Category: In Print

In Conversation with Thomas May

Thomas May
  • READ an excerpt from The John Adams Reader: Essential Writings on an American Composer edited by Thomas May.
    Molly Sheridan: I frequently overhear a certain lament that there is no Aaron Copland-style composer figurehead on the larger stage of American culture today. Would it be possible in this day and age for a man like John Adams to take up such a mantle? Why/why not (both in terms of modern culture and Adams own personality/inclinations)?

    Thomas May: Any attempt to address the significance of figures from classical music for the “larger stage” has to take the whole contemporary cultural context into consideration. And from that perspective, I think it’s doubtful anyone from classical music today—no matter how powerful or charismatic or universally regarded for their achievements—could have the kind of effect you’re suggesting. Indeed, I think even in the case of Copland we have a tendency to look backward with a nostalgic glow at whatever role he may have had as a “figurehead.” There are a lot of reasons for this, but let me single out two crucial ones.

    The first cuts across all the arts—literature, painting, theater, film, indeed popular music—and has to do with the loss of the very idea of figureheads, which I am taking to mean icons of ultimate achievement, gold standards. The very idea of such monoliths as The Great American Novel is just as obsolete as that of The Great American Symphony. Just look at the recent hype over the New York Times‘s proclamation of “the best fiction” of the last quarter century. Some of the most astute reactions have pointed out that such polls are ridiculous precisely because they assume some old model of the Great American Writer who can speak to our entire culture with some sort of universal, vatic authority. It’s just not possible any longer (to the extent that it ever was—and consider, too, how some of the famous contenders of the past, like Moby Dick, were all-but-ignored in their own age), with the many cross-currents and subdivisions of our culture. The same certainly goes for classical music. Even the image of the universal “rock star” who can cut across all these lines is a thing of the past. Why do you think we see so many dinosaur acts continuing along the tour circuit? A lot of it is fueled by pure nostalgia for something lost.

    And another key reason why I don’t see anyone able even to play at playing this role is, of course, a direct consequence of the marginalization of classical music itself. So Adams has, in fact, received some of the most-coveted accolades—the Pulitzer and a bevy of Grammys—for his 9-11 piece, On the Transmigration of Souls. That’s hardly his most significant work. But aside from that, even with such public acknowledgment—what is, you could say, a way in which Adams had de facto been offered the “mantle”—it has almost no impact on our celebrity-obsessed culture at large, where someone like Paris Hilton is actually considered a “music maker.” Maybe a boost in record sales for Transmigration, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the new Dixie Chicks album, or even the reissue of Steve Miller’s Fly Like an Eagle. What’s more, if you stop to consider the abysmal state that the marketing of classical music has reached, with its desperate and clueless attempts to find new audiences, it’s as if there are now two parallel universes that have no possible point of intersection: that of actual artistic achievement and quality vs. that of what gets advertised, hyped, etc. And obviously, discerning music lovers have learned to tune out the latter.

    MS: You’ve drawn from a range of sources for this collection, from friends of the composer such as Ingram Marshall, to critics like Ross and Rich, and included quite a few of Michael Steinberg’s notes for the San Francisco Symphony. But then you’ve added original interviews that you did yourself with Adams and others. What areas were lacking; what made you decide to dig deeper?

    TM: There was some very rich pre-existing material in terms of thoughtful commentary on individual works and actual reception/critical reaction to Adams’s music. But I wanted to give close-ups of important collaborators who have lived and worked with Adams and his music over the years—Dawn Upshaw, Robert Spano, Manny Ax. I thought it was especially important to get direct input from Peter Sellars, who has been such an ongoing presence and partner for Adams’s stage work, so was quite happy to be able to interview him. And there are a number of excellent career-wide profiles of Adams, several of which I was fortunate to be able to include. But I felt it was necessary to offer a portrait as up-to-date as possible—particularly as Adams was working on one of his most significant projects, Dr. Atomic—so that became a focal point for the fresh interview material I did with him. Adams is so extraordinarily articulate about his work and inspirations that this became a central part of the collection. I also wanted to flesh out more of the early picture, the first years in San Francisco.

    MS: Speaking of inspirations, for all the controversy that has attended some of Adams’s work, these very same elements, this relevancy, has made his work of interest to a wide audience, not to mention generated buzz in the critical community. Does Adams actively pursue this as part of his artistic MO?

    TM: We have to be clear about what is meant by “controversy.” Clearly there are connotations both positive (“though-provoking,” “initiating discussion”) and negative (“publicity-seeking,” “superficial”) to labeling something controversial. Not to make light of it, but, in other words, there’s a sort of ongoing controversy as to whether Adams is intentionally controversial. There’s no question that Adams is interested in shaking up received notions of what a composer should be, and that in itself has both a serious and a wry side. When I say Adams “has made a point of pressing buttons,” I’m really referring to both of these. He wants to engage with serious moral and cultural issues, say, in the stage works, but always from the point of view of a master musical dramatist who doesn’t have the answer. In fact, I think that’s where a lot of people see the “controversy”—where they expect an answer, or a pat response, or a predictable pattern, Adams will deny that. One of the things that made Nixon in China so intriguing was precisely that it refused to turn Nixon into some clown to debunk, which was what a lot of people who were first encountering the opera expected.

    But there’s also a witty side to “pushing buttons”—you can see that in what has been called the “trickster” element in Adams. And Adams, I think, is very much aware of tapping into an indigenous, Mark Twain-like sense of humor and self-deprecation. Look at his quasi-clarinet concerto, Gnarly Buttons—its title referring to Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons” but also to the very idea of pushing buttons, if you think of the clarinet’s keys are kinds of buttons, literally being pushed.

    When people refer to Adams as whipping up controversy in the negative, publicity-hounding sense, they’re almost always referring only to the operas (though there are certainly areas of controversy in the instrumental music: Grand Pianola Music‘s play with rhetorical grandiosity, or the use of amplification in his sound engineering). Usually this charge has centered around The Death of Klinghoffer. If it really were a matter of Adams and Peter Sellars and Alice Goodman sitting around saying, “Hmm, what’s the most controversial topic we can think of for our next opera,” I really doubt that process could have generated the depth and intensity of the score Adams produced. It would have been enough to generate the buzz, make a splash in the press, and that’s it. But the real controversy about Klinghoffer is precisely that it offers no easy solutions—that it, again, grapples with this subject matter in serious musical dramatic terms. It’s hard to think of a major opera composer who has not made use of elements that could be construed as pursuing controversy for its own sake: whether it’s Mozart and Da Ponte’s determination to set Figaro, or Verdi’s courtesan heroine in Traviata, or Strauss using Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. But the real irony with Klinghoffer is that the “controversy” involved a layer that no one could have predicted, a full decade after the opera was introduced. One could hardly say the controversy over the cancellation of scheduled performances of the Klinghoffer choruses that happened a few months after 9-11 was a calculated “effect” on Adams’s part. If anything, he was so taken aback by the level of hostility to this work that he was determined to give up opera altogether. We’re very fortunate that forces prevailed to encourage him to accept the commission to write Dr. Atomic for San Francisco.

    One last point, which brings up the figure of Copland again: One of the pieces in the Adams Reader is a New Yorker “Talk of the Town” from Alex Ross (about that second stage of the “Klinghoffer controversy”). Alex points out that Copland’s first Symphony, premiered in 1925, was the work chosen to replace the Adams Klinghoffer Choruses, and that, in its own day, the Copland was not exactly without controversy. The man who conducted it, Walter Damrosch, famously declared that “if a young man can write a symphony like that, in five years he will be ready to commit murder!”

    MS: You mention in your introduction some of the negative reviews and the hostile critics who have written about Adams. Do you include any of their pieces in this collection?

    TM: You bet—the chief “contra”-Adams voices are those of The New York Times critic Edward Rothstein and the esteemed musicologist Richard Taruskin. Both are integral to the Adams Reader, since they focus on critical moments of Adams’s reception. Rothstein writes about the early works (actually, for The New Republic in this case), back when Adams was just beginning to emerge as a major phenomenon, and I think it’s important to give voice to his perspective. The Taruskin piece is at the epicenter of the “Klinghoffer controversy”—it appeared in The New York Times Sunday Arts section, front page, so this presented Adams to a much larger world than followers of classical music, as you can imagine. The diatribe is an important part of the opera’s reception and had a large impact, I think, on perceptions of Adams. Here it can be seen in fuller context—for example, the book also includes Alice Goodman’s deleted Klinghoffer scene, which these critics refer to, so readers can judge for themselves the claims they make.

    MS: Adams, perhaps, is only as famous as his music—by which I mean his art is not competing for popularity against his personality. Anecdotally, after spending so much time with his colleagues and digging around in all this material, anything surprise you about him?

    TM: As my knowledge of the scope of Adams’s artistic achievements grew, I became even more impressed by qualities that were already apparent from my first contacts with him. We’ve become so used to expecting extravagant or “bad behavior” from our artists—all sorts of self-indulgent outbreaks—in a way that our celebrity-worshipping, gossip-mongering media encourage. But when you have someone who has reached the artistic level of John Adams and encounter a person who is so allergic to hype, who combines the most amazing eloquence with an honest humility, that’s extraordinary. I think I was perhaps most surprised by his self-effacing attitude—his ability to create as he does despite acknowledging how marginalized the art has become in our culture. And this wasn’t just my impression—time and again the artists I spoke to corroborated it. There were also some great anecdotes and depictions of the very young Adams that folks like Ingram Marshall provided—these really gave me a vivid picture of how exciting the whole San Francisco scene was when Adams settled there and was just beginning to make a name for himself as a composer. I hadn’t realized how deeply Adams imbibed the experimental music scene back then, well before the mantle of “Minimalism” was laid over his shoulders.

    MS: I love Rich’s review of Grand Pianola Music, which includes the woman next to him groaning just because the piece is new and Adams (not old and Beethoven). As you note, many have tried to pigeonhole his work in various and not-quite-appropriate categories. One hundred years from now, how do you suspect Adams will be discussed—for what pieces, for what impact?

    TM: This brings us back to the first “mantle of Copland” question, in a way. Even though I don’t really think anyone can fulfill that sort of role nowadays, in a quieter, behind-the-scenes sort of way I do believe Adams has been writing music that exhibits that kind of enduring power. He’ll be talked about in terms of this curious, unpredictable, frustrating but also exciting period in American music and in classical “art music”—this period, decades after the Second World War, when classical music was seen to have become utterly severed from its audience, and then tentatively began to find ways to reconnect. Adams has been a crucial player in all that. And he’s done so without gimmickry, without dogma, or coming up with one “new” sound, but as a composer who has found a way to open up a positive dialogue with the store of past musical tradition and reinvent it for a new world. There will be a long life for such significant works as Shaker Loops, Harmonielehre, the Violin Concerto, Nixon in China, Klinghoffer, El Niño, Dr Atomic, Naïve and Sentimental Music, The Dharma at Big Sur. Adams will be remembered as a representative 21st-century American composer who also was able to command the full range of genres—opera, chamber, symphonic epic, concerto—and to infuse them with a richly inquisitive, open-minded personality.

In Conversation with Phillip Ramey

  • READ an excerpt from Irving Fine: An American Composer in His Time by Phillip Ramey (published by Pendragon Press in association with the Library of Congress).


    Frank J. Oteri: In the prefatory note to your biography of Irving Fine, you revealed that you never knew him. So, what compelled you to embark on this project?

    Phillip Ramey
    photo by Vittorio Santoro

    Phillip Ramey: His widow, the late Verna Fine, was an old friend who I knew through our mutual friend Aaron Copland. She commissioned the book because she was aware that I admired Fine’s music, and she told me she had implicit trust in me as a writer. We agreed that the book should be readable, which precluded the sort of harmonic analysis favored by the Perspectives of New Music crowd.

    FJO: I was struck by your inclusion of excerpts from Fine’s critical writings about music. His barbs into Martinu and Vaughan Williams seem particularly harsh at times. You also include some harsh criticism of Fine’s music by music critics of the day. You, like Fine, have also navigated the divide between composition and criticism. Has Fine been a model for you in balancing these two frequently antagonistic realms?

    PR: No, because I was composing music and writing program notes and liner essays long before I was familiar with Fine’s music; and I knew nothing about his published criticism until I began to research the book. Insofar as the occasional harshness of Fine’s criticisms, my attitude is that he had the right to be harsh because he was himself a skilled composer and could be trusted to have intelligent reasons for his opinions whether one agreed with them or not. But most critics are not practicing musicians (and some can’t even read scores) and therefore, to my mind, do not have that right. Their opinions cannot be taken seriously, unlike those of Fine, or Virgil Thomson or Arthur Berger, for instance.

    FJO: The level of critical discourse at that time was obviously very different from our own: there were so many opposing viewpoints being published simultaneously. But, do you feel Fine’s criticism was fair? Do you feel the criticism of his work by others was fair?

    PR: I’ve covered most of your points in the previous answer. But now you use the word “fair.” I’ll simply say that, in general, I think it would be better if newspaper criticism didn’t exist. It’s an unnecessary evil, mostly harmful to composers and performers. The public has no idea what dumbbells write for some of the major newspapers, The New York Times not excepted. The pianist William Kapell went so far as to term music criticism “this dirty profession,” and Ned Rorem’s aphorism—”Critics of words use words. Critics of music use words”—would seem to call into question all music criticism. A case, however, can be made for critical studies of music grounded in scholarly methodology. I’ve should stress that I’ve never been a critic, only an annotator, which is a very different thing.

    FJO: A far cry from the typical classical music hero worshipping biography, your book is a frank critical assessment of both his music and his life which is rather candid about his occasional compositional shortcomings as well as his personal foibles (extramarital affairs etc). You also devote a great deal of space to his academic life and problems with tenure etc. What motivated you to create such a frank and complete portrait of Fine?

    PR: Are classical-music biographies typically hero-worshipping? I’m presently reading the second volume of Stephen Walsh’s Stravinsky biography and notice in it a certain amount of the great composer’s warts. That sort of information has validity when imparted in an intelligent, tasteful manner. What I hate are biographies à la Joan Peyser that indulge in psychobabble, books that are vulgar, untrustworthy and useless. Above all, a biographer should stick to facts and, if possible, record the anecdotes and opinions of those who knew his subject—which is what I did, for the most part, in the Fine book. As far as Fine’s affair at the MacDowell Colony, Verna Fine told me about it initially and wanted it in the book, especially as her husband set some of his mistress’s poems. Verna revealed quite a few of his foibles in the two interviews I was able to conduct in late 1999 before her sudden, unexpected death. But even if she hadn’t, I would have questioned Fine’s friends, colleagues and psychiatrist (though the latter was understandably discreet), so as to paint the portrait not just of a musician but of a human being.

    FJO: Though Fine has sometimes been marginalized by critics as a Stravinsky imitator, your book points out that he actually began experimenting with serial techniques before Stravinsky. You also point to the Partita for Wind Quintet as a major contribution to that genre. Ultimately was Fine an innovator or a consolidator?

    PR: I don’t think of Fine as an innovator. Not at all. For instance, even if he did start using twelve-tone technique before Stravinsky (who came to it cautiously and gradually), I’m sure that hearing his friend Copland’s Piano Quartet (which uses an eleven-note row with a whole-tone basis and is far from being atonal) was the deciding factor for Fine insofar as the overt serialism of his String Quartet. And his longtime infatuation with Stravinskian neoclassicism (with which his teacher Nadia Boulanger infected so many of her students) is hardly innovatory.

    FJO: In your narrative, the leap from neoclassicism to serialism seems like a natural progression for Fine and many other composers. But was it really? You state that Fine never completely embraced serial procedures in his music.

    PR: Even Stravinsky eventually got bored with neoclassicism. Fine was a brilliant copycat: you only have to listen to the marvelously Stravinskian Toccata Concertante to realize that. But serialism was in the wind in the late 1940s and early 1950s, aggressively promoted by, especially, Pierre Boulez, and neither Copland, Fine nor Stravinsky was immune to it. In the right hands, aspects of Schoenberg’s system could produce remarkable music by way of style expansion: for instance, Copland’s Inscape, Fine’s Symphony (1962) and Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles. Fine was worried at the time of the String Quartet that he hadn’t written any important music, that his neoclassic scores were somehow trivial. The dodecaphonic method proved invigorating for him.

    FJO: In the years following Fine’s premature death, we’ve witnessed the rejection of serialism by a wide array of now very prominent composers, the rise of minimalism as well as other forms of tonal music influenced by current popular music forms. There’s also been a critical reevaluation of composers who never embraced atonality. My sense of this history has always been that the schism between tonally-oriented composers and their 12-tone brethren once ran quite deep. Yet Fine continued to create important music works in both idioms up until his death. Might that account for his not quite being fully embraced by either of these partisan camps at this point?

    PR: It’s possible. But I wonder if he was well enough known as a composer during his short lifetime for those partisan camps even to be aware of him.

    FJO: You describe Fine suffering from severe writer’s block several times in the book. Combine that with his composing slowly plus almost always having teaching responsibilities, and the result is that his overall oeuvre was quite small. Might the paucity of Fine’s compositional output be part of why his music is not more widely acknowledged?

    PR: Again, it’s possible. But having a small output is not necessarily a bad thing, for if interest does arise in such a composer it’s easy to focus on him. This is unlike the case of an extraordinarily prolific composer such as Bohuslav Martinu, for all of his qualities; or even my teacher Alexander Tcherepnin, for all of his.

    FJO: The fact that Fine died while still in his 40s is obviously also a factor here. How might his music have progressed had he lived longer? Do you think he would have continued along a serial path or would have ultimately rejected it as did a number of his colleagues?

    PR: I suspect that if Fine had lived longer he would have incorporated some elements of serialism into his essentially tonal, romantic style and emphasized the long-lined lyricism he had previously proved himself capable of producing in a convincing if not always individual manner. I wish he had managed to compose the violin concerto he began just before his death. Although he made row charts for it, the fragmentary sketches are most often tonally based.

    FJO: Fine’s music continues to be performed and recorded more than 40 years after his death, yet he is ultimately perceived by concert music lovers as a peripheral figure, if known at all. In the pantheon of American composers of the 20th century where does Fine rank in your opinion? How about among contemporary composers worldwide or classical music history in total?

    PR: I would rank him high in the American pantheon of his period, not only because of the compelling expressive qualities of most of his scores but due to their careful structuring and detail. Remember, he was a perfectionist, and perfectionists can be their own worst enemies in the matter of quantity. Personally, I think it’s better to leave a small amount of perfected works than to spew scores like Telemann or Villa- Lobos.

    FJO: How is your own music related to the music of Irving Fine?

    PR: It’s not. My main influences were Prokofiev and Bartók early on, before I found what I hope is a personal style. Copland’s twelve-tone procedures may have had something to do with my only serially inflected piece, the Piano Fantasy, but that dates from back in 1972. My Horn Concerto, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and premiered in 1993, is virtuosic and mildly dissonant but has nothing to do with Irving Fine stylistically or technically: in fact, there is a declamatory motif that was inspired by something similar in the Fourth Symphony of Sergei Taneyev, no less! But, as I’ve said, Fine is a composer I admire, and I think his only symphony is a near-masterpiece despite a few derivations.

    FJO: In some ways this book is much more than a biography of one composer; it’s a time portal into a bygone era in American history, a group portrait of a whole circle of composers including Fine but also Copland, Harold Shapero and Arthur Berger with important cameos by Stravinsky, Bernstein, Foss and others. Ultimately, what do you hope readers of this book will glean from it?

    PR: Exactly what you have just pointed out: I’m told by Fine’s pupil Richard Wernick, who wrote the forward, that no other book has dealt as thoroughly with that group of composers and their interactions during that period. (I was pleased with the reaction of Fine’s close friend Harold Shapero, who sent me an e-mail that read: “You have written a remarkable book and have created Irving’s story very much as I remember it. I don’t know how you managed to do this, considering you didn’t know him. Thumbs entirely up!”) There is also a lot of information now collected in one place about the academic scene then, especially as regards Harvard University and Brandeis University, in the latter of which Fine’s importance is impossible to exaggerate. (I am not an academic type, and researching and writing the Brandeis chapter nearly drove me crazy with boredom, but it had to be done.) What I most hope, of course, is that readers of this book will be curious enough to acquaint or reacquaint themselves with Fine’s impressive musical legacy.

Irving Fine: An American Composer in His Time

Excerpt (Chapter 7, pp. 61-71) from Irving Fine: An American Composer in His Time by Phillip Ramey (Pendragon Press in association with the Library of Congress). Copyright 2005 by Phillip Ramey. Used with permission of the author and Pendragon Press. No part of this article may be reproduced, photocopied, or distributed through any means without permission.

  • READ an interview with author Phillip Ramey.


    Chapter 7

    The year 1944 saw not only Fine’s initial efforts at criticism and the beginning of his friendship with Copland, but also the composition of two new works, one negligible, the other not. In November, he wrote Copland that he hoped to be able to come to New York in the near future, because “I shall soon be in the chips, since the advertising stuff came through. They now want a serenade and an intermezzo.” The reference was to piano music commissioned by the Verney Fabrics Corporation of New York City, for an ad announcing their “Newsong” line of fabrics. According to Verna, under the terms of this odd but obviously lucrative assignment, Fine’s music would be used exclusively for advertising. In an ad in Harper’s Bazaar magazine in early 1945, a partial view of the first page of a Serenade for piano is juxtaposed with a female model wearing a dress and gloves in a pattern of loops, squiggles and squares, the latter possibly meant to invoke music manuscript. The hideous concoction, called “Album Print,” is described as “textured harmonies created from today’s challenging variety of synthetic fibres.” What can be seen of the Serenade (the score seems to have disappeared, perhaps into the Verney Fabrics file cabinets) shows a graceful and melancholy waltzlike piece, harmonically conventional. Considering the circumstances of its appearance, Fine may have felt relief that his music went uncredited.

    Fine’s principal achievement in 1944 was the completion on October 23 of The Choral New Yorker, subtitled Four Choral Patterns with Piano Obbligato. He found his texts in The New Yorker Book of Verse, an anthology of poems that had been published in that magazine between 1925 and 1935, and the poets he chose were relatively unknown. His musical idiom is eclectic and has a good deal of variety: tonal, lyrical, but often relatively dissonant. The latter element, as always with choral writing, presents a higher level of performance difficulty than in more consonant music, certainly as compared to the previous Alice in Wonderland settings. In addition, the substantial accompaniment requires a rhythmically alert pianist.

    The character of the music in each of the four pieces is quite different, keeping with the nature of the poems, while the part-writing is continually inventive, at times conceptually virtuosic. For elegance and sophistication, especially as regards color contrasts, The Choral New Yorker exceeds even the brilliant Alice, every bar showing Fine to be a master of the choral medium. As one critic put it a few years later, in this work “his remarkable technical equipment came forth to the use of the will to write.”

    The first piece, Prologue: “Hen Party” (Moderato ma ben rimato), dedicated to Fine’s father, features a perky and declamatory vocal part that corresponds nicely to Peggy Bacon’s wickedly satiric description of gossiping women. (“The pack gathers on the black Sunday/Mrs. Lathers and Mrs. Grundy give a party for all the witches; In aged ermine, the Queen viper, the Ace of vermin/The Pied Piper overlooked her and Cotton Mather should have cooked her.”) Occasional echoes of Stravinsky and perhaps Poulenc can be heard in this vivacious yet droll music. The choral part is for mixed voices (SATB) with soprano solo.

    Scherzando: “Caroline Million” follows without pause, connected by a semitonally dissonant D-natural from the last chord of the prologue. It is set for four-part treble chorus (SSM) with soprano and alto solos. The text, by Kentuckian Isabel McLennan McMeekin, concerns a bloodthirsty, century-old hillbilly woman who sits by her fireplace smoking a corncob pipe and fingering a Bible: “Hot with desire to kill her lumpy daughter and feed her to the crows.” This lively and witty music is jazzily syncopated, subdivision occurring within regular meter (thus, 4/4 divided into 3+3+2). The style sometimes approaches that of a Broadway musical, but never lapses into vulgarity.

    Dedicated “to my Parents,” the third number, Concertante: “Pianola d’Amore” (Allegro risoluto), is scored for three-part men’s chorus (TBB). The determinedly silly text, by David McCord, evokes English comic-madrigal style as filtered through Gilbert and Sullivan. (“Sing hey, sing ho, sing heigh-o/For the blue that’s in the sky-o.”) Appropriately, Fine’s music—beginning with a spirited, almost jazzy piano introduction—is tonal, jolly and rhythmic. The syncopated staccato accompaniment chatters along with the chorus, at one point indulging in an assenive little bitonal cadenza. The ending is humorously abrupt.

    The finale, Epilogue: “Design for October” (Lento), scored for mixed voices (SATE) with baritone solo, sounds an impressively elegiac note. A simple progression of mildly dissonant chords, used to great expressive purpose, is its foundation. Simplicity is also the hallmark of the poem, by “Jake Falstaff” (pseudonym of Herman Fetzer), a lament for the passing of summer: “Then I heard a voice saying summer is gone!/Gravely I watched the summer die, and the last of the crying geese go by/Summer is ended!” In their American-vernacular, open-air sound, the quiet piano introduction and the initial baritone solo suggest the Copland of Billy the Kid and Our Town; and indeed the influence of Copland prevails throughout, both in harmony and rhetoric. The choral writing is extremely mellifluous, albeit traditional, seeming so even during the dramatic dissonance that occurs in the piano part when set against unison chorus at the words “No more at morning will you hear the crying geese of the dawn.” With its uncomplicated means and direct sentiment, Design for October impresses as the emotional crown of this splendid cycle.

    The Choral New Yorker was given its first performance (under the title Four Choral Patterns from The New Yorker) in Cambridge at Sanders Theater on January 25, 1945. The combined forces of the Harvard Glee Club and the Radcliffe Choral Society were conducted by G. Wallace Woodworth, with Fine at the piano. The only newspaper review noted disapprovingly that this was “music of a brittle, cynical quality, consisting of one part jazz and one part ragtime.” Witmark published the score the following year, and, upon receiving a copy) the Argentinian composer Albeno Ginastera wrote to Fine, praising the music as “very attractive and interesting” and citing his “magnificent technique.” Nevertheless, The Choral New Yorker would never rival the popularity of the Alice sets.


    Fine continued to be active as a performer in 1945, assuming the conductorship of the chorus and chamber orchestra of the Harvard-Radcliffe Music Clubs and accompanying a soprano at Cambridge’s Fogg Museum that April in a program of songs by Brahms, Bach, Mozart, Faure, Debussy, Ravel, T chaikovsky and Gershwin. His teaching schedule at Harvard remained constant, and on March 25 the Boston Herald announced his promotion to faculty instructor in music, beginning July 1. Verna remembered that after the war the incoming students were older, more mature and serious: “nice, bright kids who had been in the military. They were almost our generation and we enjoyed going out and having drinks with them. They weren’t looking for fraternities and binges, but were interested in studying. Those were Irving’s best music students at Harvard.”

    Fine had long been critical of the music department’s indifference, even hostility, to the performance element in education, and in Tillman Merritt, who became chairman in 1942, he found an ally. Verna noted that “Irving had a lot of trouble at Harvard because it was run by musicologists and they weren’t interested in live music. He fought to introduce the Basic Piano course.” According to Daniel Pinkham, it wasn’t until the late 1950s, when pianist Luise Vosgerchian joined the faculty, that “they began to take into consideration that a good performer might somehow nourish and bring insights into musicology.” He remembered “old President Eliot” who, when confronted with a proposal to give academic credit for piano lessons, declared, “But that’s manual labor!” And a faculty meeting during which Merritt praised a student as “a very good scholar and, moreover, a wonderful pianist,” whereupon composer Randall Thompson responded loftily: “Oh, he plays the piano. Why, that’s one of the social graces.” Pinkham described Merritt, who was chairman of the music department from 1942 to 1952, and again from 1968 to 1972, as “a very curious character. Back in the 1940s, he was one of the most popular teachers on the campus from the point of view of the students. Then something happened to him and all the charm and jolliness disappeared. He became bitter and distant.” Thompson, he said, “was probably enslaved by his wife, who owned Union Carbide. They had a beautiful, Federal-style house in Cambridge, but Mrs. Thompson would never let any of Randall’s colleagues come to dinner because she considered them declassé.”

    According to Elliot Forbes, in his book A History of Music at Harvard to 1972, “by 1945 a wide-ranging change was in the making…stemming from Merritt’s determination that students should make music as well as read about it.” All candidates for admission as music majors were now expected “to show proficiency on a musical instrument,” and before graduating each student must “demonstrate a minimal ability to play the piano.” Merritt instituted the new Basic Piano program, and he wanted, in his words, “a highly competent pianist and teacher” imbued with “the scholarly ideals of the Harvard Music Department” to direct it. He chose Fine. Basic Piano, said Merritt, “is a real innovation at Harvard.” It was “not for the sake of training piano virtuosi,” but simply to make certain “that every student can use piano as a tool in his work.”

    Retrospectively appraising the situation at Harvard in a 1948 article, Fine noted that “in a place with the traditions of Harvard there is the problem of overcoming inertia and prejudice.” Given without fee, the Basic Piano program had grown out of the discovery that some students “were articulate about music, but were musically inarticulate [because] the kind of music education some of our graduates were leaving with was at best two-dimensional, and at its worst superficial.” Merritt’s and Fine’s post-war ideal for Harvard was to produce a “university musician,” meaning “a man of broad interests and sympathies—no narrow specialist [but] a completely equipped musician able to perform on an instrument with competence [and] well grounded in theory [and] familiar with the styles and periods of music history.” Even more important than musicological expertise, however, a student should be “intimately acquainted with a small portion of musical literature.” The two men had decided that “the ability to perform on the piano was a necessary adjunct to most of these activities, and therefore concluded that the piano was an indispensable tool in any serious study of music.”

    In his report, Fine deplored the Harvard music department’s continuing conservatism and the tenacious emphasis on theory and history. “Although it moves in the right direction, the [1945] Harvard [applied music] program, in my opinion, does not go far enough. It is inadequate in that it considers performance merely as an adjunct to other things—as a tool for theoretical studies, and as a means of getting at music for the sake of analysis and historical investigation. It makes no direct provision, however, for the enjoyment of music as an art (unless it be through listening).” Stressing performing skills, Fine observed that, though improved, the 1945 program “makes no provision for instruction in other instruments” than the piano. This failure, he felt, “impoverishes the musical life of the university community.” He recommended not only more piano instruction but lessons in orchestral instruments, and concluded his essay on a sour note: “It is apparent today that technological advances are progressively restricting the demand for professional musicians. There is a growing danger that Americans will become a nation of musical spectators.”

    The Basic Piano program began in the fall of 1945, and Fine received a five-year appointment to the faculty. Ever doubting, he had written to Copland the previous winter that although the music department had suggested the appointment, he was not sure the administration would approve it, “since I am not distinguished enough to reward in such a way.”

    On September 12, just before the start of the term, Fine wrote to Copland that the still-deserted Harvard music building “is a rather noisy place these days. They are putting air- conditioning and sound proofing in the basement for the new practice-rooms that we are installing for our applied-music program.” A few weeks later, he noted that although his schedule involved teaching twenty-five hours a week, he did not find it oppressive. “My only regret is that there is no time for the things I like best. I have had to drop out of the Glee Club and to shelve composition for a while.” The latter allusion was to a work for violin and piano on which Fine had labored during the summer months. With the austerities of the war years a thing of the past, he and Verna spent much of that period in a rented cottage in Centerville, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod: “a little six-room job with three bedrooms, completely furnished with every convenience [including] an oil stove and a fireplace.” Despite such comforts, creative work did not go well, the weather was often bad and he missed seeing other musicians, so that by August he was depressed and frustrated. “This vacation is too long,” he grumbled to Copland, “and I am becoming lazy and jumpy. I suppose that I should be happiest punching a clock at eight every morning and leaving for home, the wife and the kiddies at five in the afternoon. It will be good to get back into some kind of routine.” One of the summer’s rare pleasures was a visit from Harold Shapero: “Harold was down for a few days last month, played his serenade [in D major for string orchestra] for me (his technical grasp is more extraordinary than ever), improvised constantly, went fishing for one afternoon and departed the next day.”

    Fine had borrowed a violin and was trying to learn its secrets. “Thus far I can play the first page in Sevcik’s ‘Preparatory Trill Exercises’ [and] the G major scale and arpeggio. Most of the time is spent in figuring out various triple-stop combinations, harmonics, etc. It is probably a great waste of time, and agony for Verna, but seems a good way to pass the rainy days.” He engaged a violin teacher, “a kindly middle-aged lady who is constantly reliving her student days in Berlin.” But on August 13 he wrote that “I am already past shame in admitting that I have done little or nothing.” Nonetheless, on returning to Cambridge in September, he informed Copland that “actually, I have written one movement of a sonata for violin and piano and that needs plenty of retouching. This is my sole achievement during the summer. I don’t think it’s bad.” He remarked that Verna liked the music and then described it as “depressingly piddling.” “In my present scheme of things,” he said, “a minute’s music is a tremendous accomplishment.” Mentioning the “highly neurotic state” of David Diamond, recently described to him by Leonard Bernstein, Fine observed that “my present experience is that nerves and writing don’t mix, but then there are numerous instances to disapprove that theory.”

    The only work that Fine completed in 1945 was a three-minute piece in E-flat major and simple A-B-A form for a cappella women’s chorus (SSA) entitled A Short Alleluia. Although gesturally clichéd (similar to most alleluias through the ages), this music is rendered effective and attractive by its frequent meter changes, carefully calculated dynamics and an unexpected modulation at the climax, leading to a stern dissonance that resolves to a pure B-flat-minor chord. It was written for the Bryn Mawr College Chorus, but whether that group ever performed it is not known. A Short Alleluia was published posthumously in 1973. Meanwhile, in late 1945, Fine privately plied his critical skills in a letter to Copland, with capsule evaluations of new works played by the Boston Symphony. “We have had three premieres within the past month,” he reported. “Martinu’s Third [Symphony] (worth about a B+), Menotti’s [piano] concerto (grade C trivia) and Prokofiev’s new symphony [No.5] (exhilarating but not worth all the fanfare it got).” In the same letter, Fine expressed disappointment with a recent Foss piece. “Lukas has played his ‘Song of Anguish’ for us (also for Boulanger, Harold and anybody else he can snare into listening) .It is relatively free of the usual influences, and yet seems less fresh than his ‘Prairie’ or symphony. In spite of some beautiful passages I feel that he falls considerably short of the emotional level of the text (excerpts from Isaiah).” Soon after, at the same time he was writing the harsh appraisal of the Boston Symphony’s mini-festival of British music that would appear in Modern Music, an incensed Fine told Copland: “We have entered upon a desert-like stretch in so far as the symphony concerts are concerned. Sir Adrian Boult is conducting and a more apathetic-rather, dull, individual I have never seen upon a conductor’s podium. And who was it that talked about a Renaissance of English music? Talk about the provincialism of Sibelius. The affected rusticity and antiquarianism of guys like Vaughan Williams is far more obnoxious.” He found “particularly irritating” the “wave of anglophilia gripping Boston Symphony audiences” and denounced the orchestra’s management as “a notorious gang of tories who seem to believe that the British are great artists since they are all great people-brothers of Churchill, so to speak.”

    In a January 20, 1946 letter to Copland, Fine noted that he was “copying the fiddle sonata-which means further revisions and delay. It has a cloying prettiness which I delude myself into thinking is depth and passion. There are shades of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and a few live snatches of Stravinsky, Copland and Shapero.” In later years he would tend to deprecate his Sonata for Violin and Piano as a kind of sin-of-my-youth effort-an overly severe view that has, nonetheless, some validity. After reading through the sonata in 1955 with Joseph Fuchs, Fine wrote to Verna: “What a funny uneven young piece that is. Full of awfully nice things but so often inept in the way it progresses ftom idea to idea.” In a 1960 program note, he characterized it as “an early work belonging to a manner somewhat remote to its composer [today].” And in a 1958 letter, he stated that he had been “strongly under the influence of composers whom I admired (and still do!). Stylistically it can be related to Stravinsky and Copland; however, there are indefinable personal qualities in the sonata which characterize both it and all my subsequent works.”

    In a work so saturated with derivations, it is difficult to know exactly what Fine meant by “indefinable personal qualities.” The sonata is basically a neoclassic score, especially in its lively rhythms and transparent textures. Stravinsky is certainly a strong influence (Arthur Cohn would write that Fine was ”as true a disciple as one could find”), and possibly Piston and Prokofiev, along with Copland and, oddly enough, Brahms, in relation to some of the harmonies and melodic outlines. (Noel Lee, who often performed the sonata, thought of it as “sort of Brahmsian-American neoclassic.”) The piece is well made, with considerable attention to detail, a concern for formal balance and symmetry everywhere evident. It is, at twenty minutes’ duration, a substantial concert work. Musical ideas are mostly diatonic and lyrical (requiring a violinist with good intonation in the high register), except when rhythmic energy, particularly in the piano part, predominates. Recognizing, as did Bartók, that the two instruments are sonically incompatible, Fine seldom allows them to share material but is careful to give them equal roles. The work is cast in three movements, the only time he would employ the standard fast- slow-fast format in any score.

    An impartial appraisal of Fine’s violin sonata would have to note that it illustrates the tenet that his problem as a composer was never one of technique but rather of personality. Although some of the romantically soaring violin lines are unlike anything found in any of its avatars, as are occasional harmonic complications, at no point does a clear voice emerge. Yet the sonata’s eclectic virtues go far to make it an attractive and effective addition to the chamber repertory. Soon after it was finished, Fine showed it to Stravinsky, who thought the music “very sympathetic” and complimented “the clean quality of the writing.” Fine himself described the sonata’s idiom as being “essentially tonal, diatonic and moderately dissonant, neoclassic in its formal approach, and (according to some critics) neoromantic in its expressive attitudes.”

    The first movement (Moderato; Allegro moderato, giusto) is in sonata form, as is the third movement, both, said the composer, “with one minor modification: the contraction of the recapitulation by omission or elision of the first theme group.” The lyrically poetic opening (marked dolce in the violin part) sets forth the thematic material (ending in a rich minor-second chord), which undergoes extensive development in the subsequent allegro. That section is playfully syncopated, with a pleasing continuity of contrasts between short, restless phrases and more sustained melodic writing that is interrupted by a fugue (the only one in Fine’s mature output). This last is dry and academic sounding and decidedly intrusive, but it should be noted that the first three notes will generate the following movement’s theme and, by slight stretch of imagination, the fugue-subject can be heard as being related to the rhythmic opening of the finale. A sparkling little coda brings the movement to its end.

    Fine stated that the structure of the lyrical second movement (Lento con moto) is “more difficult to describe” than the outer movements. “The first part of the exposition contains the initial double theme (or theme with countermelody in the piano), transition and closing theme; the second part omits the transition and adds a brief coda. In the recapitulation, the opening theme is entrusted to the piano, the countermelody to the violin. [Here,] the medium is treated in duo fashion, the two instruments often being treated in free and occasionally imitative polyphony.” The movement begins in Copland’s most seductive, “white-note” style (excepting two saccharine violin glissandi), and then, after some melodramatic rhetoric and a return of the opening lyricism, becomes rather diffuse harmonically. Partaking of variation technique, this curiously constructed movement is essentially romantic in expression.

    Fine described the high-spirited finale (Vivo) as “more bravura in character.” It contains mildly virtuosic violin writing and a piano part abounding in tricky rhythms. Bowing effects such as martellato, saltando, détaché, and richochet add color, as do occasional triple-stop pizzicato chords. The music is rhythmically intricate throughout, with striking contrasts between the instruments. Near the end, material from the first movement returns in the piano for a gripping allargando climax. The work ends with a short, brittle but witty coda.

    Fine’s Sonata for Violin and Piano had a tryout performance at Harvard on February 6, 1947, performed by its dedicatees, violinist Angel Reyes and composer-pianist Jacques de Menasce. The official premiere was given by the same forces in New York a few days later, on February 9, at Times Hall, along with sonatas by Prokofiev, Milhaud and de Menasce. Both program books listed the Fine sonata as a first performance. Writing in the New York Sun, Harold C. Schoenberg thought it displayed “a worthy modicum of individuality and a satisfactory feeling of events proceeding to a logical conclusion.” Howard Taubman observed in the New York Times: “To one hearing music by Mr. Fine for the first time it signalized the arrival of a gifted composer. This sonata has logic and lucidity, tasteful workmanship and abundant vitality. If [it] reflects more of energy than depth, to judge it from a single hearing, that is not a bad balance for an up and coming composer.” Two weeks later, on April 24, the sonata had its formal Boston premiere, at the Institute of Modern Art. This time, the performers were Alfred Krips and Fine himself. The program also had works by Shapero, Foss, Talma and Cop- land, and Fine and Foss served as a duo-piano team in Copland’s Danzon Cubano and Talma’s Four Handed Fun.

    The performance of the violin sonata in New York marked Fine’s debut as a composer outside the Boston area, and the score was published by Witmark a year later. His first instrumental composition for the concert hall had fared well.

Hanging Off the Edge: Revelations of a Modern Troubadour

Excerpts from Hanging Off the Edge, copyright 2006 by Priscilla McLean. Used with permission. Readers may purchase the book through Priscilla McLean, 55 Coon Brook Road, Petersburgh, NY 12138. Hardcover ($31.95), softcover ($21.95), and optional CD ($10). Postage and handling is $5.05. Checks or PayPal will be accepted. The book alone may be purchased through or, and the listener may register with free of charge to hear the excerpts online.

  • READ an interview with author Priscilla McLean.

    Two roads diverge
    in a yellow wood,
    A branch stems from
    the lesser-traveled one…
    A twig snakes out
    from the tiny branch,
    And hanging off the edge
    Dangle…, I—
    (Apologies to Robert Frost)

    A terrifying wolf howl splits the air in the Alpena, Michigan, high school auditorium. “Oh, Hell!” a man’s voice yells out, followed by suppressed giggling. On stage, I stare into the blackness menacingly, hissing the words of Carl Sandburg: “There is a wolf in me. Fangs pointed for tearing gashes, a red tongue for raw meat, and the hot lapping of blood…” On tape, the growl and frenetic buzz of honeybees plays along with synthesized instruments and strange musical sounds. More audience giggling is heard, and a palpable tension…

    An old memory comes to mind as I dramatize and intone the next line of the graphic Sandburg poem called “Wilderness”—an image of a snowy night in a white-spired New England church—the lit sanctuary bestrewn with Christmas decorations and a tree covered with children’s’ paper strings and balls, the pews full of heavy-coated festive people watching a trembling young school girl attempting to sing “0 Holy Night” while standing in the choir loft—my first vocal solo, my pre-adolescent voice struggling for the high notes, whispery, feathery, the patient sanctuary of parents and children smiling up benevolently, tolerantly, safely…

    The next morning in Alpena, lying exhausted in bed in yet another strange (but oh so familiar) motel room, I think about my life—our lives, Bart’s and mine. Touring from town to town—no health insurance, no steady jobs, no children, no insurance of any kind against the dark forces in the world…two middle-aged Babes in Toyland, playing our own musical toys, dependent upon the good-will of the world to hire us, to be interested in our strange, exotic music and message…I wonder, “How did I ever arrive at this point, from that safe choir girl of long ago, the comfortable American Dream future I had planned for myself—schoolteacher, mother, Pillar of the Community, owner of a nice suburban ranch house in New Hampshire—none of which ever came to pass?”

    It is hard, when actively creating music and art and touring full-time, to find time to examine one’s life. But perhaps the history of Alzheimer’s disease that runs through my mother’s side of my family has spurred me on to remember as much as I can while I still am able! Lao Tsu, the great Chinese philosopher who wrote The Tao Te Ching once said, “Sanity is a haircloth sheath/With a jewel underneath…”, and that is one’s core, including all those unique happenings played out in one’s life. And I am discovering that it is wonderful fun to visit these thoughts and old memories, because all of one’s moments on this earth, which includes also the pain and agony, are precious jewels that fit only our own personal belt wrapped around us, and are our gifts from life.

    Although friends and classmates were dismayed to learn that I had enrolled at Fitchburg State College instead of applying for Boston University or New England Conservatory of Music, I made it clear that I had no intention of pursuing a career in music. Indeed, I could not conceive of such an idea, knowing how expensive the tuition and fees in good New England music schools were, and with no music major alternatives offered by Massachusetts state colleges in 1959. At first I felt very disappointed in the sea-change in music programs from my very advanced high school to this college which bred school teachers, but I discovered soon enough that the not-difficult courses and few extra-curricular activities gave me special extra time to develop other skills.

    I began studying organ at the Christ Episcopal Church, which had a magnificent pipe organ and a wonderful teacher, Donald Wilcox, who also conducted the church’s boys choir. I quickly switched churches (from Universalist/Unitarian to Episcopalian), and joined the choir, as altos were needed, regardless of gender. For the next four years I walked to the Main Street church from the college, and often after studies at midnight, as I had my own key. I would unlock the totally dark church, often with Bruce Goyette, a close friend I dated who enjoyed hearing me play, and ring the rafters with the music of J .S. Bach, Mendelssohn, Guillamont, Healey Willan, and many other great composers. I felt like a mix of the Phantom of the Opera and the ghost of Bach as the dark empty church reverberated in the wee hours of the morning! The organ introduced me to a variety of tone colors and the ability to change the timbre of a melody as it was played (the cornerstone to my working with synthesizers later), plus working the pedals. Many electronic music composers-to-be have had their appetites whetted by playing the organ. Perhaps it was the effect from the magical power of the great composers, as I have never written a piece for organ to this day.

    After I had been in college for a few months, still living at home, I decided to write my first piano piece, Rhapsody in D Minor, which took me the next six months, laboriously slaving over the keys of the piano on Sundays. I had only the vaguest idea of how to craft a classical piece, and the work evolved into a kind of mélange reminiscent of extremely bad Rachmaninoff and “In a Small Hotel” sung by Frank Sinatra. My listening repertoire was confined to two piano concerto phonograph recordings—Piano Concertos # 1 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Peter Illych Tchaikovsky, and Edvard Grieg—given to me by Tim Krieger, a close friend I dated who lived in Lunenburg, the next town over. These recordings I listened to repeatedly the summer of 1960, while working on my own naive attempt.

    What is important about this episode were the incredible feelings I experienced as I composed. I had never felt such a powerful force as the intensity of creating music, and this first attempt to create a work of complex artistic quality filled me with such passion that I would lie awake nights and pray to God that the desire to compose would never leave me. Those months of writing when I was seventeen were to shape the whole rest of my life, even if I was not aware of it, and when I became aware, a few years later, I fought against this with all my strength.

    The month of June was spent being fired as a waitress at a dying hotel in York Harbor, Maine, then being hired at The Sand Dollar—a Mom and Pop diner-style restaurant directly across from York Beach, which saw me endlessly roaming the cold beach and staring off into the ocean at the rocks of Nubble Lighthouse the hours I was not working. When it mostly rained or drizzled the whole time I was there, I quit and returned home in July to bury myself in music. After the piece was finished, I eagerly showed it to a friend who was an excellent pianist, who had been the choral accompanist my last two years in high school. Susan stared at the Rhapsody distastefully and would say the most chilling words I had heard to date, ones that rang with such truth that they have never been refuted these past forty five years: “Why should I be interested in this? We pianists have enough great literature to last us all our lives. We don’t need or want this music!” I raged bitterly at her at the time, but now I know she was oh, so right…

    A compartmentalization began in my life. There was the college and its studies and social activities, and there was my secret life as a new composer and organist. After the Rhapsody, I had no idea what to do next, and I deeply felt the inadequacy of that work. So I went to the choral director, Dr. Richard Kent, a red-haired mustached man in his early forties, with his thick Iowa accent. Kindly, after looking at my music, he said, “It’s not whether the work is good or not that counts. What is important is that this is how you commune with the Greats, because you are doing the same creative activity they did. Every time you write you become one of the selected visionaries who can feel the passions of the great composers flowing through you.”

    So began the opening up of my secret life, with special private music theory and composition lessons in Dr. Kent’s small office, while he perused work I had created that week, puffing away at his powerful stogy cigar. After a few weeks he said, “Your next assignment is to write a college Alma Mater, to replace the old one we have now. Let’s get started on this right away,” and we racked our brains to plot out the special New England words that would make this a custom-made song just right for this school. This was my first compositional success. Easily sung and in the style of Alma Maters of the day, it was premiered by the college chorus in 1961, and to this day is being sung at FSC’s graduation and other ceremonies, over four decades later.

    A very comfortable life ensued through my junior year. I balanced my hours of study and classes every day with organ practice and writing poetry far into the night. On weekends, when I was not skiing or running off to dances or parties with boyfriends, I was working on my theory or composing, although my compositional efforts declined greatly after the first big piece. Summers I earned money waitressing or working in stores for the ridiculously low tuition, now up to $100 per year. I read literature voraciously. In fact, I did everything but think of the future. I was so content in my coiffured custom-made world that it never dawned on me that soon I would be thrust into a classroom and expected to teach all subjects to runny-nosed noisy little children who cared not a whit about my compositional efforts!

    The first semester of my senior year at Fitchburg State was spent in student teaching, split up between two different elementary schools, which were part of the college’s training program. Although I somewhat enjoyed the teaching—consuming all my time—the frustration with this life was building inexorably. I finished the term and received an A, but I knew now that my next step was to graduate and “get thee to a music school!” When I sat down with my parents and with trepidation told them my decision, thinking that they would be aggravated, having seen me through almost four years of college (going in the wrong direction), they both looked relieved. “What took you so long?” was their question in chorus. They had known for years that I needed to pursue music training, but had patiently waited for me to decide for myself. Years later I would feel the pride of having propelled myself forward with no parental pushing, and found that my ambitions were fueled greatly by the wise restraint my parents had shown, letting me grow up and become my own person and make my own way, with their ultimate blessing.

    Perhaps I have given the impression that I was a nose-in-book indefatigable student who basically studied, student-taught, practiced on the organ, and walked to and from the college those four years, but this is of course false. I was having the time of my life socially, and when I was nineteen, my junior year, I danced my way through five proms in three different colleges, with five different men. I had a happy balance between romantic boyfriends and good men friends who occasionally took me out, and at one point, after postponing yet another composition lesson with Dr. Kent, he barked in exasperation, “You know, tranquility is the mother of creativity, not endless running around!”

    But I was preening in the joy of my late-blooming womanhood, and would hear none of it. A little warning bell in my head began tinkling when I began to feel more seriously about a special boyfriend, one of the industrial arts majors. I noticed that whenever I would talk about my budding composing career, he would change the subject. At one point he said that he really wasn’t interested, that he knew he wasn’t as musically inclined as I and didn’t want to be reminded of it. I had begun writing religious music for the college chorus, and Dr. Kent wisely had the chorus “audition” each piece without committing to a performance, and I arranged the new Alma Mater for the fledgling college band. In fact, with organ practice and weekly performances with the Episcopal boys/mens’ choir, I was now spending more time on music than on schoolwork, writing on weekends and late into the night.

    About the time I had decided to continue my studies in music, Dr. Kent decided to introduce me to the Twentieth Century. It is amazing that the entire Twentieth Century has passed, and a new composer still thinks about “classical music” in 18th and 19th Century terms, like a new writer penning in the style of Robert Louis Stevenson! And that the unsuspecting young creator must be forced to address her/his own century, and then be made even more painfully aware that the rest of the society not only looks backward for classical music pleasure, but is wallowing up to the neck in popular commercial music written right up-to-date! What happens is a kind of schizophrenia—the budding composer goes inward and fashions a daydream-fairytale-accepting atmosphere gleaned from films and novels of the last century’s composers, and blinding him/herself to the real situation, feeling that all will change just as soon as enough “mature” good works are created by the new young creator. People will love the music—how can they not?

    I who came from a working class background knew firsthand the indifference of the world, which becomes magnified exponentially by the newness of the classical music. I was not interested in creating something no one wanted, but an opportunity arose that was ideal for trying out some new sounds. The Drama Department was headed by brilliant teacher and optimist Eugene Casassa, who had built one of the first area theatre-in-the-rounds in a barn on his farm on the outskirts of town and staged several plays, including new ones, each summer. Preparing to stage William Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the college with the Drama Club, Mr. Casassa decided it would be nice to punctuate in-between the acts with some original music written by a student from the college, and performed by a small student ensemble. Eugene approached Dick Kent, who approached me. I was honored and flattered, and immediately wondered how to write Shakespearean music without knowing anything about music of the 16th Century…Dr. Kent gave me that look. “No, Priscilla, this is the Twentieth Century, and you must write in your own time.” So Dick handed me two books, 20th Century Harmony and 20th Century Orchestration by Vincent Persichetti, told me to read enough of each to get an idea about what and how to write, and hand him the music in a month.

    I decided, after doggedly pawing through the books on the piano, to write the wildest thing I could imagine—I would pay all of them back for this outrage! Clashing dissonances and new effects, like flute flutter tonguing, mingled bitterly with hard high notes, for Bb trumpet, flute, and piano. When I finished and presented my “horror”, Dick laughed and said, “Now you are finally acting like a composer. Welcome to the world!” The piece is still in my pile of early works, and today seems meek and naive, with more fanfare than form, but I was 100 feet tall the evenings when the trio of friends played the music before and between the acts, and my score lay in a lightened vestibule cabinet for playgoers to peruse during intermissions. I am sure the Hamlet production was also good, although I don’t remember any of it!

    Dance of Dawn

    A June morning in 1974. I awake at dawn in our South Bend country house, all the windows open, and am enveloped in waves of cardinals singing, then hoards of robins, then finally all the other birds so plentiful here amid the forests and swamps of northern Indiana countryside. The sliver of crescent moon still shines in the sky as the earth fills up with sun, and a poem is born. So began my fascination with natural sounds amid composed music, the poem written after the music.

    I.U.S.B. had just begun an experiment with creating an electronic music studio. Because of Bruce Hemingway, who was an ambitious young recording engineer in the Division of Music, the school ordered from the EMS Studios in London one of only two Synthi-100 Synthesizers in the U.S. at this time, the other one sitting disconnected in the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music studio in upper Manhattan. No manual had been written for it, and the engineers at Columbia-Princeton were flummoxed on how to operate the real-time digital Synthi-256 Sequencer, the first of its kind, which would only run round and round in a tight constipated loop. Bruce figured it out, however, and had the synthesizer and sequencer up and running shortly after their arrival. The slight cloud on the horizon of this new studio was that it was not paid for: a down payment of $6,000 had been sent, which bought the sequencer, but the remaining $16,000 was held in promise as soon as the university could afford to pay. The EMS Company in London, eager to set up shop with the Synthi in America, accepted the wait, for at least a time.

    By the autumn of 1971, we were sufficiently caught up in our loan-paying that I could afford to leave full-time public school teaching, and I accepted a two-day a week position at Indiana University at Kokomo, driving the 90 miles south to teach undergraduate theory and sight-singing to about twelve students in the new-born music department. This left five days a week at home, so when the new studio at I.U.S.B. arrived, I was ready to try my hand at electronic music. By 1971 we had begun our own home studio, purchasing from Boston a new Arp 2600 Synthesizer and three reel-to-reel tape recorders: two two-channel half-track Revoxes and a four-channel quarter-track Sony, and borrowing from the college a small Synthi AKS Synthesizer—an update of the EMS Putney, with a ribbon keyboard and 256-note real-time sequencer.

    Just before the I.U.S.B. studio arrived, I went into our little home studio and in a frenzy of complete joy and froth, created a chamber electronic piece, and recorded it, all in one day! I neglected to write down how I had gotten the sounds, however, and the analog synthesizers of the day had no exact settings. This made for an impossible situation, without any diagrams, of reproducing the same sound later or the movement between sounds. So when I went back to the studio, the piece naturally needed fleshing out and revising, and I had no idea how to re-create the sounds. It took two more months to discover how to do this, and a little six-minute piece was born, Night Images. I also wrote a poem for this one:

    What are in the images of the night’s eye?
    some drift by clearly, focused, lucid.
    Others are mere phantoms, vaporous ghosts
    that wander in the half-sensed twilight.
    The night belies and jests with reality—
    a cosmos apart.

    Bart went first to learn the new Synthi-100 at the university, with help from Bruce, and convinced me to try my hand at it. I was very leery of my ability with no manual, but he was adamant that this was an imponant step into the future of new music. Although I had written for various ensembles in the small music department, our performance opportunities were limited, and one had the feeling that another new piece in an old medium was just more unwanted baggage for the performers, involved so deeply with the Past Masters…

    When Bart introduced me to the new studio, I stared unbelievingly—here was a huge synthesizer, along a whole wall, with hundreds of “push-pins” (a matrix setup for connecting sounds, rather than the old patch cords), and twenty-two oscillators! Next to it on the right side stood a four-channel Scully reel-to-reel tape recorder with half-inch-wide tape, and next to that was a gigantic eight-channel Scully tape recorder with one-inch-wide tape. It could almost have been an upright piano! When I compare this monster machine with the tiny DA T (digital audio tape recorder) of today, I am floored—how quickly our tech civilization has evolved! Vastly better and tinier. Astounding.

    The Synthi-256 Sequencer was a full-sized keyboard, standing alone diagonally to the analog synthesizer, but connected internally. Bart handed me a long sheet he had written, an abbreviated “manual” to get me started, and I was supposed to begin with the first instructions and methodically proceed down the list, learning the techniques of sound-alteration through analog synthesis. So I began with #1. After ten minutes, I grew so fascinated with the sounds I was creating that I abandoned the sheet, and immediately launched into a new piece, using all twenty-two oscillators in a mass-sound event, ala lannis Xenakis, my mentor. I ran around the matrix board, gleefully pushing and pulling the pins, altering the sounds and connections in wonderfully mysterious ways until it built to a huge climax.

    My approach to electronic music has always been this total frenzy of joy. I don’t know why. The computer age has been harder to handle for me, because I am not a calculating-kind of person, but now with the sampling instruments paralleling the old analog days of musique concrete, I am again happily playing. I love creating new sounds and exploring new sound-worlds, and now in my pre-dotage am doing the same with video images and loving that, also.

    Bart was appalled at my unscientific approach, discarding his “manual”! He warned me that I would always lag behind every composer in the field if l didn’t learn the basics of electronic sound production. So whenever we went anywhere he would drill me, “OK. How is ring modulation produced? What happens if you modulate a square wave with a low-frequency sine wave, modifying its amplitude?” Etc. etc. We would be driving to the Chicago Symphony concerts, an hour-and-a-half away, and tears would be blurring my vision of the road as I drove and struggled to visualize these techniques. He was relentless. I was not going to be an ignoramus! I fought him internally. Couldn’t I be excused from all this? After all, I was playing with dolls when I was seven—not taking apart radios!

    So we three—Bruce, Bart, and l—worked all our spare time, alternating with each other, in the I.U.S.B. Studio. Bruce would work all night, and drag home at 5 a.m. to grab a couple of hours sleep before his workday. Bart would arrive at 7, on the days he didn’t work. Two or three days a week I had the studio to myself—there were no classes yet, as there were no interested students yet, and the studio could be whisked away to England any day for lack of payment, thus no courses were scheduled. So I spent whole days there, sometimes 22 hours long, working and working to get just the right sound-combinations and record them.

    In that studio with the giant machines, one raced from one end of the room to another to play and record the sounds, never sitting down, and in removing unwanted noise or editing out a recorded section, the composer had to take a metal splicing block and sharp razor blade, and pressing down very hard, cut through the 1-inch wide acetate tape in two places, remove the unwanted time segment, and rejoin the two remaining ends with special splicing tape. Vladimir Ussachevsky and many earlier composers created whole pieces using hundreds of splices in abrupt collages, using the medium of splicing as its own art form. I was content to use it as sparingly as possible. A few years later saw electronic splicing supplanting this arduous process, and it is used only as a teaching tool in some colleges these days.

    In January of 1974, during a bitter cold below-zero spell, the power supply for the Synthi-100 failed. I desperately wanted to continue working, and brainstormed with Bart and Bruce on how to get the synthesizer up and running again, since the power supply had to be removed and taken to a repair dealer in town, not to return for a few weeks. They came up with an ingenious method: twelve automobile batteries wired in parallel, enough to run the synthesizer at least for a few hours a day. So for the next two weeks, a surrealistic scenario evolved—a late twentieth-century state-of-the-art music synthesizer enveloped in an industrial hum of its twelve car-battery power supply, lying in a great line in back of the instrument, an artistic installation all its own! I would enter the room at midmorning, turn on the batteries and power, busy myself for a half-hour until the power rose to correct pitch-level in the synthesizer, then begin my day’s work. Around noon, I would notice that my oscillator pitches were wavering, and descending in pitch, and shut down the equipment, so the batteries could regenerate and run again for a few more hours in the afternoon. Many mornings I would be so eager to start that I would stand over the huffing batteries, cursing them and making impotent fists in the air.

    The first concert of electronic music ever presented at I.U.S.B. came during the autumn of 1973 and featured Bart’s first major electronic piece, Genesis my short Night Images and Mandala by Bruce Hemingway. Mandala used two sound waves vibrating close together, which produced beautiful lissajous animations on film. The audience and I were thunderstruck by Bart’s piece, played in the dark, with huge dramatic sweeps of sound, with discernible melodies and harmonies. Later played in the municipal auditorium in Akron, Ohio, Genesis was praised by John Von Rhein of the Akron Beacon Journal as a “minor masterpiece” (strange contradiction of terms).

    Dance of Dawn took a year and a half to create. During the summer of 1973, after working continuously on the piece for months, I took a short vacation with Bart—a ten-day canoe-backpacking trip along the lakes of Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. To our happy surprise, we were treated to a volley of loons singing from lake to lake. At sunset I would sit on a rock and sing with them, often getting them started on their nightly jamboree. One dawn, after a tremendous drenching thunderstorm that lasted all night and left us exhausted and sleepless, the noise stopped and in the brief silence started the most sanguine chorus of voices I had ever heard. I knew this had to be the ending of my piece. The “loon” chorus, made up of sine and triangle waves (no musique concrete in this piece) became a focal point of the piece, triggering the beginnings of new sections, and ending the piece after a drum-like rolling section, on four channels of loudspeakers (“thunderstorm”), with a slowly building chorus of “loons” which gradually die away into silence.

    Dance of Dawn is not a programmatic piece. I did not intend to imitate loons or thunder. The thunder-like sounds happened unconsciously, and I was after the ululative quality of the loon singing, using cascading sine waves on the sequencer, controlled by finger pressure on the keyboard.

    To explain my way of creating, I wrote an article entitled Fire & Ice: A Query which describes combining an abstract sound with an imageric one to become “imago-abstract”, a multilayered musical idea possible today with the new technology. Also featured are diagrams of Dance of Dawn. The article appeared in Perspectives of New Music, Fall/Winter Issue, 1977, and later became a chapter in Robin Heifitz’s book “On the Wires of Our Nerves”.

    On the CRI Recording of Dance of Dawn that came out a year after the piece was finished, I wrote these liner notes for those who wanted to understand the piece better (the lead words stem from the poem):

    Lifenoises: An alteration and subtle change of motivic ideas propels the work, beginning with string-like minor seconds, gradually coalescing into a repeated rhythm which then separates itself by silences and slowly widening intervals (the interval of a second is a major cohesive factor throughout the work).

    Thunderous: Rhythmic propulsion, distilled from the early percussive sounds, gains strength by the second half of the work. Highly filtered ‘jew’s harp’ sonorities (beginning 13 minutes into the piece) and marimba-like qualities combine and invade the returned string-like fabric until shattering cross-rhythms and brittle timbres explode into a panning effect of violent drum-like (timpani) rolls.

    Sun Rolling: An evocative melody of undulating character keeps recurring in different guises, usually at or immediately after structural climaxes. This melody, altered, becomes a polyphonic ‘choir’ of sounds approximately one third of the way into the piece, eventually fusing with clanging repeated tones and rhythms in a section of dense polyphony.

    Leers White Light: Emerging from the beginning texture is a static chord-cluster, structured from previous sonorities, which recedes and reappears at key temporal locations. At times this becomes a ring-modulated chord gradually fluctuating and subtly changing, occurring as the antithesis to previous ‘chaotic’ and complex sections. These areas of stasis are the peace, the philosophical reflection, the calm that accepts and sorts the ‘senseful’ experience into a coherent intention; the transparent white light.”

    In June of 1974 I was approaching the end of the piece. Word was sent by Bruce Hemingway that the EMS Company in London was tired of waiting for that next payment of $16,000 from the university for the Synthi-100, and had decided to send over a crew to take out the studio and ship it back to England. They would be here in three weeks. I dropped everything else and virtually lived in the studio day and night to finish the piece, because otherwise I had no way of producing the same sounds, and two years of work would have been aborted!

    The last day, I was recording the final sounds when in walked the men, ready to roll it all away. I begged and pleaded for one more day, to polish up the ending, and they kindly agreed. By midnight I had finished everything, my spirit and body numb to the core. This was the last large synthesizer I ever had the opportunity to work with. Perhaps my style might have been different if I had not been forced to return to found-sounds for the brunt of my material over the years. On the other hand, perhaps it would not have been so original and unusual, or even nature-oriented. One will never know.

In Conversation with Priscilla McLean

Priscilla McLean
  • READ an excerpt from Hanging Off the Edge: Revelations of a Modern Troubadour by Priscilla McLean.Molly Sheridan: Much of Hanging Off the Edge actually takes the form of journal entries from your touring life. Have you always kept diaries?

    Priscilla McLean: Yes, actually, my mother kept diaries and she started me when I was nine. Throughout my life until about 1980 I would do it sporadically, one year here, one year there. Then, in about 1980, I started keeping them every year. Once we got touring, it was a way to remember who we met on tour and what they played and where we were. This became a sort of memory bank for me.

    The book was written over a span of 12 years. The first section was done in 1993 right after the tour ended, the tour that I write about in the beginning. I wrote that whole section, on my background and so on, and then I just stopped writing for a few years.

    MS: Why?

    PM: Why? Because I’m not a writer, I’m a composer, and we tour for a living so we have to keep writing [music]. Also, I lacked the self-confidence that anyone would care what I thought or that I could write well enough to make anybody interested. And actually, I didn’t know it at the time, but also because I hadn’t lived enough to write a good book yet. That came after we moved to New York and had toured all over the world, then there were more experiences to write about.

    MS: What finally gave you the self-confidence you needed?

    PM: When I got to the second section, I just worked at it and finished it, and then I applied to the MacDowell Colony. I’ve been there five times—[my husband] Bart and I usually go together—but this time I applied not as a composer but as a writer, so I could work on the part of the book about my pieces which I really needed total concentration for, and they accepted me! And because I was competing with all the other writers that was like, wow, they think I’m a writer. While I was there, I had 20 journals all over the piano, and without the journals I would have never made it. I think that’s why composers don’t write autobiographies, or why most people don’t—you can’t remember clearly what happened. Your mind, after 20 years or so, it gets hazier and hazier.

    MS: Who did you write this book for? What are you hoping readers take away from it?

    PM: It took me a long time to decide that and [my husband] Bart kept asking me, “Who are you writing this for? Are you writing it for the bookstore people, the library people, the musicians?” For a long time I wasn’t sure; I was just writing it. I felt I just had to get it down on paper the way I felt it, my point of view, which ran under heavy opposition from friends and family who said, “You’re not writing like a learned professor.” I was a professor, but I’m this whole human being and I need to write about the whole person, not just the composer or the video artist or the performer. I’m this whole person who’s had a whole life, and that’s the way I approached it. So after I wrote it all I got a couple of readers locally and one of the women said, “This book does not have any direction. Who are you writing it for? You need to describe yourself and point everything to why this made you do what you do. Why are you describing this event?—Because it formed a kind of character that made you into a composer or performer.” So I went through the entire book, and I looked at it from that point of view and eliminated a lot of material. Hopefully it’s now a much more directed book and the people who would be interested can grasp hold of it and see why things are written the way they are.

    MS: You also point out in your introduction that there aren’t many autobiographies of women composers.

    PM: Yes, well, it’s a problem. How do you find the time to write a book—it’s out of your field, no one is probably going to pay you for it, and who’s going to be interested? It’s hard enough just to be a composer and face those problems. And everybody feels like they’re an expert on books because they all read books, whereas music, it just dazzles them to think you’re writing music. Music?! That’s usually as far as it goes, but a book, people actually read books. And I’ve actually had people read the book and get interested in the music. That’s why I put links to the music that’s in there so they could hear it, and they thanked me for it because they’ve said they’ve learned a lot this way.

    MS: And I thought it was also very telling that there just weren’t many women for you to look to when you were becoming a composer.

    PM: That’s true, especially when I was younger. It’s an isolated life, and there’re very few women. It’s a rare circumstance when I actually get to be familiar with another woman composer. Back when I was 20, the history books had no women composers in them—hardly any contemporary composers, and they would all be male. For a long time you didn’t even know any women who did it—you thought you were a freak. But you felt kind if proud of it, like wow, look at me, I’m a freak. But it didn’t do a whole lot for your self-confidence.

    MS: Even in the opening of the book, you talk about how you came from probably one of the worst cultural and educational backgrounds of any classical composer. Can you outline a little of what you meant by that?

    PM: From my vast experience traveling around, most composers who commit to writing classical music, new music, whatever you want to call it, have some sort of background in the arts and in education. So their parents may be professors or they have a mentor in their background who wants them to go into the arts. Today it’s crazy, you’ve got the computer and videos and television. I had nothing—none of those things. We were nomads, one year here, one year there. We didn’t even have furniture; we just moved into a furnished apartment and used whatever was there. Usually a person who comes out of that kind of background goes into popular music or folk music, because classical music takes so much time and money. It takes a lot of money to become educated and become a classical music composer beyond what you can do yourself. I think that’s the main reason that the field spons people who already have some kind of educational background.

    MS: Right. But you did it anyway.

    PM: I did. [laughs] I know. It was just something I couldn’t stop. As soon as I started learning how to play the piano, I did write a couple of tunes, but I started picking up on any classical music that happened in the high school chorus and was immediately drawn to it and started trying to write it. It gave me much more satisfaction than doing popular music. It was just much more complex, puzzling, exciting, and spiritually satisfying.

    MS: You spend much of the book discussing your experiences touring all over the country. This is a very different perspective from what most composers have. What’s striking to you about how things have changed?

    PM: Well, of course, I was the other type of composer, too, and continued being that type even while I was touring. But I discovered I couldn’t teach and compose at the same time. When I taught in college, that’s all I did. Then, when the summer came, then I became a composer. I really, really didn’t like that because I felt I’m so far behind anyway with my background, I’ll never achieve what I want to achieve if I have to teach in college and then do all this work on the side. I’m not going to be able to do a good job at it.

    Okay, how has it changed over the years? In the early ’70s, the home synthesizers came out on the market, and there was a great interest among people about this kind of music. So, in the early days, and I’m sure Mort Subotnick would tell you this, too, your audiences would be huge—way oversized for what they would be later. They were just curious and they just didn’t have all the stuff they have now to distract them away from going to concerts. When we started touring in 1974, you’d fill the hall even if they didn’t know who you were. They were interested in the idea of electronic music, or using electronics in music. But over the years, everything has gotten more complicated. Everybody’s lives have gotten filled with things to do. This is true whether it’s going to the movies or the theater or concerts. The audiences are getting smaller, and it’s not because of what I’m doing or somebody else, it’s just because people have too many choices of things to do. So I find it frustrating, of course, we all do. The ones who come to the concert are usually very enthusiastic, but sometimes they’re just exhausted. The students seem to be having to work harder and harder, and I’m finding fewer of them in the audience because they’re in night classes right through the concert time.

    What also has changed is the funding, of course. It’s drastically been reduced. So we find ourselves playing at a lot of private colleges, often religious-affiliated colleges, and not so many state schools because they just don’t have the money. We don’t ask a lot, but they just don’t have the money to hire outside groups. So those are the two shifts I’ve seen—less money and people are busier. And you’re hoping the trend will change and get better, but I’m not a particular optimist about things. I think I’m pretty realistic.

    MS: This must have been really something too, to have gone through all these experiences with your husband.

    PM: It’s really wonderful. My husband is a very unusual man. He is a wonderful composer and performer himself, and right from the beginning he’s always been totally accepting and encouraging of me and his students as well. He was in music from when he was a young child, so he’s always been directed towards music. [In the book] I do mention conflicts we have, of course. Especially in collaborations, but generally we get along very well.

    MS: I would imagine there are a lot of pros, but is there ever a moment when you look at him and think, my lord, I wish my husband was an insurance salesman?

    PM: No! Because insurance salesman are not very exciting people. We’ve been married almost 40 years and he’s exciting. How do you find an exciting man in his late 60s?

    MS: But since you’re both composers, is that ever difficult?

    PM: I think it works because we respect each other’s music so much. We only have one electronic studio, but it rarely conflicts because we have different patterns to our writing. He writes early in the morning and I write later, and I think the reason we’re so cooperative is that we both came from such wretched backgrounds. We just allow for compromising times and schedules because we’re just so glad to be able to do this.

    MS: When you were going back over all this material and these experiences, was there anything about it that you would have done differently?

    PM: I don’t think I could have done it differently. I could say I would have liked to have been a successful orchestral writer, but then I would have had to give up the touring part and the electronics and everything because that just doesn’t fit in to being an orchestral writer. And did I want to just sit and write orchestral pieces? No, it was obvious. I was leaning more and more to the touring part, less to writing “immortal” pieces, and I just decided that I had to do what makes me happy. This is the only thing that matters. I have to satisfy myself first, then if there’s an audience, they’ll be satisfied. So there’s really nothing I would have changed. I would not have even changed my background because I learned so much from it.

    I think you just kind of have to accept your life, you know. I’d like to have more money. I’d like to win those prizes that don’t usually go to people who are off the edge like we are. But I don’t think our lives would change all that much. One reason I wrote the book was to show that you don’t need a lot of money and you really don’t even need a great background to do what you want to do. You just need to propel yourself forward and do what’s in your heart. And you don’t need to write a book that is an erudite, professorial expoundation of you and your musical works. What you need to do is to tell people about the human being behind the composing, because that’s what they want to read about, and that shows them where the music is coming from.

In Conversation with Elise K. Kirk

Elise K. Kirk

An interview with the author of American Opera.

Anna Reguero: You make a great point in the beginning of your book that most people can only name a few American operas. Early American opera, especially opera written before the 20th century, is mostly unknown. What are your thoughts on why that might be, and why, then, did you choose to write a book on the subject?

Elise K. Kirk: People will say sometimes to me: “There aren’t that many American operas; how did you fill a book on that? There must be two: Porgy and Bess and Nixon in China.” I wanted to take a good look at American opera because there are books on Italian opera, German opera, and French opera, but nothing on American—and this is our own country. So I thought it was important. I like to write historical books because I think one should look at the long skein of history. Very often we’re too myopic; we zero in on one area or one particular opera or style of opera without seeing it within the historical context that helped shape it.

Americans have been writing operas for two and a half centuries. I discovered at least 3,000 operas, but in searching for these, of course, I had to go through manuscripts, scores, librettos, reviews, and dusty old prompt books in many different libraries. But I did want to pull out what was important to me, not just a chronological array of operas going through history. I wanted to see how as a nation we combined music and drama, and then I wanted to look at the social, political, and cultural forces that shaped American opera because I thought that was very important. American opera tells us a great deal about who we are as a nation, and since we are so diverse, and we’ve come from a history of rugged exploration, our operas are diverse as well. Many of them are very original, and we have some that are reflections of Europe.

AR: Why do you think American opera has been under-represented by most opera companies?

EKK: I think it’s mainly because opera companies generally produce operas that are known and will draw audiences – the operas of Verdi, Puccini, and Mozart, for example. But I also think that people tend to put Broadway in one niche and opera in another. One is music for everyday folk, the people; the other, opera, is often considered elitist in some peoples’ minds. What’s happening now (it’s the most interesting thing) is that Broadway and opera styles are merging, producing a wonderfully fresh form of opera that is truly American. Also, I find another strong influence on American opera is Hollywood, where the orchestral scores of motion pictures motivate the drama and define characters in powerful, familiar ways. And finally, of course, we have influences from European romantic opera. All these forms and styles play a role in shaping our nation’s operatic output today and making it more accessible to audiences—certainly in the last two or three decades—and I believe people are starting to enjoy American opera more.

I also think many opera companies today are being more adventurous and are producing American operas. Companies such as Houston, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York City Opera have always been champions of American opera, but many other companies today are performing at least one American opera each season. A lot of this has to do with the new millennium, which has encouraged nations to focus on their indigenous music. And I think people are beginning to look at American opera in a different way, as an exciting new form. It’s becoming accessible, because its characters seem real and human and its subjects are interesting to people. Many American operas are based on familiar literary works, like Dead Man Walking, A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, A View from the Bridge, The Great Gatsby, and many others. This has been true of American operas even in the 19th century. So a familiar story, I believe, helps.

AR: You mentioned how the Metropolitan Opera has been the leader of opera, and the fact is they haven’t done many American operas or new operas.

EKK: The Metropolitan Opera has always been conservative, but there was a period in its history, from about 1910 to 1935, when Gatti-Casazza was general manager of the Met. He commissioned something like 12 or 14 premieres of American works, mainly because he thought this was new and exciting. Then there was a long period in which there were no American operas at all at the Met. In 1991, The Ghosts of Versailles by John Corigliano became the first American opera to be commissioned and produced by the Met in 25 years. It was followed the next year by Philip Glass’s The Voyage. But, I should add, under the new Met director, Peter Gelb, at least nine new operas are currently being planned – many by American composers.

AR: That’s within how many years, though?

EKK: Over the next 10-15 years, maybe more than that. But, these are projected, and I think this is very telling and very important.

AR: Going back to the separation between Broadway and opera, opera being highbrow and Broadway being lowbrow. If you ask a person on the street with no musical experience what opera is, they might tell you Broadway. What do you think of the general public’s knowledge of opera? What is your idea of the part Broadway plays within opera?

EKK: I think for most people, you mention the word opera, it means “grand opera,” a long work sung throughout in a foreign language and performed in a large, ornate opera house. (Someone once said “opera is when a man gets stabbed in the back and instead of bleeding, he sings.”) Broadway, of course, implies a lighter dramatic work, sung in English with catchy, tuneful music, often spoken dialogue, and staged in a theater. Today, there is much that American opera and Broadway share. They are both in English, but they also often integrate such popular styles as jazz, blues, ragtime, and pop. Many of our most enduring American operas, by the way, were first performed on Broadway—these include some of Menotti’s operas and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Still, many people tend to draw a line of distinction between opera and Broadway. If we go back in history, the Italian word “opera” originally meant merely “work.” Early opera very often combined popular, serious, new, and older styles. Comic and tragic elements coexisted in many of these operas. It wasn’t until the romanticism of the 19th century that the term “grand opera” took hold, and I think we have become conditioned by that designation for opera ever since.

Another element that Broadway and American opera share is the strong portrayal of character. Simple, folk-like characters comprise our most popular operas – characters like Baby Doe, Porgy, or Susannah. These characters are part of the American soil. They are down to earth, fragile, and, like all of us, they have to struggle to survive. And like the Broadway tune that lingers on long after the audience leaves the theater, the American opera aria has become an important signature in a work.

AR: The characters are definitely a big draw; people want to be able to relate to what they see on stage.

EKK: It seems as if the characters and the subjects today are more important than the composers. If we see the name Puccini, we say: “It’s an opera by Puccini; let’s go!” But, you see an opera by Jake Heggie…in all fairness to Jake Heggie, the words Dead Man Walking are a stronger draw than the name of the composer. But, that’s going to change, too.

AR: How do you think it will change?

EKK: These are young composers, and it will change as they write more and more and get more produced. Mark Adamo, for instance, has written a new opera that was produced by New York City Opera. After Houston Grand Opera staged his Little Women, 40 different opera companies produced that opera. That’s quite amazing. This is a very well known story, of course, but the composer is rapidly making a name for himself, too.

AR: I think you bring up a good point that we don’t know composers anymore. Composers don’t bring in an audience the way they did back in Europe. They haven’t reached the public.

EKK: I think that’s very true. In the concert hall, you often go to hear a new symphony and you don’t know who the composer is, yet it’s a major work that someone has struggled many years to produce.

AR: Do you think it’s different in Europe?

EKK: Yes, I think Europe is more attuned to its own contemporary music. I think this is generally true. Although, it’s very interesting, the Europeans that I’ve spoken with recently know and appreciate the music of Elliott Carter, who incidentally only wrote one opera that I know of. But his music is atonal and very difficult to perform.

AR: I’d like to touch a bit on women’s roles in American opera, which I find interesting in your book. I hadn’t realized the role American women played in opera long before the 20th century. I wasn’t aware of Ann Hatton and Susanna Rowson, who both had a major influence on American opera, long before the women’s rights movement. American opera seemed to be really forward thinking in its early days.

EKK: Yes, this is true. Ann Hatton and Susanna Rowson were both very important in early American opera. But, you know, women were doing some amazing things back in the 18th century. Americans had to do everything; they were very versatile. Women were much more independent and free than they were in England at that time. But for women to be working in the theater was rather unusual, because theatrical appearances were considered immodest for a woman. Ann Hatton’s Tammany; or, the Indian Chief, was staged in New York and other cities in 1794 and is the first serious opera libretto on an American subject.

The other woman, Susana Rowson, I always thought was especially interesting. Her opera, Slaves in Algiers, is about the Barbary pirates and some of the women who were captured by them. One of the lines in her libretto is “women can do anything men can do,” and we’re talking about 1794. This is the year Slaves in Algiers opened at the Chestnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. This theater was huge. It seated more than 2,000 people. Of course, historically other women came into importance later in the 19th century. Women were beginning to be seen in public in ways they couldn’t be seen before. So you had a black woman, Louisa Mars, writing an opera. She was also the first black woman to have her opera produced – this was in 1889. And in 1885, G. Estabrook wrote the first complete opera by an American woman to be published. Later, in modern times, I had found that many women composers in the 20th century were more innovative in various ways than most of the men. It was the women who really pushed the new avant-garde or metaphoric-style of opera.

AR: Yes, just think of Meredith Monk.

EKK: Yes, Atlas is wonderful. Several women in our era have composed operas about women. Atlas is about a female explorer, of course. Thea Musgrave wrote an opera about Harriet Tubman, and Libby Larsen composed Mrs. Dalloway. And these are wonderfully new, fresh approaches to American opera, both musically and dramatically.

AR: You’ve had a really interesting career as a historian. You were a presidential appointee.

EKK: Yes, I was. That was under Jimmy Carter, and it was very exciting. I served on the national advisory board of the Kennedy Center. I’ve also written another historical book on the history of music in the White House.

AR: That’s a unique take, looking at American music through the eyes of the government.

EKK: Both of the books I’ve written are really cultural histories in the end. In my book on American opera, I had two focuses. One was to explore the cultural, social, and political influences on American opera composers. The other thread that I was trying to explore focused on the operas themselves – how we, as a nation, have taken music and used it as a very powerful dramatic tool. I followed early musical melodrama through Wagnerian influences, through the motion picture score, right up to the present day, showing how composers used music not only to enlarge characters, but even to create them. I feel this ability to portray character through music is a special strength of the American composer.

My White House book is also a cultural history because I went back to George Washington. But I wasn’t interested in the actual music itself the way I was in my opera book. In the White House book, I explored the cultural interests of the various first families throughout history and discovered the forces that came into play when selecting an artist to perform in the White House. Through each administration from George Washington right up to the present—almost the present—I wanted to find out how the various administrations differed. Which ones were innovative in promoting the arts, which ones were following the trends of American culture at the time? Then, of course, through the White House we also discover the whole history of popular music, of gospel, of jazz, of all the different art forms that existed in the United States. This is because every form, every kind of music has been performed in the White House. This book differs from my opera book, but both are tied to my focus on American cultural history.

AR: Speaking of a cultural phenomenon, you spend a good deal of your book talking about how technology impacted American opera.

EKK: That’s another way American opera is being brought to more people. Operas by American composers are being televised and even premiered on TV. Today we are able to do amazing things through media, technology, and stage design. It’s this visual aspect, which derives from movies and television, that plays a vital role in the way audiences perceive the story, such as in The Ghosts of Versailles. This opera was so exciting visually; even young teens were mesmerized by it.

AR: With the advent of technology, opera became a lot more accessible to the public because people could listen to the radio and hear live opera broadcasts, and they still can.

EKK: Yes, actually the first opera to be performed on the newly begun CBS network was an opera by an American composer, Deems Taylor. And in 1951, Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors became the first opera to be commissioned for television. So, media has been a very good thing for opera. I’m hoping that an opera by an American composer will be commissioned especially for television again. With the talent we have today in storytelling, composing, singing, and staging – we have a wonderful outreach venue for the cause of American opera.

In Conversation with Libby Van Cleve

Libby Van Cleve and Vivian Perlis
Photo by Robert Lisak
  • READ an interview with author Vivian Perlis.Anna Reguero: How did you get involved with the Oral History American Music (OHAM)?

    Libby Van Cleve: It’s been about 14 years. There are two answers. There is the crass, obnoxious answer and then there is the idealistic answer. The crass, obnoxious answer is that I was working as a freelance oboe player with a specialization in contemporary music, and I bought a house and needed money. Vivian needed someone to work with her. I was in the right place at the right time. The idealistic answer, which is in a way more of the truth, is that I was always someone, and I still am someone, with a great passion for contemporary music and a determination to bring it to a wider public—to use my skills, as a performer and as a scholar, to help people understand this music that I’m so passionate about. That’s something that’s been my main agenda since I got out of college. A lot of performers run away from music history, but I always found it totally fascinating. But I felt that a lot of scholarly work was a little dry and dusty. I was absolutely thrilled with the idea of creating primary source documents. It’s a very lively way to engage in the scholarly world.

    AR: What do the composers’ own voices bring to the information that just a book might not?

    LVC: I’ll never forget the chill up and down my spine when I first heard the words of Nadia Boulanger. I remember that one in particular. When I heard that voice, I said to myself, “Think of all the people who sat with this voice and heard this voice.” Even though she has been dead for many years, there was a sense I was connecting with her spirit, her essence—who she really was—which was beyond anything I would have felt or sensed from reading a transcript of her interview. Anybody who is a musician would understand that sounds convey a certain kind of message that’s indescribable. That’s the whole point.

    Sometimes the voices are so different from what you would expect them to be. I remember the first time I heard John Cage’s voice I was absolutely flabbergasted. Another example is Roy Harris. He made a big deal out of being very American and growing up on a farm—and he sounds like some guy who grew up on a farm. He was pretty articulate, but he still had a certain kind of rustic quality.

    AR: Speaking of composers such as Roy Harris, who aren’t as well known as, say, someone like Copland, how did you choose which composers to highlight?

    LVC: We evoked something that William Schuman had said to Vivian, which is, “you let the material dictate the form; you let the material dictate the structure.” Sometimes it’s the accident of how long people live, and the accident of who was available early on when the project began. We had certain interviews with people, and we worked with our strengths. We went with the people who were represented in the Oral History Archive. This is not necessarily meant to be a complete compendium of 20th century music. It’s instead a unique way of portraying the early 20th century with some of the most important creative figures. Some of the people weren’t available for interviews or died before the project got started, so there are certain people who aren’t there who we would’ve liked. And there are other people who are there who are more obscure. I hadn’t heard of Leo Ornstein before I started working for the Oral History Project. Now I realize, in certain circles, there is a lot of interest in Ornstein.

    AR: That’s interesting because there are certainly composers represented here that I had never heard of, and after reading, they seem so essential and important to the history of American music.

    LVC: At one point, before Henry Brant won the Pulitzer, he was featured in a concert at Wesleyan, where I teach. One of the composition teachers at Yale asked the composition seminar, “I’m just curious—how many people here have heard of Henry Brant?” About three people raised their hands. Okay, maybe he hasn’t the stature of someone like Charles Ives or Stravinsky, but anybody who is a composer should know something about Henry Brant. It’s absolutely astonishing to me. There are people who are not as much a part of the academic tradition, someone like Rudhyar would be a good example, Ornstein too, even Henry Cowell. There are a lot of people doing interesting work who aren’t as well known.

    AR: The book feels like it has a lot of interconnectivity to it. You have everyone in the book commenting about each other.

    LVC: That was certainly one of our points. I think we were struck by how, especially in the early part of the century, these people are always discussed as mavericks, independent thinkers. But there was a tremendous amount of interconnectivity and we tried to show that. One way was through the boxes and sidebars. We also wanted to show the cross-pollination between the early part of the century and the later composers. It’s interesting to see what John Adams has to say about Ellington, for example.

    We had not intended it but it was a happy accident that today’s readers, especially young people, tend to do a lot of their research and live a lot of their life on the web, which is a kind of learning that is non-linear. There is a lot of connectivity and jumping from one thing to the next in the book. In a funny way, we achieved with the book something like what one can do by touching on a web link and going to something related. So I think it is interesting that its slightly non-linear quality is akin to what people are doing on the web.

    AR: You highlight ragtime and jazz as an integral part of American music.

    LVC: Yes indeed! These days, many composers are highly influenced by popular music. You have someone like Michael Gordon who has had a band [The Michael Gordon Philharmonic] and is frequently writing pieces that use popular influences. That’s something that’s happening in 2006. But Charles Ives was writing pieces that were influenced by ragtime in the early part of the century. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    AR: Vivian has done a large portion of the interviews for the first volume. I assume you have interviewed the more recent composers for the future volumes.

    LVC: We have four volumes planned, and they’re loosely chronological. Even though I’ve been working for a fairly long time at the Oral History Project, I didn’t start interviewing right away. Eventually I started interviewing my contemporaries, people I’ve known as schoolmates, for instance. I interviewed the whole Bang on a Can group: Julia Wolfe, David Lang, Michael Gordon, also Evan Ziporyn. I picked up the younger people and that was natural. My interviews will be featured more in later volumes.

    AR: In 1992 when you started working at OHAM, was the book in the planning stage at the time

    LVC: Not even close. The Oral History Project has gone through many changes. I think this book has always been in the back of Vivian’s mind. She wanted to do something with the material that she had been generating for decades, but it really wasn’t until we had a situation we could only dream of if you’re in a grant-centered, not-for-profit world. There was a funder who, out of heaven, gave us money. All of a sudden we didn’t have to be scrambling for every penny. That gave us the means to pursue this dream. When I started in 1992, I was only working about ten hours a week and it was really a sideline, part-time job for me. But I got more interested in this direction, and then I became a mother and wanted to spend more time at home and less time on the road—it all worked out. It took a long time to figure out the form of the book. We started in ’96 or ’97 talking to the [Yale] Press, and it took a long time from the first ideas to what it has now become.

    AR: When can we expect the next volume?

    LVC: We are hopeful that it will be soon. There is always something coming up, but I hope we turn it around pretty quickly. It takes a long time even after one turns in a manuscript, about a year, to actually have a book in hand.

    AR: Will the future volumes be similar in form?

    LVC: As we go through the century to more figures that are closer to us, it will not be as obvious who the central figures are; who the Aaron Copland will be 50 years from now. We have more figures and it will differ a little in form, but we hope it will still be as captivating. It will be fun because there will be more people that we know.

    When we started working on this volume, we hoped for a huge single volume with four to eight CDs. At a certain point Vivian and I looked at each other and confessed that this wasn’t going to be one volume. We not only had to rethink and restructure the whole thing, but we had to have the contract rewritten with Yale Press. It was huge. It was interesting because when we had it restructured, we ended up doing what many people recounting the 20th century have done. The first half of the 20th century is more chronological, and then as you get towards the middle of the century and on, there is less in chronological organization and more in terms of topics. You get into the topics of performance art, world music influence, or minimalism, because it seems to divide better. It’s funny because we struggled with this. When we finally presented it to our editor, he said “oh yeah, sure, that’s what everybody does.”

    One of the things I think is really exciting, even though it’s counterintuitive, is that by volume three and four, 40 years after the volumes come out there will be people in there who you might think, “Who is that?”. Nobody knows them anymore. On the other hand, there are probably others who are not getting much attention right now, but who will blossom and will end up being really well known. I like the lack of predictability that the future volumes are going to have.

In Conversation with Vivian Perlis

Libby Van Cleve and Vivian Perlis
Photo by Robert Lisak
  • READ an interview with author Libby Van Cleve.Anna Reguero: When did you decide that you wanted to publish a collection of your interviews?

    Vivian Perlis: I had done a book on Charles Ives after the Ives Project called Charles Ives Remembered. I had not thought of myself as an author but as a musician and a historian. After the Ives book, I got to work with Aaron Copland. After I interviewed him for the Oral History American Music (OHAM), I worked with him as co-author of his autobiography. In addition to being the life story of Aaron Copland, it was a history of American music in the 20th century. That’s what he wanted. Since American music is my field in musicology, that was the kind of cultural history I was interested in doing. As the Oral History Project progressed, it became more and more rich and full of material that I knew did not exist elsewhere, and it was directly in the voices of those who created this music and music history. In the back of my mind was this sense that I would like to do a book that was not as primarily biographical as the Ives and the Copland, but that would paint a picture of time, making use of a wide range of voices in the Oral History Archive. Though I had not any specific plan to proceed, it certainly was in the back of my mind. Also, there was a sense that it was important to give these unique interviews broader accessibility. It was so exciting to collect and preserve source material of that kind that the impetus for the book publication really came from wanting to share it with the public.

    AR: You started off with Ives and Copland, but this collection includes many more composers, some not nearly as well known. How did you go about choosing which composers would be highlighted?

    VP: That’s not too difficult because the material already exists in the Oral History Archive and the book derives from the materials that we have, which include major figures and other people who are not as well known and people who round out the picture of a period of time. For example, with this first volume, we looked at the period of time at the turn of the century knowing that the popular music was ragtime, so it was very natural to include Eubie Blake. And early jazz and symphonic jazz were very much part of the music world in the ’20s and ’30s and so of course we would include these subjects from the interviews with Copland, Gershwin, and Duke Ellington. Virgil Thompson was working at the same time as Copland. Roy Harris was an important person on the scene. What was difficult was to shape all of this material and try to include as much as possible without it becoming overwhelming. Obviously Nadia Boulanger was so much a part of the picture of the early years, and so much an influence on composers, we naturally decided to include her. Someone like Minna Lederman and Claire Reis (director of the League of Composers), all were contributing to a period of time when American music was coming of age. Prior to that time, American music was Europeanized to such a great extent.

    AR: There is such individuality to the composers, yet they all seem very interconnected.

    VP: Each person is so individual and so different from the others, yet they all experienced the same period of time. They heard the same popular music and experienced the technology that was available then. These people had a great deal in common, yet they each wrote a very individual kind of music. Certainly the early modernists—Ornstein, Dane Rudhyar, Henry Cowell, and Charles Seeger—each one of them worked in a different place but in the same country and time frame that influenced them and their musical decisions.

    AR: What does hearing these composers’ voices bring to readers that reading their words in a book might not?

    VP: The emphasis on the two CDs that are included with the book is different from any publication I had done. Previously, I tried very hard to keep the integrity of the sound of Copland’s voice in written material, for example, and have it come through from edited transcripts. In this new book, from the very beginning, I wanted to emphasize the actual sound of the voice and to have users be able to turn directly from the book to a CD to get a sense of who the composer was and to hear their musical ideas. I hope that perhaps this would lead people to the music and to a stronger interest in new music. I think we all have found working in this field that knowing something about the composer, or knowing what that person was like, how they spoke and what their lives and influences were, does make a difference to the music, which is really what we’re all most interested in.

    AR: Are there any interviews that stood out as being really special to you?

    VP: Certainly seeing Aaron Copland over a long period without the pressure of time was very satisfying. Nadia Boulanger was a challenge because I had only a very short time with her, and she was 90 and not well. I was trying very hard to get some sense of why she meant so much to so many musicians. I did get a sense of that, and more about that interview is in the book. Some interviews took detective work, for example, Leo Ornstein, who had disappeared from the world of music for a long time. When I did talk to him it had been over 40 years since he had spoken to anybody about his music. This is a good example of stimulating interest in musical performance: the interviews caused the Ornstein manuscripts to come to the Yale Library; I then produced the first recording of his music and performances and more recordings have followed.

    As the next volume proceeds, I think of people such as John Cage who was incredibly interesting to work with. We didn’t do a traditional Oral History interview as a chronological life, but worked through a piece of music he was working on at the time. We taped all of the ideas and compositional decisions as it went along. I have interviewed people in the middle of their careers like Steve Reich, John Harbison, John Corigliano, Ellen Taafe Zwillich, and John Adams, and younger ones to whom we return periodically.

    AR: It must have been quite incredible to meet with these composers.

    VP: It has been a great pleasure for me in my life to know some of these people and have them become friends as well as colleagues.

    AR: Do many of them become friends?

    VP: Yes, but althought it sounds a bit grim, almost all have died except for Elliott Carter and George Perle. It does point out the urgency of time in preserving this kind of material. If I started to do this work now, I would not have access to them. I keep in touch with younger composers who are in the midst of their careers and lives and many are friends. Libby and I are both very active in many areas in the world of new music and feel that’s an important part of our work and that it contributes to the success of the OHAM.

In Conversation with Paul Austerlitz

Paul Austerlitz

An interview with the author of Jazz Consciousness: Music, Race, and Humanity.

Molly Sheridan: In your introduction to this book you write about how your own playing informs your research. Are there anecdotes that influenced this book in particular? I’m thinking specifically of your second chapter which really gets into musical details and looks at the way African-influenced music makes us feel and why.

Paul Austerlitz: In ethnomusicology it’s not unusual for scholars to be performers, but with very few exceptions, they are amateurs who use performance as kind of a research tool. They’ll play with the people they’re researching as a way of getting into studying it, and I’ve also done that. We usually call that participant observation. My career, however, has been a little different. I started out as a semi-professional jazz and Latin musician. I was actually making a living but I was scraping by and I thought, well, let me go into ethnomusicology. I loved it and just flourished, but I never stopped playing. As my ethnomusicological career developed, my musical abilities continued to develop. I met great musicians through my research—for example, I wrote a book on Dominican merengue and the great Dominican saxophonist Mario Rivera read my book and we got to be really good friends. He really inspired me to just start practicing and so my playing has now risen to the level of my scholarship. And as I say in the book, it kind of proves to me the way that music is scholarly and scholarship is musical.

A lot of ethnomusicology looks at issues of identity and politics and the roles that music can play in identity formation and public life. My own work is no exception, but since I perform also I noticed that a lot of ethnomusicology neglects attention to how music makes us feel, either while we’re listening to it or playing it or dancing for that matter. It’s hard to talk about because it’s ineffable; it’s something that by definition is almost impossible to describe in words. But on the other hand, we have tools such as metaphor and figurative language that can convey the feeling of music. So that chapter grew out of my own performance experience.

MS: Is that something that might generate debate among your colleagues then, since it’s not standard practice?

PA: It’s not controversial. Any ethnomusicologist would agree that, hey, that’s a great thing to address. I just think that because of academic fashions and trends in the field we have concentrated on other things in recent years. Part of the reason is that music is often seen as kind of a frill. For example, in school programs they’ll often cut music, but they don’t cut science. It’s thought of as something nice to have but that’s sort of separate from the more important issues in life. A lot of ethnomusicology, including much of the material in Jazz Consciousness, really looks at the role music has played in affecting and changing real life in the public arena—for example, the role that music plays in nationalist movements. This is not a conscious plan or a tactic, but I believe that ethnomusicologists perhaps gravitated to those issues as a way of legitimizing the field, as a way of showing that music really has an affect on the concrete things in all of our lives.

What I’m trying to say is that those aesthetic things that I’m addressing in the chapter you mention are the reasons that music can have such an affect in public life. I did a lot of research in the Dominican Republic. When Dominicans listen to merengue, the national music, it will make them feel perhaps patriotic, but it will have a different affect than looking at a flag will. So what is that affect? How does music affect us? I’m trying to reunite those two ways of looking at music. How does it affect us in the outside world and then also what is that mechanism that makes it have that affect?

MS: Now, you write about jazz in various geographies as diverse as the Dominican Republic and Finland. What did looking at jazz in these different places teach you?

PA: Usually ethnomusicologists look at music specifically in relationship to a particular culture, the study of music in or as culture. So the question with any ethomusicological study is what music culture does this music belong to. Jazz, of course, being African American music belongs to African American culture, but it also belongs to all American culture, regardless of questions of race. And it’s also, I’ve found, become a global music that in a way belongs to people as far away from the U.S. as Finland and the Dominican Republic. So I felt I needed to contextualize it in several different ways to have a rounded view of the music in a globalized world.

To answer your question: What it showed is that different people can interpret a particular music in different ways and, in fact, it shows that one particular person can also interpret the music in many different ways and look at it from different angles.

MS: When does a particular style start to “belong” to another culture? Is there a point at which you can judge that?

PA: Hmm, that’s an interesting question. I guess the criterion I use is if the people believe that it belongs to them. When I was in Finland as a graduate student many years ago I wanted to learn about Finnish traditional music. I was in a nightclub where they played disco-type dance music and this music with accordions that sounded kind of like modernized Finnish folk music. They played a lot of it. I was dancing with a young lady there, and I thought, well, let me start doing some research here and figure out what genre of music this is that we’re dancing to. And she says, oh, you don’t know? This is the national dance of Finland, the tango. And she wasn’t joking. I mean, she thought of tango as a Finnish music. She didn’t know that is was Argentinean because the tango became popular as it did in France and throughout Europe, and then it became kind of domesticated, as we say. It was reinterpreted according to Finnish aesthetics, and it became part of Finnish music.

I think that Finnish musicians have used jazz in their own ways and have done things with it that could only happen in Finland. I was actually born in Finland but I grew up here in the U.S. I went as a grad student to get at my roots. I wanted to find a traditional folk music that I could study there, but I really didn’t find that. I had kind of an exotic idea—I was looking for rural authenticity and roots—and I really didn’t find that because it’s a very modern country. But what I did find were musicians of my generation who had started out as jazz musicians, but who, like me, had moved from jazz to traditional Finnish music and were actually reinterpreting Finnish music through the lens of jazz. They were inspired by African American musicians who had been going to Africa for their inspiration. Then they thought, well, I’m not African American, but I’m inspired by these musicians who are looking for their roots in Africa. Let me still keep playing jazz but look for my roots in Finnish traditional music and blend that with jazz. In that sense the result belongs to Finland without divorcing it from its African American source and its generically American sources.

MS: Now, obviously you’re a white man writing about what you call many times “black music,” so what were the positives and the handicaps to that? You yourself quote the concept of “love and theft” and that even those with the best intentions can run into issues.

PA: There were and that’s a question I’m really glad to address. A lot of what I can talk to you about I’ve actually included in the book, but I can just tell you anecdotally what it was like for me to write about African American music and issues of unequal power relationships and racism as a white male. It was really hard. A lot of ethnomusicology addresses issues of race and national identity—more national identity than race, but of course it’s very related—and a lot of the really important scholarship on critical race theory also neglects the personal dimension of how a particular writer, say a white writer writing about race and racism, engages with that subject. I thought that I had to be a little bit personal in that regard because I want readers to go through their own thought processes and the best way I can do that is to share what I’ve been going through. And I say in the book, though I don’t think I convey it as well as I can in an interview, that it was wrenching to do that. I’m talking about the development of music in a racist society as a person who really hasn’t experienced racism.

One of the other things I argue in the book is that in spite of racism and unequal power relationships, jazz has configured a utopian space that in some ways transcends race and unequal power relationships. Now that thesis I believe could easily be seen—and people that espouse such views are sometimes correctly seen—as being naïve, especially if they are privileged people who haven’t experienced racism. I felt that I really needed to put some nuance in there to show that it wasn’t through color blindness that I’m saying that. The reason I came to that conclusion is from actually talking to black musicians and just being around the music. So it was hard to write that, but it was also the most personally rewarding aspect of the book. One thing that I noticed that I think most people would agree with—I don’t think this is really new but people forget to talk about this—is that unequal power relationships hinder everybody, even the people in the privileged position.

Basically the thesis of the book is that music speaks a language that touches different parts of our mind and our bodies than written or verbal discourse can. Jazz, developing during the Harlem Renaissance and civil rights period, had this kind of hopeful vision to it. Although in the real world all these different groups are in very unequal relationships of power, the blending of musics from all over the world within one style of music that’s based in the African American tradition configures a space where they coexist in a kind of utopian way. I don’t think that’s really an unusual statement to make at all among musicians or jazz fans, but I think we forget to say it. We forget to talk about it in a critical way. It’s spoken of poetically and anecdotally. And what I try to do in the book is really unpack that and show that when musicians who play what we would call jazz today say that—”Hey man, it’s all music. I treat all music the same way,” or, “I reach people of all cultures through my music.” Musicians say that all the time—they’re not just being idealistic or unrealistic. That’s actually based in something. Also my opinion is actually very different than a similar opinion that’s espoused by people like Wynton Marsalis who say jazz, because it brings all these different groups together, is an embodiment of what he calls American democracy or the democracy of the United States. Actually, I think that it is kind of an exception to what happens in the real world; it’s totally different than what actually happens in the United States in the non-musical realm.

MS: You devote your final chapter to Milford Graves and you speak very poetically about your relationship with him. How does this link up to your discussion of jazz consciousness?

PA: Well, he was really the inspiration for the whole book. Not consciously—I didn’t know that he was inspiring it—but he was my mentor in undergraduate school at Bennington College. He set my life direction and inspired me to study ethnomusicology generally and African influenced music specifically, especially Afro-Cuban music. He’s behind everything I’ve been working on as a professional during my whole career. He really believes that music doesn’t belong to any ethnicity. As an ethnomusicologist it was a very strange thing to hear and it was hard to accept. He’s a very intelligent person, and I was trying then to figure out, well, what does he mean by this? And it led to the things that I’ve been sharing with you so far: that musicians, without denying that jazz comes from African American culture, also see the music as something that builds bridges.

The book is organized is around W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness which states that African Americans have a duel identity based on the one hand in the African American in-group and on the other hand in the multicultural larger mainstream of the United States. And Milford Graves really embodies that because he’ll say that the music that he plays is black music, and then he’ll say that it’s universal music and it doesn’t belong to any ethnicity. And Du Bois kind of gave me the key to understand that it can be both of those things.

MS: How do you reconcile that?

PA: I think that words just play tricks on our minds and make us choose one over the other, but actually our bodies and our deeper minds are comfortable with multiple realities. For example, I was born in Finland. I speak Finnish, and I have cultural ties there and almost all of my relatives live in Finland, so I’m Finnish in some ways. Of course, I’m really not Finnish in many ways which every time I go there becomes apparent. I have a completely different culture; I don’t think the way they do. I’m an American. I’m both of those things. So it’s a matter of perspective. What I do in the book is at times I look at jazz through the lens of African American culture, and at other times through the lens of the multicultural mainstream U.S. culture, and at other times even through another lens, say through Finnish culture or through Dominican culture. So it’s a matter of perspective. Depending on how you look at it, you see it in a different way.

MS: You write about the continued power of black music as a sort of music-lingua franca of our time. I see this in not only rap and hip-hop, but also in the impact the evolution of reggae is having. Where does this jazz consciousness fit in today in the African American community and in mainstream American society now?

PA: I wish that I had addressed that more in the book. It’s hard for me to really have a perspective on it. I think jazz has made a lot of inroads into having access to the infrastructure of so-called high culture in the U.S. with the development of Jazz at Lincoln Center and the development of jazz education. You have high schools and colleges with great jazz programs. When I was in high school, that didn’t exist. So it is very entrenched. On the other hand it is in some ways removed from its vernacular and its African American sources. But it’s alive and well, that’s for sure. Most things in life have their positive and negative aspects. It’s great that jazz has made these inroads into the schools and so on, but it becomes very codified and homogenous. On the other hand it’s great that all these young people are playing. I can tell you that as a middle-aged musician some of these young kids coming up are just outstanding and very creative, so there are a lot if great things going on in the music.

MS: Can you apply a lot of the points that you raise in Jazz Consciousness to more recent developments in African American music?

PA: Yeah, I think so. For example, hip-hop of course is an African American music that has become part of the mainstream American culture. It’s really interesting to me though because jazz history has been one of white appropriation. Paul Whiteman was called the king of jazz despite the fact that he wasn’t really a jazz innovator and Benny Goodman, although he was in some ways an innovator and a great bandleader, was wrongly called the king of swing because he wasn’t the foremost exponent of that style of music. And that’s been a recurrent theme in the history of jazz. Also, rock ‘n roll was created by blacks and taken over by whites. But what’s interesting is that after the advent of affirmative action things were a little bit different. Eminem can gain great fame, but he would never and his fans would never claim that hip-hop is white music. Also, his producers are black. Benny Goodman’s producers were not black. So there’s something different and that’s a very hopeful trend.

I discovered that with my students. I taught a class on jazz and hip-hop. It was the first class on hip-hop at Brown University. The students requested it. I really am not an expert on hip-hop so I said I can’t teach a class on it, but I’ll teach a seminar where we compare jazz to hip-hop. I learned a lot from it. I learned that young people today are more comfortable with the idea that people can have multiple identities and that young white musicians and fans know that hip-hop is an African American cultural manifestation, but they also feel like they can participate and most of the young African Americans also welcome the participation of whites and Latinos and people from all over the world. So hip-hop has now also configured a kind of utopian space similar to that created by jazz.

In Conversation with Robert Fink

Robert Fink

An interview with the author of Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music As Cultural Practice.

Perhaps appropriately, considering our subject, Fink and I ended up on the phone for an hour and a half, looping around, over, and through the longest InPrint chat on record. Here’s just the first half of our sprawling conversation, in which we only skimmed his revisionist interpretation of minimalism. I’ll leave something for the book…

Molly Sheridan: This book seems much broader in scope than a traditional musicological text. What sort of audience did you have in mind when you were plotting it out?

Robert Fink: I am, of course, a professional musicologist and to some extent the audience for this book is people who study what we call “new” musicology, a set of people within the academic study of music who are interested in getting away from the really extreme kind of formalism that had tended to dominate people’s academic discussion of music in the middle of the 20th century. There has been a turn in the last 15 years to getting back to questions of what music might signify culturally. Not necessarily naive interpretations that when the melody line goes up, that means X, or this chord stands for Y. With the subtitle of the book, I’m actually using a phrase that has come in musicological discourse to signify, okay, we’re not just going to talk about this as notes, and we’re not just going to talk about structural relationships. We’re going to imagine that people do minimalism, yes, because they have been inspired to create certain kinds of sound structures, but they’re also doing something that has cultural significance.

Most of the studies of music as cultural practice started with the central-19th-century repertoire. Your readers are probably aware of a very large and noisy battle that broke out over the Ninth Symphony. Susan McClary propounded what you would call an interpretation of the Ninth Symphony as a cultural practice, in terms especially of people’s relationship to their body and sexuality and a complex set of issues around Beethoven and the violence of the musical rhetoric and the intensity of that style. And that got people’s attention because, of course, you don’t mess with the Ninth Symphony.

The truth is there was a lot of very good and controversial work that was being done, say, in the ’80s, and terrifyingly enough that’s sort of where this book’s genesis comes. It took a long time for me to write. There was also some discussion of a composer like Stravinsky, which is very interesting because Stravinsky’s own pronouncements about music were extremely formalist. He’s the guy who actually said, I believe, that music is by its very nature incapable of expressing anything at all. And in saying that, he actually cast a die in many ways for what a lot of 20th-century compositional ideology would be. There’s an argument to be made that minimalism is the most extreme version of music that appears, and I stress, it appears, to take Stravinsky’s pronouncement as a starting point.

Most musicologists have been really bad about studying post-World War II music. It’s getting better now. Especially the people coming up through graduate school, I know there’s quite a lot of work being done, but not in my generation. Within the world of minimalism, experimental musicians, the composers themselves or their friends or associates, or music journalists, they have tended not to be that interested in music as cultural practice. This seemed like one of the most challenging interpretive projects you could take on because the whole thing that’s minimal about minimalism at some level is meaning.

MS: You seem to have found quite a bit of meaning in it.

RF: There’s an argument to be made, and it gets made about minimalist art explicitly by the artists, that the whole point of reductionist minimalism is literally to make it so there’s no space for any interpretation to happen. Minimalism in the visual arts is often interpreted as the most extreme form of an artist attack on interpretation of their work, which would seem to preclude any discussion of art as a cultural practice—unless you’re going to argue that it’s a culture practice to deny that you’re doing a cultural practice, and there is an argument about that. At the same time, on the other side of the divide is pop art where artists are directly engaging with commercial culture. Minimalism was always thought to be the retreat away from that. So on the one hand you have musicologists, some of whom are interested in the fact that music might actually disclose really important cultural meanings. And on the other hand, you have a bunch of musicians whose aesthetic is both coming out of a 20th-century formalism and also whose art is being analogize to that form of visual art which is most hostile to any kind of interpretive reading at all. The challenge was to see if you could in fact bring those two things together.

Let me take this one step further and then you’ll see why this is so interesting. The suspicion began to arise that all of that increasingly high-decibel denial that something didn’t mean anything was a kind of repression or cover up. Imagine a huge musical traffic cop shouting, “Nothing to see here, keep it moving, just listen to the notes!” I’m willing to believe that a very abstract piece by Donald Martino or Charles Wuorinen, if they say it doesn’t mean anything, in a way you’re willing to believe that because certainly no one is acting like it means a huge amount. It doesn’t hook into some larger cultural consciousness, whereas minimalism clearly did. It’s clearly important to people in a way that other contemporary music is not, but at the same time you’re being told that it doesn’t really mean anything at all other than as pure sound. So it seems like a space where cultural criticism of art could really do some work.

In a way, I wanted to bring the field in which I work to this music and also perhaps bring the people making the music some sense of what the audience in my field would be saying about it. The explanations for what minimalism is have never been super satisfying to me. Instead, you have invocations in a sort of optimistic way of a kind of multicultural hypothesis—that the reason people are attracted to minimalism is because it represents a fusion of the East and West. It’s European culture sort of taking the best out of Eastern religion; it’s a kind of slightly romanticized idea that minimalism is a kind of form of meditation or Eastern religious practice which really appeals to people because they’re trying to escape from, well, everything that my book is about.

MS: We’ve talked a lot about what minimalism is thought to be about, and the fact that you’re suspicious of that. But what are you arguing it is about?

RF: Well, the cover of the book, with people playing music in a very regimented way [as Suzuki students], and an analogy is being made of the repetition you see every day when you go into the super market and see the products on the shelf. And to be told that, no, this music has absolutely nothing to do with this—in fact, it is a style of art which is designed to be the antithesis of all that overloaded consumer stuff. There are people saying that minimalism is the castor oil for capitalist society, driving away from all the billboards and back to nature, or also the idea that yes, this may mean something culturally, but it’s not our culture. Instead, it will help you get over the nightmare of this capitalist Western world and go to a meditation place in the Orient where they don’t have this stuff. And you just want to point out, have you ever been to Japan?

Once you ask what minimalism might mean in terms of Western capitalist culture and the consumer culture that we find ourselves in, you’re actually dealing with things that normally get talked about in departments of cultural studies, in departments of communications, in departments where people actually take responsibility for talking about a society saturated with advertising and media. So to some extent, I also wanted to see if I could get an audience which usually thinks that art music has nothing to offer it, because when they want to understand contemporary society and, in particular, the way advertising and media makes us feel and constructs a subjectivity for us, it never occurs to them to talk about art music, because for them it’s always going to be about T.V. shows or maybe popular music. But certainly never art music, because art music has locked itself up in this ivory tower of abstraction and formalism. I wanted to show them, no, in fact, this music, because it doesn’t have explicit labels on it, is able to reflect structures in contemporary society in a very profound way.

MS: Is that really fair to say that it’s art music, though? One of your main examples, the works of Philip Glass, you hear him in the background of American Express commercials now.

RF: Well, let’s lay this down. I can quote you chapter and verse from Philip Glass, who does not accept the fact that his music is popular music and he probably doesn’t whip out his Juilliard degree and say hey, look, but the truth is that he thinks of himself as an art music composer. His hypothesis is that art music composers create new languages. He actually created a new language for music and yes, if his music sounds like popular music, it’s because they’re using the language he constructed. Now, I’m not endorsing that point of view, but he’s pretty clear on the fact that there’s a distinction between how he functions in culture and how a popular musician does. But the truth is that the fact that the music appears in commercials doesn’t make it pop music. Or does it? In a way, that’s my next book. It’s an interesting question to ask if it has the full status of what we call art music. And I think probably it doesn’t and I talk about that, especially in the chapters where I engage with popular music, like disco. But it’s not that minimalism gets kicked out of the high art club because it fails to play by the Stravinsky rule—it’s because it’s too rhythmic, it’s too groovy, and that argues that contemporary art music may have a problem with physical desire. Because the anxiety appears to be about a kind of repetitious groove based music that gets the body moving and a fear that that’s not an appropriate thing to do in a world where you’ve got Boulez and Webern.

MS: So, why is art music afraid of this, and why isn’t minimalism?

RF: If you imagine that goal-directedness does have something to do with a physical desire, that experience of tension and release that anyone from Freud to Dr. Ruth would argue is the fundamental physical reality of a body, that’s the rhythm of life and in some ways that’s the rhythm of tonal music as well. There is a sense that a lot of contemporary music has given up on goal directedness, and that’s a fundamental shift in the way music feels. For Leonard Meyer the key figure was John Cage. He had a very logically inescapable argument that if your piece is constructed by rolling the dice, you can’t possibly have a sense of forward motion. Where would it come from? And if Cage imagines music as able to be that, sounds that he doesn’t even control, he’s given up on the ability to create goal-directed narrative in music. Thus the history of music since the Renaissance, which is the history of music having directionality and being a representation of the self and our desires, is over.

A large part of the work I’m trying to do, especially in the beginning parts of this book, is to follow up on my intuition that it wasn’t music that had fundamentally changed that way, at least in the case of minimalism, it was desire that had changed. Minimalism is still goal directed in some very different ways. So it’s still in some ways a representation of desire, and that’s a large part of how it’s a cultural practice. If we’re representing how we desire, that’s a really important thing for an art work to do. One of the points I wanted to argue, at least implicitly, is that people care about minimalism because it does appear to have goal direction, just on a different scale, in a different way. It’s a metaphor for a different kind of desire than you get from Beethoven, and that’s logical because the culture we live in is radically different.

That was the point of doing an analysis of a Donna Summer song and a Steve Reich piece, where we obviously get that the piece of popular music is about sex, about desire, in a particularly troubling sort of late-capitalist way, sex mixed up with money and mechanisms and repetition. And the point was to sort of startle you and have you think, oh, damn, Steve Reich is sort of playing the same game. I start talking about recombinant teleology: the idea that it’s not that useful to imagine that there’s some music that has goal direction like Beethoven and Guns N’ Roses, and then there’s some music that doesn’t, like minimalism or disco, but in fact what you’re usually talking about is a whole spectrum of possible ways of organizing teleology. What you want to do is think about, well, what are the recombinations of that goal-directedness now that we live in the late 20th century. Instead of being surrounded by romantic poets, we’re surrounded by advertising executives. That was the center of this book in many ways—the idea that if you could get a handle on how desire had changed, you could get the metaphor that minimalism in music might represent.

MS: It became almost head-smacking obvious once you start talking about how we’ve been trained by society to always want more things, where the process of buying is where we find the pleasure, not in the actual object.

RF: I spend a huge amount of time in the book going over how fascinated cultural theorists have been with advertising, by the idea of what the relationship is between the desire for the iPod Nano and the desire for another human being. Presumably we would imagine that second desire as organic and natural, but what happens is that in trying to see if those two desires have anything in common you get into some really deep theses about how we actually experience our desires, and how, in fact, large parts of what we imagine to be ourselves are actually constructed through discourse. Advertising is a discourse and the French theorists, who I find very interesting, argue that consumption of goods is, in a way, a sort of discourse, like a language. We all understand that what car you drive tells people something about you and that you construct an identity for yourself out of an array of consumer goods. And one of the large theses of my book is that if there’s any contemporary art music that is actually dealing with this fundamental experience of the contemporary world, it’s minimalism.

MS: Do you have any evidence that any of the composers you cite intended that?

RF: No. Not really. Well, is that 100 percent? Well, let me just concede the point and then see if I can crawl back up from the pit. The point you have to concede is no, I really don’t, not in any depth. And the truth is I would imagine that if you handed my book to Philip Glass or Steve Reich, or certainly Andriessen, whose music I talk about, they would probably be horrified by the thesis, and this is where we started at the beginning of our talk—that even to make this argument contravenes this sort of post-Stravinsky formalist idea of what an art music composer is supposed to be. So let’s just walk it down. On level one, a lot of them would be horrified that their music is about anything at all. Now some minimalism is imagined as a kind of programmatic music, but then it’s always about counter-cultural liberal good things, so, at the level of conscious intention, anti-commercial, anti-consumer. They imagine their art as a kind of retreat or a critique of consumer culture, So, yeah, I can’t imagine they intended this.

When I first start talking about advertising, if you notice the structure of that chapter, it’s a whole series of flanking maneuvers as I deal with every possible objection that you would have to what I characterize as a sort of perverse hermeneutic. Isn’t this a perverse reading, Bob? Vivian Perlis, a very passionate defender of contemporary music, was infuriated by a talk I gave on this subject. She got up after the talk and said that I must hate this music. I think the composers themselves probably imagine themselves as either simply opting completely out of the consumer society we find ourselves in or, if you want to talk about that, their art is an implicit critique if that. And I deeply admire the politics of most of these guys and in some ways share them, though I might be a little more Gen X about it—I still want my iPod Nano. But I have a very different attitude than most composers do about what would be the most interesting thing for an art music to do when faced with the reality of consumer culture. Most people imagine that its job is to stay aloof from that, and in fact to maintain its autonomy, and if deals with it at all, to provide an alternative. But my idea is that what’s really impressive about an art music is if it engages with that really overwhelming reality outside of the compositional studio.

There’s a little quote from an art critic in the book, and the critic is trying to defend pop art and argue that it is as serous as hard-edged abstract art. And she ends up saying that she’s interested in art that has the strength to avoid tasteful choices and avoid getting soiled by mass culture. I think we’re all trained if we go into the arts, and especially if we go into music, and especially if we get interested in experimental or avant-garde music, that you’re being praised to some extent for what you don’t let yourself do. You can caricature this, right? I won’t write a triad. I won’t use an electric guitar. I won’t put a funk rhythm in. I won’t try to make people like me. And those are all, to some extent, more extreme versions of tasteful choices. And I believe that most of the composers, even of the music I’m studying in this book, are really striving for that. And look, I can’t criticize. That is certainly a perfectly valid way to organize your creativity and I am not a composer. I don’t presume to know what energizes people to do that very difficult work. But on the other hand, I’m actually interested in championing a view of minimalism that celebrates it for the same thing that this critic thought about, which is that it has the strength at some level to avoid some of those tasteful choices. We live in a mass consumer culture where our identity is powerfully mediated through consumer goods. Its size and intensity just dwarfs everything else. It appears that, whether intentional or not, this art has actually allowed itself to get caught up in the rhythms and the structures and the desire mechanisms of contemporary mass culture. In doing so, you could argue, it’s doing the single most important thing that any art music in America could do—actually engaging with the fundamental reality of our lives.

There’s a moment where I say all those repetitions in minimalism, those pieces that go on for hours, the pulsating sameness and the kind of sublime terror of it—oh, my god, this piece is two hours long and uses one chord!—has something to do with becoming aware of, in a kind of primal and physical way, the amount of desire production and advertising that’s just all around. That’s much more important to me than a composer sort of saying I hold myself aloof from this world. That’s a nonsensical statement. You are advertised to. That’s like saying I refuse to breath air. You can’t do it. We’ll see what people think. To some extent the book is designed not to be a deliberate provocation, but it’s a revisionist account of minimalism, isn’t it? It’s trying to turn on its head a whole way of thinking about minimalism that champions it for being abstract, formalized, meditative. I’m in fact celebrating it because it appears to me to be an image of all that excess, of everything in contemporary culture that actually frightens us. It sort of puts that back in our face and in a sense says look, you can surf this. That to me is a fascinating moment, you can actually get off on the repetitions, you can figure out how to deal with this and become more aware of how artificial any desire actually is.