Category: In Print

In Conversation with David W. Stowe

David Stowe

An interview with the author of How Sweet the Sound: Music in the Spiritual Lives of Americans.

Molly Sheridan: Where did your interest in this link between music and spirituality in America come from?

David Stowe: I was in Japan for three years at a graduate school of American studies and was asked to develop an undergraduate course on American culture and religion. So I thought, well, what about American religious music? As I worked on that course and then continued to teach it when I got back to Michigan, the subject grew on me. I realized there was some really fascinating music out there that hadn’t been written about in any sort of comprehensive way, and so I began to think about this as a book. It’s a book that really grew out of teaching, but I think the situation of being in Japan and having a perspective from outside the U.S. while thinking about what makes the United States tick as a culture helped me reflect on the importance of music and religion.

MS: Religious music in America could mean many different things. Where did you start when you decided to teach this class? I’m curious what jumped out at you when you first started to think about what to bring into this.

DS: I ordered lots of materials—I was teaching Japanese students, so I wanted to have as much musical and visual material as I could so there wouldn’t be as much of a language barrier. I got in touch with my father, who’s kind of a music buff, and I knew that he had some old religious music. He’d grown up in a Christian family and I asked him if he could make some tapes for me. I think he was surprised that I was interested.

I really started with gospel, with the African-American tradition. The stuff that I could obtain easily in Japan was from the Smithsonian Folkways [Recordings]. One of the first collections I got was the four-part CD put together by Bernice Reagon. It’s called Wade in the Water: African-American Sacred Music Traditions. Then I gradually began obtaining a wider range of Christian music and then began seeing what I could get in terms of other world religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam. I figured I should know something about all those musics, but it really started with black gospel.

MS: You said your father was an initial source. Did you grow up in a particularly religious music-oriented household?

DS: It wasn’t a really intense kind of conservative religious background, but I knew my father had some stuff. He was also a big jazz fan, so he got me started on my interest in jazz as well. Actually, my memories of jazz are more vivid.

MS: Your book ends up encompassing quite a bit of different religions and kinds of music. Is there any defining characteristic or sound that ties them together? Or are they all something different as far as this “American spiritual” sound you’re writing about?

DS: What I discovered after immersing myself in the music for a long time was that the Protestant hymn tradition had a really powerful impact on all the forms of religion in America. That the form of the hymn— which is a relatively rigid, structured form of usually four lines and four verses and so forth—had an impact on Buddhist religious music in North America. It had [also] affected Jewish music in the reformed tradition. It had certainly shaped Catholic religious music in different ways. So the hymn form, which really developed among New England Protestants, ended up being a kind of thread throughout the history of American sacred music.

MS: How did those characteristics jump the religion barrier?

DS: First of all, hymns are very useful in that they are short. You can set different text to different songs, so they’re very versatile and flexible. And they were very good at capturing the core theology, the core creed of the faith. I think other religious traditions in North America were exposed to hymns—these hymns were public culture for much of American history, so [most people] were aware of them—and they began to realize that these were practices that would help their own religious communities. These short, memorable tunes that captured the core message would work for other faiths. They were aware that their musical traditions from the old world, so to speak, weren’t as appealing in North America and so began to look for techniques to borrow. It was really immersion in hymn-singing culture and a recognition that hymns could help their communities grow.

MS: I was reading this morning about a group of 17th-century Jesuits in Bolivia. They realized that the language of music was a more effective way of communicating the teachings of God than prayer and preaching alone. It’s a very important in religious evangelism, especially when you’re dealing with a language barrier.

DS: Right. The first point of contact between Europeans and native peoples in America was through music. Catholic and Protestant missionaries were usually among the first Europeans, and they quickly realized that music was a way of communicating, of obtaining some interest, and basically it was a very effective medium for conveying Christian beliefs.

I think there’s also a sense in a predominantly Christian culture like the United States for these minority religious traditions to assimilate themselves so as not to stand out and draw attention. One thing you see, for example, is that Japanese-American Buddhists tend to organize themselves into churches. They meet on Sunday mornings, they have the equivalent of sermons, and they would sing hymns. So they adopted all of these forms from Protestant worship and I think part of it was to escape the sense of being this kind of alien, un-American religion, as a way of making themselves look and probably feel more familiar.

MS: You’re talking a lot about formal religions in the examples we’ve been discussing, and yet the book is subtitled using the word “spiritual”, which obviously can be the same thing or different. What’s the division in the music you’re actually covering? Is it one and the same, or a little bit of both sides?

DS: Well, I try not to use them completely interchangeably. I think spiritualism is a broader category that encompasses religion, but I think of religion as more institutionalized traditional forms of worship. Most of the book does deal with recognizable world religions, but I wanted to open it a bit to other forms of religious experience which are maybe not recognizably Christian or Hindu or Muslim. Especially in the 20th century, when I talk about figures like Duke Ellington and Sun Ra and John Coltrane, they don’t really fit comfortably into any one organized religious tradition, and so I think spirituality is a more apt term. I think also with Native American spiritual traditions it’s useful to have that broader category.

MS: The chapter that you wrote connecting the beliefs and practices of Sun Ra and 18th-century mystic Conrad Beissle I thought was really fascinating. I would have loved to excerpt a portion of that on our site, but it just really was too complex to do so cleanly. Would you, in lieu of that, talk a bit about what led you to draw those parallels between the two men?

DS: Well, there’s an online version of that article you might be interested in then. It’s basically the same thing.

What led me to it? I guess in both cases it had to do with colleagues of mine. One of my graduate school advisors, John Szwed from Yale, had published a biography of Sun Ra. In reading that book I discovered this really extraordinary world of Afrocentric spirituality that had shaped his career, so I was aware of that. And a colleague of mine at Michigan State, Arthur Versluis, is one of the international figures on esoteric religion and in talking to him I’d been exposed to the history of these German-speaking immigrant groups, these mystical communities in North America. As I read more about those, I thought, Ah-ha! These two musical movements, so different—they’re 200 years apart—really share some pretty crucial core beliefs about the central importance of music and about the relationship between music and the cosmos. Even the types of communities that Sun Ra and Beissle formed, these sort of monastic orders, so to speak, had a lot in common. So I just thought it was an amazing unexpected juxtaposition. I wasn’t sure it would hold together on close examination, but as I did more and more research I realized that in fact they do have a lot in common. I didn’t find any evidence that Sun Ra was aware of these earlier groups, but certainly they drew on a shared tradition going back to ancient Greece, the Pythagorean tradition, and in Sun Ra’s case back to Egypt. So, they did share a common set of philosophical and theological beliefs.

MS: Since many of our readers might be interested in the technical or musicological side of what you’re doing, I see that there are some musical examples and things scattered through the text, but how much of the book is looking at the music theory side as opposed to more of a sociological perspective?

DS: Well, I tried to do some musical analysis in all the chapters. I certainly did uneven amounts, but I tried to at least give some close, formal attention to the music that I talked about. I’m not trained as a musicologist, so I didn’t conduct technical musical analysis, but I tried to bring as much of that knowledge that I’ve developed on my own as an amateur to work on these pieces. So it’s not a work of hard-core musicology, but I think it might be closer to the sort of mix of formal analysis and sort of cultural/social analysis that you might find in ethnomusicology. I’m really trying to figure out what makes particular pieces of music work and give readers a sense of how music creates its meaning.

MS: You call yourself an amateur musician. What is your music background?

DS: I’ve been a percussionist and drummer since I was in elementary school and I taught myself some other instruments, as well, so I have a practical training in music. In doing my American studies degree, when I realized I was going to write a dissertation about jazz, I began to teach myself as much as I could about music analysis and the current state of musicology. In the period I was doing this, it was changing in very interesting ways. This was the mid-’90s, so you sort of had that new turn in musicology towards social and cultural contexts. So I did it for a comprehensive field in my graduate training and that’s about the extent of it, although I guess after reading enough of it and trying to apply it over the years, I feel like I’ve picked up a reasonably good handle on the more accessible techniques. I was writing this book for a fairly general audience, so it wouldn’t have really been useful to have very detailed technical analysis for readers who couldn’t appreciate it. So there’s kind of a nice balance between what I can do and what most of my readers can really absorb.

MS: There are so many artists that you touch on in this book, but which artistic figures really stood out for you personally as you were doing this research?

DS: There were so many. Well, Thomas Dorsey and Duke Ellington—I was just fascinated that Duke Ellington turned so single-mindedly towards sacred music in his last decade with these three ambitious concerts of sacred music and Dorsey had such a dramatic personal story. The song “Precious Lord” came out of this incredible personal tragedy where his child and his wife died in giving birth and out of that he wrote this song which probably became the best known of all gospel songs.

I was also really interested in Charles and John Wesley where the book begins because I thought it was such an interesting story. These two fairly young, Oxford trained, English missionaries in North America in this really wild frontier settlement, and just the incredible culture shock they underwent there. Also the experience of crossing the Atlantic, meeting these German Moravian settlers who made this incredible impression with their hymn singing. The Wesleys had a very discouraging, unsuccessful time. It was really a fiasco, their year or two in North America. They went back and of course had a great career founding Methodism and leading these incredible revivals. And then Charles Wesley becomes this prolific hymn writer—he wrote thousands and thousands of hymns. I thought that was a really dramatic story of how basically religious history and religious music was changed through these very unlikely circumstances.

MS: You said you started teaching this in Japan. How did your students react to this picture of America?

DS: I think they were kind of flabbergasted at times because I showed them a lot of footage of very intense religious practice—Pentecostal services, the kind of worship services where people are letting it all hang out. This is very far from either Japanese religious practice or Japanese practice at all. So they were kind if taken aback, but I was hoping that it would pique their interest in America. I didn’t get a lot of feedback from the students that you might expect from assertive American undergraduates. They tended to keep their opinions to themselves, partly because of the language barrier. I did have evidence that it shook up their impression of what religious experience and practice was like. It was just so different from Buddhist or Shinto music. Some of the students wanted to know more about the performers and where they could get the stuff on CD. I guess that was their way of expressing interest.

MS: Can you have religion without music?

DS: No, I don’t think so. I think the two are really joined at the hip.

MS: Even certain practitioners of Islam who forbid music, their prayers could be listened to with musical ears. Even there you could almost say that there’s an aspect still of this connection.

DS: Exactly. Islam is a really interesting case because to call the chanting of the Koran or the call to prayer “music” is a kind of sacrilege. The term music can’t be applied to that, but of course to non-Muslim ears, it does sound like music. It’s got all the qualities of music. So, you can’t find religion without some sort of musical expression. As far as people can tell from the study of the early roots of human beings, religion and music grew up together, and that relationship is very strong throughout the entire world.

In Conversation with Steven F. Pond

Steven Pond

An interview with the author of Head Hunters: The Making of Jazz’s First Platinum Album

Molly Sheridan: So, how many times have you heard the record at this point?

Steven Pond: How many thousands of times, you mean? [laughs] I listened to it a whole bunch when it came out, so I listened to it when writing, of course, but I didn’t need to as much as you might think because I had so much of it already committed to memory. But in an average week? Maybe a dozen times.

MS: Why look at this album, and in this context, now?

SP: You know it’s funny, no one has written a biography of Herbie Hancock. I wouldn’t call this a biography of him—but it’s a biography of the album, and by that I mean I’ve tried to include whatever went into the creation of album: all the people that played on it, the people that produced it, even the people who sold it, because it was such a marketing phenomenon as well as an artistic one.

So the reason for it now? Well, part of it is that jazz-rock fusion has effectively been written out of jazz history. People do that because it interferes with some other kind of narrative that they have in place, and that to me is very interesting. So I’m looking at what this narrative is and suggesting an alternative way to think about jazz history.

MS: Why was it written out?

SP: It really made a lot of people mad. People thought of it as pandering, as a sort of treachery to the seriousness of jazz. Here jazz was, blatantly trying to capture a larger audience, trying to do it in ways that appealed to a whole younger generation that had largely not gotten involved in jazz. A lot of people were alienated. My interpretation is that they feared they would be seen as no longer being musically relevant. The music was going in the path of young rebellious kids and they didn’t want to go there. They saw dollar signs all over the place and because this is the height of the major commercial wave of rock ‘n’ roll, it really offended them very deeply.

MS: And with phrases like the “imminent death” of jazz being thrown around, did this really damage “jazz,” as they wanted it defined, in any way?

SP: All you really have to do is look at the reaction to this music in the late ’70s and early ’80s and then forward from there. I don’t mean to single out one particular jazz figure, but of course Wynton Marsalis has become sort of a spokesman for the idea of promoting a much older style of music and pretending that fusion never happened. Just sort of hop-scotching over it.

MS: But fusion obviously didn’t hurt him or his sort of jazz—he’s been extremely successful.

SP: Right. A big part of this is that I don’t think Herbie Hancock really intended to strike a blow for a certain kind of ideology. What he was really trying to do was address a musical problem and along the way address a professional problem for himself.

MS: So this was very much conscious?

SP: Oh, of course. It is for anybody. Even if they’re inclined not to consider the market, there’s no way for them not to do it in real life—even if all you’re doing is selling 300 records and that’s all you mean to, you mean to do that. But they had no clue [Head Hunters] was going to sell like this. The closest that anybody had come to selling a jazz album on this scale was really Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and that was 300,000. So here was something that doubled that, tripled it almost.

MS: That must have been sort of scary for them, in a way?

SP: How do you follow that? It does kind of present the question of what you do for a second act. The next album was also very well received and it sold almost as well as Head Hunters. But really shortly after that Herbie Hancock toured with a group called VSOP that was sort of a reconstitution of Miles Davis’s quintet playing acoustic jazz, very similar to stuff that had been played with Davis in the ’60s. So it wasn’t like he was leaving all this stuff behind; he was just following his muse, wherever that music went.

MS: Doesn’t sound like you feel this was a sell-out in any way, economics over art.

SP: Right, I don’t think so. I think this is a case where many things came together: artistic things, social issues, interaction between the musicians, the technology to put all this stuff into place, and the marketing infrastructure. All these things converged.

MS: What was particular about the marketing of this album?

SP: There was a whole way of marketing jazz recordings that was much more invested in highlighting a particular artist or even, by extension, the artist’s label. So you’d have things in the jazz bin in the back of the store—all the Horace Silver, for example. They might sit on the shelf for five or six years, but that wasn’t a problem because the production cost was very low and it didn’t matter when you turned it over. It wasn’t even the main thing that Horace Silver was doing—he was performing and that was at least as lucrative for him as these records.

That was the original way of approaching Head Hunters, but there was this one guy, Vernon Slaughter in the Washington D.C./Baltimore area, who took it on himself to market it in the way that you would do rhythm and blues and the emerging funk scene at the time, which was to put it on AM and FM radio. Low and behold, the freeform FM stations got a hold of it and they started playing it in its entirety as an artistic album. And freeform was the right name—very eclectic—but it was also the bellwether of what was hip. And it was Vernon Slaughter looking outside of the normal way you do jazz marketing that enabled a whole new crowd of people to be exposed to this music. There was talk on the street about how hip this album was and that started this buzz that became a marketing behemoth. Eventually the jazz record stores and radio stations did pick it up in a big way, but it didn’t happen first with those people. It happened first with the R&B folks.

MS: You mentioned earlier that there’s no biography of Hancock, so how did your perception of him as an artist and a person evolve as you were digging around and gathering people’s recollections?

SP: I really found two distinct and opposing sets of comments. One was made up of people who revered Hancock as one of the seminal jazz pianists of his age and most people referred to the period during the 1960s when he was both a solo artist and a member of the Miles Davis group. Then I found a whole other crowd of people who essentially vilified him for walking away from jazz. Many people pointed to Future Shock which was a major R&B hit—it was really one of the first songs in serious video rotation on MTV, the other being Michael Jackson’s Thriller. And that sort of stayed with him. I’m academically interested in figuring out what is it that people have at stake to corral somebody like that and place him in one particular narrative and leave it at that. To the extent that he violates that narrative, this group gets unhappy.

MS: I can see being disappointed if you’re a fan of one style, but vilification seems like such an extreme reaction.

SP: Well, there’s a lot invested in the idea of jazz being America’s classical art form. The United States has sort of sported a black eye as the stepchild of Europe when it comes to academic music, so we have enjoyed being able to point with pride to jazz as a high-art music. I think that’s a big part of what Hancock’s critics were disappointed about. In their eyes, he seemed to be turning away from that—something that had seriousness and probity—and was instead chasing dollars. But in fact, he was not really doing that. He was playing the music that he wanted to play.

MS: How much of this book is artistic discussion vs. how much is the extraneous process and politics and environment that surrounded this album?

SP: The book really is about the intersection of all the things you mention. I’d say that the transcriptions and analysis are peppered throughout and probably account for something like 15 percent of the book. A much larger part of it has to do with trying to assess the historical period and what the musicians had to say about the importance of the album, and the making of the album, and even the selling of the album. So it’s an oral history, it’s a cultural history, it’s a little bit of a biography, and a little bit of a musical analysis piece. And I’ve really made some wonderful friends out of it too, which is maybe the best thing.

MS: You devote a whole chapter in the book to the “African Thing.” At the time, how did this music intersect with the African-American culture?

SP: Think about the time. In 1973 it was just after the death of Martin Luther King. We were still reeling from the conflicts that led both to the advances of the Voting Rights Act and the death of Malcolm X. Some of the major agitating organizations were losing their political punch. The Black Panthers had been basically hounded out if existence. We were at the low ebb of our popularity with the Vietnam War, which was seen as something that was especially damaging to black people in the United States, so there was a lot of anger. And besides the anger, there was a desire to honor and valorize black consciousness, and it was important to these artists.

MS: How much of it was political and how much was it artistic for them then?

SP: It’s hard to separate these things. Herbie Hancock didn’t legally change his name, but he became called Mwandishi which is a Swahili name for composer, and it’s clear that Head Hunters refers very strongly to African aesthetics and ideals and images. I think that’s plain enough, not only in the way the music is put together, and I talk about that extensively in the book, but also the actual sounds that are incorporated—for example the opening and closing of “Watermelon Man.” But also the imagery in the album’s cover art is really invested in African imagery, and the name of the album itself is a sort of tongue in cheek reference to African images.

MS: I love this whole issue that you raise towards the end—is it jazz, is it funk—and who this question is important to. So, who’s on this list?

SP: As it turns out, it’s important to most historians and many if not most jazz players. The problem is that it’s music that doesn’t have to be labeled in order to have meaning, but the placement of a label on this music turns out to be of extreme importance to these people, so that they can control the meaning.

MS: Considering how fearful the jazz establishment was at the time this record dropped, what was its actual impact and influence as compared to the one they were imagining at the time?

SP: Let’s start with what they were imagining at the time. One of the things that they were very fearful of was that the style of production incorporated a lot of things like multitrack recording, amplification, and electronic manipulation of sound. People were worried to death that it signaled a huge loss in the improvisational quality of jazz and that the image of jazz as being a serious music was under threat. But in fact the album is highly improvisational. The other thing is just the size of the investment that companies were willing to put into a fusion record—in the old days the idea of putting $150,000 into producing a jazz album would have been absurd. You wouldn’t spend more than about 10 or 15 percent of that. So here’s an album that cost over $100,000 to produce, the record company recoups that money and they make a profit, and it encourages them to reinvest that money and keep their thing going. So there was a lasting influence in terms of the jazz production infrastructure that record labels were able to justify financially to themselves.

Jazz has always been this dance between tradition and innovation. This was a very innovative approach to making a jazz album which then got replicated by a number of people in various ways. It became part of the language that they would refer into and so it helped to expand the boundaries of what counts as jazz. I think that’s a good thing. And it turns out that because the labels were starting to make all kinds of money on these fusion artists, they were now emboldened to sign more mainstream jazz artists. The whole scene was starting to expand and they recognized that customers were now starting to get attracted to jazz generally.

MS: So, how many years before you’ll be able to listen to this album again?

SP: You know what, I’ll probably listen to it tonight. [laughs]

In Conversation with Walter Simmons

Walter Simmons

An interview with the author of Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers.

Molly Sheridan: With a multi-volume project proposed, of which this volume is the first, you’re obviously quite dedicated to this subject matter. What are your own personal/professional motivations for this?

Walter Simmons: My motives are really stated in the book’s introduction: I have been passionately drawn to the music of these composers—whom I call “20th-century traditionalists”—since I was a teenager. Having studied it pretty intensively over the years, I became tired of the superficial, simplistic way this repertoire is treated in most reference books and other musicological texts. I believe that these composers deserve to be taken seriously, which means that their entire outputs need to be analyzed, digested, and assessed, and then discussed from that perspective. That is what I am trying to do in my series.

MS: Why these six representatives? Who were you most disappointed not to be able to include?

WS: The six composers chosen for Voices in the Wilderness—Bloch, Hanson, Giannini, Creston, Barber, and Flagello—are all neo-romantics. The subsequent volumes in the “Twentieth-Century Traditionalists” series will deal with other stylistic subdivisions. The only neo-romantics I would have liked to include but didn’t are still living. I made the decision to include only deceased composers, because I really wanted to have their entire outputs to deal with. A secondary reason for this decision, to tell you the truth, is that I have become fed up with composers whose music I have written admiringly of complaining essentially that my writing isn’t “admiring enough.” One composer (who shall be nameless) complained, when I described his gift for melodies that are irresistibly “pretty,” “if you can’t call it ‘beautiful,’ I’d rather you say nothing at all.” That sort of did it for me.

Interestingly, most of the reviews of my book have commented favorably on the fact that I don’t extol the virtues of these composers without reservation. Each of them has weaknesses as well as strengths, and some works are less effective or less fully realized than others. Part of “taking them seriously” means facing these realities squarely, and I don’t shy away from doing this. But it is hard for living composers to be “objective” about this sort of thing.

MS: You mention that you had some personal contact with the composers, like Creston (the section we’ve excerpted here). Any anecdotes to share?

WS: So many, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Originally, I had planned to include my personal impressions and reminiscences of the composers in Voices. But then I decided, it’s one thing to tell anecdotes about well-established composers, but another to do so with composers I’m trying to draw positive attention to. It’s usually after a composer becomes established that anecdotes are of any interest and begin to appear. I’m afraid I have to say, after many decades in this business, that composers tend not to be the most wonderful people—they’re not the type who win “humanitarian” awards, but no one cares about that if their music turns out to be great. I think that the shrewd reader of my book will pick things up from “between the lines,” so to speak.

MS: When you’re at a party and you see a colleague cringing over the term neo-romantic, how do you counter their perceptions/prejudices?

WS: Well, to tell you the truth, this doesn’t happen very often anymore. Thirty-five years ago, when I was doing my graduate work in theory and musicology, it happened quite often—among faculty and other students—and I was quite belligerent about it and relished every opportunity to shoot down such people to the best of my ability. However, in recent years—no doubt partly because I am in more control of whom I spend my time with—I rarely encounter this sort of thing. The most common reaction I get is along the lines of, “It’s about time someone did what you’re doing.” In fact, it was just this sort of encouragement that I was receiving from many sources that finally led me to make the commitment to undertake this project.

MS: Since you preface the book with an argument that these composers have been locked out of the academy, what sorts of lessons do they offer today’s composers and students? What have we missed?

WS: I’m not sure I fully understand what you’re asking here, but if I do, I think the main lesson (one that is hardly original, yet needs to be re-learned by every generation) is that musical fashion is transitory—what is “in” today will be “out” tomorrow, and vice versa. But “real” composers ignore fashion and follow only their inner truths. Another lesson—equally unoriginal—to be learned from the days of serialist hegemony is, you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all of the time. Also, that “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a metaphor that never loses its relevance.

MS: Speaking of, you classify Carter as a serialist, which is unusual. Why?

WS: Although Carter may not have embraced strict serial procedures, I think that he has been influenced by serialist principles of compositional control and, most importantly, by a general vocabulary of sounds that, in a broad sense, associate him with that group of composers.

MS: You cite modern music trends of mid-century as the reason for audience decline. How does this differ from other modern performing arts as far as their relationship with public?

WS: As many before me have pointed out, people go to the theater chiefly to see new plays—old ones are called “revivals.” Ditto new movies, new novels. And the reactions of audiences are clearly taken into consideration when new productions are planned. It’s largely in music where the central diet consists of “revivals,” and where new pieces are presented with little concern for audience reactions—at least this was the case 40 years ago, maybe less so today.

MS: I like your argument that it’s not a race to a musical end point. When you survey the scene today, do you think that’s as much of an issue as it was during the height of serialism? What should our artistic goals be?

WS: No, this “linear progress” fallacy does not seem to be as much of an issue today as it was 30-40 years ago—this is a change I heartily welcome! I think the main goal of art is to comment meaningfully—through whatever medium—on the central issues of the human condition: love/hate, mortality/immortality, God or the absence thereof, anguish/exaltation, and the myriad subtleties that these issues touch upon. Others may feel differently, but this is what I value, this is what I look for, and this is what offers meaning to my life.

In Conversation with William Duckworth

An interview with the author of Virtual Music: How the Web Got Wired for Sound.

William Duckworth
Photo by Paula Court

Molly Sheridan: In your introduction, you compare the “electricity in the air” surrounding online artistic possibilities as being similar to the energy generated by the ’60s avant-garde. For those who are still pretty much off-line, at least as far as art goes, how is that aesthetically manifesting itself?

William Duckworth: It’s a question of permission. People can do things now, artistically, that they couldn’t do only a few years ago. In the ’60s we suddenly learned that any sound is permitted to be music. Now, we’re learning that everybody is permitted to be a musician. And the prime reason for this is the Internet has leveled the playing field as never before. Today, technology is either freely available or affordable. Not only can anybody set up a website and turn themselves into a corporation, now anybody who wants to can create art online. There are a lot of music-related sites that allow people to interact. And it’s getting easier and easier for almost everyone to get involved, at least at some level. I think this trend will grow increasingly true, as many of our online activities move to the cell phone over the next five years.

MS: You talk a lot about the undeniable speed at which things are moving these days. How does an effective artist keep up? Do you need to? How long before you’re “dated”?

WD: It depends, to some extent, on where your work falls on the artistic spectrum. If it’s cutting edge, you’d better keep up. But that was true for electronic music composers, and twelve-tone composers before them, as well. The “new” always seems in a hurry to get going. And it’s true that the down side of choosing current sounds and media is that their relevancy often decays pretty quickly. But that has always happened in music; it’s why we have different styles. And even then, if you wait around long enough your sound, your ‘instrument’, and your style will probably come back into vogue. So for composers, the key to successfully navigating through music online is to choose a means of expression that is true to you, because that’s what makes it timeless.

MS: You devote an entire chapter to art and ethics online, and file-sharing falls under that heading. You also briefly comment on the Grey Album and the related impact. As a composer yourself with a long track record working virtually, what are your hopes/ideas for an acceptable solution to controlling digital property from an artistic standpoint? Can it/should it be a question of economics?

WD: It is a question of economics, because that’s the system we live in. That’s how artists make a living. And until we have a situation where artists’ digital rights are sufficiently protected, we’re going to have to move forward carefully. But it’s also a matter of art. And new art requires a bit more leeway that commerce does. Furthermore, given the nature of the digital medium, there needs to be a way for composers to opt out, and to allow other artists the freedom to utilize their material, as Jay Z did with the Grey Album. This is why groups like Creative Commons and individuals such as Lawrence Lessig, who has argued digital rights issues before the Supreme Court, are so crucial at this stage of the debate.

MS: What does this brave new world of virtual music mean for the traditional composer?

WD: In art, the “new” doesn’t replace the “old”, it resides along side. Now not every composer will, or should, be active online, of course, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be represented there. Between iTunes, podcasting, and web radio, to mention some of the current technology, there is an equal opportunity for everyone to be heard. Look, for instance, at the success of Kyle Gann’s Post Classic web radio station, and what it is doing for experimental music. So if you, as a traditional composer, want to be active online, there are plenty of opportunities today, and even more to come.

MS: Personally, what aspects of these technological developments are you most excited about? What aspects do you regret/worry about?

WD: I’m not excited about technology. It’s a tool. But having said that, the present technology affords us a myriad of possibilities far greater in dimension than any artistic instrument we’ve had so far. The web has so many bells, whistles, and buttons, that it’s endless. If you consider the harpsichord, for example, we’ve jumped 27 levels of features above that. Plus, online music is finally affordable, and that means it’s going to give voice to people who haven’t had the opportunity or have been shut out. Personally, most intriguing is how the web offers the ability to reach and really engage with a worldwide audience.

What worries me is that we’re moving rather quickly from an analog world focused on sound to a digital world driven by convenience. And I think we’re doing that without knowing what we’re discarding and leaving behind. I’m not talking about replacing the acoustical musician with a computer, but rather about the quality of sound; the beauty of sound, and how that is being changed digitally.

In Conversation with Electra Slonimsky Yourke

Father and daughter, 1987
Photo by Betty Freeman

An interview with the editor of Nicolas Slonimsky: Writings on Music.

Molly Sheridan: You were only just beginning this project when last we spoke. How did it go? Did you do all this by yourself?

Electra Slonimsky Yourke: Yes, pretty much all by myself. The premise was that my father had been writing for upwards of sixty years—not just books, but for periodicals, journals, professional and general media—and I felt this material should be retrieved and made available. Most of his archive is in the Library of Congress and it has been splendidly catalogued, but in my closet were boxes of assorted materials from his house, including clippings, tear sheets, and manuscripts, not organized at all. So for me the work was finding and selecting and assembling. I worked my way through a lot of stuff and it took quite a while. I wrote introductions for each volume, selected illustrations, and read proofs. It kept me busy. I do have a day job.

MS: How did you decide to organize all this material?

ESY: Originally, I thought it would be one book—I was pretty sure there was an important collection of writings on Russian and Soviet music in there, and there was (Volume Two of the current series). But as the raw material accumulated, it became obvious that there was enough good stuff for more than one book. The problem was that the articles had originally been written for very different readerships—newspaper readers, concert-goers, professionals, academics—and they didn’t fit together very well in terms of tone, length, technical content. This would obviously be a problem for any publisher trying to judge the market for a proposed volume.

Eventually, Routledge decided to throw caution to the winds and commit to four volumes containing all the good stuff. So there I was, surrounded by all these clips and copies and manuscripts. It was not immediately obvious how, once the Russian materials were extracted, the rest should be organized. Eventually we decided that all the articles he wrote for the Boston Evening Transcript should be grouped because they were largely about contemporary music being performed in Boston between 1927 and 1936 and they were of similar length and style. That became Volume One. It’s quite interesting to read about composers like Tansman, Roussel, Honegger, Casella in the present tense, so to speak, and also about Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Ives prior to their beatification.

Music of the Modern Era (Volume Three) could then be a vehicle for individual articles on 20th century composers (other than Russians)—15 of them on such figures as Cowell, Ulysses Kay, Nancarrow, Varèse, Caturla—plus general articles on contemporary Cuban, Italian, and Greek music. There is also a quite lengthy study of Latin American music, a survey of the 20th century up to about 1980, and a 35,000-word monograph on Roy Harris, never before published, with a detailed, annotated works list.

So now there were three volumes that made sense. But remaining on the desk was a lot of really good stuff that didn’t fit under the other headings, ranging from a history of chamber music in America to the weather at Mozart’s funeral to a piece on Handel’s world to Tchaikovsky’s correspondence with Madame von Meck to the notorious “Sex and the Music Librarian.” What to do? What about these enjoyable little essays on chess in music, perfect pitch, conducting, musical prodigies? The answer was to wrap them up and call them Slonimskyana (Volume Four). In my introduction, I subtitled it “The Best of Everything Else.”

The final cut was 86 entries in three volumes plus the 48 articles from the Boston Evening Transcript that comprise Volume One. They had originally appeared in as many as 50 different publications and there were a few, including the Roy Harris biography and musical analysis, that apparently had never been published.

I made the decision up front that I would not edit, cut, or otherwise change any of the entries. So I did a lot of scanning and cleaning up the manuscripts and kept searching for anything I might have missed. There were rejects—articles that were repetitive or just not first rate. In fact, there were 59 separate articles eligible for the Russian volume; eventually, I selected 25 of them.

This was also a chance to re-issue some of his music in a CD inserted into the last volume. Most of the tracks are remastered from two albums produced by Orion in 1971-2. He plays many of his Minitudes, short pieces derived from certain musical ideas. Also, Gravestones in Hancock, New Hampshire, six songs styled to the identity or era of the decedent (Lydia in the Lydian mode, for instance). There is also a fine two-guitar rendition of his Modinha Russo-Brasileira, which really ought to be discovered and used as a theme song for something. Finally, at his 95th birthday celebration, he sings three of his advertising songs—I should say he renders them. Everyone who knew him became familiar with these numbers—”Children Cry for Castoria,” etc. They are published and often professionally performed, but they are only truly “incomparable” when he does them.

The CD alone is available at

MS: What were some of your favorite moments/articles to relive/reread as you were editing?

ESY: My favorite is the narrative of his travels through eastern Europe and Russia in 1963 as a State Department-sponsored cultural emissary. Obviously it meant a great deal to him to be able to return to the Russian orbit and he was in his element meeting with members of the musical establishment in each country and, more importantly, the anti-establishment. He had been following the careers of Soviet composers for Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, corresponding with them, obtaining their scores. Now he had a chance to meet with them for discourse on music—and much else. And they seemed thrilled to meet this Russo-Western expert who gave lectures on Western modernism and met with them privately to communicate not only in their own language but with reference to their own culture. The narrative is also very funny, full of anecdotes of making his way through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Poland, as well as Moscow and Leningrad, his birthplace.

MS: So, five books later—the autobiography and these four volumes of collected writings—are you finally finished editing and publishing your father’s writing? Or are there a few more boxes in the attic somewhere?

ESY: Six books—don’t forget The Listener’s Companion, which is brief bios of 19 composers from Bach to Shostakovich, with program notes of their major works.

There’s no attic, but there is a closet, and there are some boxes. There is a collection of short essays on diverse subjects that he wrote for a medical journal, oddly enough. They comprise a graceful collection and are under consideration by a publisher. I’ve had an expression of interest in his interviews, so I have been listening to CDs and tapes of radio shows, especially with Charles Amirkhanian in San Francisco and Douglas Ordunio in Los Angeles. Also, he did a lengthy oral history interview at UCLA – 350 pages, much of it very solid stuff. I have just learned that the sound department at the Library of Congress has a bunch of audio tapes and even some reel-to-reel, but nobody knows what’s on them. Frankly I’m not sure whether this is going to come together—material that sounds good doesn’t necessarily read well and a one-hour show may well be 45 minutes of chitchat and twice-told tales. The value of each has a lot to do with whether the interviewer was able to keep him under control.

  • CONTINUE to an interview with Yourke on the publication of Nicolas Slonimsky: Perfect Pitch, An Autobiography—New Expanded Edition, published January 1, 2003.

In Conversation with Maurice Peress

Maurice Peress
Photo by John Pole

An interview with the author of Dvorak to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America’s Music and Its African American Roots

Molly Sheridan: In your introduction to the book, you point out that the title, Dvořák to Ellington, is not an arbitrary selection of names. Let’s start with why that is. Can you trace briefly the line that connects them?

Maurice Peress: Dvořák was brought here in 1892, and he stayed for three seasons as the director of the Conservatory for Music of the United States, I believe it was called, which was down on the East Side of Manhattan. It was run by an extraordinary woman named Jeanette Thurber. Her husband was a successful businessman, and she knew all the important people in New York, particularly people who were supportive of America as a country that could stand on its own culturally. She came up with the notion that she’d like to find someone who could help develop an American school of composing. At first she thought of Sibelius because he was a nationalist composer. Eventually Dvořák was enticed to come here. He was quite successful in Prague and quite comfortable, but I think he was a bit of a traveler. I think he was also intrigued with the notion of democracy because people in Slovakia and in the Bohemian part of the country felt oppressed by the German language and culture which had been imposed by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire that controlled them. Dvořák was looked upon as a nationalist composer, ergo he could help to develop a nationalist school here in America, and in fact I think he did. Among his students down on 17th street—and I list them all in the back of the book—were two who went on to become teacher/mentors of Ellington, Gershwin, and Copland. So there is a direct line.

Will Marion Cook is the person that Ellington credited with being “my own personal conservatory.” Cook not only studied with Dvořák but before that he studied with Joachim in Berlin. He was a vernacular composer, which is interesting because at that time things Negroid were looked down upon even by black people, so he was very courageous in trying to create a music which reflected the ragtime and the other kinds of thing that were going on.

Goldmark was also a student of Dvořák’s at the school. Goldmark became an important composition teacher at the school that preceded the Juilliard and then went into the Juilliard as the director of the composition department. He worked with Copland for four years privately before Copland went to Boulanger, and Gershwin also came to Goldmark around the time he was writing his string quartet. It’s supposed to have been only for a short time, but in my view a relationship between two master musicians, even if it’s for a short time, can be quite deep and important. If you hear a great artist do something, we as musicians are sponges and we grab on to all the little things that can’t be spoken and they become part of our music-making from then on.

So these two particular students of Dvořák were instrumental in the school that he was supposed to create. The actual American school, and in my view, there’s only one, and it was not long-lasting, was the school that emerged in the late-’20s; the music of those three people created a school of music. You hear one bar of Copland or Gershwin or Ellington, and you know you’re listening to a unique voice and someone who uses vernacular music in a very rich and unique way. Their music actually became the signature of our country for a very long time. I’d say that the school lasted into the early ’40s and anything since then has been a kind of international school. The composers of the world are quite aware of one another; they aren’t trying to write a nationalistic music or stuff based upon folk music per se. But there was, at that time in America, this very rich resource, and it was exploited and developed in a natural and honest way by at least those three names.

MS: The book’s subtitle underlines the African American roots to this music and the text itself points out almost as much about race relations as it is does about music.

MP: In my book I really show interaction between the races beyond what anybody could have dreamed of. It’s extraordinary how these musicians know and work with each other, are friends of one another. It’s a story that has not been told, because we always think of things in terms of apartheid in our country—a white music-making and a black music-making. They really melded at the turn of the century.

MS: Is it naïve to think, though, that there was a lack of racism here that was rampant in the rest of American society?

MP: There must have been an element of it, but there’s nothing else that has a way of reaching across so-called boundaries in this way. Its appeal is so fundamental and so basic to the human spirit that it goes beyond race relations. When one is interacting in business and social activities there could be racism, but when there is a musical sharing, that crosses the boundary immediately in a way that is quite rich. For professional musicians, for people for whom music is their life’s work and the core of their being, we are curious about one another and understand one another on levels that we couldn’t in other languages. This sharing becomes easier and easier throughout the beginning of the 20th century, and we see it in the history of jazz. For example, the first people to use the word jazz in the name if their orchestra was the original Dixieland Jazz Band, white guys from New Orleans. It’s an ironic twist to the history of jazz. Paul Whiteman couldn’t bring Louis Armstrong into his orchestra; although Whiteman had two or three black arrangers working for him in the office, the band was all white and mixed bands didn’t happen till the mid-’30s. But there were clubs that Gershwin frequented in Chicago where musicians of every stripe could meet and work and play with one another.

I see it going back even further—James Reese Europe, 1912 at the Clef Club. It was David Mannes of the Mannes School of music who brought him to Carnegie Hall. David Mannes, the great educator and creator of the school, was a violinist in one of the New York orchestras, and his first teacher was a black man. All through his life he wanted to return that gift to him, the gift of music, by helping black students and he created a school in Harlem, believe it or not, and among the people he met there was James Reese Europe. He invited him to come to Carnegie Hall with his all black orchestra to raise money for the school. So there are these interactions. I mean, that’s 1912.

MS: So it seems that music really had a larger role in the national social debate?

MP: According to Gerald Early, a black social historian, he said it’s the only place where the races really mingled, in the jazz clubs and things like that. Music really does soothe.

MS: It was still a shock to me to read a New York Times review of a show that referred to “real live coons.” It made my stomach clench.

MP: But the amazing thing is that was a show at a time when there was an absolute color line, and that’s what the Times critic was reacting to. It was a very revolutionary thing to do and this was directed by Will Marion Cook, student of Joachim and Dvořák. Cook had been to Europe and was a great success in London with his In Dahomey show. He was a worldly man of color who went to his grave quite conflicted about how to fit into America because he had this larger view of things. So there were these guys who were struggling out there.

Ellington himself—Black, Brown, and Beige, that’s a metaphor. The history of the Negro people is a musical story, so he really tried to tell it from the time of slave ships to Harlem in the 1940s. There was a poem that Ellington wrote before he wrote the music, also called “Black, Brown and Beige.” He was trying to make a very strong statement that we all fight for the same country, and yet the black man comes back from the army—whether it was the War of 1812 or World War Two—he comes back to a country which doesn’t give him his civil rights. Ellington felt this very deeply. He never said it out loud, but he really felt it in this poem which is unpublished and I believe should remain so.

MS: Why?

MP: Well, I quote a hell of a lot of it in the book. Maybe it should be published. It’s a decision his nephews will have to make. Maybe it’s time the poem be published. I’m Jewish and there’s one little remark in the poem that’s hard for me to read and so I’ve been a little reticent, but really in retrospect the whole poem is his take on the history of his people in America.

But back to this very un-PC language, listen, when Virgil Thomson, who was a friend of mine, called Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess “gefilte fish” orchestration, what are you going to do with that one? That chokes you, too. There are some tough things to take in, but it’s good to see what it was like. I’m 75, but as a young boy my parents would take me to Miami. I was shocked! I was a young, liberal kid with this very idealistic notion of the world, and black people could not be on the island of Miami [Beach] after dark; they had to leave by bus. There were the black and white [drinking] fountains. I begged my parents to let me go home I was so upset. This is 1942, probably. Lyndon Baines Johnson brought national civil rights, but as he signed the bill he said this is the end of Democratic party in the South, and he was right. We’re suffering for it to this day. We have the civil rights, thank God, but we have that son-of-a-bitch in the White House. It’s all because we can’t count on the South to vote Democrat anymore, so all these things have their ins and outs.

But I’m glad [the language used by the Times reviewer] turns your stomach because that shows how far we’ve come.

MS: Was showing that part of your motivation for writing this book?

MP: Very much so. There are political/musical/religious underpinnings to my interest in music of quality, as Duke used to say. There are only two kinds of music: good and bad. I’m a pretty good Mozart conductor, yet I can stand in front of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band and I can speak their language. Part of what drove me to write the book was to document my own experiences in a wider world of music and to teach myself to understand how rich the tradition is, how much richer it is than most of us imagined.

MS: I’ve always thought it was strange, when we speak of “American” music, that even, or maybe especially in the academy, we usually mean a group of older white men. What measure of credit and scholarship has the impact of the African American community been given up to this point? Beyond your book, what else is happening to incorporate this history now?

MP: That’s a good question. Those few scholars who have been fascinated by this music and have done some serious, unrefutable work in these areas work very much on their own. There are now courses being given on hip-hop, and there will be more and more people from the ethnomusicological and world music view coming into scholarship. We need them. I think the academy will catch up. Historically, they don’t come to things until they’re almost gone. It’s been like that forever, but certainly there’s been an easing up of this snobbery. Among composers, as you know, a lot of them have searched their souls and asked themselves, “What does the 12-tone system communicate?” That’s the central core of what music is about and the notion that I compose a piece and I don’t care if it’s ever played; to me that’s sick. You don’t produce children that way. A lot of composers are coming out of rock music, a lot of them are guitar players, so we’ll see what happens if we haven’t completely lost the audience. I’m optimistic that there will come a generation of scholars and composers who will take over the academy and look back on America and this polymorphous music that we have had as a very rich and wonderful time.

I wanted to say one more thing. It’s in the book, but I didn’t spell it out as well as I’d like to—high art/low art, you know, hierarchical issues that represent that snobbery in the academy. The critical model for judging a work of musical art has been dominated by a Germanic model of the Romantic and pre-Romantic era. The Beethoven model of sonata allegro being the be-all/end-all notion that architectural form is necessary to create great art still hangs in the academy. Criticism of Gershwin can be very demeaning, because you can’t criticize his fertile imagination, but they get after him on the question of that dirty word “form”. I struggle with that—how to relate the two worlds. There is no critical model between “European” and “Non-European” music. I hate to make these distinctions, but I have to. In a work by Ellington, he never talked about “my” music, it was always “our” music. Every person in the band was capable of making creative contributions. Harnessing those people and finding a way to make art with them was an extraordinary thing. In a European sense, the players are anonymous, in an American sense they are individuals who are encouraged to bring something to the piece. Also, the line that divides the orchestra from the audience doesn’t exist in a jazz band situation. People can get up, they can clap—there is this connection between the music and the audience that is much looser and much tighter at the same time. So those two things: the waving of the line between composer and recreator and the waving of the line between audience and player. The critical model has not been resolved, and until people open up the restrictions as to what defines a work of musical art, there’s always going to be confusion. I think it helps scholars and non-scholars to understand that it’s apples and oranges on some level as much as it is a unified world.

In Conversation with Daniel Felsenfeld

An interview with the author of Ives and Copland: A Listener’s Guide and Britten and Barber: Their Lives and Their Music

Daniel Felsenfeld

MS: Your two new books take a look at the life and work of two pairs of composers. How did you come to settle on these duos in particular?

DF: No two composers are exactly alike, but [Amadeus Press] wanted to take musicians that had something parallel about them and I came up with a whole list. Aaron Copland and Charles Ives have similar missions and couldn’t have been more different. I thought it would be really interesting to try and work these two vaguely contemporary people, these two Americans who wrote at a time when American classical music was just getting started and was a very bizarre thing. Ives came out of the German tradition and came into the American tradition, and Copland came out of the French tradition and came into the American tradition. Or not even came into it, but created it. Both of them sort of invented it. They didn’t know each other that well. Their careers had a parallel path in a certain way, but they weren’t contemporaries in that they hung out in bars together or anything. I couldn’t find anything that said Britten and Barber actually even met one another, which is surprising to me because what they accomplish was similar and what Ives and Copland accomplish was similar. So that was how I arrived at these two pairings.

MS: But was this really supposed to be just a cute gimmick, since you were marketing these to an uninitiated readership, or was it useful beyond that?

DF: I don’t think it was ever a gimmick. It was actually just a way of getting a lot of material on composers who were really great in a really concise package.

MS: Did it fall together well once you got started or were their challenges to it you had to work out?

DF: Well, I was not trying to reach a conclusion like, “See, these people really did have parallel lives, therefore I was right.” That was never my goal. I just picked composers that were on a similar path and lived at a similar if not concomitant time, but were spectacular in their own right. I just wanted people to get into the music. And this way, you buy one book, you get two composers. It’s two for one.

MS: There’s a little bit of a salaciousness to it, too. The back cover blurb mentions sadism and pedophilia.

DF: Well, one of the things about Britten that I came to find was that this layer of sexuality was everywhere in his work, a layer of very confused sexuality. And I thought, there’s no way I can skip this. This is what makes these gears turn for him, and maybe we need to know and maybe we don’t. I’m of the opinion that it cannot hurt to know but it’s not ever what the music is about. For each composer, there are things that were actually very tough and human. Like the failure of Barber’s Anthony and Cleopatra. That was a very sad essay for me to write because here’s a composer whose music I think is amazing but who had one of the great flops, opera-wise, of the century. Or Ives maybe backdating his pieces. He’s an innovator but we’re not sure that he didn’t just post-innovate. Copland going before the House of Un-American Activities Committee and them not knowing who he was. I found that to be sad on about 40 levels. And the way he writes about it is so generous and yet it’s such a horrible portrait of a horrible time for us. So I thought, if I’m going to go with these composers, I could write a kind of this-then-this-then-this book, but I wanted to meat it up so it had more substance. And some of it is sexual, some of it is political, and some of it is ethical, but these were people. They had foibles and they had problems that they worked out, sometimes even through their music.

MS: How should a composer’s biography affect the listener’s experience of the music? You might say there’s a camp that sees that as a way of dealing with the music and another camp that finds it irrelevant. Definitely when you’re writing about Knoxville: Summer of 1915 it’s very clear that knowing about what’s going on in Barber’s personal life adds an entire dimension to the piece.

DF: I’m actually of both camps on that particular thought process because I think to leave the composer out of the music, and I talk about this in the introduction, you’re probably missing something. As a composer myself I know that maybe I don’t mean it, but certainly looking back at certain times and the music I wrote at those times, some of it is there. Like it or not, it’s going to happen. You’re a person and you’re a person who happens to write music and that’s what makes you a composer. But then again, I think people who say it’s just the music are reacting to the sort of school of “from this modulation we can tell that Schubert was a homosexual” approach, which I think is equally stupid. Composers’ lives can color their music, and maybe if you are very clever you can find a parallel in the music or maybe it’s intentionally there. They both matter. I love Aaron Copland because he’s a great composer, therefore I want to find out who the man was. It’s not one or the other. I think you need a little of both. I learned a lot about how to compose from the example of the way people that I either know or have read about lived. I think that can also teach you a great deal about how to listen.

MS: Considering the format of these books is bio/analysis, were these composers especially connected to their biographies?

DF: Well, yes and no, to a certain extent, but I’d say more yes than no. For Ives, his life is his music. You can’t separate the two because you will miss the joke. In Three Places in New England, his reverie and his memory and his sort of Proustian look at things is the piece. You can’t separate it. And not every piece is like that, that’s a particularly strong example, but his whole life seemed to be spent either wrestling with real biographical issues related to his father and his early life, or wrestling with musical issues like German vs. American. So Ives, yes. Copland, yes and no. Copland’s music, because he was such a socially aware human, it reacts to the social consciousness of the time. Copland wouldn’t be Copland if he were born today. His time was really important. Britten was an opera composer mostly and a lot of them have an outsider and a small boy and look at what happens when something from outside penetrates a sacrosanct environment. And you read about Britten’s childhood and there’s something to that. Barber’s biography probably the least so. He was the most removed, the most classical (in the Greek sense) composer, the most Ivory Tower of them all. But even that, if you know that’s what he was, a rich kid from West Chester who was possessed of ungodly talent and kind of walked between the raindrops, then yeah, his music does make sense. And I’m sure this is true of every single composer, not just these four.

MS: Let’s jump over to the fact that these books are aimed at the musically uninitiated. How do you, as a musically well-initiated person, approach writing such a book?

DF: Well, I’m fortunate in that I’m possessed of a fair amount of uninitiated friends who are always wanting to know more. I have friends who are best-selling authors who actually, when they try to talk about music that is not pop music, they kind of go white with me because they’re scared. They know books and lord knows they know pop and movies, but when it comes to this kind of music, most of them are pretty ignorant. And I don’t mean that as an insult, they’ve just never come across it. So, over the years, I got a chance to explain a lot of these things in a way that hopefully doesn’t scare them, because if we scare these people by saying only the initiated are invited, we lose any possible chance we have at an audience. I consider myself an advocate, I mean, as a composer yes, and as a writer absolutely. My job is to help to build the audiences and if you preach to the choir and you tell everybody who is not in the choir that you have to be one of the believers to be in the choir, pretty soon you’re going to have nobody coming.

So what you do is you try to think, well, what if somebody was explaining film lens technology to me? I’ve seen movies but I don’t know how the lenses and the angles work. I wouldn’t want some film bonehead saying, “Well, if you don’t know, you don’t know, and this is just far too complicated for you.” I’m a smart person who’s capable of learning. So I tried to imagine that anybody who doesn’t know music as well as I do is not stupid, they just have not come across this. What they need is an intelligent, not classical music for dummies, approach and a thorough and scintillating approach without putting shades on Mozart and saying classical was when rock was young.

It is a difficult task, because it involves explaining terms without using terms and getting into some rather complicated concepts without getting into a lengthy explanation that may be fascinating but not wholly necessary for what you’re trying to do.

MS: So how did you make those determinations of how much a reader could digest/would want/actually needs?

DF: Well, I was lucky in that the first book, Copland and Ives, I wrote mostly at the MacDowell Colony, and I had dinner every night with my target audience. I had a really specific idea of who I was writing this book for—intelligent people who would care. You’re not going to convert somebody who has closed ears. You’re going to convert the people who express an interest but just don’t know how to enter. This is the kind of person who doesn’t mind going to a dictionary once in a while or who will get online if they’re unsure about something, so I didn’t have to over-explain things. Then it’s a matter of scaling the arguments back. When you’re trying to explain something that is complicated, what do they need to know and what is too much? That is where the real sort of teacher-ly instinct comes in and you decide how you can put something in a way that is clear without overstating your case.

MS: So, say I am one of these people in your target audience, and I read these two books. How should this effect the way I listen beyond these composers in particular?

DF: Well, that was part of what my original plan was. It’s not about Copland and Ives, or Britten and Barber, it’s about learning how to listen through this music. I wrote a big introduction about a way to listen, because I think that’s lost a lot of the time. Classical music is usually marketed to be consumed as background or what you play on a rainy Sunday morning or, if you are a rather sharp 22-year-old boy, where you take your date to show your class. There’s a lot of very strange angles that classical music is pitched to and I wanted to give people a notion that you listen like you read—it was an involved activity which made you come to it as much as it comes to you. The idea that classical music is this sublime thing that washes over you is sort of a Taster’s Choice marketing tool. I don’t think it’s accurate. None of this music was written to be anything other than as active entertainment like a movie or like a book, so you have you to devote an equal amount of attention. You wouldn’t skim a novel and expect to get anything out of it, or certainly not as much as if you put your whole brain into it. I talk about it being a lot like a mystery novel, which is again another active, involved entertainment. If you’re trying to predict the ending and allowing the author to sort of toy with you, you’re going to have a great time. Even if you have an iPod or are driving in the car—it’s not just about the concert hall. You follow the plot and it takes you for a ride. It’s alluring. It’s not “put on your tux and wait for it to be over so you can discuss it at intermission with your powerful friends.” My overall mission is to get people to listen in a way that will allow them to get the most out of the music.

MS: So since our NewMusicBox readers are probably not musically uninitiated, what, if anything, would a composer-reader get out of these books and take away from the experience?

DF: I did think about that too. Maybe you’re initiated, maybe you know, but you don’t know everything. For you, it might be just another way of looking at the Barber Second Essay or looking at the Concord Sonata. I’m sure there’s stuff in here about the composers, unless you are scholars of them, that you don’t know because I started out as really big fans of all four, and I learned a lot from my listening and research. For the initiated, this isn’t going to be a book that you say, “Wow, I’ve never heard of this Ives guy! He’s pretty good.” But you’ll probably get another sense of these composers. If nothing else, it cannot hurt you to listen to these pieces again with a little bit of guidance. I know it certainly helped me as an author and as a composer.

And if, when people ask you if you write music like Mozart, you don’t have a real framework in which to explain yourself, these are books that can help. They’re short and light and they’re not for scholars, but if you’re trying to explain classical music or new music to people, these books actually might help give you a vocabulary because they are explanations of pieces as narratives and it might help you in thinking about how to unpack the music that you love but other people might not understand.

In conversation with David Rothenberg

An interview with the author of Why Birds Sing: A journey into the mystery of bird song

David Rothenberg

Molly Sheridan: Considering the essay you wrote for our site in 2004 on the ties between nature and music, and now this book, which is a musical and scientific exploration of bird song, let’s start by talking about how you came to marry these topics.

David Rothenberg: I was always interested in both music and the natural world and I wanted to figure out how they connected—I wasn’t sure. In high school I heard about Paul Winter and what he was doing. Here was this saxophonist playing with whales and wolves and that really inspired me.

I didn’t really do much with it at the time, but in more recent years I’ve had the opportunity to play live with birds and I got really interested in how my music could change in interaction with the natural world. Over the years it seemed like more people had fit in sounds of nature into their own musical ideas, just stuck them in there, not really taking them seriously enough to change their music.

MS: How do you mean?

DR: To really make music differently because they’ve surrounded themselves with natural sounds. There are people who have, but it takes more work and more openness to be willing to change your ideas and do something you don’t expect. For many years people have admired bird songs but not taken it that seriously because it doesn’t sound like human music.

MS: I really enjoyed digging into this book because I had just assumed a pragmatic reason for why birds sing, finding mates and such, and never really thought about that they like to sing, that’s it’s a kind of bird entertainment.

DR: Scientists might disagree with my statement and say, “Well, how do you know that?” The most honest scientists will say we just don’t know much about this. The more quick ones will say everything happens for a reason, everything in nature is determined by evolution. That may be true, but we don’t know all those reasons and much of what goes on cannot be so quickly explained. Evolution explains a lot, but it doesn’t explain what any individual animal is doing at any moment.

MS: So what is the ratio here in your book then, as far as what is scientific, what is philosophical, and what is drawn from your impressions from working in musical situations with birds?

DR: I was in the National Aviary in Pittsburgh playing along with this bird, and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I came there early in the morning, as the book begins, and one bird really seemed to respond to me in a very direct way. It wasn’t like anything I had heard. You can hear it on the book’s website. I thought, “What’s going on here? What’s he actually doing?” That’s how I got interested and started reading about it. The more I read, the more I realized that people really hadn’t looked into it in the way that I was interested in, which was not trying to explain immediately what the reason was for this, but why does it sound so musical? Why do birds sound so musical to human ears? Is it because human music came from bird song? That the principles of what makes something musical are somehow universal and beyond human beings? This isn’t really the main stream of research that’s been done on this question. Throughout history there were a smattering of individuals who looked at things in this way, but they weren’t in the mainstream because it’s a line of thinking that doesn’t lead to easy conclusions or certainty.

MS: As you started digging around, what were the striking things that jumped out at you?

DR: I was surprised that the most accurate transcription of a bird song in all of the 19th century was by a poet, not a scientist. John Clare wrote this poem based on the nightingale’s song. He really paid attention to what the bird was doing exactly and worked it into a poem. Why wasn’t science doing this? The reason was there was no way to turn bird song into something rigorous to be analyzed because there was no recording of sound. So someone could just say, “I think it sounds like this.” Someone else could say, “No, I think it sounds like this.” It wasn’t really a good source for objective material. Plus, before Darwin, no one took all the stuff animals were doing all that seriously. In the Descent of Man, Darwin says that birds have a natural aesthetic sense. They just like beautiful things; that’s why they sing interesting songs. By aesthetic sense, I don’t think that means necessarily a kind of intelligence as much as this species of bird likes these kinds of sounds and this one likes this. But the descendants of Darwin were uncomfortable with that idea. They found it very unscientific for scientists to say that animals might have an aesthetic sense.

The more that I listened and looked into this, I tended to agree with him. Birds have a different sense of aesthetics. Starlings, which are all over the place, make a huge variety of interesting sounds that most people don’t think are so nice to listen to. They’re like one up from pigeons as most disliked birds in America. Scientists have raised them in their homes and they make all kinds of sounds. They don’t make sounds that you would expect. They don’t imitate to get attention the same way parrots do, they imitate sounds that they like, like the sound of your refrigerator or a fluorescent light; things we might not notice, starlings really like.

When you start to learn about their song, it’s very intricate and complex and planned out. The reason I think these songs are more like music than like language is that they’re generally not believed to convey much specific information. It’s not like each part is saying one bit of information. In the singing is where the meaning comes; they just have to be sung for their purpose to be realized. It’s much more like music. You can’t explain what exactly is being said in a piece of music. What’s the message? It’s not unscientific, what I’m talking about, it’s not against science. I would say it’s more like an aspect of this natural phenomenon that science has a hard time knowing what to say about because it’s not clearly objective. My basic conclusion in this book is that you need to combine the insights of music, science, and poetry to make sense of this very present phenomenon. You want to appreciate bird song, you’ve got to learn all these things.

MS: Do you find that certain species of birds make better collaborators with humans?

DR: Oh, definitely. There was something special about that laughing thrush. One of the reasons, I later discovered, is that this is a bird that uses sound in more social ways. Both the male and females sing and they’re constantly interacting; it’s not so much of a solo performance. So that’s probably the most direct, interactive experience I’ve had because most birds just do their thing.

Listen to an excerpt of Trio Menura
featuring the Healesville Suberb Lyrebird, Michael Pestel (flute) and David Rothenberg (clarinet)
from Why Birds Sing: The Album, Terra Nova Music

The lyrebird of Australia is a bird with among the most complex songs. It takes them five or six years to learn. This expert on the lyrebird thought that they would probably just run away when we started playing music out there, but they stood their ground. Interaction is not something they’re used to, but once a lyrebird stars his performance, he cannot really stop. He’s driven to finish it; he must keep going. It’s like the show must go on. They will alter it in response to you in some odd ways.

MS: So that implies that there is a beginning and an end to this?

DR: Oh, for the lyrebird song, most definitely. Many bird songs have shape, form, and structure of different kinds, but the lyrebird is unusual in that it’s the most complex and structured bird song. It begins with this territorial call which the bird is presumably singing for the other male birds to pay attention to, and maybe other male birds will respond to that or maybe not, because often they’re just alone doing this. Then he goes on to this kind of composition made up of imitations of other birds.

MS: Is it personal to the bird?

DR: It depends on the two species. One species, every group of them, they all have one piece that they learn, kind of like humpback whales, and they’re all doing the same thing. The other species, they’re more like improvisers with the raw materials that they’ve learned together. They take a little bit of some other bird’s song and work with it, take a phrase and turn it into something.

It’s like they have a culture of song. There’s one population of lyrebirds that since the 1930s has taken one little bit of a flute piece that one of them heard. Not everyone thinks that this is true, but quite a few scientists do believe this, because there was a farmer who kept a lyrebird as a pet for eight years—and they live for 40 or 50 years, no one’s sure—and during that time the guy would play the flute and the lyrebird would listen. The bird only took a tiny phrase that he liked and he put it into his song. He was let go back into the wild and he taught that to a generation of other birds. Fifty years later in that area, this population of superb lyrebirds uses this sound that doesn’t come from any other bird around there. It’s just a special little flute phrase. Some people say, “Ridiculous! That’s not true.” But there’s a website that has endless lyrebird songs where you can listen to this.

So we were talking about how they structure their songs. It begins with a territorial call, and then it goes through this litany of imitations, which is going on to attract the attention of females but they’ll do this even if there are no female birds anywhere nearby. So you can say that bird song is to defend territories and attract mates, and they use the song in those contexts, but that doesn’t explain why some birds have such a complex song that’s way beyond levels of efficiency and necessity. And then, in the end, there’s this prelude to mating section. That’s the end of the song, but it doesn’t mean that they’re going to mate there because usually there are no females anywhere nearby. In fact some of them may live in certain habitats where no female would ever come by, so the whole thing is pointless if you think the reason is just to attract the attention of female birds.

When I was playing the clarinet along with him, as you can hear on the CD or the website, this scientist was observing this who had studied this individual bird for 25 years—lyrebird scientists are dedicated—and he said, “Oh, he’s definitely changing his imitative section in relation to you, he’s leaving out certain imitations he would normally do.”

MS: So this is an exceptional case with this species?

DR: It’s an exceptional species among birds, but there are many exceptions. Of course, you’ll hear in science that extremes don’t make good examples, but they do in nature in the sense that the natural world has evolved all these bizarre forms of behavior.

Around here you have mockingbirds which are among the more interesting composers of bird music. People again think these birds just imitate, but it’s not really true. Mockingbirds have their own kind of style of music they make out of the sounds of other birds, but it’s a mockingbird aesthetic. I have a whole chapter talking about that bird in particular because it’s so interesting to try and examine. It really shows the differences between the scientific and the musical approach. Musically, there’s a lot you can say about one mockingbird’s 45-minute performance. The scientific approach would be to try and catalogue all the different syllables the bird uses and count how many there are. Then they’d say, “Well, after a certain number of minutes, we don’t hear any new syllables.” And they’d draw a graph and show that. But as a musician, you’d look at that and say, “Wait a minute. How are they put together? What’s the structure of this?” The scientific response would generally be that’s not so interesting to look at because it’s unique to just one bird doing one thing. We need to collect a lot more data and compare how much birds do this or that. Musically, the one example is interesting enough. You start to really pay attention to it and realize that it’s very organized. You hear one pattern, one series of imitations mixed together, and then 20 minutes later he’ll do something almost exactly the same but not quite, but with the same shape. How much is he actually aware of how he’s putting these things together? It starts to be very interesting just as a piece of music.

A lot of people get sick of hearing these things, but I have noticed if I play these things for my students, they think it’s some new cool kind of electronic music. They don’t think it’s a musical noise and they often can’t believe it’s a bird. I think that musically we’re more able to appreciate bird sound as music today because there are so many kinds of sound we’re open to, but it still seems to sound alien and out of the future which is kind of fascinating because it’s been around for millions of years.

MS: As a composer/musician, what do you take away from having studied bird song?

DR: Well, I’ve tried to use these sounds in different ways. If you’re there improvising with a bird, it’s an experience that’s hard to compare to anything else. You’re kind of reaching beyond the limits of our species to connect over musical lines. It’s one step beyond meeting someone whose language you can’t speak but you play music with them. With birds, it’s a whole step beyond that, but you definitely get a sense that these are creatures interested in sound and it’s an interesting kind of connection even though you never know if they really like it or feel threatened.

In the sounds themselves, I think there are really interesting ideas of structure and tone and quality that you can learn from musically in different ways. I’ve taken bird sounds and played with them on the computer and turned them into different things but all the while being very impressed by the richness of what’s going on.

More people should do this. Most people, when they hear the idea of music and birds, they think of Olivier Messiaen, because he spent so much time listening to birds and transcribing their songs and working them into his music. But among all the many people he taught, nobody seemed interested in this bird stuff. After he died, his widow put together five huge volumes of all of his writings on all manner of musical things. Two 600-page books are bird song transcriptions. I took them out of the library and it was clear no one had opened them, no one had looked at this incredible source of information, his comments and sense of what he heard in these bird sounds. There aren’t enough people in the world of music paying attention to these possibilities. In many ways, there’s a lot more you can learn in these Messiaen transcriptions than in the music he made out of it, because the music is much more his own thing—you have Messiaen music inspired by birds, but the original things go in many different directions. You realize what a musician with a great ear hears in all these songs is different from what a scientist would transcribe through machines out of the same thing and that we need all these different sides of human intelligence to make sense of the bird sounds around us.

Music and science have different goals. Musicians want to enjoy sound for its own sake and work with it and science wants to find out what’s really going on. Of course, what if what’s really going on is the making of music where animals are doing things that can’t just be explained as having an exact function. I think they do have these functions, but that doesn’t say all that much about it, because life, whether lived by birds or people, is much more than specific purposes and requirements.

In Conversation with Joseph Horowitz

Joseph Horowitz
Photo by Charles Abbot

Author of Classical Music in America: A History of its Rise and Fall

Daniel Felsenfeld: Do you feel that one of the things that makes American music American is this inability to pin it down?

Joseph Horowitz: I pin down four schools, none of which could be called more important than the others.

Daniel Felsenfeld: What were they again?

Joseph Horowitz: Music composed before WWI, the Copland/Boulangerie people, the so-called ultra-moderns, and what I call the interlopers. And what I said was that although there’s the conventional wisdom that American music was born with Copland after WWI, I’ve seen none of these four movements reach fruition. They all produced interesting music—whether by Chadwick or Ives or Copland or Harris or Kurt Weill or George Gershwin or Varèse or Ruggles—but in its totality and its variety it’s hard to make a statement about American music. And yet at the same time it’s a fractured culture which is another undeniable feature of American music. There’s an eclecticism which is embodied in those four streams and a failure to consummate a canon which of course is one of the major themes of my book. We don’t have as our foundation this canon of native works which is promoted and regarded as such. The Italians, the French, the Germans, the Russians, they have that as a firmament for their musical high culture.

Daniel Felsenfeld: This is pure speculation, but do you think that in 100 years there will be this canon in America?

Joseph Horowitz: Oh, no. When our musical high culture was democratized after WWI, we hadn’t progressed far enough in finding our own voice. Once that pressure of the new audience was exerted, it made it that much more difficult for composers to do their work. They were sidelined by the act of performing. The other problem which I think is unignorable is that the composers who came into the picture after WWI had no interest in building on what had been predominantly a Germanic tradition fostered by people like Chadwick and Ives.

Daniel Felsenfeld: A hundred years from now will Copland be canonized more than he is now? Or Ives, Chadwick, or any of these people? Does it take longer to become aware of these things? Because you can’t declare a canon; a canon is sort of an organism and it grows. If there are orchestras and an America 100 years from now, will there also be a canon?

Joseph Horowitz: Well, there are interesting examples of related canonization. Mahler is such an example. Mahler famously said, “My time will come.” Mahler said that and he was right. Schoenberg said that too but he was wrong. [laughs] I do think that Chadwick, whether or not he’ll be canonized—that may be expecting too much—will certainly become a much better known American composer and a work like Jubilee sooner or later will either become well known or iconic. But I think that the candidates are too scattered for us ever to acquire at this late date a foundation of native repertoire.

Daniel Felsenfeld: I would like to go more in-depth about post-classical music. I read Kerman’s review and he made a point that was really interesting asking why you don’t consider this just another phase? Why is post-classical not just another stream in classical music?

Joseph Horowitz: Well, I thought about that. I feel honored to have been reviewed by Joseph Kerman. Of all writers about music and such in the English language in recent decades, he’s the writer I most admire. And when you read a review of your work by somebody that you respect you’re always eager to learn something you don’t know. I found out long ago as an author that you’re never completely in control of your own work and there is no definitive reading of a book. So if somebody says to me about the book, “It’s too gloomy!” they may be right, although I don’t think of it as a gloomy book. In the case of Kerman, I can’t quite get a handle on his criticism because I begin by showing that classical music was defined for Americans by John Sullivan Dwight as a distinction from popular music. He called Steven Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” a melodic itch, so from the get-go classical music in America was formulated as a rarified high culture, better than anything popular or vernacular. Therefore, if we’re in a moment in which we don’t stratify culture or make this pejorative distinction between popular culture and high culture, or classical music and popular culture, by definition it can’t be called classical music, and that’s why I call it post-classical music. And I don’t feel we can comfortably assign this label classical music to the composers who most obviously matter today in the United States. I’m thinking of especially John Adams, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass, who are billboard names. It would be completely misleading, inappropriate. You’ve got to find another niche for them.

Daniel Felsenfeld: How does it not apply to John Cage or the others?

Joseph Horowitz: Ruggles is a classical musician, Ives is a classical musician. In fact I would say they both are kind of aberrations of the Germanic genteel tradition. Cage is not a classical musician. Is he a post-classical musician? Yeah, I suppose I would call him an early post-classical musician.

Daniel Felsenfeld: On NewMusicBox there’s a lot of discussion about what we call ourselves and I’m wondering why one would feel compelled to label this so much.

Joseph Horowitz: Well, I don’t think you can call it classical music if you accept the definition of classical music as defined in contradistinction to popular music which is not as good. I think that post-classical music is absorbing two tendencies primarily, the interest in non-western music and the interest in popular culture. And that’s a very good fit for all these names we just mentioned. I do believe that the future resilience of what we used to call classical music and what we can still call classical music within the larger post-classical picture, is going to depend on whether we establish a synergistic relationship with this larger group of music, this global network of music that we now all count on.

Daniel Felsenfeld: I’m curious about the words on the cover “the rise and fall”. I think people will have a rather strong reaction to that, A) because it’s a gloomy subtitle and, B) because there’s been endless discussion of this, especially lately, about the death of classical music.

Joseph Horowitz: Well, I think the trajectory is absolutely incontrovertible. Nobody could possibly question that classical music has had a rising and falling trajectory. It just seems to me self-evident and not even worthy of debate. I find in the United States that it peaks in the 1890s, which is worthy of debate, and that the decline sets in after WWI. What defines the decline is the focus on the act of performance, on the great conductors and orchestras and instrumentalists, rather than on the composer. I came to that realization not through my study of classical music after WWI but through my study of classical music before WWI. For instance, there was an American composers’ movement in the 1880s. There were a plethora of concerts all over the United States featuring programs comprised exclusively of works by Americans with major performers, and critics were leading proponents of this music. When you begin to exhume facts like that or when you just generally absorb the discourse of classical music and you discover that all these guys confidently looked forward to the acquisition of a native canon, an informative attribute in American classical music, once you’ve absorbed all that, it becomes dramatically apparent what changed after WWI. It’s something you might otherwise not have noticed because we’ve become accustomed to it. That a Toscanini or a Heifetz looms larger than a Copland or a Harris is something that we take for granted, but it was a development that was completely unanticipated at the turn of the 20th century.

Daniel Felsenfeld: I want to go back a little bit because I love the Peace Jubilee and that was the thing in your book that I didn’t know at all. I thought that was fascinating and I wanted to ask you just to talk about that a little bit just to frame why that’s so important and why you start your book with that.

Joseph Horowitz: Well, I start my book with the act of defining classical music, and John Sullivan Dwight was so threatened by Patrick Gilmore’s Peace Jubilee because he thought it potentially undermined the basic understanding and purpose of great music that deserved to be propagated in the United States. Here was the most famous band leader in America, a precursor to John Philip Sousa, creating an event lasting five days in a specially constructed structure with a chorus of 10,000 and an orchestra of 1,000 that mixed together Verdi, Handel, and Beethoven with patriotic anthems and hymns. Of course the piece de resistance, which had to be repeated many times, was the Anvil Chorus with 100 helmeted, red-shirted Boston firemen banging the anvils. I emphasize this event for at least two reasons. One is that it’s an enthralling prospect to imagine such a musical event. And the second is that it was so anathema to classical music at an incipient stage. And I say at the end of my book, I circle back very consciously to my beginning and I say:

This account of classical music in the United States began with John Sullivan Dwight, whose worshipful promulgation of dead European composers defined “classical music” in contradistinction to popular culture generally and—in the case of the Peace Jubilee of 1869, with its anvil-pounding firemen—Patrick Gilmore specifically. Gilmore’s eclecticism—mixing high and low, New Worlds and Old—blithely embodied what classical music was not. Today, closing the circle, it is Dwight who signifies the past and Gilmore who suggests the future.

And certainly I don’t think my reaction is unique. I’d much rather encounter Patrick Gilmore than John Sullivan Dwight.

Daniel Felsenfeld: Well, I thought this before when I read your Toscanini book and I thought it as I read this book. I think our inclination as a culture is to say that’s a good guy or that’s a bad guy. Do you think Toscanini was a bad guy?

Joseph Horowitz: Well, there are large cultural forces at work in this story that transcend the impact of individuals. I think the story in its most general terms would have played out regardless of the individuals. At the same time I don’t want to minimize, especially the constructive contributions, of somebody like Theodore Thomas or Henry Higginson. There would have been a Boston Symphony had there never been a Henry Higginson and there would have been concert orchestras in the United States had there never been a Theodore Thomas, and yet one could hardly imagine a more heroic embodiment of these inventions than these two men. So I do ask myself, as a thought experiment in the book, what if there’d been no Toscanini, what if there’d been no Arthur Judson? Clearly had Toscanini never come to the United States, all other things being equal, the most famous American classical musician would have been Leopold Stokowski. And Stokowski’s a very different phenomenon. He’s a conductor who’s interested passionately in contemporary music and he does not really care very much about what we would regard as the European tradition. His orchestra looked different, sounded different, served different purposes—I’m talking about the Philadelphia Orchestra—than any orchestra abroad. And Stokowski himself was self-invented. I call him an inspired fantasy. He invented what year he was born. The accent of his speech was invented. He said he was born in Poland when he was born in England. This kind of self-invention is something that we associate with Hollywood.

Stokowski was also a much less respectable figure than Toscanini and could never have exerted the kind of moral authority that Toscanini did. Yet the culture of performance would still have triumphed and partly indeed to its embodiment in the person of Stokowski who was the most glamorous classical musician who had ever existed. Certainly in his own time he embodied something new for many reasons, one of which was just the sheer glamour of his persona. So I would like to privilege individuals but at the same time not suggest that they altered the course of history. They reflected the course of history.

Daniel Felsenfeld: I’d maintain that this book should be required reading for composers just so you know what you’re up against. Now there are more composers and instrumentalists than ever, there are more music schools and degrees than ever, there are more people who are actively jumping into what is likely to be a nothing because classical music is taking this decline. And I would actually like to know why you think that is and what you would say to those people, especially the composers.

Joseph Horowitz: I recently interviewed John Adams for a music festival that I help to create every year, the Pacific Symphony’s American Composers Festival, and the topic of American composers came up, meaning today’s younger generation. He made the comment that he thinks these are very challenging times for classical music and that it’s particularly challenging to write for orchestra. It does seem to me that he is our most important living American composer for orchestra and that he’s kept the flame burning with work like Naïve and Sentimental Music. In fact I chastise American orchestras for ignoring this piece which has only been conducted by five people, one of which is Adams, and it was composed in 1999. In this interview Adams says that he thinks that there’s still a gift for orchestral writing in Europe where high modernism had a greater impact and lasted longer, and he specifically mentions Esa-Pekka Salonen as a gifted European composer for orchestra, and one could think of others. Magnus Lindberg comes to mind. I also would like to mention Zhou Long among the Chinese composers living in the United States as somebody who seems to me a very gifted composer for orchestra who’s able to take a fresh view through his capacity to merge not only two traditions—Chinese and Western—but the instruments. He’s able to create this middle ground, pulling the Western instruments towards Chinese practice and pulling the Chinese instruments toward Western practice, and as a result I think he’s a significant composer for orchestra and chamber ensemble.

Adams also says that the most gifted younger American composers are not particularly oriented towards the orchestra; they’re writing for a little more idiosyncratic, or what I would call post-classical, instrumental combinations. That sounds plausible to me. I don’t presume to have anything like a comprehensive view but that sounds right. One thing that strikes me as regrettable with regard to the training of musicians in this country is that we still have music schools without ethnomusicology and without jazz departments. In this post-classical world I just can’t imagine educating a musician without recourse to non-western music and popular music. I also think improvisation is an important skill today whether or not you pursue it professionally. These are tools and resources which are new and vital that are not part of the traditional conservatory curriculum. How you are able to incorporate them and at the same time satisfy the need to inculcate traditional craft is a central challenge. But I don’t even know if it’s always addressed let alone met.

Daniel Felsenfeld: Is there anything else you’d like to add.

Joseph Horowitz: Yeah. I’d like to say this is a propitious time for composers and it’s been a long tome coming. One of the sections in my book is called composers on the sidelines and I write at length about how people like Copland and Thomson struggled to be heard amid the din of the culture of performance and how frustrated and bitter they were that the new audience for classical music was so obsessed with the dead European masters, as were the institutions of performance and the performers. Suddenly we’re at a moment when composers are personally prominent in our music life. A) We have important composers who reach a very large audience, and again I’ll just talk for the moment about the most obvious three guys, Reich, Glass, and Adams. B) They’re performers. That’s enormously important. They’re not Ivory Tower figures. This is not a value judgment. It’s an objective observation. John Adams is on the podium waving his baton. Philip Glass is playing his electronic keyboards, Steve Reich is playing his mallets. This penetrates the culture of performance. And C) They’re post-classical, they’re fresh. Music for Eighteen Musicians has got to be one of the most important concert works ever composed by an American, period. Something changed when these guys hit their stride and it was something positive for the place and future of the American composer. In the post-classical world of things, composers are leaders; they’re not marginal. Toscanini was the leader of American classical music in 1946, for better or for worse. We’re now in a moment where if you’re looking at the leading figures, they’re composers, especially those three. They’re icons. They’re right at the center of things. And they matter in Europe. Do you think Copland mattered in Europe? I don’t. Do you think Roy Harris mattered? Not at all. Do Glass and Reich and Adams matter? You bet they do. And why? Partly I think because it’s self-evident to Europeans that these composers have achieved an authenticity and freshness of voice. They’re definitely Americans. And the composers who most matter to me in previous times and seemed to be the greatest talents are Ives and Gershwin, who again are definitely American.

In Conversation with Joseph W. Polisi, president of the Juilliard School

Author of The Artist as Citizen

Joseph W. Polisi
Photo by Christian Steiner

Molly Sheridan: In the essay from your book that we’ve excerpted here in NewMusicBox, you relate an anecdote that includes the comment, “It would be difficult for arts programs to comply with community faith oriented values.” This American fear of art and culture—it feels parallel to current editorializing on the Democratic Party in many ways, actually. How can we in the artistic community be good stewards in our communities to change this perception?

Joseph W. Polisi: Right. The philosophy and strategy that I’ve always had in these matters to find the path of least resistance, because to confront political, religious, sociological issues—art is never really going to win. You’re always outgunned. The best thing to do is to really show that these artistic experiences—whether it’s in drama, dance, music, or in the visual arts—exist first of all to explore the human experience and to produce a more discerning point of view about one’s world. It really is a way of expressing one’s humanity. Now, of course, there will be those who will not be interested in expressing one’s humanity or who do not want to see a particular side of humanity, but I think for the most part a rational individual will at least listen to that type of argument.

Molly Sheridan: So, it sounds like you’re pretty optimistic that art can have an impact?

Joseph W. Polisi: There has to be an impact. I can’t believe anything but that. I read a quote having to do with presentation of “The Gates” from Michael Kimmelman, and he says, “We didn’t need ‘The Gates’ to make us sensitive, obviously. Art is never necessary, it is merely indispensable.” I think that’s a great way of stating it.

Molly Sheridan: The book is a compilation of your articles and speeches drawn from over two-decades of material. In general, as you prepared this book, did you note any great changes or surprising lack of change in the intervening years?

Joseph W. Polisi: Well, I think that in the years since that time the tensions between the federal government and the arts has lessened. That hasn’t, unfortunately, been replaced by greater support for the arts except in a marginal financial way. Things are calming down, but it hasn’t gotten better in terms of having the federal government providing funding and support for the arts educationally around the United States.

Two, I think that the students at Juilliard and other places like it around the country are personally much more motivated to use the arts to change the world for the better. You see young artists really developing programs, reaching out to communities, and making a difference. I’ll give you two examples. We have a group that’s called ArtsReach and they have for three years now run summer arts camps in Southern Florida close to Homestead, which is a disadvantaged community, and used the arts to bring children out of their intellectual and physical poverty and really excited them just about being special human beings. They’re now spreading out and doing a program in South Central LA this summer and also with children whose parents have AIDS or who are HIV positive in South Africa. So it’s quite a remarkable effort on their part. Another group composed of actors, dancers, and musicians has put together a show that they’ve been presenting to women prisoners at Rikers Island. This is all under their initiative. I helped out with a little money to get the bus there, but that was it.

Molly Sheridan: It also strikes me that there’s the stereotypical way that most people might think of Juilliard, where virtuosi go to study, and they might be surprised by these sorts of outreach activities. Was this something that was always there or is this a more recent reaction to something else?

Joseph W. Polisi: Let me put it this way—I think the potential was always there, and this is what I say in the book, I really do believe in the idea of the artist as citizen. An educational institution like Juilliard should do more than simply prepare these young artists to be performers. They also have to be advocates for the arts in engaging, clever, ongoing ways and this takes thought when they’re students and it takes help from us. I would say that the potential was always there—I think that young artists always want to touch audiences—but my point is that you want to touch them in a broader way than with just that performance.

Molly Sheridan: And it does take a special kind of training to do that effectively.

Joseph W. Polisi: It takes training. It takes thinking. You know, “Why are you doing this? Is it a drop in the bucket?” You have to have some understanding of how our political system works, how our economic system works, how our social system works. I teach a graduate course in the fall called “American Society and the Arts,” and it covers these things. You can only legislate so much and young people in any field really have to take charge. What are these environmental issues, what are these political and financial issues that we have to understand? You just can’t go out there and say, “Here I am!”

Molly Sheridan: Do you find the students in that class come to it with a naïve perspective on what it will mean to be an artist in this society or are they already fairly well prepared?

Joseph W. Polisi: The impression may be that these are people walking into walls, but that is not at all the case. In fact, the students were particularly upset by that one article the New York Times back in December, you know, as if they were some type of automatons. They’re not naïve; they know what they’re getting into. They also know what they believe in and they’re not cynical either. I think that’s an important point. They’re not looking at the field as if the field owes them something.

Whether they will be gainfully employed at the end of the process nobody can guarantee, but I can tell them that they’ve gone through a very honest and intellectual experience. Many times the term is you “train” students at Juilliard. Well, you train bears, you don’t train human beings. We educate these young people. The intensity and the dedication that they have—compare that to most of the undergraduates in the United States.

Molly Sheridan: As an industry, classical music institutions have made something of a habit of lamenting the ever-approaching death of the art form for various cultural and economic reasons. In an educational environment, you have a unique view of the future. From where you’re sitting, how healthy are we?

Joseph W. Polisi: Well, if you look at it from the Juilliard side, then we’re in robust health; I’ve never seen it better. I’m not going to claim that I’m totally objective about these things but I’m also not totally blind. We’re constantly monitoring the activity levels and the performance levels of our students. Talk about outcomes assessment—we’re perpetually doing it almost on an hour-by-hour basis, so the talent, the enthusiasm, the discipline, the commitment, I’ve never seen it better in my 25 years of doing this sort of stuff.

Now, ok, let’s go to the other side—the institutions that present these arts. It’s a mixed palette. It’s not the fiasco Joe Horowitz seems to want to announce every seven or eight years. I think one of the fundamental problems is the lack of education in the arts at the primary and secondary levels, which I talk about in the book, and that has gotten worse, not better. And just because new programs exist, I would add, doesn’t mean they’re effective.

Molly Sheridan: Are you speaking nationally or just regarding New York?

Joseph W. Polisi: No, I’m speaking nationally. I grew up in the New York City school system in the ’50s and the ’60s when there was high quality teaching across the board by music teachers, not by biology teachers who took a summer workshop for six weeks on how to teach the arts. These were musicians who taught the instruments and conducted and gave you standards, even at the junior high school level. That’s gone and you’re not going to instantaneously have a mass epiphany on the part of 47-year-olds about going to the New York Philharmonic. They have to have some experience earlier in their lives that will compel them to do so. And that troubles me enormously and the only way we can fight it is to get back on the local level. Our artists have to be missionaries for this type of project. All politics is local, as Tip O’Neill said. Get art programs in every school taught by correctly educated arts teachers.

Molly Sheridan: For as far astray as we might have come at this point, how long do think it would take us to get back on track?

Joseph W. Polisi: I’m sorry to say this, but a generation—30 years. But every journey begins with a first step and we better get going. There are hot spots where you have wonderful music teaching, but it’s not imbedded in the system. They don’t have space. It becomes an after school event. It’s very difficult.

Molly Sheridan: I’ve also heard talk that with the implementation of new education standards such as No Child Left Behind put the squeeze on non-tested areas like the arts departments. Do you have any sense if that’s accurate?

Joseph W. Polisi: Well, in a non-thinking sort of way, yeah. If you get a principal or board members who say they’ve got to get their math grades up so they’re going to put in extra help in 6th period, and a student who goes to extra help can’t go to band, it becomes a situation where band becomes an extraneous part of the curriculum. The whole idea that there’s joy and discipline in making music and that it is an intellectual exercise is not being heard enough.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure this one out. In a very basic way, if you’re going to get good at a musical instrument, a few things have to happen. You have to have encouragement, you have to have proper instruction, you have to have an environment where you can practice, and you have to practice. And if you realize that personal discipline, it’s going to rub off in other areas. We have a program here at Juilliard called the Music Advancement Program for African American and Latino children. One of the things that was most difficult was to find a quiet environment for the child to practice, but once they found it, that’s an environment that also lends itself to reading, to doing homework, to not watching television. It’s not that complicated. The complicated part is just getting the environment to be quiet. People ask, “What did you do?” because these students then also started succeeding in various other areas, and it’s not that surprising. They’re motivated. They feel special.

Molly Sheridan: You’re watching young performers come of age. What are some of the new creative trends we might expect from these artists in the coming years?

Joseph W. Polisi: Well, that’s a good question and I don’t know how adequately I can answer it. Juilliard and places like it perpetually deal with conflicting interests. No matter what great ideas you have, you can’t realize those ideas without a certain level of technique and acquiring that takes a tremendous amount of time and concentration. It can also trap the student into thinking that the acquisition of technique is 100 percent of the process, which of course it’s not. So one of the big tasks at Juilliard is making sure they acquire the technique and then also begin to get across the bridge to artistry. Once they start that journey, I suppose that’s a journey through a lifetime.

To instill in them how to explore their own art world is an interesting challenge at Juilliard because what you’re doing in some ways is planting seeds to grow in future years. It’s not going to work with every student. Some are never going to get it and some are going to acquire it after they leave. But I’m not Polly Anna-ish—I’m optimistic because I see the energy of these young people. They’re not going to listen to the downsiders.

Molly Sheridan: No Norman Lebrect for them?

Joseph W. Polisi: They’re just not interested. They don’t think in those terms. They’re thinking about making their art as effectively as possible.</P