Category: Conversations

Mary Ellen Childs: On Merging Sound and Scent

Mary Ellen Childs sitting on a bench in front of a branches.

Even though Mary Ellen Childs had a lot to say about sound when she visited with us last month, we also spent a lot of time talking about the other senses since many of the works she has created have been immersive multi-sensory experiences.

Still I was totally unprepared for Childs’s ruminations about the aesthetic possibilities of scent, despite my harboring a personal fascination with the relationship between music and perfumery ever since I attended a performance of something called a “scent opera” seven years ago. As a result of our mutual obsession, when I asked her about her attempts to incorporate olfactory perception into her own work our conversation took a significant detour. While this digression ultimately seemed a distraction from our larger musical conversation, it is yet another manifestation of Childs’s unique approach to the creative process.

A conversation at New Music USA
May 6, 2016—2:30 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

FJO: Literally 15 minutes before you walked in the door I just read an article about you wanting to develop a piece that involves olfactory sensation.

MEC: I’m really fascinated with this. I’ve been researching it now for years. I’ve done some kind of cursory, more experimental sort of public events, but I haven’t yet created the piece that I really want to create, which would be instrumental music written to pair with senses. Specifically I’m interested in writing the music first and having a scent designer create pieces inspired by those pieces of music. And then giving the audience a way of experiencing the two things together.

FJO: There’s an ephemerality to both sound and scent. They’re both produced by physical objects, but they are also both non-corporeal. We live in such a visually dominated world, and these are two phenomena that you can’t actually see. At least sound we can now preserve on recordings. Scent is more elusive. You can bottle a scent, but when you use up that bottle, it’s gone. The other fascinating parallel for me is that the people who make perfumes are called compositeurs. They’re composers. It’s the same word, and it’s the only other usage of this word I know.

MEC: Well, and they work with notes. I have done a ton of research on this. I’ve read a lot, I’ve smelled a lot, and I’ve talked to neuroscientists who work in this field. I’ve gone to France and I visited the Museum of Perfume in Grasse, and I’ve met with a master perfumer near Paris and talked with the director of the Institute for Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles. I’ve thought a lot about how this is going to work. I think it just takes the right moment with the right amount of money. It’s one of those pieces that has not really gone forward because it needs some financial support to make it all happen. But I’m very keen to do it.

Not too long ago, I came across reference to a study that was done showing that what we listen to affects how we smell. I was so pleased. I knew it. That was my hunch, because both those senses can make us have an emotional reaction. They might even make us experience time or space differently. Think of a smell that you want to recoil from. You physically want to contract. So you feel space differently. Sound can do the same thing. You may actually feel more spacious because of what you’re listening to. And you can slow down your perception of time through music. I think you can also do those things with scent. And so you put the two together, and the impact that they would have on you could be quite interesting.

I did an installation-style event as part of Northern Spark a little less than a year ago. Northern Spark is a festival in the Twin Cities that happens overnight, usually around the time of the solstice. It starts at sundown and it ends at sun up. I did a piece called Ear Plus Nose, because I just wanted to sort of get it out there. I just wanted to see how an audience would respond. I used recorded music, my own music. It was a room bigger than this, but not a lot bigger than this, and there was one fragrance that was diffused into the space. Then there was one long table where there were four fragrances. You could take a smell strip and dip it into the fragrance and then could combine that experience with what was diffused into the room along with what you were hearing.

I asked people to write their responses afterwards. I had two stations with two different sets of cards—two questions. The first question was basically just to write about your experience in this room. You know, what was it like? What did you respond to? And the other one was to write a scent memory. And once you’ve written that scent memory, tell me if there was any sound associated with it. I thought maybe some people will do that. But I still haven’t gotten through all the responses! I have a huge bag full. In the course of those hours, I also learned which of my pieces worked in that setting and which didn’t. I was going to try to cycle through various kind of moods and sound worlds, and keep track of when that music was playing and what responses I was getting. That became too much of a headache to keep track of, so that went out the window pretty fast. I ended up gravitating towards one piece that was pretty steady state. It created a mood, but it didn’t have a lot of ups and downs and changes, and I just let that play over and over again. And that was the thing to do in that particular setting.

FJO: Well, what’s interesting is that music has this narrative arc over time and changes. Even most very hardcore minimalist pieces are about the very subtle changes that occur in them over time, because when changes happen so slowly it makes the moment of change feel extremely significant. In a way, such pieces are similar to the way we experience a scent. It initially seems like a steady state but, due to the physical properties of chemicals, it changes over time and certain notes that were less prominent become more foregrounded. Perfume writers often compare a fragrance’s top notes, the olfactory combination you originally encounter when you smell it, with the base notes that appear after its dry down. Of course, this is a function of physical reality.

MEC: Right, so in a concert setting the way that I’m curious about exploring the use of scent is with diffusion techniques and to see if the landscape of scent will change over time. I actually wanted to have additive scents. Let’s say you start out with a citrus note, then you add something more floral, then after that something a little more savory, stronger in some way. Over time you change the scent in a way that actually works. But there are some challenges with that. It’s not a straight forward thing to do because what happens with the way our noses work is that once you smell something you tend to stop smelling it after a while. So, in order to change the scent landscape over time, I would probably have to diffuse the citrus note and then bring in more citrus plus the second scent. And then also consider that the experience of somebody who might walk in midway through would be different because they’re getting the first impact of everything.

It would take some work, and it would take some very knowledgeable people to explore this with me. I don’t know that that particular thing has been done very much, and I’m really interested in exploring it. But on a different note, the other thing that I’ve been doing just to try to start working with this material is I’ve been hosting a series of scent dinners at my home where we have a food course, then a scent course, then a food course, and a scent course. I love to have people over for dinner. I love to cook. I love to make an experience of the evening, and so adding in scent was kind of an interesting thing for me to do. And so I did the first few scent dinners without music, then I thought I should just be taking advantage of these people who are here to pair the scents with music, and so I started doing that and then asking people for their responses. And that’s been pretty interesting, too.

When I talk about working with scent and music, mostly people are very curious and very interested and they want to know more. And they say, “I want to come whenever you do this piece.” But I also get people whom you can tell they’re put off by it, or they’re a little bit worried about it, or they’re not sure they would want to come to a performance like that. And I think it’s because you can close your eyes, we can even plug our ears, but scent actually comes right into our bodies. It comes right inside your lungs. People have strong reactions to it and it is different for everybody. You have different scent preferences. And you have different things that you associate with scent. I was surprised when I heard there were some people who love the scent of skunk. I always thought that that was a miserable scent that you wouldn’t want to be around if you didn’t absolutely have to. But there are people who actually enjoy that scent. And I think that just tells us how individual people’s responses to scent can be. It has to do with your own personal history. I also think it has to do with your cultural background. So I feel like this is such a rich thing to be exploring with music, and I’m actually very eager to do more.

Paul Moravec: The Whole Range of Human Emotion

Paul Moravec in Central Park

Shakespeare’s plays, a novel by Stephen King, and personal letters from American soldiers written in wartime have all served as inspiration for compositions by Paul Moravec, and not only as texts for vocal works. Moravec fashioned three of the five movements of his most widely performed piece, the 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning instrumental quartet Tempest Fantasy, around iconic Shakespearean characters from The Tempest—Ariel, Prospero, and Caliban. And even when there is no discernible literary reference, as in such generically titled pieces as his recent Violin Concerto (which was recently released on CD by Naxos), Moravec claims there is always “a kind of musical narrative” at work even if it does not have a precise verbal meaning.

“I can’t describe to you a coffee cup in musical terms,” Moravec acknowledges when we visit his Upper West Side Manhattan home. “I can draw you a picture of a coffee cup and you can say, ‘Well, that’s a coffee cup.’ But I can’t do that musically. What I can do is to capture and project emotion: joy, sadness, the whole range of human emotion. Whether or not you as an individual listener receives it in that way or understands what I’m saying, that’s a whole other matter, but that’s what I’m trying to do as a composer. All of these pieces have emotional narratives of one kind or another, whether it’s an abstract piece or programmatic piece.”

Given Moravec’s aesthetic proclivities, it is natural that he has been drawn to opera, but what’s perhaps somewhat surprising, given his attachment to Shakespeare, is that his latest opera—which will receive its world premiere in Minneapolis later this month—is based on The Shining by Stephen King.

“This was not my idea,” he confesses. “This idea came from Minnesota Opera. They said, ‘How’d you like to make an opera out of the novel The Shining?’ And I said, ‘Wow, what an idea!’… The Stephen King book is actually very operatic….It’s also about the three things that, in my view, drive opera: love, death, and power. It has all three of those elements on steroids. For all of the drama, the action, the horror, the ghosts, the Overlook [Hotel], and all these wonderful aspects of the novel, it’s really a very moving story about a family trying to stay together under extraordinary circumstances.”

Stephen King’s supernatural psychological thriller gave Moravec an opportunity to explore a broad sonic palette which includes passages of musique concrète. Although he has often been categorized as a neo-romantic composer, Moravec’s early Devices and Desires is a Synclavier-realized collage of samples of cars starting, a telephone ringing, and clocks ticking. An even more elaborate exploration of sampled clocks serves as an otherworldly counterpoint to the instrumental music he fashioned for Eighth Blackbird in his composition The Time Gallery.

to Moravec such experimentation is never an end unto itself

“I’m fascinated by the technology of sampled sound and the fact that anything that can be recorded can become the stuff of musical composition,” he beams. “I can remember being up at the Columbia University Electronic Music Lab splicing tape; it’s like The Flintstones when you think about it. Now we’re in the age of The Jetsons, where anybody sitting at their own Mac or sitting on the train or wherever can fashion these remarkable musique concrète creations digitally.”

But to Moravec such experimentation is never an end unto itself. In fact, no music should be.

“I don’t think that music is really about music,” he posits. “I think that music is about something else….We as creators, as composers and musicians, spend our whole lives trying to get the right sounds. It’s very, very difficult and we fine tune the sounds till we get just exactly what we want and so on. But that’s not really what music is about. What music is really about is love and sorrow and the whole range of human emotion—making audible the whole range of human existence and human life. I’m interested in sound only to a certain extent, to the extent that it gets me to where I want to be in terms of my musical storytelling, my musical narrative. That’s the importance of sound to me.”

A conversation in Moravec’s apartment in New York City
April 13, 2016—3:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: A lot of your pieces have some kind of literary inspiration and even the ones that don’t are often extremely narrative in some way. So much so that listening to your music often feels like a form of reading, a deep immersion into a storyline.

Paul Moravec: I’ve written about 150 pieces and some of them are programmatic or they refer to literary texts. A lot of them are not programmatic at all—sonata number one, wind symphony whatever. But all of them, I think, have musical narratives. That’s what they all have in common. I very often think in terms of neural-cognitive narratives that exist in the central nervous system. So whether or not there are literary associations—for example, many of my pieces involve Shakespeare and Shakespearean themes—there is a kind of musical narrative that I’m very concerned with.

FJO: So when you read, does it inspires you to write music?

PM: Sometimes it does, as in the case with Shakespeare. I wrote a piece called Tempest Fantasy which is inspired very directly by my favorite play, which is Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I saw a production in the late ‘90s at the Public Theater with Patrick Stewart, which was fantastic, and that very definitely inspired me to write that piece, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. That piece has been very good to me. Shakespeare has been my silent partner, so to speak, on a number of projects.

FJO: Including a pretty recent choral piece that just came out on CD.

PM: Right. A piece called Amorisms, which was a ballet commission. And what I did was take single quotations about love from Shakespeare’s plays and set them each in a separate movement. There are five movements. One of the things I discovered about ballet is that if you have too much text going on in the composition, and if it’s an intricate or complicated text, it actually interferes with the ballet. The audience will be thinking, “Wait a minute. What’s that interesting line?” They’re following the text. So I decided to keep the texts to a single line repeated over and over again. Once they got the idea, they could concentrate on the dancers.

FJO: And the literary inspiration for your new opera premiering in May in Minnesota is also literary, although it’s quite different from Shakespeare—Stephen King’s The Shining.

PM: This was not my idea. This idea came from Minnesota Opera. They said, “How’d you like to make an opera out of the novel The Shining?” And I said, “Wow, what an idea!” This would never have occurred to me, actually.

FJO: Had you read the book?

PM: I knew about the book, but I didn’t actually read it until they mentioned it to me. But I knew it was different from the famous Kubrick [film] adaptation, so I knew that it was going to be different from the get go. The Stephen King book is actually very operatic. There’s a lot of warmth in it; the principal character, Jack Torrance, is in some ways very sympathetic. It’s the kind of story that draws the reader in because the reader identifies with him and thinks, “There but for the grace of God go I. This could have happened to me.” That is very operatic. It’s also about the three things that, in my view, drive opera: love, death, and power. It has all three of those elements on steroids. For all of the drama, the action, the horror, the ghosts, the Overlook [Hotel], and all these wonderful aspects of the novel, it’s really a very moving story about a family trying to stay together under extraordinary circumstances. And that is super operatic. That’s what attracted the librettist Mark Campbell and I to this story, and this is what we’re going to put on stage.

FJO: I think that it’s possible to interpret the book, as well as the movie, in a number of different ways. The paranormal, supernatural, and horror elements of it could all be explained away as psychosis. The opera seems to lean more toward a psychological interpretation rather than a supernatural one.

PM: Well, there are two ways of viewing the supernatural. One is that the supernatural is real; that these ghosts actually exist. And the other is that all of these ghosts and supernatural happenings and “shining” itself are really just projections of Jack Torrance’s imagination. So what we did was to get into the imagination of the protagonist. He tells the story, or rather his central nervous system tells the story to the audience. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, it doesn’t matter. What we’re doing is to tell the story through this character. And yes, it could all be taking place in his imagination.

FJO: In a way, because of that, I get the sense from just perusing the vocal score of the opera that it’s not a horror opera so much as it’s a tragedy.

PM: I think that what attracts me more to this story is the emotional resonance of the piece; that it is about love. It is about genuine emotion. It’s a dynamite story. Stephen King is a great storyteller.

FJO: But the tricky thing about setting a story that is so famous, and probably even more famous because of the film, is how deeply it has seeped into our mass consciousness. It’s part of our popular culture.

PM: One could describe it as an iconic film that Kubrick adapted from the book. But I think the book is an icon, too, in and of itself.

FJO: Yes, but because of that, people might walk in with certain expectations about it that they wouldn’t necessarily have when they hear, say, your Violin Concerto. As a creator wanting people to experience your own original piece, how do you deal with this legacy—the reception history of the novel and the film? The people who might compare the singer singing Jack Torrance to Jack Nicholson?

PM: I don’t know what to say to that. We’ve been very clear from the get go, and we’ve made a point about it, that we’re adapting the novel. By the way, you know that there are at least two film versions of The Shining. There’s the Kubrick adaptation, which came out in 1980. Then there was the version that Stephen King himself was involved in in the late ‘90s; it was an ABC mini-series. I think it’s about six-hours long. It goes into much more detail, and it’s a lot closer to the book. Now we’re doing our own adaptation in the operatic genre, which is a completely different genre. So each of these iterations of the story, partly because of the differences in the genres, are going to be rather different from one another.


FJO: I want to probe a bit more your saying that the emotional content was what primarily attracted you to that story. But I want to take it to instrumental music. You’ve written quite a bit of vocal music, but you’ve also written a considerable amount of non-vocal music, where you’re not dealing with setting words, so there’s no discernable syntax that someone can latch onto. You said you’ve written programmatic pieces, but there’s still an unresolvable debate among people about whether specific meanings could be conveyed through the abstract medium of music when there are no words involved.

PM: Music is a non-representational art. I can’t describe to you a coffee cup in musical terms. I can draw you a picture of a coffee cup and you can say, “Well, that’s a coffee cup.” But I can’t do that musically. What I can do is to capture and project emotion: joy, sadness, the whole range of human emotion. Whether or not you as an individual listener receives it in that way or understands what I’m saying, that’s a whole other matter, but that’s what I’m trying to do as a composer. All of these pieces have emotional narratives of one kind or another, whether it’s an abstract piece or programmatic piece.

all of these pieces have emotional narratives of one kind or another, whether it’s an abstract piece or programmatic piece.

What I can say about a programmatic piece—for example a piece inspired by The Tempest, which I turned into the Tempest Fantasy—is that Shakespeare absolutely influenced the structure of the piece. How I wrote it and a lot of the details of the piece are absolutely tied up with Shakespeare and drama and literature and so on. You can’t necessarily hear it in the music because there are no words to it and there’s no reference to it. But I also think the piece has to speak for itself on its own terms. It cannot rely on any literary association or any non-musical association. The musical logic has to be baked into the piece itself. It has to be structural; it has to make sense on the basis of its own musical logic.

You and I spend our lives trying to figure it out. It’s really hard because music is essentially an abstract language. It’s completely made up out of whole cloth. It’s very hard to make these things work structurally, but it has to be that way. I do, however, think that knowing what motivated a composer to write a piece—the literary associations, etc., that the composer might bring to that piece—can be an enhancement in the listening process. I think that that can help. But I’ll go back to saying the work itself has to convince a listener by its own musical logic and in its own musical terms. This is also true of opera. As you know, it’s an immensely complex, collaborative art form. But in the end, in my view, all problems in opera are musical problems. It’s ultimately music that’s driving the agenda and that’s making it work or not. This is not, by the way, true of musicals necessarily, but certainly for opera it’s definitely the case.

FJO: You made a very interesting remark in a talk you did in 2010 with Greg Simon and Dan Kellogg in Colorado that’s posted online, something I thought was very poignant about who you’re writing your music for. What you said was, “I write for myself as a listener.” And then you said that you ask yourself, “Would I buy a ticket to this? Would this be something I would go to and get excited about?” When you write music you’re in a dialog with that inner audience member, that inner listener. I think this is very different from someone who says, “I don’t care about an audience; I’m writing for myself.” You’re not writing for yourself so much as you’re putting yourself in the position of being the listener for the piece.

PM: Right.

FJO: And it’s interesting in terms of audience preparedness, because you also said the piece has to work on its own terms. But when you give a piece a title, you’re already giving listeners an association. I would contend that a piece like Tempest Fantasy is going to affect listeners differently depending on whether: a) they’re paying attention to the title; b) they know the title and they know what it’s referring to in a superficial way; or c) they have a deeper relationship—they’ve read or have seen productions of The Tempest. These three scenarios will result in three very different kinds of interactions with the piece. And I’ll posit a guess that someone who has seen a production of The Tempest, maybe someone who’s seen that Patrick Stewart production at the Public, will come the closest to what you’re intending to convey.

PM: As I said, I would describe these associations as an enhancement of the experience, but the necessary condition is that the piece has to work in and of itself, not knowing the title or anything else like that.

FJO: I’m going to bring up a piece you probably haven’t thought about in a very long time, an early electronic piece you composed called Devices and Desires.

PM: That was a long time ago.

FJO: This piece was constructed from various found sound elements, which allowed you to make very specific references to certain things—cars starting, a telephone ringing, clocks ticking. These are things you can’t do in instrumental music. So even though so many people think of electronic music as an even more abstract medium than most other forms of music, it can actually be more representational, at least it was in the way that you worked with it.

PM: Sure. Sampled sound is a whole other matter. I’m fascinated by the technology of sampled sound and the fact that anything that can be recorded can become the stuff of musical composition. I think it’s absolutely amazing, and of course it’s possible only since we’ve had recording. I can remember being up at the Columbia University Electronic Music Lab splicing tape; it’s like The Flintstones when you think about it. Now we’re in the age of The Jetsons, where anybody sitting at their own Mac or sitting on the train or wherever can fashion these remarkable musique concrète creations digitally. In The Shining, we’re using a lot of really cool sound effects to bring the Overlook Hotel to life. Musique concrète is very much a part of this production. But you could use it in any context. I used this idea of recorded sound, clocks ticking, in a piece called The Time Gallery which I wrote for Eighth Blackbird. I added all these recorded sounds and so on to help to tell the various, very programmatic stories that I’m telling in that piece.

FJO: So, would it be fair to say that using these enhancements, using musique concrète and sampled sound, is a way for a composer of abstract instrumental music to make music less abstract.

PM: Yeah, I never thought of that, but it’s quite possible.

FJO: I never thought of it until I listened to that early electronic piece of yours. As luck would have it, I’m currently reading a book which is an ethnography of IRCAM, if you can imagine such a thing.

PM: What’s it called?

FJO: It’s called Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalizing of the Musical Avant-Garde. The author is Georgina Born who, prior to becoming an academic, played in the experimental British rock band Henry Cow. Anyway, she talks about the aesthetics of the people involved with IRCAM, who have a very different aesthetic from yours and from mine, but there’s a great quote she has about musical sound and meaning that ties into our discussion: “Music is a logogenic, unrelated to language, non-artifact, having no physical existence and non-representational. It is a self-referential, aural abstraction. This bare core must be the start of any socio-cultural understanding of music since only then can one build up an analysis of its social-cultural mediation.” I thought that quote was really weird because almost immediately after reading it, I came across Devices and Desires. I listened to it and thought, “This is the one piece that Paul Moravec wrote that could have possibly been done by somebody at IRCAM.” And yet it probably wouldn’t have been, because it’s so much about narrative. It’s taking these technologies and subverting what the Modernists wanted to do with them, which is to further abstract things, to explore sound for the sake of sound. Instead, you made it less abstract.

PM: I don’t think that music is really about music. I think that music is about something else. We can’t always articulate what music is about. If we could, then we would just write an essay about it. And then we wouldn’t have to write the piece. But it expresses the otherwise inexpressible. It’s a very mysterious language and we get into the whole question of whether it is a language at all. I think it is, in an abstract sense. In any event, I’ll go back to what I was saying before, which is that music isn’t really about music. It’s not the end-all and the be-all of the whole transaction.

There’s a great word that Hitchcock used to describe a device in one of his movies. It’s called the MacGuffin. My understanding of the MacGuffin is it’s what all of the characters care about, but that we don’t care about. So for example, to use a non-Hitchcock example, in Casablanca, it’s the letters of transit that trigger the action at the beginning of the narrative. All of the characters in Casablanca are trying to get letters of transit. That’s the MacGuffin. We don’t care about the letters of transit; we care about what the people feel as they try to get them. So, in a certain sense, sound is the MacGuffin in music.

We as creators, as composers and musicians, spend our whole lives trying to get the right sounds. It’s very, very difficult and we fine tune the sounds till we get just exactly what we want and so on. But that’s not really what music is about. That’s the MacGuffin. What music is really about is love and sorrow and the whole range of human emotion—making audible the whole range of human existence and human life. I’m interested in sound only to a certain extent, to the extent that it gets me to where I want to be in terms of my musical storytelling, my musical narrative. That’s the importance of sound to me.

FJO: Then why write a piece called Clarinet Concerto and another one called Violin Concerto? Why use such abstract titles that only refer to what these piece are formally?

PM: Well, for the Violin Concerto, something sang in me and was trying to get out, so I spent time articulating it musically, working very hard to get the right sounds and so on. But it’s to the end of doing something else. I’m after a bigger game than just pretty or beautiful sounds. By the way, I hope that it’s beautiful; I want to make beautiful things, but that’s not my ultimate intention. I’m trying to achieve something beyond that which I can’t describe. You just have to listen to the piece, and it either makes sense to you or it doesn’t.

FJO: I think it’s an extremely beautiful piece, particularly the second movement. I think it’s one of the most moving things of yours I’ve ever heard. But you’ve just said music isn’t ultimately about sound, and what strikes me about that piece, as a listener, is how beautiful it sounds. And that’s all that it’s about. You didn’t give listeners any other associations by giving it a name like Tempest Fantasy, or Circular Dreams, or The Time Gallery. So all we can think of is what it is: a composition for violin soloist and orchestra.

PM: But in creating a beautiful effect in sound, I like to think that it takes the listener to another level of experience, which I can’t describe. Beautiful music is the medium that opens the door to an elevated feeling of existence, of joy. I think that’s the difference between a work of art and a work of entertainment. I think that a work of entertainment can be very beautiful, but entertainment is really about taking a person out of themselves for a certain amount of time. We all need that psychologically; we all need to release and to get out of ourselves. Art tends in the opposite direction. Art takes us into ourselves. After an experience with a great work of art, we’re actually changed in some sense. For me, beauty in a work of musical art can do that.

FJO: When you call something a violin concerto, you’re associating it with every other violin concerto that’s ever gone before. Some people might think, “How does this stack against the Brahms, the Tchaikovsky, or the Beethoven?” But that’s a very specific set of listeners who know that repertoire, just like the very specific set of listeners and readers who would have seen productions of The Tempest. Whereas everybody is aware of the passage of time. So calling a piece The Time Gallery might have greater reach. Similarly Circular Dreams, since we all dream or at least we hope we sleep long enough to have a dream. Penderecki originally used the title 8’37” for his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. It’s a much more effective piece with the revised title. All those strange sounds—the quartertone clusters, the screeching of the bow playing behind the bridge—sound like the atomic bomb is falling. But that title was an afterthought. It only came to Penderecki after he heard the premiere. Could it be that by not giving a piece some kind of descriptive narrative title, you’re allowing listeners to create their own narratives?

PM: I’m sure that’s quite possible. I don’t disagree.

FJO: Curiously, the Clarinet Concerto has a fascinating backstory to it, but listeners wouldn’t know it from the title.

PM: David [Krakauer] wanted me to write a klezmer concerto, and I said to him, “I’m an Episcopalian. I don’t know if I know how to do this.” And he said, “You’re Slavic. Close enough. Same vibe, you know.” In any event, I did not try to write a klezmer concerto. What I did was to write a virtuoso piece that uses what David does so brilliantly. But in using the techniques that he’s developed with his neo-klezmer style, it ends up referring to some klezmer things. So there are these certain little eastern European things in it, but that’s not intentional. Krakauer’s one of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever heard. And it’s been such a joy to work with him on several projects.

FJO: Both of these concertos were written for players you’ve worked with a lot. In fact, Maria Bachmann, for whom you wrote the Violin Concerto, has been one of the most dedicated champions of your music, and has played many of your pieces going all the way back to another abstractly title piece, the Violin Sonata. It begs the question of what role these players have had in inspiring you.

PM: Well, it’s a great thing for a composer to write a piece knowing what, to some extent, it’s going to sound like. My long association with Maria Bachmann, for whom I’ve written at least a dozen pieces now including the Violin Concerto, has been a tremendous help to me and an inspiration because when I sit at the piano and try to work out the notes, I know exactly what it’s going to sound like on her fiddle, what exactly she does, and I write to her strengths. For example, among other things, her amazing, very high lyrical playing on the e-string. It just sounds spectacular. Not all violinists can do that as well, so there’s a lot of that in my Violin Concerto and that’s because I was writing for her. It’s a little bit like being able to write a play when you know that Al Pacino is going to be speaking your lines. You know right away that you’re in the world of this guy who looks a certain way, talks a certain way, slopes across the stage the way he does, and so on. That’s tremendously inspiring, and it’s extremely helpful to composers to write for their friends.

FJO: That level of specificity, though, goes against the game composers play with immortality: writing notes on paper that exist as a recipe that then gets made into a piece of music by a group of performers in city X on date Y, then again, in city Z on date Q with different people for a different audience and yet is the same piece. It has to translate, no matter who’s playing it. If these pieces are to have a life, they have to have multiple interpretations which will all be slightly different from each other, but will somehow still be “The Piece.” Tempest Fantasy has been played by many different groups at this point. Performances of it by two different groups have been posted to YouTube, and neither is the group that premiered and recorded it. And now there’s a second CD recording of it, with yet another ensemble, on the new Delos disc that also includes Amorisms. This piece is clearly becoming repertoire. But I wonder how that plays into your expectations based on the associations you’ve had with the original people for whom you wrote the piece. What is your reaction as a composer when you’re confronted with a second, or third, etc., interpretation of a piece?

PM: I wrote a piece called Brandenburg Gate for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and they premiered it at Carnegie Hall almost ten years ago. Of course, famously, it’s a conductor-less orchestra, and they’re absolutely fantastic. But then I heard it done with a very good group called Symphony in C, which is, by the way, the same orchestra that did my Violin Concerto that we’ve been talking about. Rossen Milanov conducted it, and the element of having the conductor coordinating everything made a different impression. In a certain sense, as much as I’d admired and loved what Orpheus did, having the conductor control everything made a difference; the piece made more sense to me, even though I wrote the piece originally with Orpheus in mind and with those wonderful four soloists in mind. I had worked very closely with them trying to get the sounds that they can bring to the piece. But what Rossen did with the Symphony in C made more musical sense ultimately.

FJO: To get back to music with lyrics, you’ve written a lot of pieces in direct collaborators with writers, which is considerably different than, say, setting Shakespeare, who can’t disagree with the way you’re setting his words.

PM: Right. Whew. Yeah, it’s a good thing.

FJO: Anyway, it makes me curious about the level of give and take that happens when you’re dealing with a living collaborator.

PM: I’ve had very happy experiences with Terry Teachout, with whom I’ve now written three operas, and we’re about to premiere a cantata this weekend at the Bach Festival Society in Winter Park. He’s a joy to work with. In the process of collaboration, if it’s really going well or even when you have a disagreement, or you run into a snag involving the words, I’ve had the happy experience of actually coming up with something better simply because we talked about it and just took it to the next level.

That’s certainly been the experience with Mark Campbell in writing The Shining. I would email him or call him up or we would actually talk in person, believe it or not, and I would say, “I’m having trouble with this line, or this moment doesn’t work. Can you help me out?” Very often, I’m glad to say, we came up with something that was much better than what we had originally. So it keeps compounding. That’s the great thing about working collaborations: you come up with better solutions as you go along. Mark and I are now going to write a big oratorio about the Underground Railroad for the Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall in 2018. These will be found texts, actual historical records that Mark will fashion into a narrative.

There’s another project like that. I’m working with Ted Kooser, a former Poet Laureate of the United States and a Pulitzer Prize winner, who lives out in Nebraska. He wrote a book called The Blizzard Voices in which he took actual survivors’ accounts of the blizzard of 1888 in the Midwest, in particular around Omaha, and fashioned it into a modern text about trying to survive this unbelievably terrible Old Testament Biblical disaster. Ted stepped back and he said, “I give you carte blanche to fashion what you have of mine and make it into a libretto.” I borrowed texts from the Bible and made it really into a kind of Old Testament oratorio à la Handel or Mendelssohn and Ted said, “Okay, fine.” I’ve been lucky with my collaborators. They’ve all been great.

FJO: Your collaboration with Terry Teachout is somewhat unusual because at first you didn’t know him personally, but he was one of your biggest advocates early on among music critics. It’s really weird to go from being written about by somebody to writing stuff with that person.

PM: Yeah, unfortunately, he can’t write about me anymore because of conflict of interest. But I remember—this must have been over 25 years ago—he called me up and left a message and said, “Would you call me?” And so I did. He picked up the phone and I said, “Hi, I’m Paul Moravec.” And he said, “Who are you?” We’ve been friends ever since and great collaborators.

By the way, this thing that we’re doing this weekend for the Bach Festival is a tribute for their conductor John Sinclair. It’s his 25th anniversary and there’s a big celebration. So Terry had the idea of making an ode to music. One of the things I like about this is that it’s a community event. There’s a lot of warmth, generosity, and good cheer. I feel like a useful citizen; I feel like a participating member of society. This is immensely gratifying to me.

FJO: The world of composing music can sometimes feel so rarified, so these kinds of community engagements are extremely important in terms of making the music more relevant to the communities we live in.

PM: Participating in a civic and community event, I think, goes back to my upbringing as a boy chorister in the Episcopal Church. You might know that the Episcopal Church is the Anglican Church, and there’s this tremendous literature and discipline that the English have had through the English men and boy choir tradition. I was lucky enough to have that in my life, growing up in Buffalo and in Princeton. From the age of ten, participating in a ritual that has great importance to people was hard-wired into my thinking. Somehow in my mind, I got the idea that music and ritual and community participation are all one. They’re all connected somehow. In some ways, they’re indissolubly linked. And I’m sure that comes out of my youth. By the way, also from a very young age, I was a professional musician. I think I got $1.16 a week when I was ten years old, which is tremendously impressive to a kid. Of course, it’s all been downhill since as a composer! But I remember because of that I had to get a social security card at the age of ten. I know it sounds silly, but the impressions that a ten-year old gets live on. Sometimes I still feel like I’m 16 years old, except when I try to go running, then I realize I’m not that age anymore. But emotionally I feel very much the same way.

FJO: Well, to counter what you just said about it all being downhill from there, I would say that it’s definitely gone uphill. I mean, here we are meeting in April. On Monday, they’re going to announce the winner of next year’s Pulitzer Prize. I think it would be pretty fair to say that although you had some significant commissions and performances before receiving the Pulitzer, there was an imprimatur that award gave you that—to repurpose a metaphor you used earlier today—opened doors in a really important way.

PM: Oh, absolutely. My being awarded the Pulitzer Prize in ’04 was absolutely a game changer. There’s no question about it. I wasn’t unknown before that, but it was nothing like after that. It was really like night and day. It made a big difference. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true for other people, but that was certainly my experience. And it definitely opened doors. It gave me opportunities that otherwise I probably would not have had. It changed my life. But it didn’t make me a better composer because nothing can make you a better composer except hard work.

FJO: Why do you think that award has such an impact?

PM: I think the Pulitzer Prize has cache in society because it’s essentially a journalism prize. The Grawemeyer is a big deal, but who knows what a Grawemeyer is? It just doesn’t have the same reach. When the Pulitzer Prizes are announced, it goes out all over the world. Everybody’s instantly famous because it’s the media. And these five or six categories of music, literature, etc., sort of ride on the back of it. This year is the centenary of the Pulitzer Prizes, so I got an invitation to this celebration at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue [in Washington, D.C.] at the end of January. My wife Wendy and I went down and saw that it’s really all about journalism. I think I was the only composer there besides Roger Reynolds. We didn’t see anybody else. There were hardly any writers. There were a few poets. There were lots of political cartoonists.

FJO: Everybody has this idea that the Pulitzer is this secret cabal and nobody knows how it works, but anyone can enter even though it traditionally always went to somebody who had a big publisher, probably because the big publishers made sure always to enter the required materials by the deadline. You have a publisher, but you actually entered the piece yourself, which is something anyone could and should do.

PM: Yeah, and then I forgot that I’d sent it in. It was early April 2004 and it was spring break from my job at Adelphi University where I’m a professor, and we thought, “Let’s go off to Sicily.” So we did. We were in the town of Taormina, and my wife’s assistant at work called from New York saying that there was a leak in our apartment and the super was freaking out. Then she said, “And so what do you think about the prize?” And I said, “I don’t know. What prize?” “You know, the Pulitzer Prize. You won the Pulitzer Prize.” And I said, “I didn’t know this.” This, by the way, was before cell phones were ubiquitous and even the internet was sometimes hard to get to; it was before all this technology had come of age. It really was quite possible not to know this. So we checked online, and it was in fact true. I couldn’t believe it. I was floored, partly because I’d completely forgotten that I’d sent in the piece. It was a happy day.

Jessie Montgomery: Conjuring Memories

Jessie Montgomery standing against a red wall.

Although she grew up in a very culturally diverse New York City neighborhood that has also long been a hotbed for artistic experimentation and rebellion, composer/violinist Jessie Montgomery most strongly identifies with European classical music.

“I write for traditional classical instruments, and I actually feel the most comfortable with them because it’s the closest thing that I have [musically],” Montgomery acknowledges when we visit her East Village apartment, which is actually the same place she lived with her parents as a child. “I feel very connected to European classical music because of the way I have learned how to play the violin. The actual physical resonance of the instrument speaks to that language beautifully, and I think that tradition is so rich.”

Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan

Starting violin lessons when she was only four years old at the Third Street Music School (which, chalk it up to East Village rebellion, is actually on Eleventh Street), Montgomery wrote her first original compositions seven years later, her creative appetite whetted by her violin teacher at the school, Alice Kanack, who got her to improvise. She soon became totally immersed in the complex interplay of string quartets, playing in several ensembles as well as eventually writing for them, and received an undergraduate degree in violin performance from The Juilliard School. After her graduation, she performed for five years with the Providence String Quartet and then with the Catalyst Quartet. Since her late teens, she has been nurtured by The Sphinx Organization, a non-profit developer of young Black and Latino classical musicians, and she has been a two-time laureate in the annual Sphinx Competition. But she realizes that her deep involvement with this music is somewhat unusual.

“For me, it happened to work out because I studied violin in a school on the Lower East Side that had a really good teacher,” she suggests. “Neither of my parents were necessarily into classical music at all, though now they are. But it was by chance that this happened because there was something in place where I could go study and get really good at it. I think that should be the case for any kind of music or opportunity, whether it’s learning a classical instrument or learning to play rock guitar or gymnastics. If we increase the pool of what’s available by creating opportunities for young people of all backgrounds to have access to, let’s say, classical music, then the pool from a fundamental level is more diverse. If people are attracted to classical music, that’s great. But there’s no need to force somebody to like classical music. … There is this feeling that it remains in this elite world and that people need to be drawn to it and that that raises you up into this place of classical music. I think that’s a faulty idea when you’re dealing with people. I’m African-American, so I think about black people and black music. But I wonder if the jazz community is having the same conversation. That’s black music; it’s a traditional art form that has developed into this super sophisticated thing that hasn’t brought their people along with it as much as they would like. I think that has to do, again, with enough people having opportunities to grow in whatever areas they’re interested in.”

A bunch of instrument cases on the floor.

Jessie Montgomery’s violin and some instruments are always nearby.

While classical music has been Montgomery’s primary focus in life and the music with which she has the greatest affinity, she has never completely isolated herself from the many other kinds of musical activities that have been happening all around her.

“I happened to have come through it, playing a classical instrument and learning the repertoire, but I have always seen it as another reference point,” she elaborates. “My connection to that music has now became a part of this multifaceted language I’m drawing from. There’s European classical music, there’s jazz, there’s funk, there’s alternative rock, there’s African music—all these different kinds of music available to us now through recordings, etc., and also through just living in a place where there are a lot of different cultures just banging up against each other. … My dad ran a music studio so I was constantly surrounded by all different kinds of music. I would do drawings and my homework in the lobby while all these things were going on.”

Piles of LPs on the floor.

The floor of Jessie Montgomery’s apartment is filled with piles of jazz and pop as well as classical LPs.

Montgomery sees this polyglot musical environment as a quintessentially American phenomenon and something that has long served as a creative fuel for American composers. “The tradition of classical music coming to America and then what American composers have done with the music is so interesting,” Montgomery says. “There is this tradition in America with classical music to try and find other ways to connect to it. … People are starting to see American music as its own thing, its own unique voice, in relation to classical music.”

But what sets Montgomery’s own music apart from so many of her antecedents as well as peers is how deeply immersed she has been for most of her life in the performance of works by other composers. That insider’s knowledge has given her more than just an ability to write really idiomatic music, especially for strings. It has also helped her to understand the mindset of classical interpreters and to offer them music that allows for greater spontaneity and a little less formality.

“I really like the idea of adding elements of improvisation and chance and making the performers engage a little differently with the piece,” she explains. “Having played so much standard repertoire in String Quartet Land, there’s such a rigidity. There’s this expectation that things should always be executed a certain way. There’s a real beauty in trying to find your sound and your own voice in the way you interpret a piece of music that has all these expectations on it, but then I like to throw this other element in where it’s like screw all that stuff you just worked out and change the performance from one night to another.”

Interpretative freedom is a hallmark of Montgomery’s 2013 string quartet Break Away, a work she created expressly for the PUBLIQuartet, which she had previously been a member of when the quartet first formed, since the group is equally adept at performing standard repertoire, newly commissioned works, and open-form improv. Ironically it was inspired by the group’s performances of the Five Movements for String Quartet by Anton Webern, a composer revered as the spiritual forefather of total serialism, a compositional approach that tends to eschew a great degree of performance variance. In another string quartet, Voodoo Dolls (2008), which is being performed by Fulcrum Point in Chicago on April 29, 2016 as part of a concert entitled Proclamation!: The Black Composer Speaks, the players tap on their instruments before launching into cascades of ostinatos. In Color from 2014, scored for the unlikely combination of tuba and string quartet, was commissioned by jazz tuba giant Bob Stewart with whom the PUBLIQuartet premiered it in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, though Montgomery claims that when “jazz language comes into play” it’s more a result of her “memory of what jazz sounds like” rather than its being overtly informed by a deep immersion in jazz performance practice.

Another defining attribute of Montgomery’s music is that narratives are woven through so many of her compositions, even though—with the exception of a new piece that was just premiered by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City—she has written exclusively for instruments and mainly for strings. This is clearly because her compositions initially grew directly out of her playing, but now they are evolving beyond it. She obtained a master’s in composition and film scoring from New York University and credits that experience with taking her out of her comfort zone of writing only for strings. During the 2011-2012 season, while she was the Van Lier Composer Fellow at the American Composers Orchestra, she composed a quartet for four wind instruments. The Albany Symphony will premiere her second full orchestral work in June, and a piece is also in the works for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Most of these pieces contain some kind of programmatic element.

“The practice of writing for films forced me to use a wider instrumentation,” Montgomery remembers. “But when I applied to NYU, I hadn’t written anything for films. I think I got in basically on the premise that I was writing from this idea of image. And I’ve been continuing to write from that point of view. My mother is a theater artist and storyteller and a lot of her work is based in family history. I think I’m starting to take that on in terms of finding a narrative in each one of my pieces. Words are the easiest way to tell a story, for sure, but sound can conjure lots of memories. There’s this collective memory that can be aroused through sound, and I like trying to get at that somehow.”

A reflection of Jessie Montgomery in a mirror next to a disembodied set of piano hammers on its side.

One of the ways that Montgomery has transcended the trappings of the inherently abstract, non-representational medium of instrumental music is by infusing her pieces with audible ciphers such as references to materials with which most of her listeners would be familiar and which conjure very specific associations. In the string quartet Source Code (2013), she made overt references to the sound world of African-American spirituals. The Isaiah Fund for New Initiatives, the work’s commissioner, requested a piece that addressed what it means to be an American, so Montgomery’s response was to attempt to musically convey her parents’ participation in the Civil Rights movement. For Banner, a string quartet from 2014 which was commissioned to celebrate the 200th anniversary of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Montgomery weaved in references to many songs in addition to our national anthem to convey her own complex feelings.

“I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a die-hard patriot,” she confesses. “We should celebrate, but also take note of struggles that have occurred in order for us all to be in this ‘land of the free’ which is the hard question in that song for me, as well as a lot of people. So that piece is all about songs. There are a lot of Civil Rights songs and also anthems from Puerto Rico and Mexico and a Cuban socialist song as well as ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ Some were exactly quoted and some were just used as motivic devices. … Somebody asks you to write a piece based on whatever idea they would like you to write a piece on, and you sort of have to find a way to that place.”

Break Away, Source Code, and Banner are all included on Strum, the debut CD of Montgomery’s music which was released in October 2015 on Azica Records. In addition to these three string quartets and another from 2006 titled Strum, the disc contains a very energetic piece she composed for string orchestra in 2012 titled Starburst.

There’s also one track scored for violin alone, titled Rhapsody No. 1, which Montgomery plays herself.

“This is probably going to evolve as things go on, but I do consider myself primarily a violinist,” she admits. “That was my first love.”

A text-based painting with the text: "SUCK CESS"

A bit of advice from a text-based painting that is hanging in Jessie Montgomery’s apartment.

Muhal Richard Abrams: Think All, Focus One

Muhal Richard Abrams sitting in front of the New Music USA mural (created by the staff at New Music USA in 2015)

Muhal Richard Abrams

A conversation at New Music USA
January 15, 2016—2:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Although very early on in our conversation Muhal Richard Abrams adamantly denied ever being anyone’s teacher, I learned more during the hour I spent talking to him than I had in most of my music classes. And yet, I feel like it’s almost impossible to adequately communicate what it is exactly that I learned. At the risk of sounding like a Zen koan, that is precisely what I learned.

Let me attempt to explain. To Abrams, there are no boundaries. Any label we put on something—fixed composition vs. spontaneous improvisation, group vs. individual, even old music vs. new music—is artificial and limits possibilities. From his vantage point, all dualities are contained within each other. All improvisations are compositions and all compositions begin as improvisations. A solo performance can inhabit multiple personalities and an orchestra can be the embodiment of a pluralistic individualism. As for old and new, “None of it’s real because the situation that is characterized as old often times is revisited and found to be useful for some future purpose. And something new can be visited and found that is reminiscent of something that’s old.”

Though an iconic figure in the history of jazz, the 85-year-old composer/pianist also eschews the word jazz since it only describes certain aspects of his music.

“The word jazz can be confusing,” Abrams points out. “But if we say music, it could be anywhere. It’s just music. The next question, what type of music? Okay. No type of music. Just sound.”

And indeed over the past seven decades, Abrams has created music that some listeners might categorize as blues, Latin, classical, and all kinds of jazz from swing to bop to free. He’s even experimented with electronic music.

“That came about because sound can be produced in any way that you feel that you’d like to produce sound,” Abrams explains. “It’s just electronic sound. … But sound, that’s the thing, because before music can be called music, it has to be harnessed and structured from sound. Music is a by-product of sound. Sound is the thing. Sound.”

While the music he has created is extremely individualistic, it is also the by-product of his humility and deep sense of community. I titled this feature “Think All, Focus One,” which is the name of one of his most fascinating explorations involving electronics, the closing track of an album released 21 years ago on the Black Saint label. It’s as succinct and definitive a summation I can conceive of for a creator whose life’s work embraces and reconciles such a broad range of aesthetics.

This Spotify playlist containing over seven hours of music by Muhal Richard Abrams merely scratches the surface of his immerse and highly varied discography.


Frank J. Oteri: There’s a beautiful quote by you at the end of your liner notes for a record that came out in 1987 called Colors in Thirty-Third which I think sums up your belief system about music: “May the past, present, and future be ever before us as one.”

Muhal Richard Abrams: Well, I think I was trying to be in any time. I was thinking infinitely, if that’s possible. And I believe it is. Whatever I said could be in any time because it applied to what I feel is your essence, your inner focus.

The CD cover for Colors in Thirty Third (Black Saint, 1987)

Black Saint released Muhal Richard Abrams’s Colors in Thirty-Third in 1987

FJO: So many people describe music as either being “old music” or “new music.” But sometimes the lines can be very blurry. For example, in jazz, changes in style happened very rapidly; the transition from swing to bop and then cool and free all happened in a relatively brief period of time. Your music incorporates elements from all of these styles. For you, it’s all part of the language. And your music tells us that we can do it all.

MRA: Well, it’s partly human language. We can’t separate ourselves from other human beings because we are expressing ideas and all human beings express ideas. I may express it through a musical continuum and a poet may it express through literary continuums, but it’s basically the same thing because when we confront the whole idea of movement or rhythm, all these different sections or areas have rhythm in common, you know. And human beings have rhythm and breathing in common.

So, in reference to people saying this is old or this is new, if it’s old for you, then it’s old for you. If it’s new for you, it’s new for you. But those are just terms that are useful to describe the particular mood that that person or those people are feeling. None of it’s real because the situation that is characterized as old often times is revisited and found to be useful for some future purpose. And something new can be visited and found that is reminiscent of something that’s old. Take women’s fashion or men’s fashion. We see it every day. You know what I mean? And we certainly see it in music. Why is it that Beethoven and Bach are current and present today and valid today? Why is Duke Ellington still extremely important? When we view him as an individual creator, there’s a lot to learn. We’re observing an individual’s output, and I think the fact that we are all individuals for some reason or other is the basis of real education.

FJO: When you started to answer my previous question you said that you express things in music that other people express in poetry. Before we began taping our conversation we were talking about visual art, which is another avenue for personal expression. What caused music to be the thing that you expressed yourself in throughout your life? How did you come to music?

MRA: I expressed myself in the visual arts first, though certainly not long enough in terms of a practice. I was attracted to all of it at the same time. But I applied myself to the visual arts and then music took over. That’s it. It just took over.

FJO: Was there any kind of crystallizing moment of hearing something?

MRA: I think I started remembering something. I think that’s what it was. In the visual arts also, I was remembering something because it didn’t seem like I had to learn it. It certainly required practice, of course. Everything requires practice because if you don’t practice, then you’re kidding yourself, in terms of developing and receiving really great ideas. I started remembering things and my musical memory started to dominate. It’s the best way I can explain it. It just started to dominate, so I just put the bulk of the practice in music.

FJO: Was there a lot of music in your household when you were growing up?

Cover for Eddie Harris's 1970 Atlantic album Instant Death

One of the most unusual entries in the Muhal Richard Abrams discography is his appearance as a sideman for Eddie Harris’s funky 1972 Atlantic album Instant Death.

MRA: I grew up in Chicago, and there was music all around. It was a blues center. I listened to all kinds of that. I grew up around Muddy Waters and all those guys. And there were a lot of great jazz musicians. And a lot of those great jazz musicians played classical music. So I was impressed with all of it. Then I got a chance to listen to regular so-called classical music. I was enjoying and appreciating that, and having the desire to learn how to compose all sorts of music because my training was like a street improviser. I learned to play standard tunes and what not like that. But I always held two situations at the same time: making up things and being with things that were made already. It all was happening at the same time.

FJO: One of the things that I find so fascinating about your development is that playing the piano and composing music are both things that you pretty much did without a teacher.

MRA: Oh yeah.

FJO: This is pretty extraordinary. Of course, there have been others who have done that, but there aren’t too many of them, especially not many who have taken it to the level that you have. But what’s ironic about that is that you have been an important mentor to so many other people, both your contemporaries and musicians from younger generations, yet you yourself had no such mentor.

MRA: I can certainly identify some people that I associated with that were older than I was around Chicago. I certainly learned a lot from them. But I don’t claim to be a teacher. I never have claimed to be a teacher. If someone claims that they’ve learned something from being close or around me or associated with me, that’s fine. Those kinds of things happen through association, but mentor or teacher? If people want to apply those terms, fine. But I don’t think of myself in that way. I love sharing and collaborating with people, young or old. There’s something to learn from each person’s individualism, and if I’m associating with you, then your individualism can tell me something that I don’t know anything about. And my individualism can possibly do the same for you, because we all, as individuals, have something that no one else has. As I tried to state earlier, I think that’s the basis of the real human education.

FJO: Well, one of the things that’s so transformative about small group improvisatory music—call it jazz or whatever you want to call it—in its history in America is that it is such a human music because it is about people spontaneously creating together and reacting to each other. So you can hear someone’s individuality, and it leads you down a certain path, and then they hear what you did, and it leads them down a certain path, and it’s this wonderful, fluid conversation between individuals.

MRA: We have used the word jazz, but any type of description of music, especially the word jazz, can be confusing because, like we spoke of earlier, some people say they like the old or that this is new and the word jazz has stuck with a lot of people as a certain type of activity, so it can’t describe anything past that for those people. But if we say music, it could be anywhere. It’s just music. The next question, what type of music? Okay. No type of music. Just sound. You know, because that’s what it is. Sound. Before it’s even organized into any kind of continuum that we would call music, it’s just sound. As we speak here, I certainly feel that every serious practiced output that has come about since the beginning of time, is good—and valid. A style name limits the scope or the focus and that turns out to be unfair to quite a number of people.

FJO: Jazz has certain associations for people and so does classical. It was interesting to hear you say “so-called classical.”

Cover for the 1981 album Duet featuring Muhal Richard Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers.

In 1981, Muhal Richard Abrams joined forces with Amina Claudine Myers for an album of duets for two pianos that explores a wide range of musical styles.

MRA: It’s the same. You’re putting a restriction on a vast area of activity. And, by the way, you alluded to the fact that one could learn from the other. Classical music is the same thing. It’s written composition, of course, but the great composers did a lot of improvising, too. All of them. When you play their music, you can tell. It’s not just mechanical. Rachmaninoff sat down and played ideas at pianos. I’m sure he did that. Then he said, “Well, I’ll make this a piece.” Certainly Chopin must have done that. But they were well-trained musicians, so they knew how to handle the material of harmony, rhythm, and melody, because you hear all those things. It’s just too human in its feeling and its activity to be strictly mechanical. As a composer, if you give me a score pad I could just sit right now—I don’t need to have a piano or anything—and I can just write; I don’t have to know what it sounds like. I know how to structure it. That’s one way. If I sit down at the piano and start playing and say, “Yeah, I like this. I’ll write this down.” That’ll sound a little different. So I’m sure in their case, they improvised a lot of things. But it’s quite different from a person that has had the experience of improvising as a focus; theirs was compositional as a focus.

FJO: So to take an improvisation and turn it into a composition, the lines can often be very fluid and very blurry, as they ought to be. And I think they always were, as you’ve said. But what are things that make something that was spontaneously conceptualized in the moment into something that could theoretically be something that you’d want to repeat and do the same way other times, again and again? What gives it that essence of compositionality? How does it go from being an improvisation to being a composition?

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album Afrisong.

Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1975 album Afrisong is a collection of seven of his solo piano improvisations.

MRA: I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think what I’ll say is probably pretty similar in each case. Some things you want to keep for several reasons, but one of the main reasons is that you learned something from doing this. You were enlightened by it. So you want to keep it because it might have constituted an area where you solved something that you might have been having questions about. Let me try this. Let me see what this is like. Oh, I think I’ll write it down. Sure.

FJO: So when did that first start happening for you?

MRA: It always happened.

FJO: But you said that when you first started making music, you were improvising.

MRA: But I was doing that too, though.

FJO: So you were writing stuff down? How did you come to learn music notation?

MRA: Well, I came to a point where I wanted to be more technically enlightened about composing, so I started to study on my own. I remember they had these harmony books. They’re teaching people harmony out of a book. I’ll just go buy the books, and I’ll read the books. And so I just see what it is. I didn’t need the teacher. No disrespect to the teachers, it’s just my kind of feeling. I’ve always had a kind of feeling that I could teach myself if I could find the information somewhere because I had the patience to spend the time to try and learn it no matter how difficult the learning curve.

FJO: But there’s also another kind of learning that happens from working relationships. For many musicians, working as a sideman in someone’s group has been an analogous experience to being that person’s student. And there were all these great musicians you played with when they came to Chicago—like Max Roach and Dexter Gordon. This had to have been a learning process for you.

MRA: Oh yeah, on the stage—listen, that was it! You didn’t go up on the stage unless you could really complement the scene.

FJO: So how did those opportunities come about? How did Max Roach learn about you?

MRA: Mostly through Joe Segal, the person who had a venue called the Jazz Showcase. He had it at different clubs and things, but he really started with having jam sessions at Roosevelt University, so we would all participate in jam sessions. Then he started to bring in national and international entertainment and would hire us as sidemen for the people that were coming. That’s how that came about.

FJO: You attended Roosevelt briefly.

MRA: Very briefly. I was searching for a learning path. However, I found that I didn’t really need that either.

FJO: Well, there’s a quote from you I came across where you said you wanted to go there to learn about the music, but what they were telling you about the music wasn’t the same as what you were experiencing.

MRA: It was very basic, and I was performing more advanced type things than they were. But let me be fair to them. You know, if teachers are going to teach, they start with the basics. I don’t blame them for not having different information than I had from actual playing in the street. But, like I said, what I did decide is that the same literature that they had there to teach me, I could just get the literature and teach myself. That way, the pace by which I would learn the literature could be a pace that I would set. It would take me six months to learn that a triad has a positive and a negative, but you could learn that in two days.

FJO: I wish there was some recorded documentation of your performances with Max Roach.

MRA: No, we didn’t record. I performed with him, and it was great. That was some education. That was like a Ph.D.

FJO: And Dexter Gordon?

MRA: Same. And Sonny Stitt.

FJO: I’m also intrigued that you worked with a really great singer who’s not as well remembered now as she should be—Ruth Brown.

MRA: Yeah. Believe it. And Percy Mayfield. You remember Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love”?

FJO: What do you feel you got from working with Ruth Brown?

MRA: Her feeling was so great. It was a challenge to present the right complement every night. Just basic things. But my experience in Chicago around blues and different forms like that came in handy. I was ready to do it.

FJO: One thing that I hear, and I was wondering if you will agree with me or not, is I find your piano playing so melodically rich; the melodies just soar. It almost sounds like singing at times. Some pianists are really rhythmic, or percussive, or really big on harmonies, but I feel that your pianism is a very melodically flowing pianism.

MRA: Yeah, I guess it is. I don’t know. I feel a lot of worlds all at the same time and respect for a lot of worlds, even the percussive world sometimes. I do that, too. Actually, I think what it is for me is I’m composing. I think it’s basically that. I’m composing. And for me, there are two ways of composing: writing it on a paper and improvising. So when I’m playing the piano, it’s improvised composing or composed improvising. The memory of what you’ve been and what you are and whatever you will be comes out.

FJO: None of what you did with Max Roach, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Percy Mayfield, and Ruth Brown got recorded. But you did record with a group called Modern Jazz Two + Three.

MRA: Oh yeah. It was the first recording I ever made.

FJO: I’ve been trying to track down that record for a very long time, but somebody posted one of the tracks on YouTube—a composition of yours called “Temporarily Out of Order.”

MRA: George Coleman reminded me of that piece a couple years back. He used to play it. He sang it. I’m surprised that he remembered it.

The cover for the 1957 album Daddy-O Presents MJT+3

The first recording on which Muhal Richard Abrams appears is the 1957 Argo album Daddy-O Presents MJT+3. It was briefly re-issued on CD in Japan in 2002.

FJO: It’s got a great melody and some interesting chord progressions, but what strikes me about it is how different it is from what you started doing very soon afterwards with the Experimental Band. I don’t know the whole album, but judging from that one track, wonderful though it is, it is not experimental music. So what led you to go from straight-ahead type playing to wanting to really be open to the full range?

MRA: I was always that way. It’s just that I came to a point where I needed to express the more open type approach. You know, you evolve. So I came to that point and, because I was seeing it all the time through writing original pieces, I just decided to open it up. There were a couple of musicians around Chicago who agreed with that. And we just started opening things up.

FJO: But what’s interesting about what happened in Chicago with you and the other musicians there is that it was very different than similar developments with free music in New York and Los Angeles at the time. While you were opening things up, as you say, you remained mindful about earlier history and also about contemporaneous popular music. It was never experimental for the sake of being experimental. It was really about just having this open view, as we’ve been saying before, of being mindful of the past, the present, and the future all at the same time rather just making music for the future and forgetting about the past.

MRA: Well, I don’t even think that’s possible. People could fancy themselves doing what you just said, but I think basically people were trying to be composer-improvisers and the main generator was the individualism of each person. That is very important because I believe that individualism resulted in a scene with quite a few very strong individuals, like those that came out of the AACM. They were very strong individuals because they were encouraged and presented with a situation that asked them to present their individualism in concert. So there was a constant challenge to meet those challenges.

Cover for the 1985 Muhal Richard Abrams Black Saint album View from Within

On Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1985 Black Saint album View from Within, styles range from straight-ahead hard bop to free jazz, Latin, Chicago blues, and even contemporary classical music.

FJO: Since the past, present, and future are all a continuum, I’m going to jump decades ahead and then we’ll jump back. In the ‘80s you released a record with a very interesting title—View from Within. There’s an incredibly wide range of music on there. One track is Latin music. Another one is a full-on Chicago blues.

MRA: That’s right.

FJO: There’s also material on there that sounds like classical music, as well as stuff that sounds like straight-ahead jazz. But what’s interesting is that you describe all this as a view from within as opposed to the view from outside.

MRA: I’ve kept a better balance by respecting other things. Somehow it balances me to do that. Learning from another individual’s information—that’s extremely important.

FJO: Now in terms of balancing, to bring it back to the 1960s, your second LP—Young at Heart/Wise in Time—is like two completely different records. You reminded me of it when you were saying that sometimes you also get all rhythmic and percussive. There are sections on the ensemble side, Young at Heart, that are throbbing and really intense, especially in the interplay between you and the percussionist, Thurman Barker. But the other side, Wise in Time, is a beautiful, lush, at times almost Rachmaninoff-esque piano solo.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album Young at Heart / Wise in Time (Delmark, 1969)

Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1969 Delmark album Young at Heart / Wise in Time is ideally suited to the LP format since it consists of two very different side-long tracks: a composition for ensemble and a sprawling solo piano improvisation.

MRA: Well, listening to people like Art Tatum, and also Rachmaninoff, it was sitting down getting a feeling of how the piano sounds as a complement to all these people. That’s all it was: Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Art Tatum, Monk. Just sitting down and being musical in that way, to explore how the piano can sound. I think that’s probably what happened in that instance.

FJO: It’s a perfect listening experience on an LP because you have the two sides, whereas on a CD or an online stream you don’t get that same sense of duality.

MRA: It was limited, but yet not.

FJO: Now, in terms of the composition-improvisation divide, how much was worked out in advance and how much was completely spontaneous.

MRA: The piano solos were improvised. Period.

FJO: Completely improvised?

MRA: Yes, that’s what I’m saying—just sitting down and respecting the fact that it’s important to make an effort to be musical and to explore, as best you can, how the piano can sound. So that’s a compliment to Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Chopin, Monk, Duke, and also one of my first influences on piano, King Fleming. I just mentioned him because he needs to be mentioned. He was the first pianist I heard who was a jazz pianist and was classically trained. The way he played the piano, he was aware of the piano sounding in a combination of manners—jazz and classical, all at the same time. He listened to a lot of people who were like that: Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum. But I think King Fleming’s influence as to how a pianist should sound hit me first and early, because he was the first pianist that I’d gotten close to who could play like that. And he had a large band, and the arranger who orchestrated for that was a trumpet player, Will Jackson. I need to mention him, too. I learned a great deal from both of these gentlemen. I learned performing in a jazz band from King Fleming and writing for a jazz band from Will Jackson. They’re both deceased now, but I think that other people should know about them.

FJO: Curiously, on your first recording date as a leader, in addition to playing piano, you also played clarinet.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's first album as a leader, Levels and Degrees of Light (Delmark, 1967)

On Muhal Richard Abrams’s recording debut as a leader, the 1967 Delmark album Levels and Degrees of Light he plays clarinet in addition to playing piano.

MRA: Well, I just feel musical with anything that I would apply myself to. I wanted to play the clarinet, so I just picked up clarinet and respected the fact—I practiced clarinet. I certainly didn’t stay with it as long as I could have, but I stayed with it long enough to do what I needed to do in terms of when I did perform with it.

FJO: And I imagine that it gave you other ideas that you might not have gotten on the piano, because of the different physical relationship it requires, producing sound with your breath.

MRA: It’s a different feeling because it’s a different mechanical manipulation. Sure.

FJO: This multi-instrumentalism is a hallmark of AACM members. In terms of the beginnings of the AACM, you were its founder as well as its first president. You were the person who brought these people together. But notions of hierarchy seem antithetical to you, as well as to aesthetics of the AACM overall; so how did that work?

MRA: There was no hierarchy. We all agreed to agree; sometimes we agreed not to agree. But we certainly agreed to contribute to each other’s efforts to express one’s individualism. And that was the basis of it.

FJO: So how did that whole thing come about?

MRA: Well, I had organized a band called Experimental Band, which was a precursor of the AACM. I needed a place to try out some of the newly learned things that I was educating myself about in terms of music through my studies. I needed a place to express those things. They were more open things. They weren’t things that you’d play in jazz clubs. So I organized what I called the Experimental Band. The musicians could come and experiment with composition and improvisation. We were of like minds. And so from there we came to a point where I collaborated with three other musicians to create a formal association based on the same idea. That’s how the AACM came about.

FJO: It began from a group, but it’s not a performing group per se. It’s sort of a composer collective, but it operates in a different way than most composer collectives. It came from this idea of not playing in clubs and finding alternative venues for this kind of music, but it’s not a venue in and of itself.

MRA: We presented our own concerts. We also created the venue for producing the music or, rather, for presenting the music. We created a venue through just renting a space and presenting the concerts. In other words, it was a total effort. We weren’t looking for a place to perform the music. We created a place to perform the music. And so it was all one.

FJO: There are two things that could be strong motivators for doing this. One is what you had said about making music that wouldn’t work in a club. Or maybe it was music that the club wouldn’t want necessarily because it didn’t fit with the definition of music the people at the club were interested in presenting or that they felt the audience expected from that club. But there’s also another motivator which is about creating a space for the kind of listening that is most appropriate for this music. To really be able to focus on it requires a different kind of space than a club.

MRA: Well, no. Not really. Let me say this. It could have been played in clubs. In fact, we did. We were in residence every Monday night at a club. We played the way we played, and the place stayed packed with people who wanted to hear what we were doing. So it could be played in clubs. It was just that it wasn’t regular gig music. People come to hear standard things. But certainly we played in several clubs and the night we played was the night that people would come to hear what we would do. So it could be played anywhere. In Chicago, it was like that. It could be played anywhere in the city.

FJO: The reason I wanted to talk about it now is because the world 50 years ago is quite different from the world today in terms of venues. Nowadays, people who doing the most experimental kinds of things want to go back and play in clubs and suddenly clubs have become an even more tolerant space; whereas a half century ago there were more limits on what you could do. I think the notion of what is possible in a club now is very different.

MRA: Certainly you go to clubs here in New York now and you might hear anything because it’s wide open to individualism. I think that is the real factor that brought this type of situation to the fore, because individualism is not something that’s strange. You know what I mean? People today expect to hear an individual doing an individual type of presentation.

FJO: I’m also curious about this in terms of recording and how most people experience music. We didn’t really talk about listeners so much in this, like the ideal listening experience for somebody hearing what you or what other people associated with the AACM do. I don’t expect you to speak for the others, but to speak for yourself. What is an ideal listener in terms of focus on the music? Should the person be paying full attention? Could the music just be in the background? So many people nowadays walk around wearing headphones and listening to music as they’re going through their daily routines. Is that an okay way to experience this music versus being completely focused on it and having it speak to you— and have only it, ideally, speak to you?

Cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's 1995 New World CD One Line, Two Views

Another provocatively titled Muhal Richard Abrams recording is the 1995 New World album One Line, Two Views which once again demonstrates Abrams’s penchant for reconciling seemingly opposing aesthetics.

MRA: Well, let me ask a question. How many different ways can a person decide to concentrate? I think that question asks many other questions. If a person is concentrating and seriously listening, it could be through earphones walking down the street. I wouldn’t even attempt to try to say what would be the ideal situation or where a person should listen to music. I think they make that choice. But the fact that there are people who seriously want to listen to certain kinds of music—well, they’ll do it anywhere, even through earphones. You know what I mean? They’ll do it anywhere, if that is convenient for them, and they’ll just do it whenever they find a convenient time to do it. I think that’s the answer, because people are listening to all sorts of things and I think a lot of them are quite eclectic, too. I mean, they’re listening to all kinds of stuff.

FJO: Well, if they listen to you, they’ll be hearing everything.

MRA: [laughs] I don’t know about that.

FJO: To bring it back to those early AACM years, you were such an important voice in the Chicago music scene, and yet in the mid-1970s you moved to New York City and have been here ever since. What made you uproot yourself?

MRA: What can I say? It was just time to move. Chicago is a great place, but New York is a different kind of place. The intensity and the challenge is quite constant. I guess it was just time for me to do that. You’re swimming in a pond and sometimes you go where it feeds into the ocean.

FJO: You came to the ocean, but a lot of the things that you did here were similar to what you had done there. In New York City, you were a major force in developing the loft concert scene. So to some extent you brought a Chicago idea to New York.

Cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album 1-OQA+19

The somewhat cryptically titled 1-OQA+19, Muhal Richard Abrahms’s first album as a leader recorded in New York City (in November and December of 1977) and featuring four other AACM alumni (Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Steve McCall, and Leonard Jones), is definitely a continuation of the ensemble music he was involved with in Chicago.

MRA: Well, I don’t know about that, but I didn’t intend to function in any other way except for the way I was functioning. I have to include other people, of course, but we all came to do what we do: presenting concerts, same as we’d been doing in Chicago. Now we’re in the ocean; we do it according to this space.

FJO: It was such a vital time for this music, but now, 40 years later, a lot of that scene has disappeared or has changed very fundamentally. Back then Roulette was a loft. It was Jim Staley’s apartment. Now it’s an official, street-level concert venue. It’s amazing that we finally have such a venue that’s dedicated to new, exploratory music. That’s wonderful. But I also think we might have lost some of the personal, home-grown, DIY quality that we once had when so many of these concerts were taking place in people’s own homes. With the way the real estate market has played out, the way demographics have changed, we probably can no longer have such a scene in quite the way that we had it back then.

MRA: You hit it on the head when you said real estate market. There’s a reason for that. The real estate requirement for higher rents caused people to just give it up in terms of maintaining those venues. It happened to quite a few, without naming them, as I’m sure you know. But with Roulette, his [Jim’s] perseverance in terms of what he wanted to do paid off, which is great.

FJO: But what’s interesting is now he’s got this great space, but it’s not a loft anymore. It’s something else. It’s a fabulous something else, but it’s a different listening modality. It doesn’t have the same intimacy. It can’t.

CD cover for the 2005 Pi release Streaming featuring Muhal Richard Abrams and George Lewis

The 2005 duo album Streaming, released on Pi, is a truly collaborative effort between two old friends and musical co-conspirators, Muhal Richard Abrams and George Lewis.

MRA: Well—and I’m sure you know this—you have to upgrade. You’re asking people for money, so you have to put it on a level where you can use that kind of money you’re asking for, if you’re fortunate enough to make those kind of contacts. But I think the music itself or the idea of the music and the presentation of the music hasn’t changed. At Roulette, they present a great variety of musical approaches. If anything, he expanded, but I suppose it has to be what it is in terms of physical structure in order to accomplish what it is that they want to do. If you do something for ten years, you say, “I want to do it again for the next ten years; however, I want to levitate and do it like this.” Things just have to grow. There’s a nostalgic feeling in reference to vinyl records and CDs, there’s a nostalgic feeling for the lofts and whatnot like that, but I think that the musical content in the lofts is still at play. It’s just not in the lofts.

FJO: So, for you, where are the ideal places where you would like to either play music or have your music played by others to be heard?

MRA: Oh, I don’t have any except for the AACM concerts. We’re still producing those concerts. But Roulette is a good place for having things done that are not AACM-type presentations. And Tom Buckner’s series does quite a few good things. I mean, I like seeing some things on his series that otherwise maybe wouldn’t be on an AACM series, some compositional things. I’ve done some things on his series. There are a few venues in Brooklyn. I don’t function in Brooklyn, so I’m not in touch with those other venues, except for Roulette. But they have other venues around that seem to be pretty consistent in presenting written and improvised music.

FJO: To bring it back to your music again, my all-time favorite piece of yours is The Hearinga Suite. I feel it has a foot in both of the worlds we’ve been talking about: that of composed improvisation and improvised composing—so-called classical music and so-called jazz. It’s a fluid interplay that is both at once—informed by both, yet neither. It’s its own thing. So I wanted to talk to you a bit about it and how it came into being. Do you feel it represented a turning point in your music because of its scale, both in terms of its length and the number of players involved in it?

MRA: No, I was always like that. I mean, it’s just happening. It’s a project that I did at that time, but in terms of the musical ingredients, they were always there. The idiom, the compositional makeup of the piece, that’s just me in that.

FJO: What does the word Hearinga mean?

MRA: It’s an expression, like a song—Hearinga—like a name or something. It has nothing to do with the music, but it’s an expression that is used to speak in reference to the music.

FJO: I thought it was about hearing, because it’s “hearing”-a. I thought you gave it the title as a way to focus listeners on hearing this multiplicity.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's The Hearinga Suite (Black Saint, 1989)

The Hearinga Suite, arguably Muhal Richard Abrams’s most ambitious work, was released by Black Saint in 1989.

MRA: That’s great, because certainly I intended for the title to provoke thought and wonder. But the intention was to bring a thought from the listener that would require the listener to deal with the listener’s self. You see what I’m talking about? It’s hard to explain, but I mean—it’s like I’m thinking and I’m looking at the table. I’m thinking about the table, and all of a sudden I’m seeing shapes within myself and getting questions and answers about something that I might not have been thinking about at all.

FJO: The individual movements go in so many different directions like, for example, “Conversations with the Three of Me.”

MRA: Oh yeah, that’s the piano thing.

FJO: I love that title, but there are so many more than just three of you.

MRA: Well, hey, right. But that’s rather metaphysical and also quite mundane at the same time. I used three improvised approaches.

FJO: So what are they?

MRA: There are three different moods, but they’re not moods that are separate. They’re played like a sonata. You play this slow, you play this a little fast, and then you play this fast. But it’s not exactly that type of thing because everything is improvised on the spot. The name came after the performance. All names come after the performances.

FJO: You also use a synthesizer on it.

MRA: That’s one of the moods.

FJO: Certainly there are things that can be done on synthesizers that are impossible to do on a piano or with other instruments. Even by the mid-1980s when you made this music, electronic music was largely a new sound world. So what brought you to use synthesizers, and do you feel that changed your language in any way, musically?

MRA: Well, let’s think of it this way: we’re actually talking about sound. We’re talking about music, but we’re talking about sound. So that came about because sound can be produced in any way that you feel that you’d like to produce sound. And that’s it. It’s just electronic sound. That’s the difference. There’s electronic sound, then the two piano sounds—three moods. Three of me, you know, a conversation with the three, so there’s an electronic part, and then there’s two different moods for the piano. So that’s the conversation, you know what I mean? But sound, that’s the thing, because before music can be called music, it has to be harnessed and structured from sound. Music is a by-product of sound. Sound is the thing. Sound.

FJO: You went even deeper into exploring electronic timbres in the ‘90s with “Think All, Focus One.” That’s probably my favorite of your electronic improvisations. It’s from another extraordinary album with a really great title: Think All, Focus One.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album Think All, Focus One (Black Saint, 1995)

In addition to six compositions for septet, Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1995 Black Saint album Think All, Focus One contains a fascinating synthesizer improvisation.

MRA: Well again, here I have a provocative statement which has nothing to do with describing the music. It’s a statement that is intended to provoke, but not for control or anything. It’s just meant to provoke. It’s a feeling that comes together in that statement. You know what I mean? Think all, focus one. And I know what I get from it, but I don’t know what you might get from it.

FJO: Well what I think I got from it is that there’s all sound out there available to you, and you should be mindful of all of it: all styles, all possibilities of what you’re doing on any instrument, the whole breadth, the whole line between complete spontaneous improvisation to fully worked-out composition, as well as the rhythms and the melodies of all cultures. But despite thinking of all of that, you must be an individual.

MRA: That’s very good. That’s a nice compliment to the title, I must say.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's 2001 Mutable CD, The Visibility of Thought

In 2001, Mutable released a disc devoted to Muhal Richard Abrams’s notated compositions called The Visibility of Thought which includes performances by baritone Thomas Buckner, pianist Joseph Kubera, and the string quartet ETHEL.

FJO: Now when you write music for other people to play—like, say, the music you’ve composed for groups like the Kronos Quartet or ETHEL who performed a piece of yours for baritone and string quartet with Thomas Buckner, or the orchestra pieces you’ve written that have been performed by the American Composers Orchestra or the Janacek Philharmonic—these are situations where the musicians are working from written musical scores and they are performing this music without you. I imagine there is no improvisation in any of this music.

MRA: No. It’s written.

FJO: How does it feel to be apart from the music and for it to be fixed in that way?

MRA: Well, I’m improvising all the time, and I’m composing all the time. It’s the same thing. It’s the application that’s different. I am applying the approach to this orchestra with a written presentation, but it’s the same process. The difference is in the sense that I can make a certain kind of a texture with fifty strings. Four French horns can make a certain kind of texture. So I’m dealing with respect for the orchestra. That’s a component. I have elected to respect this instrument called the orchestra. And the possibilities of sound that can be gotten from treating it in a certain compositional manner.

FJO: But when you do something for an ensemble of improvising musicians, they bring their own individualism to the table.

MRA: I insist on it.

CD cover for the 2015 ECM CD Made in Chicago

Though released under the name of percussionist Jack De Johnette, this extraordinary live recording from a 2013 Chicago Jazz Festival concert in Millennial Park (which was released on ECM in January 2015) is truly a group effort by all the members of the quintet which also includes Henry Threadgill, Larry Gray, Roscoe Mitchell, and Muhal Richard Abrams.

FJO: And you’ve performed as a sideman with others and you bring your individualism to them.

MRA: That’s right.

FJO: But when you’re writing a piece for orchestra, the whole idea is that it’s all on the page. They’re following the notes, and then they’re following the conductor’s interpretation of those notes. There’s a lot less room for self-expression.

MRA: Well, but there’s room for self-expressions, plural. You follow what I mean? People who are adept at playing classical music, I mean really great orchestra people, interpret musical symbols in a manner that can conjure up all sorts of pictures and panoramic images in terms of what you feel and what you hear when you hear a piece played by a really good orchestra. The way they interpret what you put down, that’s another element. You’re getting a plural of individualism, a pluralistic individualism, as a result of all these people playing together and playing with each other. There’s something that happens with them. There are certain people that couldn’t play with them because they wouldn’t be able to transfer that, they maintain the orchestra feeling for whatever is going on. It’s very important to them. In those great orchestras, it’s very important what happens among them. And that’s the other element. See? So you’re getting this plural individualist situation that goes on with them. It’s hard to explain because I think that the whole situation of individualism is transferable in terms of what a situation might be in terms of numbers of people.

FJO: So would you be okay with them taking a lot of liberties with something you’ve written down? How much can they change it and have it still be your piece? How much give and take is there in that process?

MRA: But the orchestra doesn’t change. The conductor might want to—

FJO: Speed it up?

Cover for the 2010 Mutable CD Spectrum

The 2010 Mutable CD Spectrum features a performance of Muhal Richard Abrams’s orchestral composition Mergertone, a work commissioned by the Ostrava Days festival and premiered there in 2007 by the Janáček Philharmonic conducted by Petr Kotik.

MRA: Yeah, he might, but he doesn’t really change it, because if something sounds one way going at a slow tempo and you speed it up, then it’s a different mood. You discuss that with the conductor. And any changes, certainly a good conductor will consult with you before he make them; he’ll ask and make suggestions. And if you say, “No, leave it,” he’ll just leave it like that. So there’s always that collaboration. I mean, it’s a rare moment when a conductor will go off on his own, because he’s endeavored to interpret what the composer has written.

FJO: The structure is so large, so it requires a different way of working. There’s so little rehearsal time, so even if you wanted there to be room for improvisation in that context, there wouldn’t be enough time to make that work. Plus a lot of these musicians don’t have experience with improvisation and feel uncomfortable with it. But would you want to create such a piece?

MRA: No. To ask people who don’t improvise to suddenly improvise, it’s been my experience, you don’t get a great result. And it’s not the fault of the people. They’re great musicians and great on their instruments, but you’re asking them to do something that they don’t do! That doesn’t work out too good. You have to approach that situation differently. If you want improvisation, then you bring improvisation with you, so they don’t have to deal with it. And mix it.

FJO: The last thing I wanted to talk about with you is that on all your recordings, going back decades, there’s always a line stating how to obtain scores of this music. I wonder how many people have contacted you for scores and if they have then gone on to perform that and what those performances have been like.

MRA: Oh, I can’t speak to that. I don’t quite know what they do with it. They can do what they want with it. I don’t ask that they do anything when they get it. But usually they’ve listened to a recording and they try to stay as a close or true to what they heard. You know what I mean? Some people may change it, but what can you do? I don’t have any requirement beyond what I ask of myself.

Saad Haddad: It’s Not Going to Be Exact

Saad Haddad

Most first rehearsals of a new piece for orchestra begin one of two ways. The conductor either spot checks various potentially tricky places in the score or attempts a full run-through until something goes awry, which makes everyone stop to focus on what made everyone stop. But guest conductor Steven Schick did not do either of these things back in November when he began rehearsing with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for a performance of Saad Haddad’s Kaman Fantasy (one of five pieces by emerging composers performed during the 2015 Milwaukee Symphony Composer’s Institute). Instead, Schick asked the string section to play a pitch that was halfway between E and Eb. It took a while for them to find the pitch, but once they did, he then asked them to begin to play the piece. Kaman Fantasy was like nothing else on that program; indeed, it was like few things ever performed by orchestras.

Even during this first somewhat tentative reading, a magical and extremely beautiful microtonally tinged tune emerged amid various melodic fragments chock full of swirling embellishments in the strings and winds. Although the sounds were clearly being made by members of a symphony orchestra reading from parts on their stands, what they played sounded uncannily like the orally transmitted large ensemble music of North Africa and the Middle East.

When we spoke to Haddad in New York City in early March, the 23-year-old composer reflected on the Arabic music ensembles that served as a model for Kaman Fantasy. “There are like 10 to 12 violins and they’re all playing the same line in a different way, with different embellishments and slightly different bowings—sometimes completely different bowings,” he explained. “There’s no [sheet] music at all involved; it’s all done by ear. I’ve never heard a string section sound like that in any tradition and, of course, not in the Western tradition … but I was trying to do that kind of thing in an orchestra piece. The problem with working with Western musicians; you want them to be not exact, but to do that you have to show them something exact on the page and then warn them—be careful, it’s not going to be exact, that’s how it should be. But once you get the musicians to be on board with that, then you can create something really unique and really special in an orchestral environment in which it’s usually really difficult to do anything outside the box.”

Born, raised, and compositionally trained in Southern California, Haddad had never previously written anything like that for an orchestra. But his incorporation of Arabic aesthetics into contemporary Western performance practices in this eleven-minute 2015 composition was something he had been pursuing on a smaller scale in his music since 2012. In fact, Kaman Fantasy began as a duo for violin and piano in which the violin simulates the sonorities of the traditional silk-stringed spiked fiddle common throughout the Islamic world (an instrument called kemençe in Turkey and called kamancheh in Iran and throughout the Caucasus). And, encouraged from being able to make such a synthesis work on an orchestral scale, it is something which has continued to inform his subsequent forays into composing for large ensembles: Manarah for two digitally processed antiphonal trumpets and orchestra, which the American Composers Orchestra will premiere at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall on April 1, 2016; and Takht, which the New Julliard Ensemble will premiere at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on April 21. However, Haddad was quick to point out that he still thinks of himself as a beginner and even somewhat of an outsider when it comes to having a deep knowledge of Arabic musical traditions.

“I’m an American for sure,” he admitted. “I’ve never even gone to the Middle East … so I’m not going to pretend that I know everything there is. I have a lot to learn. The only thing I hope I can contribute is that I can really showcase the beauty of the culture and the beauty of the music. There’s a lot of stuff in it that’s really cool.”

While he is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Juilliard under the tutelage of John Corigliano, Haddad has yet to find a parallel mentor who can offer him a deeper knowledge of the arcana of maqam, the complex Arabic modal system. Most of his knowledge of this music has come from surfing websites and carefully studying YouTube videos of the iconic Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, whose 1975 funeral attracted more than four million mourners. Although his grandparents were huge fans of Kulthum and Farid el-Atrache, a popular singer-songwriter originally from Syria, Haddad never had any direct exposure to this music in his formative years.

“I never thought I was going to use this music until a few years ago,” he acknowledged. “When I was growing up, I was listening to a lot of Bee Gees and ‘80s music because my mom was really into that stuff. And then I listened to Mozart and Beethoven and all the big classical giants.”

Once he started creating his own music, he initially followed a path typical of many young American composers. He wrote a Michael Jackson-inspired composition scored for a post BoaC All Stars-type ensemble of soprano sax, electric guitar, keyboard, and drum-set, a few short orchestra pieces, and two lovely settings of poems by William Blake for unaccompanied chorus. He even dabbled in film music under the auspices of the John Williams Scoring Stage at USC, which instilled in him a deft command of musical narrative that would later inform other kinds of collaboratively created work, such as his Nekavim, a very effective dance score for two percussionists and live electronics created for choreography by Sean Howe. But an epiphany while he was back at home over the summer only a few years ago is ultimately what led to his current compositional direction. It began with something completely mundane: his mother asking him to transfer his family’s home movies off of aging videocassettes. As he explained:

We had like 200 twenty-year-old home videos and you can’t burn them like CDs; you have to watch the whole thing. So I’m sitting there watching … and see all my older relatives twenty years younger and I started getting really connected to it. So I thought, “Why don’t I write a piece using this material?” I went in with ProTools and tried to take the snippets that I liked. I had no idea what I would do with them; I was just making a catalog of interesting sounds from my childhood. And then I thought, “If I’m going to use my family as an influence, I ought to use their music, too.”

The resultant piece, Mai for string quartet and live electronics (2013), would serve as a blueprint for everything he has composed since then.

The microtones and all the embellishments that are really typical with Arabic music are really easy to get with a string quartet, especially when you’re working with them. So I worked with the Argus Quartet on this and we played it a few times at USC. Then it won a BMI Award the next year, and it was kind of a confirmation for me. So I started to explore this even more.

But Haddad is not at all dogmatic in his transfer of Arabic music theory to pieces that are designed to be interpreted by musicians trained in Western classical music and performed for its usual audiences. For example, while the microtonal gradations that occur in traditional Arabic music are extremely subtle, Haddad is content with limiting himself to quartertones.

Splitting the scale into 24 notes is the easiest way to think about it without going into it so in-depth. If you’re asking a bunch of players to do it, you have to tell them to play this quartertone, because if they’re all playing different shades of it, it doesn’t sound like what you want. It sounds like a cluster or it sounds like it’s wrong. How do you make it sound like it belongs? That kind of approximation, I think, does a big thing for it; you still have the feeling that it belongs to the maqam when you’re using quartertones. … There are certain things you can do that make it easier for an orchestra. Have the microtones in first or second position in each of the strings. Have them a little lower so you can really hear them; if they’re really high up, sometimes it sounds like a wrong note. “How do I make it idiomatic for the orchestra?” is something I’m always thinking.

The way that Saad Haddad has forged a balance between being practical and a desire to take risks is almost as seamless as his balancing of Western classical and Middle Eastern musical traditions. It is particularly surprising considering that he has come to such realizations while still a student. But even here, Haddad balances a duality: a desire to always be a student but never to be held back by thinking like one.

It’s only in name that I feel like I’m a student right now. No matter how old you are, you’re always learning things. You’re always going to be a student. But I’ve never said, “I’m a student, so I need to act like a student.” The more that you think you’re a student, you’re going to be writing “student music.” You need to think outside that kind of shell and say, “What do I want to do?” and don’t worry about anything else.

Missy Mazzoli: Communication, Intimacy, and Vulnerability

Missy Mazzoli in her composition studio.

A conversation at her home in Brooklyn, New York
February 17, 2016—2:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Missy Mazzoli first appeared in NewMusicBox ten years ago when she kept a daily blog for us about her experiences as a participant in the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. That week-long orchestra boot camp offers emerging composers intensive workshops with musicians and a performance of their music on a subscription series concert entitled Future Classics which is also broadcast live. The piece of Mazzoli’s that was featured was These Worlds In Us, which was also her very first piece for orchestra. In the opening salvo for that NewMusicBox blog series, she expressed concern about how her music, which is “based in communication, intimacy, and a touch of vulnerability,” would “translate to an orchestra.”

As it turned out, These Worlds In Us was a huge success and has continued to be performed by orchestras across the United States as well as in Europe. (It will be performed this month in Akron, Ohio.) And, over the past decade, she has also written additional orchestra pieces that have been performed by the Detroit Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Albany Symphony. When we spoke with her in her Greenpoint apartment, she had just returned from a Music Alive: New Partnerships residency with the Boulder Philharmonic which culminated in a performance of her Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres).

“I still feel like I’m asking the same questions,” she said, “and, with each piece, finding different answers to the question of how to bring an intimate, vulnerable, human experience to a situation like working with an orchestra, which is a little bit disconcerting and I feel kind of disconnected as a composer for a couple different reasons.”

But writing for orchestra forms only a small part of her compositional output. There’s a brand new solo piano piece of hers on Michael Mizrahi’s forthcoming CD (which will be released on March 26) and an older solo piano piece on Lisa Moore’s new disc. A few weeks before heading to Colorado, she was in Brazil for a whole concert devoted to her chamber music. She fronts Victoire, something of a cross between an indie rock band and a chamber ensemble, which is about to record its sophomore album. Plus her latest opera, Breaking the Waves, based on the Lars von Trier film, will be staged by Opera Philadelphia next season.

“I’m still in the beginning phases of my career where I am taking commissions and jumping at opportunities to work with whomever,” Mazzoli acknowledged during our talk. “So it’s really about taking whatever is brought to me and making it something that I’m excited about.” And though she is clearly excited about a very wide range of musical activities, they share a common core. “The thing that I can say consistently inspires me is human beings. It’s not nature as much as it is just me being inspired by human beings trying to live their lives. And, in the case of my operas, human beings trying to live their lives under insane, impossible circumstances.”

The thing that we have been most excited about, however, is that a piece of her choral music, Vesper Sparrow has been chosen to be performed during the 2016 ISCM World Music Days in Tongyeong, South Korea. Mazzoli’s piece will be presented alongside works by composers from Australia, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom, on a March 28 program featuring the Ansan City Choir conducted Shin-Hwa Park. Vesper Sparrow originally appeared on Roomful of Teeth’s 2015 disc Render, a recording that received a New Music USA project grant, which led to the composition’s submission in the ISCM’s call for scores for the 2016 WMD.

“When I wrote it I never imagined anyone else singing it, because it had to be written so quickly and it was so particular for this group,” Mazzoli claimed. “But I’m open to different interpretations. I like the Sardinian aspect of it and I like that there’s a recording that these singers will hopefully listen to, even just to get an idea of what the piece is about and the character. But do they need to have that precise sort of like nasally intonation that the Sardinian music has? Not necessarily. I think that the piece is the notes and the rhythms and the texts. And all that translates on the page.”

Frank J. Oteri: The main impetus for our talk right now is that your choral piece Vesper Sparrow will be performed during the 2016 ISCM World Music Days in Tongyeong, South Korea, at the end of March. But you have a lot of other stuff going on as well. You just came back from a weeklong Music Alive: New Partnerships residency with the Boulder Philharmonic, which culminated in a performance of your Sinfonia, and only a few weeks before that you were in Brazil performing a concert of your chamber music. I read in The New York Times this week that Opera Philadelphia will be staging your new opera Breaking the Waves next season, and Michael Mizrahi’s latest solo piano CD, which is being released in a couple of weeks, includes a piece of yours.

Missy Mazzoli: Lisa Moore also has a piece of my mine on her new album.

FJO: Really? Another piano piece?

MM: Yeah.

FJO: Wow, so there’s some considerable activity with your solo piano music as well as your choral music, your chamber music, your orchestral music, plus opera. You’re writing many kinds of things and you’re getting pulled in many different directions. Is there any kind of music you would not want to write?

MM: I really can’t think of it. But, you know, so many of my opportunities are not necessarily my choice. I’m still in the beginning phases of my career where I am taking commissions and jumping at opportunities to work with whomever, so it’s really about taking whatever is brought to me and making it something that I’m excited about. But it’s hard to imagine something that would come my way that I wouldn’t be excited about.

FJO: You haven’t written a band piece yet, as far as I know.

MM: No. And I’m not terribly excited about it, but that’s not to say that I wouldn’t do it. I think, under the right circumstances, it could be really fun.

FJO: Or a solo organ piece?

MM: Again, you kind of need someone; it’s hard to just write a solo organ piece and just throw it out into the universe. I really would want someone to come to me and say, “I’m going to perform this 20 times, and I’m really excited.” So we’ll see.

FJO: Or a sound installation?

MM: I would love to do a sound installation. I could do one in my living room; it would be awesome, but it would be only for me. So I’m definitely open to that, too. It’s hard, though, writing all these operas lately. I’m working on one for Opera Philadelphia; it’s co-commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and Beth Morrison Projects. And I’m working on another one that will be announced really soon. I’m also dealing with performances of my first opera, Song from the Uproar. Opera can take over your life. So I feel like while all this other stuff is happening, really when I sit down to write, the operas are my focus. That’s been an interesting shift. Usually I’m working on ten different things at the same time, but for the last couple of years, it’s been like this one massive piece.

FJO: The first piece of yours I ever heard was an orchestra piece, These Worlds In Us, soon after we first met, which was ten years ago. Then the piece was chosen for the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute, which is a really extraordinary program. You wrote a series of blog posts for NewMusicBox about your experiences at the Institute that year. I decided to reread them all last week, and I came across a fascinating couple of sentences from your very first post.

MM: I’m afraid.

FJO: You shouldn’t be; they’re great. They were about your concerns about the experience right before the Institute got under way, and they are extremely heartfelt. The sentences are: “My music is based in communication, intimacy, and a touch of vulnerability. How does this translate to an orchestra?” Now, ten years later, your music has been performed by lots of orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony and, most recently, in Boulder. So I wonder what you think about those sentences. Vulnerability is discouraged because of how the rehearsal process works. And, at this point, how do you deal with an orchestra’s inherent lack of intimacy?

MM: Well, I still feel like I’m asking the same questions and, with each piece, finding different answers to the question of how to bring an intimate, vulnerable, human experience to a situation like working with an orchestra, which is a little bit disconcerting. I feel kind of disconnected as a composer for a couple different reasons. You’re dealing with this mass of people—you very rarely get to have individual interactions with the players. You’re flown somewhere and you have two or three rehearsals and then it’s the performances. It’s not set up to have one-on-one pow-wows with your performers, which is what I’m used to.

So this experience I just had last weekend in Boulder was really interesting. They premiered the new version of this piece that I originally wrote for the LA Philharmonic called Sinfonia for Orbiting Spheres. I put harmonicas in the orchestra and also melodicas, the piano that you blow into—I have some around here—and there’s a lot of strange percussion. I really wanted it to feel like this intimate, enveloping experience. The harmonica sounds so vulnerable and so human because these players are not professional harmonica players. They’re professional horn players and clarinetists and they’re just using the length of their breath to play these really simple, almost toy-like instruments. It was so great, but it was a risk for me. I didn’t know how that was going to work in an orchestral context. And I was so happy because I think that it made the experience more intimate for everybody.

FJO: Fascinating. Some orchestras might not be willing to do it. Some players feel very firmly that they should only be required to play the instrument that they’ve spent their lives studying and perfecting making the best possible sound with.

MM: Right, and I respect that. That’s valid. My goal is not to make people look bad. I was really grateful that the Boulder Phil musicians were open to the idea. They might not have liked it—I’m not sure—but they were really great and they wanted to make the piece work. So much thought went into me even writing for harmonica in an orchestra setting. It was not just a whim; it was very considered. There’s this very serious emotional intent that I have. So my strategy with working with the orchestra was to try to get them to understand what I was going for. It’s sort of a music of the spheres feeling, and it was this idea of enveloping the audience in this ether, while all these loops of little melodic fragments were swirling around them. Harmonicas are really like the ether in which everything exists. So once they understood that, I think that they were at least willing to give it a shot.

FJO: An important component of the performance in Boulder was that you were in residence there for a week, so instead of just showing up for a couple of rehearsals and the concert, you had a greater opportunity to connect with the players, so that must have helped that process. I was curious how that experience was different from other experiences you’ve had with orchestras over the years.

MM: In Boulder I did a lot to connect to the audience, but unfortunately I didn’t have so much time to connect with the players, even in a residency situation. I think it’s hard to create that time and space, but I think it’s something worth working towards for all orchestras—to try to create a deeper connection between the composers and the performers. I’ve talked to a lot of my composer friends about this very thing. But it did make a big difference for me, just being in Boulder for a week. I taught for a day at Colorado University. And I performed a concert of my own works at this art space called The Dairy in downtown Boulder. I met with their board. I went to luncheons. I did a stargazing hike where they played my music as people were looking at the stars, because the piece is about the planets in orbit. That was amazing, and it allowed me to have conversations with people about a bunch of different things, and allowed them to have a bunch of different ways to access my music and the work.

FJO: To talk a little bit more about your first orchestra piece, These Worlds In Us, one of the things that struck me about it at the time and every time I’ve listened to it or have thought about it since then, is how ravishingly beautiful it is. Certainly not everything you’ve written is so decidedly and so intentionally pretty, but beauty has definitely been part of your compositional arsenal. It seems to be a conscious aesthetic decision for you, so I thought it would be interesting to talk about that as well as what your view of beauty is.


MM: What does it mean to be beautiful? How much time do we have? I think that what you’re saying is that there’s a lyricism, or that there are elements of that piece and pieces that I’ve written in the last ten years that are sort of conventionally beautiful in a way that most people would say, “Oh, that’s pretty” or “That’s a melody I can hum.” I think that a lot of noise music is beautiful and that it’s pleasing, but I know what you’re saying. There’s a lyricism, and there are these melodies that float around the listener in a way that I think could be described as beautiful. That’s something that has been a part of my language from the very beginning. My goal is to try to draw the listener in with something that is familiar, even just a tiny bit, whether it’s a little repeated melodic fragment or the sound of the harmonica, which is a sound that everybody knows. Most people have picked up a harmonica and have blown into it. We know that sound. So I try to draw people in with something that they can latch onto, but then twist it and present it in a different way, present the melody with a strange chord underneath. Or have the harmonicas be this insistent repeating drone that becomes unsettling. The piece I just wrote for the Boulder Phil becomes very dark at the end. All of a sudden, the harmonica feels like this lone person lost in space instead of this warm familiar sound. So I don’t know. These Worlds In Us was the first orchestra piece that I’d ever written, and it was really daunting. I remember really losing my mind trying to write that piece. And I remember having this thought: I can write a melody. When all else fails, I know I can do that. So I’m just going to do that and not worry about what comes next. And that’s where the theme for the piece came from.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that you want to give the audience something to latch onto, because another constant through line in your music is that there’s always a narrative arc behind it, whether it’s inspired by literature or by personal experience. In the case of These Worlds In Us, it was both: a wonderful poem, which is where the title came from, but also you thinking about your father and his experience being a Vietnam War vet. But these kinds of backstories are hard to decipher in a piece of abstract instrumental music with no vocal line; they hinge on people reading the program notes. How important is it for you that people know those stories?

MM: Sometimes it’s important that they know, sometimes it’s not. Certainly it is with the dramatic work that I’m doing, even in an abstract opera like Song from the Uproar, which does not have a conventional narrative. It’s more like a fever dream. But it’s important to me that people generally understand what’s going on, even in the simplest terms. Other times those stories are just for me. That’s just the way that I conceive of music. I conceive it as a human struggle. I conceive these melodies and rhythms as being characters that are sometimes working together and sometimes in opposition to each other.

In my piece for eighth blackbird [Still Life with Avalanche], the percussionist devours all the other instruments and absorbs all the material. It’s a weird, abstract play that’s being enacted by these performers. Whether or not you know that that’s what I was thinking of in that particular piece doesn’t matter because it just leads to a musical result. The same thing is true with These Worlds In Us and Tooth and Nail¸ the piece that I wrote for violist Nadia Sirota, which is about jaw harp music in Uzbekistan. I don’t really care if people understand all the things going on in this piece because, at the end, it’s just leading me to create a musical structure.

My two composer obsessions this month are Anna Thorvaldsdottir and John Luther Adams. They’re both really inspired by nature. A couple of months ago, I was driving around Death Valley thinking: I wonder if there’s something in there for me. I should get inspired by nature. But the thing that I can say consistently inspires me is human beings. It’s not nature as much as it is just me being inspired by human beings trying to live their lives. And, in the case of my operas, human beings trying to live their lives under insane, impossible circumstances. What do they do? How do they get out of it? How do they relate to each other? That stuff to me is so fascinating and juicy, even as a way to think of non-narrative instrumental music.

FJO: One of my favorite pieces of yours is Magic With Everyday Objects, which you describe in your program notes for it as music having a nervous breakdown. But part of the reason I love it so much is I don’t think you even need that program note. That message gets immediately across in the music. Obviously some narratives are harder to convey than others, some details are just too subtle. I wouldn’t have known the backstory of These Worlds In Us just from hearing the music.

MM: But that doesn’t matter to me.

FJO: There’s another backstory with These Worlds In Us which is a purely musical one. You used the same melodic material in another piece of yours, a piece you wrote for Newspeak called In Spite of All This. And yet, though this material sounds so pretty in These Worlds In Us, it’s decidedly not pretty anymore in the other piece. It’s something else entirely.

MM: I think that’s totally a function of the orchestration. I actually wrote the piece for Newspeak first and then orchestrated it out and changed it to fit into an orchestral context. I think when you move into an orchestral context, I don’t want to say it’s inevitably prettier because a lot of composers don’t think that way, but there’s a certain lushness and a lyricism that happens when you have a full string section, versus just a solo violin. So I think maybe that’s what you’re experiencing. And also, because I had more instruments in the orchestra, I was able to flesh out a lot of the harmonies, and so I think it comes across as this richer, more immersive experience.

FJO: Even though they share the same material, that material is presented so differently to the point that I don’t think they’re the same piece at all. They’re very different pieces.

MM: They share a theme and a structure, but that’s about it. I do this all the time. I steal from myself all the time. I think a lot of composers do, and I think it’s a fallacy that we’re supposed to reinvent ourselves completely with every piece. My boyfriend is a painter and he’s been working on the same series of work for the last year and a half; it’s so fascinating and satisfying to watch that happen. I think of music in the same way. I’ll often use the same material to generate a few different works before it’s completely out of my system.

FJO: You wrote the Newspeak piece back in 2005; I don’t know anything you wrote before that.

MM: Before 2005, when I was 24! Well, it’s funny. The piece that Lisa Moore recorded for an album that just came out two days ago is the earliest piece of mine that is published and available for people. It’s a piece for piano and electronics called Orizzonte. I wrote it when I was 24 for a band that I was in when I lived in Amsterdam; eleven years later, it’s finally been recorded by someone else.

FJO: I have a demo recording of you playing it that you gave me the first time we had lunch together ten years ago.

MM: Oh really? Oh my God… Wow. Well, it went through a bunch of different versions. It started off as an improv experiment and then solidified into something I could play on a concert program.

FJO: I didn’t realize back then that you had been in a band in Amsterdam. So even that early on, you were involved in several different approaches to making music. People still package things into “classical music” or “indie rock,” and you’ve certainly done work that could fit in either category, and many things that have aspects of both over the past ten years, but it seems like you’ve been doing that from what you consider the very beginning of your musical output.

MM: I don’t think about it that way at all. This band in Amsterdam was a great example. Was that a band or was it an ensemble? I don’t know. I got a residency in a squat, and was like: Let’s start a band; we’ll work all week in this squat and then we’ll give a concert at the end. Great. So it’s just people together making music. It was a welcome change for me from just working alone in my room and then delivering pieces to people. So it just sounded like fun. That’s where that came from.

FJO: In some ways Victoire is a band, but it’s also an ensemble. It’s a little bit of both.

MM: I don’t lean towards one or the other. My goal in creating the ensemble was to take the best of what was going on with bands. I wanted to make records. I wanted to tour. I wanted to create a show that was a consistent instrumentation for which I was creating new music, because people were asking me to put on concerts. Our first show was at The Stone, John Zorn’s venue on the Lower East Side. I didn’t want to just bring in a string quartet and then a solo clarinet; it just didn’t make sense programmatically. I wanted to have a consistent ensemble and I wanted to tour the world. I wanted to perform all over the place. That was from the indie rock world. But then I wanted a really virtuosic level of performer. I needed people who were classically trained. I wanted us to be performing music that was written down and that I wrote. So that was coming from the ensemble side of things. So it’s equal parts both.

FJO: Of course there were several models from the previous generation of composers forming their own groups to exclusively perform their own music, like The Philip Glass Ensemble or Steve Reich and Musicians. But you didn’t call it The Missy Mazzoli Ensemble.

MM: Because that seemed pretentious at the time. I don’t think it was pretentious of Philip Glass or Steve Reich, but I think that in the current climate, it just felt wrong. I don’t know. We were taking so much from the band world that I wanted to give it a name that wasn’t my own name.

FJO: But do you think of that music differently than you think of the other music you write?

MM: No, I don’t. Often a piece will start as a commission for someone else, and then I will arrange it to be performed by my ensemble. I took Magic With Everyday Objects, which I originally wrote for NOW Ensemble, and arranged that for Victoire. Then I re-arranged it and it became The Door into the Dark, which was the opening track on our first album. I did that with bits of my opera, Song from the Uproar, too. The opera ends with an ecstatic coda, and I really wanted to play that myself. So I arranged it for Victoire. The music is exactly the same. But even if it’s not the exact same notes, it’s the same level of complexity as all my other music. The biggest difference is really just in the way that it’s rehearsed, because I can try things out with the group, experiment with different synthesizer timbres. I’m obviously not really able to do that when writing for someone else.

FJO: Curiously, the biggest project that has involved Victoire is Vespers for a New Dark Age. The first Victoire album, Cathedral City, was credited to Victoire. Only someone reading the fine print could see that all the compositions were by Missy Mazzoli. But Vespers was clearly identified as a Missy Mazzoli album. So even if you don’t think of there being distinctions, distinctions are being drawn somehow.

MM: Sure. Inevitably. But the Vespers album also included three tracks that are electronic pieces I created myself, with the help of the producer Lorna Dune; it didn’t involve the band. And then there were all these other people involved, like the percussionist Glenn Kotche. Lorna also created a remix of this other piece, A Thousand Tongues. Jody Redhage performed the original version of A Thousand Tongues, and we sampled her voice. So there were a lot of people involved. For me, a Victoire album is the five of us getting in a room and making music together. This felt like so much more, and the unifying thread was me as a composer. So I think it felt right to release that album under my name. It felt more in the lineage of Song from the Uproar, which is the album of my opera that was released two years before.

FJO: It was fascinating to hear you say that there was music you wrote for someone else that you wanted to perform yourself, and so you reworked it and made it into something else. This ties back to an earlier thread in this discussion about communication being the core of your music. Certainly performing is a form of communicating, so being directly involved in a performance is an important way to engage with an audience.

MM: Well, yeah. I love to perform. I was a performer before I was a composer. It’s part of my musical DNA. Initially I was just performing to scratch that itch, just to be able to be in front of people because it’s fun and exhilarating and nerve-wracking in all these great ways. And when I’ve performed, I realized that my connection to the audience was much deeper as a composer when I was in front of them as a performer. You tell people you’re a composer and they have no idea what you’re talking about; they don’t have a sense of what you do every day or what your place is in the world. I found that people were a lot more open and understanding when I was up there as a performer saying, “I wrote this, I’m going to play it for you.”

FJO: So you were a performer before you were a composer?

MM: Well, it all happened when I was super young. I started taking piano lessons when I was seven, so in that sense, I was a performer before I was a composer. I was a kid. But really quickly I started writing music and realized that this is what I need to be doing with my life. I started writing when I was about ten, and there was no question that I was going to go to school for composition. This was going to be my life.

FJO: So you definitely came out of a lineage of classical music.

MM: Oh, yeah.

FJO: So the whole indie rock thing came later. How did that come into your life?

MM: Well, it came into my life from being a kid in a small town in Pennsylvania, which means that I spent a lot of time driving around listening to the radio because there was nothing else to do and music was just a big part of my life. My parents are not musical, but I was moved by all kinds of music in a way that I wasn’t moved by anything else. And classical music in particular—because I was able to play it myself and have that connection—had a huge impact on the way that I process the data of the world. It gave me an identity and it gave me a focus as a kid. So I think I just obsessively latched onto it in this really extreme way.

FJO: I couldn’t help snooping around the apartment when we were setting up, and I noticed that you have a bust of Beethoven on a bureau as well as another Beethoven portrait hanging on the wall. I was a little surprised by that.

MM: Really? He’s the best. I fell in love with Beethoven as a kid. You know, you’re not really exposed to John Luther Adams or Philip Glass when you’re seven and taking piano lessons. I loved playing Beethoven, and I loved learning about his life and realizing that he struggled, that he was constantly trying new things and then discarding things. When I was in school in Boston, I would go to the Harvard rare manuscript library and just dig through Beethoven sketches, most of which have these big Xs on them. It was always very reassuring to see that he was not always happy with what he wrote the first time around.

FJO: Unfortunately nowadays so many composers do everything on computers, so no one can see sketches with Xs on them.

MM: Well, I have a lot actually. I still work a lot by hand and there’s definitely some obsessive scribbling there.

FJO: So, are you going to save those things for posterity, or are you going to be like Brahms and destroy all your sketches?

MM: I save them, but I wouldn’t say I’m saving them for posterity. Who knows? That’s for future generations to decide if I’m still interesting. But I do save them for myself.

FJO: Do you ever find yourself going back to those things that you crossed out and using them?

MM: Not really using them as much as just taking stock of the passage of time. I have filing cabinets full of old manuscripts and notebooks and journals. I like to look back and see like, oh, that’s where I got the idea to start Victoire, to start this ensemble. Or my initial notes for creating Song from the Uproar or Breaking the Waves, which is a project that’s taken over my life. It’s fun to go back and just see the initial brainstorms for those projects.

FJO: So what was the initial brainstorm for Vespers?

MM: I wanted to create my own version of a Vespers prayer service. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to do that without being heavy handed and religious, because I’m not a religious person. But I love the musical form of that prayer service, the idea that it’s a series of invocations broken up by singing. The tradition varies depending on what precise religion you belong to, but it seemed like this great, flexible, inherently musical form. So, the invocation in Vespers is not “Help me, oh Lord”; it’s “Come on all you ghosts.” The lyrics were written by the poet Matthew Zapruder, so it’s all by replacing the sacred text with secular poetry; I was able to hint at the themes of the prayer service without being overtly religious.

FJO: But by subtitling it “for a New Dark Age” it has a kind of ominous undercurrent to it. “Dark Age” is a negative term, even though some wonderful things happened during the original so-called Dark Ages, the Medieval period.

MM: Were there? Was there anything good?

FJO: There was some great music.

MM: Okay. If you’re in the top one percent. Well, that line “New Dark Age” comes from a line in one of Matthew’s poems called “Korea,” where he says, “I know I belong in this new Dark Age.” So, that is a little more uplifting than the phrase “new dark age” alone and that summed up my feelings about being alive. I know that we are kind of in a dark age to some extent. Things are messed up. But I also know that I belong here. You know, this is my time, and I embrace that. So when I read that line, I was like: this really resonates with me. That was the impetus to use his poetry for the entire piece.

FJO: So this poetry existed before you set it.

MM: Yes. And Matthew Zapruder was amazing. He’s also a musician, so I think he understood that I wanted to be really free with which texts I used. He let me draw fragments of texts from a bunch of different books and remix them into lyrics that made sense for the project, each individual set of lyrics. Sometimes they come from a couple of different poems, or a couple different books. But all of it existed before, except I got him to write one new piece; the second track, “Hello Lord,” was a new poem written just for the project.

FJO: That’s interesting. You just described it as the second track rather than the second movement.

MM: Well, I get confused myself with that because this piece is a little complicated. There are five acoustic movements, but then there are these three electronic remixes stuck in there. It’s confusing.

FJO: But the reason I brought it up is I wonder if you think of the recording rather than a live performance of it to be the definitive way to experience the piece. It was initially written for live performance.

MM: It was, but it was also written for recording. I knew I wanted to make this into an album even before I started writing. You spend so much time with an album when you’re editing it and referring to everything as a track. I think that was emblazoned in my memory.

FJO: And clearly, in our time, many more people will have heard the recording than would have been at the original live performance at Zankel Hall.

MM: Exactly.

FJO: But what’s strange about that—maybe this is part of us being in a new dark age—is that even though music gets primarily transmitted through recordings, recordings are no longer a viable economic stream for most people now that so many people are just listening to music online. This hasn’t really sorted itself out, but you clearly still make albums. In fact, one of the reasons you said that you formed Victoire was that you wanted to make albums. So making albums is still important to you.

MM: Sure, it’s important to me. I also like the idea of releasing singles on the internet. Or creating music that’s just for video and releasing that on YouTube. I’m not really precious about the album. I do think though that—as a composer and as someone who grew up listening to records—the natural length of a CD is really satisfying to me. I like the idea of making grand statements, coming out with 40 to 60 minutes of music and saying, “This is my latest statement,” rather than saying, “This is something I made this morning, and here’s three minutes of it.” So I think that there is value and weight to this idea of the album and that that length still has significance. My friend Judd Greenstein, who runs New Amsterdam Records, used to say when he was starting the record label that albums are the new symphonies. And that really made sense to me. There are pieces that can be accepted as a whole or can be broken up into movements, and there’s still a logic to that. So that’s how I think of it now.

The video by Mark DeChiazza of “Wayward Free Radical Dreams” from Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers for a New Dark Age is making its debut on NewMusicBox
FJO: Now, what’s interesting is that in your discography to date, you have pieces on different people’s albums, but the albums that are your albums—the Victoire album, Uproar, and Vespers—are all unified as albums. They’re not like most single composer new music recordings which are usually just a collection of pieces for various ensembles. I guess that’s coming from the same impetus as wanting to form an ensemble with consistent instrument to perform concerts of your music. You didn’t want to have all these scene changes on stage that are really awkward. Of course, in an album those kind of scene changes aren’t awkward, because it’s pre-recorded. But it can still be an awkward listening experience.

MM: Yeah. I don’t know. It just seems a little bit awkward. I’m not against the idea of composers releasing these sort of compilation albums of their pieces, but it just has a different feeling from someone like Philip Glass releasing Glassworks with the Glass Ensemble or Meredith Monk and her Vocal Ensemble releasing something like Dolmen Music, which has a bunch of different pieces on it, but it still makes sense because it’s a consistent instrumentation. That to me felt smoother, so it was what I wanted to do.

FJO: Since we’re talking about making grand statements, this seems like a good place to talk a bit about your operas. Once again, these pieces come out of your love of literature and, in the case of the most recent one which we’ll get to a little later, film. I tried tracking down an opera you did based on a story by Boccaccio, but I wasn’t able to find very much information about it.

MM: I knew you were going to say that! It was sort of an exercise, a workshop kind of thing I did in my first year as composer-in-residence with Opera Philadelphia. It was a collaboration with Mark Campbell, who’s a great librettist. He’s very collaborative and I really loved working with him, but we had some trouble coming up with an idea that worked for both of us. He had come to me with one story, and I sort of tentatively said yes, but I think he could tell that I wasn’t that excited. So then he came back to me and was like, “I think that with you we just need to go dark,” I took it as a major compliment. I was like, “Yes. Do you have any stories about sex or death?” Because I feel like all my interesting work is about sex and death. And he said he always wanted to do something with Boccaccio’s Decameron, to take one of those little stories and work with it. And I ate it up. It’s this story about this woman whose lover is murdered by her brother. She plants his head in a pot and then this basil plant grows up and she sings to it. It’s called the flowering basil. It’s hilarious and dark. There’s love and death and sex and intrigue, all in this little seven-minute mini-opera. I think it is being done in Cincinnati somewhere; I’ll get that recorded and let you know.

FJO: Boccaccio, though maybe not as widely read as he used to be, is part of the literary canon. On the other hand, Isabelle Eberhardt is not somebody everybody knows about—yet. But she’s a really fascinating figure, such an amazingly headstrong, independently minded person, a real role model from an era where women weren’t, by and large, allowed to be what she was. At the same time, she’s a really tragic figure; she died at the age of 27. How did you come to know about her, and what made you decide to make an opera about her?

MM: I was 23 when I picked up a copy of her journals in a bookstore in Boston, really just completely at random. A new edition had just been published in English, and I was immediately struck by what I read when I opened it up. It just has this tone and this openness that is really strange for travel diaries of that era. You read Pierre Loti or André Gide and they’re writing about going into the desert with 45 servants and having high tea; she had nothing. She was very poor and extremely adventurous and brave, and had these really raw experiences, sometimes amazing experiences. She was one of the first women to witness this particular religious ceremony that happens in the desert where people shoot guns into the sand in this very colorful ceremony. She also experienced extreme poverty and extreme loss. She seemed to live this very extreme life. I was really struck by how she wrote about her sadness in particular. She had 25 different words for being sad.

I knew immediately that I wanted to do something with her life, that there was something in there that was resonating with me. I started actually by just writing songs about her. I would take fragments of her journal and create texts based on the fragments and just write songs. Then it became apparent that it needed to be an evening-length theatrical work. At that point, I brought on the librettist Royce Vavrek to sort of craft the true libretto. But it’s called Song from the Uproar, because it’s her song; this song emerging from the chaos of her life, that’s the song coming out of the uproar.

FJO: There are some interesting parallels between Isabelle Eberhardt and Stephen Crane, whose poem you set in your short piece for Jody Redhage, A Thousand Tongues, which you mentioned earlier. They probably never met each other, since they were based in different parts of the world, but both were tireless adventurers who scoffed at conventions and both died before they were 30, around the turn of the 20th century. It was a very different world than the world we live in now in many ways. Yet in both cases, the music you chose to convey their words is a very contemporary sound world. You didn’t feel the pull to go back into their sound world.

MM: No, because what’s interesting to me was what was going on in their minds, which I think is something that transcends time and place. So I was interested in the things, about Isabelle’s story in particular, that made her story universal, the things that I identified with as a woman living in the 21st century. There’s this constant loneliness, this feeling of being very much in love with her husband but really wanting this independent life. And there’s a conflict between Eastern culture and Western culture, in her own mind; this stuff was really juicy and interesting and is not just about her being in Algeria in 1904. So I wanted a piece that was unmoored from time and place. That’s why I felt free to use electric guitar, electronics, and samples, and that’s why for the production that we did, initially at The Kitchen and later at LA Opera, there’s film with images of things that happened long after her death—people answering telephones and riding in cars. But I think it all makes sense because the story is about this fever dream of a life that she had.

FJO: And in the case of the Stephen Crane?

MM: Well, that was a much shorter text, but I also tried to get at the universal qualities of that poem. He says, “I have a thousand tongues, and nine and ninety-nine lie, though I try to use the one, it will make no melody at my will. It is dead in my mouth.” Who hasn’t felt like that sometimes? It’s this idea that you have these many faces, but which one is your true face and what is the truth? So it seemed to tap into something more universal.

FJO: Compared with these other pieces, Breaking the Waves is much more contemporary. It’s based on a Lars von Trier film that’s set in the 1970s. But you initially didn’t want to do this.

MM: Right. So my librettist, who’s also one of my best friends, Royce Vavrek, came to me and said we should make this into an opera: Breaking the Waves, Lars von Trier’s seminal 1996 film. And I was like, “That’s a great film. It’s already this complete object; why would we mess with it?” Also, at the time, there were a lot of operatic adaptations of films being made, and I just felt like I wanted to try something different. So he left me alone and let me think about it. But I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I watched the film again and I was like, “Wow, I can hear music for these people. But it’s not going to be what people expect; it’s going to be very, very different from the film. I really feel like I can make my own piece based on this incredible story.” Once I felt the freedom to separate myself from the film, that’s when the project became real and became very exciting to me.

FJO: Of course, that’s an even bigger challenge. When you’re reading a story or a poem, even if it’s from another era, it’s still a disembodied text that allows you to hear it in your own mind rather than a specific way. But if you’re basing something on a film, that film already comes with its own sound world: the sounds of the actors’ voices as well as the music of the soundtrack in the film. There are all these things already there that you have to strip away in order for it to become your own thing.

MM: It’s true, but less so in Breaking the Waves, since there’s no composed soundtrack for it. There is music in the film—some ‘70s rock tunes by Elton John, David Bowie, and Deep Purple—but there isn’t a score that’s telling you how to feel. I think that that left space for me to create my own music for it. That’s really significant. But still, you’re right, especially with Lars von Trier, you have all these amazing hand held shots, and these close-ups of people’s faces. That is such a part of our experience of that story, just being in the room with these people, in their face, as Emily Watson is crumbling, or in her wedding dress waiting for her fiancé to come on a helicopter. It’s really emotional. How do I keep that in the opera, when it’s a singer who’s a hundred feet away from you in a theater where your eyes can look anywhere? You don’t have to look at her face. And there’s no way that I can make you look at her face, except to have her sing something really awesome. So it’s an interesting challenge that I solved in a couple different ways throughout the opera, since that intimacy is something I wanted to maintain from the film.

FJO: There’s that word “intimacy” again, going back to that comment you made on the blog ten years ago.

MM: Right. I haven’t really changed much. I’m still trying to do the same things all the time.

FJO: Now the initial impetus for this conversation was Vesper Sparrow, the piece being done in Korea. Once again the source of it is literary inspiration, although this time from somebody who’s an exact contemporary of yours.

MM: Well, the thing to know about working with the group Roomful of Teeth, who commissioned and premiered it, is that they have this residency every year at MASS MoCA, the museum in Massachusetts, and they invite composers to come stay with them for two weeks to learn about the group and to learn whatever vocal techniques they’re learning. At the time, they were learning Tuvan throat singing and Sardinian su cantu a tenòre singing. So I would try to learn it with them or try to sing along with them, and I just hung out with them for two weeks. During those two weeks, you’re supposed to write a piece or two for them, and then they perform it at the end. It’s like Project Runway without the snarky competition, where you have to create something very fast and then present it. So I did that and the week before I was going to go, I was thinking, “Wait a second, are they going to sing words? If they’re going to sing words, what are they going to sing?” Thankfully my best friend is a poet, Farnoosh Fathi, so I called her and I said, “Send me the manuscript to your book,” which was coming out that fall—it’s called Great Guns—and she did. I just printed it out and on the train ride up there, I sat and read through all these poems. She was also very open to me taking bits of poems, and cutting out what didn’t necessarily work for voices or was too long. She has this great poem that at the time was called “Vesper Sparrow,” which was later changed to “Home State,” and that’s where the text comes from that happens like three-quarters of the way through the piece.

FJO: But there are also all these other syllables that are not really comprehensible as language. That’s not part of her poem? She didn’t write those syllables?

MM: No.

FJO: Now I’m totally confused.

MM: Yeah, rightfully so. So, in one of the versions of the poem, again I don’t know because she was writing while I was writing the piece and a lot of it changed for the final book, but one of her poems began with the call of the vesper sparrow, which translates something like “hey, hey, now, now, all together down the hill,” or something. We put words to it to remember the call. And so the Roomful of Teeth piece is sort of an explosion of that. It’s like these bird songs initially. And then, halfway though, they just start singing words that come out of nowhere. So it’s this mish mash. Farnoush’s poetry is very lyrical and is free association. There are all these beautiful images that you don’t expect that come in out of nowhere. And that’s what inspired the piece. This text comes in out of nowhere. You don’t expect it. And the connections between the phrases are tenuous, and you’re supposed to come up with that in your own mind.

FJO: Before you told me this story, I had no idea that this came about because Roomful of Teeth was learning traditional Sardinian singing techniques. Yet still, when I first heard it, I immediately associated it with Sardinian traditional music because I have field recordings from Sardinia, and what you wrote sounds remarkably authentic at times. And so when I was trying to figure out the connections I thought, well I know that you come from an Italian background, but you were using a poem by a woman with an Iranian background. I couldn’t make the pieces fit together in my head.

MM: Well, now you know the story, which is that I had to come up with something very quickly and called in favors from friends. But I think the result is something that does capture the spirit of not only the Sardinian singing, but also of Roomful of Teeth itself. It’s like this joyful coming together of people from all these different places, of these very particular voices, and somehow the combination of all of them makes total sense. And this combination of bird song and a strange abstract poem by this Iranian-American poet somehow all comes together and makes sense in this little five-minute piece.

FJO: It was written for Roomful of Teeth, and they made a fabulous recording of it, too. But it’s printed in score and so it’s available for other groups to perform. So it can have a life beyond Roomful of Teeth. And now it’s going to be done in South Korea as part of the 2016 ISCM World Music Days. The singers who are performing it there might not necessarily have the same background as Roomful of Teeth. They might not have had the workshop in Sardinian folk music that Roomful of Teeth had that week. How can they do an idiomatic performance without all of that? How necessary are those elements in order for the piece to work?

MM: When I wrote it I never imagined anyone else singing it, because it had to be written so quickly and it was so particular for this group. But I’m open to different interpretations. I like the Sardinian aspect of it and I like that there’s a recording that these singers will hopefully listen to, even just to get an idea of what the piece is about and the character. But do they need to have that precise sort of like nasally intonation that the Sardinian music has? Not necessarily. I think that the piece is the notes and the rhythms and the texts. And all that translates on the page.

FJO: So to come full circle, we talked about you playing your music yourself with your own group, as well as writing for orchestras where you have very little face time with the musicians. Now here we have an example of a piece that’s out in the world and you may have no face time at all with the musicians. That’s actually a very typical situation with composers whose music is published and gets widely performed. At a certain point, you can’t be everywhere. Your identity has to be conveyed exclusively through those marks on a printed page; that’s how it ultimately lives if it is to become repertoire.

MM: Right.

FJO: That’s the opposite of intimacy, but I guess it’s vulnerable, isn’t it?

MM: It is. And if my only outlet was to make these marks on a page and then deliver it to people who I would never meet, I would be really depressed. I created this band, and I perform, and I write for my friends, and I try to be intimately involved with people who are in the process of performing my music to counteract that, to maintain some sense of control and involvement on every level. In a good way, not in a control freak kind of way, but just to be involved in all aspects of the music making. It’s a little bit scary to send this piece off and have people I don’t know yet perform it. But that’s also really exciting, and I will know them in a few weeks!

Daniel Wohl: The Seamless Ideal

Daniel Wohl

Composers often pick up nearly unshakable identifiers in the press that follow them like a tagline. For Daniel Wohl, that call-out has been praise for the remarkably seamless integration of the acoustic and electronic timbres that thread his compositions. It’s a talent that generated significant buzz after the 2013 release of his album Corps Exquis, and it’s a modifier that will likely only cling more tightly in the wake of his full-length follow-up Holographic.

Which is all well and good since it is remarkable. Wohl says that while some artists make use of placing these sounds in opposition, they’re all just sounds to his ear, without distinction. It’s a way of working that comes naturally and simply offers him an enhanced palette that he finds more engaging.

“I feel like a lot of things are born out of being dissatisfied with something,” Wohl acknowledges, further explaining that electronics make acoustic instrumentation more exciting to him, while instrumentalists add vital energy, especially in live performance situations. “And so why not [use all of them]? You can do all of that today, so it doesn’t make sense for me to have arbitrary distinctions between the two.”

In an age of boundary dismantling, this sounds entirely sensible, but the distinctions he makes between live and recorded performance is equally compelling. Taking the album version of Holographic as an example, several of the works were created independently for live performance. These and the other pieces included on the disc were later recorded by a range of (often their commissioning) ensembles—Iktus Percussion, Mivos Quartet, Bang on a Can All-Stars, Olga Bell and Caroline Shaw, and Mantra Percussion. (Lucky Dragons even pops up with a writing credit on the closing track.)

Holographic is an album and live performance co-commissioned by Baryshnikov Arts Center, MASS MoCA, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The album was released by New Amsterdam Records.

“When I’m writing commissioned works, I definitely think about the album as well,” Wohl admits. “I think the album is a great way to bring it all together,” allowing each work to have a longer and more polished life and to be heard by a much larger group of people. “For me that feels like a very comfortable place for what I’m doing because the studio becomes an instrument and you can really fine tune. I don’t always have the luxury of recording, but it’s great when it works and makes sense.”

The recording for Holographic wrapped last September, but the work was not yet finished. Wohl arranged the music to suit a touring ensemble (after stops in New York, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Minnesota, one show remains on February 27 in Los Angeles) consisting of percussion trio and string quartet, plus Wohl himself holding down the electronics. During a weeklong residency at MassMOCA in early January, Wohl further refined the performance with the live players and added the final essential element—a visual accompaniment special to the live presentation created by Daniel Schwarz.

While Wohl considers the album complete without the video work, he finds that the live performance is enhanced to the point that “I don’t think I would do it without the video.”

Even for the well initiated, laptops in performance can seem an enigma. Here, Wohl and Schwarz sit together within reach of the other performers on stage, Wohl’s MIDI designed to communicate with Schwarz’s visual software. In terms of content, the setups mirror each other in a sense—some of the material pre-rendered and some of it mixed live, allowing in-the-moment control over movement, shading, dynamics, and other effects.

It leaves Wohl the room to be involved enough in the performance to feel like he’s another performer on stage playing his part. “Definitely not as much as a violin,” he’s quick to point out, “but certainly I feel like I’m having an impact on the way the strings are reacting to the electronics.”

Still, why leave room for mistakes?

“I don’t really have a conceptual problem with someone who presses play, but I like to be entertained while I’m doing it so I leave as much as I can handle to the live process. But someone could probably handle more than I can, and other people just want to sit back and enjoy the performance themselves.”

On reflection, Wohl’s most distinctive skill may be his knack for balance even more than blending, the music swinging across a wide range of timbres that can carry a piece without slipping the noose of his control.

Born and raised in Paris (his father hailed from Los Angeles, if you’re wondering where his accent is hiding), then educated at Bard College, University of Michigan, and Yale, Wohl recently made the jump from New York to LA, for “no real good reason except that I wanted a little bit more space and better weather,” he jokes. But on a more serious note, he underlines that commonality of being moved around by the economics of being an artist—the seemingly straightforward yet complex equation involved in securing the time and space to create new work.

“People ask your reasons why you’re making things, and sometimes you have some and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it’s really simply, ‘I’m making something,’ and your intuitive, creative approach is all it’s about.”

It’s something that makes him self-conscious at times, but he suggests that perhaps artists are simply searching for some sort of ideal. “Sometimes we get close to it and sometimes we fall short, but we’re all looking for this idealized version of what this music could be.”

Part of that ideal for Wohl is in that mix of acoustic and electronic sounds, which he feels reflects a broader cultural conversation. “We’re looking for something that’s interfacing with technology but just stays human—doesn’t lose the flaws and what makes us interesting.

“That’s an ideal we’re looking for in our computers, but also in the music we’re making.”

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Getting To Know Who I Am

Rudresh Mahanthappa

A conversation at his home in Montclair, New Jersey
January 21, 2016—2:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

It has become common practice to describe jazz as “America’s classical music,” but in some ways doing so misrepresents jazz’s role in this country’s culture and also creates a false hierarchy between this extraordinary American-born music and many other valuable musical idioms to which Americans have made invaluable contributions, including so-called “classical” music. Perhaps even worse it circumscribes jazz as a musical practice, limiting what it can be as well as the aspirations of people who create music that has been defined by that word. Last year, Boydell Press published a book with the provocative title The Other Classical Musics edited by Michael Church. The book looks at a total of 15 different musical traditions from around the world and, in the process, redefines the words “other” and “classical”; one of the 15 traditions featured is Western classical music since this music is in fact an “other” to people who grew up thinking of, say, Carnatic ragas as the building blocks of classical music. Another one of the traditions featured in the book is American jazz.

The Italian-born, Boulder, Colorado-raised composer/saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa creates music that is deeply informed by at least four of the traditions featured in Church’s book—the Carnatic music of his ancestors, the Hindustani music that most folks in America assume is the sum total of India’s contribution to classical music, Western classical music which got instilled in him while studying the Baroque recorder in elementary school, and jazz—his pedigree in which is backed up with two academic degrees. But the music he first fell in love with was Grover Washington’s and, he acknowledged when we visited him in his home in Montclair, New Jersey, his earliest attempts at original material were inspired by Kenny G.

That’s what we knew, so I guess it was—well, I’ll never say it was okay, but it was good for where we were.

Rudresh ultimately wanted to be somewhere else. And the ticket to that somewhere else was, first, the Berklee College of Music and then DePaul University, where he finally came to terms with his identity as an American of South Asian origins who wanted to blaze a trail in jazz.

I come from a very academic family and my dad wasn’t going to let me move to New York with a rucksack on a stick and make my way. He’s one of the leading theoretical physicists in the world and he has all sorts of advanced degrees and awards, so the idea of not going to college, not going that route, was just unheard of. … When I first went to college, there was a huge black population and a huge white population, so I was very much confronted with this identity crisis of not knowing who I am. … In a lot of ways, a lot of my music is a by-product of me getting to know who I am. It’s defining what being Indian-American is for myself, and being confused and embracing that confusion and kind of coming out the other end with a real community of people that have been down the same paths as me who are pretty much of the same age and the same generation.

For the last 20 years, Rudresh has explored his composite cultural identity through an extremely wide range of fascinating musical activities. Some of these projects have been direct attempts to synthesize contemporary jazz and much older Indian traditions, such as the duo Raw Materials in which he collaborates with like-minded pianist Vijay Iyer, and a trio called the Indo-Pak Coalition in which he performs alongside Pakistani-American Rez Abbazi on electric guitar and Jewish-American Dan Weiss on the Indian tabla. Perhaps even more intriguing, however, have been projects in which jazz and Carnatic elements co-exist alongside many other components such as Gamak, which incorporates the microtonal guitar experiments of David Fiuczynski, and Samdhi, on which Rudresh also performs on a laptop. In the last couple of years, Rudresh has composed a quintet for saxophones which he performs along with leading contemporary classical saxophone quartet PRISM, and Song of the Jasmine, a score he performs with an ensemble to accompany the Ragamala Dance Company. And his most recent album is an homage to Charlie Parker. In all of these projects, he has come even closer to finding his own voice by deeply probing some of the world’s greatest musical traditions.


Frank J. Oteri: This morning I started reading a really interesting book called The Other Classical Musics, which was published last year. There are two very loaded words in that title: “other” and “classical.” But the book is an attempt to turn both of these words on their heads. There are a total of 15 kinds of music featured in the book, and one of them is Western classical music, since for some people it is an “other” classical music. Anyway, among the different musics discussed in the book, you’ve dipped into at least four: jazz, Carnatic music, Hindustani music, and Western classical music in terms of working with an ensemble like PRISM.

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Right.

FJO: In the book’s introduction, there’s a reference to a comment by the musicologist Harold Powers, who has claimed that the difference between a classical music and a folk music is that you can be from anywhere and still be able to learn a classical music with application and talent, whereas you have to be born into a folk music.

RM: You have to have lived it for real. Wow, that’s really interesting. I have this conversation a lot with people about jazz. Jazz has this international scope; everyone’s playing jazz and everyone’s making their own jazz, but there’s always this kind of lurking intimidation among people from these countries outside of America feeling—depending on the population—that they don’t have access to black culture or black American culture. So there’s a bit of a sinking feeling that their jazz is not authentic. And yeah, that’s an interesting issue for me and an interesting thing raised to me by others because, you know, I’m not black, I’m not white, and I’m not Latin. I came to this music through jazz-rock fusion or instrumental soul R&B—people like Grover Washington, David Sanborn, the Brecker Brothers, and the Yellowjackets—because that was music that also sounded like the music that was being played on Top 40 radio. I was born in 1971. I’m really a child of the ‘80s in many ways, so that music all made sense. It wasn’t like I was listening to Charlie Parker when I was ten years old. It wasn’t until I got older that I was finding a place where I felt like I was safe playing jazz. There were plenty of times where I felt like I didn’t belong because of ethnicity, the color of my skin.

The industry had no place for me, either; they didn’t know what to do with an Indian-American jazz musician. They knew what to do with a black jazz musician or a white jazz musician, and Latin jazz is a huge genre unto itself as well. So there was a lot of stereotyping that would take place. I remember talking to an entertainment lawyer who was trying to help me get a record deal when I was 24 or something like that. And she said, “We definitely need to have Ravi Shankar as a guest on the first album.” I was like, “Really? We do?” Here I am with a band that’s piano, bass, drums, and alto saxophone, and we’re playing very traditional jazz forms—blues, rhythm changes, nothing very wild by any means. A common reaction from an audience member would be, “wow, this is great music” not “you should have a tabla player in your band,” which doesn’t even make sense musically. I’m South Indian, you know; tabla’s a North Indian instrument. So do I have to have that conversation, too, about the prevalence of North India as opposed to South India in the United States?

But that’s really interesting because I think at its roots, jazz is often talked about as being American classical music—and in some regards it is. But at the same time, its folk origins are really undeniable. I’d be interested to read that book, because you could argue jazz’s roots having such a strong folk tradition that maybe it isn’t accessible. But I would like to think it’s accessible because I am one of the biggest anomalies in my musical genre that I know of, with a handful of others.

But, you know, those issues of authenticity and validity are the things you confront regardless of what you do in the art world. To find places that are encouraging and nurturing is sometimes more than half the battle in making your way through and making a career out of this. The example I always bring up is everyone feels like they can own jazz across the world. But if they were going to study Indian music, they would all go to India to study it. So why is it that more people don’t come to New York City to study jazz, or New Orleans? But I would say New York City is more the capital of jazz, and there are a lot of people that are making jazz in the world that have never been to New York City. I always tell them that they have to go to the place where Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and innumerable others really made a mark on this music. This is like going to Madras to study Carnatic music. You have to do it. You don’t have to live here, but you got to do it a little bit.

FJO: It’s interesting where you took that comment; you talked more about jazz than you did about Carnatic music except for your assertion about the certainty of going to Madras to study Carnatic music versus people’s lack of certainty vis-à-vis needing to go to New York City to fully understand jazz. Theoretically you can learn jazz from anywhere in the world, but there is this cultural root to it. Then again, there’s a cultural root to any music including Western classical music.

RM: Sure.

FJO: In a way, it’s sort of presumptuous for someone to assume that you’d be fluent in South Indian music just because your parents came from there. You grew up in Colorado and you were actually born in Italy, so technically you should be singing bel canto opera!

RM: We weren’t there long enough, but yeah. This is a really interesting issue. Everybody should try to go visit the roots of wherever what they do comes from. Opera singers spend time in Italy, most of the great ones do. Everyone has to visit the mother tongue of whatever it is they do, the cultural homeland. It might not necessarily make you better at what you do, but it’ll give a perspective to what you do that I think is very important, and also place what you do in the larger scope of what it means to be producing something on this planet—music as a community event.

FJO: So Boulder, Colorado, in the 1980s is your personal cultural homeland—listening to Grover Washington, the Brecker Brothers. How did you get interested in making music yourself?

RM: My older brother played clarinet and he used to practice before school, if you can imagine. It was so early. It was still dark outside in the winter. I was often eating breakfast. It was getting close to the time where I could be part of the music program in elementary school. I think you could start in fourth grade or the summer before fourth grade. Everyone played recorder in elementary music school class. Everyone played “Hot Cross Buns.” But I actually came home and told my mom I loved it and I wanted private lessons. So actually I had two years of Baroque recorder in second and third grade, which was great. I already knew how to read music and the fingerings are practically the same [as the saxophone’s fingerings]. So it was a smoother transition than having played nothing before. But I remember this very distinct conversation one morning where my brother said, “You should play an instrument that allows you to be in the jazz band, because those guys are having a lot more fun than I am.” He also said that they take solos where they get to make them up. He was talking about improvisation, but that was totally intriguing. And the other thing he said was that often times the baritone sax, especially if you’re a kid and not tall enough, will rest on the floor and it will shake the whole room. My mom had all these kitschy knick-knacks from all over the world, and the idea of those shaking off the shelves—I mean, that was it for me. I was really hoping to destroy my mom’s stuff by playing the baritone sax. But I never got to play that.

I’m still very much in touch with the father of my elementary school best friend. My friend actually passed away, but I’m still close with his dad. He was really psyched that I was playing saxophone. He actually was an amateur musician, and he gave me that first Grover Washington record when I was in fourth grade. It’s that famous one with “Just the Two of Us.” Then shortly after that, Grover was on tour and my dad took me to the concert at Red Rocks. We got there early and got third-rows seats. We couldn’t hear for three days, but it was really, really awesome. Everybody was up dancing in the aisles, and it was like going to church or something. It was really amazing. So those were a lot of the inspirations. I heard Charlie Parker by the time I was in seventh grade. I was in it by then. From ninth grade on, I’ve always had a band of some sort and was trying to write stupid songs, butchering Charlie Parker’s music, and eventually butchering Coltrane’s music. I was always into leading a band and just trying to get out there and play.

Some people might know that Boulder, Colorado, has this pedestrian mall that’s very famous for its street entertainers—jugglers, magicians, savants, whatever, and musicians, of course. I think my dad was joking when he said, “Why don’t you go out there and try to make some money?” I was in sixth or seventh grade, but I went out there. I was just playing T.V. show themes and songs like “Mandy.” My brother had this [book of] pop classics for the clarinet, and I just played them on the saxophone. But I met so many other musicians playing out there that were much older than me. Eventually I heard a Dixieland band playing in a restaurant across the way. I went in there and I had my horn in the case. For some reason, the leader of the band saw me and saw the case and he came over to me with a list of tunes and said, “Do you know any of these?” I said, “I think I know ‘Sweet Georgia Brown.’” So he said, “Come up and play.” They played every Friday afternoon, and I played with those guys for like five years. So the first tunes I learned were all these Dixieland tunes—which most people would be shocked to know actually—like “Up a Lazy River,” “Avalon,” and “Undecided.” I know those tunes better than I know what are considered the classic jazz standards. Then I met other older, amateur musicians who would get little gigs at coffee houses, so I was kind of out there playing already when I was 15.

FJO: Now when did you go from playing standards to wanting to create your own material?

RM: I was writing tunes in junior high and high school. I had a little funk-fusion band. We would write some tunes together. The keyboard player was really good. We would try to write tunes that probably sounded more like Kenny G. tunes to some degree. That’s what we knew, so I guess it was—well, I’ll never say it was okay, but it was good for where we were.

I tried to keep writing through college. I had a kind of hiccup in college because the school I started at was a bit oppressive in its way of teaching jazz, so I was a little bit lost there for a couple of years. But then I ended up transferring to Berklee College of Music and had a much more creative experience. That’s when I really started writing a lot and getting a better grasp on what I wanted to do.

FJO: So what would be an example of an oppressive way of teaching jazz?

RM: I think it was very patternistic. It wasn’t about learning from records. It was what we call learning licks, piecing together vocabulary but more from books, so I felt like the aural tradition of jazz was missing. It was all very academic. It was also very big band oriented, which I wasn’t so much interested in. I was really into small groups and improvising, and I felt like all of that was an afterthought. There was also an almost classist sort of feeling within the student body. You know, “I play in the top ensemble and I’m a first class citizen.” It went all the way down to the zero class citizens, which was the world I was in. But I was already thinking about different approaches to creating vocabulary, both as an improviser and a composer back then. In between the first and second year, I went back home to Colorado. I went back to my original teacher, but he said, “You don’t want to study with me, you want to study with this guy.” His name was Chuck Schneider. They weren’t saxophone lessons; they were theory lessons, but they were always very far-reaching. Like, we’d talk about some sort of intervallic concept, let’s say, and he would say, “You see it in Coltrane, but you also see it in Bartók, and in Schoenberg here.” It wasn’t just about jazz; it was about a whole sphere of music. That’s the summer I became a total theory head—Persichetti, Schoenberg, whatever. I went to the library and checked out as many books as possible. The following year we were using Allen Forte and different methods for analysis in the classical theory program, and the first thing that struck me is why can’t we reverse engineer this method of analysis to actually create fresh vocabulary to improvise with and to write with? So I was thinking about serialism and I was thinking about pitch sets. I was thinking about playing 12-bar blues also, but I was thinking about all these things in the same space.

Then also as a listener, I had the same teacher from fourth grade until I left for college—Mark Harris. I was his first student. He was a sophomore in college when we started. And he had just a very open-minded approach to music in general. First of all, every time I saw him play was different. He might be with something that was considered more avant-garde, like two horns and a drummer screaming. Then I’d see him with an Afropop band. Then I’d see him with a prog rock band. He was in a band called Thinking Plague that was actually signed to Cuneiform way back when. Then I’d see him with a big band. So I had this sense that music was large. It wasn’t just about playing jazz, or certainly just playing saxophone. He also came to my house for lessons. Remember those days when people came to your house to teach you? He would always bring three records with him and there’d always be an incredible variety. There might be Stravinsky, Sidney Bechet, and Yes. Then the next week it would be something else. So I was listening in this way that really had no boundaries with genre. It was about music being played well and played with integrity. I was listening to Ornette and Grover Washington at the same time. I just thought they were two great saxophonists. I didn’t really think that one was out and one was in. When I went to college, people were talking about hard bop and all these little subdivisions. I was like, “What are you talking about? This is all just great music.” Those perspectives were instilled in me at a very young age. I didn’t know it at the time, but I look back on it and say holy moly!

FJO: Have you kept up with Mark Harris?

RM: Oh yeah. He stood up at my wedding. He’s one of my best friends.

FJO: You had this really important mentor, but you also had official academic training. As a jazz player, you’re a product of the whole jazz education thing. You actually have a graduate degree in jazz composition.

RM: I do. Well, there are several reasons for that. I didn’t know of another way to gain access to the music in Boulder, Colorado. You have to understand, at the time I graduated from high school in ’88, there were really only ten schools in the country that had a jazz studies program. They were all very competitive, and they all meant moving thousands of miles away. It’s very different now because your local college has a jazz studies program. Everybody has a jazz studies program now. Anyway, at that time there was still a level of commitment that meant displacing yourself at the age of 17. I knew that moving to New York was not an option. I come from a very academic family and my dad wasn’t going to let me move to New York with a rucksack on a stick and make my way. He’s one of the leading theoretical physicists in the world and he has all sorts of advanced degrees and awards, so the idea of not going to college, not going that route, was just unheard of. My mom was the more artsy one. While I was listening to this music, she would say, “oh, I really like that” or “oh, I hated that,” or “what you played sounded great” or “that was awful, what you were doing.” She actually had feedback. With my dad, it was really like, “Well, I don’t know if it was good or bad. I don’t know enough about it.” So that’s to say that I think my dad is really pleased with degrees and awards. And that’s great. I like calling home and saying, “Hey, I just got this.” And you know, my parents are ecstatic, but I can tell that my dad loves it more.

But I didn’t actually know there was another route without going to college. For someone finishing high school in the ‘80s, that’s what you do. It wasn’t until I met people like Steve Coleman, who just moved here and practically lived on the streets. He’s made some of the most important music in the last 20 years. Now I know that’s a possibility. Getting a master’s degree wasn’t really my plan, but there’s this preordained path now—it’s actually quite dumb—that you finish your bachelor’s and you move to New York. That’s what you’re supposed to do as a jazz musician, whether or not you’re prepared to. You either move to New York or you go to school in New York to get your master’s, or something like that. More and more at this point there’s so many great non-New York communities that are producing great music. You don’t need to do that anymore, so I guess that’s all to say that we were all finishing up at Berklee, and everybody was moving to New York. I’d only been here once, for a long weekend, and it was like a 72-hour panic attack. I didn’t want to have anything do with this city. So I was pretty confused. And a friend of mine was like, “Why don’t you come to Chicago? It’s a very healthy scene, you’d probably play a lot and work a lot and get a lot of experience, and by the way, there’s a school here and you could probably do your master’s here.” I was like, “Oh, that’s an interesting idea.” Then I had mentioned this in passing to a teacher at Berklee who said that school’s called DePaul University and it’s a great school. He said, “You know, the best man in my wedding runs a jazz program there. Let me make a call for you.”

So it just kind of barreled forward and it was great. The school was great. And Chicago was great, and it was a great stepping stone to New York because I got a lot of experience and exposure, but more experience than I would have if I had come to New York. I’d probably be temping. I’d probably be an expert in Photoshop now if I had moved to New York. I really got to play in Chicago. I had a steady Monday night gig. I was writing music. A little local label put out my first album. And I learned stuff. I learned how to get a gig. I learned how to get a radio station to play your music. I learned a lot of business stuff. And then every band that was coming through from New York, I went to meet them and would take them out for South Indian food or cook for them.

So, when I moved to New York, I knew all these people. “You’re the guy who took us out for idlis and dosas.” “Yeah, that was me. Here’s my CD.” I was always thinking about the music and the business together because I saw, in some sort of maybe subconscious way, that the industry was—well, I didn’t predict MP3s and the internet and piracy, but I knew that stuff was going to get harder and harder. It was very clear to me. The schools are turning out so many proficient musicians. There’s a lot more to wade through to make sure you are heard, especially if you have a real personal voice.

FJO: During the years you were at DePaul you also played as a sideman in a big band led by Clark Terry.

RM: Well, that wasn’t really true. The university band had hired Clark Terry to be a guest with the group. So I wasn’t really doing that. That was the other thing. I saw very quickly that I was not going to be called as a sideman very often. I always modeled myself after Michael Brecker in the sense that Michael Brecker could do anything he wanted to do. He was amazing. But whenever you saw him as a sideman in anything, or playing a solo in a pop track, it wasn’t because they needed a saxophonist—it was because they wanted his sound. So even back then, I thought of it all as a high road. I was like I don’t want someone to call me just because they need an alto player. I want them to call because they want me specifically. And that meant being just a leader for a very long time. I had those revelations pretty early.

A common summer job for a jazz musician is to go out on a cruise ship and play in one of these mickey bands. So that was my first professional gig when I was still at Berklee. I was 20. It was like, “This is great. I’m going to spend the summer in the Caribbean. I’m going to save a lot of money. I’m going to practice. I’m going to do all this stuff.” And I was horrified. I was horrified by the music, by the other musicians, by the amount of substance abuse. There were a lot of people like me. “I’m just going to be on here for the summer.” And they’d been on there for ten years, you know. There was one guy who—I don’t know if he forgot—almost every day would tell me about how he was going to get off the ship and go study with Joe Lovano at William Paterson. And I was like, “Do you know you told me this yesterday?” I actually jumped off after six weeks. I was very depressed, but I came out of that summer realizing that I was a really good teacher and that I could sustain myself doing that. And also making a real vow to myself that I wasn’t going to put myself in a situation where the saxophone was in my mouth and I didn’t enjoy what I was doing. So I set up a different career path for myself. When I moved to Chicago, everyone was playing weddings and private parties on Saturday nights, putting on their unwashed tuxedo and playing out in the suburbs. In four years in Chicago, I think I did 15 of those gigs. And it was always like a ticking clock when I got on the gig. As soon as there’s a saxophone solo, I know that at the end of that solo I will not get called by this band leader again, because I’m gonna play nutso; I’m just going to do what I want. So it actually became this joke to me. I’m going to get hired and fired by another band in one night. Not that I was trying to be a jerk, but I would look at these people next to me and say, “Is this what you thought you’d be doing when you went to music school when you were 18?”

FJO: So when did you feel you became you, as opposed to just an interchangeable saxophone player, in terms of what you were playing?

RM: Already in college at Berklee I felt tinges of that. I was not only checking out a lot of modern voices in jazz, I also just felt like it was really important to—not just vocabulary and composition—have a sense of what I wanted to sound like. I really listened to a lot of tenor players instead of alto players. After Charlie Parker, it wasn’t really Cannonball and Sonny Stitt. It was really Coltrane and people that came after him, so my sonic picture was very different. And I was listening to all this double reed music from India, like Bismillah Khan on shehnai and players on the South Indian nagasvaram—really reedy. I really liked that. I was kind of trying to put those two together. I had different ways of thinking about embouchure and just the way you position your body when you’re playing the instrument. They weren’t necessarily new, but I just didn’t hear those conversations happening a lot around me.

FJO: So you were already starting to get immersed in Indian music.

RM: A little bit, you know. Indian music was always tough for me because when I was younger, say like in high school when I was playing with all these musicians, there was this assumption that I was an expert on Indian music just because of my name and the color of my skin. So I always felt like I had to know a lot about it, even though I knew nothing about it. My parents weren’t actively listening to it, speaking of that folk/classical thing. They were mainly listening to bhajans, which is temple music. I always describe the difference between bhajans and Indian classical music as the difference between church hymns and Debussy. Indian classical music has the same tools, but it’s much more complex and orchestrated.

Anyway, these certain sounds were in my head from a young age, but I certainly couldn’t pick apart a Ravi Shankar track or a Subramaniam track or anything like that. And I had this thing hanging over my head that Indian music is not a safe space. In Boulder, it was easy to just kind of consider myself white, because that’s what it was primarily. Then when I first went to college, there was a huge black population and a huge white population, so I was very much confronted with this identity crisis of not knowing who I am and also just the newness of an Indian-American identity in this country. The idea of being children of immigrants wasn’t something that was at the forefront. Now we’re everywhere: we’re in Hollywood; we’re on T.V.; we’re writing books; we’re making music. But back then, in the late ‘80s and even going into the ‘90s, there weren’t any role models. So it was all quite scary.

In a lot of ways, a lot of my music is a by-product of me getting to know who I am. It’s defining what being Indian-American is for myself, and being confused and embracing that confusion and kind of coming out the other end with a real community of people that have been down the same paths as me who are pretty much of the same age and the same generation. In ’93, I had already finished at Berklee and was living in Chicago, but Berklee sent a student band to India comprised of the few students from India who were attending Berklee and then a few other musicians like myself and the great bass player Matt Garrison. We did this tour, and we managed to hear some really great music. Outside of Bangalore, which is where my parents are from, there’s this tradition of the all-night concert—a concert that starts at sunset and goes to sunrise. And we went to one of these and I didn’t know that at the time it was really some of the great names in both North and South Indian music; it was just an amazing night. I went to the record store the next day and just bought as many CDs and cassettes as I could handle of the artists I’d heard and then I asked the store owner to recommend a bunch of stuff, too. So I went back to Chicago with all this music in hand and a lot of that very first album that came out in ‘95, all those compositions, is very loosely inspired by that trip to India.

That trip was eye-opening in lots of ways because it wasn’t just about the music. It was my first time going as an adult. It was the first time going without my parents. And it was the first time going to play music. I hadn’t been there in ten10 years, so my relatives were all going to ask why I didn’t speak their language. I was prepared for lots and lots of anxiety, which resulted in some really, really cool music. Then shortly after that, Vijay Iyer and I met, and then we finally had a partner in crime to kind of learn from each other. And we learned a lot of stuff together. You know, we listened to a lot of albums together and picked them apart, and we had very different perspectives on what we wanted to do musically, but enough common goals and agendas that it was amazing. We’ve been playing together for 20 years now.

FJO: When does Rez Abbasi come into the picture?

RM: I actually played a session with him at someone’s house right when I moved to New York in ‘97, my third week in town. But Rez was not so engaged in his ancestry. I think what turned it around for him is he ended up dating Kiran Ahluwalia who’s this great ghazal singer. He started playing with her, too. He started playing with her first, I think. He had lots of agendas at once, I’m sure, but I think that’s when he really started thinking a lot about Indian music. I heard him and Dan Weiss at the same time. And I couldn’t believe—here was this Jewish kid from Jersey who was playing tabla better than anybody. So we had this trio called the Indo-Pak Coalition. I had started a band like that in Chicago with the same name, but it felt very inauthentic. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable working with Indian concepts or instrumentalists, or Indian musicians, because I felt like I wanted to be in a place where the dialogue was meaningful and that it was a real synthesis of ideas and with the right people who wanted to blur the lines. There are so many East-West sorts of projects where it’s two people playing in a room together and not only are they not pushing each other, they’re really just showing up and doing what they do. That’s what the f-word is for me—fusion. You know, it’s really like, ugh, when people say my music is fusion! Please don’t use that word because that connotes all those projects from the ‘60s and ‘70s that were really about exoticism and smoking weed and listening to Indian music. The way Indian music got presented in America initially was a little bit sad. I always say that Ravi Shankar playing at Woodstock was the best and worst thing that ever happened to Indian music.

FJO: At the onset you were saying this lawyer thought that Ravi Shankar should be on your first album, even though you’re South Indian. Immediately I was thinking about how Indian music influenced Western music—jazz, rock, and classical music. Most of that influence was coming from North Indian music, which has a very steady drone and develops very gradually. To me, Carnatic music is much more frenetic and raw; it’s more like early bebop.

RM: Absolutely. The rhythmic engagement is on such a high level. It’s funny because when I talk about blurring those lines, I hear Jack DeJohnette or Max Roach and the greatest mridangam players on the same rhythmic playing field. It’s couched differently culturally, of course, but those things are rather seamless to me; it all kind of makes sense in my head. Plus I’m Indian and I’m American every second of every day, so the music has to reflect that and has to be respectful of that.

FJO: Well, in terms of identities, when the Indo-Pak Coalition really gelled and came together it was Rez, Dan Weiss, and you. You mentioned the Jewish guy from Jersey playing the tabla, which is the Indian instrument, and the two guys from South Asia are playing Western instruments. But that’s a ridiculous way to think about it ultimately since you’re all Americans.

RM: Right. Yeah, totally.

FJO: What instrument belongs to who, a saxophone, a guitar, or tabla? The saxophone was invented in Europe. The electric guitar is an American creation, but it’s a hybrid. American culture is a hybrid culture no matter what we do.

RM: Absolutely. I think so much of this country is based on hybridity and all sorts of cross-pollination. It really is a laboratory for anything to happen—maybe more so than other places in the world.

FJO: So in terms of that f-word, fusion: one thing that immediately does come to mind as a precedent for the Indo-Pak Coalition, although he’s British, is what John McLaughlin did in Shakti, his collaboration with L. Shankar, which at times really did work.

RM: Oh, it’s blazing. I love that music. But I would never call that music jazz. That’s McLaughlin playing Carnatic music. I know they had a jazz presence, because it was McLaughlin, and whenever they regroup, they play all the big jazz festivals. And it’s awesome. There are some Shakti videos that I’ve watched thousands of times, and they’re killing. But I’m thinking more things like the first coining of Indo-jazz fusion, Joe Harriott. There was a time when everyone wanted to reference that album. It actually took me a long time to listen to it. I really don’t like that album. I admire the endeavor and the effort, but the musical results are nothing that I relate to really. But maybe that’s my problem. I’m thinking more about that than Shakti. The reality is McLaughlin’s investment in Indian music is tremendous, both musically and spiritually. He really feels it. He knows that stuff better than some Carnatic musicians. And he deserves all the credit and the kudos, for sure. But yeah, people always want to think of what I do as an extension of that, whereas I want think of what I do as an extension of Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

FJO: When you were mentioning the names of people who influenced your approach to playing the saxophone, I thought you’d also mention Gato Barbieri, who had such a raw sound.

RM: Oh yeah. Definitely.

FJO: But in terms of thinking of what you do as an extension of Ellington, Parker, and Coltrane, I think Coltrane was the only one who really became immersed in Indian music and was trying to find a way to internalizing it and make it completely his own. Where I hear that even more in your work is in what you’ve been doing on albums like Gamak and Samdhi, which derive not only from jazz and Carnatic musical traditions but from lots of other stuff as well. On Gamak, you worked with David Fiuczynski, who plays wacky microtonal guitar, and on Samdhi you’re messing around with a laptop. It’s a lot more than just a fusion. Oops, there’s the f-word. Anyway, it’s something that’s way beyond just two things; I think what it really is, if you need to put a label on it, is 21st-century American music.

RM: Well, the interesting thing with Samdhi and that project with laptop was that it was actually the result of my Guggenheim project, which was all based on spending two to three months in India and informally studying with a bunch of people. The intention was always to take all these ideas, concepts, and ancient techniques and graft them onto the jazz/rock fusion band that I always wanted to have, with screaming electric guitar, electric bass, and distorted saxophone. All those tunes are very much based on South Indian rhythmic cycles and ragas. It’s really funny that that was the mouthpiece I wanted for all this information.

Then with Gamak we moved into lots of different territory. We worked with some modes that are used in Javanese gamelan music. There’s also some stuff that sounds almost like country music. Gamak or gamaka refers to melodic ornamentation in Indian music. That’s the name for it. But I wanted to think about how ornamentation occurs across the world, because that’s such a humanizing factor in the transmission of song, whether it’s R&B or country music, or some East Asian genre. How that yodel you hear in country music occurs in early American music and occurs in Africa, but variations of that occur in Japanese music. So are these the primal and visceral elements of what making music means? That’s what I was trying to address with that album, but also in a very playful way.

Then I turned around and kind of deconstructed Charlie Parker on the next album [Bird Calls]. But at the same time, the first track on that is very much based on a South Indian tala. Now it’s more in my DNA. I have to say when I look back on those first things with Indo-Pak Coalition or Kinsman, a collaboration with the Carnatic saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, even though it’s only seven or eight years old, is that I was trying to prove something. I don’t know if it comes across in the music, but when I go to those head spaces, I’m like, “Yeah, I felt like you have to play like this, because you’re trying to prove that you can do all these things.” And now I’m like, you know what, they’re so embedded. They’re just coming out now. And I can relax with it. It’s always going to be me.

FJO: But in terms of trying to prove something, you really made a statement by calling an album Samdhi.

RM: Yeah, the new universe. I was thinking more like the way that the Hindu calendar has this very finite place; they know when the universe is going to end. Then there’s this space while the new universe is being created. At the time I was feeling like there were new things opening up for me musically—not necessarily that other things were closing, but I felt like I was finding a new voice. So it’s more metaphorically speaking of that space between the destruction of one thing and the creation of another, and what happens during those magical times. It’s like twilight, really—all the weird things that can happen in twilight.

FJO: But I hear Bird Calls as coming from a completely different place than either Gamak or Samdhi. Not in terms of how it sounds, but in terms of how it exists in relation to tradition. I would place it more alongside projects like I Will Not Apologize For My Tone Tonight, your collaboration with the PRISM Quartet, or Song of the Jasmine, the music you created and performed with Ragamala Dance. Working with those dancers resulted in what is probably the most traditional Indian-sounding music you’ve ever done. And working with PRISM, which is a genre-bending ensemble but one that is firmly rooted in the Western classical saxophone quartet tradition, is probably the most traditionally Western classical thing you’ve done. Similarly, Bird Calls, which is a direct homage to Charlie Parker, the most iconic saxophone soloist, is in some ways your most traditional straight-ahead sounding jazz album. You’re still creating things that are clearly in your own voice but you seem to be more directly in specific dialogue with these very different traditions.

RM: Well, it’s interesting that you say that because I was writing all that music at the same time, so I always feel like there are elements of all in each. One of the things I learned writing and playing for the dance company was that there had to be this certain melodic clarity. We get rather intellectual with what we do. How much can I throw in there? How complex can I be? I think it’s a game; at least it’s a game I play with myself sometimes. You know, what’s another layer I can add to this to make it even more convoluted? I quickly saw that that wasn’t going to work with the dancers.

Clarity doesn’t necessarily mean simplicity, but I think there’s a place where melody sings in a way that can reach a lot of people. And that’s what the dancers needed regardless of what’s going on rhythmically. So I felt like that music that I wrote for them had that, and that mindset trickled into the Bird thing and also trickled into the PRISM thing as well. I feel like I’m a different person after that year of working on these three things at once. My approach to writing music, and even how I listen to music, has changed a little bit. Doing something interdisciplinary puts you in a bit of a more selfless space because what they’re doing is equally valid and important and virtuosic. So it’s really not about me. It’s about us making this thing that seems seamless and that is seamless. In the end after all that touring, I always describe that project as ten musicians. It just happened to be that five of them were dancers.

FJO: Now in terms of the PRISM project, this was a collaboration with these four great saxophone players. They’ve done a lot of music where people write them a piece and they play the piece. And then there are pieces where people write them a piece and play the piece with them, which is what you did. But it’s a completely fixed piece, right?

RM: For the most part. There is a section where they improvise, but there are rules. There are rules to how they improvise and certain key points and stuff. So it’s not like they just go for it for a while and then I raise my hand; it’s much more structured than that. It’s based on some pitch sets. It’s very much composed, and it’s very finite. It’s always kind of the same length and the same message comes across. Well, PRISM is interesting. I’ve always liked what they do; they’ve always been very forward-looking in what they’re looking to perform. I actually met Taimur Sullivan back in ’94 at the North American Saxophone Alliance Conference. It’s also known as NASA, if anyone cares. He was a finalist in the classical competition and I was a finalist in the jazz competition. I had this very intriguing conversation with him because I had never met a classical saxophonist who was so aware of jazz and who was just so into modern music. He wasn’t into just playing the Creston Sonata and the stalwarts of the classical saxophone canon; he was doing stuff with tape loops and he was looking to do all this crazy stuff. I was like, “Who are you?” This was before he was part of PRISM, but we kept in touch over the years. Then we had had conversations like, “Hey, it would be great if you could write something for us, blah-blah-blah.” Some of these conversations go back and forth for years and then it finally happens. So that was something I was really looking forward to. And they really wanted me to write something where I was going to actively play with them. I approach that in different ways. But you know, I definitely wanted to be in there, and then the great thing about that part where they improvise is I’m actually holding it down; I’m playing a bass line for them. It’s like, you guys go; it’s not about me soloing. I don’t always want to be the one playing the melody by any means. It’s again, music as a community event.

FJO: So did doing a project like that whet your appetite for potentially doing a piece where you’re writing music that other folks play, that you’re not part of?

RM: You know, I would love to do that. I try to put it out there that I’m interested in doing that. I’ve had a few conversations with Imani Winds. Toyin Spellman, the oboe player, is someone again whom I’ve known for many, many years. It’s a question of logistics and getting calendars to align. But I would love to write something for them. I would love to write for string quartet. I did an interview this morning where someone was asking me if I’d ever thought about writing for orchestra. I would love to do all of those things. And I’m just as happy to write and not play, for sure. You know, that would be really, really fun.

FJO: You just came back from Panama and Chile.

RM: Yeah. That was with Bird Calls. Mainly the bulk of what I’ve been doing is with Bird Calls, the Charlie Parker project. That’s touring pretty much through the rest of the year. Indo-Pak Coalition’s going to make another album, but with a lot of electronics. I’m actually working on a couple of new pieces that will debut at the Walker Arts Center in February.

I also have this idea for a project with a comedian. There’s always been this relationship with comedians and jazz that hasn’t been engaged so much recently. Comedians used to open for jazz musicians. I mean, at the Village Vanguard. That was a thing! Artistically speaking, there’s something very interesting about the commonalities and timing and pace, and the ratio of composed to improvised material, and how different comedians approach that. It’s really like being a jazz musician to me. So I’d just like to see where that goes. I have to think about that a lot more. There’s this great artist I met named Eric Dyer. Do you know what a zoetrope is? It’s kind of like the earliest form of—it’s not even film. You look through this thing with slits in it that spins, and the result would be like someone riding a bicycle. It’s essentially the first form of movie. So this guy Eric Dyer has done this amazing work with a kind of modern take on the zoetrope. They look just bizarre, and then when they start spinning, it’s like a whole civilization moving around. But when it’s static, it doesn’t look like anything. He’s also done it with umbrellas. So it’s like a pretty umbrella, but when you spin the umbrella, it’s an animation. It’s really, really brilliant. We’ve been talking about ways in which he could make something that he can actually manipulate in real time. It’s not just a piece of art that spins. So I’d like to do something with him and a comedian. That’s really on my mind. So those are the two things that I’m thinking about for this year. And then who knows from there.



Kate Soper: Real Communication

Armed with a serious supply of Post-it notes, Kate Soper is working her way through Aristotle’s Metaphysics—not for the first time—with the aim of turning selections drawn from the classic into chamber music. It’s an exercise familiar to this composer/performer, who has made the setting of challenging or ambiguous text, spanning ancient philosophy to contemporary poetry, something of a calling card.

The space to study new ideas outside her area of expertise is one of the things she loves most about being a musician working in this way. “It gives you an excuse to deeply investigate anything,” Soper explains. “I’m always just trying to read and keep my mind and eyes open for something that I really want to explore further, and then I get to do that because I’m a composer.”

That commitment to open-minded study has led to the creation of illuminating works such as Voices from the Killing Jar, a song cycle inspired by fictional characters that resonated with Soper, and the theatrical work Here Be Sirens, which mixes original text penned by the composer and a range of other sources to explore the very human story of these mythological creatures.

Most recently, Soper has begun collating works that were originally created independently along with new settings under the heading of Ipsa Dixit (“she, herself, said it…”). The six-movement piece, of which Metaphysics will eventually be a part, plays explicitly with ideas about language. While the use of words in a piece of music adds a layer of meaning, that may not necessarily translate into clarity of communication and Soper is fascinated by that ambiguity—”the complexities of language and meaning and vocalizing and speech and how we can connect those, the interesting ways we can play with those intersections.”

Extended techniques in her vocal and instrumental writing, as well as integrated choreography and other dramatic elements, further work to memorably illuminate these ideas. But they can also push a musician beyond her comfort zone, which Soper sees as just par for the course as a performing artist. She recalls coming face to face with this reality in her late 20s. “I was feeling the need to follow this instinct to communicate and realizing that the risk was essentially that I was going to embarrass myself. I had to let go of that fear and take that risk or it wasn’t worth continuing to do what I was doing, which is writing music.”

Even with her anxieties set aside, she acknowledges that the conversation she can have with an audience is quite different from one-on-one communication. Still, she strives to foster meaningful shared human activity between herself and the people in the hall through her work, a connection that can feel quite direct due to her position as a vocalist using words and not standing behind an external instrument.

There’s also a compelling logistical advantage to writing work she can perform herself. Though she’s excited to have other artists present her pieces, she finds great benefit to writing for her own instrument and being able to monitor how things are going as the piece develops in rehearsal and performance firsthand.

Plus, as a composer, it’s a good way to push the performer into new territory with confidence. “I will do anything as a performer that I as a composer ask me to do.”

Royce Vavrek: So Many Juicy, Amazing Words

Royce Vavrek sitting down in front of a graffiti-strewn wall.

A conversation at Vavrek’s apartment in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, NY
December 4, 2015—12:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

While an extremely wide range of composers are writing operas in the United States today, many of these disparate operas share an important trait—a libretto written by someone who was born in Alberta, Canada: Royce Vavrek. Dog Days and JFK (which both feature music by David T. Little), Angel’s Bone (with music by Du Yun), 27 (featuring music by Ricky Ian Gordon), and Song from the Uproar (music by Missy Mazzoli) are only a handful of the projects he has been involved with in the last five years. The gregarious Vavrek at first seems like an unlikely candidate for the mysterious, and regretfully somewhat anonymous, profession of writing opera librettos.

“I don’t know how I made this career,” he acknowledges to us during our talk with him in his Bushwick apartment. “I’m legitimately only writing libretti. Aside from doing a couple of classes at different universities and one-offs, I’m not working in any other capacity. I’m making no money besides from writing libretti and lyrics.”

Though words have become his primary focus, Vavrek also sang, played piano, and even composed music when he was growing up. Given such an immersive background in music, it’s surprising that his own musical ideas don’t sometimes get in the way when he is collaborating with a composer.

“My words do not have a musical idea attached to them, or at least very, very, very rarely,” he explains. “I always find that my words are a container and the music is always additive. … My principle job is to write exciting words that really ignite the imaginations of my collaborators. … My skill level compositionally is not at the level that David T. Little or Missy Mazzoli or Du Yun are composing at, so I think that I leave the composing for the masters. That being said, I am working on a musical where I am co-writing the music. There is music in me, but I tend to focus on the words because I feel like that’s where my true strength lies, especially within the operatic medium.”

Though nowadays many people don’t think much about Francesco Maria Piave (the man who wrote the libretto for La traviata) or Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (the team that created the words that Bizet set for Carmen), Vavrek is quick to point out that audiences for contemporary opera are aware that the composer is not the only person responsible for the final product in this truly collaborative idiom. According to him:

Especially when you have a living librettist, it’s easier to understand that there are two or more people who have come together to create a work. Similarly, a lot of our work is being developed with strong dramaturgical hands—whether it be a dramaturge proper or a director who has very clear ideas as to how he or she wants to stage something. Not only is the librettist an equal partner, but the librettist, composer, and the director often in my experience are really becoming this trifecta, creating initial productions that are the most dynamic manifestations of what the work needs to be.

Frank J. Oteri: So many different composers are writing operas these days, and they are often really making us rethink what opera is and what it could be, as well as what a new audience for opera could be. But despite this wide variety of musical voices, so many of these operas have librettos by you. It’s the one common ingredient in all of this stuff. How do you get involved with all these different projects, and how do you balance them all?

Royce Vavrek: I’m a very curious human being, and I’ve been extremely lucky. I just meet really inspiring people who have led to meeting other inspiring people. For instance, one of my first outings in the operatic world was a presentation at Carnegie Hall. David [T. Little] and I did a 20-minute chunk of Dog Days that was commissioned by Dawn Upshaw and Osvaldo Golijov. Missy Mazzoli was at that presentation, and she gave me a flyer and said I should come see her Song from the Uproar. So at this big event in my life, I managed to find another collaborator. Little happenstances like that in this community led to a really healthy family. I continue to identify people that I just have to collaborate with, whom I have to be in dialogue with and marry my voice with theirs because I find their music so singular and exciting. One of the most amazing things about classical music right now is that every composer I’ve worked with has such a completely different language. So each collaborator and I have a particular tract—it’s almost as if each different collaboration is a completely different road that I’m traveling on. And that makes it so exciting.

FJO: But how do you balance them? It seems like you’re working on several of these at the same time, which I can see being very schizophrenic.

RV: I tend to have a major project and then smaller projects. I try not to do too many big, full-length operas concurrently, although I’m sure that there will be a time when that is impossible. But even though my projects are so disparate in form and content, I think that if you did look at my libretti, you would be able to find particular things that would suggest that they are a Royce Vavreck libretto. So while I do have my hand in a lot of different honey jars, they all contain elements of me. It’s interesting to see the different things that sort of link them together. There are these elements that do seem like they are of a time in my life and of a general wavelength.

FJO: So you mentioned working on Dog Days with David T. Little and then meeting Missy Mazzoli. It seems like her project had already started without you, and then you came into it. So I imagine some projects begin with nothing and then you and the composer with whom you are collaborating create a piece together, but for others someone brings you in to work on a project they’ve started, or maybe you also interest somebody in a project you want to work on.

RV: One of the more interesting and exciting things about opera is just how projects begin. For Song from the Uproar, Missy had composed a good portion of the piece and asked me to come and complete the libretto. So I not only had Isabelle’s language—Isabelle Eberhardt is the subject of the opera—but I also had Missy’s interpretation and her music. So there was a way for me to provide my voice, to marry my voice with all of these different elements. But that piece was very particular in that there was a good foundation to leap off of and to create a full-length work based on a seed of an idea.

FJO: So then your answer to the classic question—what comes first, the words or the music?—would be that it really depends.

RV: I would say that, 99 percent of the time, words come first. I’m sure that there will be situations coming up where music comes first, and music dictates lyrical content, but it does seem like for an opera, the words need to inspire the musical landscape—the dramatic landscape of the classical music.

FJO: Until I had read Heidi Waleson’s feature about you in Opera News this past April, I didn’t realize you had studied composition, as well as piano and voice.

RV: As a very young kid—not even in college, but yes.

FJO: So you wrote music?

RV: Yes.

FJO: Do you still write music? And if you don’t, what made you stop?

RV: My skill level compositionally is not at the level that David T. Little or Missy Mazzoli or Du Yun are composing at, so I think that I leave the composing for the masters. That being said, I am working on a musical where I am co-writing the music. There is music in me, but I tend to focus on the words because I feel like that’s where my true strength lies, especially within the operatic medium.

FJO: So I’m curious how you came to realize that strength. You were initially studying piano, voice, and composition, not libretto writing. How did you first find words, or did words find you?

RV: I took piano lessons and composition lessons in high school and I was in a choir. I was also really involved in the theater. I had a drama teacher who basically gave me the small budget that was allotted her class, and I wrote something like 17 plays in high school. We took them on the one-act play festival circuit, so I had this sort of practical playwriting education. And I was in love with movies as a kid. That was my window into the outside world growing up on a farm in northern Canada. I was just so in love with international and American independent cinema, especially of the ‘90s. I applied to Concordia University in Montreal and did my undergraduate degree in filmmaking, but then picked up a creative writing second major. So writing has been such a huge part of my life. Even when I was three years old, I remember my mom would take dictation; she would write down stories that I told her.

Telling stories has always been this innate thing that I’ve been participating in. As human beings, we tell stories all the time. So it makes sense that music and storytelling, which were both such a huge part of my life, are now married. I did my master’s degree in musical theater writing. So I do sort of have libretto training. That was more book writing and lyric writing—a libretto is a slightly different animal, but it is very much related to musical theater writing.

Then right after my master’s degree, I did the American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program and that really set my career on this track. It provided me with the mentorship and the foundations of writing opera, and it also introduced me to my first collaborators. David T. Little actually came to my final concert and learned about my work through that program. Then it was just this snowball effect, really—meeting all these amazing, young composers who all want to tell stories. That’s sort of the lowest common denominator of all of us: we’re all interested in telling stories through music and words, and some of us through dance and through prose. So it just feels like we’re all coming together because we want to tell stories.

FJO: I’d like to unpack this dichotomy between musical theater and opera. Once upon a time opera and musical theater existed in very different spaces, the works were created by different sets of composers and lyricists-librettists, productions employed completely different singers using completely different vocal techniques, and things were performed for totally different audiences. But that’s not completely true anymore. The walls separating operas and musicals have come down quite a lot. So I found it somewhat peculiar to hear you say that you’re writing music for a musical, but you leave it to the masters to write music for operas. In your mind there must still be a difference.

RV: Well, there is and there isn’t. Musical theater often uses popular music to tell the stories, and I think that I am able to work within some of the popular musical languages. Whereas classical music just seems—I don’t want to say more serious, but there is something. But I think that our job is to blur those lines even further. I love musicals. I love, love, love, love that form. That was what I was raised on—cast recordings of 1776, Sunday in the Park with George, Follies, and Shenandoah, one of my other favorite musicals. I’m desperate to contribute to that medium. But I do think that opera and musical theater are both doing many of the same things. They’re both telling stories through music predominantly.

That being said, I do think the label helps identify what and where the venues are. What would 27, the opera I wrote with Ricky Ian Gordon, be like if we had theater singers doing that? Is this something that a theater singer would be capable of performing, or is it just meant for classically trained vocalists? That’s another big concern. Who do we intend to perform it, how and where, and why do these pieces exist and in what form? I think that what Beth Morrison does so beautifully is she says operas don’t need to be done at BAM or the Met. Operas can be done in all these cool venues. They can and should be done at the Met, and they should be done at BAM, but there are alternative homes that are even more exciting and more appropriate for certain pieces.

David [T. Little] also grew up with musical theater as a language that was really important to him. So you’ll see trinkets of more musical theater-y elements in Dog Days for instance, or in Vinkensport. Then there are moments in Du Yun’s Angel’s Bone that also have sort of musical theater-y things. I think that we’re using the best things about musical theater and the best things about opera and creating a middle ground. I also think that we’re extremely excited about the drama, about the theater of opera, so we are really trying to create dynamic works that feel alive, trying to define what opera in the 21st century is and what it’s going to be. I think that that’s a great opportunity for this community of artists that I work in. We get to put a flag in the ground and say this is what we want opera and musical theater to be going forward.

FJO: One of the problems with opera performance today is that most of what is performed in the big opera houses is very old repertoire. A lot of these works are great theater as well as great music, but I think the big opera houses promote the musical aspects over the dramatic ones, to the point that you see posters for Verdi’s La Traviata and the name of the librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, rarely gets mentioned. Same with La Bohème. Everyone thinks of Puccini, but who thinks about Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa? Lorenzo Da Ponte gets a little more credit for the operas he wrote with Mozart, but that’s probably because he is known for other reasons—like coming to America and founding the Italian department at Columbia. Whereas in musical theater history, Hammerstein is as famous as Rodgers, in terms of public awareness. So as someone who walked into the world of opera with a background in musical theater, do you feel like you’re an equal player and do you feel that audiences now have come to this position where they can see a work as being the creation of the composer as well as the librettist?

RV: I think that’s another example of how we are borrowing from musical theater where we understand that if the composer didn’t have a words person, they would be writing symphonies. Especially when you have a living librettist, it’s easier to understand that there are two or more people who have come together to create a work. Similarly, a lot of our work is being developed with strong dramaturgical hands—whether it be a dramaturge proper or a director who has very clear ideas as to how he or she wants to stage something.

Dog Days, for instance, was created in a room with Robert Woodruff, David, and myself. It felt very organic that the three of us came together to identify how that piece was going to be structured. We went through beat-by-beat to make sure that everything was sound and that we all had had a say as to how the work was going to unfold. With Breaking the Waves, we had two dramaturges in the room for our initial workshops and now we have a director named James Darrah, who is really hands-on and is guiding us in the most beautiful way and pushing us to try to make this project as theatrical and separate from the film—using the narrative of the film, but creating our own version of the story. So I think that is an example of how not only the librettist is an equal partner, but the librettist, composer, and the director often in my experience are really becoming this trifecta, creating initial productions that are the most dynamic manifestations of what the work needs to be.

FJO: To get back to musical theater, you were listening to cast albums before you ever actually saw a show on stage I imagine.

RV: My parents were really great about exposing me to the arts. My father played the piano, and was in a band with his siblings when they were high school age. So I did have access. I remember seeing Anne of Green Gables – The Musical when I was about five years old. We would go to the community theater, so I saw things like Marvin’s Room and Steel Magnolias. And I was in Oliver when I was ten, I believe, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Wizard of Oz.

But I was 20 the first time I came to New York and that was definitely the first time that I had the ability to see something that was professional. Although I did see a touring Les Miz. The first opera I saw when I was 18 at Opera de Montreal was the Cav/Pag double bill and that was sort of just mind blowing. That was also my first operatic CD. So that, especially Pagliacci, has such a huge place in my heart. Then, as a singer, I was doing a lot of competitive musical theater classes and stuff like that at the local music festival and the provincial music festivals. So I was learning about pieces not only through the cast albums but also through singing excerpts.

FJO: I find it amusing to hear you say that if composers didn’t have somebody writing words, they’d be writing symphonies.

RV: I understand that a lot of composers do come up with narratives for their non-narrative pieces—their non-vocal pieces. I don’t want to imply that a symphony doesn’t have a story, because I totally understand that that is not the case.

FJO: Yeah, but where I wanted to go with that is that one of the things I find interesting about the collaborations you have had with various composers is that you not only write operas with them, but you also create song cycles and other kinds of pieces that are intended for performance in concert halls. When you enter the concert hall, you really are entering a zone that is the composer’s domain even more so than in an opera house. I don’t know if people are trained to pay attention to the words as an equal component in those contexts at all. So I’m curious about how some of those projects evolved and what you feel your role is in those projects.

RV: My role is very similar. A lot of concert work is very narrative, so it seems like it’s extremely similar to writing an opera, although I don’t get to have people in costumes running around pretending to be men in dog suits or Gertrude Stein. Am I Born was a Brooklyn Philharmonic commission with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. That was something that was set up by Alan Pierson. He came to David T. Little and said he would love to commission something for what I believe was his first season with the Brooklyn Phil. He wanted it to be Brooklyn specific and, being a Brooklynite, that was a really exciting challenge. So we chose a painting that’s hanging in the Brooklyn Museum and decided we were going to try to bring that to life, to animate that through an oratorio. I structured it similarly to how I would an opera, trying to make it as varied as possible and to take the audience on a 30-minute journey. So while it is different, it really does feel like it is alive in the same way that an opera does.

FJO: Yes, but whereas folks in the new opera community can wrap their brains around the fact that Dog Days is by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek, can folks in the concert world do that with Am I Born? I imagine that most concert programs featuring Am I Born will probably list it as a work by David T. Little and your name will only appear somewhere in the program notes. But maybe it’s not that way.

RV: It’s generally a company thing. For instance, looking at how the LA Phil lists things, often it’s just the composer’s last name with a colon and the name of the piece. But I think that times are changing. It seems like it’s less and less difficult to convince people that the librettist or the lyricist is important. For instance, on the cover of the 27 CD, my name is right next to Ricky’s. And with the Hubble Cantata, my cantata with Paola Prestini, my name is right up there with the name of astrophysicist Mario Livio and the film maker Carmen Kordas, and Paola’s name of course.

It is true that with a concert work, it’s less easy. I guess the concert world is a particular animal; it is harder to become recognized for concert work. But I think that a lot of composers, a lot of my collaborators, understand my contribution and they fight for me. A lot of it comes down to that. It comes down to a composer saying, “This is a collaboration, a team effort, and my collaborator deserves to be mentioned.” Often we’re not even mentioned. So I do think the biggest turn is my contemporaries, my collaborators, my colleagues saying, we understand your contribution and we think that it needs to be honored at least in having your name printed.

FJO: Since you have a musical background and you said that the words come first most of the time, I’m wondering if there have been times after someone else has set your words to music that what the composer did clashes with what you thought it should sound like.

RV: My words, when I write them, do not have a musical idea attached to them, or at least very, very, very rarely. The musical idea will be more general, like I feel like this is a sad song or this a happy song or this is a song that accomplishes this narratively. I would never say that the music is wrong. I don’t even know what that means. If there is music that I just don’t connect with, that’s a bigger problem, but I haven’t ever come across that. I can’t even think of an example of a composer who’s let me down, or who has completely derailed my narrative ideas. I always find that my words are a container and the music is always additive. Or it always has been. I’ll let you know when that’s not the case.

FJO: That’s good. You’re lucky.

Royce Vavrek leaning against a graffiti strewn wall.

RV: It’s so hard to make a career, it really is. I don’t know how I made this career. I’m legitimately only writing libretti. Aside from doing a couple of classes at different universities and one-offs, I’m not working in any other capacity. I’m making no money besides from writing libretti and lyrics. But because it’s such a hard industry to navigate, especially financially, you’ve got to be very serious. You’ve got to be very, very thoughtful, and you’ve got to put the time in. These opportunities are gifts, truly.

We’re all working so hard and trying to use our voices to tell the best stories and make the best music possible; that’s the name of the game. I think that if you’re not contributing in that way, that’s where I might have difficulty. Like if it’s just sort of—I don’t want to say hobby, because I think making music as a hobby is a beautiful thing and I would encourage everyone to do that. But I do think that I work with people who are driven to really contribute to the form and to advance the form, and who do really cool things. We have that potential and, especially with these opportunities we have, it seems like we have this unlimited palette with which to create really dynamic stories.

FJO: So what about the reverse of the music being wrong; let’s flip the coin. Have you ever been in situations where you bring in a text and the composer turns around and says, “That’s not going to work; that’s not singable. I need something else there; this isn’t right.” What I’m after with this whole line of questioning is trying to get a sense of what the give and take is in the collaborative processes that you’re a part of.

RV: It’s not so much that particular words don’t sing, I don’t think. The English language is so eccentric and awesome and there are just so many juicy, amazing words. I’ve never had a composer come to me and say it doesn’t sing. I’ve had a composer say I’m having a hard time figuring it out dramatically or finding my way through it. I always think that there are one thousand ways that one can write a scene. So if that ever happens, I’m more than happy—oh my goodness, send me away and have me re-write. I will try to find another way that will get the best music from you. My principle job is to write exciting words that really ignite the imaginations of my collaborators. So if my words aren’t doing that for you, I’m going to do my damnedest to find other words that do. I can give you an example. The final aria in JFK is one big emotional outpouring before the end of the show. I had written a version of that aria and it sort of sat in the libretto for a good nine months, a year maybe. Then David finally got to it. He had worked all the way up to it, but he just couldn’t find a way to make that particular text work dramatically in that moment. So we worked together, talking about what that moment needed to be, and I think I re-wrote that aria two or three times. It’s infinitely better, and it feels so much more true to the dramatic pulse of that moment. So yeah, I’m so open to re-writing and trying to figure out how to make it work for the composer. Not that I want to concede the medium to the composer, but the music needs to be really, really great. So if I can do anything that will help create really, really exciting, awesome music, then I’m more than happy to oblige.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that you go away and write another text. There’s this cliché—which is totally not true—about Broadway collaborators and how they were portrayed by Hollywood and by promo photos back in the day. I particularly remember a photo of Rodgers and Hammerstein, where Richard Rodgers is sitting at the piano and Oscar Hammerstein is writing words. But probably the reality is they worked separately and then they came together to work out things. For you, at least, it doesn’t seem like it’s ever been that kind of Mickey Rooney, let’s-put-on-a-show thing.

RV: Very rarely. Little edits can be done in the room. For instance, I was just in rehearsal for Angel’s Bone a couple days ago, and there was a section that we all decided needed to have some words replaced. That was something I sort of did on the fly. But I much prefer to go home and just have my time and allow for the words to manifest. I have not yet had the experience where I’ve sat in a room with a composer while they were plunking out melodies and saying, “Does this work?” That seems like more of a musical theater thing. With opera there are so many more moving parts, so it often seems like the composer and I want our time to go away to sort of messy things up—you know, so you can tear things apart and put them back together. But, just to be very good about honoring people’s time, it might not be the best usage of time to sort of sit and pray that something comes out between the two of you. It just seems much easier to go away and make your work.

FJO: So the process of making your work—where and when does all of this stuff take place?

RV: I like to sit on the couch and write, but I really like to get out of town. My Breaking the Waves libretto was written at home in Canada. I went home for three weeks and sat in my mother’s house and watched the Olympics. It was right around the time that the Olympics were going on. So that was my time to enjoy that and get a full draft of Breaking the Waves. JFK was written in this house. For 27 I went up to my dramaturge’s house, up in Hudson, and had a really good draft of that, but I had a week where I didn’t leave the confines of the house. I would just write new scenes, and he would sit there and take me through every line and make sure that all my “I”s were dotted and “T”s were crossed. More and more, I’m really loving the exodus from New York to get work done. That being said, a lot of work has to happen here. It seems like there’s just so much time that is spent away from home. You tend to want to really make the time count when you’re here. I’m here for January. Then I have to go to Germany for the new production of Dog Days. I’m in Fort Worth for JFK; I’m in Philly for Breaking the Waves. The big thing for me is that there are just so many events that happen in New York. I’m working with so many people. I love the work of all of my collaborators and contemporaries and colleagues. So it’s important for me to be a part of that. But that also means that a lot of writing time is gobbled up by events. It is really great to go away and have that time and to be sort of not within the machine that is the New York classical music community, because you want to participate so much. I’m understanding more fully why residencies are so important and why people find that going up to MacDowell, closing that door and having weeks of uninterrupted art creation time, is so beneficial.

FJO: But you can create a libretto while watching the Olympics?

RV: Well, I did not do it at the same time.

FJO: I know several composers who write music while watching television. I don’t get it.

RV: If I did do that, I wouldn’t be watching the TV—it would just be background noise, which I’m guessing would probably be the same thing for those composers. But I don’t have that type of brain that allows me to do two things at once. I cannot split my attention. I love audio books, but I couldn’t listen to an audio book and retain what’s coming in and be able to make coherent thoughts on the page.

FJO: Can you listen to a symphony while writing?

RV: It would all be sort of peripheral, background.

FJO: So silence is the best?

RV: It’s not necessarily the best, but for me listening means you’re actually taking that information in. If I were to listen to a symphony and write, it would just be sort of a blanket of sound behind my process and I wouldn’t really be retaining any of that musical information.

FJO: Or your phrases would wind up being the same phrases of that symphony.

RV: Yeah.

FJO: Then you would have music in your head that went with your words that would not be the same as the music of your collaborator.

RV: I certainly do listen to music while I write, but there are moments when I’m just like aargh, this is overload! I have to turn it off, and I’ll have significant silent writing time. I think my ideal writing situation would be pretty much silence somewhere that’s cloistered to a great extent.

FJO: To follow up on what you just said about listening: you follow the work of your collaborators, and you mentioned the first opera CD you got was Cav/Pag, and I see there’s a Janis Joplin poster here in your apartment. I’m wondering, how much time do you devote to listening to music that is separate and apart from your collaborations, and how does that listening then become fuel for your own creativity?

RV: I listen to so much music. And I watch as many movies as possible, and I do watch a lot of TV. I love taking things in, so that is an extremely important part of my life. I do think that every story you encounter and every piece of work that you even begin to understand becomes part of you, and you carry that. They become lessons.

I was given the opportunity to write about a particular poet that had really informed my work in some way. The poet that I chose was a singer-songwriter named Kathleen Edwards. She has lyrics that I encountered when I was in grad school that completely blew my mind and in some ways have informed my work more than any librettist. My narrative sensibility I think comes from being reared on Lars Von Trier, Neil LaBute, and Wong Kar-wai. I’m able to not mimic them, by any stretch of the imagination, but to allow their ideas to be tools or methods with which to explore my own ideas. I just encountered Benjamin Clementine for the first time. He won the Mercury Prize last week. I’m sure that my work will in some way benefit from, or will be informed by, just this absolute consuming musical world that is swirling around my head right now based on my insistence to continue going through Benjamin’s work.

FJO: And reading?

RV: Oh, my gosh. I read so, so, so much. There are so many people that read more than me, but I feel healthier when I read. I really, really, really do. And I’ve been exploring audio books a lot. I love lying in bed and just listening to hours on end of audio books. It’s impossible for me to read these days and not wonder how I would adapt those works into an opera or music theater form. There’s always something about, well, how would I do that?

Even going to the cinema, there’s something about wanting to be in dialogue and how I would approach this particular narrative. Going back to reading, I read a lot based on books that people recommend because they may want to tackle them in some sort of opera or musical way. But I’m always looking for interesting languages and how people tell stories just for my general narrative health.

FJO: I’m also curious about your intake of visual art. You mentioned the painting at the Brooklyn Museum that inspired Am I Born, and while we were setting up the recording equipment you talked about this photograph behind you that is by the subject of your musical.

RV: Visual art has informed so many of my projects. Thinking about 27, my opera with Ricky Ian Gordon that was commissioned by Opera Theater of St. Louis and premiered in 2014, that piece was all about the art that hung in Gertrude and Alice’s apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus. In JFK, my opera with David T. Little that was commissioned by Fort Worth Opera and American Lyric Theater, similarly there is an amazing story where there was this woman Ruth Carter Stevenson who knew that Jack and Jackie were only going to have a very limited window in Fort Worth. She decided that because they wouldn’t have time to go to the museums there, that she would bring the museums to them. So she went around and collected a really great sample of the works that were held in Fort Worth and put them all up in their hotel room. Right before the breakfast meeting, Jackie was about ten minutes late, and some people have this theory that she realized that the art on the walls was real—all the paintings and sculptures. The Picasso owl was real. And she was arrested for those ten minutes and that caused her lateness, which is kind of amazing, and this is embedded into the opera. The art becomes these portals into dreams.

So JFK, 27, Am I Born, and the music I’m writing with Ted Shen about Vivian Maier, who was a Chicago street photographer in the mid-20th century. She worked as a nanny and took a lot of pictures of children, but she would also just go to downtown Chicago and New York and take street photos. She certainly was not a famous woman by any stretch of the imagination and she died in obscurity. A young man named John Malouf bought a lot of her negatives in an auction and realized that they were extremely special. He put them online and was encouraged to take those photos offline because they were just so awesome. We are creating a piece that celebrates the mystery of this woman. We don’t really know why she took so many pictures and then didn’t develop them. She was sort of—I wouldn’t say an anti-artist, but she was compelled to take these photographs but then was not really compelled to complete the photographic process, which is really, really cool. Here’s a woman who was taking selfies. Most of her portraits that are so truly beloved are these auto-portraits.

Royce Vavrek on the sidewalk leaning against a metal grating.

FJO: The first work of yours that I saw on a stage was Dog Days, and while I found it totally compelling, I also thought that it was really creepy and really dark—extremely disturbing. You seem like a sunny person. What attracted you to something so grim?

RV: Dog Days was based on a short story by Judy Budnitz that was a little sunnier than our treatment. It was set in the ‘80s, so the Cold War was still on. The foundation of that piece was very much Judy’s, but then it was sort of amplified and heightened and we made it a little bit more grim in concert with Robert Woodruff, the director. But we didn’t set out to write a grim piece. And there are moments of levity and lightness, too, that I think are really funny. It is a hard piece. It’s a heavy piece. I totally understand that. But I also think there’s great life, especially in the Lisa character. I’m writing Breaking the Waves with Missy Mazzoli, which is similarly a rather dark, heavy work. Because of my being reared on international cinema of the late-‘90s and early-2000s, those stories have always spoken to me. There’s always been this desire to tell serious stories about the human condition. Look at Angel’s Bone. That’s not fun and frothy. But also I love comedy, so thinking of David, Vinkensport or The Finch Opera is as frothy and fun as they come. But even that ends with a twist where the final aria is this outpouring of emotion from this one particular character who is releasing his finch and is basically thanking him for years of companionship. So it’s not that I’m not interested in comedy. I haven’t made a concerted decision to tell grim tales, although opera does have the potential to tell those stories in a really, really dynamic and full way. I think that that’s why our artistic impulses often lead us to darker stories. But I think that you’re going to see a lot of comedy, God willing, from me throughout my career.

FJO: Well, definitely not in JFK.

RV: Not JFK, although what David and I have been talking a lot about is our desire for audiences leaving JFK to be grateful and to maybe hug loved ones just a little bit tighter that evening, to understand that life is precious. It doesn’t end with his assassination; it ends with him leaving the hotel. We don’t see the tragedy, but his leaving the hotel is taking him to Dallas, so there is that sense of doom. And the soundscape that David has come up with is extremely varied and there’s something very ominous, especially after the intermission. It really feels like something very monumental is going to happen. The fates are aligning.

FJO: I didn’t realize that the audience never sees his assassination and only gets the hint through what the orchestra is playing when he leaves the hotel. It’s reminiscent to me of what I think is one of the most effective moments in Dog Days—the end where the mother is on the table and there’s a slowly building wall of noise that just blows out your ears by the end. It’s the most intense thing. You never really see what you know is happening, but you know it’s happened. All this stuff is going on, but curiously—and I want to bring this up to you as the librettist—it was all done without words.

RV: But if you look at the libretto for that moment, there is a very particular stage direction. So it’s done with words, but just not sung words. And she does sort of wail a little bit. And she snivels, and she pees. Right?

FJO: In terms of the collaborative process, how did a moment like that get decided upon and who decided it?

RV: The three of us. Judy’s story ends with the dog being shot and eaten. In the dramaturgical sessions that we had with Robert, I remember very clearly he said, “But what happens next?” That was the mind-shattering moment. There were these images that Robert brought up, I believe, about just seeing lions having eaten. I see lions, and I see an act of ablution, and then we went home. We went our separate ways. I came up with sort of the just the general idea, but we didn’t find the washing of the mother with urine until—that was Robert in rehearsal. In the libretto, it talks about how she performs, or she gathers snow and washes her mother’s body. But we decided that water was gone at that point. So what is she going to wash her mother’s body with? In this scenario where there’s nothing, that was very much a directorial find.

I remember reading the stage management report and being like, “Oh, my goodness. What is going on at rehearsal?” I tend to leave rehearsals to the singers and the director and the team for the first few days at least. I like everybody to get their bearings before the writers tromp in. So I was like, “I don’t really know what this is; this seems really wild.” But it is one of the most beautifully heartbreaking moments that I’ve had a hand in creating. I’m so proud of what the whole team came to create in that moment.

FJO: In terms of the hands-on/hands-off thing, you’re traveling around the world. You’ve got productions happening here in New York in January and then in Germany and Texas, all over the place. It’s going to get to the point where you probably can’t be at all of these things. Hopefully there’ll be productions of these works all the time. It’s interesting to hear you say that you wait a little while before you come in. What about the process of letting go?

RV: Oh, I’m so excited for that. I’m finally at the stage of my career where we do have projects that are taking on a life of their own. Dog Days will come full circle. We’re bringing it back to New York as part of the Protoype Festival in January ‘16, alongside the world premiere of Angel’s Bone. But Dog Days after January will have its first new production [in Germany]. So David T. Little is going over and is going to have about a week with them during rehearsals. I’m going to come for opening night. There is something really beautiful in that we feel like we have created the version that we need to oversee. We’ve created one version that was very much hands-on; we were in the room. We worked with Robert to create the production that began at Montclair Peak Performances, then went to Fort Worth Opera and LA Opera, and is coming to Prototype. What we’ve created is a roadmap that is intended to be interpreted in as many ways as possible. So I think that the most exciting thing at this juncture in the life of Dog Days is that it’s open now. We don’t need to be hands-on. We can let other people come up with ideas that will inform the work in ways that we didn’t even imagine.

FJO: And you’re happy with that?

RV: Yes, because in order to make a living and to make a career in the operatic world, your work needs to be done. And I am obsessed and addicted to creating new work. So I need to be able to allow my earlier work to be interpreted in such a way that I can go make new operas with David T. Little and Missy Mazzoli and Ricky Ian Gordon and Du Yun and Josh Schmitt and Matt Marks and all these fabulous people. Missy Mazzoli did say at one point that you’ve just got to hope to God that opening nights don’t happen on the same night. Especially when I’m working on so many different projects, invariably there are going to be things that overlap. But you do your work, and you attend whatever needs your love and attendance. And you hope that everything just sort of fits.