Category: Conversations

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.

Mary Jane Leach: Sonic Confessions

A conversation at Leach’s home (a former Catholic church) in Valley Falls, New York
November 6, 2015—12:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography (unless otherwise stated)
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

More than 20 years after being in the audience for a concert by the New York Treble Singers devoted to the music of Mary Jane Leach, I still have vivid memories of it. It was one of the most magical performances I’ve ever experienced. While the breadth of a full SATB chorus was missing (all of the singers were sopranos), it was more than compensated for by the depth of focus on a specific segment of the pitch continuum. Perhaps more significantly, although there were only eight singers on the stage it sounded like many, many others. Eager to hear this music again as well as anything else by Leach I could find, I tracked down Celestial Fires, the one CD of her music available at that time (on Phill Niblock’s XI Records) and was delighted when a second disc, Ariadne’s Lament, was issued by New World Records a few years later.

Since then I got to know Leach personally and, as a result, came to understand how her music works. The peculiar acoustic phenomena I witnessed during that first concert were largely the byproduct of beats (a ringing pulse that throbs in your ear when two pitches are only a very small interval apart from one another) and of the additional sum and difference tones that occur when certain combinations of pitches sound together, based on the prominence of particular harmonics in any given timbre. There’s a particular presence when those additional “ghost” tones result from pitches produced by the same instrument or voice, e.g. the eight sopranos of the New York Treble Singers. So, as I came to know more of Leach’s music and chanced upon pieces for four bass clarinets, seven bassoons, or nine oboes, it all started to make sense. But it was only when we went to visit with her at her home, a decommissioned Roman Catholic church in a small town about a 30-minute drive from Albany, that her process became crystal clear.

“How loud it is, the pressure that you use, and moving in a space changes it drastically,” she explained. “It wasn’t until I wrote the piece for bass clarinet, 4BC, that I really started playing around with specific sound phenomena and I did that tediously. I recorded tones on tape, then I just kept over-dubbing and combining them—what do four unisons sound like? What does it sound like when you add this note? What does it sound like when you add that note?”

Multiples pieces (works scored for an ensemble consisting exclusively of the same instrument or for a soloist performing along with previously recorded multitracks of him- or herself) form a considerable percentage of Leach’s compositional output. Leach has also compiled a massive database of multiples pieces written by other composers and has made it publicly accessible via her website. One of Leach’s favorite multiples pieces by another composer is The Holy Presence of Joan of Arc, a 1981 tour-de-force for ten cellos by African-American proto-post-minimalist Julius Eastman (1940-1990). So entranced was she by this piece when she first heard a recording of it, and was subsequently so stymied in her efforts to find a score, that she devoted years of her life to tracking down scores and recordings of as much of Eastman’s music as she could (much is lost forever), shepherded New World’s seminal 3-CD Eastman collection Unjust Malaise, and co-authored (with Renée Levine Packer) Gay Guerrilla, the first book-length study devoted to Eastman which will be published on December 15, 2015. Devoting so much time to the music of someone else took its toll on her own composing and she was forced to put on the back burner one of her most ambitious projects—a multilayered opera based on the original Ariadne myth (in which Ariadne emerges as a feminist hero rather than a somewhat clueless victim). Now that the book is done, she’s wholeheartedly plunged back in. In a strange way, the two projects (Eastman and Ariadne) are somewhat similar in that both are an attempt to right an historical wrong.

As she pointed out, “So much of myth is political—a lot of times justifying why the people who are occupying your country are there, like a lot of political-ness we’re going through with the Middle East and everything like that. This explains how Theseus, who was like a rapist-solider, could be transformed into the hero and how Ariadne could be transformed from a queen-goddess figure into like this girl who gave up everything for the first cute guy who came by.”

As for why she got so deep into salvaging Julius Eastman’s musical legacy, she mused, “I felt like someone who witnesses an accident—you want to move on, but you know you have to stay because you’re not sure if someone else is going to come by and help. I feel like I realized how dire the situation was and that something had to be done before too much more time passed because the more that time passes, the harder it is to track down the music.”

Leach has been a firebrand for social justice since at least the age of 11 when she was labelled a heretic by a minister after pursuing and ultimately winning a debate during her Sunday school class. Given that bit of history, it might seem strange that she’s spent the last decade living in a church, but as she was quick to point out, being able to immerse herself in a church’s extraordinary acoustics on a daily basis has been extremely satisfying.

“Churches always sound good, you know?” she beamed with a slightly mischievous grin. “I was looking for a quiet place to live upstate and I found this the first day I started looking. […] I clapped and sang, and said, ‘Wow, I want this.’ And it was the cheapest thing I’d looked at too, believe it or not. So yeah, I’ve an affinity for spaces like this and there is, I think, a kind of a spiritual thing going on.”


Mary Jane Leach standing outside the entrance of the church she lives in; a stained glass window is visible through the door.

Mary Jane Leach welcomes us to her home.

Frank J. Oteri: For years I’ve always felt that much of your music has almost a—for lack of a better word—sacred quality.

Mary Jane Leach: Hmmm, maybe spiritual is a better word.

FJO: Okay, but the reason I specifically used the word sacred is because there’s something about your music that sounds somehow not of this realm. You hear it and it transports you. I certainly feel that way when I listen to your music, and I identify that same feeling with a lot of sacred music traditions from around the world, whether it’s Vedic chanting or polyphonic masses from the Renaissance period. Your music seems to be channeling a similar energy. And, lo and behold, you actually now live in a church.

MJL: Yeah, I have a history with churches. My mother was a church organist for a while and we lived next door to a church when I was in grade school. We’d go in during off hours and I’d lie on the floor and absorb the sounds while she played the organ. That was kind of a start. Then I lived in a church in Cologne for a couple of years. And churches always sound good, you know? So I was looking for a quiet place to live upstate and I found this the first day I started looking. The real estate agent said, “Let’s just check it out.” And I said, “If it has an organ, I really want it.” And so we got here, and we had no idea it was going to be as big as it is. It is pretty big. And we walked inside, and I clapped and sang, and said, “Wow, I want this.” And it was the cheapest thing I’d looked at too, believe it or not. So yeah, I’ve an affinity for spaces like this and there is, I think, a kind of a spiritual thing going on. But it’s not just churches. There’s this same kind of ambience in, say, Grant’s Tomb, which they ruined once they put those central columns in the cylindrical rooms and put in the flag display cases; it took away that sweet spot. Friends and I would always go there and play around with the acoustics, but once they renovated it they spoiled it for that.

FJO: There are also places in Grand Central Station that are that way.

MJL: Yeah, and the tunnels under Central Park. Almost any tunnel is like that.

Mary Jane Leach playing a church organ.

Mary Jane Leach testing interval combinations on an organ. (Photo courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: But in terms of how it relates to you and the music you write, it was interesting that as soon as I said sacred, you pointed out that you preferred the word spiritual because, at least from what I glean from knowing you all these years, your music is decidedly not religious music.

MJL: No. That’s why it’s so ironic that I’m in a church. I’m pretty anti-religion, or anti-organized religion, for the obvious reasons. I was actually branded a heretic in sixth grade Sunday school. There were a series of debates and I took the anti-Christian side. It was going on for maybe three weeks or more. I began bringing in adults and cross examining them and everything. And the minister gave a sermon about me—how I might have won the debate, but I’d lose in life. I wasn’t really listening to him; I was too busy going through the hymnals singing songs to myself. But when I was about 30, it kind of dawned on me what had happened, and I realized that I’d avoided getting into arguments with people because I subliminally realized I’d been branded as a heretic for getting in an argument and winning it. That’s a pretty heavy thing to lay on an 11-year old.

FJO: But it’s interesting that as an 11-year old you channeled that out by thumbing through the hymnals. Even though you weren’t attracted to the dogma, you were attracted to the music.

MJL: Oh, definitely. I even have a hymnal downstairs. There’s some really good music there. I think a lot of people wouldn’t go to church if they didn’t like the music so much.

FJO: So is church music what first got you interested in music?

MJL: Not really. I mean, I sang in choir and played in band and stuff. But I hadn’t really thought about being in music until my senior year of high school. I had wanted to be an architect, but back then you could openly discriminate against women. I went to interview at Cornell and the guy literally told me that they didn’t accept women because they would just get married and drop out. Now they might have the same policy, but they would never say it to your face. Then he said, “What do you do?” And I realized that I played music all the time. Well, I thought, maybe I should go into music. I started it in college, and I had a very bad teacher, so I became a math major, and then I became a theater major sophomore year. But while working at a summer equity Shakespeare festival doing theater, since I was a musical person, I would be asked to play Elizabethan music. So I got into music through that, which is why it was so interesting for me to do Dowland’s Tears, because Dowland was one of my gateway composers, besides Bach.

I didn’t start writing music until I guess freshman or sophomore year in college. You know how in [music] theory [classes] you get to write examples? Every time my examples got played, everybody kind of perked up. So through music theory class, and then theater, I got into writing music. In theater you do everything, whether you’re qualified or not. Writing music was just something I started doing and I sort of took it from there. I grew up in Vermont and we didn’t know that there was such a thing as composers back then. Seriously.

A reproduction of photo from a newspaper of 12 uniformed young people playing clarinets.

This tattered clip from the Montpelier-Barre Times-Argus contains one of the earliest music-themed photos of Mary Jane Leach as a member of the clarinet section of her middle school band. Can you find her?

FJO: Dennis Báthory-Kitsz hadn’t started organizing the Vermont Composers Day yet.

MJL: No. He came to Vermont the year I left, in 1977. The cultural highlights were high school band concerts and things like that. Vermont is very cool now. There’s a lot of good music going on. But there wasn’t when I was a kid.

FJO: But somebody was writing pieces for that high school band.

MJL: Sousa! Actually one of the highlights was the All-State Festival, when we did a band arrangement of a Bach piece. I really liked that. But I wasn’t exposed to much classical music at all. More jazz and pop and folk, stuff like that. I still have a lot of friends in folk music and bluegrass.

FJO: : The earliest piece of your music that you list on your website is Note Passing Note, which is from 1981—four years after you left Vermont. It’s a piece that already clearly has your aesthetic signature as a composer. Was there earlier work from those intervening years that you don’t want to put out there because you feel it doesn’t quite represent who you are? What was the moment when you felt that you had begun writing your music?

MJL: Actually, the way it started was learning from happy accidents. A lot of things that I’ve come to do came about because of accidents. I was in this group with Charlie Morrow, Daniel Goode, and a bunch of other people called the New Wilderness Ensemble. There were also a lot of people who weren’t musicians or composers and there were funky instruments, so we were always having tuning problems; it drove me nuts. I had just started playing bass clarinet. I’d always played clarinet before, but I started bass clarinet. I really wanted to make sure that it wasn’t me who was playing out of tune. I had a tape machine, so I thought I could sing a note in what singers call a straight tone and tape that, then play my bass clarinet and see what happens, see if I can play in tune and stay in tune.

Then I began playing. I’d go off pitch a little bit and it would start beating. I’d never experienced that before. At first, I thought I’d broken my speakers. But then I realized what was going on and that was kind of the beginning of what I’m interested in—working with sound phenomena, which also might be tied into that whole spiritual thing because it’s tied into frequencies and something intrinsic in the physical world. One of the earliest pieces that I did was Note Passing Note. I envisioned it for two taped parts, one coming out of each speaker, and then I’d do a live part. I went into the recording studio and I realized that I had written these parts where I sang a note for three minutes without breathing and I knew exactly what I wanted it to sound like; it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d have to breathe.

Ever since then, I’ve organized my pieces around the breath. A lot of people who’ve heard my early music say it sounds a lot like Phill Niblock. And it does, except that he cuts out all of the breaths and it ends up almost more electronic sounding. That’s big—tying it into something physical like the breath. I always put in breaths now, especially with long pieces, as much for keeping the pulse going. There were times where I could have extended a note for longer, but I want the attack of an entry so that the pulse doesn’t become mushy, which also helps if you have tape pieces and you want to know where you are. If it’s just this long drone, it’s impossible to keep it in synch.

FJO: It’s interesting hearing you say that it all goes back to the breath, which is something that some composers ignore at their peril. Of course, singers are always conscious of their breathing. If singers can’t breathe, they can’t sing.

MJL: And they’ll let you know about it, too.

FJO: But this is also true for instrumental music. Obviously wind instruments have to deal with the same physical reality of needing to breathe between phrases, but I think there’s even a better flow in music for stringed instruments when players are able to synchronize phrases with their breathing. Of course, you don’t need to be conscious of that breath when you are playing a stringed instrument, but I think there’s something transcendent than can happen when you are.

MJL: It keeps it human, for lack of a better, more profound word.

FJO: But you came to this aspect of composing through performing, because it was a physical phenomenon you discovered both in your own voice and, I imagine, also when you played clarinet and bass clarinet.

MJL: Definitely.

FJO: I’m curious about how some of things that you started to realize were happening when you were performing wound up becoming so important to you as a composer—the beating, difference tones, and other sounds that occur that are not actually played by the performers.

MJL: I guess the first piece that dealt a lot with beating was Note Passing Note; the way that I performed it was walking through this space, between the speakers, manipulating the sound. I wasn’t trying to get any specific combination of difference tones. I was just bathing in the sound. How loud it is, the pressure that you use, and moving in this space changes it drastically. But it wasn’t until I wrote the piece for bass clarinet, 4BC, that I really started playing around with specific sound phenomena and I did that tediously. I recorded tones on tape, then I just kept over-dubbing and combining them: What do four unisons sound like? What does it sound like when you add this note? What does it sound like when you add that note? I basically built up the piece that way.

An excerpt from the musical score for Mary Jane Leach's composition 4BC for four bass clarinets.

Excerpt from 4BC. Copyright © 1984 by Mary Jane Leach, Ariadne Press (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Bass clarinet is a little different than almost any other instrument because it has the third partial come out more. So that piece works specifically—there’s a continual combination tone happening on top, then there are sometimes lower ones that are happening. That’s the only one where I had something so continuously happening. But the more I kept working, the more I knew what was going to happen. So I wrote a piece, which is kind of the next piece in that cycle, for alto flute and my voice called Trio for Duo, and I discovered that my voice basically sounded exactly like the alto flute. So I exploited that sound quality of my voice and the alto flute sounding so similar. I can tell because I can hear Barbara [Held]’s breath and her attack on the flute, but otherwise I wouldn’t know who was who.

FJO: What’s interesting about that piece is that you were dealing with another musician. It wasn’t just you anymore.

MJL: Right.

FJO: One of the peculiar things about music is that even though it is an art form that consists of sounds, it’s transmitted—at least in the Western classical tradition—through visual notation. Aural ideas get communicated visually and the goal is for those ideas to be replicated by somebody else as faithfully as possible to the original conception of the composer. But a lot of what you have been exploring all these years exists beyond the kinds of sounds that notation was designed to convey in a precise way.

MJL: Yeah, I know.

FJO: So how do you convey that information to someone else to get them to do what you want them to do?

MJL: Well, in the case with Barbara, it’s just the nature of the instrument. I originally did a longer version of the piece with Barbara. Then Newband wanted to do it, but when I got ready to perform it with [Newband’s flutist] Stephanie Starin, they said, “We never do pieces over ten minutes.” So I revised the piece a little bit. Stephanie performed it with me and she created the sounds, but she didn’t realize they were happening. She called me one day when she heard it on the radio, and she said, “I’m hearing all of these high pitches. Is it distorting? Is there something wrong with my radio?” Even though she had produced the sound, she didn’t know that that was the point of the piece.

FJO: So you don’t explain it in the score? You just notate it and what happens, happens?

MJL: Yeah, because it does happen. There is a difference, though. I know people who write things by just adding up the frequencies or subtracting them. But I found that that actually doesn’t really work. It works in principle, in theory, but not in actuality. It really takes trial and error. Of course, panning changes things as well. Not so much in those early pieces where the parts had basically the same thing happening, but in pieces where there’s more of a bass part, and each part has its own range of notes.

One thing I did want to mention is that conventional Western notation is kind of like algebra, but the reality is more like calculus, where you have the variables and they’re constantly changing. So even though you think you know what it looks like, a lot of people only hear what they see on the page. There’s actually a lot going on that either people don’t hear or they’re unaware of. For me and for people who write music the way I do, the scores look deceptively simple. But performers find out that there’s a lot more. It doesn’t sound as simple as it looks and it’s not as easy to perform because you have to have spot-on intonation. I’ve had students at Manhattan School and Mannes both perform my piece for trombones. I think at first they thought it was kind of insulting to be playing all these whole notes, but then they found it wasn’t all that easy because you have to have a really good sense of rhythm and you have to have a really good sense of pitch. It’s almost an endurance thing. You know, it’s very difficult.

An excerpt from the score of Mary Jane Leach's composition Bare Bones for four trombones.

Excerpt from Bare Bones. Copyright © 1989 by Mary Jane Leach, Ariadne Press (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: But I want to play devil’s advocate a bit here, maybe at the risk of being labeled a heretic. Clearly these are the phenomena that you’re curious about and this is what you want to have happen. You notate them as simply as possible, and these sounds occur which makes your score actually clear to some extent. But shouldn’t you make it a point in the performance materials to tell people that these sounds will occur and that that is what you’re actually after, especially if someone as versed in new music as Stephanie Starin thought that there was something wrong with her radio or with the recording? Or are you also going for an element of surprise with the performers? Is that part of aesthetic?

MJL: No, no, no. I think by now people know what to expect. But Stephanie wasn’t familiar with my work, and I hadn’t done that much work in that realm before.

FJO: But what about those students at the Manhattan School and Mannes? They might not know what to expect because they’re young musicians and they’re probably getting exposed to your music for the first time. They don’t know all of the composers who are out there and they probably never encountered a score like this. They’re making their initial judgments based exclusively on what they’ve experienced before, so all they see is a bunch of whole notes and they have no idea that it’s really so much more than that.

MJL: I can’t remember now, but usually I have some kind of paragraph or instructions with scores that explain what I’m looking for so that people don’t freak out. I’m not trying to put anything by anybody. But I’ve actually found that people don’t even need to be instructed. Stephanie was sort of an outlier, because I think everybody else hears what’s going on.

FJO: I shudder to say this because I obsessively dote on program notes, whether they’re for my own pieces or if I’m asked to write them for other composers’ pieces, but musicians often don’t read the program notes; they just go straight to the score. So if it’s not written directly on the page they’re playing from, they probably won’t see it.

MJL: Well, sometimes I do put it on the page. I’ll put a little asterisk on the bottom of the page. But one thing that kind of evolved from that was that when I finally got a notation program, I was able to write pieces for instruments I didn’t play. The bassoon was the first one that I was able to do that for. I did experiments to make sure certain things were actually happening using MIDI playback. Then I did a little test with multi-tracking, just to make sure that my MIDI playback was being realistic in terms of what to expect. And it worked. What I was able to do with this was that instead of just having one combination note, or difference tone, patterns started happening. I would play certain combinations of notes, and all of a sudden other patterns would be happening naturally. So I thought, “Well, what I’ll do next is notate that and see what that will do with the rest of the notes happening.” I would listen for patterns that would happen and notate them, then go on to the next thing to see what would happen with that.

Mary Jane Leach at her work desk with manuscripts, an electric keyboard and a computer monitor in the background.

Mary Jane Leach working on a score in her former New York City apartment. (Photo courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: It’s somewhat in the same spirit as Alvin Lucier’s experiment in I Am Sitting in a Room but a completely different way of approaching it.

MJL: It’s almost the opposite of that.

FJO: From there it makes sense that you were so attracted to this whole notion of writing for multiples of the same instrument.

MJL: It was also practical because it’s easy. I originally was doing pieces that I could do and I had access to a four-track and then an eight-track machine. That was how that evolved; I could perform it. Bam! It wasn’t until, I think, 1987 when I was talking with Dora Ohrenstein, and she said, “These pieces that you have for eight-track tape, you could get eight singers to perform it.” It never occurred to me. So I became a choral composer after that.

FJO: So all those vocal pieces were conceptualized as pieces for yourself?

MJL: Not all of them. Green Mountain Madrigal I wrote for myself. Ariel’s Song I wrote for myself. Mountain Echoes, I didn’t write for myself because it would have been really complicated to do because it has all these dynamic changes and that would be hard to do one track at a time. But I did Bruckstück for myself, too.

A shelf full of boxes containing reel-to-reel tapes.

In a side room, there’s a shelf filled with reel-to reel tapes of some of Mary Jane Leach’s multiples compositions.

FJO: Wow, is there a recording of that with just you?

MJL: There is, but it’s kind of gotten corrupted; there’s a hum in it. I made an eight-track version at STEIM in Amsterdam, but I was using used tape and I think there’s something that just didn’t quite work. Something over time has intruded on it, so it’s not really useable. I might be able to go some day and try to doctor the tapes, but I’m not sure.

FJO: It would be amazing to hear the difference between that and it being done by a group of singers.

MJL: Well, the really nice thing about working with live singers is that you have the breath and you don’t have that kind of rigidity that you have with tape, especially when you’re doing one part at a time. Sometimes I would just do parts of parts at a time, depending on the range. Green Mountain Madrigal was the first eight-track tape piece that I did for myself. And I learned a couple of things: I learned that I had to tune everything to one pitch and not change halfway through. Originally everything was in C. Then I changed it to F, so I tuned everything to F. People like George Lewis and Jim Tenney would notice those things. And the same thing happened with the bassoon piece when Shannon [Peet] recorded it. We had only three hours to record. I mean, like no time. And she said, “I don’t think I can start playing the low note first. I’m afraid I’ll blow my lip out.” And I was like, “I really think you should.” “No.” So she recorded the octave first. And then bless him, Jim Tenney said to her, “It’s out of tune, Shannon.” So we went back and redid it later, and tuned to the lowest note and then it was okay.

Then there’s one other thing I was going to say about recording, which is really interesting. When Barbara and I recorded Trio for Duo, we did it all in one long take because it’s all overlapping. There was one note that we hit a lot, which was the resonant frequency of the room. It was so disorienting because all of sudden I was singing, and then, when you sing that one note, it felt like the room had just filled with Jello and you were swimming in it. It was the weirdest thing, and it was very disorienting.

FJO: But I imagine that none of these works are really improvisatory.

MJL: No.

FJO: If they were, and you found that resonant note during a performance, it could totally change the shape of the piece.

MJL: Well, I had an interesting experience. It’s not quite what you’re talking about, but similar. I was doing this performance at Franklin Furnace. I was doing more experimental performance art things at that time and I was playing my bass clarinet without the mouthpiece, I think, or without the reed, and someone was projecting animation on me. I’m part way through the performance and I hear people chuckling. I’m thinking, “Hmm. I didn’t think I was doing anything very funny.” So I just kind of stopped, and I realized there was a dog in the next building that was howling. So I started playing with the dog. I did a little riff and then he would do a little riff. Then I would do another little riff. At the end, Bill Hellerman came and said, “Where’s the tape?” He didn’t realize it was happening in real time. He thought I arranged this thing and it was part of the piece. [That dog was] one of the most sensitive musicians I’ve ever worked with. He really was! He knew when to stop. Then he would listen, and then he would do something. It was this back and forth thing.

FJO: But you could never recreate it. It was a one-time deal.

MJL: And I thought the concert was recorded, but it wasn’t. I’d give anything to hear that tape.

The flyer for Mary Jane Leach's Franklin Furnace performance featuring a photo of MJL playing bass clarinet and wearing sunglasses. The poster includes the following text: "MARY JANE LEACH - COBY BATTY - PHYLLIS BULKIN - VOCALS - CLARINET - ANIMATION - FRANKLIN FURNACE 112 FRANKLIN ST. MAY 5 8:30 $2.50"

The original flyer for that Mary Jane Leach performance at Franklin Furnace.

FJO: You’ve created a lot of pieces of music for multiples of the same instrument. And on your website you also have a list that you have compiled of all the pieces you have been able to find out about that other composers have written for multiples of the same instrument.

MJL: I’m way behind on that list.

FJO: Still, there’s no other resource like it. A multiples piece is actually a very peculiar kind of piece of music.

MJL: Well, there’s more than one type of piece. There’s the type of piece that I write, which is interested in exploring the timbre of the instrument. And then there’s the type of piece that’s written for flute festivals or cello festivals where everybody gets together and plays but they’re not interested in the sound phenomena, per se; they’re just interested in having a piece that ten of them can play together.

FJO: Sure. But the thing that’s even weirder about these pieces is where they fit in terms of scale vis-à-vis solo, chamber, and orchestra pieces. If a multiples piece is done by one player and all the other parts are pre-recorded, then it’s a kind of solo piece. But it’s a solo piece that is much more than just the solo since the one has become many. However, if it’s done, as you described, at a festival with a bunch of people, it’s almost orchestral in that when you get beyond a certain number of folks there will need to be a conductor, and sometimes these pieces are enormous—like Henry Brant’s piece for 80 flutes, Wendy Chambers’s piece for 77 trombones, or Anthony Braxton’s piece for 100 tubas. Yet since it’s all the same timbre, the music is not really orchestral in terms of timbre variance and also there’s always one person to a part. So then, perhaps, it’s a strange kind of chamber music. So multiples pieces share qualities with solo, chamber, and orchestral pieces, but ultimately they really are their own thing. And despite you making a distinction between your pieces and the kind of multiples pieces that get done at festivals and instrument conventions, I imagine a piece like, say, Feu de Joie, which was originally done by a solo bassoonist playing against six pre-recorded bassoon tracks, could be just as easily done by a group of seven bassoonists. It would be a somewhat different phenomenon, since it would involve seven different people and everyone has a slightly different tone. But would that be a fair representation of it? Or does it need to be done by one person over-dubbing multiple times?

MJL: Interesting that you should mention this because I have this piece for nine taped flutes and a live solo part called Dowland’s Tears. It was originally conceived just to be a recording. Manuel Zurria was putting out a CD of pieces around the theme of the Lachrimae of Dowland, and he was asked me if I’d be interested. This struck a chord since Dowland was a gateway composer for me. So I wrote this piece for nine taped flutes and sent it to him. I wrote it pretty quickly for me, and I didn’t hear from him for a couple of days. And I’m thinking he probably hates it. A couple days later, he wrote me, and said, “I love the piece. I’ve recorded it, and I made a video to go with it and I’m performing it three times next month.” So, at that point I really needed to write him a solo part, because I don’t like these music-minus-one things where the live part always sticks out like a sore thumb or doesn’t stick out at all. You know, it’s kind of submerged. So I like to always have the taped parts be uniform and then have a little flexibility in the solo part so it can float over the other parts.

But recently it has been performed by four different groups of ten flutists. It was first performed in Finland at a flute festival. Camilla Hoitenga conducted it. Then it was performed in Amsterdam with Eric Lamb playing the solo, and they repeated it in Cologne in September. Then it was performed in Canberra at the Australian Flute Festival. It worked a lot better than I thought it would actually.

An excerpt from the musical score of Mary Jane Leach's composition Dowland's Tears for 10 flutes.

Excerpt from Dowland’s Tears. Copyright © 2011 by Mary Jane Leach, Ariadne Press (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Were you there for all of those performances?

MJL: Only the one in Cologne. And that was interesting because it was performed in the church that I lived in [previously]. Eric’s a phenomenal player. He was pulling people along with him kind of like that thing you do in tai chi when you harness, you pull along the slow people and you slow down the fast people. There was this interesting kind of ebb and flow going on with him and some of the performers; it was really interesting to watch and sonically it worked pretty well, too.

Photo of 13 people, many holding flutes.

Mary Jane Leach (far left) with the ensemble of flutists who performed her Dowland’s Tears in Cologne. (Photo courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: Do the exact same acoustic phenomena occur when pieces like this, which you conceived for a single live musician and a speaker system, are performed in real time by a group of live musicians who are separated on stage from one another?

MJL: Yeah. And sometimes things happen that I don’t even expect. For instance, I had written Ariel’s Song to perform myself, and I did make a tape of it. But when the [New York] Treble Singers started performing it, I listened to a tape one time, and there was this part where I thought they came in early. But what happened was that there was an actual sound phenomenon that started happening that I’d never counted on. So sometimes more happens rather than less happens.

FJO: And that’s okay?

MJL: Yeah, it’s fine. I’m not a tyrant. I love having things happen that I didn’t expect. I don’t want things to be controlled enough that nothing happens. You want to make sure something happens. But if more happens, I’m happy with that. Sometimes you can learn a lot from musicians.

FJO: So aside from these extra things happening that you are okay with, could something happen that you wouldn’t think was okay? What would constitute something that would just be a bad performance?

MJL: Okay, I’ll tell you. During Dennis [Báthory-Kitsz]’s festival in 2001 in Vermont, he wanted to have my 4BC. Lots of times when I would perform it, I would usually perform it with slides so that it wasn’t just listening to a tape; there’d be slides and then I would also play a note that was happening to emphasize it. So there was this guy who said he would do it. I said, “Just play what you hear.” You know, the notes that you hear. But he was hearing some kind of jazz thing. It was torture, because he was listening to a different drummer I guess. You have to be really specific with some people. When I said play whatever you’re hearing, I didn’t mean play what you’re imagining you’re hearing. That was a really awful experience.

Then another time—Godfried-Willem Raes has the Logos performing center in Ghent and also teaches at a conservatory in Brussels. In Belgium, it’s kind of weird. They have a conservatory in Brussels and then they have a conservatory in Ghent. But all the clarinetists go to one place and all the tuba players go to another. So they have this imbalance of instruments, and they’re always looking for pieces that can be played by all of their tuba players. So he had my piece for bass clarinet performed by tuba players. And of course it didn’t work because the overtones are totally different on a tuba. Those poor guys. You play for 19 minutes without breathing, I mean without a rest, and nothing was happening. At the end of the tape the last guy went “Boo bwooph.” Their lips were blown. And I’m sure they thought, “Well, what is this all about?” It wasn’t the piece at all. And it was programmed by Godfried, who’s a clarinet player, so he should have known.

FJO: They just went ahead and did this without asking you?

MJL: Yeah. It was just a student performance, though; it wasn’t a concert performance.

FJO: Right, but they somehow got the score.

MJL: I think I had left the score with Godfried when I’d done a concert there one time.

FJO: Well, this seems like a good place to transition to where I’d next like to take our conversation and that’s to pieces for variable instrumentation—which in some ways are the exact opposite of multiples pieces. In a piece for a group of bass clarinets, you can explore certain sonic phenomena that are specific, which won’t occur if the music is played on different instruments instead. But in a piece that could be played by any combination of instruments, you don’t know what you’re going to get. And yet, your piece Lake Eden, which could be played by any combination of instruments, still clearly sounds like your music.

MJL: I wrote it for Relâche. We were doing this summer institute that was at the Charles Ives Center, even though it really had nothing to do with Charles Ives. Anyway, musicians would have maybe an hour or so of rehearsal. Then they would perform it. So I had to write a piece that didn’t need a lot of rehearsing and a couple of the musicians weren’t really great readers. I was intrigued by Terry Riley’s In C, but the thing that I didn’t like about it was it just keeps building and building; I wanted a little bit more of an ebb and flow. So I had different sections; it was kind of a perverted rondo. I had whole notes that could be either three, four, five beats, so things wouldn’t always line up vertically. But—I don’t know if anybody knows this—the phrases that I used were basically the same phrases that I used in 4BC. But they were all over the place—in different ranges, whereas in 4BC all the notes were just within an augmented fifth.

FJO: But to the question of variable instrumentation—it was originally done at Relâche’s summer institute, but it’s been done in different places since then with different combinations of instruments. There’s a wonderful performance of it posted to YouTube that was done in Boston earlier this year. The thing about In C is that no matter what instruments you use to perform it—whether it’s six pianos, a wind band, or a rock band—it’s always the same piece somehow. The same thing seems to be true for Lake Eden. So I wondered, since so much of what your music is about is the specific acoustic phenomena that happen as a result of timbre, how is it still so clearly your music even when you take timbre specificity out of the equation?

MJL: I don’t know why it still sounds like me. I guess because I used the same process. I used the same process that I did for 4BC. The phrases are literally the same. I just plucked them out. So it just kind of shows you that everything can be reduced down to very little in the end. If you look at Beethoven, he uses the same rhythm all the time; he does it in such a way that you don’t even realize that he’s using the same rhythm throughout the entire movement. How can you reduce something down to its bare essence then realize that something that seemed like there was so much there is actually not a lot? I don’t know. It’s a good question, but I don’t know if I have an answer to that.

FJO: In a way, it’s what makes the piece so fascinating. Because even though the bass clarinet piece didn’t work on tubas, Lake Eden is designed to theoretically work for any combination of instruments, arguably even an ensemble of just tubas. So why does it work? And are there ways in which it wouldn’t work?

MJL: I had had certain restrictions in terms of how many times you repeated something in a pattern of going back and forth. I’d say do this four times, or five times. When it doesn’t work is when the performers have ignored the timing restraints. Then it just kind of mushes off into sort of not my piece at that point. The only time it didn’t work the way I like it to work was because it had gone on too long. In the Downtown Ensemble, Phil Corner always loved to extend things beyond what you thought they should be. So the piece became kind of flabby.

FJO: Phil Corner recently released a recording of his performances of Satie all performed at speeds that sound four times slower than anyone else has ever played them.

MJL: Oh my God!

FJO: They’re incredible performances, and they’re fascinating even though they are totally unexpected. That’s Corner’s aesthetic, which is really pure minimalism. But while your pieces share a lot of sonic common ground with minimalism, especially in terms of surface sonorities, perhaps they’re ultimately not minimalist in conception.

MJL: I would say maybe a couple of the early pieces were minimalist in conception, but not since then. Is there such a thing as musical DNA? I don’t know. Maybe you could test all my pieces and they’d have the same DNA. That’s something I’d never really thought about all that much. I should have.

FJO: No, you’re doing stuff that works. Don’t think about it now; keep doing what you’re doing! Even though I’d still like you to describe your process.

MJL: Well, I’m going to sound very flaky because it’s very organic and the pieces kind of create themselves. No matter how much I want to plan them ahead, they kind of write themselves. The way I write is almost like knitting. In knitting, if you drop a stitch, you have to rip everything out to the point where you dropped the stitch. I write very slowly note by note, and I don’t write things in sections and then insert things. If I write too fast, sometimes I will just lose the thread and I’ll have to go back to the point where I lost the musical impetus.

A stained glass window

One of the windows in Mary Jane Leach’s home.

FJO: Since so much of it is rooted in acoustics, how much of it is done by testing at a piano or with your own voice and how much of it is done in the abstract, hearing it all in your head?

MJL: Actually I do it all on computer with MIDI playback.

FJO: That’s how you test things?

MJL: Well, yeah, except that now I’ve tested things so much that I pretty much know what’s going to happen. I’ve done all kinds of studies: What do two of the same instrument sound like when they play in unison? What do three sound like? What do four sound like? What do five sound like? What do six sound like? What happens when one of them plays another note? What happens if it’s in the middle, in terms of panning? I’ve gone through all the permutations. After a while you kind of know what’s going to happen, so you don’t have to keep doing studies. It’s like doing scales. You do them mindfully for a long time, and then after a while you just can do them. It just becomes second nature.

FJO: You’re almost saying the exact opposite of what so many composers have said about MIDI. For you, MIDI actually does replicate the things that you want to hear.

MJL: And it’s pretty reliable, too.

FJO: But tons of folks say stuff like, “Don’t get a false sense of how these instruments behave by using MIDI.”

MJL: Well, the only thing that doesn’t really work are glissandos. I’ve been working with glissandos a lot lately, but that I have to just leave to my imagination. Of course, glissandos are going to vary by performer anyway, so it’s probably good that I’m not wedded to an idea of what it’s exactly going to sound like. But I pretty much know what it’s going to sound like at this stage of the game. Still, MIDI is really valuable to me. I wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of stuff if it hadn’t been for it. The only thing that is frustrating is I wish you could get it to do syllables. They don’t even have really good vocal samples. I know what it’s going to sound like, but I know it’s going to sound better than what it sounds like in the MIDI playback. But with instruments, it’s pretty reliable. Especially the ones that are sampled instruments. When I wrote the piece for bassoon, I had a little Casio thing and I programmed in the sounds so that it would have a certain harmonic profile like the bassoon had. It wasn’t a sampled sound; it was a digitally created sound. But it still worked.

FJO: Some instruments sound better than others. The winds generally sound pretty good.

MJL: Clarinet doesn’t.

FJO: Yeah, but you’re more sensitive to that since you’re a clarinetist.

MJL: But I think most people agree that the clarinet doesn’t sound very good in MIDI.

FJO: Cellos sound dreadful I think.

MJL: Yeah.

FJO: But the piano, surprisingly, sounds okay—better than you would think it would, given the complexity of its sonic envelope. Perhaps this would be a good time to talk a little bit about your piano concerto. We’ve been talking about all these pieces for odd one-of-a-kind combinations—seven bassoons, eight treble voices. Most of the time, if you’re writing music that’s done by other people and not by you, you’re reliant on ensembles that have a more standard instrumentation—string quartets, wind quintets, orchestras, SATB choruses. Before we started recording, you were telling me that you came to writing choral music from writing pieces you overdubbed with your voice and that now those pieces are done by choruses quite a lot. But they’re not standard choral pieces, because they were created through this other means.

MJL: Yeah, and it’s very interesting because, for instance, when the Treble Singers perform one of my works on a program of their own, and not on a program that’s all my music, it usually takes them about half a piece to get into gear. If it’s an all-Mary Jane concert, they don’t have any problem with it. But when they have to shift, because it takes a certain kind of intense concentration to sing, it really takes about half a piece for them to get in the groove and sound okay.

A conductor and ight sopranos singing in front of music stands at a church.

Virginia Davidson conducting the New York Treble Singers during their September 1995 concert devoted to the music of Mary Jane Leach at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. (Photo courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: That could be a big problem in a concert. Maybe it always needs to be the first piece on the program so that they’re in that mindset from the onset rather than coming out of singing something else. It’s rare that you have an opportunity to have an all-single-composer concert. If it’s a new music concert, your piece has to co-exist with a bunch of other new pieces that can all be in completely different compositional languages, which could make it harder for both the players and the audience to latch on to any of it. But most of the time, if you’re writing for a standard ensemble, your new piece has to co-exist mostly with old pieces. If you’re writing for, say, orchestra, your piece is almost always going to cohabitate with standard repertoire; your piece will get played alongside Mozart and Beethoven or Brahms and Tchaikovsky. And the musicians will play it and the audience will hear it in the context of that older, much more well-known music. Orchestra music is very different from music for ensembles of all the same instrument and also very different from open scores that any instrument can play. Orchestra music is very much about all the different instruments having specific, often regimented roles. You’ve written a piano concerto. That’s a standard form with a long history behind it. I’ve only heard the MIDI version of your piece, but I found your approach to orchestration very unusual in the way that melodies transfer from instrument to instrument and, as a result, can be perceived differently. There are some other orchestra pieces that do that, but it’s somewhat unusual to use the orchestra as a palette that way.

MJL: Well, Beethoven does, but on a lesser scale. He might have the flute, the oboe, and the clarinet play something, but he doesn’t go through the whole range of the instruments. In the second movement of the Seventh [Symphony], he has that little phrase that goes between the instruments. And I got the idea for that little opening riff from a Mozart concerto because [my piano concerto] was originally going to be performed on a concert with a Mozart concerto. But then I just let all the winds have it. Not the brass or anybody else. It seems like such a natural thing to do.

FJO: But in most concertos, the focus is usually mostly on the soloist.

MJL: Yeah, which I didn’t do very much.

FJO: It’s sort of an anti-concerto.

MJL: That’s because it was such a short piece. I wanted to use the orchestra and the piano doesn’t interest me that much, even though I love playing it. So I didn’t want to have this whole big piano show-off thing and then have the orchestra play for two minutes. I wanted it to be part of the ensemble. Maybe we can do another movement where the pianist gets to do a little bit more. A version of it was done about five years ago.

FJO: It had a different title at that time.

MJL: Yeah. It was just a place holder. And they recorded it, but the engineer erased it before it had been transferred. I was not a happy camper about that. It was supposed to be performed this September in Bari, but it’s been postponed until May. I’m going to get to go, too; since I was already there [when the festival was cancelled], they’re going to pay my transportation.

FJO: That’s nice. That’s like the rainbow at the end of all the clouds with this piece—an accidently erased recording of the premiere, a cancelled performance after you’d made the trek to Italy to hear it.

MJL: I know. And the conductor—I knew that he had conducted at the Met and things like that. So I thought he was just a standard conductor. But it turns out he was the conductor for the premiere of [Morton] Feldman’s Neither. So when he said that it was an intense experience conducting it, now I can say he probably meant that and that it wasn’t because he was such a traditional conductor that this probably was kind of weird for him. And he knows the flute player from Rome that I’ve been working with.

Mary Jane Leach playing a grand piano in a church.

Mary Jane Leach playing the piano at home. (Photo by Jon Flanders, courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: When you write a big piece, you have to be so dependent on all these other people. There are all these variables. It’s a far cry from the very personal way you developed your compositional language—working by yourself with a tape recorder or working with individual musicians. You have such a wide range of sonorities to choose from, but other aspects are much narrower.

MJL: Not having very much rehearsal time, too. So you can’t write something that’s so complex that it can’t be performed, or performed well.

FJO: But one of your long in-progress projects is extremely ambitious—the Ariadne opera, and I imagine it would have to rely on tons of people.

MJL: Well, actually not tons. A lot of singers and then a string quartet.

FJO: So you’re not going to orchestrate it beyond that?

MJL: No.

FJO: I suppose for practical purposes?

MJL: But also I like string quartet and voice; I think it’s a nice combination.

FJO: I agree. I’m curious about what drew you to the various versions of the Ariadne myth and specifically wanting to deal with earlier versions, which is much different than the famous myth we’ve come to know.

MJL: In some of the early pieces, I was dealing with the traditional myth, and then I came across Carolyn Heilbrun, a feminist writer who also wrote mystery novels under the name of Amanda Cross. One mystery book centered on this famous author who, à la James Joyce, had this magnum opus like Ulysses, but his was [based on] Ariadne. So I got really interested in that. Daniel Goode and Ann Snitow knew Heilbrun, so they put me in contact with her and I asked her, “Do you have any recommendations or further information?” She said, “Everything I know, I put in the book.” So I was left on my own to do some research.

I started looking into all the earlier Greek texts about Ariadne, or just even things that would apply to my imagination of what was going on. It was very fascinating because so much of myth is political—a lot of times justifying why the people who are occupying your country are there, like a lot of political-ness we’re going through with the Middle East and everything like that. This explains how Theseus, who was like a rapist-solider, could be transformed into the hero and how Ariadne could be transformed from a queen-goddess figure into like this girl who gave up everything for the first cute guy who came by. It’s been a long, long project.

FJO: What’s the goal for it?

MJL: I hadn’t worked on it for a while. I was realistic enough that I didn’t want to spend years writing a piece and getting one performance of it. So I’d been writing it in discrete sections so each section could be performed on its own. I just kind of got back into it because I had been involved in putting out this CD of Julius Eastman’s music, and then editing a book on him, and that has been very time consuming, so I had gotten sidetracked from the Ariadne project. But when I was in Italy this summer at Civitella Ranieri, I got back into it, so I wrote another piece in the cycle and half of another one. So now I’m kind of gearing up for that. I really like what I wrote, if I might say so myself. I’d kind of forgotten about it, because other things had come up, like the piano concerto, but I’m getting back into it now.

FJO: One of the reasons I’ve always really identified with you is all the advocacy work you’ve done for other composers, so I’m glad you brought up the Julius Eastman project and the difficulty of making time for your own work while you were immersed in that. This has been a strand in your life all along. You were in charge of XI Records where you produced all these extraordinary recordings while at the same time trying to create your own work in that space. To a lesser extent that multiples database you put together is another example of your advocacy.

MJL: That’s how the Julius project started; I was looking for his piece for ten cellos. So that was how I got sucked into finding his music.

FJO: What’s interesting about your advocacy for Julius Eastman is that it has taken him to a whole other level. His music has started to reenter the canon largely through the work that you did to bring this stuff out into the world. You were involved with the 3-CD Julius Eastman set on New World Records that was released ten years ago, and you wrote a huge article for us about him at that time. Since then there have been all these performances and now there’s a book. This person who was literally a footnote in history—not even a footnote—has emerged not only as an icon to several different groups of people but as a major figure of the latter half of the 20th century in America, a groundbreaking proto-post-minimalist composer.

MJL: Post-minimalist before there was minimalist.

FJO: Right. Exactly. And someone with a very unusual life and personality. But part of it is you knew Julius Eastman.

MJL: Yeah, but not very well. I didn’t hang out with him a lot or anything like that.

FJO: So what made you so committed to getting this music out into the world, serving his legacy and doing justice by it?

MJL: Well, I really loved that cello piece. That was the piece that I knew. I was teaching at CalArts. They wanted me to teach a course on real instruments, because so many of the composers there were dealing with computer and electronic music. I thought a good way would be to do pieces for multiples, so you could luxuriate in the sound of ten cellos or seven bassoons. It was fairly easy for me to track down the master of the tape [of Julius’s cello piece] because the cassette that I had been given was part of a radio program. And at the end, it gave the engineer’s name, and the names of all of the performers. And the engineer was an old boyfriend of mine, who recorded Green Mountain Madrigal and 4BC and some other things. So I contacted him and he had the tape, but he didn’t have the score. I thought it can’t be that hard. It turned out that it was very hard, but I was stubborn.

Then, Bryan Rulon made me aware of how Julius’s music had disappeared. It had literally been thrown out on the street. I felt like someone who witnesses an accident—you want to move on, but you know you have to stay because you’re not sure if someone else is going to come by and help. I feel like I realized how dire the situation was and that something had to be done before too much more time passed because the more that time passes, the harder it is to track down the music. I’d also made a commitment to New World [Records] because I mentioned trying to find his music and they were really interested in him. I felt I’d given my word. Then when the CD came out, various people tried to take credit for it, as you know. I kind of bristled at that, but just kept things going and kept waiting for someone to pick up the baton and do the next step, but so far nobody has.

There was just a weekend symposium in Philadelphia by the Bowerbird. Some of us were older, white people who knew Julius and then there were some younger black people—musicians, historians, theater people, and intellectuals. Jace Clayton was there, and he said, “I’m having a real problem with all these white people talking about these pieces.” And I said, “Well, I would love someone to do it. I don’t see anybody picking up the slack. If you want to do it, that would be great.” I was kind of annoyed at that because what’s the alternative—not doing it?

A page from a manuscript of a musical score by Julius Eastman featuring indeterminate notation for singers, trombone, and flute.

Mary Jane Leach was very eager to show us the most recently rediscovered Julius Eastman manuscript, the score for his 1970 composition Thruway.

FJO: But I wonder, to bring it back to your work: when you get so involved with another project, when are you able to let go and get back to your own music?

MJL: Well, I pretty much have at this point. People contact for me for various questions, photos, or scores. That’s not so difficult. But I pretty much stopped. It was very interesting because we had a big deadline for the galleys for the book the day that I left for Italy. So it was like a real dividing line. It was like, okay, I’m done with that. Now I’m going to take care of myself and be selfish and write my own music. Let somebody else worry about it. But it’s hard to say no sometimes, because I would hate to have it fall through the cracks again. I want somebody to take over who would just do it and not just six months later be bored and let it slip.

FJO: Throughout our conversation you dropped suggestions about people who were gateway composers for you—John Dowland and Bach. Since your piece Bruckstück was inspired by Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony—

MJL: —Whom I didn’t like until I wrote that piece! There’s this visual artist, Jack Ox, who did a whole series of paintings based on an analysis of Bruckner. I can’t remember if it was just the Bruckner Eighth, but I was commissioned to write a piece to go with a gallery opening of the paintings. I’d never liked Bruckner much because this guy who had really weird musical taste loved Bruckner, so I figured I wouldn’t like him. I know, it’s sad. My musical experiences are contemporary music and early music; I’ve been kind of working my way into the middle. So the kind of music that everybody knows is the music I know the least. So I didn’t start off liking Bruckner. I got to like him. I didn’t dislike him, I just thought I wouldn’t like him.

An excerpt from the musical score of Mary Jane Leach's composition Bruckstuck for eight female voices.

Excerpt from Bruckstück. According to the performance notes, “Everybody should sing the same vowel. A series of vowels can be decided on, so that the whole piece isn’t sung using only one vowel sound. Each note should be held for its entirety with entries clearly articulated – not staccato, but clear, so that the rhythm and pulse of the piece is
evident. Phrases have been indicated primarily so that breaths won’t be taken in the middle of
them.” Copyright © 1989 by Mary Jane Leach, Ariadne Press (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: It’s interesting that this music was inspired to go with an exhibition of visual art that was created based on Bruckner. The music inspired the art, and then the art inspired this other piece of music that tropes back to that other music. But you mentioning this also gives us the opportunity to talk about something that you hinted at earlier, and that’s the video art that you’ve created to go along with your music. How important is the visual to the perception of the aural for you?

MJL: It’s really not important; it’s just an added element. I think the pieces can stand on their own. When I performed just solo concerts, I think the visuals helped because it just wasn’t one person performing with tape, there was something for people to look at. One thing that ties into my whole process was that I spent a summer working with theater gels. You can cut them in two and they fit perfectly in slide projectors. One summer I mounted all the commercially available gels and I put them in “chromological” order. It was a little like doing the sound studies. Once I’d done it, I knew what combinations of colors and saturations would happen; the same thing that happens in light and in color happens in music; you combine two colors and you get a third color. All the primaries in color have their secondaries in pigment and the secondaries of light are the primaries of pigment and vice versa.

FJO: It’s like visual difference tones!

MJL: Yeah, and saturation and volume change that way, too. It’s interesting, when I first moved to New York, I was working off Broadway as a lighting technician. There was this wonderful lighting designer named Arden Fingerhut and we had lots of talks about how much music and lighting have in common. One of my best friends since junior high school is a lighting designer, too, and the first time he went to one of my concerts where I used handmade, painted slides, he goes, “You’re doing lighting.” Not everything I do with visuals is color based, but I do work with slow dissolves and how things gradually change or transform into something else.

FJO: Will video projects be used for the final composite Ariadne opera?

MJL: I haven’t thought of that all. I’m thinking visually, but more like as a costume designer or a set designer because I have a theater background. But not the lighting or color combinations yet.

FJO: There has to be a production of it first. And, of course, you have to finish writing the piece.

MJL: I also want to direct Measure for Measure. It’s one of my dream bucket list things to do.

FJO: Another project that’s going to take away time from composing.

MJL: Yeah, but it’s creative.

A couple of pots and a tea kettle sit on top of a stove, various containers and other kitchen paraphernalia are to the right of it and on a shelf above it.

And yes, there’s a kitchen in the church, too.

James Moore: The Hunt for Sonic Solutions

“I’ll warn you, I’m a little bit of a perfectionist,” guitarist James Moore confesses to sound engineer James Dellatacoma as they set up to record a complete performance of John Zorn’s The Book of Heads, a challenging collection of 35 etudes. “I’ll probably be like, ‘Well, it said that’s supposed to be a high whoop not a low whoop; I better do it again’.”

This scene—captured as part of an absorbing CD/DVD recording of the work that he released last month on the Tzadik label—is overlaid with Moore’s self-effacing laughter, but his performance of the music itself sees him navigating reams of such non-traditional tasks with remarkable focus. While the etudes are billed as being composed for solo guitar, their presentation actually requires an additional arsenal of sound-making tools which Moore also manages, here including “fifteen balloons, two violin bows, three mbira keys, a slide bar, nail file, spring, metal rod, ratchet, pipe cleaner, talking toy, finger cymbals, thirty grains of rice, some Styrofoam, and an extra string.” With a supply list like that, it perhaps goes without saying that some serious interpretive powers on the part of the player serve an essential role in the presentation of the music as well.

It also neatly frames Moore’s talent and enthusiasm for solving musical problems in order to bring engaging sounds to life. This applies whether he’s working as a solo artist playing a banjo, a mandolin, or a guitar (which could be acoustic, steel-string resonator, electric, or classical) or working in one of the wide variety of ensemble situations he’s a part of, such as the Dither electric guitar quartet or his mixed band The Hands Free.

“I guess that idea of problem solving is something that’s always intrigued me. Now I’m older and jaded and a little stuck in my ways in some ways, but I hope I still have that desire to solve things and to seek out new sounds.”

It’s an instinct that he can actually trace back to his early studies.

“I was sort of always drawn to the more unconventional side of things,” Moore says, recalling an anecdote from his grade-school days. “I went to my piano teacher and said that at the school Christmas concert I wanted to do a medley of carols, but I wanted to put all sorts of things inside the piano to make noises and stuff. And my piano teacher said, ‘You know that’s been done before?’ and handed me John Cage’s Silence. So I was already finding some of these weirder corners of the musical world.”

Just before the release of his Book of Heads recording, Moore also put out Gertrudes, an album of duos with violinist Andie Springer that were written by a range of composers including Larry Polansky, Paula Matthusen, Ken Thomson, Lainie Fefferman, Robert Ashley, and Moore himself. Moore and Springer began collaborating while touring with a theatrical production and developed their project during their down time, eventually reaching out to friends and colleagues and booking shows as they passed through town.

“It’s very eclectic, but I think it works,” Moore acknowledges, highlighting the social strengths of the project and the fun of building its foundation out of just what they had at hand while traveling. As his myriad instrumental interests underline, “I’m most happy being a musician and trying anything that’s given to me.”

While Moore continues to fine-tune his professional focus as he gathers experience, he also keeps an ear open to what may find him when he’s not actively looking.

“It’s not necessarily that you pick it. You maybe find yourself having a tendency towards different types of music or certain genres, but sometimes these things pick you.”

Arto Lindsay: Space, Parades, and Confrontational Aesthetics

A conversation via Skype between Arto Lindsay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Sam Hillmer in New York, New York
April 15, 2015
Transcribed and edited by Sam Hillmer
Video presentation and photography
by Molly Sheridan

I first Met Arto Lindsay at a party I hosted at my house to preview a new set by my band Zs. Of course it was an honor and a privilege to have the man in my house—founding the band DNA alone makes him a legend!

Arto and I have a mutual friend, Arto’s manager Ryu Takahashi, and through him we had occasion to meet a number of times over the next couple of years. As I got to know Arto and his work better, I began to appreciate the breadth of his artistic vision. Not only had Arto founded arguably the most important band from New York’s early-’80s No Wave scene, he is a well-known figure in Brazilian pop, collaborator of Matthew Barney’s, leader of parades, and thrower of sounds in space.

Alexis de Tocqueville has said that Americans “cut through the form to the substance.” Punk, which is quintessentially American, does just that. Born of an urgency around reaching people through disruptive and confrontational aesthetics and social practice, punk is inherently populist at the level of essence. What interested me about getting to know Arto was that, as I learned about his work outside of the band DNA, I felt I was able to identify that spirit in his pop efforts, parades, and the sound design of his various performance works.

Curious to learn more, I invited Arto to have a lengthy chat with me some day. He graciously accepted the offer, which led to a marathon Skype call last spring. What I had thought was breadth of vision was just an opening to an artistic world of Arto’s own—bigger and broader then I had ever imagined. Big thanks to Arto for the time and for his life and work!

Sam Hillmer: Tell me about the use of space in your music.

Arto Lindsay: That is something I’ve been doing for years and years, and I’ve done it with the band, I’ve done it with myself. I came up with one piece a few years ago where I use floor monitors that cut right through the middle of the audience. I had my voice in quad around the audience, no guitar around the audience, and I release the guitar into the floor monitors so that sound races right past you if you are sitting in the audience, you know what I mean? You get it, right?

SH: Yes, totally.

AL: So I’ve worked with a few different guys on this, and we’ve gotten more and more sophisticated. Sometimes we’ll have a different event in each speaker, or have different lanes of delay, and it makes it possible to come up with these insane rhythms that I don’t know how I’d be able to come up with otherwise. By myself, anyway.

Arto Lindsay seated

SH: So what about the spatialization itself facilitates the generative rhythmic part of what you are talking about? You’re saying that this process makes it possible for you to come up with rhythms that you wouldn’t be able to come up with otherwise. How does that relate to the spatial aspect of what you are doing there?

AL: I think it’s because I am working with delays, and because of the way they’re set they are pretty unpredictable. I mean, I can layer a few delays on top of each other and make a different rhythm, you know? I’m trying to answer your question—it’s a good one—about how this process leads to complexity that a normal delay pedal wouldn’t. The other thing is that it is in motion. The distance aspect of it adds to the rhythmic possibilities somehow.

SH: To me it seems like it would introduce a degree of clarity that, if it was all just a composite coming out of one speaker—

AL: Absolutely, a degree of transparency, yes—

SH: Yeah, there is a lot of interest in work like that now, quadrophonic work and work for 16 speakers and whatnot, and I always wonder why that’s interesting to people. I’m interested in it, but there is something about that, surround sound and composing spatially, that people respond to.

AL: Also, it emphasizes some aspects of what’s already there when you are listening to music. Already, music itself, if it’s loud it seems close, if it’s quiet it seems far, and stereo has been there since people have been playing more than one instrument. And certainly the Western classical orchestra, the way it’s arrayed—

SH: Sure, there is a spatial dimension to it.

AL: It’s about stereophonic effects, and of course the big bands, they all took advantage of this. There’s the back and forth, the basic panning, the basic joy of stereo, you know—like the early Beatles records where the instruments are all separated. Spatialization, in a sense, doesn’t add anything because music is already waves moving through space. Actually what it does is it adds more points of departure, so to speak. Instead of the music starting from one point of origin, it starts from a whole bunch of different points of departure.

SH: Right, right. It interrupts the sense that the point of origin of the music is this person, and that what’s happening is this two-way feedback loop between the audience and the person on stage, and then it locates that point of origin, at least sonically, in a variety of places.

AL: Exactly. It makes the person on stage seem like they have more points of origin. It opens up the person on stage. It’s like your molecules are a little less settled or something. The illusion of something solid is less strong. It’s closer to the truth, physics wise.

So it doesn’t really change things so much between the performer and the audience as much as it does bring the truth about that situation out. When I do this with the band, I try to incorporate that spatial aspect as part of the musical phrases in what I’m doing.

SH: Okay, this leads into something else I wanted to ask you. Throughout your career you have had some kind of relationship with the art world, and the art world as a context can facilitate certain things more aptly than straight music settings. So, has your exposure to the art world facilitated things generatively for you as a musician that have affected what you’ve been able to do?

AL: Well, when I moved to New York I wasn’t sure if I was going to be a musician, an artist, a dancer, or what, you know? And I ended up becoming a musician, but I had ambitions as an artist as well, so I tried to make a band that could be understood as music, but that could also be understood as a piece of art. So I’ve always considered myself an artist as much as a musician, or along with being a musician, or whatever, but I’ve tried to make what I do come up to the standards of art as well as up to the standards of music.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of collaborating with artists because I like the way artists think, and I like the freedom they have to invent their own medium piece by piece, which is something we can’t do so easily in music. I also like the quality of discourse around art which is more serious, more philosophy-based, and the conversations are often much more interesting. This has changed in the last 10 or 15 years, but in the ’80s and in the early ’90s I really thought this was true. I just wasn’t into the critics and the way they thought about music. I didn’t think about music that way. I didn’t want to hear some evocative description of the American landscape as a way of explaining why Bob Dylan was great; I just wasn’t interested. You know, when they started to draw parallels to the Situationists and stuff, that was kind of the beginning of it getting interesting again.

SH: So, when you’re saying that’s all changed in the last 10 or 15 years, you’re saying the quality of music journalism has changed?

AL: Yeah, and I don’t want to call it journalism, I want to call it criticism, because I value this dialogue between the artist and the critics. I don’t buy this “the critic is a failed musician” and blah blah blah. I also see the value in academics. The idea that “you can’t make a living doing your art, you have to teach”—these are all kind of wrong ways of thinking about it. I think you have to kind of keep things flowing in these different areas.

SH: Right. I think in the best cases criticism or journalism becomes a form of generative cultural practice that functions as an extension of the work, kind of the same way a remix functions. You know, you don’t make a remix, but the remix is there because you made this thing (the original) and you formed a relationship with someone who made the remix. In the best case, an interview or a review or an article, it’s almost an extension of your work—it’s not about your work, it is part of the work, in a sense.

AL: I see what you’re saying. And there’s another aspect to that which is that, in different times and in different places, the criticism is more creative, or poetic, or whatever word you want to use—it’s better art than the art, at times. Especially the French critics in the ’60s, they blew everyone away to the point that everybody wanted to figure out what kind of sense they [themselves] made in that world view, that way of understanding things. And that was very interesting, too. The art was getting really conceptual, and then you had these great conceptualists who stretched philosophy to the point where it was pretty close to poetry at times. You know, things got confusing, and lots of people went down the wrong path. It was an excuse for a lot of badness, but at the same time it was a really important engine for stuff, you know what I mean?

SH: Certainly that work was very exciting, but I feel you about people going down the wrong path. [laughs]

AL: Right, people went down the wrong path, but certainly you can’t deny that it was super important work.

Arto Lindsay set-up

SH: Hell yeah, super important to me for sure! Before moving on past this art world bit, could you give an overview of your more art world-based projects?

AL: I’ve done these two kinds of things that are more strictly in the art world so far. I’m going to do more. One is, I’ve done a sound installation that is pretty narrative. It’s text, and either different people read it or I read it, and each piece of the text is in a different speaker. Speakers are spread out throughout the room and the text plays back in sequence. So I could write a story and the beginning would be in your kitchen, and then it would move to your living room, and it’d be out back, and it’d end up by your front door or whatever, and this would be a little story of some kind.

And then I’ve done these parades. The first parade I did in collaboration with Matthew Barney in Bahia, and it was on a really grand scale, in Carnivale there. They have this wild-ass, ever-changing, ever-mutating street Carnivale, where the ecstatic and the tragic bump up against each other all the time. You have this confrontation across this huge income gap, you have almost religious ecstasy, you have the cheapest pop music, you have absolute social separation and absolute social mixing— it’s just an incredible event. And so we were able to do this really crazy parade as part of that, and people were like, “Wow, that’s pretty crazy.” But it wasn’t like they weren’t used to seeing crazy stuff. I kind of put that backwards, but it’s like we were able to do such crazy stuff just because people see crazy stuff every year at Carnivale there.

SH: So describe what’s going on in your parade.

AL: In this parade here, Matthew bought this giant earthmoving vehicle—it looks like a tractor with these big claws on the front—and he found a tree that was condemned, bought that, and had that in the claws. This thing was rolling down the avenue holding a tree. And the tree was supposed to represent Julia Butterfly [Hill]. She was supposed to be in the parade, but she couldn’t at the last minute. She was a big ecological activist, really beautiful person, who lived in a redwood tree in California for a couple years. [The vehicle] was pulling a shipping container that was covered with dirt, so it looked like a big block of earth, but on top of that was my band, and I also had 30 Brazilian percussionists from two groups there.

I actually pulled off something technically that nobody has managed to do before or since, which was to have the people on the truck play with the people on the ground in sync. It’s very difficult, but we put a lot of time into this. We rehearsed with the leaders of the percussion groups, we found the tempos that were natural for them to play certain rhythms at—they were based on all kinds of things, tradition but also just the size of the drums, how long it takes for the beats to decay and what not. We just felt it out and found tempos that felt good for them and good for us. We blasted them with just a rhythm machine, almost like a click track, and my voice, because traditional percussion groups in Bahia don’t have harmony instruments, and they have conductors, but the real conductor is the singer who gives them the time, and that’s what keeps one of these big groups together.

So then I also designed a sound system for this, because usually these trucks that parade in Bahia are unbelievably loud—a huge sound system and a generator, and it just blasts out. So I tried to work it out so I could have four sound cars, two in the front and two in the back, connected to my band and my percussion by Wi-Fi. So we’d be driving down the street, but preceding the floats and the musicians, there’d be two sound cars, one on either side of the street, and there’d be two behind the whole parade. So the participants inside the parade could circulate inside there. But I couldn’t pull this off because the street was not wide enough. I ended up stringing the whole thing out. I had a sound car out in front, and I had some speakers on the band car, and I had a sound car in back. And I used a lot of up and down the line delay stuff, which I do a lot at these parades.

So, that was the first parade, and it included some pretty hairy imagery. I mean, Matthew had a guy under the truck who took about 30 Viagras and was trying to have sex with the truck while the thing was rolling down the avenue. And we took a lot of imagery from Candomblé [the traditional religion from the area]. Matthew used two of these deities—one was a forest and plant deity and one was a blacksmith deity.

Anyhow, that was that parade, and Matthew was able to invest a lot in that parade, and then make it all back by selling that main vehicle as a huge sculpture.

That is a very interesting beginning. So after that I’ve been getting asked to do parades on my own, and I’ve done them on different scales. Sometimes I work with local artists in a particular place. In each of these parades, they’re kind of based on Brazilian parades in the sense that they have a theme and it’s worked out in different ways by different people. I usually try to put a different sound system together for each one, and one thing I deal with a lot is triggering—just basic triggering. In the Berlin parade, I hired a gypsy band, and they were mic’d, but their mics were all triggered by a Brazilian percussionist. So if you were right next to them in the street you’d hear gypsy music, but if you were down the street you’d hear flashes of gypsy music in, you know, samba, or whatever.

I did one in 2009, and I wanted to work with noise. Super loud white noise, pink noise, brown noise, and I made a group of those, so that it sounded like an airplane idling, you know? And then I had a band, and when the band would play we would shut off the noise. I had two basic ways for it to work: one was, every time you hit a bass note you’d turn off the white noise for an instant, so you’d actually create silence for a second, which sounds pretty cool in description, but in real life just sounds like [imitates white noise in jagged rhythm]. And then sometimes you’d hear the notes in the band, so there was never a silence. White noise was blasting between every note. It was actually cool.

SH: A number of things strike me about what you’ve been describing. Firstly, a parade is a relatively ordinary thing to happen in one’s life. But a noise music, new music, outsider music practitioner applying their work to leading a parade is radically exceptional.

AL: I think a parade is an incredible form because you can have so many different narratives and so many levels of abstraction in there. One reason I was attracted to these is that I was really involved with the parades in Bahia for a long time, and I performed in them, which is kind of like confronting people with my music in the context of a parade. You know, like saying, “Hey, this is alternative hedonism. I’m not trying to inflict pain on you. This is another kind of pleasure.” I was involved there in Carnivale for years doing many kinds of things: delivering costumes, interviewing security companies, helping dream up themes for Carnivale groups, providing support and performing in different ways.

SH: So you’ve been involved in Carnivale just as a local Brazilian participant, not only as an outsider interloping artist.

AL: Yeah, more than just a voyeur, as someone who helped make the carnival. And I really admire these people that do this. In different states there are different ways this works. In Bahia, it’s normally one person or two or three people who decide on a theme, someone writes a song about that, and the costumes and the floats are an expression of that whole idea. And a lot of these groups are black consciousness groups, so a lot of themes are historical themes about something in Africa, or they might be honoring American Civil Rights activists, etc. In Rio, you have a guy or a woman who is hired to work out a whole theme, and then they go through the process of writing a song, but then that person is in charge of the design of all the costumes and the big floats. The people that do this, they’re kind of like opera directors; they’re artists. It’s really interesting, and I’ve been trying to encourage people to do a museum show on them for a long time. I’m still working on it. [laughs]

SH: There are two main takeaways that I have. One, getting back to this idea that a parade is a relatively ordinary occurrence. They happen all over the world at different times for different reasons, but at the same time it is aberrant for a practioner of official culture, outsider music, or what have you, to enact one.

AL: People know how to relate to a parade. It gives you a chance, because they’re expecting something crazy. They expect clowns, or cheerleaders, something out of the ordinary. Of course, they expect something ordinary out of the ordinary, but they give you a chance. And everyone knows how to take part in it. It’s not some kind of forced thing like, you know, “breaking down the fourth wall, you are part of the artwork about the social relation and not about the work on the wall,” and so on. I mean, here’s a chance to actually determine some of the social relations, or at least offer options as to social relations, and not just propose them as a category or as a way of behaving.

Arto Lindsay looking off

SH: That’s what I’m trying to find out about. Is the medium interesting to you because it’s this moment in the body of quotidian cultural life that is kind of ripe for the introduction of something surprising and fresh, but in a relatable way? And one that’s not, like what you were saying, this forced thing—like “my alienating theater piece is about breaking down the fourth wall and making everybody participate—but actually just organically is that way, and so it’s a meaningful medium for you because it allows you to connect aspects of your work to a broader audience.

AL: Not even a broader audience; just to connect to an audience in a different way. You know, some things that annoy me in a concert appeal to me in a parade. Like, the fact of exhaustion and repetition, you know, just as a listener, I can get bored if it’s kind of forced repetition. I mean, if it’s really fine grain repetition and I feel that within the repetition there’s all this variation and I can hear things in different ways, that’s one thing. But in general, I find it hard to reach that kind of altered consciousness thing in concert situations. I don’t know what it is. I’m just too far back from it. I’m just too close to the traditions of South and North America. I mean, I don’t want to come down on anyone in particular, but I can get somewhere in a Youssou N’Dour concert, but I can’t get into it in a concert of minimalist concert music. I just don’t feel that it’s elastic enough, that it’s reactive enough, because, you know, there is nothing in repetitive music that prevents you from responding to changes.

SH: I understand what you’re saying.

AL: Um, I’m not being too articulate here.

I’m interested in trance music and, since I heard it, I’m interested in Candomblé music because it’s very specific. As far back as DNA we were talking about this. Each deity has its own rhythm, and when you play that rhythm, the people who are consecrated to that deity get possessed. You play this rhythm and this deity comes down and inhabits these initiates, you know what I’m saying? But it’s specific! In Moroccan music you go to a house and you drive out the devils, but it’s specific; you can’t play just any music, you have to play the music that drives the devils out! A very practical one-on-one relationship between the music and the listener, which I find fascinating, like everybody else.

I don’t know how I slid into that.

SH: Well, we were talking about the parades, and we were talking about—

AL: Yeah, altered states of consciousness or something like that.

SH: Right.

AL: Yeah, I’ve been interested in that in other ways, so I went off on this tangent. But let’s forget about that!

When you’re in a parade, you just march and march and march and you inevitably feel quite a bit different when it’s over because you’ve kind of been to exhaustion and back a few times. And I love that about it. I love being able to go in and out of things, to alternate, including concentration, or a concentrated state. Like at a club, I don’t watch the entire concert. I get up and make snarky comments, and talk to my friends in the back, and then I’m interested again, you know. It’s a really rare show that commands my attention all the way through. At a sit-down concert of some kind or other, I start to daydream after a while, and then I come back. I mean, maybe it’s a failure on my part not to be able to follow, but I’m also bored, as I’m sure most people are, with the way that most music gets worked out. You know with the chords, the keys, the this, the that, you know what I mean? So much of it, structurally, is simply not interesting. Emotionally this music is supposed to knock you over, but if you’re not knocked over, it’s just kind of boring. Similarly, if you go to a disco, it’s just really loud, and for a little while, that’s enough. It’s just loud and it feels good. It’s like a shower of light; you’re soaking this up. It’s like a thousand cats are licking you, like a thousand slices from the razor blade. So for a little while you’re in ecstasy. It’s just loud, and then, after a while, you need more. And with the orchestra, it’s the same thing. You walk in and there’s just this sumptuousness. There’s this kind of implied perspective which is like—back to the spatial thing—a lot of the joy of the orchestra is that it’s as wide as the landscape. It just implies depth in so many ways—the depth outside, the depth inside, something about that is really selective. But it wears off, the first thrill wears off. I think that’s just part of it, and you need to be able to go in and out of things. The point being, it’s not about maintaining interest all the way through, because it’s impossible.

SH: And you’re saying the parade as a medium helps to facilitate that relationship?

AL: Absolutely.

Arto Lindsay standing

SH: You said something to me once about DNA, that the band was formed with the specific intention of doing this arcane difficult stuff, but being able to do it for a room of people, and win that room of people over, and that that room of people would be people who weren’t necessarily predisposed to like DNA.

AL: Well, when we started out, we had kind of lofty goals. Yeah, we wanted to provide really intense experiences, we wanted to satisfy ourselves, and we wanted to do something new—we had these radical aspirations. At the same time, we wanted that to work to thrill a room full of people. A rock audience, an audience that was there… You know, you don’t give them what they want, you give them what they need, or you give them something that they can’t deny, you know what I mean? What’s the point of just giving them what they want? And even my onstage behavior—I saw so many people pretending to be rock stars on the stage at CBGBs, and I just didn’t find that persuasive or charming at all. I wanted to be able to move in and out of this kind of stance and to be able to use the power of being on stage, but not to be stuck with that. I mean, Lydia Lunch was such a great performer. And she kind of stumbled on this, in that her own aggression and her own way of being turned into this style. I mean, we’re talking about confrontational aesthetics, and as far as confrontational aesthetics are concerned, there were three people that I drew from—Lydia, Vito Acconci, and Karen Finley. And I saw these incredibly confrontational performances, and they were just so perfect in terms of how long they lasted. I mean, I was at the Palladium, which was a night club, but it was full of all these cool art people, and Karen Finley took canned yams and shoved them up her own ass, and the feeling in that room was just unbelievable.

SH: That’s definitely taking it somewhere.

AL: It’s different then, like, hurting yourself, you know? It avoids a kind of romanticism that gets in the way, or a kind of late-Christian thing that gets in the way. I’m kind of rambling.

SH: Well, I want to get back to some things, but talk about that late-Christian thing for a second.

AL: Well, you know, hurting yourself as art. I can understand hurting yourself in some particular situation you might end up in, where that was the thing to do. But people who just routinely hurt themselves in front of an audience, and it just doesn’t go anywhere. It seems to be a reflection of spending your life staring at this naked bleeding guy. Like, the height of something. It’s like an erotic thing, but it’s different from your S&M roles. I don’t know; I’ve never been down this conversational path before. But control and submission, that seems to me to be a different mechanism than just hurting yourself, which is like a way to communicate the intensity of your desire to communicate. I’m also thinking about James Chance now, like, this little guy, pushing people around and stuff, but now I’m just talking about the whole context.

SH: Well, I wanted to cover this, and I am glad to hear you talk about this. There are a lot of threads forming here that I am going to tie back in. But, the thing you said to me about DNA, and the thing about the parades—in my mind, there is a degree of symmetry between the intention you described with DNA to do this kind of lofty arcane thing but in this kind of populist way. So there is a thread of populism between what you described to me about DNA and the parades.

AL: I agree.

SH: There is a thread of populism that makes sense out of the two projects as a progression. But I’m not saying that’s there. I’m asking you if you think that’s there.

AL: Well, the reason we did what we did the way we did in DNA is because we thought about how it worked in a room, not about how it worked in the music business. I didn’t try to make a pop song with some kind of subversive message or something, that just wasn’t my way of doing it. But there is definitely a populist thing. Also the way I write lyrics, I like lyrics to go down easy. It’s like conversational language most of the time, and then if you pay attention, things are a little murkier than they seemed at first. But I have kind of a bad reaction to pretentious-sounding lyrics. I don’t know if you read the Grammy speech that Bob Dylan did?

SH: Whoa! No, I didn’t.

AL: Well, I’ll try and run it down for you. Bob Dylan says, if I hadn’t heard Woody Guthrie, I couldn’t have written, so and so forth, and he just shows you how all of his lines are variations on folk and blues adapted to his situation. I really appreciate that kind of vernacular aspect of playing and lyric writing. But, on the other hand, certain pretensions in lyric writing drive me nuts.

SH: Right. Well, this aspect of vernacular that you bring up gets into another territory that I wanted to explore. I hear something in your recent solo work that I wanted to ask you about. A harsh, austere, at times severe noise vocabulary or wall of sound effect, and at the same time the rhythmic or lyrical vocabulary of honkytonk, rhythm and blues, or Brazilian musical forms, yet not in a way that I’d describe as pastiche. This is interesting to me because the few other attempts I’ve heard at integrating similar content (John Zorn’s Naked City most notably and most successfully) do come across as pastiche, or collage, and are often a bit contrived. Your work evokes these things without setting them against one another and achieves a greater organic quality in the doing, so I’d be interested in hearing whether this is something you’d given any thought.

Arto Lindsay with Zs

Lindsay preparing to record with Zs.

AL: I guess I’m more interested in the thread between these things, or how to get between these extremely different sounds if you want to look at it that way. One thing is to look at them as not being so different. Another one is to go between them, accepting that people hear them as very different, and get back and forth smoothly. And while I can’t speak for Zorn, I think what he is interested in is the shock of the jump from one to the other, whereas I am interested in the continuity between them. Maybe that’s an over simplification. But obviously I’m super aware that I’m using these two seeming opposites, and that I’m playing with them in differing proportions and going back and forth. But yeah, I only wish that the beautiful stuff could be more beautiful, and that the ugly stuff could be more ugly.

I think there is a passive aggression in the beautiful stuff anyway, and there is a kind of rhythmic aggression even in the ballad stuff. Obviously my model is a lot of the Brazilian stuff, but also someone like Miles Davis, who says white people have it all wrong when it comes to ballads—when you play it slow, you have to goose the tempo. To keep it awake when it’s slow, it has to feel like it doesn’t want to be slow. You have to feel some energy that’s like a caged energy or something. You guys [Zs] are prime examples of this. Within that wall of sound of undifferentiated clusters or whatever, there’s so much information; there’s tons of lyricism that you can hear in there, too, if you just don’t back away. If you just stay where you are, stand your ground, you can hear all kinds of beauty in that stuff. And I actually think this is something that we were aware of in DNA and talked about, but it’s become kind of common knowledge. If you think about how popular drone music is, how popular Keiji Haino is, Merzbow, that crew—and there are other crews that I am not aware of—but people use that. You hear all kinds of stuff in that noise. I wish I was a good enough musician to extract some of that stuff into the lyrical territory, make that stuff music. Let’s work on that!

SH: That would be a good project!

AL: It’s interesting to talk about these harmonic and rhythmic strategies in the context of DNA because so much of what passes for punk rock now I feel provides this kind of false or shallow catharsis for people. It doesn’t really make you think, and it doesn’t really pull you up close to that spot where pleasure and pain can be close to each other, and that’s sort of what these strategies are about. But you know, it’s not an intense experience now.

SH: Right, it’s like scratching an itch. There are these people who do this thing, which is supposed to be punk, and there are the people who want the thing, so the people who do the thing do it for the people who want it. It’s just consumption; there’s nothing challenging about it.

AL: Right.

SH: But back to this notion of juxtaposition, or establishing connections between disparate sounds, or what have you. Does this become a strategy in terms of the populist agenda we have been discussing? Here is what I mean by that. I always feel that with things that are represented as being polarized sonically, there is this kind of endowing a musical or sonic artifact with properties that ostensibly make them into polarities, but in fact that constitutes a kind of grafting of the social onto the sonic. So, actually, what is different there are the people who got to hear these sounds—at least more so than the sounds themselves are, inherently. Does that make sense?

AL: Sure. Right, there is that. But I think that there are more essential differences, just if you think about physics, music, sound, consonance, dissonance, clusters, structural properties! The way we hear music, a lot of it is that we recognize in music structures that are similar to our structures. We hear polyrhythm, and we think, “Hey, I’m a polyrhythmic being. I have a pulse here and a pulse here. I have a pulse in my crotch!” So yes, there is a social piece, but there is another component, and I don’t know if it determines the social thing or if it is concurrent with it, but I think the differences are real. And if they weren’t, there couldn’t be such a pleasure in going back and forth. Does that make sense?

SH: I know what you’re saying. I also think that the attitude of establishing continuity between supposedly disparate elements is involved with drawing a bigger circle around the whole thing and looking at the basic unit as something heterogeneous that contains all of these things, rather than looking at the basic units of the situation as these disparate nodes that you bang against one another.

AL: Sure. I definitely can go with that, and that doesn’t take away from the pleasure of the coexistence of the different elements inside of something larger. Coexistence is a difference thing, as well as just a similarity thing. I think that both are there.

SH: Definitely. Okay, last question: is the attitude of play something that you think about in your music?

AL: Absolutely! Like when I was talking before about not being stuck in one role. Definitely there is something to keeping it light, and being able to switch between lightness and something that’s dead serious, life and death, like pointing your finger at the void. “Over there is nothing, and you, my dear audience, you are prime examples of nothing! You may think you are having an opinion. No! I am! I’m inventing you and your opinion wholesale. Ahhhhh!” [growls]

Linda Oh: Lean In and Listen

Towards the end of our conversation, composer and bassist Linda Oh shares a formative lesson from a recording session for her first album Entry.

I had written everything and wanted things a certain way. Then when I got together with the other musicians, they were strong players and I realized that whatever preconceptions I had, things weren’t necessarily going to be exactly how I wanted them. That was a great thing for me because it challenged me to think, “Okay, how am I going to let go of my initial vision and just go play?”

She is speaking about herself, of course, but it’s also striking how applicable it is to anyone—musician or listener—who finds themselves mentally tangled up in preconceptions before the music starts.

Oh’s interest in a malleable and personally expressive approach to music making is actually something that began pulling at her aesthetically much earlier. While growing up in Perth, Australia, she and her sisters studied classical music from a young age, an education her family took very seriously. And while she remains appreciative of the technical skill she derived, she stresses the importance of freedom and sincerity in the music she performs now.

“In the music that I play, I’m really allowed to do what I feel and be who I am,” she explains. Still she doesn’t feel she has abandoned her early training so much as continued developing her musical voice—appreciating the push and pull between discipline and freedom. “There was never one particular point where I thought I’m going to switch from classical into jazz or improvised music. I’m going to do one thing and not the other. It’s all music and it’s all tied in together in some way.”

And her instrument—whether an electric strapped across her body or an upright acoustic with which she moves almost as a dance partner—has become an integral piece of that self-expression. “That is who I am now. It is so much a part of my identity that I can’t imagine playing another instrument this seriously.”

While the idea of the bass player leading the band remains enough of a novelty to attract comment, Oh seems to find it simply an option among many offering unique strengths and influences on the music. She does acknowledge that her personal style may be a bit more democratic than some bandleaders and that her interests are often focused on “creating space or a palette for other people to work with.” But that isn’t to imply that she shies away from taking the reins—or the melody.

Group dynamics are an area that Oh is sensitive to since the acoustic bass often needs the support of amplification to cut through the band. Still, she sees the technical limitations of her own or any particular instrument as fuel for creating new spaces for sound.

“With the tradition of [the bass], especially within a jazz context,” she points out, “there has been emphasis placed on having a huge acoustic sound, which I definitely value and it’s something that I teach my students. But in addition to having a big string sound, a lot can be done by dialing things back. It’s like if you talk to a large crowd of people, you can talk really loudly over them, but if you try and talk softer it’s interesting to see how many people will actually lean in and listen more.”

Once again, the conversation swings around to just that: listening. And whether Oh is improvising in the company of familiar players or new colleagues, that’s a fundamental focus no matter where the music might unexpectedly take them.

“It’s risk, but you’re still playing with people and you’re still respecting people. The worst thing I think for humanity is when people aren’t listening to each other. And that’s not just a musical thing, it’s a life thing.”

André Previn: How Lucky I Am Now

A conversation in Previn’s Manhattan apartment
July 31, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography (unless otherwise stated)
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

As most folks love to opine, throughout most of music history the majority of composers were also prodigious performers and nowadays composer-performers once again seem ubiquitous. This time around, though, it is in large part because the act of parsing music-making into different stylistic categories has largely eroded. But through most of the 20th century, we lived in a musical environment where the Socratic notion of one person/one job reigned mostly unchallenged and the boundaries that separated various genres often felt impermeable. Despite that, some musicians went against the grain and eked out careers in multiple musical roles, as well as in many different kinds of music. But few have done so as successfully as André Previn who—as a composer, conductor, and pianist—has been equally comfortably making music in and for concert halls, jazz clubs, opera houses, Broadway theaters, and the silver screen for three quarters of a century.

Still, Previn is not one to rest on his many laurels–and there are many! A trio recording featuring him on the piano was the first jazz album to sell more than a million copies. He won back-to-back Oscars for his Hollywood work and garnered eleven Grammys for classical recordings he conducted. In 1998, he received a Kennedy Center Honor for his lifetime achievement as a conductor and composer of orchestral music and opera. Now in his 80s, Previn is composing more prolifically than ever before in his life, yet he comes to composition with a great deal of humility.

“I can’t take myself that seriously,” Previn says at the onset of our visit with him in his Upper East Side apartment. “I love writing and I’m very serious about it, but when it’s over, it’s over. It’s not for the ages. I can’t visualize anybody doing my pieces 50 years from now. I’m just glad if they do them Wednesday.”

And yet, the voluminous amount of music that Previn has been writing in recent years is getting performed quite a bit, all over the world.

“I’m very aware of how lucky I am now,” he says with a grin. “When I first started composing, nobody wanted to know. Now, if I write a piece and I let certain orchestras and certain soloists know that I’ve written it, they all want to do it. Well, not all, but a great many of them. All these orchestras that suddenly are doing my pieces amaze me. They don’t care whether it’s new or old or whatever. It’s just a piece of music they haven’t played, which is really the healthiest thing in the world.”

Not caring whether something is old or new has actually been a hallmark of Previn’s current compositional language, something he has acknowledged many of his colleagues are somewhat baffled by.

“John Harbison said you write these big pieces, and all the things that have happened in the last 50 years are absent, like they never happened,” Previn admits. “I said, ‘I can’t explain that. I don’t know.’” For me, music has to be an emotion and my emotions don’t react well to mathematical formulae.”

But surprisingly for a polymath who has been so deeply involved in jazz and motion picture soundtracks and who even wrote a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical with Alan Jay Lerner starring Katharine Hepburn, Previn has no interest in creating some grand polystylistic musical synthesis for the 21st century.

“I never thought of bringing it together; I see no particularly connective tissue between those things,” Previn confesses. “Very serious jazz, I don’t much like. … It’s a well-known fact that the worse the movie, the more music there is. If you have a really idiotic movie, the music never stops, because the poor producer says, ‘Do something.’ So, we all make a noise. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t wonderful scores, but it’s not music that interests me anymore—at all. … There are many Broadway shows I wish I had written, or wish I could get my hands on, but it’s not a lasting ambition with me. I’d rather write an opera.”

Previn, however, also doesn’t like to repeat himself, and he has already composed two highly successful operas—A Streetcar Named Desire and Brief Encounter—both based on classic 20th-century plays.

“I’d write a light opera, for instance,” he offers somewhat cagily. “Tom Stoppard and I are about to start working on a one-act opera. I can’t discuss it, because he doesn’t want me to.”

But we discussed plenty of other things. Not only did we get into extensive details about many of his compositions, we also talked about many other composers and interpreters. He charmed us with some extraordinary anecdotes–including how, when he was a teenage piano prodigy, he got thrown out of Ernst Toch’s home as well as how, many years later, he was able to mollify Olivier Messiaen during a tense rehearsal with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. We could have stayed for hours, but he had more music to write.

FJO & Andre Previn talk in Previn's living room

Frank J. Oteri: You’re writing so much music these days. The only composer I can think of who has been as prolific as you have been at your age is Elliott Carter. For years, he wrote extremely slowly, but he sped up after he turned 80. When I asked him about what changed, he said that he had finally figured out how to write Elliott Carter’s music.

André Previn: That’s very sweet. But also [when we get older] we are all suddenly more aware of the finite term of life and, you know, you want to get it done. I have to make up for lost time because I did not compose seriously for many years. So now in the last ten years I suddenly thought, “Get moving!” I write very quickly and that helps.

FJO: So how long would it take you to write, say, a 25-minute concerto for soloist and orchestra?

AP: That’s a kind of generality. I wrote a harp concerto. I don’t know a goddamn thing about the harp really, so that took a while—but a 25-minute piano, violin, cello, or viola concerto? I don’t know, probably about a month.

FJO: That’s a very short amount of time.

AP: Well, it’s not very good either. My problem and my flaw, if I can pinpoint just one, is that I don’t re-write. I hate re-writing. Once I’m done, I put it away, and it’s over with for me except if I make a mistake in terms of the technical use of the instrument. I once wrote an impossible double stop for viola. I just suddenly wasn’t thinking; the player would have to cripple his hand. So then I’d re-write it—or leave it out; that’s even better! I can’t take myself that seriously. I love writing and I’m very serious about it, but when it’s over, it’s over. It’s not for the ages.

FJO: Really?

AP: Really.

FJO: Not for the ages?

AP: No.

FJO: So the reason you’re fighting against time to write all this music isn’t to ensure a legacy.

AP: Well, that’s an interesting point. When I say not for the ages, I can’t visualize anybody doing my pieces 50 years from now. I’m just glad if they do them Wednesday, which is why I can only write for someone specific. I don’t like to write into the void. I like to know who’s going to play it and where and all that. Then it helps me; it helps me a great deal. I wrote an awful lot for Anne-Sophie Mutter. I know her sound and I know what she can do best. That makes life much easier. I wrote a piece last year—a concerto for trumpet, horn, tuba, and orchestra, which was a commission from Pittsburgh because they had three big stars. That was great fun for me because I don’t play any one of those things. I couldn’t tell you the positions of the trombone and all that, but I have them in my ear, and it helps a great deal that I’ve conducted so much because the sound of instruments and the sound of the combination of instruments are not alien to me at all. I know what I’m doing at the piano, but I don’t write piano music very much.


FJO: Since you mentioned the Triple Concerto, one of the things I find so interesting about the pieces that you’ve been writing is how many of them are pieces for multiple soloists and orchestra. It’s interesting to hear you say that you’re not interested in whether they’re performed 50 years from now, because writing for multiple soloists is somewhat impractical in terms of getting a piece into an orchestra’s season.

AP: Well, it would be impractical if the triple were like the Beethoven Triple, because that’s three [hired] soloists. But a piece for trumpet, tuba, and horn—every good orchestra has three of those good people in them, and the same with the winds. Sitting in the chair you’re sitting in last week was Andrew Marriner, and he said, “We’re all so glad you’ve written a clarinet sonata, a clarinet concerto, and a clarinet quintet. We don’t have enough music. So it’s always wonderful to get somebody to write something.” That’s really the case with those double and triple concertos, because the principals of good orchestras want that, and it’s very unlikely that management would hire three big stars to play those things.

FJO: I think my current favorite of your double concertos is the one for violin and double bass, and that one definitely feels like a star vehicle.


AP: Oh yes, of course, they’re soloists. That was a straightforward commission. The bass player, Roman Patkoló, is a genius player. Anyway, Anne-Sophie wanted a piece for him, and she’s always practical. So she said, “Write me a fiddle part in it because it’ll be easier to place.” And so I did, and he was very nice about it. He said, “Everything is terrific. I love it. But this octave is a little weird for me.” So we changed that. But that’s not because he didn’t like it. It was advice, and I was glad to get it.

FJO: In terms of being practical, these days a lot of people say that one of the most practical things you can do as a composer if you want a piece done a lot is to write for wind band.

AP: I did that.


FJO: The piece is only a year old and already nine different wind bands have done it. That’s amazing.

AP: Nobody’s more amazed than I am, especially since I’m not really a wind band expert. How do I know what trills are possible on a baritone horn? Nobody learns that. But I liked fooling with it. Then when it came out and the sonorities were nice, I was very pleased. And I must say, at Eastman at the premiere, the kids—and by kids I mean between 18 and 25—they could play like demons. They read that stuff as if were the Simple Symphony by Ben Britten. It was really impressive, and I enjoyed hearing them a lot.

FJO: But what happened with your piece is one of the realities of our music scene today. A piece that’s only a year old has already been done by nine different groups. And I imagine it’s going to be done by a lot more, although in a couple years, they’ll probably say it’s an old piece and that they’d rather play something new. But that’s the world of wind bands. It’s the exact opposite of what happens with an orchestra. I can’t imagine a new piece of orchestra music being done by nine different orchestras.

AP: Orchestras tend not to do that. They also get jealous of who else is doing it. But I have a double concerto for violin and cello, and that’s been done a lot. And the cello concerto I wrote for Daniel Müller-Schott—he called me two nights ago from Tokyo where he had done it twice. He was going from Tokyo to Rio, which is quite a jump—and he hates airplanes, too. Anyway, I said to him, “Are you playing it in South America again?” He said, “Oh yes, 20 times.” That’s really terrific, and I was seriously grateful.

But this always amazes me and amuses me in a kind of weird way. I read about the premiere of Rosenkavalier. In the first year, it was done by a 150 companies. Think about that. That doesn’t happen anymore. The whole business of the performance of music is so different now, so different even in the relatively short time that I’ve been around. But when you say it’s an old piece, I know what you mean. It’s quite true. I’m guilty of that too. I say, “Well that’s an old piece; I wrote that five years ago.”

When I was running the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, I had Milstein as a soloist, and I was doing an English festival—not with him, but the weeks following. There was a double concerto for violin and viola by Tippett which was, as far as I could tell, impossibly hard. So I went to our concertmaster, Fritz Siegel, who was a wonderful player, and I said to him, “How would you do this?” He said, “You got me. I have no idea how you even attack this particular passage. Would you mind if I asked Milstein.” I said, “Not at all.” So he went and said, “How would you play this?” And Milstein looked at it and he said, “I wouldn’t! I wouldn’t go near it; it’s impossible and it’s not worth it.” And Fritz said, “But I’ve got to play it.” And he said “Why?” And he really tried to stop him from playing it because it was too difficult. And I know what he means, too, because it wasn’t worth quite the effort that would have to go into it. So soloists have a tendency not to [play much new music]. With the exception of Anne-Sophie, I must say, who’ll play anything you put in front of her. Gil Shaham is another one who can play anything.

FJO: In terms of playing anything you put in front of her, there are so many violin concertos in which the violin soars way over the orchestra, but I can’t think of any other piece that’s as full of ledger lines as your first violin concerto—it’s practically a sopranino violin part.

AP: Anne-Sophie said to me, “Write a lot for me way, way upstairs; I love playing up there.” I said, “Fine.” The piece ends with the highest practical note on the violin.


FJO: But when I listened to the recording of this and followed along with the score, I couldn’t help but wonder who else will ever be willing to play this.

AP: I don’t care.

FJO: You don’t care?

AP: No. Really. But when I teach—which is not very often, but at Tanglewood and what not—I know that the technical know-how of the students now is way bigger than it used to be. They all have technique to burn. I remember I paid some compliments to a young fiddle player, and Anne-Sophie kind of brushed her aside. I said, “She plays all the notes.” And she said, “Honey, everybody plays all the notes nowadays.” She’s got a point. Things don’t seem as daunting technically as they used to.

On the cover of the world premiere recording of Previn's Violin Concerto, soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter in a red dress stands next to Previn who is wearing a black shirt and holding the score.

For the world premiere recording of Previn’s Violin Concerto, the composer conducted soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

FJO: So maybe that Tippett Double Concerto isn’t so hard any more.

AP: That’s possible.

FJO: And nowadays there are all these dedicated new music players in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and all over Europe who can play the trickiest as well as the most impossibly notated stuff anyone could possibly imagine.

AP: I read today about a premiere of a new opera by Wolfgang Rihm. It’s evidently fearfully difficult. But I also know Wolfgang very well, and he doesn’t think about that. He just writes down what he wants to write down. It’s like Strauss’s famous remark when, at the first rehearsal of Till Eulenspiegel, his horn player said, “Excuse me Doktor Strauss, this can’t be played.” And Strauss said, “I write it; you play it.” Quite right, too. And it’s been played.

FJO: I want to return to something you said a little earlier that I didn’t jump on at the moment, but I’ll jump on it now—you haven’t written that much for piano.

AP: That’s quite right. I don’t know why. I can’t answer that. I wrote some variations which Manny Ax played for a while, but I don’t write for the piano very much.

FJO: Perhaps this ties into the piano being your instrument and you wanting to write for other people. But you have certainly written significant piano parts in some of your chamber pieces, like your sonata for clarinet and piano as well as your songs.

AP: My accompaniments to songs tend to be a little difficult. I just finished eight songs for Renée Fleming and her pianist, poor girl, she was here, and she said, “Maestro, these are really hard.” And I hadn’t thought of that. I mean, I thought of it, but I thought if I can play them, anybody can play them.

FJO: So, let’s take a piece like your latest sonata for violin and piano, which also has a formidable piano part. Did you write this music for you to play yourself?

AP: That second violin sonata, which I like very much, was for Anne-Sophie and her accompanist, Lambert Orkis, and he plays brilliantly. He said, “God, did I have to practice that!” And I felt like saying, “Well, it’s tough.” But he can play it. A lot of people can play it. They can all play everything now. But if I write for the piano, I tend to let my fingers wander and I’ll write it down. I don’t do it the other way around, which is better. But when I write for any other instrument—clarinet, trumpet, whatever—I don’t have the facility with which to test it. So I write whatever I can think of. And that helps a lot.

FJO: So in terms of your process for all of these pieces, you write to paper from your head. You’re not sitting at a piano working on stuff beforehand.

AP: No, but I have to be honest with you. After a certain amount of time, I will go to the piano to test it out, to play what I’ve written and see if it sounds the way I hope it will.

FJO: This gets into the whole dichotomy of pre-compositional structural design versus intuition. You were a prodigious improviser at the piano, an active jazz pianist for many decades. You could sit at the piano and invent stuff. But that’s a very different process than hearing something in your head, putting it down on paper, and then testing it at the piano.

AP: Oh yes. Ellington said that good jazz is instant composition, which is exactly right. But again, I don’t think about it in terms of preparation versus intuition and all that. I’m just sitting there playing. I don’t take it so textbook seriously. I read Charles Rosen’s book; it’s remarkable, but man, some of the language really throws me because I don’t know what he’s on about half the time. He attributes certain philosophical aspects to what he’s written or what he’s played that it would take you longer to figure out than it would the piano part.

FJO: So this whole idea of, say, a string quartet as a metaphor for a family, or a concerto as a metaphor for an individual versus the society—you don’t think about these kinds of things.

AP: No.

FJO: Do you think in terms of sonata form?

AP: Yes, I do. And I also love variations. But I don’t find it difficult to think in sonata form. I found a book a couple of months ago—Beethoven’s book on figured bass. Did you know there was one?

FJO: No.

AP: I didn’t either. I can say clearly and decidedly that I didn’t understand a word of it, but I thought I better. So I started working on it, and of course it made sense. But again, I’m not much of a researcher. Yehudi Wyner is very fond of saying, “This time when the theme comes, it’s an F-sharp and not an F because that day his wife had a cold.” I say, “What are you talking about? He’s a composer. What if he just liked the F-sharp?” “That’s not good enough.” I said, “Yes, it is.” And we had a terrible fight.

FJO: So there are no hidden ciphers in any of your scores.

AP: No, the best I could do is maybe say this F-sharp is here because I’ve used F already. But I don’t mean it to imply that everything is instinct. It isn’t. I work very hard. But I don’t believe in writing music to suit a theory. The other way around maybe, but this is why I will never be a 12-tone composer.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that, since so much music during the 20th century—which you’ve been active as a musician through—was dominated by various –isms, whether it was serialism, minimalism, post-minimalism, totalism, spectralism, indeterminacy, or microtonality. There were all these different camps, but you managed to stay clear of all of them.

AP: Well, maybe that’s ignorance. But, on the other hand, that lapses over into performing, too, because I know a couple of the early music champion conductors who have 7,000 theories about why you can’t have vibrato here and you can’t do this. They are very great specialists in that, but give them a chance to conduct Swan Lake, and they’re off and running. They want to. So I’m not so sure that it’s ingrained.

FJO: Well, I guess what is ingrained in you is that you’ve been immersed in music since you were a child.

AP: Yes.

FJO: And so you’ve heard and interpreted so much music in addition to your own, that all of it is very deep within you. It’s second nature. So while you might say that you didn’t initially understand Beethoven’s figured bass book, you probably have internalized all of Beethoven’s solo, chamber, and orchestral music from your experience as an interpreter. You might not be a scholar of it per se, but it seeped in in a profound way—the same with pretty much all of the standard repertoire through to Richard Strauss, whom you’ve also mentioned today.

AP: Sure. I can’t argue with that, that’s perfectly true. And the music that I love, I love no matter who’s playing it. That’s a kind of a wild statement, but people who say they can only listen to Brendel’s Schubert are missing quite a lot. So when I read in certain very intellectual reviews that “this phrase shouldn’t be that fast” or “this should be softer,” first of all, says who? Second of all, they don’t ever seem to say, “But my God, it’s beautiful music!” They get stuck on how it’s played. And how it’s played is not that important, I don’t think.

Previn dressed in a tuxedo conducting an orchestra with a baton in his right hand and gesturing with left hand,

One of the many action photos of Previn conducting an orchestra. (Photo by Chris Lee, courtesy G. Schirmer/Music Sales)

FJO: That’s an interesting opinion coming from somebody who was a conductor for decades.

AP: [laughs] Well, of course, except in the case of me! No, I just think that people who say I can’t listen to Toscanini’s Beethoven—which for instance Colin Davis said and I know why and all that, and I don’t disagree with him all the time—it’s a great piece, interpreted a certain way that does not happen to please the certain person who is reviewing it. But it doesn’t lessen Beethoven any. It doesn’t matter. Yet still, I was in a record shop in Munich with Anne-Sophie, and there was a woman—a nice lady, about in her 40s—who said, “You have a series of packages of the complete works of Bach. I’d like to see that.” And the woman at the cash register said, “With who playing?” “I don’t care.” Well, Anne-Sophie and I almost fainted, because it was an interesting way to buy a record, but on the other hand, if you wanted to be complimentary, you could say she loved the music so much she didn’t care who played it. But that’s not quite the source that warrants that.

FJO: No, unless she wanted to get familiar with the repertoire.

AP: Well yeah, that’s right. But the complete anything I find dangerous anyway.

FJO: Now to take these comments about the open-endedness of interpretation back to your own music, you said that you write for specific people so there’s a specific sound that you’re going for.

AP: Yes.

A bound score of Previn's Violin Concerto sits on top of a row of bound scores that fill up Previn's shelves.

A bound score of Previn’s Violin Concerto sits on top of a row of bound scores that fill up his shelves.

FJO: But when you write a score and let it out into the world, it becomes this thing that theoretically anybody could play in any country and at any time if they have the requisite technical facility to pull it off—and sometimes even if they don’t. There’s sort of a built-in anonymity to it in the sense that they’re playing what’s written on the page to serve the composer who created it and it’s important for that composer’s identity to come across first and foremost which is why that woman could go into a record store and say, “Hey, I want Bach.” Bach is obviously not there; he didn’t make records. But he is there in these notes he put on the page that the interpreters playing his music translate.

AP: Yeah.

FJO: After looking at a number of your scores I was curious about how much control you are willing to let go of in terms of pieces. What is sacrosanct? What isn’t?

AP: Oh, a lot of it is not. I mean, I want the notes played, but how they’re played—if you have a good soloist, whether it’s a second oboe player or a great pianist—really doesn’t matter. If it’s a good musician, let them alone. See first what he’s up to. I’ve had people like flute players who play [Prélude à] L’Après Midi [d’un faune] and I think, “Where did they get that from?” But I liked it, and it made me admire the piece even more. So when I write something and it is interpreted in a way that I had not thought of, very often I’ll like it. I won’t prescribe it, but I will like it. On the other hand, I don’t like arrangements very much. You know, when people say, “Yes, but this is easier with two hands instead of one” or “I’m going to go up a tone.” No. That I don’t like!

FJO: So if someone were to do a song of yours in another key.

AP: Well, wait a minute. If we’re going to talk about singers, that’s a whole different world.

FJO: O.K. I’m going to save vocal music for later. Let’s stay with instrumental music for now. If someone were to take your clarinet sonata and say, “I want to do this on viola.” The Brahms clarinet sonatas are also done on viola. Would you have a problem with that?

AP: Yes and no. I would not have a problem because it’s nice to have somebody play the music. But I would have a problem because it’s not what I thought of.

FJO: Now one of the things I find interesting, in getting back to this second violin sonata, is you leave a lot of dynamics up to the players, which I found fascinating given your decades as an interpreter, both as a pianist and as a conductor. I was quite surprised that you were willing to let that go.

AP: Well that’s interesting. I don’t leave it up to orchestra players because they have to play all that I’ve written down. But I must say that the really good interpreters that I’ve written for—like Anne-Sophie, Yo-Yo Ma, or Yuri Bashmet—if they suddenly say, “This would be wonderful if it were pianissimo and senza vibrato,” I’ll say, “Well, try it.” And if I like it, fine. So I don’t mind that.

FJO: But that’s the thing about the way we disseminate music that is notated. You talked about the early music conductors being really scholarly about a work. A hundred years from now, they’re not going to be able to call you up. So, how are they going to know what to play? Your urtext might be missing some important detail like a dynamic marking. Maybe they’ll have access to a recording, but recordings can only tell you so much. Then again, at the very beginning of this conversation you said that that’s not really of interest to you.

AP: Well, I think that a hundred years from now, there will be just as many good musicians as there are now. They’ll have their own opinion, and that’s O.K. with me.

FJO: You mentioned earlier that you will never be a 12-tone composer, to which I responded that you have pretty much stayed clear of all the –isms of 20th-century music. Even though your music is very much of our time, it sometimes sounds as if all this other stuff that happened didn’t happen for you, in a way.

AP: You know who said exactly the same thing about me was John Harbison. John Harbison said, “You write these big pieces, and all the things that have happened in the last 50 years are absent, like they never happened.” And I said, “I can’t explain that. I don’t know.” For me, music has to be an emotion and my emotions don’t react well to mathematical formulae. On the other hand, I admire a pupil Schoenberg had called George Tremblay. He wrote good music, and I like some of the rows that he invented very much. One of them I stole blind. But when I hear somebody like Boulez, who has a phenomenal mind, say that he finds Puccini tawdry. Well, fine. But it moves me. The last act of Bohème or the beginning of Turandot are irreplaceable for me. And the more they go for the throat in the interpretation, the better it is for me. I love it.

FJO: And talk about a great orchestrator.

AP: Oh? You know, as an orchestrator myself, I take a look at some of the Puccini opera orchestrations, and there’s nothing on the page for Christ’s sake. There’s so little written down, but it’s perfect. It’s absolutely perfect. I think that he wanted to have an emotional impact, and he certainly was successful at it. When people say, “Well yes, but at the same time, you had so-and-so and so-and-so and they were much more intellectual”—fine. I know that Elliott [Carter] said that he would call any place purgatory that played Rosenkavalier. It’s a funny line, but I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it because Rosenkavalier is irresistible for me. There are moments I don’t like—Baron Ochs and all that—but that’s neither here nor there. I think you have to surrender to music as it’s played, not on a cheap level but on the level of being emotional about it, which is why I love Rachmaninoff. I adore Richard Strauss, and this is why I like the Berg Violin Concerto more than I do, let’s say, Elektra. I wish I had a really textbook or lecture-worthy reason for this, but if music doesn’t get to me, to put it bluntly, it doesn’t exist for me.

FJO: Well to further riff on John Harbison’s comment about the last 50 years being absent in your music, one of the most important things that has been happening in music during the last 50 years, and something that you have been involved with for the last 70 years, has been jazz.

AP: Yeah. Sure.

FJO: You mentioned the piano variations you wrote for Manny Ax which were based on Haydn. To my ears that’s actually is the most modernist-sounding music you’ve written.

AP: I haven’t heard it in years.

FJO: But there’s an even earlier piano variations that you recorded back when you were a teenager that you called Variations on a Theme which you probably also haven’t heard in years. It was coming out of stride piano, but it also hinted at Debussy and Hindemith. It’s wonderful. It’s one of my favorite things of yours.

AP: Well that’s nice. Thank you.

FJO: I felt like you were continuing the path that Bix Beiderbecke took with In a Mist, the only solo piano recording he ever made shortly before he died so young. He was never able to follow up on that really organic synthesis of jazz and classical music, but it sounded like you were and that you had possibly gone even further with it.

AP: Well, but you see, if I were to pick up a pencil and say, “I’m now going to write a jazz-influenced piece,” you’d have a bigger point than you have. But I don’t do that. If it comes out, it comes out. It’s the point I’ve made all along in our conversation today. Sometimes I write a phrase and I suddenly think, “Well, this would be nice if it were phrased like a jazz phrase.” But I don’t set out to do it. It’s so interesting that even in jazz, new things are looked askance. I personally don’t understand what Ornette Coleman was about. The fact that Lenny Bernstein got up in the audience at Birdland and ran up to the stage and kissed him is beyond me. O.K., be that as it may. I know that my father was a good musician, but not professional. He was a lawyer. I played him some Charlie Parker records once, and he thought it was a looney child blowing ad libitum into a plastic saxophone. He couldn’t hear it. He just couldn’t hear it. And I find it intensely moving. So again, it depends on what you grow up with. The heroes of your youth remain the heroes. For me, my goodness, could Art Tatum play the piano, and Oscar Peterson!

Oscar Peterson and André Previn playing together during their series for BBC Four television, which was originally broadcast in December 1977, is a particularly satisfying jazz piano summit. The entire series can be streamed from Encore Music Lessons.


AP: And certainly Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were major people. On the other hand, Ellington’s music is wonderful, but I’d rather hear the Basie band, because the Basie band is really basic.

FJO: It’s really about groove.

AP: There used to be a black Baptist church near where I used to live in Bedford Hills and they had a chorus that I absolutely adored. And I took Ray Brown, the bass player, there once and I was jumping all over the place. I loved it so much. And he said, “You’re an idiot, man. If you had them play what they’re singing on instruments, you’d have the Basie band.” Of course, he was right. So there are all kinds of jazz available for admiration, just as many as there are of classical pieces, I think.

FJO: You said that you didn’t understand what Ornette Coleman was about, but I tracked down and listened to a recording you made with someone who had been doing some pretty radical things with jazz a few years before Coleman started promulgating harmolodics—a composer, arranger, and bandleader named Lyle “Spud” Murphy.

AP: Oh my God. Yeah.

FJO: You were the pianist in his big band.

AP: On one record.

FJO: It’s actually the most out jazz piano playing I’ve ever heard from you, particularly on a track called “Fourth Dimension.”

AP: Really?

FJO: And it’s wonderful.

AP: I don’t think I’ve heard it since we left the studio.

FJO: That was in 1955.

AP: Oh please.

FJO: What attracted me to it is that he claimed what he was doing was 12-tone jazz. In fact, the title of the album is Twelve-Tone Compositions and Arrangements. As soon as I saw that title, I wanted to hear the record.

AP: You got me. I didn’t hear that.

FJO: I don’t hear it either. It’s very chromatic though. They use all the intervals, so I guess that’s what he meant by 12-tone, as opposed to any kind of systemic serial ordering.

AP: If that’s what enticed him to write, then he’s right. It’s perfectly O.K. I don’t care what you call music.

FJO: I’d like to talk with you some more about what you were starting to say about there being a generation gap for likes and dislikes, when you described your father’s inability to appreciate Charlie Parker.

AP: As I told you, my father was a musician. When I was a kid, the Los Angeles Philharmonic played one of the first performances of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. Well I went, and I was floored. I thought it was the most ingenious, happy, wonderful piece I knew. I went home full of excitement and I said to my father, “I heard the most wonderful piece.” He asked what it was and he didn’t know it. But he said, “If you’re that excited by it, they’re doing a repeat performance of it tonight. I’ll take you.” So, I said, “Great.” And we went and we heard it again. And at the end of it, this old gentleman with a German accent said, “Well, it’s not the Eroica.” At that point, I kind of sank in my chair, and I thought, “It’s not supposed to be the Eroica. It doesn’t try to be the Eroica. Why should it be the Eroica?” But he was serious; he didn’t think it was that good, so forget it.

The same thing happens with jazz. But the very, very serious jazz, I don’t much like. I can’t think of anybody right now who’s doing it, but I never thought that Boyd Raeburn was that impressive. It’s a lot of dissonances. On the other hand, I don’t like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band; that’s too primitive for me. I don’t like folk music very much. I certainly hate Hawaiian music, or any of those things.

FJO: Really. I’m a huge fan of Sol Ho’opi’i, an incredible Hawaiian guitarist who made a bunch of dazzlingly virtuosic recordings in the 1930s. He might change your mind.

AP: Yeah? Well, I’ll have to hear it. I don’t know. On the other hand, do you know Conlon Nancarrow’s music?

FJO: Yes, of course.

AP: Isn’t that wonderful?

FJO: Very.

AP: No matter how off the wall that gets, I’m impressed and I love it. And I also get a big charge out of it. I think it’s wonderful. I couldn’t duplicate it, but it’s wonderful. It is quite amazing how different ears receive different music. You know what I mean? I do not particularly like Saint-Saëns’s music, but my goodness, he was a great musician. You know, talk about writing fast and a lot, and if I hear somebody good playing Saint-Saëns—whether it’s a violin concerto, or cello or piano, or even one of the symphonies—it impresses me. I love it and I’d love to hear that again. Whereas the more scholarly of my colleagues say, “I don’t want to hear that again.” Why not? Because it’s not the Eroica?

FJO: It’s interesting when you say Saint-Saëns, because the music of his that I really treasure is his chamber music. And I actually feel it has a connection to your output, since he too wrote a great clarinet sonata and a really formidable bassoon sonata.

AP: And that wonderful septet. Isn’t that fun?

FJO: Absolutely. But, to bring it back to how people come to determine what they like and what they don’t like, the folks who say that something is not the Eroica are a curse to anyone who wants to write a piece of music, because we’ve got that history behind us.

AP: That even floored Brahms before his First Symphony. He didn’t want to write Beethoven’s Tenth.

FJO: And, as you said, it’s true for jazz too—anybody getting on a stage or a club who is trying to do something new on the saxophone or on the piano faces the same dilemma as anybody writing a new piece of music—whether it’s a string quartet or a new orchestra piece. You’re inevitably going to get compared to the stuff that came before that people have heard and think is great. That’s not to deny that it is great, but it’s been heard so many times before that people know it and accept it as great without having to determine that for themselves, so it’s very difficult to compete with; something new doesn’t come pre-approved the same way.

AP: I know what you mean. When I did Turangalîla with the Chicago Symphony, they hated it. Oh God, did they hate that piece! And the old man was there, Messaien. After the first movement, which is considerable, I said to him, “Is there anything you want in this?” And he said, “Well, could it be a little more pink?” And I said, “A little more pink? You mean, plus rose?” “Yes.” Then I turned to the fiddle and I gave him a look that would have wilted a gorilla, you know, and I said, “The composer would like it to be more pink.” And Sam, the concertmaster, turned around to his section, and he said, “Boys, more pink.” And that was it. It was great. It was a wonderful way out because what he was saying really is, “Screw you. Are you kidding?” But, he got what he wanted.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear that story because I swear by the recording you made of Turangalîla with the London Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s. But I heard the Chicago Symphony perform Turangalîla at Ravinia in the 1990s, which I imagine was long after you had performed it with them. They must have gotten used to the piece by that point since I thought they did a really tremendous job.

AP: Even with me, they could play it. My God, they could play anything. That last movement is so rhythmically complicated; it’s like The Rite of Spring times two.

FJO: But you raise an important issue in terms of how to most effectively negotiate with players in order to overcome their resistance to playing a new—or at least a relatively new—piece of music.

AP: Well, there are always people in the orchestra who will feel that way, but they’re usually in the minority. But I’m very aware of how lucky I am now. When I first started composing, nobody wanted to know. Now, if I write a piece and I let certain orchestras and certain soloists know that I’ve written it, they all want to do it. Well, not all, but a great many of them. All these orchestras that suddenly are doing my pieces amaze me. They don’t care whether it’s new or old or whatever. It’s just a piece of music they haven’t played, which is really the healthiest thing in the world. That’s what happens in Tanglewood. I had a piece called Owls, and the student orchestra played it, and they didn’t know if it was modern or old-fashioned or tricky or whatever. It was just a piece. There it was in front of them, and they played it. It’s wonderful.

FJO: I know you said that there are no secret messages in your music, but there’s something that’s been baffling me. I can’t figure out your title Octet for Eleven. I was rummaging through the score thinking, “O.K., it’s for eleven players but maybe only eight people ever play at once, and that’s the trick.” But there’s a tutti where all of them are playing. So what does the title mean?

AP: A corny joke. That’s all it is. The joke is that there is no octet for eleven people. I like tricky titles. I also like Honey and Rue. I like all that stuff. I just thought it’s an octet, yes, but I did put an extra bass in it and this and that, so let’s call it Octet for Eleven. I hate to disappoint you, but there’s absolutely nothing behind that.


FJO: I wanted to follow up on the comment you made earlier about early music conductors not wanting vibrato based on historical considerations. There’s also a question of intelligibility when it comes to sung text. One of the things that’s so striking to me about your two operas is that you can always hear the words that people are singing, which is not true for many operas sung in English.

AP: I’m probably very annoying to singers, because I want to be able to hear the words. There are all kinds of technical things. I’m not much for putting one syllable on 14 different notes the way it can be done. I like one note per word, you know. Then very often I’ve said to singers whom I even admire or adore, “Could you sing more oratorio and less opera?” They all know what I mean, and they usually comply. I don’t like terribly operatic singing. It disturbs me; I don’t understand the words and, unfortunately, I sometimes think it’s funny. I like operatic singing, but it depends on what opera, you know. I find some of the most admired operatic singing, which is Wagner, alien to me. I find it too aggressive and I think it’s tough on the voice; it’s certainly tough on the words. On the other hand, if you do Pelléas or Manon or Wozzeck, then it’s worth having whatever they bring to it. In A Streetcar Named Desire, I knew that Renée [Fleming] had three big arias, but none of them are really huge operatic arias. And besides, Renée is much too smart to ever put the voice to purposes that it wasn’t meant. The same thing with Elizabeth Futral in my other opera, Brief Encounter—she’s a wonderful singer. But she started out in full cry, and I said, “Don’t do that. I’m always going to fight you on that. Can you kind of calm it down?” And she did instantly, and it was ten times as good for me. Whether it really is or not, I don’t know, but that’s one of the privileges I take hold of as the composer. I want it sung the way I want it sung.

Cover of the DVD case for the San Francisco Opera production of A Streetcar Named Desire

A DVD of the San Francisco Opera production of A Streetcar Named Desire was released shortly after the 1998 premiere, but it is currently only available in a PAL format reissue from Arthaus that can only be accessed with a Region 2 player. However an audio recording of the production was also released by Deutsche Grammophon

FJO: Well, an opera is supposed to be telling a story on stage. You mention Wagner. Things happen so slowly in those operas. In a way, they have to because if they didn’t, you wouldn’t know what was going on. But both Streetcar and Brief Encounter are fast and action-packed. Words need to be flying back and forth, so a long melisma wouldn’t deliver it; it would be completely wrong. I think you did precisely the right thing.

AP: And also, Streetcar is one of the great American plays. It really is. It’s wonderful. But it is not a play where you want to linger over every syllable. I got confused by Antony and Cleopatra because Sam Barber is one of my favorite composers, but he’s very fond of putting a syllable onto four or five notes. By the time four or five notes have gone by, you don’t know what the first one was. If he were more aware of getting the words into the auditorium, that would not happen. But I can’t argue with Sam Barber, because he’s a great composer.

FJO: Well, with Vanessa it really worked. But once again, that’s a story with few characters and long, drawn-out action, whereas Antony and Cleopatra is this giant pageant and there’s a lot going on. So it’s much harder to process.

AP: Yes.

FJO: It’s important for the music to fit the story it’s going with. Still, no matter what, if you’re writing work for an opera house there are certain conventions that singers conform to, as well as conventions that audiences expect or things that the halls that are built for these things serve best. It’s a catch-22 for American composers. Tons of composers are now writing operas, but not everyone wants to write things that sound like operas. For a long time, you could never get a new American opera programmed; thankfully that has changed. But, in part because of this exile from the opera house, composers turned to other outlets and there’s a whole tradition of a vernacular American opera—the music for Broadway theater. In musicals the words always get across, but you’re not necessarily dealing with singers who can sing music off the page in the same way.

AP: You mean, like Marc Blitzstein?

FJO: Blitzstein is an excellent example. There are many others. You, in fact, also wrote a Broadway show, Coco.

AP: Yeah, but it was a straightforward Broadway show.

FJO: Admittedly, the technical demands you placed on singers in it were nowhere near the level of your operas. Katharine Hepburn would have never been able to sing the role of Blanche Dubois!

AP: She couldn’t sing Coco either. Oh God, that was brutal. When she finally quit after a year, we got Danielle Darrieux. It was the first time Alan Lerner and I knew we had written a musical, because you could hear the words and the melodies. And she was charming.

FJO: But it didn’t last because she wasn’t the box office draw that Hepburn had been.

AP: No. It didn’t last at all. Everybody wanted Hepburn. I didn’t blame them. She’s wonderful. But, in a musical, I don’t know.

During the 1970 Tony Awards, members of the original cast of Coco, including Katharine Hepburn, performed excerpts from the show. The original Broadway cast album was reissued in 1997


FJO: So that experience turned you off to writing another Broadway musical?

AP: It depends on what the subject matter is. There are many Broadway shows I wish I had written, or wish I could get my hands on, but it’s not a lasting ambition with me. I’d rather write an opera. I’d write a light opera, for instance. Tom Stoppard and I are about to start working on a one-act opera. I can’t discuss it, because he doesn’t want me to.

Broadway now is so different. When I was a young man, Broadway wasn’t owned by Walt Disney. And all these ridiculous, foppish, stupid musicals that are on now! They’re not interesting musically or visually or anything. Well, Lion King is. But the goal of a Broadway opera is completely different now, I think. I don’t think that Rodgers and Hart, or Jerry Kern would be such a smash now.

FJO: I recently went to see The Visit, which was the last show to make it to Broadway that John Kander wrote with Fred Ebb before Ebb died.

AP: Really? I didn’t know that.

FJO: It only lasted a couple of months even though the cast was headed by a Broadway legend, Chita Rivera. It was a fascinating show, but it might have been a little too serious for the current climate on Broadway.

AP: On the other hand, the musical based on The Shop Around the Corner was one of my favorite musicals. It’s absolutely charming and not at all too serious. But it was not funny. It was witty. And there again, it didn’t last that long. St. Louis Woman is also a wonderful show. I like Broadway musicals, but I tend not to go for a whole bunch of reasons. First of all, the mystique that goes with it makes me nervous. And then $200 a ticket makes me nervous. I come from the day when a Broadway show was five bucks.

FJO: I remember when it was 12 bucks, but now tickets at the Metropolitan Opera can be even more expensive than Broadway tickets. So, in that sense, it’s not different.

AP: No, but you know going in what you’re going to hear. You know, if a ticket for Wozzeck is $200, well, you spend it because you want to hear Wozzeck, not because you wonder how this is going to be.

FJO: Not if you’re going to a performance of a brand new opera. That’s as risky as going to a new Broadway show.

AP: Well, I have no answer for that. New music, generally speaking, is looked askance at.

FJO: Of course in creating a new piece, it can help assure an audience that they’re going to see something of consequence when they know that it is based on something that they know is of consequence. It’s perhaps the next best thing to knowing that the Eroica is on the program, to come back to that conversation. It’s probably why there have been so many operas based on pre-existing literary classics. You certainly are always drawn to great literature. You mentioned Streetcar being one of the great plays. In Brief Encounter, you were also working with great material—the original play by Noël Coward, as well as the David Lean film. And you just mentioned a new project with Tom Stoppard, with whom you’ve worked before, who is a famous, highly respected playwright. But even your songs—you’ve set Emily Dickinson, Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje. These are all top-shelf people. When I did a talk with Ned Rorem, he said the reason why his songs are good is that he only sets the best texts.

AP: He’s probably right. I also love the prose that I set by Isak Dinesen. It’s a terrific paragraph and very touching. I’m not about to set music to drivel; it doesn’t interest me. I like Theodore Roethke, and there’s quite a lot that needs to be set.

FJO: Now there was an Italian novel you were going to make into an opera. What happened to that?

AP: What happened is that the man got greedy and sold it to a higher bidder, long after we were in discussions about it. So it never happened.

FJO: So someone else did an opera?

AP: I think it was played once in Topeka or something. But it didn’t work.

FJO: Of all the texts that you’ve set, that was the only text and the only author I hadn’t heard of.

AP: It’s a very strange novel, but very good. But no, it didn’t happen. The man— you couldn’t blame him. He just suddenly got an incredible offer and the poor bum said “Sure, anything” and took it away from us.

FJO: So in terms of other things that you want to write. You mentioned Brahms waiting so long to write a symphony based on feeling paralyzed by the weight of what had proceeded him in the genre. Is that the same reason you haven’t written one?

AP: Yeah, I’m just scared of it.

FJO: But you’re not scared of operas or concertos?

AP: It’s that first page. I can’t deny that. I don’t want to face it. But I probably will; if I get old enough, I’ll write one.

FJO: Now, one area that we haven’t touched on yet at all is that you spent years writing scores for motion pictures. I think that was probably an excellent training ground for writing music that pushes a narrative forward.

AP: Oh, I don’t. It’s a well-known fact that the worse the movie, the more music there is. If you have a really idiotic movie, the music never stops, because the poor producer says, “Do something.” So, we all make a noise. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t wonderful scores, but it’s not music that interests me anymore—at all. And I mean, I did it; I wrote for some 50 movies. But I could not face as an ambition, years from then, writing music which would be played while Debbie Reynolds spoke. What would interest me as a composer is if they still made those big swashbucklers. You know, The Sea Hawk or something—that’s fun. I’d love to do that with a great big Strauss orchestra—eight horns belting away. But the normal score now? It doesn’t interest me at all. I admire Johnny Williams. He’s very good at what he does, and he writes very good themes. Now, Anne-Sophie made him an offer. She said, “Why don’t you write me a concerto?” And he said, “Oh, I don’t write that kind of music.” And she said, “Yes, you do. You write beautiful themes.”

FJO: But he wrote a trombone concerto?

AP: Did he?

FJO: It’s a pretty solid piece.

AP: He also wrote a bassoon concerto, which I like very much. Anyway, he back pedaled on that, but she kept asking and just recently he said, “Look, I’m not going to write one. I’m just not. I can’t do it. I haven’t got the background for it, and I don’t think I want to.” And she said O.K. But she said to me, “This is silly, because I’d play it everywhere.” I’ve known Johnny ever since we were both rehearsal pianists at a ballroom dancing school on La Brea Avenue. We used to take turns playing “Blueberry Hill.” Oh boy. Anyway, I don’t think he is willing to gamble with his own talent. He’s wonderfully talented and a tremendous orchestrator, but he doesn’t believe it. And a big piece—it’s a lot of pages. I don’t think that he has belief enough in his own talent, even though he has more than enough talent to do it.

FJO: Maybe it’s taking him too far out of his comfort zone in terms of the context.

AP: Comfort zone? He’s a millionaire.

FJO: I mean his comfort zone creatively.

AP: Oh, sure.

The original LP cover of My Fair Lady performed by Shelly Manne and his Friends (Previn and Leroy Vinnegar) features a woman wearing an elaborate hat drinking a cup of tea.

The cover of the 1956 Contemporary Records LP My Fair Lady by Shelly Manne and his Friends (Previn and Leroy Vinnegar) which was the first album ever made consisting entirely of jazz versions of tunes from a single Broadway musical and was the first jazz album to sell a million copies.

FJO: What I find so interesting about the trajectory that you have taken as a composer is that you seem to be always doing things you haven’t done before. You became really successful as a jazz pianist; one of your albums was the first jazz record to sell a million copies. But you started writing Hollywood scores. After you made your mark doing that, winning four Oscars, you wrote a Broadway musical. After all that, you started writing for orchestra, then opera. Last year you finally wrote a wind band piece. So you’re always purposefully escaping your own comfort zones.

AP: Absolutely. I’m a big believer in that. But I think for a composer to suddenly decide, “O.K. I’m now going to write a piece for 12 gongs,” it’s not really an interesting idea. I sat next to Wolfgang Rihm at one of the Siemens Prizes a couple of years ago. They give annual awards to young composers, and they had two of them there. One of them had written a piece for 12 unaccompanied E-flat clarinets. Can you imagine that noise? It was beyond belief. Halfway through, I turned to Wolfgang and I said, “Am I crazy, or is this just a piece of shit?” And he said, “Oh, it’s not good enough to be a piece of shit.” Just to be different isn’t good enough anymore. It just isn’t. It’s like the young instrumentalists who can play everything you put in front of them but not necessarily with understanding.

I like trying something new. I like it very much. I wrote a nonet—double string quartet and bass—just now. It hasn’t been played yet. It’s going to be premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in two months. And Anne-Sophie called me and said, “The first movement isn’t long enough; can you write me a cadenza?” But I’d done that [before]. So then I thought she had that wonderful bass player in the nonet. So I said, “Why don’t I write you a cadenza where you are all over the place and he never stops playing anything but pizzicato? That might be interesting.” And she said, “Really?” And I said. “Really, I think so.” And she said, “Good.” So I’m working on it. I have no idea whether it’s any good or not, but it’s something I haven’t done.

FJO: So that’s actually an example of you going back into a piece and changing it!

AP: Well, adding to it. But only under the threat of “we won’t play it.”

FJO: That’s a big threat. To bring this full circle: in the beginning I referenced Elliott Carter’s flippant comment about writing faster in his old age because he had learned how to write Elliott Carter’s music, but he actually wasn’t writing the same music at all; he was actually writing things that were completely unlike his earlier things.

AP: I love that 20-minute opera he wrote.

FJO: What Next?

AP: Yeah, wasn’t that good? I’m not a big Elliott Carter believer, but that was wonderful.

FJO: Learning how to write the music that you write is the opposite of taking a challenge, the opposite of doing something new. So you don’t want to write a piece you’ve written before. You may not necessarily want to write for twelve E-flat clarinets or eight gongs, but you want to do something different. You’re not going to write a straight-ahead violin cadenza, because you already have written one. Of course, the most effective composers are always balancing what they know they do well with taking on new challenges.

AP: If I were still working with films, which I haven’t done now since the mid ‘60s, I would probably fall back on certain clichés that I know work since I don’t want to spend a lifetime at it. Johnny Williams wrote in Tanglewood in the bungalow next to mine, and then he’d have his orchestrator [Herbert Spencer] come up and he’d hand him whatever he was working on. Johnny handed him something that looked like Meistersinger for God’s sake, and he said, “Let me explain this to you.” Herbie looked at the music, and he said, “No, I know this one.” The orchestrator didn’t mean any insult at all, but it was funny. I could see where he could take that very badly. But on the other hand, it was probably true. It was probably done on purpose. If you write movie music, you’re never given enough time, and they don’t want to hear anything brand new anyway. So it is very likely to be things that they’ve done before. You can always tell a Korngold score. You can always tell a Rózsa score. You can always tell an Elmer Bernstein score, because it’s watered down Copland. When Elmer Bernstein got a western to do, he’d say, “Oh yeah, I did Magnificent Seven. Let’s do that again.” There’s nothing wrong with it. It worked very well. It’s interesting music. You’re not going to wrack your brain thinking of novelties in a medium that doesn’t require it anyway. A very good film composer used to be a man called Jerry Goldsmith—brilliant and interesting music.

André Previn's four Oscars sit together on a table near the window in his living room.

André Previn’s four Oscars sit together on a table near the window in his living room.

FJO: You did all these different kinds of things as a composer—jazz, film music, Broadway, opera, orchestral music. You also were very active as a classical pianist and, of course, as a conductor, leading some of the world’s top orchestras—the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the London Symphony. But these activities have been separate worlds. If anybody was ever in a position to come up with some kind of grand synthesis of music in our time, which would be music that somehow connected all of these things, it would be you. To that end, you did in fact make some wonderful recordings of all your original music for quintet featuring Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, and Jim Hall with you and Itzak Perlman. It seems completely incongruous that these people played together. And yet it really works.

AP: Yes, it works.

FJO: But it’s an anomaly. For the most part, it seems like you’d rather just perfect each separate strand rather than bring them together.

AP: I never thought of bringing it together. I see no particularly connective tissue between those things. I wrote a jazz album for J.J. Johnson and myself and a rhythm section, and the producer of the record, Irv Townsend, said, “Would you guys try playing ‘Mack the Knife’?” Well, that was the day when everybody did “Mack the Knife,” and both J.J. and I went, “Hmmm.” And I said, “I’ll tell you what, J.J. I’ll comp in G-flat, and you play it in C, and then we’ll turn it around.” It’s always in both keys; it’s that Petrushka thing. And we did it and everybody said, “God almighty, what a sound!” There’s nothing to it. You know what I mean? We just played it. We didn’t think about it. I think that it’s important that you don’t spend forever thinking about why you write something. Just do it.

This is out of left field, but Sinclair Lewis gave a lecture. I think it was at Harvard. After huge applause and all of that, he said to the very full auditorium, “How many of you want to be writers?” A great many raised their hands. And he said, “Why aren’t you home writing?” That’s good, isn’t it?

FJO: I heard a variation of that story, only it was Kurt Vonnegut who gave the speech.

AP: Really.

FJO: But he was a lot nastier to everybody, at least according to the version I heard. Maybe Vonnegut stole the line from Sinclair Lewis, but he embellished it. He was invited to give a talk to a group of aspiring writers at a university, so he went up to the podium and began by saying, “How many of you want to be writers?” And after almost everyone raised their hands, he shouted, “So why the fuck are you sitting here listening to me? Go home and write.” And then he walked out. That was the entire speech.

AP: But that’s too rough. Walking out is beyond the pale. It’s interesting that you used that language.

FJO: Well, I was just using the language he used.

AP: I understand. When I was at Eastman, there were two afternoons of question and answer. There were about 800 kids at each one, and the questions were very good because they weren’t all complimentary. They were all over the map. On the second day, a young man got up in the back and said, “When you worked in films, did you work in Los Angeles?” “Yes,” I said. “Did you ever a meet a German émigré composer called Ernst Toch?” I said I was taken to play for him by David Raksin, who was a friend of mine. “What happened?” he asked, and I said:

Well, the old gentleman made me improvise and then made me read something at the end of which he said in this kind of station house accent, “You haff no talent.” First of all, I don’t think it’s the right thing to say to a 16-year old. The other thing is that if he had said, “I don’t like the way you improvise,” that’s fair enough. Or “I don’t like the way you play.” Fair enough. But “You have no talent”? That’s a little heavy for me, because I didn’t agree with that.

And the kids did a collective intake of breath, huuuhhh, because they identified with that moment. And the young man said, “Did you answer him?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “What did you say?” I said, “Fuck you.” This was from the stage of this conservatory. The poor dean turned green with fear, you know. And I said, “Wait a minute. They’ve all used that word. They all know what it means.” It was the biggest round of applause I have ever received from students.

FJO: But how did Toch react to that?

AP: Oh well, he threw me out. But I’m still glad I did it.

Andy Milne: Putting the Theory Into Practice

video presentation by Molly Sheridan

For pianist/composer/bandleader Andy Milne, making music that navigates seamlessly between musical genres is not just the by-product of a personal theory of what the music of today could and should be. Being an astute listener to the world around him and playing in a wide array of styles throughout his career has enabled him to operate fluently in all of them. When we met up with him in a practice room in the jazz department of New York University, which is located far away from the central campus in a freshman dormitory, Milne spoke in great detail about how he has come to his polyglot musical vocabulary, opining that being open to a variety of influences and finding your own identity within them are ongoing processes.

“To the best of my abilities I try to operate in a post-genre mind set,” says Milne. “But I can’t escape certain tendencies I think I have based on the various experiences that have contributed to how I think and how I play and how I can understand and process music. Of course I’m always hoping that can continue to evolve and expand and grow and enrich me. You get to a certain point where it’s really up to your own tenacity and discipline to ensure that that exists with any kind of weight.”

According to Milne, collaborations between hip-hop and R&B artists he was hearing in the late ‘90s are what initially inspired him to form his group Dapp Theory in which he has incorporated elements of that blending into a jazz context. A decade and a half later, it is territory he continues to mine. The group’s performance at the Chamber Music America conference back in January was the first time a rapper appeared on one of CMA’s showcases, although the person doing the rapping, John Moon, was billed as a “percussive poet.” It was an extremely effective presentation, which also went further than most in challenging definitions and comfort zones.

“I think [hip-hop] is maybe a different world in the sense that there isn’t as formalized a pedagogy that has existed for a longer period of time within jazz and classical music,” Milne acknowledges. “That separates musical traditions and musical cultural communities by virtue of the fact that they don’t have these same types of institutions. I think there’s still learning, but it gets conducted in a different way. So there’s a blind spot there, but maybe it will get filled in at some point in time—everything changes. It’s taken a long time, I think, even within the scope of various emerging opportunities that continue to exist where jazz and classical music speak together.”

Yet for all of Milne’s embrace of everything from hip-hop and R&B to reggae and folk rock (he has recorded fabulous solo piano version of Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sherriff” and Stephen Stills’s “Love The One Your With”), he is perfectly fine calling the music he makes jazz. Not only does he not find jazz aesthetically limiting, he is extremely suspicious of musicians who reject the term:

I identify with jazz because it’s the music that I feel the most affinity with in terms of where I came from as a young person listening to music. I wouldn’t want to present myself as someone who listened with the same level of depth to hip-hop even; I didn’t grow up listening to hip-hop. So I would never feel comfortable saying “I come out of the hip-hop experience” in terms of my music.


In recent history there’ve been a few attempts to debunk the significance of jazz. Some people have agendas frankly to just further their careers by trying to call attention to themselves by being very dogmatic about some sort of political position on jazz. If you think about jazz in a very general sense, it’s incorporating improvisation—you don’t even have to get into whether you say it’s got to swing or not. It embraces music from all over the world and it always has, and a big part of it is improvisation.


Would you say that rock music is jazz? I don’t know if there’s the same degree of improvisation. But then again it gets so subjective, because then you can get into what do you consider improvisation. If something is sort of going to be the exact same way every night then it’s not necessarily improvised. There are certain things I want to be the same every night but there are huge sections where I want to have that give and take and that flow that I know the musicians I’ve brought to this can deliver.

Milne, however, concedes that not everything he has done fits comfortably within jazz. One of his most fascinating musical projects thus far has been Strings & Serpents, a collaboration with another jazz pianist Benoît Delbecq, animator Saki Murotani, and two Japanese koto players, Ai Kajigano and Tsugumi Yamamoto. While he and Delbecq improvise throughout, the koto players adhere much more closely to the score Milne composed for them.

Over the past few years, Milne has also begun composing film soundtracks as a result of his friendship with actor Avery Brooks, who is also an accomplished jazz singer and pianist though he is probably most widely known for his seven-year television stint as Captain Benjamin Sisko on the Star Trek sequel Deep Space Nine. When the actor who played Star Trek’s original captain, William Shatner, decided to make a documentary about all the actors who had served as captains in the various Trek incarnations, he queried the musical Brooks about who should do the soundtrack. Brooks immediately recommended Milne. In addition to being hired to score that film (The Captains), this has led to another whole side career for Milne performing at Star Trek conventions.

But Milne’s most recent project, The Seasons of Being, which premieres later this month in Lancaster (Pennsylvania), Baltimore, and New York City, is once again very firmly rooted in his polystylistic jazz sensibilities, albeit with an unusual twist. An hour-long work scored for a greatly expanded Dapp Theory (a total of ten players), it is a by-product of his deep interest in homeopathy:

We all have some form of dis-ease in our existence; often we treat it and often we don’t, but most of us can cope. You can say the word disease, but I think there’s another way of thinking about it by having the accent on it be dis-ease; there’s an uneasiness about something we maybe don’t ever get to or maybe don’t want to get to.


The precursor to even thinking about the idea was my own experience of going to see a homeopath and often he would make these analogies using music. He and I would have these conversations after our sessions and I wondered how I could incorporate that musically.


I began to actively start researching and developing models, figuring out how I would understand a musician from an emotional place and extract information from various people to come up with a model that would help me identify a pathology, as they refer to it in homeopathics. Primarily I’m trying to gear it toward the featured soloist during any given movement. A specific piece might be for the drummer to solo in, so I look at the results of having an assessment of all the intake information I have on the drummer and proceed to think, “What is the musical remedy?”

Sarah Kirkland Snider: The Full 360

A conversation at the composer’s home in Princeton, New Jersey
August 6, 2015—1:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

September is gearing up to be a big month for composer and New Amsterdam Records co-founder Sarah Kirkland Snider. A recording of her impressive 13-part song cycle Unremembered will be released by her label on September 4, and the North Carolina Symphony will give the world premiere of her Hiraeth just a couple of weeks later. Her 2015-16 season will also include premieres with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and as part of the BAM Next Wave Festival featuring the Young People’s Chorus of New York.

So Snider was already mentally juggling quite a few projects when she hit pause in order to sit down and chat with us. Once her husband (the composer Steven Mackey) and So Percussion’s Jason Treuting wrapped up a high-volume session in the couple’s downstairs studio, she quickly opened up about her approach to integrating disparate influences, embracing deeply emotional content, and the process of developing her signature works.

And being a female composer and mom, of course. No, no…just kidding.

Well, sort of. During the car ride between the train station and her home, we actually joked about how even well-meaning interviews with women in new music too often defaulted to questions about the impact of child rearing and gender on the creation of music, yet we also agreed that there was much that still needed to be said. In her household, she pointed out, the question might be better addressed to Steve, the parent more likely to chaperone their two small children to lessons and outside activities, but it was not one he tended to field as a matter of course. So would we talk about it, should we avoid it? We debated. In the end, the answer emerged as naturally as the bigger themes our conversation centered around: that embracing the full diversity of one’s creative life and mind was essential to generating the most interesting and powerful work—and to better understanding and supporting the artist behind the music.

Molly Sheridan: It seems as if no writer can resist pointing out how you mix pop and classical elements in your work, and clearly there are reasons for this—from instrumentation to vocal style to the artists you work with. The tone of shock that often accompanies this sort of description, however, has always seemed strange to me, as if composers were otherwise kept completely sheltered from contemporary life. Still, was this integration of elements a style that you developed over time or was it your instinct from the start?

Sarah Kirkland Snider: Well, looking back for a second, I grew up a total classical music nerd, studying piano and cello, and singing in choirs, but at home my parents were always playing pop music. So I had this life that was filled with a lot of music. I would go to my orchestra rehearsals or my piano lessons and hear classical music, and then I’d be home hearing the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac and Joni Mitchell. For me, it was all just music. I didn’t have anybody telling me that pop was down here and classical was up here. It was all just ways to express oneself musically.

I started writing music when I was a kid, but I didn’t take my first composition lesson until I was 25. At that point, my first teacher made it very clear to me that I needed to bifurcate and strip away the pop influences, set aside my interests and just focus on the classical tradition. I definitely got the message that you were supposed to keep them separate. Then going to Yale was interesting because it was a much more relaxed mindset and there were professors and students with lots of different ideologies. I became increasingly uncomfortable keeping the pop influence away. I remember leaving a seminar at Yale and getting in my car and listening to Sleater-Kinney, and I was just like, why is there this weird divide? And the reason why it was often Sleater-Kinney was because of the female issue. I was frustrated; I was the only female in my class at Yale for the first two years, so it was a constant issue for me. I realized that I was subconsciously associating all the things I didn’t like about new music—pedagogy, ideology, over-intellectualization—with a male mindset, and so I would need to go and get in my car and listen to Sleater-Kinney so that I could just steep myself in a completely different vibe and mindset.

I think that, subconsciously, that also had to do with the reason why, when I left Yale, I started incorporating my pop influences. It was a bit of a rebellion.

MS: So you felt required to strip away something that was important to you. Yet was there something valuable to be found in that because that forced you to stretch in other directions?

SKS: Absolutely. I went into composition with the zeal of a convert, and I didn’t see it as a bad thing that I was being taught to open my mind. My first lesson was with this amazing teacher, Justin Dello Joio. My undergrad degree was not in music, and so he was trying to give me all of that in our private lessons. I brought him a piano piece, and it was basically within the span of two octaves. He said, “Use the whole instrument. You’re not thinking idiomatically enough and you’re not thinking virtuosically enough about the instrument.” I started studying a lot of piano music—which I had played, but I hadn’t looked at from this perspective. I really wanted to write music that was technically demanding and challenging. We studied everything from Palestrina and Bach to Ligeti and Lutoslawski, which really pushed me as a composer.

So there was a lot of great stuff that came from that—thinking about rhythm differently, thinking about harmony. He definitely got me to open up. I’m really grateful for all of that. The only negative thing to say, I guess, is that I felt like there was a side of my musical personality that I couldn’t access in my writing. So it took a while for that to come out, and there’s a very practical reason that unlocked it, which has to do with Penelope.

MS: And what was that?

SKS: After Yale, the playwright Ellen McLaughlin asked me to write music for a commission she had from the Getty Center to do a piece on the five female characters of the Odyssey. Initially, it was supposed to be a song cycle, but then it became a play—a play with some music. It evolved a lot, but in the end, we had a play that she wanted to perform as a monodrama for herself.

She hadn’t sung in years and she couldn’t read music, so it was very important that I write something that she could learn by ear. She and I had been to new music concerts together, and I knew she was frustrated with a lot of the music that she would hear. She felt like there wasn’t a strong enough emotional component. I also knew the kind of music that she liked, which was the ‘60s folk tradition. I wanted to write something that she could really own and get inside of and be herself singing, as well as learn by ear. That gave me permission to write in a style that did incorporate my popular music interests.

It was initially difficult for me, because I felt the voices of my teachers on my shoulder telling me not to do a lot of the things that I was doing—not to write four-bar phrases, not to write antecedent-consequent phrases, not to have verse and chorus. A lot of the poetry that Ellen gave me was written intentionally to have a verse-chorus structure, and she had no hang-ups about that. So I felt like, okay, I need to put aside the problematic things I learned while a student at Yale and try to just write this music the way I think she would like it to be written. So, that’s what gave me permission to write Penelope in that way, but I’d never thought that I would do anything with it. In fact, I kept saying to [my husband] Steve [Mackey], “Oh, I’m spending all this time on Penelope, but you know, it’s never going to get performed again after this.” And he’s like, “You just wait and see. This is really beautiful. You should make a record out of it.” And I was like, “Really? Because this isn’t the kind of music that the new music world would embrace. I’d be blacklisted for writing this kind of music.”

Anyway, I’m sure in certain circles I have been but, bizarrely enough, it became my most successful piece, which I think says a lot more about the musical climate we’re living in now than it does about me as a composer. People are just more open to that now. I guess a cynical person would say that classical institutions are desperate to bring in new audiences, and they’re throwing out all of their important principles. Whatever. It became my most performed piece and the piece that’s gotten me the most commissions. So it’s been an interesting lesson.

The other lesson I took from it was that I really enjoyed writing that kind of music. It felt really good to access that side of myself again. It was the kind of music that I had written from the time I was ten, mixing Debussy and Joni Mitchell, and to me that felt very natural. This is me when I’m in the dark and nobody’s watching. I can just let all of this come to the forefront and not feel self-conscious about it. But, actually, I find that I do still feel self-conscious about it. It’s always an issue, because once you get taught these shoulds and shouldn’ts, it’s hard to get them out of your head.

MS: It’s so interesting that this piece became your calling card, but it started out as this sort of secret side project.

SKS: It really was a secret shame. I probably shouldn’t say that, but honestly, it was. I felt so self-critical, and so apologetic. And I felt very worried about how [the recording] would be perceived by the classical world, and so it completely floored me that it made these top ten lists and that certain classical critics were saying nice things about it.

MS: We put so much stock in the authenticity of a creative voice. In a sense, whether you were willing to admit it to yourself or not, were you taking steps toward your authentic self through this work? For as admittedly loaded as all those words are.

SKS: It wasn’t consciously that, but I think it was that. What I was trying to do when I wrote that music was just immerse myself in the story. Ultimately, I was trying to write from the point of view of this woman who was dealing with this very difficult situation. That more than anything is the guiding principal that I try to have in mind when I’m writing a piece of music.  It’s like: What is the emotional story here? And how do I immerse myself in that?  And how do I be true, most true to that emotion?  And how do I be the most honest, and the most candid, and put aside all of those well-intentioned shoulds and shouldn’ts that I learned in graduate school? I try to think about mood and emotion more than style, or all of that.  Because I think that all of that stuff separates you from what is really a true emotion that you’re feeling.  I think all of that can be very emotionally crippling actually and can really strangle you creatively. I didn’t write any music for my first six months at Yale because I was so worried about breaking any rule that was in one of my teacher’s minds.

I actually think it’s one of the more interesting questions about the whole gender issue that nobody wants to touch—that women are acculturated to be in touch with their emotions. Girls are taught by society that it’s okay to cry and talk about their feelings. And music is an inherently emotional medium—at least I would argue that it is. Stravinsky might say otherwise, but for me there’s no other art form that is as viscerally engaging. So it’s a strange thing to then feel you have to have an intellectual foil for every earnest expression, which was one of the messages I got in my studies.

MS: You did have a long road to your official start as a composer. Now your work seems so sophisticated and carefully considered. There’s a lot of core skill—probably what you walked away with from Yale and the associated studies. So there were these skills learned, but it sounds like you struggled with how to fit your innate approach into that toolbox.

SKS: The music that I wrote at Yale was definitely emotional. No question about it. But it was this painful process of extracting it. I had a teacher who early on said, “You know, as a woman, you’re going to encounter some discrimination about your writing if it’s very melodic and lyrical. For a man to write melodic, lyrical music, that’s courageous. If a woman writes it, it’s sentimental.” When I got to Yale, I remember having a conversation with another teacher there who said something very similar. So there was always this push and pull, where I felt like, eff that: I’m just going to write as emotionally as possible because the only way we’re going to change this is if women actually do it so much that it becomes a normal, unremarkable thing. But at the same time, you know, you have to worry about competitions or your teachers recommending you for things. I often felt like there was a certain way to be emotional that was acceptable, and there was a certain way that wasn’t. Plus there were all these technical goals that I was wanting to achieve with the music at the same time. It would take me a lot of time to write a piece that I felt really good about.

MS: Do those pieces now feel like homework assignments, in a way, because you were exploring craft and you were going about it in a way that allowed you to produce quality music, but there were some fundamental things skewed about it?

SKS: You would think that, but actually, even when I had to do fugue exercises, I would wind up breaking whatever rules I had in order to make the piece more expressive. That’s why I got in to writing music. My earliest memories are musical ones where I was singing and narrating everything in song. I want to communicate with a listener and that’s always been important to me. So even my homework assignments were always probably some of the more overwrought with emotion. It’s just the way that I think musically.

MS: You have orchestral premieres coming up this season in North Carolina and in Detroit. I was thinking about the success of Penelope and the album release of your song cycle Unremembered in September and wondering about how you apply this voice when you now sit down to compose for these more traditional formats. Do you have to change your aesthetic or your approach to create the work? Do you feel like you’re actually shifting gears, or is it more a case of “This is the music I make. I’m simply going to create a piece for this type of ensemble.”?

SKS: I really don’t feel like I’m shifting gears. I think that all of my music is narrative driven—that’s what I’m the most interested in musically—mood and storytelling and atmosphere. So all of that is how I’m thinking when I’m composing. I’m not thinking about genre and style.

In the case of Unremembered, that was a project where the commissions came from two different places and the piece sort of evolved over time. It started out as a Roomful of Teeth commission. I wrote these five songs, based on these poems that I asked my friend Nathaniel [Bellows] to write. These poems felt like a leather-bound book of old stories that I wanted to dive into. I really loved writing those songs, so when we were finished, Nathaniel kept writing more poems and I decided to make it a song cycle. At the same time, I got a commission from the Ecstatic Music Festival, and because the commission was coming from Ecstatic, which is run by my [New Amsterdam Records] co-director Judd [Greenstein], it felt informal and relaxed, and they also are open to music that brings together different influences—in fact, they seek that. So I felt comfortable going into my most interior, honest, musical self. It’s a place that all of my music comes from, but here it had more opportunity to really show that melding of influences because it’s written for voice and you’re hearing non-classical singers. Well, I shouldn’t call them non-classical. They all have classical training. Padma [Newsome] and Shara [Worden] both have degrees in classical music—Shara in opera, Padma in composition—but they sing in a style that brings together lots of different influences. I think to me the music is not really any different from the other music I write, it just sounds different because of these singers.

Yet it’s a really interesting question because I do think that there’s an element of unselfconsciousness that I have writing a piece like Unremembered compared to writing a piece for, say, a piano competition. When you’re thinking about who you’re writing for, for me that definitely winds up influencing the music. If I’m thinking about a classical institution and their values and their history, that’s going to inevitably bring out something different in me than a piece written for my good friends who love all the same bands and the same classical composers that I do, and who understand that love of both worlds. For Unremembered, I felt like I could go even deeper into that because Shara had become my closest friend and we’d had so many conversations about classical versus pop music, and all of the frustrations that we had dealing with the lack of infrastructure to support music written in the cracks between those worlds. She also just so comfortably can inhabit both worlds, which is something that so few singers can do, so I felt like I could really let it rip. Like I can just close my eyes, be in the dark room, summon the most me that always felt a little bit repressed, and just let it say whatever the hell it wants to.

I get very confused by this question because I think about this a lot, and I wonder: How is the music different? I don’t want to think of it as being different, because then it feels like I’m holding back in some pieces. Writing this orchestra piece I’m writing now, I don’t feel like I’m holding back anything. I feel as at home writing this as I did writing Unremembered. But I listened to so much pop and rock music growing up that it felt like a home to me. Classical music did too, but in some ways, pop felt even more like a home because there weren’t things I didn’t know. I’d performed classical music since I was kid, but I was always aware that there was so much history and theory I didn’t know — I felt very intimidated and ignorant, and that stressed me out. Whereas with rock music, I’d communed with that music so deeply that it felt like it didn’t have anything over me.

MS: Well, where you might argue that a decade ago this intermingling was a specific side stream, those delineations continue to disappear by the year. You developed your own voice in the midst of that transition.

SKS: Now it’s normal. It’s almost weird if you don’t do it.

MS: Now, even when it comes to such a tradition-bound ensemble as the orchestra, it seems like the media has been suggesting that there is a swell of interest in new work—perhaps especially by this cohort of composers more comfortable with more mainstream musical idioms. Are you seeing evidence of such a move?

SKS: It’s tough because it gets to this idea of accessibility and no composer wants to talk about this. Because how do you define what’s accessible? And calling something accessible makes it sound dumbed down or not challenging, or like you’re compromising. But at the same time, audiences say things like, “I love this music. I felt like I could get into this music. Other new music, I can’t get into. I don’t understand. It feels like I need a degree to understand it.” There’s something real to that.

I think there’s something about narrative. I think there’s something about people feeling like they have a way in and can follow along—follow a story or that there’s some rhythmic hook or beautiful textures. I think it does have to do with things as basic as melody and narrative and having the form be something that feels grok-able by an average person. Average person? See, it’s so hard to talk about this!

MS: You’ve mentioned narrative a few times now. And a lot of your projects end up with additional elements, whether that’s videos or images, to carry some of that narrative weight, or there are performers on stage singing, using language. That seems like a preference for you.

SKS: I’ve always been very interested in narrative, and I’ve always been very interested in tension and release, which is really all that narrative is. Having problems and conflicts in the music, and then resolving them, all of those things are what drew me to classical music as a child. I was fascinated by the stories that Beethoven would tell, and the stories that Chopin would tell. I thought of them as stories. As a kid, I would want to know, “How was this conflict going to get resolved? And how are these characters going to figure out how to agree or co-exist?”

So I’ve always been really interested in that. This orchestra piece that I’m just finishing now for North Carolina, we created a film component to go with it. I was working with Mark DeChiazza, who works with new music composers and creates film that doesn’t compete too much with the music, but somehow complements it and provides another dimension, or another lens, through which to experience the music. He was saying that he feels like he’s picturing to score, as opposed to scoring to picture. When I’m writing this music, it feels like I’m making a film, or writing novel, or a short story. I really think about it in those kinds of terms. That’s how I get from one note to the next.

I need to have that, but when I was first studying composition, I was fighting that impulse a lot, because that wasn’t in fashion; having climaxes—that’s romantic and not really cool. You’re putting your heart on your sleeve. One of my teachers used to say that my music was too clear, that the audience always knew where they were in my pieces. I thought that was a good thing! There was a lot of new music where I had no idea where I was. The form felt totally random and arbitrary, and that would drive me nuts. I’m not trying to slag on any other kinds of music, but I need order. I think for me it’s because the world is such a chaotic place, and music feels like a place where I can actually take comfort in the order of things. So it’s an interest in telling stories, but I think it’s also a need for things to have purpose and meaning and reason behind them. I think that’s a huge part of what drives me—taking the chaos and the randomness of the universe and putting it into something meaningful to me emotionally.

MS: So if we can come down from the philosophical for a second, how does this actually work? What is your working process?

SKS: I start with tunes. I get a lot of melodies — motives usually, more than melodies, like short little melodic cells — stuck in my head. I sing them into my iPhone, and I have thousands of these. I take walks, and I’ll think about where an idea could go next. But it always starts with these little motivic cells. Then I’ll go to the piano and see what my hands have to say about it, because I find that my hands have other things to say than my brain does—so many years of being a pianist, so I always like to see what comes out of that. But then most of my music I just write directly into the computer. I don’t sit at the piano or a keyboard. I just hear things, and it’s a very intuitive process.

I use a lot of the craft that I was taught, and if I get stuck, that really helps a lot. Steve and I often joke, well, if you’re stuck, did you go through the inversion? Did you go through the retrograde inversion? Did you try—? You know, these tools that you wouldn’t think would be associated with the kind of music that we write, but that sometimes can be very helpful. And all of those things are a part of the toolbox which helps you see what your clay looks like: the shape of it, the feel of it, the texture, the look, and all of that. So I spend a lot of time doing that, trying to intellectually massage my material, but it always comes from a more emotional place initially.

MS: What about the fact that, at least for pieces such as Penelope and Unremembered, you’re writing for some very particular voices? Though it was interesting to me to realize that they had actually been written for several sets of very unique voices throughout a project’s evolution. So was that a conscious part of the compositional creation of the work? Or just a feature—that your work then can showcase that sort of artist?

SKS: After the theater version of Penelope was complete and I decided that I wanted to make a song cycle version out of it, there was this interim period where I worked with Signal and a classical singer— Rachel Calloway, who is an amazing singer, and I loved working with her. But I found that she wasn’t as comfortable singing it in a more pop style—which makes perfect sense. I realized it wasn’t really fair to ask a classical singer to go outside of that persona. It really needed to be sung by somebody who was coming organically from both worlds at the same time.

So I thought of Shara because I knew her music, and I had read that she had studied opera. Judd and I were talking about this one day, and I said, “You know, the only person I can imagine doing this is Shara Worden, but we don’t know her. How do I get her to do this? Why would she want to do this?” And he said, ” Actually, she’s a friend of Padma’s.” So I sent Shara an email out of the blue, and we met at a practice room in Midtown and played through some things. Immediately it was like, “Oh, this is exactly what Penelope needs. I don’t have to articulate anything to Shara about how it should be sung.” She just immediately got it.

So I went back home, opened up the cycle, and I changed a lot of things and tried to make it more relaxed and open to what Shara brings. That was a fun experience, artistically gratifying, but it still ultimately wasn’t something that was conceived from the ground up for Shara. And I wanted to do that. So, after the Roomful of Teeth versions of Unremembered, I then wrote eight more songs—just letting my imagination run wild, knowing Shara’s voice as well as I did at that point in time. It felt very natural; I had lots of ideas. I knew they would work for her, and I knew that she would get it. Working with her is like a mind meld. We don’t really have to talk about anything. She looks at the music, she sings it, and we’re there. You just don’t have that opportunity too many times in life, and that artistic connection we have has brought us closer as friends. It’s all part of the same thing.

MS: It seems that for a lot of these projects, that’s a palpable thing—that the artists have a sense of family or feel a part of a band. Is that an important aspect of music making to you?

SKS: Definitely. Particularly if it’s a piece like Unremembered—and this is why I’m so excited to see lots of young new performers who are bringing different sides of their musical loves together in their performance technique, because I think that that’s something we weren’t seeing for such a long time. But with Penelope and still to a degree with Unremembered, I worry: How will this piece live on after Shara or after I’m gone? Because it’s such a specific kind of voice. It’s really tough to find that. Who knows what the future holds for this kind of music. Understandably, if Shara hasn’t been available to sing it, a lot of institutions and ensembles haven’t wanted to do it because who else were they going to find to sing this music that way?

I want my music to sound like it was written by these other performers. In the case of, say, Penelope and Unremembered, I want it to be performed in a way that sounds like they wrote it. They own it. And yet, I do have this composer control freakiness where I write every single note and every single inflection, and there’s not a thing that they do that I hadn’t asked for. But I want it to look in the end like my hand is invisible in the product; it was just this thing made by this character. Not made by Shara, or David [Stith], or Padma per se, but by the characters who are singing these songs. That’s very important to me.

MS: What is your approach to text setting in that case?

SKS: God, I feel like I sound so emo. But again, it’s just getting back to this emotional center. I’m fascinated by complex emotions—the places where affection crosses over and merges with dread, or regret merges with gratitude. And so I’m always thinking about the emotion and then the ideas come from there. I want the text setting to sound very natural, so I’m very particular about the texts that I set. That’s why I wanted to work with Nathaniel, because we’re old friends and I knew that he would be able to understand that and could write using very direct, concise language that packed a big punch imagistically. That was really important to me, because one problem I have with a lot of new music text setting is that there’s so much language being crammed into a musical phrase, and music really bloats a text. If you have too many words, you can lose some of the punch emotionally or musically. So I start with texts that I really like, and then I really just think about it in terms of storytelling and narrative and the emotion of the characters who are singing these lines.

MS: And Nathaniel helped you out there, right, because he actually sent you illustrations?

SKS: Yeah, that was a wonderful surprise. He sent me the poems, and then he was like, “Oh, by the way, I did some illustrations. I don’t know if you want to see them. Maybe they’d be useful.” And my mind was blown. They really inspired me tremendously, and I got immediate musical ideas upon looking at them, which was really interesting to me because that was the first time that had ever happened. I would see a picture of a girl running in one corner of the illustration, and I would hear one motive. And I would look at another part of the illustration where there were kids around a camp fire, and I would immediately hear something else. It was really great to have that be such an organic part of the writing process because I felt like I was really plugging into his psyche, where these stories came from for him emotionally.

MS: Listening to Unremembered yesterday, I really felt as if with this piece you had reached a certain significant point of arrival as an artist.

SKS: Well, something I’ve never said on record about Penelope is the extent to which it didn’t feel representative of me and all that I’d gone through as a composer in a lot of ways. It was getting back to my teenage me in a way, integrating my love of pop music, but it was leaving out all of this technique that I had worked so hard to bring into my music. That complexity is a big part of who I am as a composer, so it was nice with Unremembered to feel like I could put some of that back in. Everybody got to know me as the writer of Penelope and thought that that was what I did, the only kind of music I’d ever written. Nobody knew about this string quartet that I wrote, which sounds like the Second Viennese School, or this cello piece which was very Kodály, and these other pieces I’d written which were so different sounding from Penelope but which also felt like a really important part of my musical personality. Unremembered is still closer to Penelope than it is to that string quartet, but it was nice to feel like okay, this is 100% my piece, my design. I can make these songs anything I want.

So it’s funny when you say this feels like an arrival. I guess in a way it is because it is the first piece I’ve written where I’ve really brought together these two sides of my personality equally. I’m finding a way to integrate them that feels truer to the hybrid animal I feel like I am.

MS: I also heard in this piece perhaps darker, more aggressive language, and I wondered, since we were speaking about gender and expectations earlier, if the inclusion of male voices in the work had any influence on opening you up there?

SKS: I don’t think that having male voices really allowed me to explore a more aggressive side of myself musically. I mean, you look at The Witch, which is a song Shara sings, and that’s one of the most aggressive performances on the album. But it was really fun for me to get to explore that side of myself in vocal writing. I have a darker personality, I would say, than a lighter one. I felt like my whole life growing up was about putting on a smile and being a good girl and not showing that side of myself, and so when I get to go into the music that I’m writing and let that out, it just feels so great. Because it’s like I can finally say these things I’ve been wanting to say, and I won’t offend anybody. Maybe I will offend them musically, but I won’t be impolite. It’s great to be able to explore that side of myself in a very safe space.

I think being able to authentically access emotion really shows in the music itself. I’ve always felt like my nerves were on the outside. I’m hypersensitive and when I was a kid, I always felt like there was something wrong with me because I seemed to feel things in this outsized way compared to my friends, and I felt like that was weird—but it actually helps my work now. So there are good and bad sides to having—let’s call them—emotionally quirky personalities.

I’m trying to think of some helpful things to say about mental issues, and I’m failing. [Composer and New Amsterdam co-founder] Bill [Brittelle] and I talk about this a lot because we feel like it’s such a huge part of our writing, but we feel like we’re not supposed to talk about it. It’s weird because in pop and rock music, it’s good if you talk about it. It sells more albums and it sells more magazines. There’s something weird about new music where we like to divorce our personal side from the music. As a composer, you’re supposed to represent yourself more as like a good student who is articulate and responsible and intellectually and emotionally in control. This is why I thought it was so great that Nico Muhly came forward to talk about his personal struggles with mental well-being. It would be great for composers to be more comfortable talking about who they really are, and not be afraid to show the full 360 of their personhood.

I think this is related to what I was talking about with regard to the pop and classical bifurcation in the early- to mid-20th century. We’d had World War II and nothing you could say in music could do justice to the horror of the Holocaust. So music became as intellectualized as possible—let’s not even try to comment emotionally, because nothing we could say could address all of this. And also, of course, the rise of science and objectivism, and the prizing of those rational values over irrational ones. As a result, I just feel like, generation after generation, we were taught to tamp down our emotions, both in our music and personally in the way that we relate to audiences. One of my frustrations in grad school was just this, the fact that in seminar we would never talk about the emotional meaning of something. We would never talk about how a piece of music made us feel. It was always about more dispassionate, scientific pursuits—the form, the harmony, the gesture, articulations.

I think we’re still recovering from that, but I feel like we’re coming into this golden age now where there are a lot of composers who are more comfortable incorporating lots of different styles into their music, and being more themselves in the way they relate to the audience, which makes perhaps the music more accessible to audiences. Who knows? But the audiences are enjoying it, and it shows on their faces when they come rushing up to the composers afterwards and are telling them how much they loved it. I mean, when we were down in North Carolina recently, it was like we were rock stars. There was a long receiving line of audience members, and their genuine and enthusiastic expressions of delight were so moving. You know, while there are these dire reports saying that classical music is dying, they’re notably not being written by people who are actually in the field. I see tremendous growth happening in terms of the relationships between the audience and the composers and the administrators, and this sense of excitement about the potential there.

MS: So with your perspective at this point, how does the work of New Amsterdam compare with other similar aesthetic shifts but from earlier times, such as Bang on a Can? Because it seems like there are intersections, but also some strikingly different aspects.

SKS: Bang on a Can—I mean, they’re gods and goddesses. Their influence on composers of my generation is huge. The praises of it can’t really be sung highly enough. But I think the music of the world of Bang on a Can and the music of the world of New Amsterdam are a bit different. I think a lot of it has to do with, of course, the time in which both originated. [For BoaC] there was still this idea that you had to sort of define yourself in the language that was created by your enemy. They were rebelling against modernist strictures, but it was still like, “Okay, we need to write music that is defensible in terms of systems, and practices, and processes.” There were still a lot of shoulds and shouldn’ts, to be honest. And when Judd and Bill and I first started talking about New Amsterdam, we felt like, gosh, there’s still this sense of you can do this, you can’t do that. So let’s do all the things that we’re really not supposed to do. Let’s bring in bad taste. Let’s bring in indecorous musical behavior. Let’s write climaxes. Let’s wear our hearts on our sleeves. Let’s tell stories with clear narrative arcs. Let’s bring in cheesy electric guitar. What is the music that would come out of us if we hadn’t had a single composition lesson, or been exposed to the worlds of who was successful as a composer and who wasn’t? It was really a thought experiment. We all had some anxiety about it to varying degrees.

So that was the ideology, or the philosophy, the ethos, whatever, behind starting New Amsterdam. I think that also is what separates it a bit from Bang on a Can. It is a different time. I don’t really know how they pulled off what they did; it’s so much easier for us. We have the luxury now of living in a freer time and place. We like that New Amsterdam is really hard to describe. We just want it to be a place where composers are exploring all the music that they love, while still using the tools of their training as composers to write it.

MS: With all that freedom, do you feel now that you’ve sort of settled into a voice that you will hone, or are you still exploring.

SKS: I feel like it’s an honest reflection of everything—of my loves as a person on the planet, and my loves as a composer specifically. So I feel really good about it in that sense. But at the same time, I hope that I’m always growing and changing. I think that will keep me interested in the music that I’m writing, and hopefully keep me interesting as a composer. I never want to feel like I’m stuck in a comfort zone. That kind of terrifies me.

In fact, one thing that was troublesome to me about Penelope was that I would get commissions where people would say, “Can you write something like Penelope?” I felt a little bit pigeon holed by that. That’s why I started incorporating more chromaticism immediately after Penelope. I needed to remind myself that that wasn’t the only thing I can do. There’s a whole other world of music that I want to write.

This is a tough thing for a composer. If you get a bunch of good reviews telling you that you did this one thing really well, then you want to keep doing that thing and keep getting that positive feedback. But I think you can get stuck writing the same piece over and over. Composition can start to lose the luster if that happens. So I hope that I’m always able to keep evolving my voice.

NewMusicBox LIVE! Presents Joan Tower

To conclude our first NewMusicBox LIVE! event, we invited Joan Tower to share her some of her acerbic wit and wisdom with us. It was yet another fascinating twist to an evening that had already showcased saxophonist/sound experimentalist Matana Roberts and singer/songwriter Gabriel Kahane. Though seemingly unrelated, having these three musical creators share the stage is an accurate reflection of what a big tent new music has become in the 21st century. Tower opined that there used to be only “three choices” for composers—“uptown, midtown, and downtown”—and no matter what you wrote, it would “usually hang out with dead white European males,” but now we have “God knows, fifty choices” even though all too often “we live in a world of compartmentalized music.” Joining her to perform two of her dazzling virtuoso solo compositions were rising star violinist Bella Hristova and the iconic new music pianist Ursula Oppens.

NewMusicBox LIVE! presents Matana Roberts

Saxophonist/sound experimentalist Matana Roberts took the stage at NewMusicBox LIVE! on May 19, 2015, to share a story from her four weeks of travel in the American south. “I’m obsessed with American history because it’s so, sooo messed up,” Roberts told the crowd to acknowledging laughter. Before launching into the tale of her visit to a Civil War cemetery as part of her #SouthernSojourn2014 project, she prepared the audience to share in its telling by contributing a sung tone when cued throughout her 30-minute set. Combining words and music, she then recounted an experience that showcased the kindness of strangers and the instincts of an improviser.