lot of fun.

FJO: It’s surprising how well the piano and banjo blend with each other. They don’t seem like instruments that would complement each other.  The same is true for your collaborations with all these extraordinary musicians from Africa, like Oumou Sangare, although—as you pointed out earlier in our conversation—the banjo’s origins are in Africa. But to take it back there and actually work with musicians there is yet another re-contextualization. What is this music?  Is it world music?  Is it traditional music?  To my ears, it sounds like something else entirely.

BF:  Well, it’s more of a mash up than I usually like because I didn’t have the opportunity to work with them so that they would change as I was changing.  It’s more of me trying to morph into their world.  It’s like them doing their thing and then, oh, look there’s Elmo in the middle.  I was trying my best to try to do that thing we talked about, where you try to make it feel like it’s supposed to be there, not like a mash up on the Grammys where B.B. King is playing with Metallica and they just do their thing at the same time.

For me, a great collaboration is when both parties are changed by the collaboration and they don’t just do their thing.  They actually have to adjust to each other.  But because of the speed of that project, where I was in four countries over the course of essentially four weeks and playing with different people every day, there wasn’t time for that breaking in thing. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened with some of those people if I could have played with them for two weeks before we recorded.  I was trying to do so much.  At a certain point, I realized I didn’t have enough time to learn each musical situation as much as I wanted to, so I could really fit in.  Eventually I just had to be myself in the situation—me with my positive and negative attributes in the middle of their music, doing my best.  In some cases, I could really study something and really actually learn some deep things about their music and be able to play that on the banjo. In other cases, I would play like a jazz musician and just play what came to me.

“A great collaboration is when both parties are changed by the collaboration and they don’t just do their thing.”

FJO:  So-called classical music—the Western classical variety at least—is different from all the other kinds of music we’ve been talking about today. In all of these other traditions, whether it’s bluegrass, jazz, karnatic ragas, or the praise songs of Malian djeli, individual musicians come together and find their own musical voices as they navigate various pre-established practices. But with classical music, the blueprint for the actual music already exists in an idealized form on paper and it is then brought to life when musicians play it.  In a piece of music for a classical chamber music ensemble or an orchestra, each musician is given a specific written part. These musicians are trained to be the best they can possibly be at interpreting what somebody else has already written and then making all those parts fit together.  That’s very different from you coming and playing with them, and then you all grow and do other things in response to each other.  That’s not what classical music is about.

BF:  The way a classical musician can improvise is with feel and tempo. They can stretch things. They can take things at totally different tempos.  They can play with the tone and with the intensity.  They can play with dynamics.  The dynamics don’t have to be written in stone.  In fact, in a lot of Bach’s music, he doesn’t write any dynamics at all, which gives the musician a chance to play with it.  But no, I get your point.  I’m just being difficult.

FJO:  We talked earlier about traditions and how they evolved in bluegrass and in jazz; traditions evolved in classical music, too. Bach’s scores have very minimal dynamic indication and there are no metronomic indications at all because the metronome hadn’t been invented yet. So there are these amorphous tempo indications that musicologists now fight over.  What does andante mean?  How fast or slow should it be? But once you get to Beethoven, you get the metronome. Then throughout the 19th century, the details grow more and more specific.

BF:  Imagine how frustrated these guys were with hearing their music played poorly.  Why don’t they know to play this section stronger?  It’s obvious, but it’s not obvious.  They can’t tell, so I’ve got to write in these marks, just trying desperately to have some control over the situation. A lot of times, the premieres were disasters and got reviewed as such. Then you find out some years later that this is one of the greatest musical pieces ever created.  Nobody ever heard what the composer had in mind till a long time later.  Yeah, it’s got to have been very hard on those guys.

FJO:  Your first foray into classical music, Perpetual Motion, was as an interpreter, performing transcriptions of classical pieces. But before that you did Uncommon Ritual with Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall which, once again, is something else entirely yet it connects to classical music because it was embraced by classical music listeners even though it was an album of original compositions for instruments that aren’t necessarily part of the sound world of classical music. Perpetual Motion, however, consists of your own interpretations of classical music repertoire.  But that’s different than writing classical music compositions that other musicians are playing, which is what you’ve been doing for the past five years.

BF:  Right.  So Edgar Meyer is my entrée into that world. I met Edgar when we were both very young, and he was in Aspen going to school there in the summers, in the string school that’s there.  I was playing with New Grass Revival in one of my first years in that band.  I heard there was this great bass player who played on the street, and I was like, “Oh, that’s cool.  I used to play on the street in Boston.”  So I went to see him that night and ended up getting out my banjo.  We ended up having this jam and then going to someone’s house and playing late into the night. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  Here’s a guy who’s a little younger than me who’s probably the greatest classical bass player who ever lived, but a lot more than that.  He also has a great love and ability outside of that world, but has a lot of training as a classical player and is also a composer, although he’s insisted he was never actually trained as a composer.  He just started writing. He’s been doing it the way he wants to, and he’s a genius composer.

So now I had a friend.  When I got into bluegrass and first started listening to Flatt and Scruggs, it was a long time before I had a friend who was great at traditional music.  It was a guy named Pat Enright, who joined Tasty Licks near the end.  That’s when I really started being interested in traditional music again, when I heard somebody doing it great right next to me.  Part of why I wanted to move down south and really understand that music was because of this Pat Enright character, who was such a great traditional singer that he gave me respect for the idiom.  My stepfather is a wonderful guy and a good musician, but he’s not a charismatic young figure on the cello.  He just loves to play classical music as a part of his life.  But now with Edgar I had a young guy who’s my age, who’s dashing and exciting, and he plays the bass like no one’s ever played it before.  And we’re peers, so I am not looking up at him like if he’d been Jascha Heifetz; he’s my pal.  So that opened the door. “Hey, you want to learn some Bach?”  I was like, “Okay!”  And he would sit there and teach it to me one note at a time until I could play it.  He had the patience to guide me through it. I would go see him do a recital with the piano and do some Scriabin and some Bach, and I would think, “Four hundred people sitting here listening to somebody play really beautiful, quiet music.  I never get to do anything like that.  For me to go play a recital with a piano player and learn some pieces like these, that would be neat.”

Then I watched him do his first orchestra piece, and it was brilliant.  Then my other friend Mark O’Connor did one and I thought, “People like me are doing things like this. I should be thinking about doing this someday!” Though it wasn’t something I was excited to hurry into because I just didn’t feel very qualified.  The door opened because there I was, in that orbit of Edgar.  At a certain point we wrote a piece for banjo and string quartet that was commissioned by someone in the Nashville Arts Commission for the Blair String Quartet.  That was the first writing I had done like that, and I saw how he did it.  I saw how he thought and how he built. I provided ideas and melodies, and he would say, “That’s good; let’s work with that one.  I can do a lot with that.”  And he would just start doing stuff; he was the mastermind.  Most people that are great classical composers are not good collaborators at composing.  Edgar’s actually very good at trying to find a way to take a lot from the other person while still having the control of making it the kind of piece it should be to stand up in that world.

FJO:  One of the most amazing things you composed together with Edgar and also with Zakir Hussain is a triple concerto that the three of you recorded with the Detroit Symphony. I’m curious to know how the three of you worked together on that.

BF:  Edgar was open at the right times and he was closed at the right times.  He took control when it was necessary.  He let us contribute, but he knew the backbone of the piece needed to come from someone with an overview.  So he was looking for the through story.  Zakir was like, “I’ve got all these tablas.  I can have different ones for different movements or different sections.” And Edgar said, “What if you have just one tabla in B and in the first movement we’ll play in F, and it will be the tritone, then we’ll move.  The next one’ll be in A, and the B will be the second or the ninth, and then, when we’ve finally reached the third movement, we’re in B.”  I don’t think that’s exactly the piece, but you get the idea.  The creative tension and the resolution would be when we got to the last movement and we were really actually in B.  That tone would be going through the whole piece.  That was a good idea; it gave the piece a storyline.  Anyway, first Edgar and I did a double concerto for the Nashville Symphony. Then they asked us to do a triple concerto when they built the new hall, because they wanted a piece to commemorate the opening.

“If the banjo was going to have any place in this world, there needed to be a banjo concerto.”

Then it was time for me to finally do my own.  I had done a string quartet with Edgar. I had done a double concerto and done the triple, but there was still no banjo concerto. In a weird way, I thought the banjo concerto was the biggest missing piece in the repertoire.  If the banjo was going to have any place in this world, there needed to be a banjo concerto. Until I started doing it, it didn’t seem like a hard thing to do because it’s so different from the orchestra.  There are so many things you can show off that haven’t been heard in that context.  But the trick is: Where’s the backbone?  Where’s that brilliant Edgar mind to figure out how the whole thing’s going to go?  That was where I struggled: not in coming up with ideas, but coming up with a big picture.

Excerpt from the full orchestral score of Béla Fleck's The Imposter

A page from the full orchestral score of The Imposter (Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra) by Béla Fleck (from the third movement, “Truth Revealed”)
Copyright © 2011 Juno Jasper Music
Administered worldwide by Hendon Music, Inc., a Boosey and Hawkes company.
International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission

FJO:  You wrote very extensive notes for the DG recording of your first banjo concerto, and in them you mentioned that you never felt particularly comfortable reading staff notation.  You were really good at reading tablature, and so instead you composed with a banjo in hand then jotted down stuff in tablature. Thankfully, you could enter tablature into Sibelius, and it would convert it into notation.

BF:  Sibelius changed my life. When I did Perpetual Motion, it was a much harder time to do a project like that.  There were these transcriptions, and I had to get all the notes right.  Somebody can play them all into MIDI, and you can have all the pitches and you can manipulate them if you want. Finale was the only program that was working at that time, and they had this goofy little tablature thing that didn’t take itself very seriously.  The closest thing I could find was a four-string banjo tablature.  I would copy all the notes and paste them onto that.  There was no fifth string [in the tablature], so it would just put the notes anywhere on the neck it wanted to.  They were the right notes, but I couldn’t manipulate them.  Once they were on, they were on; I couldn’t change them.  So I would print that out and then add an extra line and start whiting out them and moving them to the right string, to create fingerings that were possible.  Before I learned each piece, I would go through this extensive process of getting the notes right and getting the fingerings right, because you don’t want to learn them before the fingerings are right.  Banjo playing is all about playing things in the right place, because there are a lot of places to play the same thing.  But if you play them in a wrong place, it’s not going to lead to the next phrase and you’re stuck.  You can’t get to there from here.  Everything has to lead properly, so it was a hell of a project.  But then Sibelius came out and their tablature program was so great. If an E was a two on the second string, but I needed it to be at the 14th fret of the fourth string instead of down there, because the next note was going to be way up here, I could just pull it and the number would change, and it would go to the right number all of a sudden. It was a very effective tablature program, and it would have made Perpetual Motion so much easier to do and so much more fun.  Now I have a way that I can really manipulate the tablature. If I write something complex, I can take that tablature and paste it onto a music staff and Howard Levy or Chick Corea can read it.  I have a way to communicate with those guys, even though I can’t read their notation.

excerpt from the leadsheet (in staff notation) of Béla Fleck's composition

An excerpt from the published leadsheet (in staff notation) of Béla Fleck’s composition “The Sinister Minister”
Copyright © 1991 FLECK MUSIC (BMI)/Administered by BUG. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

FJO:  So when you were working out individual parts in the concerto like, say, a part for clarinet, did you originally write it out in banjo tab and then convert it back using Sibelius?

“Sibelius changed my life.”

BF:  Not exactly.  Writing the banjo concerto, with orchestra staves which have all the instruments, I had a variety of things I could do.  One is just throw notes on there and move them around until I heard the pitch I wanted, and then change the value until I got the value I wanted, and then add the next note—do it one at a time like that.  Or I could come up with a banjo idea, put it into tablature, and then orchestrate it slowly with that same procedure.  Or I could get an idea in my head and try to put it in one note at a time on the clarinet—sing along, like I would if I was producing a record and someone came in to do a clarinet part, and we’re trying to come up with the part.  I would just start singing until I found something that was missing from the music. They’d learn it and then they would embroider it.  I could do that by myself.  I could build the bass part, build the melody, then look for inner voices that were missing and sing them, then try to find them and put them in one note at a time.  I did the orchestral writing more that way.  Because if you put a note on a staff and pop it up until you find the note you want, it’s kind of like writing in the dark, writing by ear rather than by writing by knowledge.  So that’s how both of those concertos were written.

FJO:  What’s interesting though is they’re written and they’re fixed on the page.  It’s not the same as humming a clarinet part to a studio musician who could learn it that way and then, as you say, embroider it. In classical music, the musicians expect to have the music that you want already worked out—down to tempo markings, dynamics, and articulations—so they can do right by you.

BF:  Yeah, you’ve got to give them everything.  But you don’t start out with that.  You start out with: where’s the heart of this thing?  Where’s the beat coming from? Then gradually, as you get closer to the end point when you have to deliver it, you start to fill in all the dynamics.  Now you know what they all are because you realize as you’re going along that you actually know everything you want.  But you don’t know that when you’re first writing.  I do it as a constantly evolving process. I keep on adding to it.

FJO:  So how flexible are you then with it?

BF:  You mean once I get to the orchestra?

FJO:  Since you come to other music with an improvising player’s sensibility, I wonder how open you are to musicians reshaping your original intentions.

BF:  When I work with Brooklyn Rider, who are also on the new Juno record, it’s so much more of a flexible situation where we could talk about every measure. Everybody’s going to have an opinion about every single phrase, about how they should bow it, about whether we should pull it back rhythmically.  You can’t have that dialogue with 90 people on an orchestra stage.  But you have the illusion of that kind of dialogue with the conductor where he says, “Maestro, it’s your music.  Just tell me what you want.” And I go, “No, you’re the conductor. If you have a strong feeling, please let me know.”  But in the end, it’s really going to come down to us doing it as close to what I envisioned as possible, and he’s going to be a sweetheart about it, and he’s going to try to get it there.  I’m going to be flexible if it’s tough and there are things that we can’t quite get. I’m going to be cautious and not overstep my bounds as a visiting artist with the symphony.  It’s this dance.  It all has to happen very fast.  You get one rehearsal and then a dress rehearsal the next day.  It’s hard music.  So there has to be a structure and free will is not really an option. Sadly.

I’m going to be flexible if it’s tough and there are things that we can’t quite get.

FJO:  You wished you had more time to work with the musicians when you were travelling around Africa, rather than only a week, but with an orchestra you’ve got just two hours.

BF:  Right.  That’s why everything has to be set.  It really is two hours.  We’ve got a two-and-half-hour rehearsal.  You only get the first hour because they have to practice the Copland for the second.  And the next morning, we get to do a run through, a dress rehearsal.  We play it down and we fix a few things, and then that’s it. Luckily I’ve got my part down.  I know how valuable that rehearsal time is and when I show up in front of an orchestra, I need to convince them this is worth them caring about somehow.  So I play every rehearsal as if it’s the final performance.  I try to play my parts as convincingly as I do at the concert because I want them to go, “Oh, this is actually pretty good.  I’d better sound as good as the soloist.”  I want the band to sound as good as the soloist. A lot of times they’ve got 150 services that year. They’ve got to have a reason to care about each one. Everyone wants to do a good job, but it’s just coming at them day after day after day.  You’re going to be gone in two days.  It’s just like being a session player.  You want the session player to care about your song.  You want passion.

FJO:  You called your first concerto The Imposter, which can mean many different things depending on how you interpret it. It could be about feeling like you’re somehow not a “real” composer because you’d never written such a thing before.

BF:  Right.

FJO: But now you’ve written two of these things, so you’re definitely not inexperienced at this anymore. The second one had to have been easier to write than the first one.

BF:  I wasn’t as frightened while I was writing it.

FJO:  And in your description about this second concerto, you described how writing music has become an activity that you can do at all hours, really late at night or early in the morning when your wife and three-year-old son are both asleep. You treasure having this alone time to write this music, but this is completely different than how you’ve been creating music your whole life—making music with other people and getting ideas from being in that zone.

BF:  It’s really different. I’ve also had to learn that if you’ve only got a half an hour, or 45 minutes, you can’t go, “Well, that’s not enough time to get something done.”  It’s kind of like being healthy.  I need to learn these things, too. I’ve only got 15 minutes; that’s not enough time to work out.  Well, it is.  You can go do some pushups.  You can go walk around the block.  So I say, “Okay, I’ve got 15 minutes, maybe I can just work on that counterpoint in movement three.”  I can work on that because I know I haven’t got that piccolo thing working right with the bassoon, or whatever thing that I’m working on.  I’ve learned that you can accomplish a lot of little things.  You should never look at a small amount of time as a reason not to work.  Just put on the headphones.  Go listen and do some work on something you’re not satisfied with.  At some point, you’ll have to put in enough work to have something worth working on.  Tweaking is just a piece of it.  You have to have inspiration.  You have to have melodies you love enough and materials that you think are meaningful enough to develop.

Excerpt from the full orchestral score of Béla Fleck's Juno Concerto

A page from the full orchestral score of Juno Concerto by Béla Fleck (from Movement I)
Copyright © 2016 Juno Jasper Music
Administered worldwide by Hendon Music, Inc., a Boosey and Hawkes company.
International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

“You should never look at a small amount of time as a reason not to work.”

The great thing has been that I don’t have to travel away from my family very much.  If I go do actual performances, it’s going to be three or four days.  It’s not like I’m joining a band and going around the world to promote a new record.  Orchestra dates are not constant.  They’re occasional, and the writing is a way for me to continue to explore and be the kind of musician that I want to be in the context of this new life where my wife and I are playing a more folk-based kind of music as the center of what I’m doing with my life, so that in this period where my son is young, we can all be together.  We travel together as a family.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t still need to do complicated music.

FJO:  So now that you realize you don’t have to tour around the world and that you can write music from your home, the next step is for you write pieces that you’re not playing in.

BF:  I haven’t gotten to that point yet. I’ve thought about it, but I haven’t quite crossed over to that.  Edgar finally did his first one, just a few weeks ago.  He wrote a piece for the Nashville Symphony, his first symphony, and he’s not playing on it.  I have to talk to him about how that felt.  I’m not sure that anyone would be that interested in it if I wasn’t playing, but we’ll see what happens.  Maybe someone will ask me to do something like that one day.

FJO:  I’m totally interested.  I want to hear a wind quintet by you, especially after hearing about your attempts with a French horn in high school. You could get some other French horn player to finally play that F!

BF:  Yes.  You get the F, man. I’m not getting the F.  I’ll get the G.  The banjo’s tuned to G.  But it’s exciting to put the banjo in front of an orchestra.  It’s a classy situation.  It presents the banjo in a way that has been very rare, and I’ve been able to do it a lot now. And it broadens the reach. My audience, a lot of them might not go to a classical show; some of them would, but a lot of them might not.  But because they like what I do, they will come and see an orchestra and have this different experience. They want to see what that’s like. Then there’s the audience that only goes to classical shows, which is a lot of people in our country. They bought the series tickets in this town or that town, and they come to all the shows, ten shows a year, whatever, and that’s their musical life.  Now here I am stuck in the middle of that, and then they see that.  Between those two audiences, it’s usually a pretty good audience.  A lot of times the orchestras tell me that it was a really solid turnout for what they do, or better than normal.  So it makes me feel good.

FJO:  How would you feel about another banjo player playing one of your concertos and you sitting in the audience?

BF:  That’s fine.  I’m hopeful that that will happen one day.  There are certainly four or five now that could do them probably better than me in terms of ability—like Noam Pikelny or Ryan Cavanaugh. They wouldn’t conceptualize things or write things the way I can, but they can play the things and they have their own music that they’re obviously great at.  There was a long time when I was the only person who could play this stuff, but I think that’s changed and I’m excited for that.  And that’s part of why I want to create a lot of repertoire for the banjo in the classical world, so that banjo players have something they can do.  There was no repertoire.  Playing transcriptions is really a losing game because a piece that’s written for the piano, by the time you reduce it to fit on the banjo, it’s just not what it was made for.  But if you can write some new music that is made for what the banjo does well, then it can win.  It’s not trying to be a violin.  You can learn a lot from learning music for other instruments, but in the end you’ve got to be yourself.  Classical music for the banjo should be written around what the banjo does great, just like Chopin is written around what the piano does great.

“Classical music for the banjo should be written around what the banjo does great.”

FJO:  The banjo has been so central to your life that you’ve even married another banjo player, Abigail Washburn, who is also an extraordinary musician and now—which you’ve already mentioned—you play music together. I’m curious if living with someone else who is also a formidable force on the instrument has changed your musical aesthetics in any way and vice versa.  Are you influenced by what she’s done?  And she by you?  How has that played out?

BF:  I think we both helped each other be better musicians, and she’s certainly helped me to be a better person.  And the process of having a child has taught me a lot about putting things into perspective. What’s important is not always the same at every given moment.  Music doesn’t always win.  But sometimes it makes you a better person to realize that, and then it makes you a better musician—the things that you care about writing and the way you approach it.  And she’s taught me.  She plays in a different style from me, what we call clawhammer; I play three-finger.  They’ve almost never historically played together.  So what we’ve got within our household is an opportunity to create something that’s never been before, which is a musical form based around these two banjo styles interacting.  And luckily she’s a fabulous singer and a very good songwriter.  What she does great is she creates bedrock parts to build the songs around, which means I can be free-wheeling on top, being a soloist, or I can be the bass player.  Or she can be the bass player and I can do the other parts.  There are a lot of different ways to arrange those two banjos.  She also gives me a chance to play some beautiful music in a different style than I’ve gotten to do in a long time and to work with a vocalist, which I haven’t gotten to do really since New Grass Revival days in a regular way.

“I think that instrumental music is great for the brain, but it doesn’t mean I don’t love great vocals.”

I love working with vocalists.  It’s not that I’m anti-vocal.  I love the banjo being the center, too, and not having to have a vocal for the music to be complete.  I think that instrumental music is great for the brain, but it doesn’t mean I don’t love great vocals. She has a purity and a warmth and a truth-ness to her singing that moves me, and I get excited about working with it and creating musical structures around it and improvising around it, too.  So that’s really good. And I teach her, because her style and the way she’s learned it, she was never ambitious to become a hotshot banjo player.  In that world of banjo, that’s not really what it’s about anyway.  Old time playing is more about groove and rhythm.  But I’ve helped her to add things to her toolkit to make the songs better and voicelead a little bit when we’re creating a song.  I’ll say, “Well, that part’s great.  Just add this note.  That’s going to give you the flat sixth, and it’ll be really cool as a passing chord on the way to this.”  Then suddenly we have a voiceleading in her part that gives me the opportunity to do something else on top.  You know, those kinds of things.  But I try to point her towards things that are super natural—not supernatural—for her style.  And she seems to enjoy just getting pushed out of a corner.  She’s used to doing this. What if you have to restart after five notes? It’s the same pattern you always do, but you’ve got to restart it.  That suddenly gives us a new kind of groove to play with.  I throw ideas at her, and she throws ideas at me.

FJO:  You named your son Juno, but as far as I know there are no significant 20th-century composers named Juno.

BF:  Right.  Some writers.

FJO:  So is Juno going to be playing the banjo?

BF:  He plays a little ukulele banjo now, strumming.  And he loves to buck dance.  He sees momma dance on stage with me and so he copies that.  It’s really fun to watch him do that.  He loves to play golf.  That seems to be his biggest passion so far.  Neither of us are golfers.  It’s just one of those fluky things.  He saw it on TV when he was with his grandfather, because we don’t watch TV with him right now very much at all.  We don’t want to get that going.  But once he saw that, all of a sudden, he wanted to golf, and so he’s been pretty serious about that for the last couple of years.

FJO:  Beware of watching TV because watching the Beverly Hillbillies on TV is what set you on your way.

BF:  That’s right.  It was a very special thing that they let us watch TV for that hour in my grandparents’ bedroom when I was four or five.  It was an unusual thing.  We weren’t afraid of TV back then.  This would have been like ’62 or ’63.  Now we know we should be afraid of it.

The cover of Béla Fleck's latest CD, Juno Concerto, which features his son Juno, wearing sunglasses.

Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn’s son Juno graces the cover of Fleck’s latest recording Juno Concerto, released by Rounder Records on March 3, 2017, which features his second banjo concerto performed with the Colorado Symphony conducted by Jose Luis Gomez as well as quintets for banjo and string quartet performed with Brooklyn Rider.

Martha Mooke: Walls, Windows, and Doors

Putting together a career as a working musician has never been easy, but one of the mantras for making it possible in the 21st century is: you must multitask. Most musicians multitask out of necessity, but for others it’s actually the source of their inspiration. And then there’s someone like Martha Mooke, who is engaged in so many different types of musical activities on a regular basis that it’s difficult for anyone else to keep track of them all. In any given week, she could be performing a solo concert on her electric five-string viola, playing in the viola section of a symphony orchestra or a Broadway pit orchestra, touring with a famous rock musician or with one of her own improvisational groups, and/or giving educational clinics to young string players on how to find their musical voice.

“I’ve had to come to terms with my different personalities,” Mooke acknowledges when we caught up with her in between gigs at the New York offices of ASCAP. ASCAP was actually a fitting place for us to talk, since it was through her ASCAP-produced Thru The Walls, a series of concerts that focused on composer-performers who worked in a variety of musical genres, that she first met David Bowie which ultimately led to her performing and recording with him and then a whole host of other luminaries.

“I wanted to have that juxtaposition of music worlds … all types of influences: jazz, electronics, rock, all kinds of things,” Mooke remembers. “I spoke with Tony [Visconti], who had a very broad background and broad interests. What could be better than having a renowned, legendary rock and roll producer introducing a new music concert? … Tony was living up in Rockland County at that time. I’d gone over to Tony’s house … and as I was leaving, he said, ‘By the way, I mentioned to my friend David this event tonight, and he said, he might come.’ And I’m like, ‘Right; sure.’ But sure enough, two minutes before the lights go down, in walks David Bowie.”

Within a year, the string quartet she put together to perform with Bowie appeared with him on the stage of Carnegie Hall for the annual Tibet House benefit and also in the recording studio for his 2002 album Heathen. She described similar chains of circumstances that led to her appearing on tour around the United States and Europe with Barbra Streisand in 2006 and 2007, her extensive educational work under the auspices of Yamaha (which is still ongoing), and one of her more recent obsessions—writing for symphonic wind band.

“I think it began almost as a joke, in a way,” she recalls. “I had never thought about writing for concert band. I had really, at that point, never written for an ensemble larger than a string quartet or a chamber ensemble. Then finally we said, ‘Let’s just do it.’ So I came up with the concept of X-ING … It’s the crossing of the worlds between electric viola and concert band. What happens when you cross those worlds? One of the things that happens is you don’t have to tell the band to play quieter because a string instrument is soloing. I just crank my volume; I go to 11.”

But no matter what musical activity she is involved in, she always views it as an opportunity not just to break through walls, but to open doors or to look out through a window in a new way. It’s a crucial life lesson that she taught herself very early on and one that she hopes to impart to others.

“I never accepted limitations and boundaries no matter what I was doing, whether it was because I was female or because whatever. If I liked doing something and had an interest in it, I just did it. I found opportunities. If the opportunities don’t exist, I make them. … I’m about overcoming those barriers and breaking through that inhibition factor, which seems to get more built into students as they go through school. … Unlimited possibilities. I would say you never know what you’ve been missing until you know what you’ve been missing.”


Martha Mooke in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at the NYC offices of ASCAP
February 14, 2017—1:00 p.m.
Video presentations by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  I’m going to begin in a very unlikely place; I’m going to compare you to Gunther Schuller.

Martha Mooke:  Wow.  I’m actually honored.

FJO:  Well, one of the pieces of trivia regarding Gunther Schuller is that he was the only person who performed with both Toscanini and Miles Davis.  Plus the instrument he played was the French horn, which is not an instrument that you normally think of as being able to genre hop. That’s also true for your instrument, the viola. And yet, you’ve performed with David Bowie.  You’ve worked with Osvaldo Golijov, Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett, Alvin Singleton, and Barbra Streisand—so many people most people would never think of in the same sentence.

MM:  Right.  Actually it’s interesting that you mention Gunther Schuller because I’ve been doing a lot of research for this new piece that I’m writing for Symphony Space called Beats per Revolution.  It’s for electric viola, beat boxer, and chamber ensemble. All the musicians in the ensemble will be improvising, so one of the people I’ve been studying is Charles Mingus.  I actually purchased his score of Epitaph, which is a two-and-a-half-hour monster piece.  Gunther Schuller helped to finish that and he conducted it, so it’s kind of cool that you started out with that.  I’ve been immersed in Mingus and Gunther Schuller for the last few weeks.

FJO:  The other thing about Schuller is that in the ‘50s he codified this notion of there being a Third Stream—there was classical music, there was jazz, and then there was this third thing that emerged from connecting the other two. But for you, it’s not three; it’s not even four or five. You’ve gone beyond streams; you’re in an ocean of music!

MM:  I’m calling one of the segments of Beats per Revolution “Third Stream of Consciousness,” and that will be a little homage to that genre.  But I love instruments that you don’t think of as being in the forefront, improvising or playing in non-traditional ways, like a bassoon playing jazz.  Or a French horn.  It’s a wonderful opportunity to open things up from the inside.

FJO:  Interesting that you say open things up from the inside, because the horn and the viola are both essentially mid-range instruments.  We won’t get into viola jokes.

MM: We can laugh at them; we’ve overcome that.

FJO:  But the thing about the viola is that most people don’t know what it is.  If they see it, they’ll probably think that it’s a violin that’s a little too big.  Most people would probably just say it’s a violin, if they know the word violin.  On top of that, the viola is the only instrument that plays music written in this oddball clef that no one else can read.

MM:  It’s the only clef that really makes sense because middle C is actually on the middle line in alto clef.

FJO:  It really is in the middle, yet it’s a total outsider in a way.

“I love instruments that you don’t think of as being in the forefront, improvising or playing in non-traditional ways.”

MM:  Right. I think whatever instrument you’re playing needs to resonate with your soul. I started on the viola because in my public school class, when I was in fifth grade, the music teacher came in and said, “We have violins, violas, cellos, and basses; who wants to play violin?”  And pretty much everybody raised their hand.  Nobody knew what a viola was.  A few people knew what a cello was.  I always go the route of most resistance, so I picked the viola.  I worked with it and it resonated with me to the point where the music teacher wanted me to switch to violin because I was actually progressing a little more rapidly than the violin players were.  So I took one home one weekend, but I brought it back because it didn’t resonate under my ear; it didn’t do anything to my soul.  I’ve overcome that now, by adding the fifth string, but that’s how I began as a violist.

FJO:  I’m sure the reason why most students gravitate to the violin is that they are hoping to become soloists. A viola soloist is rare, but at that point you were just playing viola in your school’s string orchestra.

MM:  Yes. The middle school teacher came to the elementary school and started the program to feed us into the middle school.  Then that fed into the high school.  They were all public New York City schools.

FJO:  Wow, you’re a poster child for public school education and for music education programs in the school system.

MM:  Absolutely.

FJO:  This is something that we don’t quite have to the same extent anymore.

MM: There are a few programs still around, but it’s definitely not on the same level as it was in those days.

FJO:  It’s fascinating to me that playing the viola resonated with you so much that when the teacher asked you to switch to the violin, you tried the instrument and it didn’t speak to you.  At what point did you think to yourself that playing this instrument was what you want to do for the rest of your life?

MM:  I just kept doing it.  I was studying other things in school, but there was just something about music and playing the viola at Tottenville High School in Staten Island. I was a member of the string quartet and in the orchestra I got to play Bach’s Sixth Brandenburg with my sister, who at that time also played viola with the orchestra.  They also had music theory in this high school, so I just kept going because I was proficient and I loved it. So I was exploring and I was learning, taking private lessons and playing with community orchestras.

FJO:  The Sixth Brandenburg has no violins and so the violas are really carrying the melodies, which is pretty rare in the repertoire.

MM: Right.

A very young Martha Mooke playing viola at home in front of a bunch of potted plants.

From very early in Martha Mooke’s career.

FJO: The interesting thing about identifying with the viola and it being your instrument is that it really didn’t function so much as a foreground instrument until the mid-20th century.  I doubt that either the school or the community orchestra you were involved with was performing the Bartók Viola Concerto.

MM:  No. But I never accepted limitations and boundaries no matter what I was doing, whether it was because I was female or because whatever.  If I liked doing something and had an interest in it, I just did it.  I found opportunities.  If the opportunities don’t exist, I make them.  It never occurred to me that viola could not be a solo instrument. Then somebody gave me an album of Jean-Luc Ponty in my last year of high school, I think.  That opened up all kinds of new worlds for me, and I started delving into non-traditional string playing.

FJO:  Had you written any of your own music by that point?  Had you improvised?  Or were you just playing other people’s music?

“If the opportunities don’t exist, I make them.”

MM:  I used to write songs with a guitar.  I wrote a lot of singer-songwriter songs, and then I stopped because I felt like I got a little bit stuck.  I loved to sing.  My sister and I would sing together, but I didn’t see that that was going to be my career path.  I wanted to do something a little more than write songs.  After listening and exploring the world of Jean-Luc Ponty, I went and explored any jazz violinist I could find because I don’t think there were that many jazz or electric violists at that time. I hadn’t yet encountered The Velvet Underground with John Cale, but Turtle Island String Quartet was also popular back in those early days. So I went out and bought all the albums that I could, closed the shades and closed the doors, put on music and just started playing with it, improvising to it.  When I went away to college, I did that as well.

FJO:  Cale’s stint in The Velvet Underground pre-dates the Turtle Island String Quartet, but that probably wouldn’t have been something anyone would have exposed you to by the time you were in high school.

MM:  No, not at that point.  In fact, I didn’t discover them until the day I got a call to go on tour with John Cale.

FJO:  Really!

MM:  Then a whole other world opened up.  I ended up recording and doing a bunch of tours with John Cale and the Soldier String Quartet.

FJO:  Without having heard The Velvet Underground?

MM: Yeah, I didn’t really know about that world.

FJO:  Even though you grew up in New York City, your family probably didn’t listen to that music. Were they interested in classical music? What did your family listen to?

MM:  Neither of my parents were into music.  My father loved Gilbert and Sullivan, so we listened a lot to The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance. And we watched the Boston Pops.  That was my classical music. That’s how I got to love Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring and started tuning into that world.  But I just gravitated towards music and my parents always supported me in that and paid for lessons.

FJO:  So there was no rock and roll in the household?

MM:  Not really.  There was more traditional stuff like Peter, Paul and Mary.

FJO: And I suppose even for people who were fans of harder rock, The Velvet Underground wouldn’t have been the mainstream.

MM:  Well, don’t forget, I also grew up in Staten Island.  At that point, to get to the city you almost needed a passport!  And when you’re not driving, it’s that much harder.  It takes two hours to get to the city from Staten Island, so there’s a big a culture gap in many ways.

FJO:  But hearing Jean-Luc Ponty opened your world up. Not just to improvisation but also to amplification and electronics.

MM:  The album that changed my world was called A Taste for Passion.  On the cover, Jean-Luc Ponty is cradling a beautiful blue five-string Barcus-Berry violin.  Within a year or so I convinced my parents to take me to Manny’s on 48th Street, and I went in and I bought a Barcus-Berry, the same color five-string. It was my first electric instrument.  I still have it in my instrument closet.

FJO:  So what’s the difference between a five-string violin and a five-string viola?

MM:  The range is the same, but on the viola you’ll have a longer fingerboard, which is pretty much the difference.  You don’t need to have a bigger body because you’re amplifying it, although the size of the body and the material of the body of an electric instrument does impact the sound.  But that instrument was an electric violin.  I couldn’t find any violas.  But it was five-string, which meant I could have the range of the violin and viola.  So I started exploring. I bought an old delay [unit] called an Effectron.  It was digital and analog. You had to push the buttons and you could only do one effect at a time.  But I made my very first demo tape with that. I didn’t have a recording studio or anything, and I wanted to apply for a residency at Harvestworks.  So I took headphones, plugged them into the headphone jack, put them on the floor, put the microphone to my tape recorder, put towels on the bottom and on the top, and that’s how I made my demo record.  They accepted it, and I got the residency. And because of that, I started recording my very first CD, Enharmonic Vision.

Marftha Mooke in performance on an electric five-string viola.

Marftha Mooke in performance on an electric five-string viola.

FJO:  Now before we make that jump, we’ve already made another jump, because at this point you’re creating your own music.  You went from playing viola in orchestras and performing classical music with lots of other people, to hearing Jean-Luc Ponty and wanting to improvise on an electric five-string. You’d written songs on a guitar and you sang, but when did you get the idea that you could make your own music for this instrument, and when did you decide to create music specifically for you to perform by yourself?

MM:  I just started to explore the world of improvisation in combination with the electronics.  I never studied formally.  I didn’t study jazz.  I didn’t study composition.  I was self-schooled in a way.  I discovered it on my own, so there was no wrong way.  I asked a lot of people what amplifier and what effects to get, but every person I asked had something totally different to say.  So I ended up doing just lots of trial and error, experimentation with sounds.  I discovered digital delay and that became a looping device; it was like an infinite echo.  They couldn’t start and stop at any time, just four seconds or eight seconds. But that’s where I started exploring.  Then I went to my first AES convention—Audio Engineering Society. I walked in and there was a guitar player there with this looping device called the JamMan made by Lexicon. I stood in front of this guy, and it was this big thing—eight seconds of delay that you could start and stop and so have control over.  So as soon as it became available on the market, I bought it and started working with it.  I was able to expand that to 32 seconds and, adding more electronics and just experimenting and building sounds, I started—through improvisation—creating works.

FJO:  There had been many people messing with delay units independently of one another by that time; it’s been part of the zeitgeist since the late ‘60s when Terry Riley experimented with his time lag accumulator and when Robert Fripp and Brian Eno had done concerts together in the early ‘70s. In fact, this was well after Fripp had started doing his solo Frippertronics, which was also a way of being an orchestra of one by controlling various effects units.  You hadn’t heard any of that stuff yet?

MM:  No.

FJO:  Well, all of that was improvisation-based music. No one was “writing” music involving delay units, at least not that anyone was aware of at the time.

MM: There was no repertoire, so again, just out of necessity, I started creating repertoire. Then, having a lot of composer friends, I started asking composers to write for me.

FJO:  The initial impulse came more from wanting to perform than out of wanting to compose?

I wasn’t calling myself a composer. I wasn’t calling myself anything. I was a player. I was a violist.

MM: I wasn’t calling myself a composer.  I wasn’t calling myself anything. I was a player.  I was a violist. Looking back on it now, I think I was just tapping into a way of expressing myself that I didn’t know I was able to do.  I was finding this voice within me.  The electric viola’s unlimited possibilities, the colors and the textures, were allowing me to really explore different worlds.  What was interesting was whenever I would find a new piece of equipment, I would always find the limitations of it right away.  So I would have to overcome that somehow.

FJO:  Like being restricted to looping either a four- or eight-second phrase.

MM: Exactly.  I just developed ways of working around it. Creating just kept going in that direction, because I had accessed something that I needed to get out—my inner voice.

FJO: And instead of avoiding the limitations of what you could do alone with this equipment by creating music to play with other people, you found workarounds so you could still do it yourself.

MM:  I think that was part of the exploration of my voice as a creative entity. I was just exploring by trial and error, listening to Jean-Luc Ponty, discovering Laurie Anderson, then Kronos Quartet big time, and following the Turtle Island String Quartet.

FJO:  Your first record came out in 1998. I remember the first time I heard you perform.  It was a year later at the Henry Street Settlement.  You were doing Vertical Corridors, which is still active in your repertoire and which you’ve since expanded and done other things with. I was so intrigued by what I heard you do that I immediately bought your CD there from someone who was selling stuff at a table.

MM:  Oh cool.

FJO:  But I was so bummed because the piece that I heard wasn’t on the CD.

MM:  Right.  It’s just come out this past year. It’s on No Ordinary Window.

FJO:  But it’s a different version than what I heard.

MM:  Well, every time I play it, it’s different.

FJO:  Anyway, the thing that struck me about that performance, even though you started creating so that you’d have music to play on your instrument, was that it made me forget the instrument. You were making music in real time, but because there were all these other effects, it didn’t sound like one person playing a viola.  Instead it was an immersive and all-encompassing sound world that sounded like a large group of people.  It could probably have been triggered from any instrument, so in a way it didn’t matter what the instrument was.  I felt the same way when I heard the pieces on that CD. The music was so harmonically—as well as contrapuntally—rich.

The cover for Martha Mooke's debut CD Enharmonic Vision

Martha Mooke’s debut CD Enharmonic Vision

MM:  When I’m writing for myself, it really starts out as a lot of experimentation, looking for different sounds and finding a recipe for a combination of sounds.  When you’re working with different electronic devices, you pluck one note and it could trigger a whole episode of beautiful harmonies or delays or a really interesting rhythm.  So when I find something and get that “Aha!” moment, then I start exploring that. A lot of my music I’ll notate after the fact, and I have to go in and figure out what it was that I did.  Sometimes it’s complicated to notate because, if it’s based on some harmonization or multi-effects processor, there are a lot of elements involved. With No Ordinary Window, I created a score and I did snapshots of the parameters that I use as far as reverb and delay and things like that.  So if somebody wants to perform the work other than me, they can do that with any other piece of equipment.

An excerpt from Martha Mooke's score for No Ordinary Window showing notations for various pedals as well as what the musician should play versus the actual resultant sound.

An excerpt from Martha Mooke’s score for No Ordinary Window showing notations for various pedals as well as what the musician should play versus the actual resultant sound. © 2014 by Martha Mooke, Vener Music (ASCAP). International copyright secured. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO:  So other people could play these pieces?

MM:  Yeah, but there’s a certain sound when I play—everything is my instrument.  It’s all an extension of me as a player—the instrument going into the electronics and into the speakers or whatever system it is.  It’s all me as an instrument.

FJO:  But at the point when you were creating the pieces that are included on Enharmonic Vision, they weren’t all necessarily written down.  I imagine that they were all amalgams of pre-conceived ideas, improvisation, and studio experimentation. You probably weren’t thinking of other people playing them.

MM:  Not at that point.  It was just something I was compelled to do.  Again because there weren’t that many people doing it at that time.  Then it was at around that time that I installed a pickup on my acoustic viola that I play in orchestras.  I would show up to an orchestra rehearsal and people would look at the pickup on my bridge and think right away that I play jazz.  That wasn’t part of the mainstream, so it sort of perked a little bit of interest at that time.

FJO:  A lot of violin and viola repair people are horrified by the notion of putting a pickup on a classical music instrument, that doing so is somehow tainting it.

MM:  I found very friendly luthiers that welcomed that, actually.  They loved the fact that I had a pickup on my bridge, and they could fix it if it needed to be fixed.  There’s one actually around the corner from here, Mathias Lehner. I bring my acoustic viola to him, and I bring my electric. If something happens to one of my Yamahas, I bring it to him and he can put the tailpiece on, which is all connected to the electronics. It’s a whole other world for them, and the ones that welcome that have that much more business, I guess!

FJO:  Before we leave Enharmonic Vision, the CD booklet has all these wonderful quotes from other people, but it doesn’t have quotes from you. So I want to ask you about certain aspects of those pieces.  There are so many different kinds of music on there.  Raindance sort of sounds like bluegrass to me, a little bit.  It comes out of that whole double-stop fiddling sound world.  Winds of Arden sounds like ambient soundscape-y kind of stuff.  And then Bones is filled with all these pizzicatos and extended techniques; it’s pretty avant-garde sounding. They’re all different, but you don’t seem to think of them that way, and it’s all a seamless and cohesive whole.

MM:  Because it’s me.  I guess this is both a plus and the bane of my existence.  When I released Enharmonic Vision, I did so as a solo entity.  I was the artist, the composer, the publisher, the record label.  Very naïve.  I took a few copies with me down to Tower Records in the Village.  I went up to the classical section, because that’s where the Kronos Quartet and Philip Glass were. I met the manager and I said, “I have this CD.  Would you listen to it?  Could you sell it here?”  He listened to it and he said, “Okay, I’ll take five copies on consignment.”  So I signed five copies over to him. He called me within the week and said, “We sold out; bring five more.”  He had liked it so much that he put it in the listening station between Kronos and Philip Glass, so people who would not have known to look under the filing of Martha Mooke saw me there.  They listened to it, and they bought it.  It was kind of neat.  I still have a few copies with the Tower Records price tag.

FJO:  But it’s interesting that you took your CD to the classical section. Listening to that album and even looking at the cover, I wouldn’t necessarily think it was something for the classical section.

MM:  Yeah.  I guess that as a violist, I came out of the classical world.  That was the thing with Tower; you had to fit into one of those slots.  Somewhere I guess it would have been great to be in different rooms, different slots, but that’s how it worked out.  So that’s where I first started selling my CDs.  And then they hooked me up with their distributor, Bayside, and that connected me with a distribution company.

FJO:  This was before you connected to anybody in the pop world.

MM:  Yeah.

FJO:  Even though the album looks more like an alternative rock album than a classical record.

MM:  Well, I guess unintentionally. It turned out the way that I dreamed of it.

FJO: I noticed that Bill Duckworth and Nora Farrell were connected to that first album. Bill Duckworth was such an extraordinary person.  He came out of classical music, but he was open to so many other things and he really opened the door for people creating music who weren’t necessarily writing it down for other people to play. And he, together with Nora Farrell, conceived and built one of the earliest musical performance interfaces on the internet. That was around that same time.

MM:  I became friends with them through the new music world.  And I really struck up a friendship with Nora who, I guess through conversations, joined on as the producer of Enharmonic Vision.  She actually designed the cover, too.  I had this really cool picture that had been taken at the World Trade Center during an orchid show.  I think I was lying on the floor.  Anyway, she came up with this cool idea and created the cover art as well.  And produced the recording.

FJO:  That makes sense, because one of her mantras was that classical music had to stop looking like classical music.

MM:  Yeah, she had a big influence. And Bill, too.  They were great friends.

FJO:  Still, at that point, you’re not thinking of yourself as a composer per se.  You’re a performer who is creating pieces for yourself, and you’re occasionally asking other people to write pieces for you.  So at what point did you start identifying yourself as a composer?

MM:  I guess it was around the time I became a member of ASCAP, which is where we happen to be sitting.  I became a member of ASCAP so I became a composer.  But I didn’t quite fit in with the classical concert world as a composer.  I wasn’t writing orchestral pieces or string quartets at that time, so that wasn’t really a place for me.  Shortly thereafter, I happened to be at a big membership meeting of ASCAP and listening to something that just made me say, “Wait a minute, I have to figure out where my voice is in this organization and in this music world.”  I remember Marilyn Bergman was the president.  She was walking up the aisle and—there’s where you need your 20-seconds elevator pitch—I just sort of stepped in front of her and said, “I’m an ASCAP classical composer, but I’m doing things that are beyond classical and I have this idea of doing something.” And she’s like, “Okay, talk to John LoFrumento.”  So I went over and talked to John.  He’s like, “Okay, that sounds good. Talk to—” and it went down the pike.  That’s how [my club concert series] Thru the Walls was conceived.  Out of necessity, because I needed a place where I could have my voice heard that was accepted and was legitimized in a way.

FJO: I didn’t realize that Thru the Walls came about so soon after you joined ASCAP.

MM:  Within a few years, I guess. It was at a membership meeting. There were lot of people in the room, and they didn’t discuss concert music at all.  And I think I got upset, because I thought, “I’m part of this terrific pro-composer, pro-writer organization, but I don’t know where my voice is in it.”  It was just kind of spontaneous.  I’m usually pretty shy.  But there was something that really pushed me. I had that moment with Marilyn to block her path and somehow explain with enough clarity that I was then able to make appointments with Lauren [Iossa] and with Fran [Richard] and Cia [Toscanini] where we sat down and came up with this idea.  I came up with the name: Thru the Walls—listening to something through the walls, not being able to easily identify what it is.  It was based on ASCAP composers who were also performers.  This is not a new concept—the composer as performer, or the performer as composer—but the idea was to take it into another context in the contemporary scene, bringing it down to The Cutting Room, which was a venue that was more likely to produce jazz and rock concerts.  You wouldn’t think of going to that venue to hear a classical music concert.

Tony Visconti and Martha Mooke

Tony Visconti and Martha Mooke

FJO: Nowadays everybody’s playing in clubs. But at the time Thru the Walls came into being, it wasn’t as typical. The other thing that made this series unusual, I think, is that it was officially embraced and directly supported by ASCAP, so it had this official imprimatur; others who were playing classical concerts in clubs didn’t have that kind of endorsement.  It also attracted a very diverse audience, which included people like David Bowie.

MM: Right.  Well, I understand a lot of things now about what I was doing that I really didn’t understand then. It’s all about reframing the situation.  Again, as far I’m concerned, as a musician I can be playing Beethoven one day, rock and roll the next day, and my own music the following day or something else.  So I don’t have these [walls] and I didn’t at that time, either—and this was pre-2000.  I had been doing sessions with Tony Visconti.  I had met him backstage at some concert that I played with the lead singer of the Zombies.  I had been asked to play in the string quartet. He got interested when I said I also play electric viola, so I started doing string sessions for Tony.  When Thru the Walls started developing, I wanted to have that juxtaposition of music worlds, composers who weren’t just doing classical.  It was all types of influences: jazz, electronics, rock, all kinds of things.  I spoke with Tony who had a very broad background and broad interests. What could be better than having a renowned, legendary rock and roll producer introducing a new music concert?  That sparked a lot of interest in both worlds.  People who knew Tony were like, “Why is he doing this?” And people from the classical world thought, “Why is this happening at The Cutting Room?”  Kudos to [The Cutting Room’s owner] Steve Walter who embraced us; that’s how it began.

FJO: I imagine that Bowie showed up because Tony produced some of Bowie’s records.

MM:  Right.  Tony was living up in Rockland County at that time. I had actually gone over to Tony’s house.  Tony also did Alexander Technique, and I was a little nervous, and he was sort of calming me down a bit.  As I was leaving, he said, “By the way, I mentioned to my friend David this event tonight, and he said, he might come.”  And I’m like, “Right; sure.”  But sure enough, two minutes before the lights go down, in walks David Bowie. He sits down at my table, and the rest is history.

FJO:  Well, not completely.  We’re going to make it history now.  How did it go from him being there to you performing and recording with him?

MM:  I guess you’d call it fate.  You’d call it circumstance.  January 2001 was the first Thru the Walls, and shortly after that I got a call from Tony that David was slated to play the Tibet House benefit concert that Philip Glass produces at Carnegie Hall.  That was going to be at the end of February.  He wanted to know if I could put a string quartet together to play with David.  So I said, “Yeah, I could do that.”  I did and it was amazing.  We rehearsed at Philip’s studio a few days beforehand. We played “Heroes”—string quartet and Tony played stand-up bass.  Can you imagine playing “Heroes” with David Bowie?  Moby was also on that concert.  Moby played guitar.  And we played another song, “Silly Boy Blue,” with David.  It was absolutely magical.

Martha Mooke and David Bowie wearing a long yellow scarf.

Martha Mooke and David Bowie backstage at Carnegie Hall.

FJO:  So that’s what opened the doors to your being a go-to side person for all these pop stars?

MM:  Yeah, that was a big door opener.  Then there was another Thru the Walls, which happened right after that. And that led to a bunch of other opportunities.  A little documentary was done for DCTV, downtown television. At that point I was recording Osvaldo Golijov’s Rocketekya, so they came up and they filmed the recording session with Alicia Svigals, David Krakauer, and Pablo Aslan. It was cool because the beginning of the tape is Rocketekya.  It’s a rocket ship taking off, so we don’t count in.  We count down—five, four, three, two, one.  Then it takes off.  Then we got a call from David to play with him at Tibet House again and, in the middle of that, he asked us to record with him on Heathen, which happened the weekend after 9/11.  It was very emotional in a lot of ways.  Then we just kept being asked back.  We became David Bowie’s quartet; then we became the quartet of Tibet House.  People were asking, “Can we borrow the quartet to play?”  Even after David didn’t do the benefit, which he did three years in a row, we kept coming back.  Philip kept calling us to come back; this is going to be our 17th year.

FJO:  Wow.  And the Streisand connection.  Did that happen through Marilyn Bergman?

MM:  No, but I did end up on tour with Marilyn.  It came about through my work as a Broadway player.  When Barbra was putting a U.S. tour together for 2006 and then the 2007 European tour, she hadn’t toured that much and she wanted to have a Broadway orchestra.  They used a rhythm section from L.A., and they culled from the different pit orchestras on Broadway.  I feel like I hit the lotto on that one.  It was just such an amazing experience.

Tony Bennett standing next to Martha Mooke who is holding a viola.

Tony Bennett with Martha Mooke

FJO:  Well, talk about putting together a career doing music. One day you could be on stage with the Westchester Philharmonic or the American Composers Orchestra, with whom I’ve seen you play.  Then in the pit with a Broadway orchestra another day.  Or backing up a rock band. Or part of a jazz group.  Or playing your own music by yourself.  Or writing music for other ensembles. But it seems that carrying out a specific role in each of these musical projects would require different approaches to where you personally fit in.  Do you feel you need to be in different mental spaces for each of these activities or is it all part of a continuum?

“I’ve had to come to terms with my different personalities.”

MM: I’ve had to come to terms with my different personalities.  As a player, I have to approach it from a different point of view.  If I haven’t created it, there’s an obligation to be true to the printed notes as long as they’re all printed out.  So I have to do my due diligence—woodshed and practice and, if it’s with an ensemble, rehearse.  But if it’s a piece that I’ve composed and I’m playing either with my quartet Scorchio or my piece e-chi—which is with a percussion ensemble—or something with a combination of notation and improvisation, that gets a little tricky for me. Because I’m coming at it as the composer, I have to work twice as hard to realize I can also take some license with what I play.  But realizing that I have written parts for the other players, I need to make sure that we’re literally on the same page.  With Bowing, the duo with Randy Hudson, we started just as improvisers and built the pieces which became part of the Café Mars record. Then I retro-notated Quantum, which is on that duo CD, for string quartet and then for string quintet, when we add a bass player.  Time in a Black Hole, which is with bass and percussion, is all just improvisation.  We don’t have a plan. We just get together; we meet, hit, and leave.

Martha Mooke and Randy Hudson in performance on electric viola and electric guitar.

One of Martha Mooke’s long standing groups is her duo Bowing with electric guitarist Randy Hudson

FJO:  I love this term retro-notated.  How much of this music is retro-notated? Can all of these pieces be retro-notated?

“Ultimately I retro-notated it, so it exists in a notated version.”

MM:  Sure. Sometimes there’ll be a bare bones notation, like in jazz you have a chart.  That’s how No Ordinary Window began, or Virtual Corridors.  For many years, when I played Virtual Corridors, it existed just as words on a page with maybe a couple of lines that I sketched out.  It was really more a description of what I’m doing.  Ultimately I retro-notated Virtual Corridors, so it exists in a notated version.  No Ordinary Window existed just basically as a solo line. Then I needed to figure out how to notate the electronics that I used—this amazing pedal by Eventide called the H9 that opened up a whole other world of sound.  I figured out a way of bringing that into the score by describing what kind of effect I’m using and then actually taking screen shots of my iPad, which has the exact parameters of reverb and what kind of effect or filter I’m using.

FJO: But considering all the improvisational passages you include in your own music, as well as all the educational workshops you do about improvisation, you’re somebody who wants to engender improvisation in other people.  When you retro-notate something and fix it on the page, aren’t you losing something in terms of what an interpreter is bringing to it?

MM: Well, the beauty of live performance, especially when you’re an improviser, is the energy of that and the communication with the audience.  I think sometimes that gets lost in more traditional concert settings where the audience comes in and they know they’re going to hear a Mozart symphony. Sometimes the tempi are different from what they remember, but they don’t realize there is communication going on between the performers and the audience.

When I’m performing solo, I make sure the audience is aware that they’re actually part of the performance.  I’m informed by them sitting out there.  I get feedback.  You can call it biofeedback or whatever.  For the audience, it becomes more of an experience than just being played at or played to.  You can’t notate that and that’s okay.  Likewise, a recording is just a moment in time.  But that’s okay, too, because hopefully people will have heard the music live and they’ll take that as a memory.  At some point the album will exist when I no longer exist.  Hopefully there’ll be enough material out there, whether it’s videos on YouTube or other iterations of performing the same piece, and they’ll draw their own conclusions.  People think that everybody’s hearing the same piece when it is the same notes being played, but everybody hears differently.  We all have our filters and our own way of processing—if you wake up in a bad mood, if you have a headache, if the temperature’s too hot in the room, or the person sitting next to you is a little odorous. It’s never going to be the same.  You’ll never process that experience the same way.  That’s something that, more and more, I’m putting an emphasis on, because it’s so easy just to stay home and watch on your screen, but you don’t get that same experience as being in the room when it’s happening. So as long as I’m alive, I’m going to keep that happening.

FJO: I’m curious about the pieces that have been written for you by other composers.  How much does somebody who wants to write a piece for you have to know about all of the electronics you use when you perform?  Or are these elements that you then add on as an interpreter, post-composition, in a sense becoming a sort of a co-composer?

MM: I did two full concerts of works that I commissioned, all from friends and acquaintances of mine.  Most of them didn’t know anything about writing for electric viola, let alone the electronics like foot pedals.  So most of them came to my studio once or twice, sitting on the floor.  Victoria Bond, Alvin Singleton, Tania Léon, and even Leroy Jenkins were asking me questions.  “Can you do this?  What happens if you do this?”  So there was a lot of collaboration in the pieces.

FJO:  And are those pieces fully notated, or were they retro-notated?

MM: Some of them have improvisation in them, like Alvin’s piece, which I’ve recorded.  Leroy’s piece was not notated with notes.  It was more a back and forth between the two of us, a conversation between a grandfather and a granddaughter.  But most of them were fully notated. There was one piece I remember, almost every note had a different effect.  I had to enlarge the score and color code everything. It doesn’t get performed as much these days.  But getting such a variety of pieces from the different composers was an incredible experience.

FJO:  Now in terms of your writing music for others, an area you’ve been working in quite a bit—which is somewhat surprising since there are no strings—is wind band music.

MM:  I think it began almost as a joke, in a way.  In one of the orchestras I play with, there was a French horn player who is the music director of the Ridgewood Concert Band—Chris Wilhjelm. We started talking, and he was intrigued by what I was doing as an electric violist. He thought it would be cool if we did something together at some point.  I had never thought about writing for concert band.  I had really, at that point, never written for an ensemble larger than a string quartet or a chamber ensemble.  Then finally we said, “Let’s just do it.”  So I came up with the concept of X-ING—as in pedestrian crossing or deer crossing.   It’s the crossing of the worlds between electric viola and concert band.  What happens when you cross those worlds?  One of the things that happens is you don’t have to tell the band to play quieter because a string instrument is soloing.  I just crank my volume; I go to 11.  The first movement is “Pegasus X-ING”—the winged horse.  I use electronics and, in the notated score, I had to notate so the conductor is actually seeing what he’s hearing.  There’s an effect where I play one note and a series of rhythms happens.  I play dah, but what you hear is da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da.  In the ending, I use a combination of loops and different effects to get the winged horse taking flight.  I keep the loop going while I switch instruments.  I switch to an instrument that’s actually re-tuned to E-flat and B-flat, so that I can play open strings and harmonics in the middle movement with the band that tunes to B-flat.  When I was writing the middle movement, I was at the MacDowell Colony; it was at the time when my uncle, whom I was very close to, was taken very ill in Miami, and he was actually at the point of crossing over.  That became that second movement, “X-ING Over”; that’s a tribute to him.  The last movement, “Double X-ING,” is rock and roll. It starts with a crazy cadenza with overdrive and all kinds of improv and loops and things going on.  And then we’re off, trap set and all.

The first page of the third and final movement of the full score of Martha Mooke's X-ING for wind band and solo electric viola.

The first page of the third and final movement of the full score of Martha Mooke’s X-ING for wind band and solo electric viola. © 2012 by Martha Mooke, Vener Music (ASCAP). International copyright secured. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO:  Then you wrote another band piece, which you’re not playing in at all.

MM:  That was one of the hardest moments I’ve had, understanding that I wasn’t going to be playing.  I spent a lot of time working on that.  I had to come to terms with how I would approach writing it.  With X-ING, I actually was playing and composing at the same time, but Skandhas, which is the name of the piece, came out of a different world.  I was composing more at the computer, using Sibelius. It does have elements of improvisation in it as well, but I had to remove myself and that was very challenging.  There’s some really cool things that I like about it, but after the premiere, I ended up doing some revisions and, who knows, I may still revise it more at some point.

FJO:  But you liked the experience enough and felt confident enough to go on to write yet another one.

MM:  I just finished my third piece, but I got a little sneaky with it.  It’s going to exist as two entities.  It will exist as an ensemble piece, but then there’ll be another version with electric viola obbligato improvisation. It’s not quite an alternate version, because the plan is for them to be performed on the same concert.

FJO:  So for the new piece, did you return to composing with your viola in one hand like you had done with X-ING?

“When you cross electric viola and concert band you don’t have to tell the band to play quieter because a string instrument is soloing.  I just crank my volume; I go to 11.”

MM:  I think I wrote less with the viola in hand. I had a keyboard and a computer. I also had to not make it too complicated, in terms of notation, since it’s not for a professional ensemble— although it could be played by professionals—and also had to bear in mind that it may be written for an ensemble that doesn’t have that much experience improvising.  In many school bands and orchestras, there’s not an opportunity for members of the ensemble to improvise, whether it’s the full ensemble improvising or members as soloists.

FJO: You’re also now performing X-ING with an orchestra.  So you’ve taken the band score and turned it into an orchestra score. Many people have written orchestra pieces and then have made band versions of them.  But this went the other way around.

MM: I’m retro-orchestrating!  I’m not a purist in anything that I do, so I don’t have a problem.  It’s another opportunity.  That’s another thing with the band world—they love playing new music and they love living composers.  They love supporting living composers, and they rehearse a lot.  Certainly there are orchestras that play new music and commission new works, but it’s a little bit different in the orchestra world.  So I love that the orchestra world is interested in performing it. The challenge was how to re-write the piece. It wasn’t just substituting violins for flutes and things like that.  I had to rework some of the innards.  I revised the middle movement a little bit, tightened it up in ways.  I’m looking forward to the first time performing it.

FJO: It’s funny that you wrote for band before you wrote for orchestra and that your first orchestra piece turned out to be a revision of a band piece. You’ve played in so many orchestras and so you really have an insider’s knowledge of the orchestra.  That’s not something you had with band. In fact, many composers who’ve written for orchestra, even ones who are master orchestrators, are reluctant to write for band since it’s just not something in their background.

MM: Yeah, it’s a big learning curve, learning the ranges of the different instruments and the transpositions, learning that you can’t just write a slide anywhere you want to for trombone because it may not happen, it may be over the break.  It’s not just write the notes into Sibelius and this is how it’s going to sound and if it’s red you can’t write it.  It doesn’t work that way.  There’s also a harp in the band version. I had to learn the intricacies of the harp.  I was actually writing that part when I was on the Streisand tour, so I had access to the harpist Laura Sherman; she would look at it and give me some hints.

FJO:  I thought that the band stuff grew out of all the education work you do, but it didn’t.  Still, I’m curious about that part of your life. You’ve done so many education seminars, teaching string players how to improvise and use electronics.

“I’m about overcoming barriers and breaking through that inhibition factor which seems to get more built into students as they go through school.”

MM:  A lot of that is due to my involvement with Yamaha. We came together when they were just designing their electric string line.  At that point, they were calling it Silent Violin, because the whole point was that you could plug your headphones into this instrument and nobody else would have to listen to you practice.  I happened to meet one of their team and they liked what I was doing, so they sent me a prototype of it and I said, “I love it with the headphones, but I want to play it loud.  Can you do this?”  That began our collaboration.  They’ve even invited me to go to their headquarters in Hamamatsu, Japan, to work with a design team.  I’ve been with them for a long time, and I have many generations of their instruments.  They’ve also been extremely supportive in the educational realm when there are opportunities to go to schools and to conferences to demonstrate and present workshops, working with students and also working with the teachers. A lot of times, the teachers don’t know how to work with electric string instruments, if they have them in their schools, or with improvisation and having it be an opportunity for the students to create and find their voices.  Sometimes they may not be as proficient as they’d like in order to be able to express themselves. I’ve discovered ways to help them overcome that, whether it’s by banging on a table, strumming the inside of the piano, or just playing some other sounds just to help them find their creative voice.  It’s all about discovering that voice inside that a lot of times kids are afraid of accessing.

Martha Mooke demonstrating string techniques for students at a clinic.

Martha Mooke demonstrating string techniques for students at a clinic.

One of my most popular workshops is called “Am I Allowed to Do That?” That literally came out of a workshop in a school. I sometimes start out with my acoustic viola, walking around the room, playing really crazy stuff just to get the students to respond without thinking, because that accesses something that they don’t know how to do usually.  They’re not supposed to do that.  They’re supposed to put that part away.  What happened is I went over to this violinist and started playing and said, “Answer me.  Don’t think.  Just answer me.”  And he looks around to see if his teacher’s looking and says, “Am I allowed to do that?” Yes, in this timeframe, you’re allowed to do that.  And you’re allowed to explore it after school, or at home.  In the school, in this class, you need to conform and do what you need to do, but I’m about overcoming those barriers and breaking through that inhibition factor which seems to get more built into students as they go through school.

FJO:  We began this conversation talking about how you started making solo music with an electric viola and various electronic effects units, which enabled you to create an almost orchestral-sounding sonic landscape all alone. It’s something you still continue to do, even though now you also do all these other projects.  The pieces on your new CD No Ordinary Window are fuller sounding than any of your solo work I had previously heard. And one of the pieces on it you perform live with video; it’s an immersive sight and sound experience that you’re triggering all by yourself which adds yet another layer.

MM:  These are actually two projects. No Ordinary Window is its own performance experience that doesn’t usually involve video.  The whole concept is finding these amazing spaces with a window, starting the concert before dark, and having the sunset be part of the lighting show.  It’s a window looking out, a window to the soul, and a window of opportunity.  I first envisioned No Ordinary Window in Sedona up in the Red Rocks.  There’s a chapel there and my dream was to play in that chapel as the sun was setting and having that be a natural lighting effect with the music.  As the concert starts, the audience sees the beautiful rocks outside as the sun is setting.  Then it gets dark outside and the windows become mirrors.  The audience sees themselves.  I was able to do that concert, though not in that chapel. I happened to be talking to the president of Eventide saying this is my dream concert.  He knew somebody that had a house on the next block and made that happen.  It happened to be the person that created Eventide.  Again, it’s all these coincidences.  But that’s the No Ordinary Window experience.

A Dream in Sound is on the recording of No Ordinary Window. Then I did a version of it for that became Dreams in Sound, which was essentially the same music, but it took on a whole different form with a string quartet where everybody was using effects.  I took that a step further when I got a commission from this improvisation festival in Prague and a foundation that discovered me through an event I produced a couple of years ago with Women In Music. It was another one of those Thru the Walls moments. I was commissioned to write a piece for this festival, so I took the dream experience to the next level.  I created a 50-minute piece called Dreaming in Sound.  I had another residency at Harvestworks that was supported by that foundation, and I was able to work with one of their engineers there and designed multi-dimensional effects and looping, not just for the solo viola, but also for four channel audio that I also controlled with a foot pedal.  I was able to launch sounds into four isolated speakers.  I had control over the speakers, rotating this way and that way; this was done through Max/MSP on computer. I knew that I had to also have a video element—that was part of the proposal—but I wasn’t quite finding the right way to go about it.

A couple of years ago through these monthly salons called LISA—Leaders in Software and Art—I met the woman that runs them, Isabel Draves, and we became friends. Her husband is this amazing software artist, Scott Draves. I was asking Isabel if she could recommend any video people.  And she said, “Scott has this new program and he loves your music, and he’d love to work with you.”  That’s how that whole collaboration came about.  The program—which he calls Dots—is “listening” to all of the music that I’m creating on the spot, and it’s responding to it.  There’s a big score, but there’s also lots of improvisation, and the video is responding to me.  And then I’m watching the video and responding to the video, which takes it to another place within the improvisation.  So, again, every time I do it, it’s different.  I premiered it in Prague during this festival.  Then I was able to do it the following week at National Sawdust because there was this big Creative Tech Week going on. It’s a big ensemble piece, but I’m the only live player in the room.

The cover for Martha Mooke's latest CD, No Ordinary Window.

Martha Mooke’s latest CD, No Ordinary Window.

FJO: Too bad that that wasn’t released on a DVD.  Maybe it will be at some point?

MM: I need to do it.

FJO:  Might there ever be a time when you incorporate immersive video with a larger ensemble?  It would be amazing to do that kind of thing with a wind band!

“You never know what you’ve been missing until you know what you’ve been missing.”

MM: Unlimited possibilities.  I would say you never know what you’ve been missing until you know what you’ve been missing.  A lot of what I do is exploration, trial and error experimentation.  Sometimes the best thing is if I’m improvising or I’m playing something, and something goes wrong with a foot pedal.  I misfire or I play something I didn’t mean to.  I take that as an opportunity to explore the space that I might not have explored before.  I didn’t really mean to do that, but it happened for a reason. So I’m going to go in that direction.

FJO:  It’s really an extension of your workshop where you give students permission to do anything.

MM:  I was taught a long time ago, even as a classical player, if you make a mistake don’t let on, don’t make a face.  Either make the same mistake again if it comes back or just keep going.  Most of the time, people won’t ever know if I intended to do it or not.  Hopefully they don’t.  Hopefully it just becomes part of that moment and that experience.

Martha Mooke outside in Sedona; thre's a rainbow in the sky.

Martha Mooke in Sedona

Greg Lewis (a.k.a. Organ Monk): Music is a Weapon

The 30-minute ensemble showcases at the annual Chamber Music America conference typically run the gamut from string quartets to small jazz combos to the occasional outlier—a reed quintet (which replaces the flute and French horn of standard wind quintets with a saxophone and bass clarinet), a klezmer band, or at the most recent conference, a duo of trumpet and kora (the 21-string harp-lute played in Mali, Senegal, and the Gambia).  But one of the most unusual groups ever to be presented at the CMA conference, in 2016, was an organ trio fronted by Greg Lewis (a.k.a. Organ Monk). A virtuoso on a Hammond B-3 electric organ accompanied by electric guitar and drums set has been a popular instrumental combination for soul, jazz, and R&B for more than half a century, but the material performed by Lewis and his sidemen—a standard, a Thelonious Monk classic, and some Lewis originals—took the format to some unexpected places. The music was contrapuntally intricate yet super funky, and often incredibly loud.  Their rendition of “Lulu’s Back in Town” was joyously raucous and their take on Monk was appropriately off-kilter. But the new material was what was the most revelatory.

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan

Each of Lewis’s pieces was dedicated to an African American who had been killed during confrontations with police officers. Of course music, unless it involves singers and sung words or an interpolated spoken word narration, is more abstract and introspective than a news report can ever be. But merely attaching a verbal title to an instrumental composition anchors it for listeners and has the potential to serve as an outlet for a deep emotional interface with a topic that can transcend an immediate reaction to a fleeting headline. Think, for example, how a work like Penderecki’s searing Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima conveys the horrors of atomic warfare in a way that is far more visceral than reading a history book (even though the title was actually an afterthought). Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and the horrific episodes that led to their deaths have been permanently etched into the general public’s conscience. But Lewis, by affixing their names to his musical compositions, provides a platform for their stories to enter our subconscious and for audiences to pay tribute to who these people were.  This music, though at times dirge-like and appropriately angry, is ultimately resilient and celebratory; it allows us not only to mourn their deaths but to remember their lives.

When we visited with Lewis in his Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment last year, he described several terrifying interactions that he personally had with police officers. As a black man living in an American city, the experiences of Brown, Garner, and Martin hit really close to home. As an aspiring musician, Lewis was drawn to jazz, specifically because it has been such a socially conscious music. He acknowledged as role models John Coltrane as well as Charles Mingus, citing in particular his “Fables of Faubus” which was composed as a protest against Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who ordered National Guard troops to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

“That’s the biggest goal that I would love to get to accomplish, to try to get everybody to see what’s going on,” explained Lewis. “Culture is your weapon. I don’t like to say weapon because you get scared when you say weapon, but the music is sort of a weapon to use to fight the craziness that’s going on in the most non-violent way.”

Lewis started out as a pianist who was heavily into Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, as well other lesser-known greats from the 1950s and ‘60s such as Elmo Hope and Kenny Drew. But at one point while he was still a student at the New School in New York City, Lewis’s teacher, keyboardist Gil Coggins (who recorded with Miles Davis), asked him to sub a gig for him and, unbeknownst to him beforehand, it turned out to be an organ gig for which he was completely unprepared. The different feel of the instrument, which at first was a hindrance, soon became an obsession. He started out on a Korg, but he now owns four different classic Hammond B-3s since, as he claims, “each Hammond organ gives me love different.” He initially devoured recordings by Jimmy Smith, Larry Young, and even Tower of Power, but he strove to find his own voice on the instrument.

At first that voice was heavily shaped by Monk and finding a way to interpret Monk’s extremely idiosyncratic piano figurations on an electric organ. In 2010, he self-released his first album, a trio disc of Monk covers called Organ Monk in which he is joined by two musical luminaries, guitarist Ron Jackson (who has performed with Rufus Reid and Randy Weston) and drummer Cindy Blackman (who has played with Steve Coleman, Ron Carter, and Ravi Coltrane, as well as Vernon Reid, Lenny Kravitz, and Carlos Santana, to whom she is now married). On his second recording, a quintet outing called American Standard which was a JJA Jazz Awards nominee in 2013, he tackles a collection of famous standards including “Tea for Two,” which he totally makes his own, and “Lulu’s Back in Town.”

The covers of Greg Lewis's first two CDs.

Greg Lewis’s first album from 2010 is a reimagining of Thelonious Monk compositions for organ trio called Organ Monk

His follow-up, from 2013, is a collection of famous popular songs interpreted by a mixed quintet called American Standard

But his own compositions had yet to appear on recording until the release finally this month of his third album which includes all five of his pieces created in memory of those killed during altercations with the police, which he collectively calls The Breathe Suite in honor of Eric Garner’s tragic last words. The composition of the full piece was supported by a grant from Chamber Music America. For Lewis, it was not only very important to find a viable way to respond to what had happened but to put it in a tangible form that he hopes he can share with the victims’ families.

“I can’t protest, because if I protest I go to jail. And if I go to jail, I can’t feed my five kids. So what I can do is what I do: I write music. … I want to get this record to each of the people … Even if it brings joy for just a minute to these families, that’s what I can do.”

The cover for the new Greg Lewis CD, The Breathe Suite

The Breathe Suite was released on March 15. In addition to the links to purchase digital files from iTunes and Amazon below, it is also available in physical form from CD Baby.

Mike Johnson: Thinking Plague

Mike Johnson

The deaths last year of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, who were two thirds of the progressive rock power trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer, elicited a great deal of renewed attention in the mainstream media for their once extremely popular but frequently maligned synthesis of rock and classical music. ELP’s grandiose and virtuosic performances—as well as those of other popular “prog” outfits such as Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Yes—reflected the zeitgeist of the 1970s—a time when rock went from being the soundtrack of teenage rebellion to something far more ambitious and, to its detractors, unbearably self-indulgent. But while so-called progressive rock was an attempt to create a music that went far beyond the trappings of rock, there were other even more ambitious musicians working within the rubric of progressive rock that wanted to take that music even further—exploring not just the structures and harmonic language of classical music, but also the rhythmic complexity and tonal instability of contemporary and avant-garde composers. Among the most successful and long-standing of such groups is the Robert Fripp-fronted British band King Crimson (which has included in its various line-ups some musicians from the United States since its early 1980s incarnation). Even more experimental are the German band Can (which was formed by composition students of Karlheinz Stockhausen) and the short-lived Henry Cow (which was rumored to have been named after maverick American composer Henry Cowell, but actually wasn’t), whose personnel included English guitarist Fred Frith who is currently a professor of composition in the music department at Mills College.

Prog rock in its various guises (both mainstream and fringe) was predominantly a European phenomenon, although many of its innovations can actually be traced to Americans such as Brian Wilson (of the Beach Boys) and Frank Zappa. However, in 1978, as the heyday of punk led most music fans to dismiss prog as bloated and irrelevant, two guys in Denver, Colorado, came together to form a prog cover band inspired by an unlikely combination of Yes and Henry Cow. Those two guys were multi-instrumentalist/recording engineer Bob Drake and self-taught guitarist/composer Mike Johnson, whose heroes were not just Steve Howe (of Yes) and Jimi Hendrix but also Shostakovich and William Schuman.

“I heard Stockhausen just a few times,” Johnson recalled when he visited us at the New Music USA office in late January. “I remember I had a record of Xenakis, which was literally the sound of fire burning being filtered for two sides of an album. And I thought, ‘Hmm, I could do that.’ But I guess I’m old fashioned. I believe in my heart of hearts that you can make bigger emotional impacts on listeners if you plan it musically, as opposed to setting up events or preparing things and then letting them happen. … I’m looking for these dramatic kinds of builds and decrescendos, and things emptying out, things getting sort of nostalgic, things getting very intense—that’s Shostakovich, or my favorite, William Schuman, a good New Yorker. That’s extremely high art in my mind.”

Pretty soon after Drake and Johnson’s initial rehearsals, they stopped playing covers and by 1982 they had enlisted a classically trained vocalist and morphed into a vehicle for performing Johnson’s own complex compositions, scored for a rock band instrumentation, playing their first gigs in venues in and around Denver in 1983 under the name Thinking Plague.

“I don’t think we dealt in genre terms when Bob and I were doing this early on,” said Johnson. “Later, if people asked me, I’d say we were trying to combine 20th-century harmonic sensibilities with a rock band. I still don’t know what to call it, and I don’t much care.”

While not initially successful with local audiences, they labored on in the recording studio, self-releasing an eponymous debut EP in 1984 and pressing only 500 copies of it.

“We made this horrible, crappy, cheap pressing with a really nondescript industrial-looking label on it,” remembered Johnson. “We didn’t know anything about shopping it. We didn’t think that it was shoppable. … We didn’t think we could get on a label because we didn’t know what label we could possibly get on. We didn’t think that anybody would take it seriously.”

But some important folks did take it seriously, including the legendary New Music Distribution Service, which took 30 of those 500 copies, Henry Cow’s former drummer Chris Cutler whose own independent label/distribution service Recommended Records stunningly took 200 copies, and—perhaps most importantly—Wayside Music, the mail-order retailer that also runs Cuneiform, a label whose roster includes pioneering electronic/minimalist composer David Borden and the iconic free jazz innovator Wadada Leo Smith. Though the band has gone through tons of incarnations since then—Johnson is the only original member of Thinking Plague—Cuneiform has been the band’s label ever since.

Thinking Plague’s ninth album, Hope Against Hope, was just released on February 10, 2017, and it is every bit as uncompromising as its predecessors. To realize Johnson’s musical conceptions, the musicians in the band—like members of a contemporary classical music ensemble—read from fully notated scores. Because of its instrumentation and volume, it still sounds somewhat like rock but it is light years away from popular music.

“I don’t really understand the mainstream music industry,” Johnson opined. “I don’t quite know what they do and how they do it. I don’t even understand why anybody listens to that music. It’s like I’m a person from another planet, as far as I can tell, where all this is concerned. But when it comes to music that’s more serious, that’s got more depth to it, I don’t know how anybody manages to make a living. … I’ve never gotten a grant for this band. It does seem that there are not many grantors who have a word for what we do musically. Their tendency, because you’re going to hear electric guitars and drums, would be to call it rock music. … But as to how much money there is in any of it, nobody in Thinking Plague has ever made a living from the music. Nobody. Not me. Not anybody else. We’re a dot-org phenomenon. As a matter of fact, my Thinking Plague website is a dot-org website. There was no pretense that this was going to be commercial, so I figured better call it what it is. It’s not for profit.”


Mike Johnson in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at New Music USA
January 27, 2017—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  You’re pretty much self-taught as a composer and a guitarist, but you actually studied classical music as well as electronic music. I think these studies definitely wound up informing what you do, both as a composer and as a guitarist, so I’m interested in what you thought you were going to do back then, versus what you wound up doing.

Mike Johnson:  Well, it really goes back even before that.  When I was very little, my uncle gave a record to us—to my mom I guess, because my dad had no interest whatever in any kind of symphonic music but my grandfather on my mom’s side was an aficionado.  So my uncle gave her an LP of Copland’s Billy the Kid with Appalachian Spring on the other side.  I must have been three the first time I heard that—me and all my brothers got sucked in.  This would have been the ‘50s when doo-wop music was on the radio.  I didn’t listen to the radio; I was oblivious.  But then I sort of discovered that my mother had some other classical records so I was listening to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and some Bach.  There was even a Shostakovich piece in there mixed in on a compilation that I guess was on a 78.  I didn’t know what it was, but I thought it was cool. I sort of forgot about all that later.  I went to school and the English invasion took place. All of a sudden, everybody—even my brothers—were all agog and excited about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.  And that’s where I went.  I got sucked into that after some resistance.  Then my brother got a guitar, and they gave me a guitar for Christmas.  He got an electric guitar that my cousin didn’t want, so they gave me a cheap acoustic guitar just to keep me quiet.  There was this big trapezoidal box under the Christmas tree and I was like, “What in the world is that?” I was 11 years old.  So when I opened it up I said, “What do you want me to do with this?”  Because there were no music lessons in my family. My mother had had piano lessons as a kid and hated them, so she just decided her kids weren’t going to do that.  More’s the pity is all I can say, again and again.  But by the time I was 13, I taught myself to play guitar.  My brother had sort of learned some, but I passed him right up.  I was a lead guitar player in a rock and roll band with a bunch of guys that were 18 years old, because I was tall for my age.  Then at some point my older brother went off to college. By that time we were living in Colorado.  He came back for a break once with an armload of records. One of them was Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, one of them was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and one of them was Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem.  There was something by Prokofiev—I forget what—and maybe one or two others.  And he just said, “These are great; you’ve got to listen to these.”  And he left them with me.  Anything my brother said, I did.

“I had this simultaneous epiphany with the very beginnings of progressive rock plus a reintroduction to 20th-century symphonic music.”

About the same time I started hanging out with these guys and we’d go down in this guy’s basement and play records. These guys turned me on to King Crimson.  So I had this simultaneous epiphany with the very beginnings of progressive rock plus a reintroduction to 20th-century symphonic music. Those things worked into my psyche and I didn’t really know what the heck to do with it.  I was trying to play rock and roll and be a high school student, and I managed to get through high school but I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I wasn’t interested in studying.  I didn’t read music.  I’d never had any lessons. It had not been a supportive family situation where your mom is going, “Oh, you’re interested in that?” It wasn’t like that in those days.  It was just a bunch of boys, and we lived in North Carolina and it was the ‘50s and early-‘60s.  So it was all about “shut up, get out of the kitchen, go outside, play football, we’ll call you when the food’s ready.”  Basically that was the parenting. I didn’t think of myself as a prospective music student.  I’m completely self-taught.  Everything was by ear.  But I was very interested in this stuff that these masters were doing, and I couldn’t figure it out.

FJO:  So what did your family wind up thinking when you actually became a musician?

MJ:  My parents, as far as I can remember, never saw me perform anywhere.  Not when I was in teenage bands, you know, playing like Beatles, Stones, and Kinks.  Not later when I was playing whatever it was, like early-‘70s rock and roll music. They didn’t view being a musician as a meaningful, viable option, particularly being a rock and roll musician.  It was just something that they didn’t believe was legitimate in any way, shape, or form, even though my dad loved Chet Atkins and certain kinds of popular music as well as lots of guitar-type music.  But rock and roll wasn’t acceptable.

Both my older brothers went to college and became engineers.  That was considered how you go.  So I was like, what do I do?  In the meanwhile I got a letter from Uncle Sam saying that the Marines needed a few good men. It was 1970 or ‘71 and the draft lottery was still going on.  I knew that my number was up, because they picked a certain amount of birthday numbers every year and mine was pretty low on the list. So I knew that I was going. My older brother had already gone in because he lost his college deferment.  I ended up spending four year in the U.S. Navy during which time I played guitar a lot.  I actually honed my skills probably more than any other time, sitting around playing scales and copying my hero then, Steve Howe of Yes.  I was trying to learn to play like that.  Before that it had been three-finger blues licks and Jimi Hendrix was my God.

FJO:  Were you ever in any of the Navy bands?

“I never did get any kind of credentials in music.”

MJ:  No, because you had to be a good player to be in those.  I couldn’t read a note of music.  I was a Navy patrol plane radio operator chasing after submarines in the Cold War.  I was a lonely, enlisted man, but I went all over the world.  I was in Iran.  All kinds of stuff.  But I didn’t want to be there.  I figured I’d get the GI Bill out of it at least.  All my friends back from high school were doing things.  It was a tortuous kind of experience for me, but I came out of the Navy with some equipment and a lot more chops. Then I moved back home.  I became a music major at the local city college, but they only had classical guitar or all the usual classical stuff; I was an electric guitar player and I didn’t want to play classical guitar.  So I took all the theory classes, the history classes, sight singing and reading, all the usual first two-year and some of the third-year music classes, and then some general classes.  Then I just wandered away from school because I was playing in bands and I needed to do other stuff. At one point I was playing six nights a week in a really skanky lounge band, from 9 to 2 every night.  I literally fell asleep at one point while playing some song.  I found myself in the next song and didn’t remember how I got there.  But it was paying the bills.  I went back to school later, in the ‘80s.  Thinking Plague was already a thing.  I took a different major and finished a bachelor’s degree.  Then I went back to school later after that.  But I never did get any kind of credentials in music.

FJO:  So, to go back to when you started playing in various bands—I imagine these were basically cover bands. You were not doing any of your own music.

MJ:  Not at all.  Not a bit.

FJO:  So how did you make the transition to doing your own music?

MJ:  Well, when I was getting turned on to all of this 20th-century symphonic stuff, I was in bands with these guys who were turning me on to King Crimson, ELP, Yes, Genesis, and a lot of other bands that were way more minor than that.  So I was just all aflutter with all these possibilities, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I had another band with the same guys a little later and I started trying to write some tunes kind of in the flavor of what I thought was Yes, but I didn’t really have the chops at the time to do that sort of thing.  Subsequently to that—I must have been 18 or 19 and working some kind of stupid job—some friends of mine started a band. They were doing covers of progressive rock tunes and, in some cases, they were arranging them a little bit.  I hung out at a rehearsal and they were working on this one tune. They wanted a middle part and they didn’t know what it was.  I just had this idea jump in my head, and I started saying, “Here, bass, you play this.”  And then I heard this kind of thing. “Guitar player, you play this.”  I built this part for them right out of my head, just talking to them; they started playing it and they used it.  That was the first example of me actually writing something in the genre that worked.  It was really angular and tritone-y

But nothing came of that because that’s when I started getting letters from Uncle Sam.  I was just messing around. I didn’t know what I was doing, but they thought it was pretty cool.  The seed was there, but I had to learn to believe I could do it and had to find a path that I thought was legitimate.  When I was in the Navy, I was living with a friend at one point and trying to write some stuff.  A lot of stuff had a 12-string, and I was doing finger picking, so it sounded a little bit like Mahavishnu [Orchestra] and there was stuff that sounded a little bit like Genesis with maybe a little bit more science fiction-y sounding chords.  A lot of this stuff is recorded, very low quality, but it exists.

Then I was in a music store in 1978 in Denver and saw a little note on a bulletin board: “Seeking musicians who are into Henry Cow and Yes.” So I called the number, and it turned out to be Bob Drake.  We started a proggy cover band that never got out of the basement despite eight months of rehearsing, but he and I hooked up. After that we were hanging out and doing wacky stuff on cassette decks. It was about 1979 or ’80 and we were recording some stuff which I would call early proto [Thinking] Plague kinds of music.  There was at least one tune that never had any words, but it had a part A and a part B and a noise section, and that exists too, if you twist my arm hard enough; it was called “Doppelganger.”

Then I remember sitting down at a little table in the little kitchen where I was living in 1980 and writing this tune “Warheads” which ended up on the second Thinking Plague record some years later. That was when I think of [Thinking Plague] as officially being born; me and Drake did a four-track reel-to-reel demo of it with us singing and no keyboards and all kinds of wacky noise going on.  That exists, too, by the way.  Then by about ’82, we put together a band of sorts to try to play some of these songs, and I was coming up with more stuff.  Basically I had written the songs that I wrote for our first LP.  Then Bob put together a couple of wacky things and our singer at the time put together a zany little tune, and we had enough [material] for a record.  But we had no idea what to do.  We sat for a year trying to figure it out. We didn’t know anything about shopping it.  We didn’t think that it was shoppable to some record label, although we were getting Option and all these other magazines in the ‘80s that were printed on cheap newsprint and which were chock full of ads from record labels and distributors. DIY independent recording was huge. We didn’t think we could get on a label because we didn’t know what label we could possibly get on.  We didn’t think that anybody would take it seriously.  So I talked to my oldest brother, who was the most staid, settled, and established member of the family, and he ended up loaning me enough money to press 500 copies. We made this horrible, crappy, cheap pressing with a really nondescript industrial-looking label on it.  And we hand spray painted the album covers and stuck a little insert in that we had printed.  I think we shrink wrapped them, but maybe we just had plastic sleeves that we put them in.  Then we managed to contact Wayside Music [a mail-order retailer that also runs Cuneiform].  They took some of them.  And we contacted Recommended Records.

FJO:  I know that Cuneiform reissued the first two Thinking Plague albums on a single CD many years later, but I didn’t realize that your relationship with them went all the way back to the beginning.

MJ:  All the way back to 1984.  We got on their maps, even though at the time I thought we’re just nobody, small fry.  We also sent music to New Music Distribution Service, which was in New York. They were famous for not paying people, so we never saw anything from them, but they took 30 copies.  Then Chris Cutler at Recommended took 200 copies and boom.  That was the year we established contact with some important people in the future.  And by that time, I was thinking to myself, “I am the writer in this band.”  Drake was the producer-arranger aesthetic vision guy.  But I was writing. I was putting together the notes and the chords and the rhythms.  And the words, too.

The members of the band Thinking Plague in 1987.

The members of Thinking Plague in 1987. Back row (left to right): Bob Drake, Mike Johnson, Eric Moon (Jacobson), and Lawrence Haugseth; front: Susanne Lewis and Mark Fuller. (Photographer unknown, photo courtesy Mike Johnson.)

FJO:  I definitely want to talk with you about words, but first I want to riff on something you just said vis-à-vis not knowing what to do with this stuff or who would take it, and you making a connection to Cuneiform and, for better or worse, to New Music Distribution Service.  We talk all the time these days about being in a post-genre environment, but during that period, roughly from the late-’70s to the early-’80s, labels formed like Cuneiform which released rock that was on the fringe as well as contemporary classical stuff and experimental jazz.  And New Music Distribution Service distributed all this music without making distinctions between all of these things.  These folks loved all of this stuff.  It was all part of this larger umbrella of new music. In terms of what you were doing, you refer to it as rock and coming out of performing in a rock band, but you were listening to all these other kinds of music. So you were poised to enter this proto-post-genre environment.

“I knew that what I was doing was informed by the 20th-century symphonic music, but I was never into the avant-garde.”

MJ:  From way back when I was a teenager, I had this idea because I was listening to the ‘70s prog stuff, but for the most part they didn’t sound like 20th-century music.  They sounded like 19th- or even 18th-century music combined with rock instruments. I had this idea of using a rock band to somehow communicate content or the essence of what these symphonic 20th-century guys were doing.  I was interested in those kinds of polytonal or atonal harmonies and some of those odd rhythms, not just getting in 7/8 and staying there, but using changing meters as part of what you actually compose with as opposed to just laying down a framework that you now have to work on. The real composers use time and pitch as variables in expressing what they’re trying to express.  This was all very germinal for me at the time, but it was in the back of my mind that this is what I wanted to do and did ten years later.  So I was 27, 28 years old when I started moving in that direction and figuring out how to do it.  I had to get the proggy stuff out of my system; I had to stop wanting to emulate the prog bands of the ‘70s.  Henry Cow and the Art Bears helped me to do that—Art Bears in particular, and the last Henry Cow album, Western Culture. I was agog at it and it was inspirational for me.  It showed me so many possibilities.  So I wanted to do something more like that.  That’s when the roots of Thinking Plague really took hold.  So I knew that what I was doing was informed by the 20th-century symphonic music, but I was never into the avant-garde, like Stockhausen, and later on I was never into minimalism and the pure aleatoric music of John Cage.  I was into the dramatic, heavy stuff that those composers from the first half of the 20th century were doing, because I was so moved by it.

FJO:  That’s funny because I hear elements of Stockhausen and even Philip Glass from time to time on Thinking Plague records.

MJ:  Well, I have a little section called the Philip Glass moment in one of my tunes, but it was definitely a “Philip Glass moment.”

FJO:  It’s on one of the later albums so we’ll get to that in a bit, but even early on I hear musique concrète elements and I know that you had studied electronic music. But maybe that was not in your initial conception of the material and came more from Drake during post-production.

MJ:  Drake never studied anything as far as I know, other than just what he listened to.  When I was living in California, I had one electronic music class.  It was taught by Alan Strange and it was definitely out there.  It was a junior college class out in the Bay area, basically an appreciation class, but it opened my mind and made me very interested.  So there was a piece of that.  Early on I would try to write these scores, because when I went to school the first time, I learned how to notate.  I never learned to read music well, but I learned how to read music on paper without having to perform.  I learned how to write music.  I would draw shapes and say, “This is going to be a synthesizer.” So I had these graphic things going on in the midst of my muddled notes.  I was envisioning this kind of electronically enhanced rock music—this was before techno or any of that stuff came out.  I was still sort of thinking ‘70s style. And then, as you say, Drake was just into sound and noise.  He and I were both inspired by Fred Frith’s prepared guitar stuff, so we did hours and hours of tape loops of scratching and assaulting pickups with paper clips and files and stuff like that.  And we had a band that got together and we would improvise for two or three hours doing all this stuff with tapes.  We recorded a bunch of it and most of it we’d just throw it away.  We would do it maybe as a transition or as something in the middle of a piece.  We’re going to go into some noisy, weird place and then we’re going to emerge on the other side of it.  But there was never any conscious thinking about the avant-gardists per se because we didn’t really listen to them.  I heard Stockhausen just a few times. I remember I had a record of Xenakis, which was literally the sound of fire burning being filtered for two sides of an album.  And I thought, “Hmm. I could do that.” But I guess I’m old fashioned.  I believe in my heart of hearts that you can make bigger emotional impacts on listeners if you plan it musically, as opposed to setting up events or preparing things and then letting them happen.  I also believe that human beings can listen to anything and if they listen to it enough times, they’ll begin to build the associations even if it’s the sound of dirt falling on totally random insects, whatever.  If you listen to it enough times, you’ll begin to hear patterns and your brain will make associations that were never there.  That’s what humans do.  But my preference always is to hear it in my head and guide what’s going on.  To plan.  It’s more old fashioned in that I’m looking for these dramatic kinds of builds and decrescendos, and things emptying out, things getting sort of nostalgic, things getting very intense—that’s Shostakovich, or my favorite, William Schuman, a good New Yorker.  That’s extremely high art in my mind.

FJO:  But Shostakovich and William Schuman both conceptualized their music, then wrote it down mostly for other people to play, whereas in a band situation you have a group of people coming together and it’s way more collaborative.  It might be your tune and your chords and your words, but then it’s Drake’s drumming or whichever singer you have at any given time, what she brings to it.  It’s what the reed player brings to it and the post-production. It’s all these levels.  So in rock or other music that is created in a group situation and that is crafted in a recording studio, the urtext usually winds up being the produced album. Of course this music is also performed live in concert, sometimes very much like the original recording but also sometimes very different from it. I know that you made a point in the press release for your latest album that even though many things on it are multi-tracked, everything could also be done live.  So I wonder what the urtext is for you.

MJ:  Obviously the score.  But it wasn’t always like that—only since about 1990. Before that there were rough scores, sometimes just scribbles in a book that I took to a rehearsal where I said, “Listen to this. Here play this; try this. We could stick this with that and we’ve got a song.”

An excerpt from Mike Johnson's musical score for

An excerpt from Mike Johnson’s musical score for “The Great Leap Backward” (which is featured on the new Thinking Plague CD, Hoping Against Hope)
© 2017 Malaise Music. Reprinted with permission of the composer.

(MJ:) The stuff from the ‘80s was written out, but it wasn’t necessarily finalized. I would generally write a primary bass part and I’d write the guitar parts and keyboard parts and I would sometimes write a vocal line, but there were never drum parts for it. For the first two records, I basically wrote the vocals lines and the words as I recall, except for one song by the lead singer on the first album, and then another song by the lead singer on the second album.  For one of the songs on the first album, “How to Clean a Squid,” all the words are literally out of a cuisine magazine.

FJO:  Yeah, that one is really bizarre; I love it.

MJ:  It is bizarre.  The drummer brought in that idea.  He had this magazine and he gave it to the singer, and she went and figured out how to put it on top of the song we were working on.

FJO: I hope the recipe wasn’t under copyright.

MJ:  Well, it was changed sufficiently enough.  I like the part: “Turn body sac inside out.  Turn body sac inside out.” We repeated it several times.  “And clear away any grit or tissue.  And clear away any grit or tissue.”  That was just a Dadaist kind of thing, an Absurdist kind of a thing.  We were into that.  But over time, my tendency to want to compose started taking up more of the air in the band.  By the time we did our third album, In This Life, I had pretty much written all the music, but I didn’t have finished vocal parts and I didn’t have words.  I collaborated with our singer at the time, Susanne Lewis, to do that.  For me, it was always a burden. I would write the music and I didn’t have the words yet.  Sometimes I didn’t have the vocal lines.  Or I did have vocal lines, but no words.  That’s a real problem.  You’re taking this structure and you sing, we need to put some syllables onto this that work. I had it sort of partly structured.  I had motifs.  I had names of songs that I wanted to use.  But I didn’t have any words for them.  So I presented all this to her and let her go.  And that album is the result.

FJO:  One of the songs on that album is completely by her, both words and music.

MJ:  She contributed a song.  And then she made decisions like what the vocal line would be in the song “Love,” because I didn’t have a vocal line for that song.  So she just took the top note of the little chords that were going on and made a little melody out of it, which made perfect sense.  And I said to myself, “Why didn’t I think of that?”  It all worked out pretty well.  Her particular musical personality and style, and her whole underground ‘80s background—that Lydia Lunch/Nick Cave flavor—definitely comes across, but it becomes a new thing in that context.  She does a lot of indefinite wandering pitch things. Sometimes it sounds like: can’t she sing the notes? But she definitely is doing everything on purpose.  That woman could nail notes.  Wonderful ear.  It took some getting used to, but then it became like, “Wow, I love what she does.” Some of our fans either love her or can’t listen to it, but she found something. We got lucky on that album in terms of collaboration.

But then the band flew to pieces basically after we put that out. The key players moved, even though we just got onto Recommended Records and we had our first CD.  It was the first RēR CD that was manufactured in the States.  And it was one of the first that was CD-only, because in those days people would make an LP and they would make a CD.  Anyway, I thought, “Wow, we could do something with this.”  We were all working stiffs.  Bob Drake was working for a guy who had a mobile car wash, a truck with a big tank on the back, and they’d go around and they’d wash people’s cars in parking lots in the middle of winter.  Drake was in blue jeans full of holes and crummy sneakers that were full of holes and wet. It was 20 degrees and he got peanuts.  He would go home and he would have generic spaghetti with tomato paste for his supper.  That’s part of the reason he went to L.A. because he was tired of starving to death.  He thought he could parlay his engineering skills into an actual engineering job, which he did.  Susanne wanted to go off to New York because I think she thought New York was the place where her artistic tendencies and vision could be fulfilled. But I just stayed there.  Anyway, we ended up putting together a few shows with some airlines involved, some long distance rehearsing with Dave Kerman and Bob Drake coming from L.A., driving in and then driving back after spending a week in a basement rehearsing.  We were developing and practicing stuff, but then it really fell apart.

FJO: There’s something I don’t want to lose in your referencing of Lydia Lunch—which is something I definitely hear in her vocals, too, so I’m glad that you confirmed that.  Lydia is definitely on the punk end of the musical spectrum. We talked about the divides between rock and classical music, but at that time—from the late ‘70s through the early to mid ’80s—there was also a real schism between the people who were into more proggy things and people who were into more punky kinds of things.

“The proggers were called dinosaurs.”

MJ:  Absolutely. The proggers were called dinosaurs.

FJO:  But now if you listen back there are lots of musical connections between the two. It’s sort of like that famous Stephen Sondheim comment when he was asked what the difference between opera and musical theater is, and he said it’s the venues that they’re performed in.  The biggest difference between prog and punk might have been that they had very different audiences. If you listen to a Public Image Ltd record, it sounds very prog.

MJ:  But it’s very different from the Sex Pistols.

FJO:  That’s true.  But Gang of Four was also very proggy and, only a few years later, so was Sonic Youth.

MJ:  I actually played with those guys a couple of times.  We opened for them in Denver in ’87 in some big old, noisy, echo-y theater and then I had another little band that opened for them in Denver in ’86 or something like that.  I had no trouble communicating with them. They were cool guys.  But they were as loud as loud can be.  The best way to listen to them was outside the building through a wall.  That’s what I got to do once—behind the stage, through a wall. You could hear everything.  You could hear all the weird frequency bending and shifting. But back to your point, I think that in the ‘70s, one of the things about the progressive rock bands was that they allegedly had a level of virtuosity playing their instruments and a lot of the music was about showing off that virtuosity and making big, long songs that were involved and had lots of parts and would get quiet and get loud and blah, blah, blah, stuff like Genesis’s “Supper’s Ready.”  Then the punks came along and it was all like: No. Two-minute songs. Three chords.  Everything’s loud, and we’re yelling. And they were bitching with us because they thought we were pompous. I was calling myself we because I was into the prog thing, even though I wasn’t one of those people officially.  It felt like it was a countercultural revolution.  We were throwing out things we learned and going back to the beginning.  We were actually going back to the ‘60s, just crude rock and roll, except we were trying to be a little bit more crude and the players were even worse.  That’s how I felt, but it quickly changed.  It quickly looked to me like this ethic of rebellion and destruction was literally a wave that passed through and, in its wake, it left the new wave as opposed to punk. And new wave immediately started getting more technical and strict. Then a lot of people, like Peter Gabriel, made this transition. Then The Police came along, and the musicianship levels started recovering quickly.

FJO:  But by the time Thinking Plague officially became a band and started releasing recordings, prog was a dirty word.

MJ:  Yes.  Absolutely.

FJO:  I remember living through that.  The rock critics turned prog into a dirty word, even though you could clearly hear prog elements in some of the punk stuff.

MJ:  But you couldn’t call it that.

FJO:  Right, but you did. Or did you?

“I read something that said, ‘Thinking Plague RIO,’ and I said, ‘What the hell’s that, a town in Brazil, right? Uh, whatever.'”

MJ:  I don’t think so.  I don’t even remember what we called ourselves. I don’t think we dealt in genre terms when Bob and I were doing this early on.  I just knew that my influences were everything from Henry Cow and the Art Bears to Genesis and Mahavishnu, to Shostakovich and so on.  I just knew that was what I was interested in.  And Bob was kind of this enthusiastic “yeah, let’s do it” guy who would do anything but who had a Rickenbacker bass—still does—and he was a Chris Squire devotee. He liked lots of other stuff, too.  He was a huge Henry Cow fan, so that threw him very left of the normal field of what most people listen to.  So we stopped thinking about genres. I was always saying, “Well, this song is kind of like King Crimson” but he didn’t know about it.  He didn’t listen to King Crimson and didn’t care.  So we just didn’t deal in that.  We let other people label us. The first time I ever heard this term RIO was in the ‘90s.  I read something that said, “Thinking Plague RIO,” and I said, “What the hell’s that, a town in Brazil, right?  Uh, whatever.”  Then I read more and I tried to figure out what they were talking about, Rock In Opposition, but there were no musical descriptors in it, so I thought, “How come they’re grouping us with everything from Samla to Stormy Six plus Henry Cow?  We don’t really sound like any of that stuff.” If you don’t like Henry Cow, that doesn’t mean you won’t like us.  It’s what I always dislike about categorization: taking a bunch of things that are different but are similar enough to put into this box so that all the people that don’t like one of those things in that box automatically don’t like any of the things in the box.  That’s why I objected to it.  Later, if people asked me, I’d say we were trying to combine 20th-century harmonic sensibilities with a rock band.  Sometimes I would use the term progressive rock, but that’s not really how I’d looked at it although I was informed by that.  Frankly, I admired a lot of the musicianship of that.  When I heard the term avant-progressive, I said, “Yeah, that’s probably the most accurate I’ve heard.”  Whatever.  I still don’t know what to call it, and I don’t much care.

FJO:  But by the ‘90s the word progressive had been rehabilitated.

MJ:  Right. The so-called resurgence.

FJO:  Although after the band fell apart there was this long hiatus in the ’90s.  There was almost a decade where Thinking Plague didn’t really function.

MJ:  Except for what I was doing.

FJO:  I’d like to know more about that.  I know that you were involved with other groups.  I know that you played with Dave Kerman’s 5uu’s.

MJ:  I toured Europe for 2 months with them in 1995.

Mike Johnson playing guitar with Dave Kerman on drums and Bob Drake on bass

Mike Johnson (left) as a sideman for 5UU’s performing with Dave Kerman (drums) and Bob Drake (bass) in Grenoble, France, 1995. (Photo by Laurent Angeron, courtesy Mike Johnson/.)

FJO:  But you never recorded with them.  You were also part of this other group, Hamster Theatre, and you actually made several albums with them as a side man while your own projects were kind of on the back burner.

MJ:  I never stopped working on it, or thinking about it.  People moved away in ’89-’90, but we did a few more gigs in ’90 and we had plans. We had songs in the works.  I would send recordings to Bob or we would get together.  At one point, I went out and spent a week with Dave Kerman and Sanjay Kumar, who was the 5uu’s keyboardist, and Bob, in Bob’s little Burbank house behind the house, a little backyard house.  Dave put blankets over his drums, because we couldn’t make too much noise.  And we spent the week working up one of these tunes that I had sketched out in a book.  But I came to find out later somehow that we weren’t all on the same page about what this project was about.  I thought we were working on a song and it’s probably going to end up on a Thinking Plague record.  I didn’t know, but I thought so.  But I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, if there was going to be another Thinking Plague record.  It turns out that at least Kerman, and maybe Drake, were thinking this is a new project.  It was a song called “This Weird Wind” and it’s on the In Extremis record.  It sounds like if Yes tried to keep going in the direction they were going in when they did Relayer.

FJO:  When I listened to it again recently, I made a note to myself that it sounded to me like a bizarre amalgam of Yes and the more experimental moments of The Beach Boys.

MJ:  I never thought of that.  Okay.  But anyway, there was another song, “Kingdom Come,” which was something that I had written in the later part of the ‘80s.  It was sitting on paper.  I made a really awful sounding sequence of it on a synthesizer that I had that you had to step program everything in really tediously.  It sounded horrible. I played it for Bob and he hated the way it sounded.  He couldn’t get excited about the song, so for the longest time it just languished.  But I was going to get this song done.  So I sent Kerman a chart and I sent him that tape, I guess.  He learned the drum parts.  Then we flew him back to Denver, went into a studio, and recorded the drum tracks.  I got another bass player who reads to come in and just play direct-in bass, really clean tones.  Then I just built the tracks.  Bob was never on it because he never showed any interest in it.  He was in L.A. doing all this other stuff, but that song got assembled despite that.  Then we had this song which we ended up calling “Les Etudes d’Organism” which was based on an earlier thing.

FJO:  It sounds like an expansion of the track “Organism” from In This Life that Fred Frith appears on.

MJ:  And there was one before that called “Etude for Combo” on the second album.  We took themes from that and then themes from “Organism” and put them together.  We were trying to figure out a way to make a live performance piece that incorporated this stuff.  We called it “Etude for Organism” and we worked that up in the basement at another place in 1990.  Then we performed it in Boulder and we played it in L.A. once.  It was a little bit rougher, but the parts were sort of all there—this whole big wacky thing with all these silly tunes and big, huge sections.  Bob was determined to finish that.  And we recorded some of it.  He recorded drums, bass, and a lot of other stuff in a big studio he was working out of there in the middle of the night.  I recorded stuff in Denver and I took the sax player into a nice studio to record.  Then we put the tracks together.  It wasn’t finished until ’94 in terms of mixing.  Shortly thereafter, both Kerman and Drake were in France. I was still thinking maybe there’s another chance for this thing, but now that they were in France it got a lot harder.  The internet was not really a thing at the time.  So I went and I spent a lot of time there, but by the end of that I knew this thing was dead.  There’s no practical way with them on the other side of the ocean and there was not enough momentum or interest on their part.  So I came back home and thought about it for a while and finally thought, “I’m going to reform this.” I had four other tunes sitting that I had worked up on Finale that I wanted to record, plus there was “Les Etudes” and “This Weird Wind” sitting in the can—I couldn’t stand over 20 minutes’ worth of music sitting in a can.  This had to get out somehow.

FJO:  As long as we’re talking about the material that eventually surfaced on the In Extremis album, is “Behold the Man” the track that has what you described as the Philip Glass part?

MJ:  Exactly.  We called it the Philip Glass part.  That was a joke.

FJO:  Before we leave this moment when you were finding a way to reform Thinking Plague, I think there’s an interesting distinction between the earlier and reformed groups. While it’s true that in the original line-up it was primarily your material compositionally, the end product was the result of a real collaboration involving several people.  But with the re-formed Thinking Plague and everything that’s been happening since, it’s really been your band.

The members of the band Thinking Plague in 1990.

The members of Thinking Plague in 1990 (clockwise from lower left): Mike Johnson, Shane Hotle, Susanne Lewis, Mark Harris, Dave Kerman, and Bob Drake. (Photo by Andy Watson, courtesy Mike Johnson.)

MJ:  That’s really true, and the musicians would tell you that.  I became the overseer.  The only way to get the music done was to just do it.  More and more, the only way to get what I wanted was to do it myself.  I was getting more invested in each piece, and I wanted to make sure that it fulfilled what I wanted to get from it.  My experience with other people had always been that it’s a compromise and that things get watered down, so it misses the mark a little bit.  Sometimes, certainly, there’s synergy, and sometimes it’s so much fun, but for the serious stuff when I wanted to really mine a vein, I found that I needed to do it alone.

FJO:  Well I’m going to make a conjecture, and I could be totally wrong about this. We don’t really know each other and I’m reading into your life story.  But it seems like it’s a reaction to that almost decade-long period, where the band was in hiatus and you were essentially a side man in 5uu’s—

MJ:  —Just briefly—

FJO:  —and Hamster Theatre—

MJ:  That was about the same time that the new Plague was formed.

FJO:  Yes, but I wonder if going from being a de facto co-leader of a group to spending your time being a side man in other people’s bands made you think that you really needed to grab the helm and be the leader of your own thing once and for all.

MJ:  I would say it was more the departure of Drake in particular, but also Kerman. Kerman was a strong personality.  You care about what he thinks; he’s got incredible ideas and he was enthusiastic. But he was gone, too.  They were just gone—physically and mentally.  But I was still invested in this thing.  I felt it hadn’t fulfilled what it was trying to do.  It hadn’t reached what I thought it could reach. I had no idea what it was gonna do, but I had to keep trying.

In terms of being a side man, I didn’t do that so much. I decided I needed to get out a little bit.  Dave Willey contacted me and asked if I would be willing to play guitar with this project of his.  So I said, “Sure, I’ll give it a shot.”  I showed up and it was pretty weird; it took a few rehearsals to feel comfortable.  There was some quick personnel shuffling and then it settled into a thing and it started to work.  Then it got better and better and pretty soon, by ’97, ’98, I was pretty invested, but it was definitely not what I would normally do.  It was much more charming and humorous or sweet sometimes, and a little weird, a little out there.  Sometimes it got really out there because Dave’s got this streak of “RIO” and it’s pretty big.  But that wasn’t really it. It was just the desire that had already been there to fulfill this thing so if nobody else was going to help me do it, then I was going to do it.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2003.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2003, left to right: David Shamrock (ex-Sleepytime Gorilla drummer/composer), Matt Mitchell, Dave Willey, Deborah Perry, Mark Harris, and Mike Johnson. (Photo by Rick Cummings, courtesy Mike Johnson.)

FJO:  And curiously, you not only played in Dave Willey’s band Hamster Theatre, he wound up playing in Thinking Plague as well.

MJ:  Well, that was a case of needing a bass player. I knew Dave Willey from ten years before, about ’88 probably.  As a matter of fact, he was good friends with Deborah Perry, and when Susanne Lewis took off to New York, Deborah Perry came down with Dave.  Dave brought her down to our little rehearsal basement, and she tried out with Thinking Plague in ’89.  After we did In This Life and Susanne was gone, I was very interested but Bob Drake didn’t like her voice.  He still doesn’t like her voice.  So that didn’t happen.  But I knew Dave was a guitar player.  I didn’t know he was a bass player.  When I got in his band, he was playing guitar, accordion, keyboards, and everything else.  Then I got a taste of what he could do on bass, and I was like “Jesus!” I also realized from playing his music that I didn’t understand how musically deep and capable he was.  So I asked him and he said, “Sure, I’ll try it.”  Then it wasn’t too big of a leap to say to myself, “Well, I need a singer, what about his friend Deborah?” And she was willing to try it as well.  The first song we did was “The Aesthete.” She had a cold and we did it anyway; I think it came out pretty well.  This was after me trying to work with Janet Feder.  She’s a prepared classical guitarist from Denver.  She was recording on RēR for a little while.  She does neat stuff and she’s done some stuff with Fred Frith.  She sings a bit, so I tried to get her to sing.  It was the song “Maelstrom.”  She actually recorded the opening vocal tracks.  I decided, “Nah,” but she made an effort.  She did alright, but I didn’t think it was going to work.  Then Deborah came along and she had a real ability to nail pitches and to find the notes.  And she did homework.  She studied her parts.

FJO:  Since we’re talking about singers, you’ve been referring to all the Thinking Plague music as songs.  One of my pet peeves is that we’ve reached a point in our history where we call every kind of piece of music a song so it has rendered the word meaningless.  A lot of the things on the Thinking Plague albums I don’t think of as songs.  For starters, many things are much longer.

An excerpt from Mike Johnson's musical score for the instrumental composition

An excerpt from Mike Johnson’s musical score for the instrumental composition “Gúdamy Le Máyagot” (which is featured on the Thinking Plague CD, A History of Madness)
© 2003 Mike Johnson. Reprinted with permission of the composer.

MJ:  I call them art songs.

FJO:  Okay, but you also said that a lot of time the vocal lines and the words will come much later than your original conception.  They start as instrumentals.  And yet in every incarnation of Thinking Plague you’ve always included a singer, though there are instrumental tracks on many of the albums. Even though you’ve always been the leader of the group, whether de facto or total, you’ve never sung. In fact, with one exception where you featured a male singer, it’s always a female singer.

“I’m always writing guitar parts that are at the very limit, much of the time, of what I can play.”

MJ:  Well, I never thought of myself as a strong singer.  I still don’t, although I can sing.  I do sing in other things sometimes.  When I was young, I was a backup singer in rock and roll bands.  But I was never strong; I have a soft voice and I have a fairly limited range, although I can do falsetto.  I’m in a Beatles band right now, just for money.  It’s money and kind of fun.  We do realistic versions of Beatles recordings, and I have to sing so I do it.  But, for Thinking Plague, my hands were full.  I’m always writing guitar parts that are at the very limit, much of the time, of what I can play, so the vocalist is a full-time job on its own for the most part.  The thing about having a woman developed over time.  I began to feel that since the music was oftentimes so male, so angular, so mathematical sometimes, and so challenging and difficult, even off-putting, that if you placed a woman’s voice—and not some kind of growling or in-your-face blues or disco singer—but the idea was to have this little human heart that you could latch onto in the middle of this maelstrom of music that’s going on.  And I think it works.  It gives something for more normal listeners to latch onto.  The human thread that goes through this music, which for a lot of people would not be a nice place to be traveling.

FJO:  But it seems to me that there’s something else going on with having a singer who is singing lyrics. From the very beginning there were lyrics that were clearly political, such as “Warheads.” And almost everything on the last three albums has a political bent.

MJ:  Definitely.  Absolutely.

FJO:  So, if vocal lines and lyrics are often an afterthought, I’m wondering where these things came from.  Obviously, this band was originally formed in the early ’80s during the first term of Ronald Reagan.  That has been called a great era for punk, which is essentially protest music.  Some people have suggested that there could be a real re-flowering of punk now given the current political climate.  Even the title of your new album, Hoping Against Hope, feels particularly timely though I know that you had already finished the album and had given it that title before the election.

“It is important for my artistic activity to make some commentary about what’s going on in the world.”

MJ:  Yeah, I know.  It was named well before, even before the campaign. And it was floating around as a possible name quite a long time before that, because the times just felt like that to me.  Part of it was, after the last album, Elaine and I were talking and she said, “Can we do something that’s maybe a little bit more hopeful?  Can we do something that offers some solutions or hope?”  And I said, “Sure, if we can figure out how to do that.”  Well, we didn’t really do that very well, but it made me think about trying to do that a little.  I’ve never been able to go with a direction that’s just celebrating or joy and I have felt for a long time that it is important for my artistic activity to make some commentary about what’s going on in the world.  Part of that is my work background.  Since the ‘80s, I have been working in human services programs, like working with the homeless, helping people to get shelter, helping people to get jobs.  Then I worked with poor students to help them deal with all the issues that were keeping them from being able to be successful.  I had a day career out of this, and I was good at it.  That informed my music, because when I went back to college after the music stuff, I took a lot of social science classes—politics and sociology and all this kind of stuff.  My perspective definitely moved left, and I’ve been there ever since.  The cliché is that as men get older, they get more conservative.  Me, I’m moving left.  I’m left of left now.  I don’t even know where I am.

Warheads” was in response to the Iran hostage crisis.  There was a wave of Islamophobia that came to the country then, like ’79 and ’80, and I was appalled by it. So I made a comment about that, and I got my younger brother, who fancies himself a poet, to write some lyrics with me and so the lyrics are pretty abstruse. But there’s this one part that deals with warheads and the board of trustees are counting up their funds, warheads are counting their guns.  This all struck me at a time when our society seemed a lot more peaceful: there wasn’t gun violence all the time; we were not at war.  But it struck me as ugly and that something needed to be said.  I didn’t really try to make much in the way of political statements. The song “Moonsongs” has a kind of environmental pagan slant, using pagan things as kind of an angle for the earth, not that I was on a pagan kick.

Then, with In This Life, Susanne was in charge of the words basically.  “Run Amok” is about when you have too many rats in a cage and their behavior starts to alter and they try to eat each other and kill each other.  That’s what I felt was starting to happen on the planet.  Every now and then, somebody goes nuts and kills a bunch of people.  It was rare in those days; now it seems to be every other day on the news.  I really think that parts of this society are now running amok.  All I did was give Susanne this title and tell her what I was thinking.  She took it and did her thing with it.

Then when it got to the phase where I was fully taking the reins, “Kingdom Come” had a definite angle that way.  “Dead Silence” also has an environmental angle. And A History of Madness had its own themes, but they’re not unrelated.

FJO:  “Blown Apart” definitely has a political agenda.

MJ:  “Blown Apart” is a good example.

FJO:  And on Decline and Fall, there’s “Sleeper Cell Anthem,” which is intensely frightening.

MJ:  It was supposed to be.  The message was about who are really the terrorists here.  “We are your daughters, sisters, and wives.”  We’re the terrorists.  We’re creating the terrorists.  We’re creating the terror that’s creating the terrorists.  Then on the new album, there’s a song about drones and execution from the skies called “Commuting to Murder.”  I didn’t realize how timely that was.  I wasn’t watching it at the time.  People are seemingly being arbitrarily eliminated from on high without due process and without concern for collateral damage because it’s so important to us that we eliminate this Abu blah-blah-blah guy here.  That was the one thing that I most objected to about Obama’s administration, the reliance on that.  In general, I’m not disinterested in abstract poetic expressions that come from deep in the soul.  But, in the absence of anything that’s hit me in the face, I had a certain level of anger and disappointment that I wanted to be expressed through the music.

The members of Thinking Plague, all with their mouths open, in 2011.

Thinking Plague in 2011 (left to right): Robin Chestnut, Dave Willey, Mark Harris, Elaine, Mike Johnson, and Kimara Sajn. (Photo by Rick Cummings, courtesy Mike Johnson.)

FJO:  So, to attempt to tie this all together.  You create very sophisticated music, but you perform it with a rock band, which is a medium that’s been very central to our popular culture for more than half a century at this point.  In addition to the very sophisticated music, your songs frequently have super charged political lyrics.  By getting these messages out, through what is essentially a popular medium even though the kinds of things you’re doing go against the spirit of most of what is popular, are you hoping this music is going to change people’s minds?  What’s the goal in terms of changing the listener?  Can the listener be changed?  What’s the purpose of making art that has this charged message?

“I had a certain level of anger and disappointment that I wanted to be expressed through the music.”

MJ:  I honestly don’t know.  After this last election, I’m not sure I know anything.  You have to consider who listens to this music.  They are all over the map politically, but they tend to be educated so the differences are not usually cultural at a level that’s just hopeless.  So I always think maybe somebody will be—as opposed to converted—awakened about something, because a lot of guys that are into progressive music are sort of apolitical.  They don’t like to deal with it.  They want to deal with fairies and dragons, or with magic, strange mysterious glories.  I’m trying to hit them with some gritty realities, but not in an overly literal, strident way.  It’s a little bit subtle, I’d like to think, a little bit indirect.  You have to read it and think about it.  You have to actually pay attention, notice what the themes or the words are.  But I keep thinking that somebody will be like, “Oh, that’s interesting.  They’re talking about drones.  I better think about that.  I’d better look and see if I can find out what they mean.”  So it’s kind of like saying, “If you’re listening to us, if you’re following us, if you like what we do, here’s something that we think you ought to think about if you listen hard enough and you care enough.”

But I don’t really have any expectations that it’s going to have any impact.  You know, I wish.  First of all, we don’t reach enough people, not as many as we could, and they are all over the world. There’s never that many on the ground in any one place. But if you influence somebody, they talk to somebody else and turn them on to something.  If it influences their thinking about social or political issues, great.  I don’t know what else to write about really.  I wrote a song on A History of Madness, which was a love song of sorts.  But there were some other songs on there that had a humanity theme.  So it’s always something about man’s inhumanity to man, the stupidity, the selfishness.  Right now the list is so long of adjectives that you can talk about with things that should be addressed.  It does seem like a lot of people are addressing them.  So, in a way, it’s a hopeful thing.  I like to say it can only get better, but I’m afraid that may not be true.  There’s a lot to write about right now.  I’m not a political activist who’s going to spend a lot of time working on issues in that way.  My mission in life is to do music, so I feel like I’m obliged to have these kind of messages in the music, but not like strident marching songs.

FJO:  It’s interesting to me that from the beginning up to this day, in the year 2017, Thinking Plague has always been about making albums that are these larger statements.  There are pundits who claim that a lot of people don’t listen to albums anymore.  They listen to individual tracks and everything gets mashed up.

“If you influence somebody, they talk to somebody else and turn them on to something.”

MJ:  Right.  They don’t download whole albums.  They download single tracks.

FJO:  It’s great that you have a label that’s so invested in you.  I didn’t realize it went all the way back to the ‘80s, but I know they’ve reissued your whole catalog.  To have your whole catalog in one place is tremendous—to have that support, and for albums to be carefully recorded, produced, designed, and released. But it’s sort of weird, because the economics of all of this is shifting. How do you survive in this environment if what you want to do is make records?

MJ:  Well, like I said, I had a day career.  And, in as much as I am rather moved on in years now, I managed to retire from that. I was working for a state community college system, so I have a state pension, one of those things that our current president would probably just as soon eliminate.  But it’s based on investments, my whole existence is tangled up in the dirty money that I sometimes write about or I’m going to write about.  And I figure that’s okay; we should extract whatever we can from them.  I had to spend many years earning that.

I hear all the time from our label that they are struggling.  They have made all of our records available on Bandcamp.  You can go and you can listen to everything.  Most of the older ones have now finally gone out of print because it is not cost effective to press them and sell them anymore, because they don’t sell enough and you have to be able to manufacture so many in order to have economies of scale. So it became impractical for them to do that.

“I don’t really understand the mainstream music industry.”

I don’t really understand the mainstream music industry.  I don’t quite know what they do and how they do it.  I don’t even understand why anybody listens to that music.  When it comes to music that’s more serious, that’s got more depth to it, I don’t know how anybody manages to make a living from recorded music.  They say, “Oh, you’ve got to go out and play.”  Yeah, if you’ve got a wide enough appeal, I guess.  And if enough people have heard you.  I don’t think going out and playing will make you very much money if they haven’t heard recordings of you first.  So we’re at a kind of weird impasse.  The ready availability of music in electronic form has made it basically too easy to get, and now it’s not worth much.  People have gotten used to the idea of not paying much for it.  I remember counting my pennies together until I had a couple of bucks and could go by a Beatles LP.  I would listen to it until there was no vinyl left on it.  You have to wonder if there is something about people’s psychology: if they pay something for it, do they value it more?  Because they don’t seem to value it much now, except for those few people who actually care about the sounds coming into their ears and what it does to them, emotionally and otherwise.

Of course, there are so many people that love music, but they love it in different ways at different levels.  It seems that for so many people now, music is just a background thing.  It needs to keep a certain part of their brain busy, so they have it going in their ear buds as background all the time and it’s on shuffle, and they don’t really care what it is.  And they listen to MP3s; they don’t care about high fidelity.  They don’t care about really in-depth audio detail. It’s much less about what’s going on with the notes. It’s just a little hook melody and this over-processed drum groove and some pitch-corrected vocal parts.  I don’t know what to think about all of that. I don’t know where it’s headed. But I do think that in its current model, it is unsustainable.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to continue making records.  I’ll have to make them myself or they’ll become electronic downloads only.  I’ve had some guys say, “You should go hi-res.”  But sooner or later, somebody will figure out a way to pirate that as well.  But that’d be great.  Let’s make the audio product something that’s really worth something—you really need to pore over it and listen to it.  Everything that we do in the recording industry is reduced to 16 bits, no matter how it was produced before that.  If it wasn’t, then the files would be too gigantic for most people. There are a certain number of techie guys that would download it all night onto their computer and love it that way.  But most people want to put it on a player on their phones.

FJO:  But there is a different economy that operates for a lot of the other music we’ve talked about— avant-garde music and even the music of people like William Schuman.  All of that stuff doesn’t exist in the marketplace.

MJ:  Of course.

FJO:  And it never has.  It exists either as the result of private funding or through grants from foundations or governments. Shostakovich, for better or worse—definitely worse under Stalin—was a state-sponsored composer. Over the past half century, jazz has also been embraced by the funding community and that has allowed it to continue to thrive now that it is often no longer remunerative in the marketplace.  But that hasn’t happened with rock. We talked earlier about that moment in the late 1970s and early ‘80s when labels like Cuneiform and networks like New Music Distribution Service equally embraced avant-garde music that stemmed from classical music, free jazz, and fringe rock. There was no internet back then, but all of it is what we’d call dot-org music. Certainly what Thinking Plague does is dot-org music in the same way as the music of, say, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Ornette Coleman, Wadada Leo Smith, etc.

MJ:  I totally get that.

FJO:  So might this music continue to exist if it’s somehow subsidized?  Could that be the way to make it keep going?

“Nobody in Thinking Plague has ever made a living from the music.”

MJ:  Well, it’s interesting that you bring that up.  I’ve never gotten a grant for this band.  The closest I can say I’ve come is a Kickstarter campaign that succeeded—not on a gigantic scale, but enough to make it work.  I’m looking at some grants that would help us to be able to travel. There’s a RIO festival in Japan that has some money issues, but if I can get a grant they’ll bring it back to life, just for us to go play at it.  So right now I’m trying to figure out where the band is going to be, in what condition. Our singer is completing her master’s degree in music.  She’s still trying to figure out what she wants to do when she grows up and she’s 46. God bless her. I can relate. It does seem that there are not many grantors who have a word for what we do musically. Their tendency, because you’re going to hear electric guitars and drums, would be to call it rock music.  So then we’re not eligible for these jazz things.  I’m not sure how many, but there may be cracks that we could squeeze into.  We’ve got a horn player, so does that make us jazz?  I almost got us invited to the Vancouver Jazz Festival.  Almost.  So this is something I need to look into.  But as to how much money there is in any of it, again, nobody in Thinking Plague has ever made a living from the music.  Nobody.  Not me.  Not anybody else.  There’s never been that kind of income from the music—not even in 1985.  Certainly not from In this Life or In Extremis, which was probably our best received record and the biggest explosion for us.  It didn’t change our situation at all.  We’re a dot-org phenomenon.  As a matter of fact, my Thinking Plague website is a dot-org website.  There was no pretense that this was going to be commercial, so I figured better call it what it is.  It’s not for profit.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2009.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2009, front (L-R): Mark Harris and Mike Johnson; back: Dave Kerman, Kimara Sajn, Elaine di Falco, and Dave Willey. (Photo by S. Navarre, courtesy Mike Johnson.)