Category: Conversations

Samuel Adler: Knowing What You’re Doing

A conversation at the German Consulate to the United Nations
March 12, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

You’d be hard pressed to find someone who is more steeped in the tradition of Western classical music composition than Samuel Adler. The author of six symphonies, five operas, a dozen concertos, and ten string quartets (eight of which he still acknowledges), plus a ton of sonatas and choral pieces, Adler—now 87—remains steadfast in his determination to preserve and build upon this tradition.

“I would much rather have my piece played as a sandwich in between Haydn and Beethoven or Brahms and Stravinsky than between Mary Jane and John Doe … we’re writing music in a tradition, not the tradition, but a tradition,” exclaimed Adler when we spoke to him at the German Consulate to the United States before he began sifting through scores submitted by composers hoping to study with him in Berlin this summer.

Adler proudly asserted that he has now taught for 63 years, “first at North Texas, then at Eastman for 30 years, and 18 years at Juilliard.” Teacher-student relationships have been among the most important interactions of his life. His own teachers are practically a who’s who of 20th-century American music—Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, Randall Thompson, Paul Hindemith, and Serge Koussevitsky. Throughout our conversation, he brought up people he has taught as well, including Barbara Harbach—for whom he composed a formidable solo harpsichord sonata—and Kevin Puts, the premiere of whose new opera, The Manchurian Candidate, Adler travelled especially to Minneapolis to attend the day before we spoke.

I’m very inspired by my students … I feel the teacher’s task is first and foremost to inspire the student to write as much as possible without any consideration for style and things like that. … I see the problems that students have that I also have. Sometimes I solve them for myself by solving them for the students. That’s a great influence on me, as has being with young people, and always being fed new ideas.

Beyond his own students, Adler has had a significant impact on countless others as a result of his writing definitive tomes on orchestration, choral conducting, and sight singing. Imparting these basic musicianship skills has been as central to his life’s work as his composing. He firmly believes that composers who eschew craft do so at their peril. But don’t assume that Adler believes the path to writing a successful piece of music is about merely following his rules or anyone else’s. Adler insists a composer also has to take risks, which is why in the 1960s and ’70s he dabbled in serialism, indeterminacy, and even electronics, though never in an austere or overly rigid way.

“I think a composer needs to go through what’s going on and still make it his own,” he explains. “I find that a piece has to be satisfying to play and have some kind of a message to give.”

Sometimes in order to do that, you actually have to break the rules.

“That’s how you compose—you cheat!”

Frank J. Oteri: We’ve never actually filmed a talk in a consulate before.

Samuel Adler: This makes it international. We’re not on American soil.

FJO: Technically we’re not. And this is very interesting because even though you’ve spent the majority of your life in the United States and created your music here, you actually were not born on American soil.

Sam Adler as a young child walking in a park with his father holding his right hand and his mother holding his left hand.

Samuel Adler in Mannheim in 1929 with father Hugo, and mother, Selma. (Photo courtesy Samuel Adler.)

SA: That’s true. I was born in Germany in Mannheim, in a house where Mozart lived. There was a plaque on the hospital where I was born, and it said, “Here was the Weber House.” He married Constanze Weber, who was a Mannheim girl, related to Carl Maria von Weber. My mother took a picture of the plaque and said to my father that there is no chance that our boy won’t be a composer. It was predestined by birth. So that’s my claim to fame.

FJO: But it was a little more complicated than that. As far as I know, you didn’t start writing music until you came to this country.

SA: Well, I was writing music so my sister could sing the songs, and if she didn’t sing them well I’d beat her up. That’s a very bad thing. But no, seriously, my father discouraged me from writing music before I had a background in theory and counterpoint. So after we came to this country, at eleven, he sent me to Boston every week to Herbert Fromm who was a student of Hindemith’s, and we did very strict harmony and counterpoint and sight singing and ear training, until I went to college.

An historic black and white photo of a crowd of people gathered together on the deck of a boat.

Samuel Adler on board the SS Manhattan, as the ship entered New York Harbor, the passengers collected to view the Statue of Liberty, January 22, 1939. (Photo courtesy Samuel Adler.)

FJO: It’s interesting that your father discouraged you from writing music, since he was a composer himself.

SA: That’s right. But he said you shouldn’t just write anything that comes to mind. You should know what you’re doing. The more I’ve taught, the more I think he was right because there are too many people, especially today, who sit in their basements with their computers and think they’re composing. I just feel that that’s leading people astray. Some people are lucky and are very talented with the computer and can do it. I’m not saying it can’t be done. But there is too much of that.

FJO: So what are the things that a composer should be doing?

SA: In the first place, a composer should play an instrument. I think that’s very important, no matter what it is, to have some tactical input into music. It doesn’t have to be a piano. It doesn’t have to be the violin. It can be the marimba. It can be the accordion. Then I think if a person is really interested in creating something, he or she should first steep themselves in music of previous times. I’m not just talking about yesterday’s music. Not only tradition. For instance, if you’re interested in folk music, you can start with that. But you must not come to the study of composition without any preparation.

If you’re really interested, you should have a year of preliminary exercises—in harmony, counterpoint, perhaps melody writing, which most people can’t do anymore. I feel that way every time I speak to high school students. Let’s say I want to get going in physics. I’m going to go to the best school, either MIT or Harvard. No other schools. I go to the head of the physics department, I say, “Sir, I want to major in physics.” “Have you had trigonometry?” “No. But I love physics.” “Well, can you add and subtract? “No, but I love when Einstein goes to the board and puts all those figures on it. That turns me on.” That’s how too many people go to music school—not knowing the fundamentals! For instance, everybody hates sight-singing classes, especially singers, and that’s one of the most important things. I have taught now for 63 years, first at North Texas, then at Eastman for 30 years, and 18 years at Juilliard. I know that singers get jobs if they can read. But nobody seems to be able to convince people going through their first year in music school that that is the most important thing, or that you really also need to know what a cadence is.

I get around this country, and I know what’s going on. We have thousands upon thousands of music students. In many places you are admitted if you love music. That’s a problem. Sometimes I resented my father, of course, but he was right. I feel much better that I had a background in something, that I could hear something. I feel that’s an important thing.

FJO: Your father was a composer, primarily of liturgical music, and he was a cantor. I’m curious about the music you were exposed to during your childhood.

SA: I was a violinist, and my father was an excellent pianist. We played every sonata from Bach to Bartók that we could get our hands on. That’s the music I heard. I played it. I had wonderful friends in high school. We had a double string quartet. Not an octet, but a double string quartet. I never played the Mendelssohn Octet, I’m sorry to say, until in college. But we played twice a week, three hours of quartet music. So I really got the message. I can’t thank my parents enough for the encouragement to do these things and the help that they gave me to do them.

FJO: And when you say Bach to Bartók, that’s when Bartok was new music.

SA: Listen, I went to the first performance of the Concerto for Orchestra. I want to tell you a very funny story about it. Koussevitsky did it in Boston in 1944. My father took me to the Friday afternoon concert. Being a young, aspiring composer, I went back stage to get his autograph. Well, he was very sick at that time; he was sitting bent over and was hardly able to say or do anything. Koussevitsky came in all energized, sweating all over. It was difficult for him because of all the changes of meter. That wasn’t his thing. But he did it, and he did it with great confidence. He came in and said to all the reporters gathered, “Boys, there sits the greatest composer in the world.” Bartók looked up to him and said, “Serge, didn’t you say last week it was Prokofiev?” Well, last week it was Prokofiev because he did the first performance of the fifth Prokofiev [symphony]. So, that was the greatest composer in the world. That was a great period in Boston. When I went to school in Boston, every week there was a premiere, and mostly by American composers: [Walter] Piston, [Roger] Sessions, [Randall] Thompson, [Aaron] Copland. Those people.

FJO: And you studied with almost all of them.

SA: Absolutely.

Side view of Samuel Adler and Aaron Copland standing next to each other, both wearing glasses.

Samuel Adler with Aaron Copland At Eastman in April 23, 1976. Photo by Louis Ouzer (1912-2002), courtesy of the Sibley Music Library at the Eastman School of Music

FJO: And you also studied conducting with Koussevitsky.

SA: And composition with Hindemith.

FJO: But you’re more comfortable with changing meters.

SA: Oh, yes. As a matter of fact, I’m always accused of doing that too much. In September, we’re going to record my Sixth Symphony, and in the last movement I don’t think there are two measures alike. I’m not so worried about it because I think it gives a focus to the accent that’s better than just putting an accent. But a lot of people disagree, especially conductors.


Samuel Adler’s manuscript for his Symphony No. 6 © 1985 by Theodore Presser Company (ASCAP). All rights reserved.


FJO: Will you be conducting?

SA: No.

FJO: So someone’s going to have to deal with it.

SA: José Serebrier’s conducting. And he is a composer himself. He knows what it’s about.

FJO: Good. Now, I had some thoughts about your studies with Hindemith. You were just mentioning that your first instrument was the violin.

SA: And viola.

FJO: Yes. I remember reading in the program notes you wrote for Randolph Kelly’s recording of your Viola Concerto on Albany that the viola was your first instrument.

SA: Well, I’ll tell you what happened. Today we’ve got a glut of violists. But in those days, there were none. The first violist in our high school orchestra, which was the size of the Boston Symphony, left. He graduated. So on Friday, the conductor said, “Sam, here’s a viola. Monday you play viola.” I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know that clef. In desperation, I called a friend of mine, and he said, “Listen, just don’t even worry about the clef. Play third position as first position and you got it.” And it’s true. I never learned the clef.

FJO: You certainly know it now.

SA: Of course. I’m joking. But in those days, I didn’t need to. I just did that.

A young Samuel Adler playing the violin.

A young Samuel Adler playing the violin. (Photo courtesy Samuel Adler.)

FJO: Well, what’s interesting about playing viola—and I think that’s what gives Hindemith’s some of its gravitas and particularly its really strong internal logic, and I would dare the same is true about your music as well—is that since you both played the viola, you were both more attuned to the middle register and had a better vantage point into the orchestra overall.

SA: Mendelssohn said it’s the soul of the string quartet. Because it is. You can hear all the other voices. A friend of mine who is a great colleague and an excellent composer, Gunther Schuller, really learned how to orchestrate because he sat in the orchestra and, when he wasn’t playing [French horn], he looked at the score. And he heard all those things. The greatest experience for a composer is to play in an orchestra or sing in a choir. As a matter of fact, you should do both. Because one will teach you that it’s not so easy to find the pitches that you think they should have. I wonder if Webern could have sung his cantatas in a choir. They’re terrific pieces, but they’re difficult because it’s not what you can see or hear.

FJO: An area we didn’t talk about yet, which seems appropriate for a conversation we’re having in the German consulate, is the difference between European and American musical culture, which is definitely something you could speak to because you travel back and forth so much and even teach a summer composition course in Germany.

SA: In Berlin. And I just had a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic, which was very nice. It was in a program called “Violins of Hope.” It was a commemoration of the freeing of Auschwitz. They did a fantastic program and included my Elegy.


The score for Samuel Adler’s 1962 Elegy for string orchestra. © 1964 by Theodore Presser Company (ASCAP). All rights reserved.


Of course, the first difference is that in most countries like Germany, the state helps. You don’t need philanthropy all over the place to get enough money for the orchestra or the opera to function. Now, that’s good and bad. I think we have a culture of giving in this country which is rather wonderful. And many people are committed to classical music, to opera, to pop, to jazz, whatever.

Another thing to consider is the patronage of the composer in Europe versus America. In America I must say, speaking from personal experience and from the experience of let’s say 90 percent of my colleagues, the universities are our patron. And it’s a very good patron considering that, once you have tenure, they can’t throw you out because they don’t like your music. While Mr. Esterhazy could throw away Haydn’s music because he thought that Haydn shouldn’t play this. So, I mean, we don’t have that flip kind of thing.

There is also one other thing in particular. I think we in America have a terrible inferiority complex when it comes to our own music. Sure, our pop music pervades the world. There’s nothing like it. But we also have classical music—which is a terrible term. We also have concert music. We have hundreds of orchestras in this country. And what do they do? Most of them completely neglect our tremendous heritage. For instance, I think if you can count them up, more symphonies were written by American composers in the 19th and 20th centuries than in Europe or any other place. I’ve been to China four times. They really love our music. I’ve conducted Piston, Harris, Copland—they love that music. We don’t. At least we don’t show that we love it. And I think this is a very big shame. Can you imagine in Germany them not playing Beethoven? Or not playing Brahms? Even the 20th century composers—Hindemith is a rock star even today. Less so than he was in the 1950s, because he went back himself to conduct, but they still do the music. [Karl Amadeus] Hartmann, who’s a wonderful composer, is done by the major orchestras. I feel that’s one big difference.

We also have another inferiority complex when it comes to audiences. Look, I’m now 87. I’m old, yes, but I still can get around. I even got here this morning. And the thing about graying audiences, well, I have two daughters. They have families. They can’t afford it. Every once in a while they go, but the prices are high, babysitters, and so on. The graying audience is there to stay. It’s wonderful. I’m glad they’re coming. What’s really bad and that is what Europe also doesn’t have is a wonderful educational system in music, which we had. When I went to school, America had the very best music education in the world. We had orchestras and we played all the Brahms symphonies in high school. We played all the Beethoven symphonies except the Ninth. Now that’s really something. Plus, our conductor encouraged me to write a piece for the orchestra every semester. They don’t exist anymore, but I got that experience.

I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, and at 15 I was playing in the Worcester Philharmonic, which was a town-gown kind of orchestra. I wrote a piece during the war called Epitaph for the Unknown American Soldier. We actually performed the piece. The New York Times even ran a review. A very excellent publisher in those days, Mills Music, called me the next day. I should come to New York. So I came to New York. A cigar-chewing man, Max Stark, was the head of the company here, and he had Morton Gould, Leroy Anderson, Roy Harris, and Zez Confrey—you know, the guy who wrote “Kitten on the Keys.” They were all there to convince me to go with the company. They took me out to lunch. When we came back, he said, “Sam, we’re going to publish everything that you write from now on, including the Epitaph for the Unknown American Soldier.” I don’t know how I got home! But, of course, I couldn’t sign the contract. My father had to sign. And when I got home, my father said, “I’m not going to sign this contract.” “It’s making my future; this is my future.” He said, “Look, the pieces you write now in five years, you’re going to be sorry to see again.” As my grandsons say, I was bummed. Of course, I’m always reminded of that because they did publish one piano piece called Arabesque, which is the worst piano piece ever. I’m not kidding. And I can see it, and I know how right my father was.

A young Samuel Adler sitting at a piano looking at sheet music while his father Hugo sitting next to him is speaking and has his hands raised as if conducting.

Hugo Adler and Samuel Adler. Date unknown. (Photo courtesy Samuel Adler.)

FJO: So there’s no score of Epitaph.

SA: No, and no score of my first two string quartets, nor the first violin sonata, nor the first cello sonata. Look, one has to be judicious. Now Brahms I think was too judicious because I think he was a much better composer at that time. I’m glad Mendelssohn didn’t throw away all those pieces he wrote when he was 12, 13, 14, because those are masterpieces. I was not a masterpiece writer in those days. It was, you know, music. But bad.

FJO: But you said you got a good review in The New York Times.

SA: Oh, and how. And the Third String Quartet, which is now my first, really convinced me not to have the other two because The New York Times said this is a new voice in our musical horizon. Well, that’s nice.

FJO: If that convinced you to eliminate the other two, why did you keep calling it String Quartet No. 3?

SA: Because it was published already.

FJO: But the other two weren’t.

SA: The other two were manuscripts, so I could easily throw them away.

FJO: But if you call something number three, everybody wants to know what happened to one and two.

SA: Well, that’s for the musicologists. You know it’s wonderful for them.

FJO: So there are no manuscripts hiding out somewhere.

SA: No, because I’m old enough to have experiences with fallen colleagues’ wives. You know, colleagues who have died, and their wives find a piece and say, “This is a masterpiece my husband wrote.” Always, it never fails. If he was a friend of mine, they call me and say, “Sam, this must be published.” What are you going to say? She was in love with the man. That’s great. But the piece shouldn’t be published, you know. So I make sure that it doesn’t exist.

FJO: Now hang on. You say these pieces shouldn’t be published, but you also said Brahms went too far. Isn’t it helpful to aspiring composers to see the failures as well as well as the successes?

SA: You’re absolutely right. But it’s a little embarrassing, I think. I mean, it would be for me. Look, Brahms’s early works, Opus 1 to 8, those fantastic pieces for piano, these are already mature masterpieces. Mine were not. I have to admit that, and why not admit it and get rid of it. I’m very proud of the Third Quartet. I think it’s a decent work, it works very well. People love to play it. Great.

FJO: Now the earliest piece of yours I know is the Horn Sonata.

SA: Yeah, that is the earliest. I fell in love with a horn player and wrote this for her junior recital, as a matter of fact. It was also the reason I wrote so many brass pieces in those days. I’m very sorry about them. And you see, those pieces were immediately published because my theory teacher was Robert King of Robert King Music, music for brass. So whatever I wrote, he published right away, including the Horn Sonata. Now I’m not ashamed of the Horn Sonata. It’s very Hindemithian, and I know that. I’m not ashamed of the First Symphony which is a combination of influences from Copland and Piston. I was very happy to write it and I still like it. For my 80th birthday, there were ten performances of it. And I must say, the tenth performance I actually liked.

Adler in military uniform conducting an orchestra in front of an audience

Samuel Adler in Germany in the early 1950s conducting the Seventh Army Symphony . (Photo courtesy Samuel Adler.)

FJO: I’m curious about what the attributes are for a piece that you think is truly you and how you are able to sense it as a composer.

SA: That’s a tough question because at one point you just feel that it’s going—it’s saying something. That’s really all I can say. I have to be a little abstract about it. You just know that this is a piece. And also, it comes from the performer. The first two string quartets I played myself and I was always dissatisfied, but I didn’t know what to do about it. By the way, the performance of the Third Quartet that was hailed here in New York, it’s not the way the string quartet is now, because it was re-done five, six years later. I usually don’t re-do pieces. I’d rather throw them away. But I think that was worth doing and, as a matter of fact, the second movement is the elegy that was played in Berlin. That was written before the Third Quartet was redone.

FJO: So was the Third String Quartet the piece in which you feel you found your personal voice as a composer?

SA: No. The Second Violin Sonata is the first piece that I think is me. The Horn Sonata is not. I’m not ashamed of it. I think it works. I just heard a beautiful recording of it by the principal horn in the Houston Symphony, William VerMeulen. He plays it as if he were playing the Hindemith sonata. The Hindemith is very good and unfortunately, this gets coupled with it all the time. Some people like it better. Most people don’t like it better. But that’s alright.

I find that a piece has to be satisfying to play and have some kind of a message to give. What it is should be the composer’s secret. I’m very much against telling too much to the audience because the result that I have seen, if I’ve said too much, is, “Well, it doesn’t mean that to me.” This is a danger, you know, like the whole idea of “Do you think I’ll remember this melody when I leave the concert hall?” Look, you’re going to remember Schubert Unfinished because you’ve heard it six thousand times. Of course, when you hear it again, you’re going to know it and sing it on the way out. I’m not for writing melodies like that necessarily, but I do feel that part of it should be communicative. The music should say something, give an experience. All I ask of an audience is not that they like the piece or don’t like the piece. All I want is for an audience to have an experience with me, an adventure, something new, something different. I cannot have them expect a piece that sounds like Mozart or Beethoven or Brahms or Debussy or Stravinsky. It may have parts of all of these things, but I want it to be an adventure. Most of our audiences don’t want an adventure because they’re told they shouldn’t like the piece in the first place, instead of just letting them enjoy it.

FJO: I think one of the problems—and this is truer with orchestra concerts than with other formats—is that the new piece has to co-exist on a program with older pieces that are already familiar.

SA: Which actually I like. I don’t like new music programs, because most of them are the same. That is, it’s all music that is new to everybody. I would much rather have my piece played as a sandwich in between Haydn and Beethoven or Brahms and Stravinsky than between Mary Jane and John Doe. This started in the ‘60s, the whole business of new music groups. It said that our music has to be anaesthesized, and I don’t think so. At least I would hope not. They’re wonderful, and I love them, and I write for them, and again I love them. But we’re writing music in a tradition, not the tradition, but a tradition.

Side view of Adler with arm raised conducting an orchestra

Adler conducting the Eastman Philharmonia on October 28, 1966. Photos by Louis Ouzer, courtesy Sibley Music Library.

FJO: Well, most of the pieces you have composed clearly fall within this tradition—six symphonies, a dozen concertos, sonatas for all different kinds of instruments, ten string quartets minus the two that you’ve hidden from us.

SA: Operas.

FJO: Yeah, five operas—we’ll get to those soon. But before we do, these are all types of pieces that have hundreds of years of history behind them. When you call something your Symphony No. 4, not only does it automatically reference your previous three symphonies, but everybody else’s symphonies. It makes the piece part of a continuing dialectic, and because of that I think it gives listeners an expectation about what they are going to hear.

SA: Well, my Third Symphony is altogether different because it’s for wind ensemble and is only two movements. As for the rest of them—you mentioned the Fourth Symphony. In the Fourth and Fifth symphonies there were really experimental things, especially in the Fifth Symphony. I was going for 12 years through a period of being influenced by serial music, aleatoric music, and so on. I think a composer needs to go through what’s going on and still make it his own. I think Webern sounds very different from Schoenberg and Berg sounds very different from Schoenberg or Webern. No people’s music can sound more different than mine from my closest friend in the last years at Juilliard, Milton Babbitt. And yet, he could talk to me about my music like nobody else. He didn’t have to write like that; he actually loved that music. And I don’t have to write like him to love his music.

What is difficult today for an audience is not that name “symphony.” It is that they don’t know what’s coming and therefore I, for instance, feel that an orchestra that’s doing a new piece should send out to its subscribers a CD of that piece before they come. Again, I go back to the Schubert Unfinished. I have 20 recordings of it at home. Well, I don’t, but some people do—you know, Karajan, Ormandy, this, that, in order to get different perspectives on the piece. Well, if you know it that well, of course you’re going to love it when you hear it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have all those recordings. I feel that that’s very important for a new piece. When I go to an orchestra that does a new piece, I always ask the orchestra to record certain portions of it. And when I give my pre-concert talk, I use those. For example, in the Viola Concerto, the first theme you hear eight times, so I’d say, “Look, you’re going to hear this eight times” and I play it for them. I play it for them on the piano. Then I have the viola play it and the oboe play it. Well, they know what to expect then. The more complex parts, I play for them because I feel what music does is to give the composer’s view of his time, the energy of his time. Most people don’t want to hear the energy of our time because they’re afraid of it. But we have to be true to ourselves.

Boulez , Benson and Adler talking and holding drinks in cups.

Samuel Adler (right) with Pierre Boulez (left) and Warren Benson (center) on February 17, 1974. Photo by Louis Ouzer, courtesy Sibley Music Library.

FJO: I want to go back to what you were saying about Babbitt’s music being so different from yours. As you know, Babbitt was somebody who was very embracing of a much wider range of music. A lot of people are unaware that he actually encouraged people who studied with him not to write music like his.

SA: Look at Sondheim.

FJO: Well, before Babbitt started writing serial music, he had written a musical theater work. And for the rest of his life he maintained a love for Tin Pan Alley music.

SA: He knew more Tin Pan Alley than anybody else.

FJO: One thing I found so intriguing was the little piano piece you wrote honoring Babbitt.

SA: For his birthday. That’s on his name.

FJO: It’s part of a cycle, which also included pieces for Ned Rorem, David Diamond, and Gunther Schuller. What I found so interesting about them is that in each you created pieces that evoked their music but you did it basing the material on letters from each of their names. Babbitt starts B-A-B-B. There are all of these Bs, so whatever music you create from that should instantly sound tonal, yet you still managed to compose something that sounded serial, even though it isn’t serial.

SA: That’s right. Well, you can do B both ways: you can do it as B-natural or you can do B as B-flat. We don’t use H, like in German. In America, we use B. But in German, B would be B-flat. Then [since A is the first letter of the alphabet and C is the first letter of the musical alphabet], if you can count C as the first one [e.g. A], B [which is the second one] would be C-sharp. So you have three ways of doing it. That’s how I got its 12 tones.

FJO: Ah, so you cheated.

SA: Of course. That’s how you compose—you cheat!

FJO: It’s funny to hear you say that because one of the things that you’re known and revered for is for writing one of the most definitive books on orchestration, which is the opposite of cheating. It is a bible for many composers, the book people turn to for the answers on what works and what doesn’t work.

SA: Oh well, I was kidding. The orchestration book I did as a tool because I had to teach orchestration. I could never see an orchestration book without every note being recorded so that students could hear it. By the way, the fourth edition is coming out and it will have streaming of all the music, so you have it on your computer. All you have to do is click and you hear the piece. We’re going into the 21st century and that has to be. The fourth edition is ready, but it’s going to take a little time because it’s so big. It’s going to have almost a thousand pages.

FJO: Wow.

Covers of Three Books by Sam Adler: Sight Singing, The Study of Orchestration, and Choral Conducting

Samuel Adler’s books have been a tremendous resource for generations of musicians.

SA: We added a long chapter on the band, which is necessary, I think.

FJO: Well good, that was actually what I wanted to talk about with you next—the difference between writing for orchestra and wind band. You’ve written a lot for wind band. You already mentioned your Third Symphony. You talked about people being able to hear 20 different interpretations of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. It’s very rare for that to happen with a new piece.

SA: Except when it’s wind ensemble.

FJO: Precisely.

SA: That’s why we write for wind ensemble. I’ve written 19 pieces for wind ensemble. I just finished a new one for a consortium of wind ensembles. It’s wonderful because, number one, you get lots of rehearsals. Number two, you get young people who are very excited about doing a new piece. My first wind ensemble piece, Southwestern Sketches, was written in 1960. An orchestra piece gets, if it’s lucky, one performance every three or four years. This gets a performance every week some place, you know. So, it’s worth doing.


Ed. Note: One of Alder’s most popular band pieces is A Little Night and Day Music which incorporates aleatoric elements. © 1977 by Carl Fischer Inc. (ASCAP). All rights reserved.


FJO: But even though there have been some extremely high profile composers who have written for wind band—Persichetti, Karel Husa, Copland, Hovhaness—there’s been a huge amount of really high-quality repertoire for wind band. But there’s still a stigma about it. I remember when Corigliano’s Third Symphony had its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall.

SA: I was there.

FJO: That was a very exciting performance, but because it was part of the CBDNA conference, and was performed by a student ensemble, The New York Times wouldn’t cover it.

SA: Oh, wow. I don’t really want to say much about The New York Times except one thing. I think they have some knowledgeable people as music critics, but I cannot understand how these people can let the arts section, when it says “new music,” be all pop. I think once a week they have a whole page that says new music, but they only discuss the new albums by pop singers. New music to me means more than just pop music, at least I hope so. And that’s why I think your endeavor is so important. I think this has created and I hope creates more new audiences that listen.

It’s wonderful to have a birthday these days because either it’s honored on National Public Radio or my wife puts it on Facebook. They have birthday celebrations on NPR stations and you’d be surprised how many people write to the composer then. I got a slew of letters last week because, for instance, the Oklahoma system and the Minnesota system had celebrated my birthday. That’s a wonderful feeling. I think if we did more like that in the newspapers, focus on new music not just music that sounds so different that nobody every wants to hear it again, but music that’s written by hundreds of wonderful composers, young composers—I just came back yesterday from Minneapolis where I heard a new opera by my former student, Kevin Puts, The Manchurian Candidate. I thought it was just a terrific piece. What’s interesting was what the comments were. An opera cannot be one style. Even Wozzeck, one of the great operas of the 20th century, changes styles quite often. Kevin did the changing of styles just beautifully and, of course, he was criticized for it, which I think is wrong. When you have a band marching on the stage, you have to write music with the band marching on the stage. So they said something sounded like John Philip Sousa. Well, good. He’s a great composer of marches, you know. I think so much great music is being written, and we should not feel that we need to apologize in any way.

Samuel Adler and Kevin Puts, both wearing a jacket and tie, standing next to each other.

Samuel Adler and Kevin Puts in Minneapolis following the premiere of Puts’s opera The Manchurian Candidate in March 2015. (Photo courtesy Kevin Puts.)

FJO: We didn’t really touch on your operas yet. You wrote five operas, but I have not heard any of them yet.

SA: One you can hear streaming on Naxos—The Wrestler, the second opera, which is a 12-tone opera by the way.

FJO: Wow. Five operas is a formidable amount of work, but it’s interesting that you haven’t written one in nearly 40 years. Something must have made you stop.

SA: Well, I have an opera lying on my shelf which can’t be done. It’s based on a story, and the author objected to the libretto, so we can’t do anything with it. I’m in negotiations with him. Maybe I can move him a little bit. I sometimes see him. But you know, I can’t be sued for five million dollars. I don’t have that.

FJO: So this is something that you wrote more recently.

SA: Yes.

FJO: So you are still interested in writing operas.

SA: I am. As a matter of fact, I would like to do a children’s opera. In Germany they commissioned a piece for children on a subject that I’m sorry American children don’t know, but every child in Germany knows, and that’s Max und Moritz. It’s been very successful in Germany. It’s for narrator and large orchestra. It’s like Peter and the Wolf, except everybody knows the story Peter and the Wolf. Max und Moritz is a darker story. They get ground up at the end. They’re bad boys, and so.

FJO: You’ve also written a great amount of choral music.

SA: Too much.

FJO: Well, one thing that I find fascinating is that you’ve written a lot of sacred choral music, including what I think is an extremely effective setting of a mass. But you’re not a Christian.

SA: This was an ecumenical mass and it was commissioned for a specific purpose. As a matter of fact, I have two. One commissioned by Notre Dame in 1975 called We Believe. And the other is the mass that you’re referring to. I feel that religion has very few boundaries when you get on the basic level of it. Even though I am a practicing Jew, sometimes anyway, and I believe in my religion, I can also see other religions and they mean something to me. Especially I’ve studied a lot of Christianity. My father, being a cantor, was also a great expert on the literature of Christianity, and I have steeped myself in that, too. I had a teacher at Boston University who for two years taught us chant, starting with Gregorian chant, going all the way through Lutheran and Episcopal chant and everything else. And of course I’ve studied Jewish chant and this influences some of my writing.

FJO: But despite what you’re saying about religion having few boundaries, we’re living at a time where we’re seeing a very extreme interpretation of religion, and there’s a great rise in intolerance all over the world that is triggered by the extreme interpretation of religious beliefs. Now more than ever it seems important to stress that there can be a much broader ecumenical view.

SA: Yes, especially here in America. Europe is becoming much more secular, but religion does play a part. I had a commission by the Bach choirs of Germany, to write a cantata on Jonah. It’s in German, but it’s been translated and it’s going to be done in New York next year in English. It was first done in my home town, Mannheim. I went to the morning service, and there were hardly any people there. There were 30 people in a church that seats 1900. Well, I thought, “Oh my God, nobody’s going to come this afternoon.” So I talked to the organist who commissioned the piece and he said, “Sam, just don’t worry. The place is sold out this afternoon. We have a concert every Sunday afternoon because people don’t come in the morning, but they will come to music things in the afternoon.” It was packed.

FJO: Absolutely fantastic. All this discussion about being ecumenical and embracing things that are not of your immediate background reminds me of the last time we spoke with each other, which was after the New York premiere of your Tenth String Quartet. That performance was part of the Kyo-Shin-An Arts concert series and everything else on the program incorporated Japanese traditional instruments. We talked at that time about places your music would go, and places your music wouldn’t go. At that time, you said that you don’t really know the workings of these instruments, so you wouldn’t feel comfortable writing for them. This spirals back to the beginning of this conversation where you were talking about getting expertise in different instruments if you’re going to be a composer. So I’m curious about the level of risk you’re willing to take, things that you would set out to do in your music and things that you wouldn’t do and why.

SA: Well, I do take risks. You referred to the sonatas; I’ve also written a series of concert etudes for 22 instruments, including everyone in the orchestra. I tried to make those people take a risk to the nth degree of their ability. That’s the kind of risk I like to take. My heritage is European, from a religious point of view, Jewish, and also Western religions. That influences me and I feel comfortable writing for all these things. I’ve had many Chinese students, Korean students, Thai students, from all over. And I think they should write not only for Western instruments, but also for others. One of my students is the vice president of the Central Conservatory in Beijing, Xiaogang Ye, a wonderful composer. He has written a ballet on a subject of the 13th-century Dalai Lama, for Hong Kong, which has an orchestra and a Chinese orchestra. It’s fantastic. I couldn’t do that because I didn’t grow up in that tradition. He did. I’m too old now. Even if I were younger, I think it would be sort of fake for me to do that. Debussy once said, “A composer writes in his language.” That’s very true. And composers should take care of that. I can write in my language—a language I feel comfortable in, the language that I speak. I speak three languages, so I feel at home writing in those languages. While music doesn’t express any particular thing necessarily, there is a big difference between Debussy and Hindemith. Even though his Viola Sonata Opus 11, No. 4, starts out sounding like Debussy, very soon, after the fifth measure, it sounds like Hindemith. And Hindemith spoke perfect French, by the way. But that’s not his native language, nor mine, you know.

Adler, Rands and Schwantner standing and talking in a classroom in front of a blackboard with musical staves across it.

Samuel Adler (left) at the Eastman School of Music with Bernard Rands (center) and Joseph Schwantner (right) on April 2, 1986. Photo by Louis Ouzer , courtesy Sibley Music Library.

FJO: But you have written music for instruments that are outside your native language, so to speak. For example, you wrote a wonderful solo harpsichord piece. Part of what makes it so wonderful is that it’s very different from what one expects in terms of the sound world of a harpsichord.

SA: Right, that’s why I wrote it. There are two recordings of it, and both are excellent, but the new one on Toccata Records is fantastic. I’ve never heard anybody play it that fast. It’s amazing. But you know, that’s the risk I take, you see. Bach is my favorite composer, but I don’t want to write like Bach, because that’s not me. So I write like I think we can do something today with it. So, that’s my risk. I wrote it because I had a student who is a wonderful harpsichordist and organist, Barbara Harbach, who wanted a piece for harpsichord. She also recorded the piece. Anybody that wants a piece gets a piece.

FJO: So if somebody does want a piece for koto or pipa?

SA: Well, then I’d have to think about it. I’d have to first really study it, because it’s not easy to write for. I love these instruments, don’t get me wrong. But other people should write for it. The literature is growing by leaps and bounds. Five of my students have written pieces for pipa and also for koto, and they’re very good pieces.

FJO: What about electronics?

SA: Well, I love people, and I love what comes out of people when they play or sing. I don’t necessarily want to do electronic things unless there’s a definite reason, like in The Wrestler. I need to feel that it’s organic in the music. To add electronics, that has to have a very special reason. And I have not felt that I needed it. In The Wrestler, because I feel Jacob is wrestling with himself rather than with the angel, the angel is there but never speaks. It’s a distorted voice of Jacob that sings the angel’s part.

FJO: You’ve brought up a number of your students throughout the course of this conversation. Teaching has certainly been a very important part of your life for more than half a century.

SA: Sixty-three years of teaching.

FJO: So I wonder, aside from the incredibly generous activity of imparting your knowledge and experience to others, how this interaction fuels your own creative work.

SA: I’m very inspired by my students, especially because I’ve been able to choose my students, and they’ve been just great. I can’t think of the student that I wouldn’t have wanted to teach. I feel the teacher’s task is first and foremost to inspire the student to write as much as possible without any consideration for style and things like that. And then, slowly, to see if he or she can be moved to be something very special. And many of them can and do. I’m very happy with the result if you don’t immediately say, “I only want 12-tone music” or “I only want tonal music.” Let them bring you something, and go from there. You talked about Milton Babbitt. I feel exactly the same way. He never imposed his very strict system on anybody. If they wanted it, certainly. I had students who, after studying with me, went to Milton at Juilliard and also at Eastman, because we had Milton up in the summers to teach at Eastman. He never changed somebody’s style just because it should change. That’s the way I feel also. I think you have to be very careful with students because they’re volatile, and I am very careful because the most difficult thing in music is to create music. And after all, this is what they’re there for.

FJO: So how has teaching influenced your own music?

SA: I think I’m more careful. I see the problems that students have that I also have. Sometimes I solve them for myself by solving them for the students. That’s a great influence on me, as has being with young people, and always being fed new ideas. This has inspired me all my life.

FJO: And having taught for 63 years, that’s an incredibly long time.

SA: Yes, it is.

FJO: You don’t have to teach anymore. You can do whatever you want, but you’re still teaching.

SA: Well, I’m teaching in Berlin, that’s six weeks out of the year. And I go around the country doing masterclasses. I really quit Juilliard because of the commute. We live in Ohio. I commuted every week. That’s a tough thing. I did it for 18 years; I thought that was enough. The other thing is, I really would like to have more time for myself. I’m composing and I’m reading what I want to read a great deal. I’m actually practicing the piano, which makes me very happy. I’m the worst pianist, but it makes me very happy to have that tactile experience. And so every day I practice the piano, and I do a great deal of reading on all kinds of subjects. And I’m writing an autobiography with somebody, and so that takes up some time, too. So, I’m always busy.

FJO: Well, I’m glad that you made some time to talk to us today.

SA: It’s a great pleasure. I thank you for doing it.

Miranda Cuckson: String Alchemist

Despite the remarkable breadth and diversity of violinist Miranda Cuckson’s repertoire list, there is a reliable theme that emerges when it comes to reactions to her playing: music critics and fans tend to note how comfortably she embraces even the sharpest, most unapproachable-seeming pieces, conveying the music with such palpable control and insight that it’s as if she’s holding the door into these worlds open for the audience.

Frankly, it’s the impression I carry as well, particularly after I heard her perform an all-Ralph Shapey program in Chicago in 2013. When work is at its most forbidding, she grabs the flashlight that is her skill and artistry and leads the way through.

Cuckson's 1742 “ex-Bazzini” Guadagnini violin

Cuckson’s 1742 “ex-Bazzini” Guadagnini violin

Cuckson’s extensive Juilliard training—from age 9 through her Ph.D—steeped her in a broad array of repertoire, but she discovered a particular affinity for new and often challenging pieces. “One reason that I’ve done well at this kind of thing is that I absorb quickly unfamiliar music, so being handed scores and [being told], ‘Play this,’ I’m able to do,” she acknowledges, laughing. “So I’ve found myself getting work.”

And while she’s more interested in music that has something “really vivid” to say rather than difficulty for difficulty’s sake, she admits that there is something attractive about the puzzle.

“I do enjoy music that presents something for me to really figure out, both in terms of understanding the music itself and how I’m going to play it on my instrument and what I want to convey with it,” she explains. “You feel like there are layers that you go through and certain things that, once you’ve absorbed them, become more ingrained in how you’re doing it. Then you can go further into another aspect of it or another level of it. It’s rewarding to work that way.”

Work, you quickly get the impression, is not something Cuckson has ever been one to shy away from. In addition to keeping up with her busy performance schedule of solo and chamber repertoire, she is an active recording artist and is also the artistic director of the ensemble Nunc. Plus, she writes about music as well, often penning her own program notes.

Cuckson's library of scores, books, and media.

Cuckson’s library of scores, books, and media.

So far, however, for as much as she values her role as an engaged and intellectually curious collaborator, she hasn’t felt the urge to compose new work herself.

But I feel strongly about what I do as an interpreter. It’s both putting all my imagination and hopefully perceptiveness and insight into the music, and skill and all that, but also being a great collaborator with the composers—whether they’re not around anymore so I have to figure that out, or with the people who can actually talk and work with me. There’s a kind of alchemy that goes on, and it’s one of the more mysterious things, music and the melding that goes on between artists’ personalities in performance: the composer’s vision and what they were feeling and the performers and their own personalities and how these things come together.

It’s also a reminder of the profoundly fluid and ephemeral nature of performance, no matter how many hours go into perfecting the delivery of even the most complex score or how much time a listener is able to spend in its company. That’s the interesting thing about new music, Cuckson emphasized. “One performance of something is part of a process, hopefully of either getting to know that piece or that composer’s work or in general just listening to more and more things.”

Caroline Shaw: Yes, a Composer, but Perhaps not a Baker!

A conversation in Shaw’s studio apartment in New York City
February 9, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

When Caroline Shaw’s Partita for Eight Voices won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013, a great deal was made of the fact that she was—at age 30—the award’s youngest-ever recipient (beating out the previously held record of Charles Wuorinen, who was 31 at the time he received the award in 1970) and was just at the start of her musical career. (Never previously studying composition formally, she had only enrolled in Princeton’s doctoral program in composition in 2010.) The fact of Shaw’s newcomer status to the scene seemed to be even more pronounced by her reluctance to embrace the word composer, identifying instead as a musician.

For many younger musicians the word composer has connotations that are antithetical to the collaborative nature of a lot of today’s music making. But Shaw’s reticence to embrace the word has a different motivation. Equally active as a singer (in Roomful of Teeth) and a violinist (in ACME), Shaw was more concerned about accurately describing her musical life, which has many parts and is a delicate balance. Now two years later, when we met up with her in her tiny studio apartment a few blocks away from Times Square, she is more comfortable with the word composer though she still believes that musician is a more appropriately inclusive moniker.

Yeah, I am a composer. I’m also a lot of other things, a lot of other nouns. So I feel like if there was going to be one noun that was used, it doesn’t seem like the right one. It’s just a matter of taxonomy, the way things are categorized. It wasn’t necessarily a reaction to not wanting to relinquish the control, because—come on—we’re all a little bit obsessive. Musician just encapsulates what I am a little better, I think.

Nevertheless, Shaw’s compositions are central to her musical identity and, in recent years, she has been venturing far beyond works that she has created for her own performance. Her vocal and string playing background has undoubtedly resulted in her ability to create highly idiomatic and particularly effective music for voices (such as her Its Motion Keeps created for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus) and string quartets (including Entr’acte, which the Calidore Quartet has been touring this season). But equally fascinating are her solo piano piece Gustave Le Gray, which takes as its departure point one of the Chopin mazurkas, and a percussion quartet scored for flower pots called Taxidermy (written for So Percussion) which evokes the sound world of Javanese gamelan. Later this month, the Cincinnati Symphony will premiere Shaw’s Lo, her first composition for orchestra.

Still, the level of specificity and fixedness that are de rigeur when working with orchestral musicians is somewhat antithetical to Shaw’s personal compositional aesthetic.

It was the most foreign thing I’d ever done. Everything has to be in the score. … There’s something about this concept of baking versus cooking on the stove. If you write a piece where you have to notate everything and you give it away and you can’t touch it anymore, it’s like baking. You hope you followed the recipe exactly, and the chemistry’s exactly right. Then you can’t touch it anymore. But I do like the idea of following a recipe from some great chef that you like, David Chang or Julia Child, but you also can make it a little bit more like what you want. You change the sauce a little bit; you sort of trust the ingredients. … It’s why I guess I gravitate to smaller groups and people who don’t want you to have everything on every note. … When I have the choice to put information in a score or not, there’s always a careful thought about whether it’s necessary. If I didn’t put this here, would it give a sense of freedom to the performer to do something informed by the rest of the music? And is there enough other information there to give them a context to make a decision that they feel excited about?

Shaw found a way around the requisite notational strictness of writing for the orchestra by writing herself into the piece and creating a part for herself that is more open-ended, more like stove-top cooking than baking.

The solo part is just vaguely written out, only the parts that they really need. A lot of it is left open. And some parts I’m actually going to play with the first violins the way you would with a Mozart concerto where you have the option of playing the tutti parts. You know, I didn’t think that I would ever write for orchestra. But I’m glad to have had the opportunity. … I do think that there’s a changing relationship between composers and performers now. People are really giving a little bit more trust to each other than in the past. And I like that.

It was great to have an opportunity to talk about a broad range of topics with Caroline Shaw—performance practice, sashimi, painting. Shaw is remarkably unselfconscious, extremely enthusiastic, and bursting with ideas. It is indeed a great thing for the contemporary music scene that she has become a significant part of it.

Shaw and FJO in conversation

Frank J. Oteri: There are already several really good interviews with you out there which invariably start by asking you about Partita and the Pulitzer. So I don’t want to do that. But you’ve done lots of other fabulous stuff, too. Partita’s wonderful and we’re eventually going to go there, we have to, but I thought it might be more interesting to begin by talking about your solo piano piece Gustave Le Gray. I’m curious about how and why you decided to construct a piece around music by Chopin and how much of his music is actually in your piece.

Caroline Shaw: It actually started out as my Princeton Generals project. At Princeton, there’s this assignment to write a piece responding to another composer, another piece, something that’s really different from what you do. It often ends up being very similar to what you do. We sort of find simpatico elements. There’s something about the way that Chopin changed harmony chromatically, something that Dmitri Tymoczko has talked about. In my work, I found that I’m using a lot of standard I-IV-V, really Baroque, chord progressions, just blocks chords. So I wanted to create a piece that nested around this little Chopin mazurka. It’s the A-minor Mazurka. It starts out almost like “Chopsticks,” and then this perfect, beautiful melody spins out on top of it. I wrote something that starts that way and just creates a little encasing for the piece. You can actually perform the whole Chopin inside of it, or you can perform the piece separately if you want. There are two options. There’s a little seam where you can either seamlessly go back into my piece, or you can open it into the Chopin and close it off from the rest of the piece.

FJO: You’ve predicted my next question. The performance of it by Amy Yang that’s streaming on your website and the performance of it by the Italian pianist Enrico Maria Polimanti that he posted to YouTube are totally different from each other. Polimanti’s version had the whole Chopin.

CS: Yeah, I created a couple little hinges so you can do either one. I would like to do that with other pieces, too, where you write something that just kind of sets you up in this way—21st-century ears, or something like that. You hear it in this different context, then you come out of the piece rather than with applause, with something else. Maybe it’s irreverent to the older piece, but I find it’s actually kind of like having a really nice conversation with a friend.

FJO: In a way, it’s like having a single abstract painting in a room with a bunch of old portraits or vice versa, having one painting that totally doesn’t belong with the others. It results in a really weird space that makes you look at the old work differently and the new work differently, because they’re in a dialogue with each other that they never otherwise would have been. I guess most classical music concerts are like that. If you hear a new piece, it’s surrounded by all these much older and more familiar standard repertoire pieces, and then people are scratching their heads with the new piece thinking, “Why doesn’t it sound like the other ones?“

CS: Often I think it’s hard to find things that speak to each other properly if they weren’t intended to be that way. But sometimes programming can be very thoughtful. There are some projects recently—Michael Mizrahi, David Kaplan, and Timo Andres either commission or write works that are responding to others. David Kaplan has a project where he commissioned, like, ten new pieces responding to Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze. Everyone’s responding to a different movement of it. It’s cool, because then you can program something with new things and old things. They’re intentionally relating to each other, rather than just this sense of “oh, that was odd.” But I also like the juxtaposition of totally random things right next to each other. It’s the whole shuffle idea on your iPod where you have Mozart, the Cranberries, and Pavement right next to each other.

FJO: Is that what’s on your iPod?

CS: No, those are just things that I happened to have read about in the last 24 hours. Pavement, Cranberries, and Mozart. I don’t listen to Pavement, but I have a friend who does.

FJO: Slanted and Enchanted is a wonderful record.

CS: Oh yeah?

FJO: Anyway, you also mentioned Timo Andres, who did this re-composition of Mozart’s incomplete Coronation Concerto in which the stuff he used to fill in for the missing left hand of the solo piano part doesn’t really sound like Mozart. There’s also Night Scenes from the Ospidale, the project that Robert Honstein did with the Sebastians using Vivaldi.

CS: I played in the premiere of that. Yeah, it’s really beautiful.

FJO: This all feels very much part of our zeitgeist, a real manifestation of postmodernism, like those mashups of Jane Austen novels that have additional characters added in.

CS: It’s like classical music fan fiction, revisiting this older music that a lot of us really love, I think, very sincerely. It’s not in a kitschy or ironic way, like “I’m going to deconstruct this little thing, because isn’t that silly and old so let’s undermine these systems,” at least not in my case or in some of my friends’ cases. These are things that I grew up with and really love, they’re part of—people say my musical DNA. I think that’s a kind of bullshit concept—something that I came from.

FJO: You were talking about the difference between your harmonic palette and Chopin’s harmonic palette just now, the I-IV-V versus leaning into passing chords, almost like jazz substitutions. In your program note for Gustave Le Gray, you described your own music as being like sashimi, whereas Chopin was more like prosciutto and mint.

CS: Oh, my god, that’s a great combination!

FJO: Sashimi is all about the taste of a piece of fish; it’s total immersion in one flavor. Prosciutto and mint are each immersive, but combining them creates yet another experience.

CS: Yeah.

An excerpt from the solo piano score for Caroline Shaw's Gustave Le Gray

An excerpt from the solo piano score for Caroline Shaw’s Gustave Le Gray. © 2012 Caroline Shaw Editions. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: You wrote this piece to get outside of yourself and what you normally do. As a result of doing this piece, have there been more ingredients than just the piece of sashimi in the other pieces you’ve written since then?

CS: I think so. I don’t know if it’s because of this piece, but I did want to try different combinations of harmonies that I’m not naturally attracted to. I like jazz chords with substitutions and slightly meandering things with irregular chord permutations, but there is something beautiful about sashimi. That’s how I often describe the beginning of Passacaglia. I just want to hear one chord, but not in a driving, ‘70s or ‘80s traditionally minimalist way. So not experiencing this one thing in time repeated and repeated, but just singularly. Like one instance. Like a painting, but music is a time-based art, so you kind of have to negotiate this with minimalist tendencies. I don’t know. Are there things that I now do after that that I didn’t before? Definitely. I’ve been trying to push myself a little bit more.

FJO: The title Gustave Le Gray is a bit of a curve ball. “Prosciutto and Mint” would have perhaps been a less cryptic title or maybe “Prosciutto Mint Sashimi.”

CS: That would be delicious! Gustave Le Gray was a pioneer photographer in France in the mid-19th century, around the same time that Chopin was the thing in Paris. He was famous for developing a technique to represent clouds in a photograph. It’s kind of a simple idea. But there was something about thinking about creating an image that’s a still image and watching it slowly develop that seemed appropriate for a title.

shaw bookcase vertical

FJO: Well it’s funny, when I started thinking about the title I started wondering if perhaps they knew each other, but I couldn’t find any evidence that they did.

CS: I don’t think they knew each other. Maybe they did. I don’t think that their arts work in the same way—music is so different from photography—but what if you thought about some element of them as overlapping?

FJO: Well, what I thought was that the title was a really subtle way of telling people that what you did compositionally was somehow a sonic photograph of that Chopin mazurka. It’s not the actual Chopin piece but rather a new piece created based on it, just like a photograph of an object is a new object based on that original object.

CS: Yeah! I should probably mention there’s another piece that I wrote, a string quartet called Punctum, which is maybe the origin of my starting to think about the photographic moment and its relationship to music. There’s a Roland Barthes book called Camera Lucida which is a meditation on photography, memory, and nostalgia. He describes these two concepts—the punctum and the studium. The studium is sort of like what the photograph’s about, like a photograph of three people sitting around the table, playing cards, and looking at each other. And you can see a mom, a husband, and a child. So that’s what the photograph is about. But the punctum in that photograph is maybe the man’s tie which is a particular color that’s just really striking, or the way that the little boy is looking off to the side. That’s the moment that actually grabs you and that you remember. I don’t know if that’s related to Gustave Le Gray, but it’s really related to this idea of capturing a moment and trying to identify a slice in time either of music or of a scene.

FJO: Ha, that’s another curveball title, when I heard that title I thought—

CS: Punctum, contrapunctum?

FJO: No, I thought Punkdom, as in The Kingdom of Punk, Sid Vicious in one corner and Joey Ramone somewhere else.

CS: You’re so punk! You’re way more punk than I am.

FJO: Well, I think your piece Taxidermy has a somewhat punk title.

CS: Oh yeah?

FJO: It’s a macabre word. You’ve written that you like the word because it’s somewhat creepy. I think it’s a fabulous and somewhat punkish word to use as a title. But at the same time it seems a bit weird to me that you chose the word for—of all things—a piece for So Percussion.

CS: Well, it’s going back to the idea of the sashimi. You present; you put this here. It’s going to fall down. Presenting one thing—here, this is all we have. It’s not decorated. And I’m going to present it to you again. Like, here’s another piece of perfect salmon. It begins with them playing just these little flower pots. There are no pitch indications, so it’s not about the chord or the harmony. It’s just about one sound versus another sound, a very simple binary. Then other things happen in the piece, and eventually it becomes these two chords that happen. It’s almost like you just have this deer in the headlights look. Like this is all I’m giving you. There’s something awkward about it, something a little bit naked, something macabre, as you said—creepy, funny, quirky, but kind of also grand. You think taxidermy and you think about a giant moose or tiger looking at you that was once this grand creature but now it’s just frozen in time. You’re experiencing it a hundred years later.

Also it came from this idea of the awkward moment. Let’s say you’re on a date with someone and you say, “I’m really into taxidermy.” There’s a pause. It’s awkward.

FJO: That didn’t happen to you, did it?

CS: No, it didn’t.

FJO: And had it happened to you, you wouldn’t have been the one who was into taxidermy?

CS: No, no, no. But one day I’m going to write a great little short story about some meeting of two people. But how do you create that awkward pause in music?

FJO: When I heard that title, I immediately thought the word taxidermy seemed like a really potent critique of classical music. Because in a way, that’s what classical music is: all this focus on things from over a hundred years ago that were once such a big deal in the culture they were created in—grand, like that moose. But now in the 21st century—

CS: —it’s here placed beautifully in the dining room, and we’re eating a lovely meal next to this ancient grand moose. I think you make an excellent point about what older classical music is. Classical music is a broad term that means many things, but to many who are not in that classical music world, it means a particular thing which is a particularly 17th, 18th, and 19th century version of music. And there’s a comfort level in experiencing that music in museum-like situations which I’m actually not critiquing. I love museums. I love concerts where I sit and listen very carefully to something that was beautifully constructed a long time ago. I love that experience. But I think that sometimes there’s not a real awareness and consciousness of what that is and what it means for new music now and what the possibilities are for thinking about older music and thinking about newer music.

FJO: But of all the pieces you could have called Taxidermy, you gave the name to something you wrote for the one kind of ensemble that could never be accused of being musical taxidermists. Percussionists pretty much exclusively perform new music, especially the So guys who either write or commission almost everything they play.

Excerpt from Caroline Shaw's score for Taxidermy

An excerpt from the solo piano score for Caroline Shaw’s Taxidermy. © 2012 Caroline Shaw Editions. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

CS: I was wondering why you thought percussion was an odd choice. Okay, yeah.

FJO: I could see a string quartet being called Taxidermy, maybe something for violin and piano, or, probably most appropriate, an orchestra piece.

CS: I understand your point. I think there might be something more antagonistic than I intend if I called a string quartet Taxidermy. I’m very conscious of the string quartet as this incredibly old form, but I also really, really love it. So I don’t want to poke anyone’s rib. I’m going to stop now.

FJO: Well, before we do, the reason I wanted to bring up those two pieces of yours that we’ve been talking about before anything else is in some way to address what a lot of other people have been saying and writing about you: You’re a new kind of person in our world. You don’t think of yourself as composer. You prefer to be called a musician. Since you’re a singer and play stringed instruments, you write very idiomatically for voices and strings. While your vocal pieces are really well suited to voices and your string works take full advantage of your insider performer knowledge of what these instruments are capable of, Gustave Le Gray is very pianistic even though you’re not out there publicly as a pianist. And Taxidermy is also totally idiomatic even though you are not a percussionist. While it’s true that much of your music has grown out of your relationship to music as a performer, those two pieces clearly didn’t. They came out of something else.

CS: Right. I can relate to the string and the vocal sound very naturally. But I don’t play the piano. I used to play piano, and I can play some percussion, but I wanted to create something that is outside of my natural, physical, musical world. In both cases, they were written for particular people that I knew and so it comes out of their sensibilities. There’s something about So Percussion, their attitude and their quirky, careful relationship to what they do, and their willingness to just play flower pots very gently. The piano piece Gustave Le Gray is written for Amy Yang—who is a pianist far better than I could ever dream to be—and for her particular relationship with the repertoire that she loves, the instrument, and with her older teachers which include Claude Frank. Whether or not it comes from a different place, I don’t know. I’m still kind of figuring out what the music is that I like to write. I guess we all are all the time. Every chance you get is a chance to discover something new about yourself, and writing for something that is less familiar to you is a great way to—as Steve Mackey has said—put your brain into a different shape for the day. So I guess that’s what those pieces did.

FJO: Well, to be a bit of a provocateur here and to get back to this whole notion of taxidermy, in a way, when you’re writing a piece down you’re sort of taxidermizing it to some extent. If you create music that’s for your own performance, you can still play around with it since—after all—it’s yours. Sure, when you write a piece for another ensemble, you have to let it go, but the whole relationship between composers and performers of score-based music is predicated on respecting what is put down on the page since the way the composer is present in the music—even if he or she is not actually participating in the performance of it—is through those written instructions. So in a sense, you have to somehow taxidermize yourself when you write a piece for others.

CS: Oh, that’s an interesting point. I would like to think that one doesn’t preserve themselves strictly in this text form when writing a score. So far I’ve always been able to work pretty closely with the people who perform it. There are many important things when writing music. You know, create a score that represents accurately what you would like, whether it’s different parameters that are easy to represent like pitch, duration, some things about timbre—but timbre is a really impossible one to actually represent. Phrasing sensibility is also impossible to represent. Humor is really hard. You can give little hints of it, but to give someone a sense of your own relationship to this music and your own humor and attitude and how they should approach it is so difficult. And I don’t want that to ever be frozen in time. When I was playing early music, whether it was Corelli, Mozart, or Beethoven, biographies of these composers were important. Did they exactly want this, or is it open? Was it a culture of “you can improvise on this note” or “this is exactly what you should do”?

Caroline Shaw at home.

Caroline Shaw at home.

FJO: I see you’ve got a Baroque violin behind you on the wall.

CS: With a broken string. I perform mostly with Roomful of Teeth now and a little bit with ACME. I haven’t done a gig on Baroque now in a year and a half. I miss it a lot. I love that exploration of a time when there was less information on the page. We actually just did a concert a couple nights ago with Roomful of Teeth and ACME, and I did some arrangements of Purcell. There were no dynamics or tempo indication in the score, so I left it like that. And it was a really great experience of working closely with these two groups. We all know each other’s sensibilities and trust each other to see what comes out of that organic performance practice. What do you do with four whole notes? How can you shape that when the information isn’t strictly given? When I have the choice to put information in a score or not, there’s always a careful thought about whether it’s necessary. If I didn’t put this here, would it give a sense of freedom to the performer to do something informed by the rest of the music? And is there enough other information there to give them a context to make a decision that they feel excited about?

FJO: You’ve hit on something that I think is really a key issue in contemporary music. In the 20th century, a lot of composers felt the need to put articulations on every note in a score, to offer precise instructions about every dynamic level, an exact metronomically determined tempo indication, and so on. But what would have happen if those scores had fewer details? Is Purcell’s music any less worthwhile because those details are missing? On some levels, the malleability of performance and the possibility of variable interpretations are what make a piece of music feel alive and not like a piece of taxidermy.

CS: I agree with all of those things. At the same time, I think it’s a very beautiful artistic gesture to indicate all of those things, like the quality of the accent or a mezzo-forte dynamic. Everything on every note is an incredible human creation. That’s an awesome thing. It’s not the way that I work or that some of the music that I’ve previously played works, so I’m happy to maybe live in that world a little bit more. But I do think that there’s a changing relationship between composers and performers now. People are really giving a little bit more trust to each other than in the past. And I like that.

Shaw's pet fish

Shaw’s pet fish

FJO: I don’t want to sound like I’m only ragging on composers here for over-notating. I think the other part of this phenomenon is that performers came to expect it. I once “under-notated” something and it drove the person playing it crazy. I kept getting phone calls: “What do you want here? How do you want this phrased?” My answer was, “How do you want to do it?” and the player was flummoxed by this.

CS: We haven’t talked about that. Yeah, that’s a terrible bristling reaction.

FJO: This sort of thing is particularly an issue in the orchestral realm where there is usually only time for two rehearsals and the clock is always ticking so anything that’s not precise on the page is perceived as an irresponsible waste of their time. I don’t know what your experience has been working with orchestras or if you’ve had an orchestra piece performed yet.

CS: I just did one! I’ve only done one, and it’s being done in March. And I wrote myself into the piece so I could be there on stage, because I didn’t want to be far away. I just felt weird about it. It was the most foreign thing I’d ever done. Everything has to be in the score. But, at the same time, I know a little bit about what the players’ repertoire is. It’s an orchestra that plays a lot of grand, old repertoire. And they have a beautiful conductor who is French and who specializes in Mozart, so I wrote with that kind of thinking.

There’s something about this concept of baking versus cooking on the stove. If you write a piece where you have to notate everything and you give it away and you can’t touch it anymore, it’s like baking. You hope you followed the recipe exactly, and the chemistry’s exactly right. Then you can’t touch it anymore. But I do like the idea of following a recipe from some great chef that you like, David Chang or Julia Child, but you also can make it a little bit more like what you want. You change the sauce a little bit; you sort of trust the ingredients.

There are so many things to talk about with this. The different kinds of reactions that players give to a composer depending on how much information they’re given goes so deep into what musical community is, who we’re writing for, who’s playing it, who’s listening to it, what the size and the history of the institution is behind the music, how it’s funded, and what the venue is. All these things have such an effect on the way the music is written, even though we like to think that that’s not the case. The idea of writing for a standard ensemble that executes it in this robotic way—I hate it; it’s not the kind of world that I want to live in. It’s why I guess I gravitate to smaller groups and people who don’t want you to have everything on every note. You know, they won’t bristle at that. I have had that one time. It was my first year as a student at Princeton. Well, it wasn’t a bristle-y reaction. It was like, “Well, I could really use more dynamics here.” But I could sense that I lost all trust; the player just didn’t trust me to have done my job and thought I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was hard. So I gave a few more dynamics, but then I said, “You should think of the way that you approach Mozart versus Haydn versus Beethoven. It’s not all the same. It’s slightly different, but there is a general sensibility that you come to that with. It’s how you play four eighth notes in a row; you wouldn’t play them robotically. You would create some kind of shape.” But a quartet has that time, an orchestra does not.

FJO: So where and when is this orchestra piece happening?

CS: March, in Cincinnati.

FJO: Fantastic. How long is the piece?

CS: It’s 17 minutes or so.

FJO: You said you wrote yourself into it, so is it a concerto?

CS: I don’t call it a concerto. It’s a piece for a lot of players, and I’m going to play the violin.

FJO: But are you in the violin section or are you actually a soloist?

CS: Soloist. But actually the solo part is just vaguely written out, only the parts that they really need. A lot of it is left open. And some parts I’m actually going to play with the first violins the way you would with a Mozart concerto where you have the option of playing the tutti parts. You know, I didn’t think that I would ever write for orchestra. But I’m glad to have had the opportunity.

A passage from Caroline Shaw's orchestral score for Lo

A sneak peak at Caroline Shaw’s first orchestral score, Lo. © 2015 Caroline Shaw Editions. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Well, this gets into this whole musician versus composer thing. I wonder if not wanting to have obsessive control over the music you write is part of what made you reticent to use the word composer to describe yourself, even though you are in fact a composer.

CS: Yeah, I am a composer. I’m also a lot of other things, a lot of other nouns. So I feel like if there was going to be one noun that was used, it doesn’t seem like the right one. It’s just a matter of taxonomy, the way things are categorized. It wasn’t necessarily a reaction to not wanting to relinquish the control, because—come on—we’re all a little bit obsessive. Musician just encapsulates what I am a little better I think.

FJO: I find it weird that people don’t realize that composer is a subset of musician.

CS: Just like there’s a terrible thing that reviews sometimes do: “the musicians and the singers did a great job.” I’m like, oh my god, guys! Basic concepts of classification here.

FJO: But the thing about the word composer that I love is that, unlike artist or writer, it means someone who puts things together. So it really isn’t some super powerful creator who is making something from nothing. The only other field where this word gets used is in perfumery; the people who put different chemicals or essences together to create scents are also called composers.

CS: Oh really? That’s very cool.

FJO: Yeah, so I love the word composer.

CS: Me too.

A passage from Caroline Shaw's score for "Sarabande," the third movement of her Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for Eight Voices

A passage from Caroline Shaw’s score for “Sarabande,” the third movement of her Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for Eight Voices. © 2009-2014 Caroline Shaw Editions. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: The music you’ve created for groups that you’re also involved with as a performer—like Partita for Roomful of Teeth—really has been composed in the “put together” sense. The different movements were actually first performed at different times and in different places over the course of a few years and you kept revising it. Many pieces evolve this way, but until the Pulitzer changed their rules a few years back to allow a first recording of a piece from a calendar year to qualify and not just a first live performance, pieces made this way got overlooked. Of course, if you’re gigging and workshopping a piece, there is no one set premiere. Although it blows my mind that even after you won the Pulitzer for it, you’ve still been tinkering with it. So you don’t think of it as a fixed document even now.

CS: I don’t. Most things haven’t been tinkered with, but I did add a whole section to Courante and kind of remixed it. We took that out it recently. It’s just too long. And we change the vowels on things a lot. We felt like that “aaah” last time was feeling a little bit abrasive. It didn’t have the right effect with the audience because they heard it as something aggressive, so let’s make that “aaah” something a little bit brighter and happier and you change the mouth shape just a little bit, and it changes the effect. And we changed the quality of the breaths in Courante. All of the time we’re changing it. And once in a while, we’ll have a sub who comes in and brings in a new idea. So I don’t like to think of it as a fixed document, but there’s definitely a lot of information there that is set. That is a recipe that one can follow, but still cook on a stove. You can still add some pepper, you know.

FJO: So it’s not baked.

CS: Not baked. I can’t say I’m baking it so hard.

FJO: It’s interesting that you said we and not I.

CS: Yes, Roomful of Teeth.

FJO: So even though it’s your music, you feel like the piece belongs to the whole group on some level, the whole group molds it to some extent so in some ways it’s less authorial, less a strict baking recipe where you absolutely must put in those two cups of sugar or it isn’t your cake.

CS: Well, you know, if it needs two cups of sugar, and you’ve put in like one cup of flour, I’ll correct it. I think people definitely look to me to give some suggestion. But as much as I possibly can—and this is true with other stuff I’ve done with the group—I really want to empower people. I would love for them to have suggestions. Unless it’s a terrible idea, I’d love to try it in a performance. If you can create some kind of sensibility among each other that encourages people to come up with ideas and feel empowered to articulate them, that’s what I would like to create.

FJO: Now this can happen very organically and very fluidly if you’re part of a group, or if they’re friends, or if you’ve worked with them. But if you write a piece of music on a page, and it’s out there in the world and somebody obtains a copy of the score in, say, Zagreb or Shanghai, they’re not necessarily going to be able to say, “Hey Caroline, what do you think of blah-blah-blah?” So it’s going to become more like baking than like cooking on the stove.

CS: Yes, that’s true. Then the relationship to the performer is very different.

FJO: And that’s starting to happen with your music now more and more, I would imagine.

CS: Yeah. Then you realize you’ve created something that is just out in the world without you, without the little quirks of your sense of humor and your attitude. Maybe somebody’s watched an interview to get a sense of who you are as a composer and as a person, but if they haven’t and they just ordered the score, they just have this thing. They want to play it. Hopefully you’ve given them something to dig into and to be engaged with and that they will want to shape in their own way. There’s nothing more you can do. You put it in the oven.

But at the same, I think about what you guys do at NewMusicBox. It is this really incredible archive of getting to know a composer. So if you are in Zagreb, and you order a piano piece from someone, you can Google them. It’s not like 20 years ago when you just couldn’t; you just didn’t know anything about anyone. Now you can watch a video. You can get a sense of who they are. You can have a little sense of the biography of someone developing over time. I like to think that that’s what the world is going to look like in 20 years. Getting music, but also being informed by the way that that person’s other music was performed and the way they think about music.

FJO: With the orchestra piece, which affords the least amount of personal interaction with the musicians since there’s so little time to prepare for it, you still wrote yourself into the piece. You didn’t want to let go that much; you wanted to have that interrelationship with these players. I’m thinking also of Its Motion Keeps, your piece for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. You wrote yourself into that as well. I’m curious about how that all evolved and played out. It wasn’t a group that you had regularly been a part of, but I think they really served what you did extremely well.

A passage from the score of Caroline Shaw's choral composition Its Motion Keeps

An excerpt from the solo piano score for Caroline Shaw’s Its Motion Keeps. © 2013 Caroline Shaw Editions. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

CS: Yeah, they were amazing. I still did get to work with them, so it changed certain things that were a little ambiguous in the score. There’s a little thing that goes nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah, which I can’t really say in the score, but it takes two seconds to describe it. And then you have it. They did an amazing job. I did write myself into that piece, too, because I’m still at the beginning of this writing music for other people. I don’t know what the future will look like. For now I like being there with them. But it’s been done without me playing viola since then.

FJO: So is the viola part optional, or did they bring in someone else to play it?

CS: They just brought in another violist.

FJO: With the Cincinnati Symphony piece, you said a lot of the solo part isn’t written out. What happens if someone else wanted to do it, say, two years from now with the LA Philharmonic?

CS: I just assume that no one’s going to want to do it.

FJO: You don’t want to think that.

CS: I could feasibly write out a part for someone to play. But actually, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus is a great example of that. There’s something written out. Originally it was pretty loose, and I made it up, and still whenever I play it, there’s a whole section that I basically improvise within a certain structure. Some nights I like to build it up here. And then the next night, I just actually take myself out mostly for five bars. But there is a part that’s written out, and if they hire a violist to play it, they can play that. It’s fine.

FJO: So is whomever they hire to play the viola part expected to improvise as well?

CS: [The score] says, “Play this as if improvised.” They could either play exactly what’s on the page or—depending on the person’s background and personality and the way they like to engage with music—they can loosen it up rhythmically. Let’s say they were preparing to play the piece and they saw a YouTube video and said, “Whoa, none of that is the same. There’s a little more freedom here.” So maybe they take a little bit. If they called me and said, “Hey, I’m playing that piece.” I’d say, “Yeah, that whole section in the middle, you can kind of do what you want. This is the basic idea. Don’t play too much. Let them play here; do something that’s tasteful.” And then you don’t know what they’re going to do.

FJO: So how connected are you with performers when they play your music? I know that the Calidor String Quartet just played your Entr’acte at Juilliard. Did you work with them at all?

CS: Well, the cellist in the quartet was a cellist that I played a Mozart quartet with my first year in grad school. We’re good friends, so they sent me a recording before they performed it at the Phillips Collection in D.C. For the most part it was the ideal match, and I was sort of involved. But the quartet has actually been performed by other people and I haven’t been involved and I have no idea how it went. It was written to be a quartet played not necessarily by a new music specialist group, but a group that is used to playing Mozart and Beethoven. I like the piece a lot and I feel good about that quartet being a kind of calling card as a way into my music.

A passage from the string quartet score of Caroline Shaw's Entr'acte

An excerpt from the solo piano score for Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte. © 2011 Caroline Shaw Editions. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: I imagine that’s starting to happen more and more now, the music is slipping away from your ability to shepherd it, which is a good thing but also requires letting go.

CS: Ultimately, it’s a great thing. We have a very short time on this earth. Music is music. It should be out there in the world. People should be excited about playing it. And there shouldn’t be a sense of weird control freakiness that I probably could have. So I’m very happy that it’s going out in the world. Whether or not it’s a problem that I’m not involved, it’s probably better. At a certain point, you can tinker with your recipe to death. I used to paint. You can paint something and just keep on doing it. Then ultimately, if it’s a little bit brown and kind of smudgy, you can’t really work with that anymore. So it’s better to let it be what it is, let it go off, and trust people.

FJO: Well, part of why letting go is hard is the difficulty involved with transmitting new techniques. You were talking about the breathing in Partita and then the Brooklyn Youth Chorus making certain sounds. It reminds me of all the extensive prep work that goes into a performance of a Meredith Monk piece. There’s no adequate notation for a lot of that stuff. So what do you do to get it done by other groups? Several published Meredith Monk scores are accompanied by audio recordings to give interpreters a clearer sense of how to make certain sounds. But even with recording, you don’t necessarily get some of the nuances of how those sounds are made. Her own ensemble workshops her music rigorously. In some ways, your music has gone down that same path—certainly it has with Partita.

CS: Yeah, a little bit. I’ve never actually met Meredith Monk. I saw her one time and I got so nervous, I had to turn around. She’s just an amazing musician. But the thing about her work is that it’s not just about the sound. You could get a recording and imitate the sound. There’s something theatrical about it. It’s like a playwright writing more than words. You give a stage direction and there’s a sensibility to it that is connected to the narrative and the character and what they’re trying to say. I think that is really hard to notate in music. Again, it’s this concept of attitude and humor and the subtleties of that. I think my music is probably much more notated than Meredith Monk’s is. I’m still kind of an obsessive engineer about it. This is where everything goes. But then there are these little, almost theatrical subtleties that have to be passed down orally.

FJO: As you said earlier, notation does some things very well but others not as well. No matter how obsessively you write something down, there’s only so much you can do. We have all these added advantages over, say, Purcell. We’ve increased the kinds of details we can notate. There were no metronome markings back then, for example. And nowadays, as you said, someone can watch a YouTube video of a performance and maybe get something really precise if there’s good camera work to get the shape of someone’s mouth. When Molly talked to Joan La Barbara for NewMusicBox, she also recorded a whole lesson with Joan La Barbara which captured very detailed things about how she produces some of her sounds. So you don’t have to meet Joan La Barbara to learn how to do her stuff anymore.

CS: That’s amazing.

FJO: So when somebody gets, say, a score of Partita, do they get other things with it? What materials do you give somebody to ensure that it’s going to be as close to the recipe as is appropriate without being too controlling, but also have it be what you want it to be?

CS: There’s something that I wrote at the bottom of the first page of the score. I don’t remember the words exactly, but basically it was that no one document should be prescriptive. Be free and live life fully. That’s what I wanted that piece to go out with. The recording is very helpful and the score is very helpful, but ultimately do it the way you would like to do it. The piece was just done last week by Camerata Nova in Winnipeg. It was the first time [another group performed it]. I went out there to work with them, but ultimately they still did things their own way. Tempos were a little bit different. Pauses were a little bit different. The sound of the breath was different. Because every person—every instrument—is different. It’s not like a standardized clarinet, which everyone plays a little differently but the instrument itself is more or less the same. All eight instruments of the eight singers are different.

FJO: This is why I think most listeners really identify with singers more than they do with instrumentalists and why, certainly in pop music, a singer’s performance of a particular song has such a stamp of auteurship on it to the point that we call someone’s version of a song a cover. But we don’t call it a cover when a group performs a Mozart string quartet that tons of other folks have played.

CS: It’s fascinating to hear other versions of a similar thing. I love covers. I mean, that’s another thing. I love YouTube covers of people just doing pop songs. I love this song so much; I just want to sing it myself with my guitar for you. And then it’s a slightly different version.

violin cases

FJO: You’ve done what are essentially covers of some really classic American folk tunes, like “I’ll Fly Away.”

CS: Sort of. That is part of a set of four songs. It was a slight subversive dig at the commercial country music industry. It’s like: please, everyone stop making this glitzy. Just strip everything away. So I wanted to do my cover of it.

Going back to Mozart string quartets, you’re just doing this cover of this thing that somebody else’s band did a long time ago. But I love that there are slight differences. That works if it’s a musical community that enjoys hearing a mix of new things and old things. At a certain point, there’s not enough time in the day to hear all the older things and older new things and newish old things again and again and then also hear more new things. So how do we find a balance between enjoying different versions of stuff, but also embracing things that are entirely new? It’s hard. I think about this a lot, because I would love for there to be more repeat performances of new music. It’s such a shame, whether it’s orchestral or chamber music or electronic pieces, there’s one instance where it’s premiered and then there are very few instances that are shared communal experiences of that piece being done again, either by the same person slightly differently or by another group.

FJO: One way we can hear pieces again and again is through recordings, either hearing a physical CD or LP, hearing it on the radio, or now—more and more—hearing it online. And of course, it was through a commercially released recording of your piece that you won the Pulitzer.

CS: Yeah.

FJO: Thankfully you have SoundCloud embeds of several of your other pieces on your website, since nothing else is out on CD yet. Is there anything else in the works?

CS: There’s a cello and percussion duo, New Morse Code, that has a Kickstarter campaign. [Ed. note: They plan to record Shaw’s piece for them, Boris Kerner.] They’re really great advocates for new music. But that’s the only one I know of that’s going to be officially recorded.

FJO: Having multiple opportunities to hear a piece of music live is probably something that you’ll be addressing in your role as composer-in-residence for Music on Main, since I know that the artistic director, David Pay, is very interested in experimenting with performance modalities and how people hear stuff.

CS: David is definitely interested in how people hear new music and how they have conversations about it, whether it’s before the performance or after. I think the idea of the composer salon, having people just be able to talk about their work and ask questions, is great. There’s a chamber series in Manchester, Massachusetts, run by a couple of friends of mine from school. Every summer they’ve done a new work. They play it at the beginning of the concert, and they play it again at the end. So you hear it twice at the same concert, which I wish was done more often, especially if it’s not a very long piece. That’s something I’ll talk about with David.

Gelsey Bell: Get a Little Closer

There is a captivating mix of singer-songwriter intimacy, fourth wall-crushing theatricality, and curious experimental exploration in the work of composer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Gelsey Bell.

Performances of her 2011 song cycle SCALING, for example, have her crawling over and around the piano to play from positions that would likely make Tori Amos’s head spin. For “Cradle,” an intimate meditation for voice and metallophone from her 2013 cycle Our Defensive Measurements, she spends some time coaxing the audience to within arm’s reach before she begins to sing.

Bell's Casio keyboard

Bell’s Casio keyboard (down a few keys) has seen her through the creation of a lot of music.

With a background that spans music theater, woman-at-the-piano club shows, and the presentation of experimental work—both of her own design and of composers such as Robert Ashley—the cross-pollination of influences is perhaps to be expected. But the breakdown of walls—both between genres and between performer and audience—remains a tightrope to walk.

It’s also a place of risk and vulnerability that Bell welcomes. “I love an aesthetic of mistakes. I want things to get a little messy. I’m not interested in the sounds of perfection.”

“And I guess getting the audience involved is a great way to do that!” she concedes, laughing.

Music and risk


Even when she isn’t inviting the audience into, say, the bathroom with her for a little acoustic exploration, her preferred ways of working leave her open to the artistic ideas of collaborators both in creation and interpretation, especially through her regular work with collectives such as thingNY and Varispeed. Experimental music has allowed her to take “very seriously the idea of making work with your friends”—collaborations she finds to be fun and efficient because everyone brings a deeper level of appreciation and understanding to the table.

Further explaining her interest in such work and the opportunities it brings, Bell says, “I have full control over my performance and my body, and I’m not interested in having full control over any other performer’s body. I work with a lot of people who are composers in their own right and they have their own musical intelligences, and so I’m much more interested in creating a musical situation where we can all embody that.”

Bell's score for rolodex

Bell’s score designed for delivery via Rolodex currently in development.


This openness to exploring ideas is one of the things Bell finds attractive about both the experimental music scene and academic environments—two places where she finds she can be playful and curious in different yet complimentary ways.

She earned her Ph.D. in performance studies from New York University in January 2015 and is currently at work on a host of new pieces for upcoming performances this spring. On reflection, Bell says she feels somewhat like she’s at the cusp of more fully blending her various pots of experience—pockets that she previously kept somewhat isolated from one another.

I feel like I’m at this place of total exploration and I’m just having faith that I’m going to come out with something. I feel like I’m really in that mode where you’re just like, okay, I’m an artist. I have to let myself fail. I have to try a million things. I have to hate stuff, I have to love stuff, and I have to trust that if I put something on that’s really horrible it won’t be that no one wants to see anything that I do ever again. And just have faith that this kind of dream of some sort of sound that I have in my head that doesn’t have these intense boundaries can happen.

Jerome Kitzke: Stories That Must Be Told

Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
A conversation in Kitzke’s home in New York
December 4, 2014—10:00 a.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Although his chosen means of expression is music, Jerome Kitzke describes himself as a storyteller. “I think of pieces of music as stories even if they don’t have a text,” he explains during our morning visit to his apartment near the northern tip of Manhattan. “It’s the story of what that composer was feeling, whether they would want to admit it or not. If they say, “I’m writing a piece of pure music, it has no considerations of narrative or anything,” I don’t think that’s possible. They’re affected by what’s going on in the narrative of their lives. And it’ll affect them when they go into the studio to sit at their writing board or at their piano.”

The stories that have most deeply affected Kitzke and which he feels compelled to tell through his idiosyncratic music—a poly-stylistic amalgam of advanced compositional techniques and improvisation—frequently deal with social injustice. An Allen Ginsberg poem about cold war bomb threats serves as a mantra in his 1991 Mad Coyote Madly Sings. The recent American military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan inspired his visceral 2008 Winter Count, which appears on an innova CD devoted to Kitzke’s music that was released last year. A recurring theme in Kitzke’s output has been the plight of Native American peoples. For him, understanding “how the United States came to be the United States vis-à-vis the native nations that were already here” is a way of coming to terms with being an American:

By doing so, I’ve always felt like I’m a better American. I understand the relationships between natives and non-natives more. … I always feel if I reach a number of people with these pieces and it pricks them into exploring some of these issues on their own, then I’ve been successful. I’ve gotten letters and emails from Indian people and non-Indian people alike that have been gratifying in the sense that the non-Indian people have often said, “I had no idea.” And these are really smart people, which is very disappointing and discouraging about our education system. They say, “I had no idea about these issues at that kind of depth.” And I’ve had Indian people who have come up to me in tears and said, “Thank you for trying to bring these stories out into the light in a way that maybe can reach more people.”

Considering his populist inclinations, it might seem somewhat surprising that Kitzke has chosen the rarified world of contemporary music as the platform for his politically charged output. But even though his work reflects a deep understanding a broad range of indigenous traditional music as well as popular culture, the Western classical tradition has been its anchor.

I can talk politics and feel political, but I’m not a politician … What I am is a composer. … How far do these pieces go in terms of reaching people? The classical concert music world is not very far, numerically speaking, right? I mean, there aren’t that many people relative to the number of people that listen to hip hop, rock and roll, and everything else. So the number of people listening to the music we create is very small. But they really are rabid, the fans, which is great. … I was doing rock and roll, and then I was introduced to Beethoven, Bach, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky. I got completely blown away by the sonic world, but also by the fact that all of that music I was hearing was notated on paper. I became very enamored with the idea of being able to create from nothing something that would be listened to and performed by musicians and heard by an audience, but the method of transferring that from the players to the audience had to do with what you did by writing something on paper. … I loved rock and roll and I still do, but this introduction to notated music just turned me in a different creative direction which I never turned away from.

Kitzke’s obsession with the written score ultimately led him down a singular path where the calligraphic elements are as important as the sonic ones. A page of a Kitzke score is often as stunning as a work of visual art. This is one of the reasons why he continues to create scores by hand rather than use computer notation software. The other is a worldview that values corporeality over technology:

I think the way that people are moving around in the environment now, with their head down as they walk the streets looking at their gizmo, is removing them further from the physical world in a way that’s not positive to me. They’re getting their information and a first look at certain things on that screen, and they’re not looking at what’s around: the architecture, the park, the trees, everything. I don’t think that’s a good thing.


Kitzke score pages in frames on a wall, an electric keyboard, and various native American trinkets.

The space where Kitzke lives and creates his music is completely idiosyncratic but also very practical. An electric keyboard and various native American trinkets on one side, piles of books on the other.

Frank J. Oteri: I was very surprised to see an electric keyboard here since you seem to be somewhat anti-technology. Maybe “anti” is too strong, but it’s definitely not a concern of yours the way it is with so many people these days.

Jerome Kitzke: No. But I do have a MacBook Pro around the corner there, so I have a computer. Actually I didn’t get my first computer—a Gbook, iBook G3 thing, which I also still have—until 2003. I got it because my girlfriend at the time was moving to London. I had gotten a Hotmail account and I would go to the local library to use the computer there to email her. Then one morning I was standing outside waiting for the library to open; it was very cold out and there was a line. And a guy comes out and says, “The boiler’s not working today. We are not opening.” So I was standing there thinking, “Now I’ve got to walk 20 blocks back home. I need to get a computer!” It was ridiculous that I didn’t have one. So that’s why I got a computer. But I’ve come to rely on it in many ways for email and word processing. The thing probably does 150 more things that I have no idea about. I’m not anti-technology, it’s just not my first concern. I do see some things about the advent of the handheld devices that I don’t like, what that’s done to society in general. But they also have really great positive purposes, too. So I see both sides of it. For me, I always base it on do I need this. I got the computer because my girlfriend moved to London, and I needed it. If I ever get a handheld device, it’ll be because I need it. I don’t have a cell phone right now.

FJO: I was thrilled that you had email, since it made it much easier for us to arrange this meeting.

JK: Well, I also have three telephones in this apartment for various odd reasons, but they never ring unless it’s a telemarketer or maybe a family member or some friends who still call on the thing. So email is the way to communicate.

FJO: But there’s no Jerome Kitzke dot com.

JK: No.

FJO: And to this day you write out all your scores by hand.

JK: Right.

FJO: So you don’t really use technology for your music much. Well, I noticed that there are CDs here, so there’s some technology.

JK: Well, yeah. My stereo, the one I had from [the age of] 19—from the early 1970s on—finally died. I had the big speakers, the receiver, the turntable, and the amplifier to play all the LPs I have. I recently got a Crosley turntable; it’s got little speakers in it, but you can also plug in external speakers. So now I can play my vinyl again.

FJO: But the keyboard that you create music on is an electric keyboard.

JK: When I use a keyboard, yeah. Most of the time I write out of my head and just use the keyboard to sort of check on things. That’s changing, oddly enough, which must be a part of the aging process. I’m hearing a little bit less in my inner ear than I used to, so I’m now using the keyboard a little more than I used to. I don’t like this electronic keyboard at all, but it’s a handy tool. It has a jazz organ stop with kind of a Hammond sound and one of my more recent works, Buffalo Nation (Bison bison) , has a big Hammond B3 part, so it was handy to just get those sounds in my ear.

FJO: It’s interesting that you compose mostly in your head because you actively perform your music as well, and with a great many people who perform the music they write, composition tends to grow out of improvisation and physical performance. But you write it and then you start figuring out how to play it.

JK: For the most part. And actually I only perform a couple of my pieces pretty regularly, like The Animist Child, the toy piano piece I wrote for Wendy Chambers in 1994, and The Green Automobile, which I wrote in 2000 for piano. I perform those pieces a lot. The Great Automobile is the kind of piece that came out of a situation. I was at an artist colony. Sometimes if you have a group of people that is small and one of them is a little off, it can really affect the vibe of everybody else. I had a really bad experience at an artist colony in 2000. I wasn’t able to work very well, but I would play a lot of piano. And I was reading Allen Ginsberg at the time, so that piece kind of came out of my sitting there at the piano and speaking the poem aloud and tinkering around on the ivories. But The Animist Child mostly came out of my head. So I do things both ways. Especially more and more, as I said, because I think my inner ear, or my brain, my body, the whole thing is changing, which is interesting. I’ll be 60 in February, and I’m just noticing that stuff changes, as we all do, as we age.

Excerpt of manuscript score for toy piano showing additional notations for percussive effects

An excerpt from the score of Jerome Kitzke’s composition The Animist Child. Copyright © 1994 by Peermusic Classical (BMI). All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Long before it got appropriated by politicians, the term maverick was bandied about to describe a somewhat disparate group of idiosyncratic American composers from throughout our musical history—
Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch, John Cage, and more recently people like Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, and La Monte Young. All of these composers have created work that doesn’t quite fit in with the categories that existed before for music. They’ve come up with completely new ways of thinking about music as well as realizing their creations. If I were to try to describe you and what you do in a word, that word would be pretty high on my list. And I remember the terrific interview with you that was part of Minnesota Public Radio’s American Mavericks Series, so you obviously were comfortable with that word being used to describe you then. Are you still comfortable with that word? Is it a fair word to use?

JK: I don’t feel any discomfort about it, but I don’t think about stuff like that. The whole labeling of things in art and music has never interested me very much. I’ve been called many things. Being called a maverick composer feels like a compliment in a way, but that’s the extent to which I’ll think about it. I just write what I hear in my head and write based on my experiences in life. A lot of my music comes directly out of my life experiences away from the studio, away from even thinking about art and creativity. I’ve written many pieces that have to do with my perception of the relationship between the Europeans who came to this country and the native nations that were already here. That interaction, now ongoing for well over 500 years, is a fascinating one to me. And I always heard music in those interactions. So for me to write music about those ideas and those interactions, I had to really immerse myself away from any considerations of music—away from the studio and away from the city where I live. I’d spent time out west, weeks and months with people on the Pine Ridge Reservation for instance, where I spent most of my time. Out of those situations, I would then take the feelings I had there.

Let’s face it: everything we do in our life becomes a part of our experience, and it can affect how you then go about whatever it is you’re doing. If you’re creative, if you’re a writer, or even if you’re laying bricks, the way you lay those bricks can be affected by the other things that go on when you’re away from laying those bricks. I’ve been called a storyteller, which I like because I think of pieces of music as stories even if they don’t have a text. It’s the story of what that composer was feeling, whether they would want to admit it or not. If they say, “I’m writing a piece of pure music, it has no considerations of narrative or anything,” I don’t think that’s possible. They’re affected by what’s going on in the narrative of their lives. And it’ll affect them when they go into the studio to sit at their writing board or at their piano.

FJO: Considering this, it’s fascinating that even though you did not come from a Native American background, that Native American themes have been so central to your music—for decades at this point.

JK: For me it has to do with being an American, living on this continent. I feel—and have now felt for over 30 years while dealing with these kinds of issues and writing these kinds of pieces—that one of the outcomes is that I feel I’m going to be a better American by understanding these stories, understanding what actually happened, digging deeper for the truth of the interactions that occurred between these peoples. If you do that, you’ll discover really terrible, terrible stuff about how the United States came to be the United States vis-à-vis the native nations that were already here.

When I was really young, I was kind of being led to believe that there were no Indian people left. The way they were depicted in museums made it seem like they were actually not really a presence anymore; whereas in Wisconsin, where I grew up, there were nearly a dozen Indian reservations right in the state. The city of Milwaukee had many Indian people. You didn’t know it. It was just a hidden kind of thing. I became really interested in trying to write pieces that were not directed to listeners that were native people, although that’s great when that happens, but toward non-native people so they would on their own maybe explore some of these stories a little more deeply than all the stereotypical stories they were perhaps given in grade school about native nations and the relations between whites and natives.

By doing so, I’ve always felt like I’m a better American. I understand the relationships between natives and non-natives more, as rotten as these stories were, and as terrible as the situation still is to this day. Look at what’s going on in New York City right now with the Eric Garner case. The race relations are really not very good. They’re not as good as I think people tend to believe they are. So I just have always felt that I really want people to hear the pieces I’ve done and maybe, as I said, go find their own way into these stories.

FJO: You describe it as though you are an investigative reporter or a documentary film maker, but you’re a composer. That’s a somewhat odd role to have as somebody who’s so concerned about social issues.

JK: If you’ve made the decision to write a piece that deals with some of these issues, you better do your investigating, not take information that you’ve gleaned from one source or write something that’s all surface-y. If you’re going to write a piece about the Wounded Knee Massacre, you better get your ass to Wounded Knee and talk to people there. And not just read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, which is an okay book but that’s just the tiny surface.

Bookcases filled with books and a toy piano

Piles of books line one of the walls of Kitzke’s apartment as well as a toy piano.

FJO: My point is somewhat larger here. Other people who have become so concerned about these matters channel that concern in a completely different way: by writing some kind of exposé, or making a film about it, lobbying congress, or maybe even getting directly involved in politics or social work. You, however, respond through music. Perhaps you see music as something that can not only accomplish the same things as these other activities but perhaps maybe even accomplish them better.

JK: I don’t know if it could be better. I’d have to think about that. But I can only speak for myself in regard to the question you’re raising. I can talk politics and feel political, but I’m not a politician. If I were a writer, I’d be writing about this stuff. But what I am is a composer. I guess I’m an artist, too. I don’t think of myself in those terms, but if I’m an artist, I’m also wanting to make these statements artfully, in a way that’s not me up on a soapbox ranting. I don’t feel I do that in the pieces I’ve done. I’ve tried not to. There are moments that are incredibly intense about these issues, but I’ve always tried to be more subtle about how I present the material. How far do these pieces go in terms of reaching people? The classical concert music world is not very far, numerically speaking, right? I mean, there aren’t that many people relative to the number of people that listen to hip hop, rock and roll, and everything else. So the number of people listening to the music we create is very small. But they really are rabid, the fans, which is great.

I always feel if I reach a number of people with these pieces and it pricks them into exploring some of these issues on their own, then I’ve been successful. I’ve gotten letters and emails from Indian people and non-Indian people alike that have been gratifying in the sense that the non-Indian people have often said, “I had no idea.” And these are really smart people, which is very disappointing and discouraging about our education system. They say, “I had no idea about these issues at that kind of depth.” And I’ve had Indian people that have come up to me in tears and said, “Thank you for trying to bring these stories out into the light in a way that maybe can reach more people.”

FJO: For me, one of most poignant moments in that talk you did with Minnesota Public Radio was when you recalled a reaction from someone you met on a reservation when you were working on your first Indian piece: “People come and they do things and then they forget about us.” You really took that comment to heart. You did not forget and it became a permanent part of what you did. And your whole compositional trajectory since then has been a kind of giving back, an honoring of that connection that you made there.

JK: Yeah. Not every piece I’ve done in the last 30 years has been about these issues, but there have been about 10 or 12 pieces—and I’m not a prolific composer, so that’s a big part of my output.

FJO: I’m always eager to find out how people come to their mature compositional identities. Certainly there have been pieces of yours that do not deal with Native American themes, but even those that don’t still seem to have either some kind of political overtone or to tell some kind of magical or mythical story. There’s a story attached to every piece of yours I’ve heard. But was it always that way? I know that back in 1980 you won a BMI student composer award for a chorus and orchestra piece called Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but it’s not in your catalog anymore and I couldn’t track it down.

JK: It’s never been performed. It won that BMI prize. I think it needs eight timpanists, four harp players, so it’s one of those “I’m doing this because I can” things. I was 21 when I did it. It was just one of those huge pieces that’ll never get played. To the point though, Rime of the Ancient Mariner was based on the first portion of the Coleridge poem and is a kind of journey.

But even further back than that, to 1970 when I wrote my first piece of music, it came out of considerations of some of the familial themes in John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. I was 15 years old. We were reading that in high school, and my English teacher, Mary Johnson—who is still alive and with whom I’m still in touch, she lives in Wisconsin—asked me, among other students in the class, to write some musical themes based on some of the familial themes in Steinbeck’s book. And I said to her, “What are you talking about? I don’t write music.” I think she knew I played French horn badly in the high school band and orchestra, and I was in rock and roll bands. I had a Farfisa Combo Compact organ. That was my instrument and I was self taught, but I never thought about being a composer. But she saw something and I said, “Oh, okay, I’ll give it a shot.” Lo and behold, I discovered I had some innate talent. The first pieces came out of literature, so that set a pattern for me in terms of being connected to stories and having pieces tell a story, whether it’s actually using material from literature or poetry, or creating an anti-war piece or a piece about Wounded Knee.

FJO: So even back then, you were having musicians talk while they play?

JK: In 1970, no. The first instance of that would have been 1982 or ’83. By the late ‘80s and very early ’90s that really became a part of my language.

FJO: Now, I’m curious about how that plays out when you’re working with other players. You’ve had your own group, the Mad Coyote, for years and with them you can really direct how you want your music to be. But now you mostly write for other people and other ensembles that might have never dealt with a piece that involves that kind of thing. So, what’s that interaction like? Classical musicians really like having a good tone, having it sound wonderful, and getting the notes right, playing really hard music and showing they can really do it with a good tone. But you throw stumbling blocks in their way. You have to play this really hard passage and you have to stomp at the same time or you have to shout out. I know that when Guy Klucevsek recorded a piece you wrote for him that was originally supposed to be a solo, it wound up being a duo with you because he felt he couldn’t do all the additional stuff you’d asked him to do and also play the notes to the best of his abilities.

JK: Breath and Bone is what you’re talking about. Guy had premiered it as a solo. But when it came time to record it—I loved how honest he was—he said, “Look, at this moment in time, I don’t feel like I can do it justice in the recording studio and get everything right.” Would I do the vocal stuff? So we did it as a duo, which opened up a whole other world because we then did it as a duo many times and it works very well that way. Then as he played the piece, on tour all over the world, he got it in his chops and then subsequently recorded it again as a solo on a Starkland release. So it was a wonderful evolution with his eventually performing all the vocals and everything.

When I work with my own group—of course I know those people—they’ll do anything. So I don’t have to worry about that. But if I’m going to do a residency—one time I went and a group was playing a couple of pieces of mine. They were students—really good students on their instruments, but they had no feel for what it meant to shout or to stomp their feet. It just was really hard for them. They could be very dramatic on the clarinet, but very skittish about going “hey!” or “hah!” or doing anything like that. I found what really worked well is if I were there to demonstrate. That seemed to get them over the hump. And then there are some people who just are never going to be able to do it. I’ve had pianists say, “I love your piece Sunflower Sutra; I would really like to do it, but I just can’t do that other stuff in a way that I think would serve the piece well.” So I’ve had both experiences—I’ve gone and people have just been great at it instantly, and many times I’ve had to coax out of them the drama and the ability for them to use their voices and do other things that are extra-musical.

FJO: A lot of this is really about understanding and conveying character, and bringing a text to life orally. It’s about diction and public speaking, but it is also theater to some extent. Instrumental musicians don’t study acting.

JK: I often call my pieces theatrical music, especially when it has a text. Even pieces that don’t have a text are about something—a current event or an anti-war piece, for instance. I still feel these are theatrical because I want the musicians to not just be playing the notes. I try to encourage them to feel like they’re telling some kind of story.

My piece We Need to Dream All This Again from 1993 is about Crazy Horse and Custer. It’s got some vocal things in it, but there’s no text except at the very beginning, where it says Crazy Horse comes to the hill, and at the end, where it says he is in the hills to pray. Everything else is instrumental. But I’ve encouraged the players to read Bernard Pomerance’s book We Need to Dream All This Again or to read other books about Crazy Horse and Custer, just so they understand where I’m coming from and why I would create this piece. That’s a lot to ask of a performer, because it’s only an 11-minute piece. Musicians get hired and think, “Well, I’m just going to do this piece; I don’t want to read a book.” But sometimes they do it, and it’s actually very helpful for them. I also have voluminous program notes often. The pieces can work without that, but I think it’s really great to let people know why I’m doing what I’m doing.

A pile of books on the floor, one (The Earth Shall Weep - A History of Native America) on top of a banjo case

Some of Jerome Kitzke’s books.

FJO: So for an 11-minute piece, you ask people not only to rehearse the music but to read an entire book which could take many, many hours of their time. With an orchestra performance, you’re lucky if you get two rehearsals beforehand that are about maybe a half-hour each. Of course, when you’re writing for a chamber ensemble, you can get a bit more of their time, especially if the piece enters their repertoire and if they take it on tour. Still, this is a lot to ask, and certainly reading and comprehending a book that involves a complex history requires a much different skill set than playing an instrument to one’s maximum potential. But it makes me curious: in a completely instrumental performance, can you tell if somebody has absorbed what these pieces are about? How do you know? What is different about the interpretation?

JK: Wow. That’s a great question. I’ve never even thought about that. Subconsciously I’ve probably thought and just assumed when something’s going really well that they’ve gotten at least some part of the non-musical reason for doing the piece. But I can’t prove that.

FJO: I ask this because some musicians who have performed total serial music have acknowledged that they knew absolutely nothing about the way the music was put together and that they never spent time trying to analyze the music—they just played what was on the page in front of them to the best of their abilities and their interpretations were extremely convincing on a musical level. Maybe they don’t get the back story, but does it ultimately matter?

JK: I think it doesn’t necessarily matter, or it matters from person to person. I mean, there are some musicians who perhaps think a certain way about life in general and they focus narrowly on playing the piano, let’s say. And they do it so brilliantly from some sort of dramatic part of themselves that they can’t necessarily explain, and it works. Then there are others that feel they really love to know what the composer was thinking and do some exploratory work. But you can get the same result, I think.

FJO: But of course when you create music that has an attached social message, if somebody’s not getting the message—and I suppose that’s more for the audience than the interpreters—hasn’t the piece failed? Otherwise, why have the message?

JK: Well, my piece The Paha Sapa Give-Back for four drumsets and piano—it’s a really visceral experience live in the concert hall. I think it’s quite possible for an audience person to lose sight of what the message of that piece is and be completely taken up with it on a purely sonic level. To me that would be a success. If that same person also took in the message about returning the Black Hills to the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe people, it would be a double success. Now I suppose it’s possible, of course, that there’s an audience member that won’t get any of it, and won’t get it and won’t like it.

manuscript score sample showing all parts converge to one line

An excerpt from the score of Jerome Kitzke’s composition The Paha Sapa Give-back. Copyright © 1995 by Peermusic Classical (BMI). All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Well, I bring this up because so much of what you’ve done has a political point of view—say, for example, your anti-war pieces. This is a huge generalization which I probably shouldn’t make, but I’m going to go ahead and make it anyway. I think it would be fair to say that a majority of the folks who listen to new music are probably going to be more partial to an anti-war sentiment than a pro-war sentiment. You’re preaching to the choir; most of the folks in the audience already agree with you. How do you reach people who don’t? This was a real dilemma for composers like Hanns Eisler and Cornelius Cardew. At first, they both wrote really avant-garde music. But once they got really deep into political causes they felt they had to abandon that kind of music in order to reach a wider audience so they could get their political message across to more people. So Hanns Eisler went from writing 12-tone music to writing popular songs. Cardew went from post-Cagean conceptualism to stuff that sounds almost like Andrew Lloyd Webber. But it doesn’t sound like you do anything in terms of your compositional language to try to have it reach more people. Is that even an issue for you?

JK: It’s a total nonissue for me. I can only write what I hear in my head and hopefully have it be something that’s coming from a really deep emotional part of my interior soul. So it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be no matter what. We talked earlier about how the new music audience is a pretty small group. New York is maybe more provincial in this way. But there are some places where new music audiences are actually quite large and the demographics are very wide. The group Present Music in Milwaukee, for instance—I don’t know if you’ve ever been to one of their concerts or had music performed by them, but it’s quite an experience because the audience is 800 to 1000 people per concert without fail, and it’s mostly made up of non-musicians and non-artistic community members from the Milwaukee area. Present Music has accomplished something there that everybody always talks about wanting to do, which is they have a real audience from the community. It’s a fantastic experience. So when I do an anti-war piece at a Present Music concert, it’s not always preaching to the choir. There are a lot of people there that aren’t necessarily going to have the same view point, I don’t think. How would I know? But even if an audience is small and made up entirely of contemporary concert classical music composers, it doesn’t hurt to have a little sonic affirmation of one’s feeling about being against war. So, it’s okay to preach to the choir, I think.

FJO: In terms of getting your pieces out into the world, there’s more to it than it just being what it’s going to be. There are practical considerations, especially when you write for certain forces. You wrote a chamber orchestra piece a few years back which I haven’t yet heard. There are certain conventions that come along with writing for orchestra; how did you deal with that?

JK: Well, it’s a Kitzke orchestral piece in that there’s a lot of extra stuff that themusicians are required to do. There’s no text involved though.

FJO: Of course those extra elements are what make the work yours. But they also might make it a harder piece to program for an orchestra that’s used to playing music by Mozart, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. All of a sudden they’re presented with this wacko piece with all of this other stuff.

JK: The piece you’re talking about is the American Composers Orchestra work I wrote called The Fire at 4 a.m., and during the rehearsals, one of the first violinists came up to me and said, “You know, this is great, because it’s really good for us to be asked to do some of this stuff, to step outside of our little safe circles of playing our instruments.” That comment was very gratifying to me. But you raise a good point, like what I mentioned earlier with Sunflower Sutra. The piece requires the pianist to really be an actor as well as a phenomenal pianist. It’s now been played by 12 different pianists around the world, and they’ve done it with different accents which is really interesting. But I’ve also had many comments from pianists who just can’t do it. What I require instrumentalists to do can sometimes be limiting in terms of me having a wider number of performers play the work, so it can be considered a little impractical. But then again, I don’t think about that stuff much, because I just have to write what I need to write and it will go where it goes.

FJO: But there are obviously people that think about that. You have a publisher, Peermusic, so you don’t have to do that part of it, for the most part. But every composer, whether he or she is signed with a third-party publisher or is self-published, has to think of these matters to some extent. These things might be somewhat impractical, but it’s significantly less impractical than a lot of the other music that has been created by so-called maverick composers. There are no special instruments that need to be built for it. There are no new tuning systems or polyrhythms that only a handful of people can actually perform. In fact, quite the reverse—there’s something very immediately physical about your music. It’s very grounded in the earth and very human in a way that I think makes it more practical. And it seems like, at least on a musical level, it has no particular structural axe to grind. It also seems completely intuitive.

JK: Yes, that’s the first place it comes from always. It always will be the reason why I even want to do the piece in the first place. But there are pieces where there are formal things going on that are private to me. I talk about them if someone wants to. I’ve always said a piece often works for me because of what the composer’s thinking about formally. There’s a formal arc. So formal structure is really important to me.

FJO: But you don’t care if an audience hears it.

JK: No, not at all. For instance, Buffalo Nation (Bison bison) , this 90-minute piece that takes 44 people to perform, tells this incredible story about bison with a huge, beautiful libretto by Kathleen Masterson. But it’s essentially a giant rondo form, where this theme comes back seven times, I think, throughout. So I’m a bit of a formalist.

A page from the score of Jerome Kitzke's Buffalo Nation (Bison bison)

The cover page of the score of Buffalo Nation (Bison bison). Music by Jerome Kitzke. Libretto by Kathleen Masterson. Copyright © 2009 Peermusic Classical (BMI). All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: I’m glad you’ve brought up Buffalo Nation, because of all the pieces that you describe as being theatrical, this actually is a piece of music theater.

JK: Right. I tend to call Buffalo Nation and pieces like it in my output theatrical music as opposed to musical theater because that connotes a different kind of world that my music doesn’t fit into. But yeah, Buffalo Nation (Bison bison) is a complete piece of theater that I would love to see done up entirely with all the theatrical elements—lighting, staging, sets, all that stuff. Right now it’s just been done in a concert version.

FJO: It seems like the most natural place for these kinds of pieces would be on some kind of stage. Yet interestingly you usually engage instrumentalists to speak, sing, and shout, rather than actors or singers. You do have some pieces which involve singers, but less so. I wonder if this is because of an aesthetic preference for untrained voices as opposed to trained ones. Perhaps an overly trained voice would somehow reduce the visceral quality that you want it to have.

JK: Up until the early ‘80s, I was writing vocal music. I think the last vocal piece I wrote was in 1985, a setting of Jack Kerouac’s 171st chorus from his Mexico City Blues for voice and doublebass. That’s an actual song the singer sings. And my vocal music before that was the same. After that I just became less enamored with that very stylized, kind of stiff vocal sound of classically trained singers. And I often couldn’t understand what they were singing. Language is really important to me, so I became very interested in the idea of text being spoken with music. There are many pieces like that from the past which I always loved. It’s a great way for the text to always be understood. As long as I did my job properly and didn’t obliterate someone when they were speaking, the language would always be heard.

I’d become very unsatisfied, as I said, with hearing singers sing music where I couldn’t understand the English language they were singing. Sometimes it’s the composer’s fault; sometimes it’s the singer’s fault. So I just thought I might go a different path and just use people and have them be speaking, whether they’re actors or the musicians speaking. Then when Buffalo Nation came around, talking with my librettist, she really wanted to have some songs, and I said okay. So for the first time in many years, probably 30 years or so, I finally set with a singer singing. In this case it was Kurt Ollman, a wonderful baritone. It was fascinating to me because I applied all my thinking in the past 30 years about what it means to set language and have someone sing it versus to just have someone sing the notes you wrote without really caring what the words were. And I think it worked very well. So when the singer sings the songs in Buffalo Nation, you can actually hear what’s being sung. So I’m happy about that.

FJO: So to really be a provocateur here— you said that early on your teacher had you write music. You played the French horn and you’d played in rock and roll bands, but she got you on this path. And we talked about working with singers and you said that you avoided the classically trained voice because it obscured the words.

JK: I know where this is going.

FJO: You know exactly where this is going. Why didn’t you stay doing rock and roll?

JK: Well, I was doing rock and roll, and then I was introduced to Beethoven, Bach, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky—whom I really like a lot, by the way. I got completely blown away by the sonic world, but also by the fact that all of that music I was hearing was notated on paper. I became very enamored with the idea of being able to create from nothing something that would be listened to and performed by musicians and heard by an audience, but the method of transferring that from the players to the audience had to do with what you did by writing something on paper. I just fell in love with that idea. So, you know, I loved rock and roll and I still do, but this introduction to notated music just turned me in a different creative direction which I never turned away from.

FJO: This is probably why you’re also so attached to the physical act of writing music on paper rather than using a computer and a notation software program to write out your scores.

JK: Right. To this day, I use a mechanical pencil. I used to use ink and vellum and all that. Oh man, I couldn’t do that now. I’m too old. But I use a mechanical pencil and just the sound of the pencil on the paper—I love it. The idea of creating from a blank page to your finished score is still exciting to me. I have a BFA in composition. That’s all I got. I didn’t want to go to graduate school. But I was in school long enough to be introduced to the magnificent music and also the visually stunning scores of George Crumb. That stuff just blew my mind sonically, but also what I saw on paper I thought was just gorgeous. I could feel that guy’s spirit somehow from how he worked on the page. And I said, “That’s for me.”

FJO: Some point before you decided you were able to create music full time, you spent many years working at the American Music Center.

JK: Yeah, I was the curator of the physical collection for ten years. I took care of it. I made sure the boxes were in good shape. I made sure the scores were treated properly. It was fascinating. That was a mountain, a physical monument to creativity. What I liked about the AMC at that time is that there was no quality control. We took everything. It was just fascinating to see how many composers around the country were creating music; you’ll never hear about these people ever.

Page from a handwritten score by Kitzke showing all staves converging

Detail of “Springfield” from Jerome Kitzke’s composition In the Throat of River Mornings. Copyright © 1984 by Jerome Kitzke (BMI). All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted with permission. For many years, a framed copy of this score page was on display in the reception area at the American Music Center and was featured on the homepage of AMC’s website.

FJO: I’m curious about the impact that it had on you as a musical creator. You saw these scores of George Crumb and you felt some kind of attachment to him. Then you worked shepherding this collection of work by all these people you never met from all over the country. And this is what you wanted to do, to create artifacts like this. You didn’t want to create something that can come out of a machine. What’s missing when you don’t write out a score by hand?

JK: I always say this is just the way I have to do it. When you hear a piece that’s done entirely on a computer and all that, I’m not going to necessarily be able to tell that it was done that way. Sometimes, when you hear something where you can sort of tell a younger composer got enamored with sequencers, you can sort of hear that, but even that—who knows? I’m not sure there’s a difference.

FJO: Last year, a new CD came out devoted to your music, which was the first one in a very long period, and a CD devoted to your music from the late 1990s was finally re-issued.

JK: I re-released it.

FJO: So now there are two full CDs available of your music, but now we’re in this era where nobody’s sure about the future of CDs.

JK: Well, I still like having the physical product. You can hold it and you can open it. I still miss LPs. There were vast amounts of things you could do with the artwork on a record. But you can still open a CD and you can read about the pieces. I’m not someone who likes sitting in front of a computer screen for very long. In fact, I start to feel physically not well when I do that. So I like having the physical object. And I know a lot of people just get all of their information about everything sitting at a computer.

It’s also great to be able to hand a physical thing to somebody, instead of saying just Google me, or go to something-something dot com. There’s a situation with this record, for instance, where there are three pieces on it. One of them, Winter Count, utilizes a bunch of poetry. One of the poems is by Harold Pinter, and there were permission problems. Because of the way we were able to work out the Harold Pinter permission, Winter Count is not available as a download which is a problem for everybody that likes to get everything by downloading; they might see this online and think it only has two pieces: The Green Automobile and Paha Sapa Give-Back. But there’s this 37-minute string quartet for actor, bass drum, and string quartet that they can’t download. You have to actually buy the record to hear Winter Count. I know everyone’s saying that at some point there won’t be anything physical, but I’m not sure if that will actually ever happen.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear your perspective on this idea of taking all of our experience and un-physicalizing it, since you are so physically grounded. I think we need to make things more physical and not less physical.

JK: I agree. I think the way that people are moving around in the environment now, with their head down as they walk the streets looking at their gizmo, is removing them further from the physical world in a way that’s not positive to me. They’re getting their information and a first look at certain things on that screen, and they’re not looking at what’s around: the architecture, the park, the trees, everything. I don’t think that’s a good thing.

FJO: Yet you’ve chosen to live in New York City, of all places. You’re not from here originally. Even though many people talk about this place being an epicenter for new music, in the 21st century there’s really no center for anything. Stuff is happening everywhere and it’s easier to be connected to it from anywhere than ever before. So I wonder what makes this home for you. Why is New York City the place where you’re able to create your work? Why is this place where you decided to be?

JK: Well, I’ve been here 30 years. It had nothing to do with the arts scene here. Some really good friends of mine had moved to the East Coast, so I said, “Oh, I’m going to make a big change; I want to live in a big city for a while in my life and see what that’s like.” So I came here with a bunch of money I had saved in Milwaukee, having worked at Hal Leonard Publishers. This was in the very early ‘80s. I didn’t really start doing anything musical here until 1990 or so. For about six years, I just ate up New York and what it was. But what I started to realize is that the only way I could be here was I had to leave as much as I could. So one of the ways I’ve been able to live here so long is that I go away a lot. I’ve not spent 12 solid months here ever in 30 years. After a certain point, the places I would go to would be artist colonies and I’ve been to many of them. I love them; it’s where I tend to get my best work done. I do most of my composing at artist colonies now. I can work here in New York, but it’s becoming harder and harder for me. Here you are in my apartment; there’s construction on 215th Street. This is a one way circle here, so every vehicle in this area has to go around this corner. It’s a little too noisy here.

A group of rocks and a pouch on top of a native American rug

Julian Wachner: Transcending the Sacred and the Profane

Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
As the director of music and the arts for Trinity Wall Street, Julian Wachner wears many hats. The 45-year-old composer, conductor, organist, and pianist oversees the music-making at this Lower Manhattan Episcopal house of worship, navigating both what the extremely versatile Trinity Wall Street Choir sings during religious services and a broad range of secular concerts held both in the main church and in St. Paul’s Chapel, which survived the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center across the street. But while religion is central to his musical as well as his personal life (he is a practicing Episcopalian and his wife, Rev. Emily Wachner, serves as a priest at Trinity), he also is a regular conductor for the PROTOTYPE Festival, earlier this month conducting Ellen Reid’s Winter’s Child. (His own opera Evangeline Revisited was showcased on the New York City Opera’s VOX series in 2010.) And in February he will conduct Charles Ives’s 4th Symphony and a rarely performed Alberto Ginastera choral work at Carnegie Hall.

“For me, all music is meant to induce a transformative experience upon the listener. … I want it to be life changing,” exclaimed Wachner, when we spoke with him at Trinity’s office shortly after the start of the New Year. He actually sees it as “moral responsibility of the compositional craft and the performative craft as well.” In booklet notes he wrote for the first CD devoted to his vocal music conducted by someone else, a 2010 Naxos disc containing both sacred and secular choral music performed by the Elora Festival Singers under the direction of Noel Edison, Wachner described an often-perceived schism between music he calls Apollonian (either music for worship or academic music) and music that is Dionysian (popular music or theatrical music including operas and ballets). His own aesthetic inclinations, he pointed out, have led him to ignore this schism and to freely mix approaches that have traditionally been polar opposites.

Cover for Naxos American Classics Wachner CD

This is in no small part due to his family background, how he first became involved with music, and how that involvement led to his own personal religious awakening. He describes his parents as “sort of California hippies” and remembers that there was “no religion in my life at all.” His mother “grew up Catholic but totally rejected that,” and his father had a Jewish background but was also a non-practitioner even though Wachner learned from his paternal grandmother, who had been a strong influence in his life, that among his ancestors “were all these chief rabbis in Germany.” But there was another important influence—a musical one. Wachner’s stepfather Robert Cole was a conductor and served as Michael Tilson Thomas’s assistant at the Buffalo Philharmonic during Wachner’s childhood. “So I had that whole world of post-Bernstein energy,” he acknowledges. An early piano teacher of his recommended that he sing as a boy chorister at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo, so he started doing that at age seven.

“It was really just a performance opportunity,” Wachner explains. “When I went there, I thought of my identity as Jewish, even though I had never been bar mitzvahed or anything like that. But it was understood that that was what I was and it was cool with everybody.”

Wachner holds framed memorabilia as FJO looks on.

Wachner shares some family memorabilia with FJO.

But a few years later, he had an epiphany. By this time, he had moved to New York City and was singing with the St. Thomas choir:

Part of it was the music and the power of the liturgy. But the other part of it was the actual mission and message. We would sing the Byrd Mass in Five Parts and this incredible music by Howells, but then we’d go out and feed the homeless. That was part of our training. That whole gospel message really resonated and I became an Episcopalian at age 11 or 12.

After his conversion, however, Wachner remained deeply involved with a great deal of music outside of the Christian sacred repertoire. In high school, he even played in rock bands while sporting a Mohawk and an earring. “As I went through life, I had always a sort of wilder side and a more conservative side,” he confesses. At the same time he was immersing himself in the downtown rock club scene, he was composing his first polyphonic mass, a Missa Brevis for chorus and organ; he points out that “the Sanctus of it is has almost an ‘80s pop ballad chord progression which comes from the Depeche Mode/Smiths/Howard Jones world I was living in during that period.”

Wachner holding a page of music manuscript with a electric keyboard and a bust of J.S. Bach on top to his left.

Wachner studying a score in his studio.

That 1987 mass, which appears on the Elora Festival Singers’ disc, sounds more secular than parts of his ethereal cycle of Rilke settings, Rilke Songs (2002), or even his 1998 E. E. Cummings-inspired cycle Sometimes I Feel Alive, despite their texts. (Both of which also appear on that recording.) For Wachner, finding the sacred in the secular is as important as finding the secular in the sacred. In fact, he believes there is a fluid continuity between the arts, the sciences, and religions—all religions. That multiplicity of perspectives is something he aspires to tap into as much as he can in anything he composes or performs.

My definition of sacred is so liquid that I am able to interpret everything in that direction in the same way I see everything as theater as well, how action follows action and produces some kind of response or result. … I’ve been drawing on not only the Judeo-Christian tradition but also Islamic, the Buddhist world, the Martial Arts, as well as the scientific. I’m also a Feldenkrais practitioner. For me embracing all that is available to us now is actually a sacred act. The gift of intelligence and curiosity and seeking is a God-given act, if you want to say that, or that humans are endowed with as part of our make-up.

Cover for Musica Omnia Wachner 3-CD set

Wachner’s “little c” catholic interpretation of faith is the inspiration behind all of the music that is featured on a 3-CD set devoted to his vocal and instrumental works released last year on Trinity’s own Musica Omnia label. The track list includes extremely flamboyant settings of psalms, a majestic symphony, and a powerful trumpet and organ duo, Blue Green Red, whose only immediate sonic relationship to sacred music is that it features a pipe organ. Also included is Wachner’s over-the-top arrangement of the ubiquitous “Joy To The World” by George Frederick Handel (a composer whose sacred and secular works he has frequently conducted and whose own balancing of the sacred and secular is perhaps the most famous compositional precedent for what he is doing).

Yet despite his own musical omnivorousness and his firm belief that any kind of compositional technique can serve both sacred and secular music, Wachner admits that he approaches sacred and secular music differently as a performer.

“In terms of musical language and compositional technique, I think it’s all available to both areas,” Wachner explains. “In terms of what’s off-limits, I haven’t really found that yet. I interpret work theatrically; I tend to do that with everything. But if I were to do a sacred work in a liturgical setting, I tend to downplay my physical performance. I do that to draw more focus to the specific theater of the liturgy and not the theater of me as performer. I tone down my gestures; it feels more appropriate to temper the extremities. For me temperance comes in the performance; in the creation of a piece of music, the possibility of using everything at my disposal adds to the ecstasy of it and those ecstatic moments are the high point.”

Wachner standing in front of seven framed portraits on a wall.

As the music director of Trinity Wall Street, Julian Wachner is part of a long lineage of music directors and vicars at the church. Pictured behind him are portraits of seven of Trinity’s previous vicars.

Daron Hagen: The Human Element

A conversation in Hagen’s home in Rhinebeck, New York
November 17, 2014—1:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Although his catalog includes symphonies, more than a dozen concertos (including one for the Japanese koto), works for solo keyboard, wind band, and string orchestra, plus over 30 chamber music compositions (among them four formidable piano trios and a particularly noteworthy brass quintet), Daron Hagen finds his greatest fulfillment as a composer when he is working on an opera. He loves telling stories and opera’s inherently collaborative nature, but at its core he loves the human element of singers, the fact that their musical instruments are contained within them.

“If you have a cold you can’t sing,” Hagen explained when we spoke to him at his home in Rhinebeck, New York. “Or it fundamentally changes you from a tenor into a bass.”

Even though he had been composing many different types of pieces from the very beginning of his career (innate abilities as an orchestrator fetched him arranging gigs since he was in high school), the human voice has always inspired him the most. His older brother introducing him to Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd is what made him want to be a composer. (“For a 14- or 15-year-old boy who was looking for poetry and a world to live in, it was the siren call. Come on in. Do this.”) And one of his earliest heroes was Leonard Bernstein who, though a triple-threat pianist-composer-conductor who also worked in a wide variety of genres, was most widely known for his musical theater works. In fact, sending a letter to Bernstein containing a recording of Hagen’s first orchestral score is what actually opened the first doors for him. Bernstein actually responded, recommending that Hagen study at Juilliard with David Diamond (which he did following studies with Ned Rorem at Curtis). Eventually Hagen had an opportunity to work directly with Bernstein during the final stages of composing his first opera, Shining Brow, which is based on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright.

But before he had begun work on that opera, Hagen had already composed a ton of art songs. (To date there are over 200.) He’s quick to point out, however, that “opera is not an art song writ large and an art song is not a short opera.” Yet it’s difficult not to interpret Hagen’s art songs as stepping stones toward his writing operas, especially since a song cycle he wrote based on poetry of Paul Muldoon led directly to his collaborating with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet on that first opera as well as three others: Bandanna, which is about corrupt border patrol officers; Vera of Las Vegas, in which an IRA hit man on the lam becomes involved with a cross-dressing lap dancer; and The Antient Concert, in which James Joyce and the celebrated Irish tenor John McCormack face off in a singing competition. Since then, he has created three additional full-length operas: Amelia, which has a highly complex narrative centering around the real life story of the daughter of a Vietnam POW; Little Nemo in Slumberland, based on Winsor McCay’s classic children’s comic strip; and A Woman in Morocco, another extremely complicated saga about culture clash, adultery, murder, and human trafficking.

For Hagen, the process of creating an opera is such an immersive experience that his life can be fairly neatly divided into chapters that correspond to the operas he has completed thus far.

I’ve always put everything on the line for every piece, but there’s a humility in trying to learn how to write operas. … You spend two years writing the initial document, then you go through another six months of production, and then if you’re a real opera composer, that’s when you start a piece, after the first production because then it’s time to make the piece better based on what you’ve learned.

As far as humility goes, Hagen claims he is no longer interested in advancing his career as a composer and is only willing to take on projects he deeply believes in. Now a husband (his wife is singer/composer Gilda Lyons) and the father of two young sons, for him family has become central. And yet opera still inspires him, in part because he sees parallels between writing opera and parenting.

Writing opera taught me how to let go of myself when composing, to become the characters, to make myself the servant of the story, just as I have learned by becoming a parent that my life is no longer about me; it is about my sons. Both have served as a font of solace and redemption for me. … When I stand at the back rail of a theater and feel an audience move with the drama that I have composed (but which has been brought to life by a hundred musicians, actors, designers, and technicians), I feel the same sense of pride and terror that I do standing at the fence watching my son swing a bat in baseball practice. I feel pride because I played a role in creating the opera (and my son), and nurturing it (and him). It’s the “children and art” paradigm: I feel despair because, even though every ounce of my soul shall have been poured into the process, it shall never have been enough.


Hagen's grand piano with a manuscript score illuminated by overhead lamps.

Daron Hagen’s piano. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

Frank J. Oteri: When we talked to Joan Tower for NewMusicBox nine years ago, she said that she believed there were two different kinds of composers: vocal music composers and instrumental music composers. She said that she was an instrumental music composer and could never imagine writing an opera even though at the time she had just completed her very first choral piece and it’s very nice. You’ve written both vocal and instrumental pieces that I’ve been very moved by, but then recently I read in one of the columns you wrote for The Huffington Post that opera was your favorite wheelhouse to play around in. So do you think there’s something to this dichotomy? Do you operate with a different mindset when you write for voice as opposed to when you don’t?

Daron Aric Hagen: No, it’s all the same for me. People write what they’re paid to, if they’re professional composers. I think over the years you develop a track record for one thing and you become known for it. And more people ask you to write for it. So then, perforce, you’re known as an opera composer because those are the things that got recorded or performed most frequently. But I knew from the beginning. The first piece that I had published by E.C. Schirmer was an organ piece, back in the early 1980s, but I remember Robert Schuneman, the man who owned the publishing house, said, “What do you want to be known as?” I didn’t really think it through, but I think I was right—I asked him to publish two song cycles, and that set the tone. I’ve written a lot of instrumental music, but the problems of a singer singing are so human in their intensity that I gravitate toward that. I used to live with a violinist, and I love instrumental players, but if you have a cold, you can still play the violin. If you have a cold, you can’t sing. Or it fundamentally changes you from a tenor into a bass.

Table with fruitbowl, water pitcher, glasses, and a tray with various additional fruits.

Hagen explained that when singers come over the rehearse he always makes sure to have food and beverages ready for them on his dining table. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

FJO: So what does wheelhouse mean for you?

DAH: I believe in gesamtkunstwerk—the total artistic statement—so I just love writing operas. I love being in the theater. I love the process of figuring out dramaturgy. I love the technical problems involved. I also love the human element, but mainly I think you have to wake up in the morning and just ask, “What can make me do all of that work?” And as I get older, it’s harder and harder for me simply to begin a piece that I’m not interested in. I’m the most interested in opera.

FJO: You said that a professional composer can write whatever he or she’s been asked to write, and you started out with an organ piece, and then introduced the vocal pieces. But even when you’re not writing a piece with a text, most of your pieces have a narrative attached to them somehow. Your third piano trio is about your brother. The double concerto you wrote for Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson is based on characters in the commedia dell’arte. Even your two early wind band pieces have elaborate back stories to them that kind of drove your process in writing them. So it seems that whatever kind of piece you ultimately write, you always want to tell a story.

DAH: I’m a narrative sort of guy. I am always very happy to have process movements within a larger piece. What I mean by process movements, at least what I think I mean by them—something that is involved simply with working out some cellular ideas. If you talk to somebody like Michael Torke, he would say that narratives aren’t necessarily true anyway. You can say anything about anything. Ned Rorem has that famous quip, “If it was called La Strada instead of La Mer, would we still hear the ocean?” So, since music is abstract, I think that the application of a narrative is my business. Whatever makes the notes come out is good.

FJO: So you don’t care if other people know the story.

DAH: Not really.

Music notation for orchestra.

An excerpt from “Falling Flowers,” the second movement of Genji, a concerto for koto and orchestra by Daron Hagen. Copyright © 2010 Burning Sled Music (ASCAP). All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: But when you write an opera, they get to know the story.

DAH: Then it’s all about the story and knowing what the story’s really about.

FJO: But you also regularly engage in abstract musical processes, even in the operas. I’m thinking about how in Shining Brow the materials that different characters sing have a specific intervallic relationship to each other. Two pairs of characters are a tritone apart and the four keys of the four characters spell out a full diminished seventh. Most people in an audience listening to this music as they watch the action unfold are probably not going hear that.

DAH: But they’ll intuit it. That’s the wonderful thing. When an audience intuits modulation, that’s one of the reasons I love tonal music so much. If Joe lives in the key of B-flat and he seduces Mary, and she lives in the key of E-major, won’t she move into his key? Or does he move into her key to get her to move into his key, or do they remain bi-tonal, and therefore somehow illicit. An audience doesn’t have to understand what’s going on to intuit that we’re moving. That’s why Strauss is so wonderful.

FJO: There’s a story about how you got turned on to wanting to be a composer after your brother gave you a score and a recording of one of the Benjamin Britten operas.

DAH: Billy Budd. It had everything—naval battles, good and evil, men singing and sounding virile, and profound tenderness. It also had great literature; it had Melville. For a 14- or 15-year-old boy who was looking for poetry and a world to live in, it was the siren call. Come on in. Do this.

FJO: But your exposure to it couldn’t have been a complete tabula rasa. You grew up in a household where you were undoubtedly exposed to a lot of music. It wasn’t like suddenly there was this opera and you had never heard opera before.

DAH: I heard all those things, but my brother Kevin was involved in drama and in opera. He went to college to be an opera singer, and he made me mix tapes of Blitzstein, Copland, Bartók, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich. The first four or five years that I listened to music, he fed me everything other than what I heard on Wisconsin commercial classical radio—which is now a contradiction in terms, I suppose. It was him teaching me things by turning me on. And I miss him very much because he still has a lot to teach me.

FJO: What’s amazing about the impact that hearing this music had on you is that it led you to start writing music on your own, just kind of doing your own thing based on stuff that you heard. Then you wrote an orchestra piece, conducted the premiere of it, recorded it, and somehow Leonard Bernstein wound up hearing that recording.

DAH: I had fallen in love with music. I was manic. I was already orchestrating—pirate orchestrations of musicals for different high schools—and I had already gotten some gigs from the Milwaukee Symphony to arrange Bacharach tunes for the pops and stuff like that. But I was not going to my classes anymore. I was a sophomore in high school. I was not interested in anything else. My mom wasn’t worried about it; she knew as long as I had a passion I was going to be okay. But she didn’t know what to do with me. So I wrote a piece for the youth orchestra in Milwaukee and conducted it. And she said, “Where would we send this? Where are you going to college?” And I said, “I don’t know. I mean, I don’t even know if I’ve got what it takes to be a composer. I just love to do this.” I had just read a book that talked about how Helen Coates had been Bernstein’s first piano teacher and became his personal assistant and protector. So I said, “Why don’t we send a score and a cassette to Helen Coates and ask her to give it to Mr. Bernstein?” The way that you do when you don’t know anything about anything, and you’re from Wisconsin. I don’t know what I thought I was doing. But my mother must have written a heck of a letter because he got it, and he wrote us back. He said your son should go and study with David Diamond at Juilliard, and ultimately I did.

Historic photo of a teenaged Daron Hagen holding a baton as young musicians play instruments.

A teenaged Daron Hagen conducting a youth orchestra in 1979. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

So I was very lucky. I didn’t get into Juilliard right away. First I got into Curtis and studied with Ned Rorem. I remember stepping into the lobby in September of I guess 1982 and I started shaking because it was like being in Triple-A ball and walking into a major league ballpark. I suddenly realized that if I could hit the ball out of the park here, I might actually get to do this for the rest of my life. I thought maybe I could be an arranger or an orchestrator for real composers. There was a big disconnect, and I think there is for a lot of young people. Leonard Bernstein was this little four-inch tall person on TV out there doing that stuff. Maybe not for you, growing up in New York City, but for me, that was a different universe. And it wasn’t until I got to Philadelphia that I felt as though I was even there.

FJO: I could be wrong, but it seems like Ned Rorem had a more profound influence on you ultimately than David Diamond did. Well, David Diamond is a hard person to think of as being a mentor to anybody.

DAH: I’ve known Ned a long, long time, and he’s a good friend. And I’m very, very grateful for everything that I learned by listening to him on the telephone talking business during the three years that I studied with him and during the five years after that when I was his copyist. I don’t know if I was particularly influenced by Ned. Frankly, the music that I wrote after I studied with Ned is pretty much exactly the same as the music I wrote before; it’s just more polished and more professional. Studying with David was more of an education in how to survive a difficult and abusive intellect and aesthetic. He was brilliant, and he made me write fugues and get my craft. He believed that craft would set you free, and that if you were unable to acquire sufficient craft, you shouldn’t get to play. I remember when I left Ned’s studio, he said, “Why go to Juilliard? You’re ready; just start.” That was 35 years ago, but I still think about my teachers all the time. I owe Ned Rorem a debt that I’ll never be able to repay properly because I was in Wisconsin and he took me as a student at Curtis and changed my life. If he had done absolutely nothing else, I would always owe him for that.

Gilda Lyons, Ned Rorem and Daron Hagen with Rorem's arm leaning on Hagen.

Daron Hagen’s wife Gilda Lyons (left) wih Ned Rorem (center) and Daron Hagen in 2013. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

FJO: But certainly your sensitivity to singers and to text is indebted to him.

DAH: I was doing that before I met Ned. I’ve got probably 20 or 30 songs that I wrote before entering Ned’s studio that are published, and they’re sort of indistinguishable from the ones that I wrote after I worked with him. He had some rules like don’t repeat words, and don’t do this and that and the other thing. While I was studying with him, I didn’t do those things because I don’t want to fight with him. But I was setting Joyce and Proust and Yeats, and a lot of other people, and I’d already written a couple of musicals before I got to Curtis. I’d written a lot of art songs already. I had also accompanied a lot of songs, even in early high school. And I myself had been a singer, so I knew the issues. My mom was a writer, so I loved poetry. I wrote a lot of poetry, the way you do when you’re 15-years old. So, I was already there, and meeting Ned was sort of like meeting exactly the right guy at the right time for my proclivities.

FJO: So it was validation.

DAH: I think so. Absolutely. No one was more surprised than me. It was really great studying with Ned, coming from Philadelphia to New York on the train and seeing this famous man who knew Cocteau and who wrote those diaries where he said all those smart and naughty things about everyone, to have to stand up to that and prevail, to run toward the knife of a strong personality and survive, and keep my own independence and identity intact. That was, I think, the best training that a young composer like me could have had.

FJO: Better training than writing fugues?

DAH: Yes. David had so many issues with me that were not musical. I’m not sure how much I got from David except a lot of technique and the ability to work in large-scale forms.

David Diamond and Daron Hagen wearing jackets and ties and standing in front of a piano.

Daron Hagen with David Diamond (left) a week before Diamond’s death in 2005. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

FJO: In terms of the music you were writing at that point, the earliest works of yours that you include on your website only go back to 1981. You mentioned early songs of yours that were published later on. But you were obviously writing a lot of other stuff, too, during those years, and the thing that actually got you paid attention to in the first place—by no less a person than Leonard Bernstein—was that orchestra piece. He obviously liked the piece, but you apparently no longer do.

DAH: Well, it sounded a lot like the dance episodes from On the Town. So it’s easy to think that he probably would have said, “There’s a young composer worth his salt!” But it was derivative—not intentionally, but because I loved those.

FJO: I was listening to a bunch of your early songs; that was the earliest stuff I could find and I always like to begin listening as close to the beginning as I can. It didn’t give me a clear picture of the early you though because most of them exist as part of song cycles that you assembled many years later, which somehow re-contextualize them and give them a different narrative arc.

DAH: I believe that if you finish a piece of music, it’s out there. I have a lot of songs written when I was in my late teens and early 20s that are performed far more frequently than things I’ve written recently. That’s just how the chips fall. I did grow up in public as a composer. I’ve got a lot of pieces out there that I wouldn’t write today. I just felt that if I was going to be a composer, I should give them to people and have them played.

I don’t say, “Gosh, I’d never do that again.” I accept that that’s who I was when I wrote it, but that’s very hard to market when you deal with publishers. If your style shifts—and I am quite eclectic within my narrow range of expressive motion—they say, “Well, I don’t know who this fella is. He must have been influenced by other people.” But that’s just because if they’re learning my music, or you said you spent some time with my music, you might hear something from 1981 that sounds a lot like Barber, and then something from 2012 that sounds like—oh, I don’t know, how about Die tote Stadt—something by Korngold, and you’ll wonder, “Who the heck is this guy?” Well, it’s music. Nobody’s going to get hurt, if you’ve got a healthy mind. What I’m interested in is moving people. I want to have the conversation. I want the music to come out. I want it to happen. I want to have something happen in the listener’s heart and in their head.

I’m not interested in styles or any of that stuff. Music is music. It’s not brain surgery. It’s an art. The only thing as I get older that I still get sort of exercised about is: leave people alone about the kind of music that they write. Just admire them for having the courage to put it out there and to take the reaction of the world, which is often brutal and uncaring. Nobody really wants to hear what we have to say. Why are we doing it if we’re not narcissistic, crazy people? Well, I do it because I crave the interaction with the audience. Who cares if it sounds a little bit like Korngold for a little while? That’s the way that character who’s singing it or those words, or that emotion, or that moment needed to be expressed. That’s why I loved Lukas Foss. Because Lukas was music. Lukas wasn’t interested in narrowly packaging himself as “this.” He was interested in taking music and having an interaction.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you repeat back the characterization that Ned Rorem once said about you. He said that you are music.

DAH: That’s all I ever wanted to be. And now, I’m 53 years old, and I have two very young sons, three and six years old, so I am a father. I am music in a reflexive way—like breathing. We don’t have a choice about whether or not we’re going to breathe, the alternative is unacceptable. I don’t have a choice about whether I am a composer or not. It’s just what I am. Writing music is like breathing. What I choose to be as a father—the human interaction that I have with my children—is more difficult, more challenging, and more fulfilling than writing music. However, I’m a composer and I can’t not breathe. You know what I mean?

FJO: But to take it back to this idea of narrative. Your early songs, in and of themselves, didn’t necessarily have a narrative; some of the poems you set are just aphoristic. But by putting them together and forming cycles, you created narrative arcs for these songs. You created larger structures out of them. So I’m curious about how you decided to make those building blocks, especially after noticing that the recording and the printed score were not the same. You obviously decided to make a definitive version of it after the recording came out.

DAH: I wish that I had made it as an artistic decision, but the only changes happened because I didn’t get the rights to an Anne Sexton song. So they couldn’t release it, and I stuck in its place Walt Whitman, who’s always safe, because he’s public domain. I’m sorry to be boring about that. But I do get your more interesting question, and the answer is yes, you can create a psychological narrative. You can make the poems talk to each other, though they are by vastly different poets living at different times, and that absolutely, positively really turned me on. And it always has. Song is so much more sophisticated than most people think it is. The way you set something, if you really have all the technique to do whatever you want, means everything. Those kinds of decisions are the subtle, incredibly powerful tools of a good art song composer. I’ve seen a lot of people who think art songs are sort of like complicated Stephen Sondheim songs, or are long, elevated, story songs. Those aren’t art songs. One of the reasons Ned is such a terrific song composer is because Ned gets the psychology. He goes in there and he sets the essence of it as he sees it. Even when Ned is dead wrong, he has something trenchant to say. Ned doesn’t need another person saying nice things about him. But I get that and I love that.

FJO: But it seems in your compositional trajectory that creating the narrative arcs in these song cycles led directly to you writing your first opera. I don’t know the back story, so I’m kind of fishing for it here. But I do know that after several of these early song cycles featuring different poets that you stitched together, you did an entire song cycle of poems by Paul Muldoon. He then became a very significant collaborator of yours for many years.

Daron Hagen and Paul Muldoon leaning against a stone fence in the countryside.

Daron Hagen with Paul Muldoon at his home in East Amherst in 1992. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

DAH: Well, I met Paul at the MacDowell Colony, and he was obviously destined to be a superstar literary figure. Even when he was young the way we were then—this was back in the early 1980s—I remember being so impressed that he had a collection of poems out from Faber; he was in his 20s or something like that. I read through them, and I heard music immediately. So I set two or three of them, and we did a joint presentation at MacDowell. But I didn’t think about him anymore and went on with my life. Then I ran into him the next summer at MacDowell, and I got a phone call asking me to write an opera about Frank Lloyd Wright, and without even thinking—again, it’s a reflexive thing—I just leaned out of the phone booth and said, “Paul, do you want to write an opera?” And he didn’t think; he just said yes.

I still think Shining Brow is the best thing that we did together. It was our first opera. I’m profoundly grateful to this day that he dedicated the libretto to me. We wrote three other operas after that. One called Bandanna, another one was called Vera of Las Vegas, and the final one called The Antient Concert. It was a terrific collaboration. Paul is probably the smartest human being I’ve ever met besides Bernstein. The most extravagantly gifted writer in the English language that I’ve known. Working with him was inspiring at every single moment.

FJO: Before we talk further about Paul, I just realized that we haven’t yet talked about you actually finally meeting Bernstein.

DAH: I avoided him. While I was at Curtis, I met him once. Then David Diamond kept telling me during my lessons that he was telling Bernstein all about me. But then I found out when I finally went to the Dakota to meet him—through Craig Urquhart, who was his amanuensis at the time—and to have what was essentially my first lesson with him, he said David hadn’t told him anything about me. So I had tabula rasa. He remembered me, with that great generosity of spirit he had. I was able to bring in a lot of the second act of Shining Brow to play and sing for him and to work with him on it. He was a big hero of mine as a kid. In my 20s and early 30s, anybody who inspired me and intimidated me, I wanted to meet and work with if I could, to overcome my intimidation and learn what I could and then move on. He was sort of my Mount Everest of intimidation. Quite rightly so; he was an extraordinary man.

Leonard Bernstein holding a cigarette and studying a score as Daron Hagen looks on.

Leonard Bernstein (left) studying a score by Daron Hagen (right) in 1986. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen

FJO: Sadly he died before the production of Shining Brow, but I know that you dedicated the score to him.

DAH: I did. The complexity of that kind of man is what I think appeals to me about opera. Opera can be that complex. Opera is not an art song writ large and an art song is not a short opera. You can write an opera and have a 20% understanding of what constitutes opera. But the more I learn about opera, the more I understand that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s really going on there when you’re dealing with somebody who’s a real opera composer. That to me is the thing that keeps me coming back to the table for opera. A character in an opera can be singing about how much he loves the soprano, but he can in fact be in love with the tenor and be in denial. He can be lying to himself, and the orchestra can be telling the truth. And the soprano can be singing a duet with the tenor about how they both hate him. That’s life. That’s true to life. I love that.

FJO: The episodes in Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal life which inspired Shining Brow are certainly filled with these kinds of complex relationships and intrigues.

DAH: But you have to make it sound simple. If people underestimate you in the theater, it’s because you have put them so at ease with your language that they’ve been made vulnerable, not to manipulation, but to the message and to the story. That’s the sweet spot for somebody who has truly subsumed their own creative ego and personal ego to the story and to the communion of making great dramatic music theater.

Man and woman outside a Frank Lloyd Wright-styled building.

Frank Lloyd Wright (sung by Kevin Kees) woos Mamah Cheney (Lara Lynn) at Fallingwater from the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh’s site-specific production of Shining Brow, summer 2013. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

FJO: So how does this play out in the music you wrote for Shining Brow?

DAH: Well, Shining Brow is about lying versus the truth. What is the truth? It’s also about borrowing versus stealing. It’s about what price you’re willing to pay for your own personal actuation. That’s why we chose that point in Wright’s life. That’s on a superficial narrative level. How do you find musical equivalents to that? If I take a theme of Richard Strauss and I make variations on that theme to underpin a cocktail party where Frank Lloyd Wright’s wife is standing here and he is seducing another woman in the room, what is my music saying about that relationship? If I make it like a huge mechanical clock, where all of the other people at the party are basically cogs in his great machine, what am I saying about society in 1913? For me to have the audacity to take Richard Strauss, not in a post-modern fashion, but to have an onstage piano trio playing variations on the love theme from Rosenkavalier, which he took his mistress to see and met Strauss at, all of those dialectics are at play for an intelligent auditor. If you can do all of that, and make it sound like—oh well, he’s just this kid being eclectic—then again, it’s the sweet spot.

That’s the secret of a show like Shining Brow. A bunch of drunken newspaper reporters sing a barbershop quartet and the music sounds vulgar and crude; what makes you think as a listener that I didn’t mean every fine gradation of that crudeness, not just to be a characterization of those men, but to take you to a place where you as an audience member felt my hand and judged me as an author? Then I become Frank Lloyd Wright, and you’re judging me. It’s not games. Those aren’t games. That’s the journey. That’s the communion. That’s going to church and seeing the priest lift the host up and thinking about what must be going through the priest’s mind while he’s doing it. That is a comprehensive, theatrical experience, and providing the music for that creates the context.

FJO: It sounds to me that your ideal listener is somebody who really is paying attention.

DAH: Absolutely. But as a Norwegian Lutheran, I was brought up to not point to myself. If your head was up four or five inches above anybody else’s in the room, it got batted down. Any sort of intellectual pretention was treated with derision. The upshot of that is that my music is crafted so that you don’t have to know anything and you’ll have a nice time in the theater. My ideal audience member knows everything, of course. But I want everyone to have an aesthetic experience. So you have to have a sliding scale. That’s why my hero is Richard Strauss. You can go hear a Strauss opera and not get anything and still have a lovely aesthetic experience. But the more you know, the better it gets.

FJO: In terms of what people know, Frank Lloyd Wright is an American icon, but most people don’t know his personal story. He doesn’t come off so well in your opera; he’s kind of a bad guy.

DAH: Well, so many iconic people are bad people. It’s one of the things we learn as we grow older, right? Bad people make great art, etc. But I don’t necessarily think he comes across as such a bad guy. I think he comes across as a profoundly narcissistic, talented, self-centered fellow, who really gets it on the chin when his house is burned down and his mistress and her children are killed. I think we chose the one point in his life where he had the maximum opportunity for rebirth. At the end of the opera, he really became the Frank Lloyd Wright that we remember and revere, though he had done great things up to that point. To me, it’s the “Springtime for Hitler” syndrome. Everyone is humanized when they sing. So you have a great deal of responsibility when you set somebody to music because you make them worthy of others’ compassion.

FJO: That’s certainly true for the characters in your next opera, Bandanna. Hearing them sing elicits empathy and sympathy for them even though they are really corrupt border patrol people who are basically determining who gets to come in to this country, who gets to have a better life, who doesn’t. They play awful Iago-esque manipulative games with each other. There are no uniformly good characters in Bandanna.

DAH: Mona’s alright. She’s a good person.

FJO: I’m not so sure. Her husband wrongly thinks she’s been unfaithful to him, but there was a reason he believes that; she most likely had cheated on him previously.

DAH: Her possibly having been unfaithful, yes. Well, I don’t know. I mean, I had just gone through a terrible ten-year marriage when I wrote Bandanna, and I specifically wanted to talk about evil and the different kinds of evil. I asked Paul to—well, we co-wrote the treatment. Anyway, there’s Jake who does bad things with the best intentions. And then there’s a super bad guy, Kane, who just does bad things because he can. Evil has been bifurcated and turned into two bad guys—two different kinds of evil. The characters were not ever meant really to be believable. We were to see as an audience these people over there doing this thing, going through a ritual of self-abnegation and basically a huge Day of the Dead mass where, like chess pieces, they were moved to their demise.

From the staged premiere of Bandanna at the McCullough Theater at the University of Texas at Austin, February 1999. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen. University of Texas Opera Theater

From the staged premiere of Bandanna at the McCullough Theater at the University of Texas at Austin, February 1999. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.
University of Texas Opera Theater

The music for that show was all about moving up and down a sliding scale from music theater to opera and from atonality, polytonality, strict tonality, serialism, and octatonics. All of these things were going up and down. It was a huge intellectual edifice constructed on anger, betrayal, and evil. It was sort of like dumping cement on the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. When you experience that opera—which is an angry, dark opera, and I get that—you come out hopefully with some sort of catharsis, having gone to a very sad neighborhood. But what that catharsis is, I don’t know. It’s a strange, hard piece that way. The music also uses the most accessible music I’ve ever written for a show, because it also was about falling between two places. It was about living on the border. There’s lots of stuff about the middle zone in the show, but it was also about the difference between opera and American music theater, which is the great conversation of our generation, the previous generation of American composers who write so-called traditional music theater works for the American theater.

I’m not talking about the avant-garde or something strictly commercial like Jersey Boys. I’m talking about the area that something like Candide functions in. Bandanna owes its most trenchant debt to a show like Candide which is about the difference between musicals and opera, and falls in the middle. So anybody who loves great operas is going to dislike Bandanna because it’s got such musical comedy stuff in it. And anybody who loves musical comedy is going to find it hopelessly pretentious half the time. What it does succeed in doing is forcefully posing the argument about pushing these two heads together the way that the characters are pushed together. It’s also a baritone-fest. It’s a testosterone fest. All the men are singing at the top of their ranges all the time.

FJO: It’s also a wind band fest.

DAH: It is!

FJO: It was even commissioned by CBDNA [the College Band Directors National Association]; it’s actually really unusual for them to have commissioned an opera.

DAH: It was the brainchild of a man named Michael Haithcock, who is at University of Michigan now, and Frederick Fennell—the great Freddy Fennell, who was a genius. I presented the score of the opera to him with great pride at some conference and I said, “Do you have any advice?” And he said, “This show is going to be a great failure because there are three kinds of band conductors. There are the high school guys who are going to hate it, because they don’t understand it. There are the maestros who are going to love it, but they don’t know much about opera. And then there are the fellows who are the great commissioners, who commission a lot of new music, and God bless them, but they’re not going to know what to do with it because they can’t get into the pit.”

I accepted the commission knowing that there were four or five commissioners who came in at the level that entitled them to stage the show. But none of them did. They said that it was because it was too high or too hard for college singers. I knew more about writing for voices than they did. I’ve worked with a lot of college singers. It’s certainly doable. There were also a lot of problems with the commissioners not being comfortable with the subject matter, with the fact that I used an onstage mariachi band that had three violins in it, and at the 10:30 spot in the book, when the Willow Aria happened, I used violins. They felt that was a betrayal of the spirit of the commission, which I thought was unfair because the metaphor was that winds breathe. Mona was already dead and strings don’t have to breathe to sound. It was a great theatrical coup to have sustained strings during that aria. But a lot of people were very angry with me.

FJO: But it did get staged and eventually got recorded as well, in Las Vegas.

DAH: UT Austin was where it was premiered.

FJO: In both of these places, immigration is a sensitive and divisive topic. Actually to this day it’s a hot-button issue all over the country. So, in terms of the subject matter, you hit a nerve.

DAH: Well, I don’t know. I think we’ll leave it at this. The running time of the opera is about 126 minutes. Opening night ran I think about 215 to 220 minutes. There were players missing from the orchestra. There were a lot of issues. It was not the ideal premiere one would have wanted. But Tom Leslie at UNLV [University of Nevada Las Vegas] loved the score, so he rehearsed the band at UNLV and I came and I conducted the cast album a year later in Vegas. And the show came in with the timings and with the speeds that I wanted. But still there was a fundamental disconnect. Band guys don’t really understand that when you say 126 to the quarter in a vocal score for an opera, some singers are going to do it at 120. Some are going to do it at 132. When you get into the pit, it’s going to slow down because the musicians are six feet below the stage. Or you have to slow it down because the stage director needs more time to get the guy across the stage. These are all issues that are alien to band directors. So this was a real crisis of confidence. Once I conducted the cast recording, I said that’s it. I’m happy that the document is now as I insisted that it be. And I walked away from it. There was a ten-year prohibition from re-orchestrating it for orchestra, then that expired. I was going to re-orchestrate it, but then I got into other things. Someday I’ll re-orchestrate it and maybe cut 10, 15 minutes out of the show. Maybe there are some cringe-worthy moments where the language is just too unbelievable for the characters to say, which I might ask Paul to revisit if we go back into the show. But nobody questioned the efficacy of the orchestrations, which were really cutting-edge, commercial wind band orchestrations. Everyone was happy with that.

FJO: There are very few other operas and musicals that are orchestrated just for winds. There’s Robert Kurka’s The Good Soldier Schweik, Ralph Burns’s original Broadway orchestrations for Richard Rodgers’s No Strings also actually had no strings, and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. I can’t think of any others, but it’s actually a great idea. It’s disappointing to hear about the lack of connection between band directors and singers since any university with an opera department probably also has a wind band, since every school has a wind band, and they would probably rehearse way more than any orchestra ever would. It ought to have been a match made in heaven.

DAH: Well, one would think so. I suspect, though I made be attitudinizing and it’s not my place to say, most of the opera departments didn’t want to have the band director in the pit because they felt that the band directors didn’t know how to work with voices. Or they were told that it was too hard. You know, it is hard. Opera is huge. I don’t know, maybe Bandanna just wasn’t good enough.

FJO: Well, your next collaboration with Paul was certainly more practical, but it too presses a lot of buttons.

DAH: Vera!

FJO: Getting back to what you said earlier about making characters worthy of others’ compassion when you set them to music, there’s been this whole brouhaha about the recent production of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer. Some people claimed that it empathizes with terrorists for precisely this reason, because we get to hear them sing their side of the story. As all those debates were raging, I kept thinking that there are plenty of other operas in which extremely unsavory characters sing, even terrorists, including two of the central characters in Vera.

The cast of Vera in Las Vegas

From the staged premiere of Vera of Las Vegas at Symphony Space’s Thalia Theater in New York City, June 2003.

DAH: They are both IRA irregulars, aren’t they? Well, Vera of Las Vegas is a very personal show. The eponymous character is an African American cross dresser, a female impersonator. It’s about personal reinvention and the price that one pays for not coming to terms with one’s past. It is a very subversive piece. It’s about using pop conventions to disarm the listener so that they are forced to think about something that they don’t want to think about. The New York premiere of the show was done in a cabaret setting. I think my favorite memory from opening night was seeing Ned Rorem at one of the cocktail tables right at the edge of the pit and at the edge of the cat walk, with Gary Graffman, the pianist who was then director of the Curtis Institute, his wife Noami Graffman, and Leonard Garment, the father of the clarinet player in the orchestra—Paul Garment. Leonard was Richard Nixon’s personal attorney and was on the board of Yaddo and the Jazz Museum of Harlem. They all were sitting at one table. My wife had to step in at the last moment to become one of the chorus girls. The girls are all dressed in these latex short skirts with fishnets and so forth. They’re counting five against six, and they’re singing this really complicated text, and they’re supposed to be strippers at the same time. In a nutshell, that’s what Vera of Las Vegas was about: counting five against six in four-inch stiletto heels and fishnet stockings in front of Richard Nixon’s attorney, the director of the Curtis Institute, and Ned Rorem. That pretty much summed up the show for me.

My bad marriage had ended, and it was time for me to reinvent my life. And in fact, that show was about how everything had to stop. I stopped teaching after that show. I had reinvented myself. For me, it wasn’t about sexuality. It was about reinvention. Since then, Brian Asawa, the great Japanese-American countertenor, has sung it. An Irish, middle-age countertenor, Jonathan Peter Kenny, has also done the role. So Vera has become not associated so much just with the African-American experience but with all sorts of reinventive experiences. The show is done frequently. I get a lot of fan letters, very personal letters from primarily young men who are coming out, or coming to terms with evil or abuse. I’m proud of it.

FJO: There’s a quintessential line in the libretto that haunts me: “It’s struck me that men and women are basically the same.” It’s practically anthemic.

DAH: Yes, and it’s sung while the terrorist has his hand on the penis of Vera; there’s a Crying Game moment. Obviously, it’s a trope that we’re playing. Of course it’s obvious, and it is anthemic; it is what the show is about, among other things. It makes people very nervous because it is absolutely sincere in its post-modernism. Everyone always associates post-modernism with irony, right? But it’s absolutely sincere. What do you do with that? That makes people have panic attacks.

FJO: It is somewhat unsettling to see these two very macho, straight terrorist guys, and then have one of them realize that he can be open to a very different identity. It totally defies expectations.

DAH: Well, he desperately wants not to be who he is. He wants to be reinvented himself. Vera of Las Vegas was part of a trilogy we never finished. It follows a BBC play that Paul wrote, called Six Honest Serving Men, where it is set up that they probably killed another guy. And in fact, at the end of Vera, Taco confesses to this murder. It was supposed to be followed by this opera called Grand Concourse, which was to take all of the women from Vera and make them stewardesses on one of the planes heading toward the World Trade Center. Doll was going to be in first class because she became an air marshal. Vera was going to be in a nightclub in Brooklyn, Taco was going to be her manager, and Dumdum was going to be in a cab driving somewhere near the World Trade Center. The hymn “Go Down to the River to Pray” would cycle through that every five minutes as the plane got closer and closer to the towers. We never wrote that show, obviously. I couldn’t get anyone to commission it.

FJO: I find it interesting that the first two operas you wrote with Paul were both very American in terms of their subject matter, whereas with Vera in Las Vegas he was really able to address Irish themes.

DAH: I’m not sure that I really understand what Paul is talking about when it comes to the Irish experience. When it was toured in Ireland I was careful to allow myself to be schooled on what Paul was talking about. And I still don’t really understand what he was saying.

FJO: But you were still able to write a score for it.

DAH: Well, because I was talking about some different things. You know, there was plenty of room in Vera, and there’s plenty of room in setting Paul Muldoon to music to have an entire other dialectic going on. If Paul was dealing with a narrative that was about ideas, I could center on the emotions, and the psychological verifiability of the behavior of these people. I could emotionally warm them up whereas they could in fact be rather emotionally inaccessible as poetic characters.

FJO: This is probably true for The Antient Concert as well, which is also a work with Irish roots—John McCormack and James Joyce.

DAH: It was about the evening of the Feis Ceoil, the all-Ireland singing competition when James Joyce actually would have beaten John McCormack, had he not failed the sight-singing part of the competition because he didn’t read music. I was invited by Paul quite generously to teach at the Atelier when he was at Princeton. We staged it there with student singers, and it’s been done a number of times since.

Two men dressed in suits, one gesticulating with his hands.

From a 2005 staged workshop of The Antient Concert at Princeton University’s McCarter Theater featuring Sean Effinger-Dean as McCormack (left) and Matthew Bernier as James Joyce (right). Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

It was a one-hour opera where I took six Irish folk songs that they conceivably could have sung that night. When John and Jim went up, we’d hear what was going on in their heads. When Jim would go up, he’d see Nora Barnacle and he’d see his dead mother. For me, it was an opera about the struggle for Joyce to come to terms with his selfishness at the time of his mother’s death. It was also very Straussian, you know—what’s more important, the words or the music?

I told Paul that I would set it word for word exactly as he wrote it, because I had changed all three of the previous librettos substantially when I set them to music. I’d rewritten big portions, but always clearing these changes with him and always insisting that he publish his original version with Faber. I insisted that he do that out of respect for him. Usually librettists by contract are required to publish only what appears in the vocal score. But I love Paul, and I respect him. He’s such a great poet, so I wanted it to be the way he wanted when it was in print. But with Antient Concert I decided I’m going straight. That was my score for him. I dedicated it to him. At the end of it, Joyce breaks down and he says, “mea culpa” as his mother is dying and I thought, “Well, Paul and I have done what we can do now.” The words are very complicated. We did it at The Century Club in New York and that was a wonderful dream audience because they’re all really well-read people. But my favorite productions are in Irish bars, because you find people who are really well read, but they’re all drinking, and there’s a sort of an alcoholic truth that emerges if you’re a little stoned when you see that particular show. I like that it captures part of what I wanted to do with it. And I thought, “Well, an audience is going to have to come to terms with the highly allusive, complicated lyrics of Paul Muldoon.” Of course, Paul went on to make a rock band and write lyrics that do nods to Cole Porter, another great lyricist. But at that time, he was more interested in writing poetry that could be set as an opera libretto. And I’ve moved onto other librettists since then.

FJO: The next opera you worked on after those collaborations with Paul is very unusual in that your initial idea for the opera is completely different from the way the opera turned out. Amelia wound up having a completely different story than the one you started out with.

A staged scene from Amelia, in the center are two hospital beds, to the far left a man in uniform walks through a door and above it all is an old propeller airplane and its pilot.

From the 2010 premiere production of Amelia at Seattle’s McCaw Opera House. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

DAH: Well, Amelia, just like Vera, was about coming to terms with your past in order to say yes to the future. The original treatment that I sold Seattle Opera told that story through disparate scenas and situations, whether it be Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, or the Wright Brothers in flight, or a young woman whose father was shot down in Vietnam. She was one of the characters; she was based on Gardner McFall, the woman who ultimately wrote the libretto. That story was there interwoven with other stories. Icarus and Daedelus were already on stage in that version, and of course, Amelia Earhart was a character in that [original] treatment. That treatment was like a big blue cloud of ideas, sort of like the Adams bomb opera [Doctor Atomic].

I was forcefully led to understand that for this particular project, a through story was going to be required in order for it to move forward, and could I suggest one. They signed on to my blue cloud, but when it was time to make a narrative, I called Gardner McFall, and I said, “Would you mind if I took your real-life story and made that the through story and had the cloud occur around your through story?” Because she’s an artist and courageous, she allowed me to do that. So I wrote another treatment which then coalesced the blue cloud into things that come out of her head: dead people show up, Icarus and Daedelus are in her bedroom while she’s with her husband, her dead father is in the living room having coffee while she, as a little girl, is singing to the stars, and he comes out from 1968 to talk to her. So all these multiple realities and multiple timelines centered around the through story. The story credit goes to Stephen Wadsworth, who worked with Gardner and me to take her life story and make sure that an audience could follow that narrative. There’s a creative distance there which is a manifestation of what dramaturges do.

This is something that I had never done before. My operas had always originated purely with me and my librettist, co-writing a treatment. For me to welcome other people to the table was me accepting that this is the way the opera world is much of the time. And I welcomed Stephen to the table to have another voice. It forced me to convince him and an audience that that would work. That is saying yes to collaboration. And for me, it ended the second act of my life, because I ended that opera with the sounds I heard when my son was born. When it ended, I had told the audience my truth. I was willing to do anything to take that blue cloud of truth and distill it and head for that final moment. It was my truth, and I told it. As an artist to be able to have that moment in your life, one time in your life, when you know you nailed it, that was worth everything.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that Amelia ended the second act of your life, because this work also marked a turning point in how you handle your music as well as the rest of your life. You not only became a father, you moved away from New York City to here in Rhinebeck and you also became self-published. Of course, none of these things happened overnight, but the composition of Amelia occurred in the midst of all of those things. It seems to me that all those changes also had an impact on what interested you as subject matter for opera. You’d written operas about Frank Lloyd Wright’s less-than-savory persona, corrupt border patrol people, IRA terrorists and gender ambiguity, and the inner turmoil of one of the great writers of the 20th century. Amelia was a heavy story that dealt with the Vietnam War.

DAH: When you talk about it this way, I sound like a pretty troubled guy.

FJO: But your next opera, Little Nemo in Slumberland, was an adorable children’s piece.

Costumed members of the cast of Little Nemo in Slumberland featuring woman holding a stick with a giant sunflower on top.

From the world premiere of Daron Hagen’s opera Little Nemo in Slumberland at the Sarasota Opera House in Sarasota, Florida, in November 2012. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

DAH: Well, because of the baby who was born at the end of Amelia, that opera is dedicated to my son, Atticus. The next opera I wanted to write was something for him, and it was in fact dedicated to my second son, who came along just before I finished that opera. I said yes to that opera because—you’re quite right—because of my wife and because of her giving me an opportunity to become my best. My value system over the last ten years has gradually gone back to the value system that I had when I was 15- and 16-years old, inculcated by my parents. I think because of the way that Amelia was received—it was a success and everything, and that’s great—but the way that I received it within myself, and what I receive from my chosen industry, my colleagues, and from how I felt after I had said my truth, I realized that I was no longer writing music because I had an ambition to write music. I want enough money so that I don’t live in fear. I want to be able to support my children, be a bread winner. But I want to be able to write music about things that I care about, so the self-publishing, all of that is a piece. I’m not quite sure how to express it. I’m not the composer I was the night that Amelia opened. Everything changed for me. I realized that you can hit it out of the park; you can have bases loaded, a homerun, everybody in the stands, and it still doesn’t matter. Whatever it was that I thought that I wanted to achieve by doing that was clearly not enough for me and it was clearly not the right thing.

Nemo was certainly not fraught; it’s a perfectly lovely piece. The next opera was called A Woman in Morocco. That’s the one I’m doing now, and that’s about human trafficking in North Africa in the late ‘50s. It is about that issue because when I was 15-years old, I saw my mother being badly treated and I couldn’t do anything about it. Now I can protect myself and I can have a conversation about that.

Music notation for voices and piano

An excerpt from the vocal score of A Woman in Morocco. Music by Daron Hagen, libretto by Daron Hagen and Barbara Grecki. Copyright © 2013-2014 Burning Sled Music (ASCAP). All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Reprinted with permission.

I suppose in order to get myself up to be able to work as hard as you have to work to write an opera, and to develop it, and to change it, and kill it when it’s not working, you have to care deeply about it. It’s not that I’m settling old scores, it’s that if I’m going to do this, I want it to be a force for social good. I want to make things better. I want to speak truth to power, because that is what still gets me to write those notes out. So, if it’s more polemical, if it’s more like Blitzstein, that’s fine. I’m good with that, because it’s the only way that I seem to be able to fight back against the oligarchy. I have very little control over the universe, but I can do something and hopefully support my children at the same time. I mean, I’m always 30 days away from absolute disaster. I suppose we all are now. But as an artist, if I’m going to do it, I’ve got to put everything on the line. So now I put everything on the line, but it’s not like Amelia. It’s not that I’ve pulled my horns in, it’s that I understand that it doesn’t have to be so much about you. It can be about you doing this thing in order to do what you think needs to happen. I don’t know if that makes sense. I’m still working it out. Opera helps me to do that.

I’ve achieved everything that I wanted to achieve. I’d like to be at the Met; that would be great. I’d like to have multiple performances at big houses all the time. I’m directing at regional houses like Kentucky Opera and there’s a commercial show that I wrote for Skyline in Milwaukee. The reason I’m directing is it allows me to get in and really feast off of the interaction between actors and message. I don’t have to sit in the room as a composer and watch somebody else be my executant or translator. So I can still get excited about that.

A darkly lit stage with trhee women: one standing, one sitting at a desk, and another on the floor leaning against a chair.

From a staged production of A Woman in Morocco at the Butler Opera Center in Austin, Texas in November 2013. Photo courtesy Daron Hagen.

FJO: To go back to the very beginning of this conversation, when we were talking about being a vocal versus an instrumental composer. At this point, we’ve spent so much time talking about the operas. But you’ve written a lot of other music. I don’t know if those other pieces seem so deeply entrenched in your life story. It seems like each opera was a chapter in your life that you were working through, and then you get to the next one, and the following one is the next chapter. Do you view all of your music that way, or are these pieces so big that they then take up such huge chunks of your time that they become your life?

DAH: I’ve always put everything on the line for every piece. But when you spend two years writing the initial document, then you go through another six months of production, and then if you’re a real opera composer, that’s when you start a piece, after the first production because then it’s time to make the piece better based on what you’ve learned. So then you’re talking about another year of revisions because nobody has written the great American opera the first time out. I know how to write; I know how to craft a symphony. I know how to make a piece that has a beginning, a middle, and an end that will fulfill the commission, get a standing ovation, and I walk away. But there’s a humility in trying to learn how to write operas. In opera, if a woman is singing about how her husband is beating her, I don’t know how not to give it 150% at that moment. So yeah, I guess if you’re talking about stakes, there’s no greater stake than having an opera house sitting on your shoulders, talking to 2,800 people who paid a lot of money to be there, and trying to have communion with them—getting everybody together and having a catharsis together. To me, that is gripping. That’s grown up stuff. That’s truth, that’s justice, and hopefully good tunes. All in one transaction.

Photo of interior of room with grand piano, shelves, chair, and wooden floor.

Daron Hagen’s living room at his home in Rhinebeck with a shelf containing the vocal scores for all the Verdi operas in back of his piano. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

I’ve got the vocal scores over there for all the Verdi operas. You read through them chronologically, and it isn’t until he’s written probably nine or ten of them that he starts to really get it, as far as I can see. It’s the same notes. It’s the same bag of tricks that he’d been using for 30 years, and yet why is he getting it then? In Rigoletto, when they’re pulling the bag with the body in it across the stage at the penultimate moment in the show, why does he have a solo clarinet? Every time I see Rigoletto, all the hair stands up on my arms. That’s the genius of a real opera composer.

FJO: Except that one of the big criticisms of that piece is that although there’s a body in the bag, she comes out of the bag to sing a final duet before she actually dies since convention required that the prima donna gets to sing at the end of the opera. It’s a gorgeous duet, but from a narrative point of view, it requires a real suspension of belief.

DAH: But that’s opera. Writing opera taught me how to let go of myself when composing, to become the characters, to make myself the servant of the story, just as I have learned by becoming a parent that my life is no longer about me, it is about my sons. Both have served as a font of solace and redemption for me. Because I’m not angry, and I’m not crazy; I relish reality, and I relish being part of something larger than myself. I savor the give-and-take with a living audience that writing opera gives me. When I stand at the back rail of a theater and feel an audience move with the drama that I have composed (but which has been brought to life by a hundred musicians, actors, designers, and technicians), I feel the same sense of pride and terror that I do standing at the fence watching my son swing a bat in baseball practice. I feel pride because I played a role in creating the opera (and my son), and nurturing it (and him). It’s the “children and art” paradigm: I feel despair because, even though every ounce of my soul shall have been poured into the process, it shall never have been enough. That’s the heartbreaker, and that’s the incentive.

Daron Hagen points at a detail of a photo in a frame on the wall as FJO looks on.

Daron Hagen (right) in his composition studio showing memorabilia from various productions of his operas to FJO. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

Ken Thomson: Energized Complexities

Mention composer and sax/clarinet player Ken Thomson in conversation or seek out his work online, and you’ll pretty quickly get to some description of the intense physicality of his playing (he has been known to jump around some on stage) or his impressive work ethic (he’s involved in more than a few projects, including Slow/Fast, Gutbucket, Asphalt Orchestra, and Bang on a Can All-Stars).

Yet while he’s too easygoing and good natured to actually roll his eyes at me when I open our conversation with a question about this slightly manic characterization, it’s understandable that the pigeonholing is starting to wear thin. “It’s sort of the first thing that people say—’Oh, usually he’s the guy jumping up and down, blah, blah, blah’—even when I’m not!”
Still, he doesn’t deny that he likes to use his body in performance, both for musically expressive purposes and to deal with the more practical aspects of leading a group in often high-decibel environments without the use of his arms. A first violinist’s standard sniff cue will just not cut it.

“I like being physical when I’m playing, and I think that’s really important actually to show that you’re in it,” Thomson explains. But while his onstage persona might—at least sometimes—communicate a high-energy, in-your-face kind of guy, he actually feels much more reserved when away from the stage lights. A consideration of his scores deepens this view—his often-complex work is carefully designed and communicates powerfully in live performance without exhausting the audience. During a recent tour stop promoting his ensemble Slow/Fast’s release Settle, crowd attention never seemed to waver.

It’s a live consumption situation Thomson is careful to facilitate. “I obviously like music that’s exciting, that kind of keeps you on the edge of your seat in a lot of ways,” he points out, and during performance, he’s continuously monitoring the room to make sure the audience is still with him. “I’m really good at seeing yawns,” he admits, “or if I start feeling like we’re losing some kind of touch, it’s a very palpable feeling for me.”

He carries those concerns about attention back to his desk when first crafting music, a process that he has learned to be patient with. Sometimes pieces simmer along slowly for a while, and at other times they must rest entirely some months before completion. “I used to write too quickly, I think, and then I would come back the next day and think, ‘God, this is terrible!’ I’m a better editor maybe than a writer, and sort of give myself time to have fresh ideas along the way.”

Photo by Naomi White Connect with Ken:On TwitterOn FacebookOn YouTubeOn SoundCloud

Photo by Naomi White
Connect with Ken:
On Twitter
On Facebook
On YouTube
On SoundCloud

Thomson’s compositional output, showcased by the scores and media presented on his website, now spans a broad range of contexts. One thing that his online reputation is light on, however, is the typical list of schools attended and commissions fulfilled, something he suggests he doesn’t find “super relevant.” When asked, the Columbia grad doesn’t diminish his educational experience, but credits the opportunities it allowed him to learn and perform outside the classroom—both on stage and at his campus radio station, WKCR, where he was jazz director for two and a half years.

Columbia was also where he met and began playing with guitarist Ty Citerman, with whom he works in the collaborative, genre-mashing quartet Gutbucket to this day. When the group was first getting off the ground and exploring their sound, they had a weekly gig at the Knitting Factory where they would try out material. “We started getting better when we started getting beyond adding this plus this plus this,” Thompson recalls, noting that this more complete fusion is still something he’s always looking to do. “I never want to have something sound like, ‘Oh, this is the moment that’s the rock moment, or this is the jazz moment, or this is the contemporary classical moment’—ugh. To me, everything has to make sense.”
But for all the vital diversity his various project lineups and genre influences provide him, Thomson says that in many ways he feels a bit out of touch with the current zeitgeist. “I’m writing music for human beings without electronics. I haven’t done multimedia; I’m not using Max. I feel like I’m totally losing every grant!” he jokes, bursting into laughter.
“It’s really so much about the sound of the instruments and what they do together, and that’s what I love about music. So in that way I think I’m really hopelessly old school, and I don’t know how to fix that. Maybe I shouldn’t.”

Paul Dresher: Intense Beauty, Visceral Energy, and Sonic Curiosity

Paul Dresher

A conversation in the downtown Brooklyn home of Ned Rothenberg
October 27, 2014 — 2:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Video recording and photography by Alexandra Gardner
Transcription by Julia Lu

In the era of Twitter and the incredible shrinking attention span, describing a composer such as Los Angeles-born and Berkeley-based Paul Dresher is a tough challenge. For five decades, he has done work in at least three distinct musical streams with equal vigor and equally significant results.

Hearing an LP of Terry Riley’s In C that he bought for a quarter from a sidewalk vendor on Berkeley’s famed Telegraph Avenue back in 1968 was a transformational experience that led to his composing a formidable body of solo, chamber, and orchestral pieces. These works take the basic ingredients of classic minimalism—a strong sense of tonality, catchy melodic hooks, and regular pulsation—but use them in ways that are much less process driven. What came to be known as post-minimalism—a term that has been used since the 1980s to describe composers as diverse as John Adams, Michael Torke, Janice Giteck, Paul Lansky, Mary Ellen Childs, and Daniel Lentz, as well as the late William Duckworth and Elodie Lauten—was already anticipated by Dresher’s 1976 This Same Temple for two pianos, the earliest piece of his that has been commercially recorded. Since that early groundbreaking work—which was championed by Katia and Marielle Labèque, as well as Steve Reich who arranged for its first New York City performance—Dresher has continued to develop and refine this compositional approach. A series of intensely beautiful compositions such as the 1981 cantata Night Songs, the 1982 string quartet Casa Vecchia, Channels Passing (a personal favorite from that same year scored for seven instruments and later expanded for chamber orchestra), the 1989 violin-piano-percussion trio Double Ikat, the 1995 solo piano tour de force Blue Diamonds, the 1998 violin and piano duo Elapsed Time, a 2008 orchestral score for the ballet Thread, and his brand new Family Matters for cello and piano have continued along that path.

As he explained it when we met up with him during the final stretch of his East Coast tour:

It was almost as if what I heard on that record [of In C] was music that I sort of had vaguely imagined and sort of dreamed about, but I’d never in any way ever had any idea how it could be manifested. … I took that sense of minimalism and some of those procedures of minimalism, but I always felt like I wanted to go beyond the procedures and use them as the details of the music, to have larger things going on that were not as inevitably the result of some process that I had determined in advance of the composition. Often those things had a more dramatic kind of shape, as opposed to the music being very steady state. … I wanted to sort of increase that sense of drama, by increasing the time, and bringing in some things which at that point, I think, hadn’t typically been used in minimalism, particularly bass motion.

Yet to describe Dresher solely as a post-minimalist is insufficient. Coming of age at the same time as rock music did had a huge impact on Dresher, who abandoned the piano to take up the electric guitar at an early age. While rock ultimately proved to be too limited a playing ground for his musical aspirations, its visceral energy has been a key ingredient in his black box music theater collaborations with singer-playwright-performance artist Rinde Eckert.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Dresher has never been able to work within the aesthetic constraints of what could be commercially viable rock is because of the third musical realm he has steadfastly pursued all these years—highly idiosyncratic, improvisation-based music often involving instruments of his own invention, electronics, and—in recent years—alternate tunings. There is a direct through-line from his earliest guitar-triggered electronic soundscapes—like Liquid and Stellar Music (1981) and Dark Blue Circumstance (1982)—to works like In the Name(less) (2002) and Glimpsed from Afar (2006), both duos for his own quadrachord (something of a giant tabletop sub-bass guitar) and Don Buchla’s marimba lumina (a MIDI controller from which a percussionist can trigger a broad range of samples). While most of these experimental pieces were created expressly as a platform for his own performance, five years ago he fashioned a vast poly-sensory environment for Steven Schick called Schick Machine for which there is no score per se and which is a cross between music, theater, and installation art.

Aside from maintaining these three distinct compositional strands, Dresher also actively performs with his own ensembles, both the Electro-Acoustic Band he formed a decade ago and the smaller Double Duo with which he recently completed a tour that took him to five states. These groups not only play his music, but have actively commissioned and premiered works by John Luther Adams, Eve Beglarian, Martin Bresnick, Bun Ching Lam, David Lang, Steven Mackey, and Roger Reynolds, among others. “I really like being inside another composer’s new work,” Dresher explains. “So when I formed the Electro-Acoustic Band, the idea was I wanted to play other people’s music; I wanted to give a resource to other composers that was similar to what I felt I needed—a band of musicians who could credibly play idioms that were not just in a classical style, who could play rock and roll, … who could improvise.”

Performing the work of others has immersed Dresher in an even broader range of aesthetics than the ones that have shaped the three different paths his own music has continued to take throughout his career. Though those three streams initially seem stylistically incongruous, there’s actually quite a bit of common ground in his work, especially in comparison with all the music by others that he has performed. That’s probably because, according to Dresher, all composers, whether they’re conscious of it or not, are writing for an ideal listener. Whether he’s creating a fully notated piece of post-minimalist chamber music, a poly-stylistic score for an intense musical theater work, or an idiosyncratic experiment for one-of-a kind instruments of his own design, he’s always operating with the same basic assumptions about his audience.

I think that my principal responsibility as a composer is to control the experience of time for the listener. They are following the progression of time as I am trying to stay in control of it. That requires a degree of familiarity; you can’t understand something if it’s 90 percent completely new information. I think the neurology of how the human consciousness works and how you can follow ideas is that you have to have a certain amount of familiarity, and then you have to have a certain amount of newness. That ratio is a complex assumption that a composer has to make about how they’re going to keep their listener engaged.


LP cover featuring the back of a shirtless man.

The cover of New Albion’s original all-Paul Dresher LP, issued in 1984, featuring Channels Passing and Night Songs (NA 003; reissued in 1993 on the CD Dark Blue Circumstance NA 053).

Frank J. Oteri: I still remember my initial reaction thirty years ago the first time I had heard Channels Passing and Night Songs, which had just been issued together on a New Albion LP. I couldn’t get over how intensely beautiful your music was. And it’s something I’ve often thought about many of your pieces since then. Hearing Double Ikat and your new cello and piano duo last night at Roulette, I felt much the same way. So I thought a good place to begin would be to talk about beauty, what it means, if that’s a goal for you, and what you do to attain it.

Paul Dresher: Beauty is a complicated subject in all modern art. Culturally I think we had an assumed notion of what beauty was at least through the Romantic and late-Romantic period. Obviously the 20th century in music and in visual art as well really expanded the notion of what was beautiful. And yet I feel that a lot of what I do, and I think the quality that you just spoke of, about beauty, is really almost a 19th-century idea of beauty. I think there are ideas of balance, how ideas flow and transform in a kind of natural way. In many pieces, I use consonance and dissonance in a traditional 19th-century sort of way. The harmonic progressions may not be anything like 19th-century harmonic progressions, but the tension and release issues, the issues of how tension is built, and how that tension is resolved, have many affinities with and connections to Chopin, who happens to be one of my favorite composers. I don’t know if that’s evident in pieces, but it’s some of the music that I constantly turn to and find to be both endlessly new to me and incredibly moving.

FJO: As far as there being an expanded notion of beauty in the 20th century, certainly at the time that you were first formulating your ideas as a composer there was a very different attitude about what music—and art overall—should be and what its purpose ought to be. I think these attitudes were very different than earlier notions about creating art to be beautiful, whatever beautiful may mean, as an aesthetic end in and of itself. I don’t necessarily want to say that beauty was devalued.

PD: I think it was devalued. But I think maybe a more important goal that includes beauty but not just beauty is for music or art to be powerful. Obviously there are many different ways to be powerful and to make an impact on the person who’s giving themselves over to the experience of the art. Beauty is one of those features. But I think a piece like, say, Glimpsed from Afar—particularly the end, which is very intense and rhythmic—doesn’t partake of beauty in the way I was referring to about Chopin or the connection to the 19th century. It’s very clangorous and very dissonant, but it’s very visceral and that’s a kind of power. That’s also very important to me. I think both exist in my aesthetic world as ways of creating impact and engaging the listener.

FJO: Well, the other thing that happened in the 20th century in terms of expanding notions of beauty is that the doors were opened to different cultures, and beauty means different things in different traditions. You describe Glimpsed from Afar as not being beautiful in a Chopin way, and that’s true for a great deal of music that people now can appreciate as being beautiful. The 20th century eroded the concept of there being a single line from which music evolved. And your music has also not evolved in a linear fashion but has actually operated on several very different streams throughout your career. But before we delve into pieces like Glimpsed from Afar, I’d like to continue talking for a while longer about the pieces that do explore beauty in a Chopin way, pieces that—for lack of a better term—people would identify as coming from classical music. These are pieces that most people, I think, would immediately consider to be beautiful and aesthetically appealing unless, perhaps, their only frame of reference was death metal.

PD: Or if you’re only listening to Brian Ferneyhough. When I go speak at Stanford, and I’m interacting with Brian’s students, they’re trenchantly opposed to everything I represent because to them it’s so lacking in the kind of complexity that they believe is the principal raison d’être for contemporary music: to give new and continually surprising information that can almost not be assimilated. To overload so that anything about periodic motion, harmonic resolutions, or anything like that is so not a part of the vocabulary. And you know, it’s just not what I do. I’m not interested in that. I’ve studied that music. I’ve never written in that idiom, but I find that idiom has very limited expressive means. I’m actually interested in music having an emotional impact, not just a cerebral impact. I find that the more complex that you intentionally require your music to be, you often reduce the net effect of it on a listener, except perhaps the listeners who need that kind of complexity. But that’s not my ideal listener.

I think every composer writes for an ideal listener. They may or may not be conscious of that, but there are all these premises about how the music is going to be perceived and received, and who their potential audience might be. My audience is not the same audience as I think the audience Brian Ferneyhough writes for. My audience is not necessarily just a professional musician or composer, but a person who actively engages with music and who wants to be taken on a journey. That person may need a certain level of familiarity and a certain kind of progression of the dialogue in the music in order to follow the musical thought and the ideas. So sometimes you’re going to have them follow you, and then you’re going to make a right turn and you’re going to surprise them. But unless they’re following you, that won’t have any surprise. You have to present your materials in ways that you believe your listener—whoever that ideal listener might be—can stay with and engage with. I think that my principle responsibility as a composer is to control the experience of time for the listener. They are following the progression of time as I am trying to stay in control of it. That requires a degree of familiarity; you can’t understand something if it’s 90 percent completely new information. I think the neurology of how the human consciousness works and how you can follow ideas is that you have to have a certain amount of familiarity, and then you have to have a certain amount of newness. That ratio is a complex assumption that a composer has to make about how they’re going to keep their listener engaged. I have certain assumptions that I operate from, and those are maybe the consistencies that you might be perceiving over the course of looking at 35 years of work. You are seeing maybe a consistent sense of what I’m assuming about what is new and what is changing, what is staying the same and what is progressing.

FJO: The earliest piece of yours that you still acknowledge is a guitar quartet, but I’ve never heard it; I’d love to one day.

PD: It’s very much inspired by In C by Terry Riley.

FJO: So from the very beginning you were working with what had come to be known as minimalism.

PD: My musical DNA is in minimalism. I think I first heard In C in the fall of ’68. When I came to Berkeley, after I graduated from high school, I made my living playing for spare change on Telegraph Avenue, which was sort of a nexus of the counterculture in the San Francisco Bay Area, Haight-Ashbury being the other one. This was the height of the hippie movement. From whatever money I made, I’d take whatever I needed to buy food and stuff like that and with any spare change I had I would buy used records. There was a guy selling some of his records pretty near where I was playing, and I saw a record there I’d never seen before. He only wanted 25 cents for it and said it was terrible. So I bought it, and it was In C. And it changed my life.

It was almost as if what I heard on that record was music that I had vaguely imagined and sort of dreamed about, but I’d never in any way ever had any idea how it could be manifested. There it was, coming through my really crappy little speakers on my probably $15 sound system. So very shortly after that, I found Terry’s A Rainbow in Curved Air which came out in 1969. Both In C and A Rainbow in Curved Air were very formative [listening experiences], giving me an idea of what music could be. And obviously, A Rainbow in Curved Air is modal and it’s a sort of free form kind of improvisation. This was very much where I was at in my own musical development at that point—nowhere near that level technically, but I was developing my own sort of improvisational style that was very much influenced by that and akin to that.

FJO: But the next piece after the Guitar Quartet, the two piano piece This Same Temple that you composed in 1976, is already doing something a little bit different from strict minimalism. It’s already going against some of the formal procedural things to the point that it really is post-minimalist, a term that is often used to describe music that composers had started writing very soon afterwards. John Adams’s China Gates and Phrygian Gates were both from the following year, which is also when William Duckworth began The Time Curve Preludes, pieces that are often described as the beginnings of post-minimalism.

Handwritten musical score for two pianos by Paul Dresher

An excerpt from the manuscript of Paul Dresher’s composition This Same Temple. Copyright © 1976 (revised 1977) by Paul Dresher, Minmax Music (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

PD: I revised it a tiny bit after the premiere, and then it was done again in ’77. When I finally felt that I could actually write music that wasn’t sort of childish, I took that sense of minimalism and some of those procedures of minimalism, but I always felt like I wanted to go beyond the procedures and use them as the details of the music, to have larger things going on that were not as inevitably the result of some process that I had determined in advance of the composition. Often those things had a more dramatic kind of shape, as opposed to the music being very steady state. Something like, say, Drumming has this very slow evolution, and obviously it builds to these ecstatic points but it builds through a very slow accumulation. I wanted to sort of increase that sense of drama, by increasing the time and bringing in some things which at that point, I think, hadn’t typically been used in minimalism, particularly bass motion. In fact, when Steve Reich first heard This Same Temple, he said something like, “I really like those bass things; you have to do something with that.” And he produced the first performance of that piece in New York in 1979.

FJO: Although minimalism is in your DNA, you also studied composition with Robert
Erickson, who was very much not a minimalist.

PD: That came a little bit later. I started studying with Erickson in ’77. I wrote This Same Temple before I did any formal study of composition. In my childhood, I studied classical piano for like five years and my teacher taught me music theory, too. So I understood music theory and I was inclined in that way, which is obviously what any composer needs to be—a composer has to have an analytical sense. Actually, that aspect of my classical piano studies was probably the most interesting to me. The piano repertory I was sort of lukewarm about, but I liked the fact that you could analyze the music and break it down into these systems. You could break it down into harmonic structures, and you could transpose them, and you could sort of see how music was assembled. That was fascinating to me. Even though the idea of composing didn’t ever occur to me at that point, I think it showed that I had an inclination towards some of the things that a composer typically needs.

FJO: I’m curious about other formative things that shaped your musical aesthetic, particularly from other genres of music.

PD: When I was allowed to stop taking classical piano lessons when I was about 13, I instantly took up the guitar and started playing folk blues, and listening to people like Lightning Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and Bukka White. Mississippi John Hurt was a big influence on me. Then pretty quickly I went into the electric blues, both Chicago blues and what was coming from England with the greats like John Mayall, then falling in love with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and all those things.
That was an incredibly rich time of musical transformation, both personally and, I think, in our whole culture. I was very much a part of that, and at that point I wanted to be a rock star. I played electric guitar and I was in rock and roll bands. But whenever I was in rock and roll bands, I was always wanting to push the boundary into a kind of approach to instrumental music that just, at that point, was not really there. Rock and roll is usually either about dance or courtship, some form of cultural expression that’s not primarily a cerebral listening experience. It’s more of a group collective kind of merging of energy.

Eckert wearing sunglasses and singing into a micropphone, Dresher playing synthesizer keyboard and Reffkin playing drum-kit

Rinde Eckert, Paul Dresher and Gene Reffkin performing Was Are/Will Be in 1985. (Watch and listen to the performance here.)

FJO: Well it’s interesting to hear you say that because some of the more rock sounding things in your output, like the one-man opera-musical theater pieces you wrote with and for Rinde Eckert, Was Are/Will Be and Slow Fire, are really not that far away from the music of the 1980s King Crimson or—

PD: —Talking Heads.

FJO: Absolutely. I think anybody that is a fan of that music ought to have loved what you were doing. And similarly anyone who loves your music ought to have loved that music.

PD: A lot of people saw that connection. People would come up to me and ask if Talking Heads influenced us, and King Crimson would often be mentioned, too. I think it was of the time. The musical idiom of Slow Fire was intentionally partaking of American popular music of the time. That was part of how we wanted to tell the story of an everyman American character named Bob and his dad. So it made sense that we would use a musical idiom that was in some way a take on Bob’s musical world, the contemporary world that our character would live in. So we consciously made that musical choice, but a different opera or music theater piece could use an entirely different idiom based on what the narrative needs were for that particular project.

FJO: But there’s also a slightly earlier piece that you also did in collaboration with Rinde, Was Are/Will Be, that also taps into that same sound world.

PD: The character Bob also actually started in Was Are/Will Be, but we made a completely different musical world for him in Slow Fire. I was working with a tape loop system, which is the tool that we used for both those works. It allowed me as a single performer to do multiple layers in live performance. Obviously a tape loop system does repetition. You don’t have to make it be rock and roll, but it is going to be repetitive. That kind of layering on of a bass line, a particular sort of mid-register riff, and then something higher register laid very well in the template for rock and roll structure, and it fits very well with my minimalist inclinations.

FJO: But to look back at what these two separate communities—the minimalists over here and the adventurous rock people over there—were doing at around the exact same time, the music is actually quite similar. And they were approaching the performance of it in similar ways, with synthesizers and tape loops.

Dresher in white suit playing electric guitar surrounded by electronic equipment.

Paul Dresher with his solo performing operatus in the early 1980s. Photo by Debra Heimerdinger, courtesy of Paul Dresher.

PD: Well, Brian Eno got it from Terry and La Monte and he would tell you that. Then Fripp got it from Eno. But I think Fripp forgot that he got it from somebody else. Sometimes when I would use my tape loop system people would say, “Oh, you’re doing Frippertronics.” I would usually bristle about that a little bit, partly because my system is not at all that. You know, the time lag accumulator is a constant feedback, regenerating system and gradually everything decays over time. That’s the beauty of what Brian Eno did with it in all those wonderful ambient music pieces that he did. But mine is an actual recording studio on a loop. You basically record a track and that stays there. It doesn’t decay. It doesn’t change unless I ask it to change. I can do that, but I mostly used my system as a system of multi-track recordings, layering four, five, six parts at once. So in that sense, it’s technically not like Fripp or Eno, but it still was looping. There was still the inherent repetitive element that I think is the connection that people saw.

FJO: I think people made that connection because there isn’t a lot of difference between these allegedly different genres of music. Yet some people get put in this classical music place, and others get put in this popular music place. It seems somewhat pointless to me.
PD: Remain in Light is still one of my all-time favorite records. I just thought it was brilliant. The way David Byrne works with Eno and the whole band, the way they assembled that record, the musical material, and the processes that they used were just brilliant. They really inspired me. Obviously there are great grooves in there that make it popular music and make it rock and roll. And in a certain sense, when we did Slow Fire, I think we were partaking of the same well. There are other parts of Slow Fire that don’t really have anything to do with that, but things like “Sleeping with the Light On” really have an enormous amount of affinity with Talking Heads and other things that were going on. Peter Gabriel is another person who was very important; I thought his work in the ‘80s was just stunning.

FJO: If only it had reached the radio stations that were playing that stuff, “Sleeping with the Light On” could have been a major pop hit.

PD: We had some nibbles from the rock and roll world, but once they listened to it, everyone who was in that world said it was too weird, too operatic. Rinde’s voice is not a pop voice. Rinde’s voice implied the world of opera, and that tended to be something that was difficult for people who were immersed in pop culture aesthetics to think had enough to do with them.

FJO: Yet at that same time, Pat Benatar, who was operatically trained, was a big star, and Laurie Anderson actually had a pop single.

PD: Right.

FJO: But still, I really don’t think opera when I hear Rinde’s voice. He’s really something else. However, I was shocked to discover that he was one of the singers on that New Albion recording of Night Songs. I’ve had that album for three decades and have listened to it constantly over the years, but I never realized that Rinde Eckert was on it. He sounds so different on there than he does in anything else I’ve ever heard him do, certainly very different than the other pieces you did with him which partake of his unique vocal abilities.

PD: That’s when I met Rinde. When I’d just got out of graduate school, I got a commission to write a piece for a group that didn’t exist anymore by the time I completed the work. It was for two tenors and soprano. That was Night Songs. A lot of those people who had been core to the group had been transported up to Seattle, to the Cornish Institute where the leader of that group, John Duykers, had become the chairman of the music department and he was going to be in charge of getting this commission produced. He hired me there. And he also hired [the soprano] Tommy [Tomasa] Eckert, who is Rinde’s older sister. Rinde had just finished graduate school at Yale, and hitchhiked or drove across the country and ended up becoming the janitor at the Cornish Institute. But he also directed the opera theater institute we had there. So John brought in Rinde to be the second tenor. When I was writing it, I knew John and I knew I was writing for Tommy, but I thought I was writing it for a different tenor. I didn’t write it for Rinde because I didn’t even know him.

So we met and we enjoyed each other, but it wasn’t until John Duykers asked Rinde to be a part of a collaboration with [experimental playwright and director] George Coates—I think he sensed that Rinde had some unique talents that went beyond what a traditional tenor does—that Rinde and I really hit it off and realized that we had a special chemistry. Then in the course of working with George Coates, Rinde and I were frequently coming up with ideas which were very exciting to both of us that just didn’t fit in with the aesthetics of [Coates’s] theater company. This was a theater company that was kind of inspired by Robert Wilson; there were many elements that weren’t Robert Wilson, but there was a kind of coolness to everything, not developing characters or narrative in any way. So when we both departed from that company, I had collected a lot of those ideas and mined them, and we started to then actively explore those things that we hadn’t been able to do in the George Coates works. That’s how our own work together evolved. So when you heard him in Night Songs, he was just another tenor at that point. I mean, he himself hadn’t [yet] developed anything like the character or ideas that he developed in the course of doing music theater work. That music theater work really allowed him to develop the artist that he’s become. It was really the first step for him, the same way it was the first step for me understanding what collaboration could do and understanding what working with singers could be, which is something that I never imagined I would have done.

CD cover with abstract drawing.

The CD cover for Opposites Attract, a collaboration between Paul Dresher and Ned Rothenberg released in 1991 (New World Records 80411.

FJO: In terms of other musicians you’ve collaborated with who’ve pushed you in different directions aesthetically, here we are in the apartment of Ned Rothenberg with whom you also collaborated on that wonderful album Opposites Attract, on which you’re really pushing each other.

PD: He’s a close musical and personal friend. And we both loved that about that process and that collaboration.

FJO: Everybody nowadays talks about all these younger composers and their “bandsembles” blurring the lines between musical genres, but these walls were actually torn down by your generation. In terms of your own music, however, I wonder how much of the blurring of genres was a by-product of all the collaborative work you’ve done in theater and dance. You mentioned at the onset of this conversation that while some of your pieces aim for beauty, others aim for visceral power, and certainly the earliest works of yours that tap into this rock-like raw energy are these early theater pieces.

PD: If I were writing a chamber work, particularly for acoustic instruments, I’m going to acknowledge the tradition of those instruments to some extent. Whereas I think that when working in the collaborative media, whether working with a choreographer or working in experimental music theater like Rinde and I did, I had total freedom to basically partake of anything musically that I had the expertise to handle, and so that often combined popular music and it also frequently brought in world music.

Paul Dresher with the American Gamelan in 1979, photo courtesy Paul Dresher.

Paul Dresher with the American Gamelan in 1979, photo courtesy Paul Dresher.

I spent a lot of time studying North Indian classical, West African music, and Indonesian music through the ‘70s. That’s also part of my musical DNA. So in those collaborative works, I felt that I could draw on anything I wanted—anything that I could credibly make work was material for that piece. We would then decide as a group if it was relevant to the piece.

Slow Fire is a piece that is rooted very much in popular music and in the rock and roll idiom, but that was about the goals of that piece and what our idea was of the musical world of our character. Power Failure, an opera that came after that and, I’ll admit, not a totally successful opera, was very much not in that idiom. It had drums, too, but it really wasn’t a rock and roll piece. It was much more of a classical piece. Again that had to do with the subject matter for the piece and the means by which we wanted to tell our story.

FJO: But another one of your one-person operas, The Tyrant, which you wrote for John Duykers, is also a much more classical piece.

PD: Very much so. I wanted to make a repertory-type piece that could be done by any ambitious and hard-working chamber ensemble and a singer who really wanted to devote himself to the character. It was written for Pierrot plus percussion and was actually designed to be a companion piece for Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King. That was the original commission. We wanted to have them be able to be played on the same program.

FJO: But when you write music for a specific person or a specific situation, rather than simply write a piece for a voice or an instrument that could theoretically be done by anyone anywhere, there are many details that might never be translatable to another performer or another situation.

PD: Most of the works that I write now are written for specific performers, like the piece I wrote for Lisa [Moore] and Ashley [Bathgate] and almost everything I’ve done with Rinde and John Duykers. But even though these are very specific performers who lead you and bring certain things that you know they will successfully do, I also think if this is a successful piece, other people will learn how to do this. There’s of course the long tradition in contemporary music of performers pushing the boundary, and what seemed impossible becoming standard. Collaboration with performers is just part of that process. If what you’ve made is powerful and successful, other people will be inspired or required to learn how to do that.

FJO: Certainly it’s much easier for me to imagine other cellists and pianists besides Ashley and Lisa performing Family Matters than, say, another singer besides Rinde performing Slow Fire.

PD: You know, Rinde and I talked about it, and there are a couple of challenges that would really have to be overcome. I think there are performers; Rinde has inspired people and the level of dramatic opera performance and music theater performance has gotten to a point where I think there could be a young performer who will say, “I want to do that; I’m going to do what Rinde did,” or “I’m going to do it better,” or “I’m going to do it differently.” So that may come about. I think that kind of person could exist. The other problem is that the technology that I used in Slow Fire is live looping technology which was impossible for anyone to deal with, but now with software there are an enormous amount of resources that could actually make that possible. The fact is, though, it’s not notated. On occasion, some sections of the piece were notated, but most of it was just in my hands. It would be an intriguing idea to actually transcribe it. It’s totally doable, because the parts were all the same each night. You know the things that I laid down on a loop were very fixed. I just never bothered to write them down.

But I want Family Matters to be a repertory piece in the same way as Elapsed Time, my duo for violin and piano, which I think is a very successful work and hope can become part of repertory. Family Matters has that potential as well. Yes, I wrote it for two incredibly skilled virtuoso players, so it’s not for somebody who doesn’t want to make a real commitment and doesn’t have a very high technical expertise on their instruments, but I do believe that many other people can play those pieces.

Printed Dresher score sample for cello and piano

An excerpt from “Mood Swings,” the third movement of Paul Dresher’s Family Matters for cello and piano. Copyright © 2014 by Paul Dresher, Minmax Music (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: That same level of virtuosity and commitment is necessary to play, say, Brahms, and lots of people play the pieces he wrote. It has now become music for those instruments rather than music for specific musicians. Perhaps the ultimate form of writing for instruments rather than specific musicians is writing for the orchestra, which you’ve done but not so much—though curiously you recently wrote a concerto for one of the instruments you invented.

PD: Well, you know, that’s not my first orchestra piece. That’s probably my fourth. My first orchestra work was a piece called Reaction in 1984, and then I wrote Cornucopia in 1990. There’s also a chamber orchestra piece that’s really a large chamber piece; it’s not an orchestra piece. Then, for the San Francisco Ballet, I wrote a big 30-minute score called Thread. After Thread, I felt that I knew what to do with the orchestra. I understood the orchestra better than I ever had before. Then I was able to think about what I could try that would truly be a challenge to me as a composer. So when the Berkeley Symphony wanted to commission me, I proposed that I would do a concerto for one of my invented instruments and orchestra, and they were very excited about that. Initially I thought I was going to do it for both the hurdy grande and the quadrachord, but partway through the composition, for both practical and musical reasons, I focused just on the quadrachord. Keeping both instruments in tune, and figuring out where they were going to sit on the stage and how to move between them, was just not practical.

FJO: But what’s ironic is that you said you want your chamber pieces to become repertory pieces. The orchestra, by its very nature, is designed primarily to do repertory pieces. But you completely subverted your chance at this piece becoming repertoire by writing for an instrument that only you have.

PD: Yeah. Go figure. I was just curious. I wanted to see if I could do it, and I wanted to see what would be required, because they don’t speak the same language at all. The intonation issues are enormous. I had to come up with two very different strategies for dealing with intonation in the piece; one was very successful and one was moderately successful. Actually the jury’s out on how successful the second one was because I would be very curious to do this piece with a fully professional orchestra. The two orchestras that have done it [so far] were both semi-professional, a mix of community members and professional musicians and I asked things of the brass that may have been beyond this orchestra’s full command, but might not be in the hands of a fully professional orchestra. I don’t know the answer to that question yet.

FJO: It’s also ironic that when you were commissioned you wanted to write a concerto, because you’ve said over the years that the traditional romantic idea of a concerto being a bravado soloist against the orchestra does not really appeal to you as a composer, which is why in the works that you have written that are concerto-like—like Unequal Distemperament for cello and the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and also another work for that ensemble that you actually called Violin Concerto, the piece that evolved from combining Cage Machine and Chorale Times Two—the soloist and small group are not really in opposition to one another.

PD: It’s also team work in this case. We trade roles. I had to solve the problems of integrating the quadrachord with the orchestra. There wasn’t natural common ground. So as the soloist, I had to really expand my technique and, in some ways, make it more conventional in order to make the quadrachord do things that traditional instruments do extremely well, which were very difficult to do on it, like play in equal temperament. So I was constantly in this dialogue of trying to find ways to pull the orchestra towards my world, the quadrachord’s world, and pull the quadrachord towards the orchestra’s world. The first movement is called “Uncommon Ground” because it’s all about trying to resolve these tensions. The second movement is called “A Tale of Two Tunings” because our tunings are radically different, and I had to find ways to modulate in between these two tuning worlds. And the last movement is very much inspired by the end of Glimpsed from Afar. I basically just dispensed with all issues of tuning and just dealt with sound. That movement is called “Louder Faster,” and it’s really about expanding on things that were done in the last five minutes of Glimpsed from Afar and turning it into a ten-minute movement. It’s very intense rhythmically, and very hard driving. Actually, that’s probably the most successful of the movements because I was able to dispense with the difficulties of these two intonational worlds.

Sometimes when audiences hear alternative tunings, they don’t know what they’re supposed to do with it. They sometimes think it’s out of tune even if they understand that there’s an intentional, rational reason with the tunings. That presented a lot of interesting musical challenges, compositionally and then in execution as well. For instance, I basically took three players out of every section of the strings—first, seconds, violas, cellos, and basses—and I had them tune their instruments down 40 cents. Rehearsals started with regular orchestra tuning, and then we’d tune what I called the de-tuned strings down 40 cents. As my melody is moving into harmonic areas that are well beyond equal temperament, they’re picked up by the de-tuned strings. And it worked incredibly well, and those string players, they just had to hear my instrument and they could match my pitch very well. I was so pleased that that part worked.

FJO: I’m curious about what your impetus has been to invent instruments, specifically something like the quadrachord.

A drawing of a bonang design from Dresher's master's thesis, decades before he built the quadrachord. Image reproduced courtesy Paul Dresher.

A drawing of a bonang design from Dresher’s Master’s thesis, decades before he built the quadrachord. Image reproduced courtesy Paul Dresher.

PD: I started inventing musical instruments when I was in high school. It’s about curiosity and about sound. Basically over the years, I’ve learned a lot about which physical material has musical resource potential, so now I can sort of say, “What would happen if we tried this? What would happen if we tried that?” And because I’ve got enough experience, I can ask questions that sometimes have interesting answers.

In the case of the quadrachord, I basically said, “I’m a guitarist and I know what guitar strings do. What if we double that length and see what happens? What happens if a string goes from, say, being three feet long to six or seven feet long?” And so we knocked together this simple way to test that, a slab of wood with some tuning machines and a couple of electric pickups, to see if there was anything there. And there was a lot there. There are some things that you can’t do on a guitar that this thing can do. What if we double that length? So we found a 16-foot 2″ x 6″ and we did the same process. We built some bridges, put some electronic pickups on it, strung some long strings across it, and it was four times what the six-foot long machine did. And I said, “O.K., that’s even more exciting; let’s double that again.” I didn’t have a piece of wood that was 30-feet long, but I had a wall and a staircase that were 30 feet apart in our shop, so I came up with a mechanism that allowed me to put a string from the wall to the staircase and tighten it up and tune it. We put an electric pickup on it to amplify it and it just did one thing. It did one thing that was great. It made this incredible bass sound, and literally a semi-tone was like a whole step away, so it was like walking bass made manifest in physical space, but I couldn’t make it do a lot more. That’s not a real instrument. A real instrument does more than one thing. A real instrument has many possibilities. So I said, “Let’s focus on that 16-foot length.” That’s where the quadrachord came from. I just made something bigger until maybe it became not useful to be bigger, then I found what the useful length was and started to experiment with what it can do musically. I didn’t have an idea what music it would do, I just had a curiosity about the physical phenomena involved. Over the years, I’ve just been mining those potentials and trying to find new ways to bring sound out of it.

FJO: But touring with the quadrachord, as you’ve just done this fall, doesn’t seem all that practical.

PD: Well, it’s more practical than you might realize. It doesn’t travel in those dimensions. It’s 15 and a half feet long, but it breaks down into a thing that’s a little less than three feet long. It fits into a case that is smaller than a keyboard case. And it takes one person about 40 minutes to set up; [the percussionist in my ensemble] Joel [Davel] and I doing it together takes about 25 minutes, a little less than that to break it down. If he had to move all that percussion in, it wouldn’t be any quicker. Sure, it adds a layer. It’s not the same as a string quartet coming in and sitting down and playing. It’s more complicated than that. But we built that particular version that we have on the tour to be reliable and stay in tune, as well as to be quick and easy to set up.

Paul Dresher & Joel Davel performing on the quardachord (with the marimba lumina in front of them) Photo by John Elliot, courtesy Sue Bernstein/Bernstein Artists.

Paul Dresher & Joel Davel performing on the quardachord (with the marimba lumina in front of them) Photo by John Elliot, courtesy Sue Bernstein/Bernstein Artists.

FJO: But if somebody wanted to perform this music, they’d have to acquire a quadrachord, and you’ve got the only ones.

PD: I never even think about that. I never once think or want somebody else to play this. This is my personal playground to experiment with sound. Sometimes I sample the instrument, and samples of the instrument are in some of my chamber music compositions. There they exist in a fixed form that’s duplicable by anybody with sample playback programs. But the physical playing of the instrument is where I get to experiment and where I get to share with the audience the results of those experiments that I think are successful.

FJO: So in terms of the compositions for these instruments—we talked about how some of the music you’ve written could be transcribed for other instruments but other pieces can’t be—could you imagine the pieces for these invented instruments being re-arranged for other kinds of instruments, or is it all idiomatic?

PD: I can’t imagine the reason for that. I could imagine all kinds of enormous practical difficulties. For instance, in Glimpsed from Afar, there’s a section where I create some loops with plucking where I’m playing the harmonic series. That harmonic series is not in equal temperament. I’m using between the sixth and the tenth harmonics; the seventh is very flat and the tenth is somewhat flat. I guess you could tune a harp to those specific things, and maybe get some sort of representation of that, but I don’t know why I’d want to do that. That music comes out of this instrument. I don’t think that music exists as abstract musical ideas. It really exists in the medium of this instrument alone. And when you get to the last section of the piece—where I do this weird thing with foam, a half capo at a very odd spot dividing the strings in half, and then we drum on the instrument—I don’t know how you’d ever even come close to duplicating what is interesting in that sound. I chose that sound to be a major part of that piece, and it’s something that I honestly can’t imagine getting any other way.

FJO: Now the most extreme example of this is Schick Machine, which of course was for someone else to perform—Steve Schick.

PD: That is true. Maybe somebody else could perform on that set, but it would become a different piece because Steve brings specific, astonishing skills. Another performer would bring a different set of skills. But those instruments, that set, is the piece. That is the score in a certain sense. Almost none of that is notated. There’s notation about how we built those instruments, because we’ve kept track of that and we did drawings and measurements and tests. But the invention of those instruments is far more what the score of the piece is than what notes are played.

FJO: And Schick Machine is extremely visual as well as aural. That’s true to some extent with the music you do on the quadrachord, but less so. You could hear a recording of the quadrachord and just experience it as sound, and you have released some of your music for quadrachord on CD. But interestingly you put out a private DVD of Schick Machine rather than a CD; you made sure the video was there. Experiencing it that way already is very different from the immersive environment that it is live, but at least you can see what it is. I think it would be hard to process if you only heard it.

PD: I’ve absolutely refused to ever even play that music on the radio. Schick Machine almost has nothing to do with music by itself, or sound by itself. It is sound in interaction with image and understanding how the sound is made; even if you see how it’s made, it’s still enormously mysterious. How is that mechanism working? How is this physical thing that I see Steve doing turning into what I’m hearing? You’re still mystified; that’s the power of that piece, the wonder at the combination of Steve’s physical reality, the instrument’s physical reality, and the visual and physical interaction resulting in sound. If you just hear the sound, it’s not the piece.

FJO: But considering all the new sounds that are in Schick Machine and the new ways in which those sounds are produced, it seems like those Ferneyhough students at Stanford would at least appreciate that. When you were at Stanford, did you share anything from this piece?

PD: We premiered the piece at Stanford, but it had little to do with the music department.

FJO: I imagine that there’s a lot more to explore with the particular instruments and timbres that you used in that piece.

PD: In the process of working on Schick Machine, I fell so in love with an instrument we call the hurdy grande that we built a new version of it. What’s on the stage of Schick Machine is what we call the prototype. The second version of it is a much more elegant instrument with a really good sound body. Just everything about it is improved. We got together with Steve after we’d finished it and discussed whether we should replace the prototype with this much more refined instrument, but we all said no.

We had no question about it. We realized that Schick Machine is about the process of experimentation and about discovery. It’s not about refinement. It’s about demonstrating to an audience what we really do in the workshop. As Steve says in his little program note, it’s about the id of a percussionist. They have all this stuff in their studio. They have all this junk. They’re constantly trying to find what sound can be eked out of this combination of a Coke bottle, a spoon, and a feather. In the hands of someone like Steve, magic happens. He can get it out of the simplest little bell, and he can get it out of a complex machine like a pipe organ. And that’s what we wanted. It wasn’t about perfection. It was always about the process of experimentation. A different performer would discover different things out of those resources on the stage, and so it would inevitably have to become a different piece. We’ve not actually approached that idea. The piece still tours and I want it to always be with Steve because he’s such an astonishing performer. But it’s an interesting question to think about what another person would do, like what if we let Joel loose on the stage here? It would become a very different piece because he’s got a completely different musical personality. So he would find different sounds than Steve has found, or that I ever found out of it.

FJO: You said that you were initially going to include the hurdy grande in the concerto you wrote for the Berkeley Symphony but abandoned it. So what kinds of pieces, if any, have you done with the new version of it that you built?

PD: Well, Joel and I perform on it. We’ve been doing some duo performances recently where we do two works on quadrachord—Glimpsed from Afar and In the Name(less), which is on the Cage Machine CD—then we do this work called Moving Parts on the hurdy grande. That’s still very much in evolution right now. We’ve only had that instrument for about two years, so we’re still discovering many things about it. It’s actually quite an astonishing set of sounds that I never really heard before.

FJO: But will that music eventually become a fixed-form thing that theoretically other people could do?

PD: I guess. Again, it’s going to be one of those highly personal things like the quadrachord is. The quadrachord could be made by other people, and it wouldn’t be that hard to actually make another quadrachord. The quadrachord is an amazingly simple instrument. It’s just a giant slab, basically. It’s like a giant electric bass. There are a few things you have to do carefully, but not much. But the hurdy grande is a much more mechanically challenging bit of construction requiring much higher level shop skills to get it to work. It’s a much more sophisticated and difficult machine to build, so I think to duplicate it would be much harder.

FJO: In terms of other performers replicating some of your more idiosyncratic music, I wonder about your early guitar-triggered works like Dark Blue Circumstance or Liquid and Stellar Music. How much of it was actually notated, and could you ever imagine anyone else performing those pieces?

Dresher in white suit playing electric guitar and operating a variety of foot pedals.

Another view of Paul Dresher performing solo in the early 1980s showing his extensive foot pedals. Photo by Debra Heimerdinger, courtesy of Paul Dresher.

PD: Dark Blue could be easily done. In fact, I just remounted it. I was the composer-in-residence at the Bowling Green New Music Festival, and the gentleman who runs it, Kurt Doles, said, “Is there any way you could do Dark Blue Circumstance?” I hadn’t done the piece for 15 years, and it was not in my technology. But I thought about it and in my spare time while finishing this other composition that we’re premiering in December, when I wanted a break, I started to work on Dark Blue and it actually came together very easily. I realized that it could easily be done by somebody else at this point. Liquid and Stellar is a little bit more complicated, but Dark Blue would be totally doable. I could probably notate it in an hour and a half and make it possible for anyone to do it.

FJO: But, for now, neither of these pieces are notated?

PD: No. It totally worked just in the process of playing into my tape loop system and listening and thinking about the next layer that was needed, just operating very intuitively. What would go with this? How would I make a transition from here to there? But even when I’m doing it intuitively, I’m doing analysis as I go along, that kind of composition is always a back and forth between an intuitive approach and then analyzing what I’ve decided is worth doing. Why is that interesting? What are the salient things there? What does that suggest about what you might do next?

FJO: You played both of those pieces for a number of years, and according to your notes for the recordings, they were eventually in a final fixed form about five years after they were initially composed. But in a way it isn’t a final fixed form because if Dark Blue could be done again, I imagine it would be somewhat different.

PD: I think you won’t have any trouble recognizing it as the same piece. I just did it twice, at the Detroit Institute of Art and at Bowling Green, and I think it was very much the same piece. It’s true that a couple of transitions I made differently just because I could do it differently on this technology, which I couldn’t have done before. I did things in certain ways that I couldn’t do on the old original technology so I let them go that direction, but it’s very much the same piece.

FJO: It’s ironic that when you write for really old technology, like your new cello and piano duet, you don’t have to worry about it becoming obsolete in ten years, but if you write for any piece of electronic equipment, more than likely by next year something will no longer work or no longer be available.

PD: Well, first off, while I’ve always been in a dialogue with technology in my work, it’s almost never about the technology. In my work which uses technology—not all the time, but many of my works do and obviously the big theater works are often very much made possible through technology—the technology is just another tool; it’s just the means by which I can develop a particular idea. It’s not the same as, say, my friends at Mills College who are experimenters and who are pushing the boundaries of technology—they’re interested in putting that actual process in the foreground; they don’t have another musical goal. The actual pushing of the boundary of experimentation is what they want their work to be about. And for me, I might run ten experiments and say nine of them are not interesting because my goal is to do something else with the music, to use the technology to do something that I haven’t heard before but not to put the technology into the foreground; it’s to put that new thing into the foreground that I haven’t heard before.

FJO: In a way, you approach technology the same way you approach minimalism.

PD: Yeah. It’s part of a tool box, but you still have to have something else to say. The technical procedures and the processes of classic minimalism weren’t wonderful in and of themselves, it was because in the hands of someone like Terry Riley or Steve Reich they made something transcendent out of it. Yes, you could break it apart and say Steve took this motif and then fleshed it out into a giant two-hour-long piece, but that’s not what made it powerful. He brought so much more to those procedures that made it have the impact that it has, same with Terry.

FJO: I guess one could argue that all the great pieces of minimalism are in some ways post-minimalist.

PD: Well, would you say In C is post-minimalist? I’d say In C is the perfect minimalist piece. The form is so astonishingly simple and so flexible. Every manifestation of it is unique, yet every manifestation is clearly In C. And it’s something magical about that piece, that the simplicity of it yields such rich results. I think that’s the idea of classic minimalism: a simple procedure yielding magnificent flexibility. It’s like evolution or the way DNA works. You take the DNA of a creature and you look at the incredible diversity of forms that come out of a simple recombination. A recombination of simple elements, if done right, can yield astonishing, almost infinite results. I think that’s what minimalism was capable of and that certain works did that. But I think the pieces that adhere to just procedure as their primary motivation rarely have that kind of impact. You can say, well, the procedure is there, and it’s evident, and it’s elegant, maybe, but it doesn’t make anything greater than itself.

FJO: And ditto for technology.

PD: Exactly the same. Yeah.

FJO: But with pieces using technology, there’s this added layer of needing to adapt older works and of finding new technologies in order to make them work if you want to keep playing them or have other people play them. It has now been 20 years since you established the Electro-Acoustic Band. But that ensemble very quickly became about a lot more than just your music, which brings in all sorts of other questions about notation and other composers’ comfort levels with the various and ever-evolving technologies used in that ensemble.

The Paul Dresher Electro-Acoustic Band

The Paul Dresher Electro-Acoustic Band (pictured left to right): Joel Davel, Karen Bentley, John Schott, Paul Dresher, Jeff Anderle, Gene Reffkin, and Marja Mutru. (Photo courtesy Paul Dresher.)

PD: The conception of the Electro-Acoustic band was always that it would do other people’s music. It was never to be just my music. That came out of a couple of things. My professional life was really launched by the success of those early pieces with Rinde and George Coates, investigating things that had never been done with the combination of theater, music, and projection technology. Then I did a series of music theater works up through about 1992 when Rinde and I did a piece called Awed Behavior, which was not a successful work in my estimation. Some of the music was great and other elements of it were great, but it was not a successful dramatic work. Anyway, at that point I felt like I had spent a little over ten years principally doing work and developing a musical language that was very effective to solve and expand on ideas in the realm of theater and collaboration. But I actually felt that my music as a concert music was stagnating. I had not had the opportunity to ask purely musical questions. So I wanted to return to that and just focus on my own performance and selecting musicians to perform contemporary concert music, but to use things that I learned from music theater—using lighting, very good sound, and also using electronics. And I wanted to make this available to other composers, too.

Back in the ‘70s, I was always in new music ensembles and we played other people’s work. I was in the East Bay New Music Ensemble and I think we may have even done the first performance of American Standard by John Adams in 1975. My Guitar Quartet also premiered on this concert. That’s where John and I met. John came to the concert—he was teaching at the conservatory at the time—and he became a fan of my work and I became a fan of his work. So I had a long history of playing other people’s music. I really like being inside another composer’s new work, the experience of getting to know how another composer is thinking about making new music. So when I formed the Electro-Acoustic Band, the idea was I wanted to play other people’s music, I wanted to give a resource to other composer’s that was similar to what I felt I needed—a band of musicians who could credibly play idioms that were not just in a classical style, who could play rock and roll, who understood other kinds of musical idioms, people who had studied African music or Bulgarian music, or who had played music in black gospel churches—like the great pianist Phil Aaberg, who was the original pianist in that band. And it also involved electronics. The idea of that band was that it would play my music, but would also commission and perform works by other composers who needed either electro-acoustic means or performers who could improvise, if that was what the composer wanted. That was really the goal. We’ve continued now for 20 years and at most a third of the music is mine usually; it’s often less than that nowadays.

FJO: Sometimes you’ll do a whole evening devoted to someone else’s music.

PD: Yeah. It’s been a wonderful 20 years, but it’s been a tough 20 years. Partly because the band is big, and partly because not all composers really understand what the band does well, so we sometimes get pieces that really are not a good match. But we always play them and our goal is to rehearse so that there’s no way that the composer won’t know they heard their piece. Often with contemporary music you get a first performance, and you don’t really know if you’ve heard your piece because it’s played badly or it’s not understood by the musicians. And so my goal was to have it be a little bit like a rock and roll band. When they go on stage, they’ve been down in the basement and in the garage, they’ve played those songs over and over and over, and they usually know how to put that song across. I wanted to perform new music with that same level of confidence, with that same level of commitment to being sure that the music was being played right.

FJO: So what are some of the compositional details of a right fit or a wrong fit?

PD: Because we have electric guitar in the band and drum set, some people think that they need to write a rock and roll kind of piece. And not very many composers can really authentically tap into the essence of what’s powerful in rock and roll. But oftentimes, because they see these instruments in the instrumentation of the band, they think that’s what they should do. But if they don’t really have the musical understanding of what rock and roll can and can’t do, that’s going to come across as a simulacra of what rock and roll is. So we’ve gotten pieces that don’t really work, because they’re referring to things that they don’t really understand. It would be like if I tried to write Bollywood music. I might be even somewhat equipped because I’ve studied Indian classical music, but there are aesthetics involved there that will elude me. So I might effectively steal the surface of the music, but nothing below that.

FJO: In terms of how it appears on the page, is it about having a more open score or a more precise score?

PD: I don’t think it makes a difference. What’s in the composer’s mind makes a difference—what they think is going to work, understanding the implications of the materials that they’ve chosen to work with. If you choose to work with materials that you’re never going to understand because you don’t really have an affinity for rock and roll, or whatever the idiom is, you’re unlikely to make a meaningful statement. There probably are exceptions to that. I’m not sure Stravinsky understood jazz, and I think he probably misinterpreted jazz in lots of ways, but he made fascinating music as a result. That may just be the result of the fact that he was so brilliant and so musical that anything he touched was going to become interesting, but there aren’t that many Stravinskys out there. So I think sometimes we get pieces that a composer undertakes to address certain idioms or materials that they don’t necessarily have enough depth with.

FJO: I’d still like to get a better sense of how this plays out in terms of how pieces are notated for the Electro-Acoustic Band, especially after hearing about how the details in everything from your solo guitar-triggered electronics pieces to Slow Fire were pretty much fixed but not in a way that would be readily replicated by people who had not worked closely with you. Take for instance your own Din of Iniquity, the first piece you wrote for the Electro-Acoustic Band. How much of that is precise? How much of that is worked out in performance?

PD: It’s pretty much all notated, except at the very end I take a guitar solo that I improvise and I do it differently every time. But everything other than that, until we get to the last minute and a half of the piece, is completely notated and is done precisely the same way.

Printed scvore excerpt for electro-acoustic band including written instructions in addition to music notation

Excerpt from the score of Paul Dresher’s Din of Iniquity. Copyright © 1994 by Paul Dresher, Minmax Music (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Now another complexity with any electro-acoustic piece is that the electronic element, as you were mentioning earlier, is a moving target because technology’s constantly evolving. What you used to make a sound 20 years ago may not be available any more and you may not be able to make it any other way. Sometimes a particular sound is an idiomatic result of the programming of a particular piece of hardware, or nowadays software that makes a certain sound. If that’s a sound that your piece depends on, often times the piece has a very hard time having a life beyond the existence of that hardware or software.

FJO: But aside from these issues about equipment, how much is notated in scores for this ensemble? When other composers write for the ensemble, how specific do they get, or should they get? What’s the ideal?

PD: It varies. When we worked with Eve Beglarian, whom we commissioned a piece from, she has such technical expertise that she knew exactly how to deal with every element of our band. And even I shared a lot of technology. We had some of the same gear in our racks, so she was able to just give me patches that dropped right into some of our devices and sample sets that were easily translatable to our technology. We just did a big project with Sebastian Currier. Sebastian came out and we spent several days just going through sounds. He would describe what he wanted, and I would get out the keyboard and say, “Is it this that you want?” And he’d say, “I need a little bit more this.” Sebastian’s very knowledgeable about electronics, so he would say, “We need to put a filter on that and we need the filter cut off to be around 2.5k,” or something like that. He didn’t give us a library of sounds to start with. We got together and we worked on the sounds. Though he gave us whole libraries of sounds for the percussion; they had very specific sounds that they were triggering from sample files that Sebastian himself had created. And he created a very multi-layered, very complex work that pushed our resources in some fascinating ways. My percussionist Joel Davel is probably the most adept person in the band with implementing complicated electronic media. We worked together for weeks and then in dialogue with Sebastian on how to get all of Sebastian’s needs met in performance reliably so there wouldn’t be glitches.

FJO: But what happens to the piece five years from now?

PD: I think Sebastian’s piece actually could be done pretty easily. Nowadays sample technology has broad currency. The operas that John Adams wrote in the 1980s used various Yamaha FM synthesis machines. Those machines became obsolete, and they went through a process. I know this because John’s a friend, and also his engineer Mark Grey is a good friend. Anyway, they went through and sampled every note in every one of the timbres, and sometimes there were hundreds of timbres that John used in those pieces. It was an incredibly laborious process that Mark went through to sample and then write programs so that now, on a computer or on a laptop, whatever, you can get those same sounds. That’s an incredibly labor-intensive and expensive process, because you have to have real professional expertise. But now those sample sets exist, and I think they can be transferred and moved downstream in time and are not likely to become obsolete because they’re recordings. It’s different than using software to make a sound that is constantly modulating and changing. Those kinds of things are very hard to duplicate on a different device or a different piece of software. When you have an actual recording of it, and it’s a fixed thing for a certain period of time, it’s transferrable. Where it’s about this transformation over time, or where there are random things involved, it’s very hard to give it a life past the actual hardware or software that created that sound.

FJO: From an aesthetic standpoint, adapting electronic pieces using older technologies in order to make them playable now is not much different from transcribing a piece for one instrumentation to another in order to be able to perform it with the musicians you’re playing with. This was a very common practice in the Baroque period, but has become somewhat anathema in the post-Romantic and Modern eras. As a practical musician, you’ve adapted Channels Passing—which was originally scored for violin, cello, and five winds—for violin, clarinet, two electronic percussionists, and two electronic keyboards so that it could be performed by the Electro-Acoustic Band. And in the concert last night, the percussion part for Double Ikat was performed on a mallet-triggered sampler, the marimba lumina.

PD: Well, I think some pieces do exist only in the instrumentation that they were conceived for. And I would actually put Double Ikat in that category. Although I admit that doing it with a marimba lumina—where he’s playing samples of those acoustic instruments that are what its real orchestration is—is a kind of transformation. But to me that’s a practical solution for what we need to do to take a piece that we love on tour, not to have to deal with trying to bring in a large percussion array of marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, two gongs, Chinese tom toms, and cymbals. We would get such widely varying quality and we would be spending all our time just trying to solve the problems of the percussion set up instead of the more interesting musical issues of expression. It was a very convenient and practical solution. I also believe in this technology. I believe that this is a viable thing to do. I know some people really disagree with me here, but I really believe that it’s not wrong to use a digital sample of an acoustic instrument. I think that some things can’t be digitally sampled, like a violin. You could never do that violin part on a keyboard playing a violin sample. It’s never going to happen. It’s going to always sound robotic, or awful. Maybe that would be an interesting thing to hear, but that’s not my musical goal, whereas with the percussion it is very possible to make really good quality samples and then to use the sound system in a way to make it sound plausible. You’re not pretending this is something else. And, as you said, it’s clearly still that piece.

FJO: But what about Channels Passing? I haven’t heard the Electro-Acoustic Band version of it and a lot of what I love about that piece is the way those seven instruments act together in the original version. It’s only a small group, yet it sounds like a full orchestra at times. So for me that piece is very much about how you combined those particular timbres.

Handwritten musical score for chamber ensemble by Paul Dresher

An excerpt from the manuscript of the original seven-piece chamber ensemble score of Paul Dresher’s Channels Passing. Copyright © 1982 by Paul Dresher, Minmax Music (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

PD: When we do Channels Passing, some of those instruments we can cheat with, you know with samples, but I would never do the violin. Partly because the writing for it is in some ways classically minimalist, I’m willing to do that with a clarinet or a flute. A different kind of line on clarinet or flute might be totally impossible to do with electronic simulacra. But in that piece, it was possible to do the trombone and flute without serious compromise. The cello is more problematic, but again it varies. In another musical context, I would say that’s not possible. You know, my string quartet, Casa Vecchia, could be done by a string orchestra, but it could never be done by synthesizers.

FJO: Well it’s interesting that you bring up Casa Vecchia, because although you composed it for string quartet, the only commercial recording ever released of it is a version for string nonet.

PD: Yuki Morimoto, the conductor who led that group, Ensemble Nine, fell in love with the piece and he sent me a [demo] recording they made of it. I loved it and gave it to Tom Steenland from Starkland, and he was happy to have that be on his label. So I went to Vienna, and we recorded it there. But I would love to get an actual quartet version of it out there, and I think it would be played probably better now than it was played originally because I think we understand what the material does better now than we might have in 1982 when I wrote it.

Susan Alcorn: Fearless Slides

Composer, improviser, and pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn came up playing country and western music, first in Chicago where she fell in love with the instrument’s unique timbres and then in and around Houston. But her ear eventually led her down a decidedly more singular experimental path, a journey which required the adaptation of both her instrument (changing tuning and adding strings) and her physical approach to it.

For audiences and even fellow musicians used to more straight-ahead performances, the reaction to her exploratory work with the instrument could get unsettling.

“It was like, what the hell’s she doing…and why?” Alcorn recalls, somewhat bemused. When a video of one of her performances in Paris was released on YouTube, an online pedal steel forum questioned her skill and her respect for her instrument. “They thought not only did I not know how to play, but that I was destroying the instrument. I actually got threatening emails, believe it or not! They said I was the empress with no clothes.”
A few of Alcorn's instruments
Still, in a reflection characteristic of Alcorn’s thoughtfulness in front of her instrument, she goes on to suggest “and maybe they were right, because that’s how you have to be. You’ve got to be naked in your mind to be able to play and express yourself—you have to be naked and fearless and that’s not easy, especially the older you get.”

Though she can still skillfully slide her way through country tunes, these days Alcorn is based in Baltimore and primarily devoted to her own innovative work, chasing new sounds through extended techniques, instrument preparation, and free improvisation both solo and with fellow artists old and new. But her music remains engaged with melody and beautiful chords. “Maybe that’s the country and western in me,” she says. “I like a song!”
Alcorn's well-loved pedal steel
Under the pedal steel guitar
Over the pedal steel guitar
Though Alcorn’s titles often suggest a certain epic scope—And I Await the Resurrection of the Pedal Steel Guitar and Olivier Messiaen’s Morning Conjugal Death Waltz, for example—her website doesn’t offer many details about her individual pieces and her CD booklet notes have been presented in the form of brief poems. Whether offering her music on intimate recordings or live from the stage, she doesn’t seem all that anxious to explain it in words to her listeners. “I kind of hope that [audiences] find their own meaning in it—inspiration, comfort, discomfort, whatever. And sometimes I feel like the more that I say about something, I almost feel like that takes the power away from it. The more you describe something, it weighs it down a bit.”

Though Alcorn herself prefers to play by ear and usually feels most effective as a performer that way, she does notate work for other players when needed. And when composers write for her, such as Jeff Snyder’s recent work Substratum performed by Alcorn and the Mivos String Quartet, she has even adapted their notation to a version that she can read with more facility.

“My approach has been to try and allow…the instrument itself to tell its story, not to be the boss or the master of the instrument, but to be a collaborator with it and hopefully the three of us—the instrument, myself, and these little harmonic universes—can do something, accomplish something, say something, express something that will affect people in a nice way.”

“And you either hear it or you don’t,” Alcorn says, acknowledging that her sonic explorations don’t resonate with everyone, though she doesn’t buy the idea that you need some special training to understand her work. “It’s not a math problem; it’s feeling something.”