Category: Cover

Bun-Ching Lam: Home is Where You Park Your Suitcase

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Born in Macau, educated in Hong Kong and California, and now dividing her time between Paris and upstate New York, Bun-Ching Lam has created a fascinating body of music that is shaped by her multicultural life experiences as well as her sensitivity to a wide range of instrumental sonorities and extreme curiosity.

“I’m always curious, and I try anything at least once,” she told us when we visited her at the home of baritone Thomas Buckner, with whom she had been rehearsing in preparation for the New York premiere of her recent song cycle Conversation with My Soul, based on texts by Lebanese-American poet and painter Etel Adnan. (The performance, with the Tana Quartet, will take place at Roulette on November 16 as part of Buckner’s Interpretations series, celebrating its 30th anniversary this season.)

Macau, she acknowledged, was a challenging place for an aspiring concert music composer since, when she was growing up, live performances of classical music were extremely rare. But thanks to her father and some friends who owned classical music recordings, she was able to learn about the repertoire. At the same time, she immersed herself in many other kinds of music, from traditional Cantonese folksongs to the local jazz of Dr. Pedro Lobo to discovering the Beatles on the radio. And she learned how to play many different musical instruments, from the Chinese yangqin to the baritone horn (which she played in a school band) to the accordion. But soon her primary focus was playing the piano, although she admitted that she preferred improvising to practicing: “Maybe that’s the beginning of my composition.” Still, she enrolled as a piano major at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Lam’s composing activities did not officially begin until she came to the United States as an exchange student. She spent a year at the University of Redlands in California, where she was exposed to a wide range of experimental approaches under the tutelage of Barney Childs.  But after she returned to Hong Kong, she won an art song composition competition, which helped pay off her debts and momentarily led her to think that composing was lucrative. When she decided to pursue a graduate degree, she enrolled at the University of California, San Diego, and wound up studying composition with Bernard Rands, Roger Reynolds, and Pauline Oliveros. Unlike her peers, she did not come in with a huge portfolio of works, but within only a few years, Lam began creating music in a distinct, personal style. One of her early works from this time—Bittersweet Music I for solo piccolo—remains one of her most frequently played compositions.

“One of the things that I already had was an idea about what I think music is,” she remembered.  “And I haven’t really changed style. I’m always old fashioned because I like melodies. Even now, writing melodies is not fashionable. I’ve never been with any fashion.  I’m always out of fashion.  When you’re always out of fashion, you’re always in fashion because fashion is a very stupid thing.  … I don’t want to be Mahler.  You cannot be Mahler.  I don’t want to be Respighi, either.  I want to be me.”

Being Bun-Ching Lam means creating music slowly and carefully. She rarely composes more than one work per year. And although she claims that with each piece she’s “starting from scratch,” every gesture is meticulously shaped, with an end result that blurs different aesthetics seamlessly. She frequently juxtaposes instruments as well as texts from East Asia and the West, as well as from the Middle East.

“It’s all available,” she explained.  “Just like nowadays, you don’t just eat Chinese food.  You eat Thai, Afghani, what have you, because everything is available, so why not use it?”


A conversation with Bun-Ching Lam at the home of Thomas Buckner in New York City
October 8, 2018—12:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Frank J. Oteri:  I’ve wanted to talk to you for years, but now seems a particularly apt time since the world is currently going through a very strange period of resurgent nationalism and xenophobia. More than most composers I can think of, you are so polynational, both in terms of your life and your music, to the point that I don’t think what you do could have existed if you did not have this range of experience in so many different places.

“I have a different perspective than someone who has been stationed in one place and stayed there forever.”

Bun-Ching Lam:  Absolutely.  I agree with you. Because I’ve lived in all these places, I’m familiar with so many different cultures.  I speak five languages. None of them well, of course.  But yes, I have a different perspective than someone who has been stationed in one place and stayed there forever.

FJO:  You were born and raised in Macau, which is a very unusual place already.  It, in itself, is a multicultural oasis.  When you were growing up, it was still ruled by Portugal.

BCL:  Yes, until 1999.  My piano teacher was Macanese, so our lessons consisted of Cantonese and English, because I don’t speak Portuguese but she’s speaks very good Cantonese. And then from her, I also learned a lot of English.

FJO:  So Portuguese is not one of your five languages.

BCL:  No, at that time, we had resistance about learning the colonist language.  But I should have learned Portuguese, because then I could read Pessoa in Portuguese.

FJO:  The majority of the population of Macau is Cantonese-speaking Chinese, but the colonial rulers were Portuguese. These are two very different cultures.  But because both the Chinese and the Portuguese there were separated from their motherlands, in some ways they both developed their own cultures.

BC:  The Portuguese who were there they called Macanese.  They don’t really speak the same Portuguese as the people in Portugal; the language has changed.  They have their own subculture and their own patois that the Portuguese don’t know.  And they have poets.  Actually I have a piece where I have used that particular language called Macau Cantata. It uses all the different languages that have passed through Macau.  The famous Chinese poet and playwright Tang Xianzu was in Macau. We all know his Peony Pavilion. He has this description of Macau as the first place where East and West meet. And then [Matteo] Ricci; he went to China and he was stationed in Macau, because that was the only place that you could get access to the mainland. It’s a fascinating place.  In comparison to Hong Kong, Macau actually has its own genuine culture that is very different from any other place.  Of course Hong Kong also has its local culture, but it’s very different.  And, even now, you can go from one place to the other with no problem.

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FJO:  So I’m curious about how you first got exposed to music growing up in Macau.  Before you started studying piano, what were you listening to?  I have this strangely packaged CD that I got years ago that’s a collection of music from Macau that has a recording of your Saudades de Macau on it. But it also includes piano music by Father Aureo Castro and dance music by Pedro Lobo.

BCL: Pedro Lobo! We called him Dr. Lobo.  Every day at 12 o’clock, the radio program had his band on, which played a kind of jazz music. They also had a lot of pop musicians from the ‘50s. And Father Aureo—actually I was just in Macau not too long ago and it was the 55th anniversary of the music school he founded, so they had all kinds of activities and also played his music.  I was invited to do a lecture for the little kids.  It was a lot of fun.

“Listening to classical music was difficult, because there would be one concert a year.”

So I heard all that, and I also heard Cantonese music and The Beatles. Everything. I loved rock music.  But actually listening to classical music was difficult, because there would be one concert a year of classical music.  I had friends, so we borrowed records.  And my father loved music and had records of classical music.  The first concert I heard was Jean-Pierre Rampal playing the flute.  I didn’t hear any real live orchestral music until I was 16, when I went to Hong Kong for the first time.

FJO:  How much traditional Chinese music were you exposed to in Macau?

BCL:  Oh, there were all kinds of things.  And I also played a little on Chinese instruments.  I played the yangqin and the moon-shaped lute, but never very well. Then I played in the school band. I started out as a conductor, and then I learned to play baritone horn, because nobody wanted to play it, so I played it.  And I learned to play accordion in one day; I had to go on stage the next day.  So that was a lot of fun.

FJO:  So you were playing wind band music?

BCL:  Yeah, and we had our own transcriptions.  I actually arranged certain things.  I was 14 or 15. That was interesting because I got to learn various instruments.  I know how to play “Home, Sweet Home” on any instrument, but not very well.

FJO:  There have been at least two other composers with international reputations besides you who are from Macau. A lot of people probably don’t realize that Xian Xinghai was born in Macau, even though he became a very iconic composer in mainland China because of his role in the revolution and his Yellow River Cantata was turned into a piano concerto during the Cultural Revolution. It’s still played all the time.

BCL: He died very young.

FJO:  And then there’s Doming Lam, who I think is a very interesting composer.

BCL:  Absolutely, but he basically lives in Hong Kong.  Then he went to Canada for a while. He never really lived in Macau.

FJO:  I think in order to establish a career for himself, he had to leave Macau and go somewhere that had a larger musical scene.

BCL:  Macau is a very, very small place.  And it’s very hard to stay there forever.

FJO:  So you left Macau to study piano in Hong Kong.  But at that point, you still were not thinking of writing music.

“I just improvised; I never practiced.  Maybe that’s the beginning of my composition.”

BCL:  No. I wrote some little songs, and one time I sent one to a magazine but I never heard from them.  Since I don’t like to practice piano, I improvised.  I didn’t have a piano at home, so I practiced piano at school, right down in the hallway, and people would come and pass by.  My father wanted to make sure that I practiced, so he had a teacher [check in on me] and he had a little book.  Each time after I finished practicing he would say, “Very good” or “It doesn’t seem to be very good today.” But since he didn’t know anything about music, I’d just play some things, I just improvised; I never practiced.  Maybe that’s the beginning of my composition.

Bun-Ching Lam

FJO:  So many different biographies of you state that you didn’t actually start writing music until you arrived in the United States.

BCL:  Right.

FJO:  So I thought, even though you were born and raised in Macau and you studied in Hong Kong and eventually started spending a great deal of your time in France, since you started writing music here, if anyone feels the need to make any kind of nationalistic claims about your identity as a composer, a strong case could be made that you’re an American composer.

BCL: I could be.  I don’t know who I am. Sometimes in one of those ISCM things, they will say I’m a Portuguese composer.

FJO:  Really?

BCL:  Because I was born and raised in Macau. I don’t know what composer I am.  I’m just me.

FJO:  But your serious exposure to contemporary music happened in Hong Kong.  I know that you met Richard Tsang when you were there.

BCL:  Well, we were in the same class.  We were buddies. He started to write music first, and I was just a piano player.  The first time I had contact with contemporary music was when I was in the fourth year.  My piano teacher said, “You should play Schoenberg.” I actually found it quite ugly.  I was doing Opus 11.

In my second year, I went to University of Redlands as an exchange student. I was there only for one year and then I went back to Hong Kong to finish my degree there. But I wanted to learn about contemporary music, so I was playing in the new music ensemble and we were doing Cage and Barney Childs—he was the teacher.  And I learned electronic music. I just wanted to be exposed to different things.  One time, we did this John Cage thing and different music happened at the same time.  I said, “This is fun.”  That was actually in my first composition course. I studied with Barney, and I wrote a piece called Theme and Variations on a Chinese Folksong.  That was my first composition. In each variation, the style changes. Some of it sounds like Hindemith, but it sort of progressively gets more away from the tonal. It [uses] a simple tune [sings melody].  I don’t even know what the name is, but I always liked that tune.

FJO:  Do you still have a manuscript of it somewhere?

BCL:  I don’t think so.

FJO:  Maybe it’ll turn up somewhere.

BCL:  In the Yale Library.  Everything turns up there.

FJO:  Or at the Sacher Foundation.

BCL:  I doubt it very much.

FJO:  So with so many places that have been part of your life, do you consider any place to be home?

“I think home is where you park your suitcase.”

BCL:  Well, I think home is where you park your suitcase.  Your root is somewhere else.  But if I carry my root with me, it’s just dangling. It never goes anywhere; it’s just where I am. Nowadays people always say the DNA.  The DNA’s there.  So it doesn’t matter where I live.  The Chinese say, “When the leaves fall off, it goes back to the root.”  Maybe one of these days I will want to go back to live in Macau, because it’s true, each time I go back there, there’s a certain kind of familiarity.  Or if I go to China. Deep down, I’m certainly Chinese. Therefore, to answer your question, I’m a Chinese composer.  I always say, “You’re once Chinese, you’ll always be Chinese.”  That’s how I think.  Somehow it’s because of how I was brought up.  Certain kinds of Confucian thinking are ingrained in me, even though I like Chuang Zhu and Lao Tzu much better; that part of the philosophical outlook on life is ingrained.

FJO:  Well, if there’s anything that more pieces of yours have in common than anything else, it’s an association with Macau. And even in the last ten years, you’ve written three works that reference Macau. Aside from the Macau Cantata, which you mentioned, there’s also Five Views of Macau and Scenes from Old Macau.

BCL:  Definitely I like Macau, but there’s also a practical reason.  I was a composer-in-residence in Macau.  They wanted me to write Macau this, Macau that.  So I think of myself like the Respighi of Macau. I’m actually tired of it, so I’m no longer composer-in-residence.  Still, the next piece I’m working on is for the Macau Youth Orchestra.  It’s more interesting to see how I can relate to the young people.

FJO:  To get back to your formative years, I’m curious about what happened next after you wrote that first piece of music when you were studying with Barney Childs. You went back to Hong Kong, but you obviously got the composing bug since not long after that you came back here to pursue a graduate degree in composition.

BCL: I had borrowed some money from the school and I was totally broke. Then the last year there was a composition competition for songs and the prize was pretty high.  Richard Tsang was also applying for it, so I thought maybe I should write a song. Then if I win, I guess I can pay back my loan.  That’s how I started.  It was a very short song. I hid in the practice room and I was looking at all the French chansons. I found some harmonies and I made this song up.  Then I entered and I won.  So I said, that’s great.  It’s very lucrative being a composer.

FJO:  That’s very different from most people’s experiences.

BCL:  Well, that was the only time that I really won some money.  I’m still waiting for my MacArthur, but I’m not holding my breath.

FJO:  Yeah, they just announced this year’s winners, so maybe next year.

BCL:  Right, it’s great.  Fantastic.

FJO:  But okay, you won this competition and you paid back the loan.

BCL:  And I went to America.

FJO:  In order to pursue a degree in composition?

BCL:  No. I went to UC San Diego for a master’s and at that time they had a track system where you had to do different things.  I picked piano of course, because I applied as a pianist, and then they had theoretical study, and then there was some sort of extended technique.  But since I don’t like history because I don’t remember anything, I said, “Okay, I’ll try composition.”  At first, I was at the undergraduate composition seminar and Bernard Rands was the teacher.  So I wrote a piece for solo flute.  That was the assignment.  Everybody had to write a piece for solo flute.  And then the next assignment was a duet.  You add another line on top of that piece, so it would be a duet for two flutes.  I said, “Wow, by the time I’m 70, I will be writing a symphony.”  But then in the second quarter, I got promoted into the graduate seminar.  But I really didn’t have a portfolio.  All the people already were composing since they were born.  I was just a beginner.

FJO:  You were a beginner, but you were already studying with Bernard Rands.

BCL:  Well, he was employed to teach there, so he had to teach anybody.

FJO:  But you ultimately wound up studying composition with a lot of other very interesting people as well. We’ve actually done talks with quite a few of the people you studied with—Bernard Rands, Roger Reynolds, and Pauline Oliveros. They are so different from each other.

BCL:  Exactly.  And there was another person I studied with, Robert Erickson, who was totally different [from all of them].  I was in all of their seminars.   For me, it was fantastic that I got to learn from different people.

FJO:  And what’s fascinating is, although you came in without a portfolio of compositions in the beginning, within five years you were writing pieces that clearly have a distinct compositional identity, and which are still receiving performances, like the piccolo solo Bittersweet Music from 1981.  Of course, it helps that there isn’t a lot of solo piccolo repertoire.

BCL:  That’s right.  That’s why I pick those weird things to do.

FJO:  It’s a good idea to write a piece that can have that kind of circulation.  But still, it seems really unusual to me that you were able to create something that is so fully formed so soon after starting to write music.

BCL:  I don’t know.  I have no idea.  I think that one of the things that I already had was an idea about what I think music is.  And I haven’t really changed style. I’m always old fashioned because I like melodies. Even now, writing melodies is not fashionable. I’ve never been with any fashion.  I’m always out of fashion.  When you’re always out of fashion, you’re always in fashion because fashion is a very stupid thing.  Can you imagine now everybody is wearing bell bottom pants. That was in the 1960s. So now you have to get rid of all your skinny pants? Why would you want to do that?  The only people who make money are the people who manufacture it!

“When you’re always out of fashion, you’re always in fashion because fashion is a very stupid thing.”

Music is the same thing.  It was fashionable to write 12-tone music.  Now nobody writes 12-tone music except a few people in California, which used to be anti-12-tone music.  And now it’s all environmental—the cosmos and all those things.  Once it was fashionable to be Chinese, like 10 or 20 years ago. Now it’s fashionable to be Finnish or some other up-north people like Iceland, which is fantastic because everybody has something to offer.  So I like it.  I think it’s a great time.  People are open to different things.  But when you’re open to different things, other things get shut off.

Bun-Ching Lam

FJO:  So, would it be a fair assessment to say that you primarily compose by intuition, or is there some sort of secret system behind the pieces you’ve written? What causes a piece to get formed the way it does?

BCL:  I don’t know.  It’s getting progressively more difficult for me to write.  I’m writing a short piece now.  I love strange combinations, and this piece is for shakuhachi, recorder, an oud, a theorbo, and a kugo, which is a harp.  And I’m just racking my brain about how to make it work.  With each piece I’m just starting from scratch.  When it happens, it happens.  That’s why it takes me a long time to write a piece, because I don’t know what I’m doing.

FJO:  So would you say you come up with the idea of what the combination of the instruments is first, and then it leads you in a certain direction?

BCL:  Yes, but that happened to be the group that commissioned it.  There’s no repertoire; you just have to make it up.

FJO:  Interesting.  One of the things I find so fascinating about your work is how it embraces so many different cultural traditions. You’re Chinese and you’ve written a lot of works that involve Chinese instruments, as well as Chinese instruments in combination with Western instruments.  But you’ve also written works for Japanese instruments.  You mentioned this new piece has shakuhachi.  Plus you’ve written for gamelan, which is Indonesian, and for Middle Eastern instruments.  The entire world’s sounds are fair game.

BCL:  I think so.  It’s all available.  Just like nowadays, you don’t just eat Chinese food.  You eat Thai, Afghani, what have you, because everything is available, so why not use it?  I’m always curious, and I try anything at least once.

FJO:  Yet at the same time, and I guess this strikes to the whole notion of fashion, there’s a huge movement nowadays where people believe if you’re not from a culture, you can’t really understand that culture and what the larger meanings of things are from that culture, and therefore you shouldn’t be appropriating them.

“I’m always curious, and I try anything at least once.”

BCL:  Right.  That’s a big discussion. Like if you’re not black, you shouldn’t write about black culture. I don’t know.  I have no answer.  I’m not stealing; I’m just borrowing. And I’m not appropriating, because if I’m writing for shakuhachi, I’m not trying to be Japanese, or if I write for string quartet, I’m not pretending to be European.  So I don’t see any reason not to do it.  But you have to do it with respect. If as an American, you just write music that sounds like gamelan music and there is nothing really different, then maybe that could be a question.  I could be wrong.

FJO:  One thing that’s so interesting about your approach is the ways things blur together. By combining these different sound worlds, the result is music that would not have been possible from any of those places in isolation. I was listening again this morning to your song cycle Nachtgesänge, which is based on poetry by Friedrich Hölderlin. You use such an unusual combination of instruments.  You included a koto, which is Japanese, and also a saxophone, which though of European origin really came into its own in the USA. Hölderlin has been described as the most German of German poets, but you set his poetry using sonorities from all over the world. And in doing that, his poetry becomes—

BCL:  —something else. Yeah.  But I didn’t choose the instrumentation. It was for the CrossSound Festival in Alaska.  They have those players and so I chose that, but I have to find a rationale for how to combine these instruments, not only because of sound. I live with a German so that makes it work, I think. But actually the thinking is quite Chinese, because of the classification of the instruments by material.  I was thinking there’s wood, there’s brass, there’s metal, and then there’s something that’s neutral to combine them all together.  And the reason is because Hölderlin is a fantastic poet.  I also made a book with that text with some of my etchings. I learned about Hölderlin and this whole German Romantic world—how they expressed words was just fantastic, just the sounds of them. I just love it.

FJO:  So German must be one of your five languages then.

BCL:  Yes.  I understand almost everything, but when I speak everybody laughs because I just don’t say things the same way. But it’s grammatically correct, usually.

FJO:  If the unusual instrumental combinations you write for are the result of the people who are commissioning a work from you, you obviously don’t have a lot of say in that. But what if there was a combination that you felt wouldn’t work for your music?

BCL:  Then I just don’t accept the commission.

FJO:  So there have been times you’ve turned down commissions.

“Since I write slowly, sometimes I just have to say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do that.'”

BCL:  Yes, since I write slowly, sometimes I just have to say, “Sorry, I can’t do that.”  I still haven’t written a woodwind quintet.  It would be kind of fun to do, but that’s also very difficult because you right away think about these bad woodwind quintets that have been written.

FJO:  But the text is something that you usually choose, I imagine, although I know that you wrote a setting of Heinrich Heine for Tom Buckner, whose home we’re in now, because it was something that he wanted, so you chose that text as a gift to him.

BCL:  Everybody loves Heine.  It was a love song.  It was a present for Kamala and Tom for their wedding anniversary.  But I usually choose the text. I’ve written some Dada songs [with texts] by Hugh Ball.  I just love that silly nonsense; you can make anything out of it.  That was written in 1985, before any big commissions.

FJO:  You are interested in so many things, so you probably read more texts than the ones you wind up setting.  What makes a text cry out to you and make you want to set it to music?

BCL:  Well, I don’t read too terribly much, because I really don’t have that much time.  I’ll just see something. But it has to speak to me somehow; I have to see an image.  For instance, I’m learning French, so I’m paying more attention to French poets.  I also still use a lot of Chinese poems.

FJO:  But the thing that I find so fascinating, to take it back again to that Hölderlin setting, is the text that you choose doesn’t necessarily determine the kind of musical sound world that that text is in.  The idea that a Japanese instrument could be used to bring out the words of Hölderlin is quite interesting. I know that you have done some settings of Chinese poetry using Chinese instruments, but then you’ve also done Chinese settings that don’t use any Chinese instruments at all.

BCL:  Right.  I think the texts I do something with are very universal.  Mostly they are poems about love or about isolation.  Human emotion is common to every culture and every language.  Therefore music is a great way to illuminate those feelings and those emotions.  For instance, there’s one piece at the concert on November 16, which is the 30th anniversary for the Interpretation Series, called Conversation with My Soul; [the text is] by the great poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan.  I wanted to write a piece for Tom and she’s Tom’s close friend; that’s a present for her 91st birthday that Tom did for her.  I wanted to write another string quartet, but I thought it might be easier to add a baritone voice to it and, for me, it was to discover the meaning of her language. Sometimes it’s very obscure, because she’s Lebanese and English is her second language, just like me, so her use of language is very different from people like John Ashbery. And the syntax—sometimes you don’t know where you are!  Just like music, it’s ambiguous; you don’t know exactly what the meaning is.

FJO:  So have you ever set a text in a language that you don’t speak to some extent?

BCL:  I try not to.  It would be difficult to set something in Greek, because it’s like Greek to me.

FJO:  Curiously, one of my favorite pieces of yours is one from very early on, your solo percussion piece Lue.

BCL:  Wow, I didn’t know that you knew my music so well.  That makes me feel happy.

FJO:  Well, I thought it would be interesting to talk about since we’re talking about understanding different languages. To me that piece sounds so idiomatic for percussion, but back in 1983, when you wrote it, I can’t imagine that you would have had a ton of background with percussion instruments.

BCL:  Well, I do hit the table with the chopsticks, once in a while.  I don’t know. You just imagine.  You don’t have to draw a picture; you just know you have to reach from here to there in this time. That was a very extravagant piece.  That piece is not played very much because it costs a lot of money to rent the instruments.  But I was at Cornish, and my wonderful colleagues helped me and somehow it all worked.

FJO:  It’s interesting that it doesn’t get performed much because it’s one of the only pieces of yours that there are two different commercial recordings of.

BCL:  Is that right?

FJO:  There’s the first recording that was released on CRI decades ago and then a more recent one on Mutable.

BCL:  Right.  Well, it’s too expensive.  Nobody plays that.  They don’t want to move those things anymore.  There have been other performances in New Jersey because of a percussion teacher there.

FJO:  Raymond DesRoches.

BCL:  He’s great.

FJO:  You wrote a second percussion piece later on called Klang, which I’ve never heard and would love to hear.

BCL:  There was a commercial recording of it in Europe, but I don’t know how commercial it is, with a great percussionist, Fritz Hauser, a Swiss guy.  He just did a big festival in Lucerne and he commissioned that piece. The great thing is that he always had two bass drums.  I love kung fu books [even though] I don’t read too many of them; [in kung fu] human beings have a way to separate the body. You can have your left trying to control your right, so you try to separate yourself.  So that piece [Klang] is very difficult to play because he has to do all these things. So I had fun doing that piece, but very few people play that piece also.  I think he was the only person who played it.

FJO:  I suppose that’s the opposite of the piece you wrote for piccolo, Bittersweet Music, which many people have performed.

BCL:  Yeah.  Maybe.  It’s short.  And it’s bittersweet, more sweet than bitter.

FJO:  You’ve written three pieces with that title.  The third one is for bass flute, which is a lot less common.

BCL:  Yeah, a lot of people don’t have bass flute, so I don’t think that piece has been played very much.

FJO:  There is at least one video of it online which is really nice.  Another piece that I wanted to talk with you a bit about is …Like Water, which has also been recorded twice.  It’s a trio of Western instruments—violin, piano, and percussion—but once again, it’s such a seamless blur of East and West, Asian, European, and American traditions.  If I didn’t know it was your music, I’d be hard-pressed to figure out where this music came from; I’d have no idea.

BCL:  Oh, that’s great.  Thank you.  I’m from Mars!

FJO:  Though it’s seamless, from minute to minute it goes through so many different stylistic sound worlds, so I’m wondering what your roadmap for that piece was.

“The problem with dance music is that you write something and then it’s too short or too long.”

BCL:  Well, that piece was written for dance.  It was a collaboration with the choreographer June Watanabe.  The problem with dance music is that you write something and then it’s too short or too long.  You can’t just add a couple of minutes here or there, except Stravinsky who just adds more repeats!  She wanted a piece that had something to do with water.  So I just wrote pieces for her. Each day, I wrote one, more or less.  I’d just get up in the morning and say, “Okay, today I’ll write one.” Then one after the other, because I had a deadline.  That helps too, once in a while. Instead of just dreaming about a piece, you actually have to work on it and finish it.  So that’s how it all came about.  And then it was for The Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio, and they are wonderful musicians; they can play anything.

FJO:  You’ve mostly written pieces for smaller ensembles, but I wanted to talk with you a bit about the orchestra, because you have written several orchestra pieces and have also conducted them. Earlier in this conversation you were talking about writing a piece when you studied with Bernard Rands that started as a solo and then became a duo, and you imagined that it would eventually become a symphony.

BCL:  Well, I still haven’t written a symphony, so I’m still waiting.

FJO:  Do you want to?

BCL:  I don’t know.  It’s too difficult to write a symphony.

FJO:  You’ve written concertos, though.

BCL:  Yeah.

FJO:  Including two pipa concertos.

BCL:  Actually both of them will be performed in Germany at the end of this month, which is very rare.

FJO:  Together on the same concert?

BCL:  Yes.

FJO:  Wow.

BCL:  They’re going to do it three times.  So this is a great treat for me.

FJO:  That’s fantastic.  So are there a lot of performances of your music in Europe?

BCL:  No, not really.  Once in a while.

FJO:  Does it help to be based there a good deal of the time?

BCL:  I don’t think so.

FJO:  So then what led you to spend so much of your time in Paris?

BCL:  The food is better!

FJO:  There’s some pretty good food in New York, too.

BCL:  It’s true, but I don’t live in New York anymore.  I’m kidding, but in terms of ingredients, it’s still better [in Paris].  But that’s not really the main thing; it’s the culture. Since I left New York, Paris seems to be a good city to be in right now.

FJO:   I’ve enjoyed the times that I’ve been there. And, at this point, I imagine you are probably also able to find musicians there who play pipa and shakuhachi and any other instrument you’d want to write for.

BCL:  Well, these other musicians are in Seattle or New York.  I think for the variety of multicultural things, the United States is still the best.  In Germany, there are some people.  Wu Wei is there.  And I just did a piece for a pipa player in Geneva.  There are so many pipa players everywhere now, and they’re all very, very good.

FJO:  Are they all Chinese?

BCL:  Yes.

FJO:  There’s now all this repertoire for Asian instruments that’s part of Western contemporary music, either in combination with Western instruments or just for those instruments, even pieces that are being composed by people who are not originally from Asia. But most of the players are still Asian, even though there are now some really terrific shakuhachi players who are not Asian. With the other instruments, like pipa, that hasn’t happened so much yet.

BCL:  I think it’s going to change soon.  Hasn’t Manhattan School of Music started a Chinese music program?  And in the Midwest, there are centers.  There are Confucius Institutes all over the world.  They all have music programs.  So it’s changing.  It’s going to take a while, but before too long, it might be very cool to learn to play pipa.  The Silk Road is everywhere, so people may want to learn that.

Bun-Ching Lam

FJO:  Now in terms of big projects, you said writing a symphony is very hard.  But you’ve done two rather large music-theater type pieces.  The one that I’m more familiar with is The Child God.  It’s a big piece.

BCL:  That’s only half an hour.

FJO:  Yeah, but many symphonies are about a half an hour, unless you want to be Mahler.

“I don’t want to be Mahler. I don’t want to be Respighi, either. I want to be me.”

BCL:  No, I don’t want to be Mahler.  You cannot be Mahler.  I don’t want to be Respighi, either.  I want to be me.  But Mahler is such a great composer; I’m not in the same league.

FJO:  So what pieces would you want to write if you were given the opportunity to write them?

BCL:  I don’t really have any goal or wish, just what comes to mind. I have to work on this youth orchestra piece.  That will be 25 minutes.  So that can be a symphony.

FJO:  There you go.  There’s your symphony.

BCL:  Yeah, but I don’t want to call it a symphony.  It just has too much implication somehow.  Symphonies, symphonias, everybody playing together—that’s the original definition.  I want to start with number nine, and I will die right away.

FJO:  Well I hope that doesn’t happen.  So don’t write that one yet.

BCL:  Yeah, I’m postponing it.  Until I’m 95, then it’s about time to go.

George Tsontakis: Getting Out of My Introvertism

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Since the early 1990s, George Tsontakis has had a career path that most American composers would envy. By then, he had already been signed by a major publisher and his music was not only being performed by soloists, ensembles, and orchestras all over country, most of it was also recorded. Then he received a significant music award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1995 and a Guggenheim Fellowship the following year. The following decade, he was awarded the Charles Ives Living and the Grawemeyer Award in Music Composition, which are among the two largest cash prizes available to composers.

And yet throughout the time he received those accolades and to this day, rather calling tons of attention to himself or striving for more honors (e.g. he refuses to allow his music to be submitted for the Pulitzer Prize), Tsontakis aspires to a hermetic existence in the middle of the woods and composes something only when someone commissions it and nothing at all if no one does. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s a strategy that has served him well. Since the mid-1980s, there hasn’t been a time when he hasn’t been juggling multiple requests from people to write music for them.

“If nobody asked me to write a piece, I wouldn’t compose,” he admitted when we sat with him on his back porch as hummingbirds and bees flittered around and chipmunks scurried by. “I’d be doing other things. I’m very happy to not compose. … One of the secrets to [my] life is that I only write what people ask for. … Multiple performances, you get that through websites or whatever. I don’t care. I’m not a promoter. I’m not even a person that wants pieces to be played all the time.”

Despite this reticence, he remains in demand and continues to compose vital works. A 2017 Naxos American Classics recording collecting three recent concertos by Tsontakis—the klezmer-tinged Asana for clarinetist David Krakauer, the jazz-inflected True Colors for trumpeter Eric Berlin, and the Soros Foundation commissioned double violin concerto Unforgettable—is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s currently a third violin concerto in the works as well as a Requiem in honor of his mother who passed away in January.

And as for Tsontakis being a serene, quiet person, he seems anything but! During the afternoon we spent with him he regaled us with endless anecdotes about his early years—acting in musical theater and almost being chosen for the original cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, arguing with Stockhausen during a seminar in Italy, fending off becoming a furrier by telling his Greek father than he was a vegetarian, and then his father being proud of an early piece of his that Vincent Persichetti hated. Along the way, he also told tons of jokes and did impersonations of various musical luminaries—including his one-time teacher Roger Sessions. Often, it was difficult to get a word in edgewise!

So much so, in fact, that it was somewhat hard to swallow that Tsontakis considers himself an introvert and that being socially active was an acquired skill.

“I get in these moods where I don’t talk,” he explained. “I’m basically an extrovert when I’m with people, but when they leave I become completely introverted. It’s an interesting balance. I’m either a closet introvert or a closet extrovert. I don’t know!”


A conversation with Frank J. Oteri outside Tsontakis’s home in Shokan, New York
September 12, 2018—12:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Frank J. Oteri: We’ve only just started rolling the camera, but we’ve been having a great conversation since you picked us up in Kingston, New York, over an hour ago. It’s hard to believe it’s taken so long for us to finally record a substantive discussion with you.

“Every composer and every performer should have to act.”

George Tsontakis: Well, you did ask me one time, but I don’t do many things like this.  I’m very insular.  I think it was after the Grawemeyer [Award] or the Ives [Living], but I wasn’t talking to anybody.  I was composing. I get in these moods where I don’t talk.  I’m basically an extrovert when I’m with people, but when they leave I become completely introverted.  It’s an interesting balance.  I’m either a closet introvert or a closet extrovert.  I don’t know.  You’ve got to come out when you do teaching. And I’m an actor; I act in plays. When you’re doing a play, you have to close yourself up.  Acting really helped me to get out of my introvertism and at least pretend to enjoy people being here. Every composer and every performer should have to act. All these violinists are so serious.

FJO: You already sort of half answered the question with which I wanted to begin our conversation. Before I ever visited Vienna, which was only five years ago, people would always be shocked that I hadn’t traveled there since it’s such an important center of musical activity, to which I’d invariably respond, so are Harare, Zimbabwe; Lima, Peru; Seoul, South Korea—which are all places I had been. As a composer in this country, you’ve attained an enviable degree of prominence—you’ve won several major awards, a large amount of your music continues to be performed and has been recorded. And yet, you’ve chosen not to live in any of the major urban musical capitals.  I can see why.  It’s idyllic, despite being off the beaten path.  Still, it’s kind of a weird place to be doing what you do.  Or so it seems to me.  Maybe it’s not.

GT: Well, it depends.  I mean, if I lived in an urban area, it wouldn’t be Vienna.  That’s a museum, as most of classical music is these days.  If it’s not a contemporary music festival or concert, it’s museum stuff.  This is the perfect place to be.  Everybody else is in the wrong place as far as I’m concerned.  But it depends on what your philosophy is.  I’ve had 21-year-old students at Bard who have bigger Wikipedia pages than I do, because they’re reaching out and they’re trying to be in another place all the time.  The urban area is now wireless, so you can be in the country and still be reaching out instead of looking in.  But Bach hardly ever left Leipzig and he did pretty well.  Either you depend on promoting yourself or you depend on your product to be the promotion of what you do.  Of course, it helped that I had started off in a place like Juilliard. Having met people at Juilliard was a great thing.  It helped for about ten years. You’ve got to get off the ground, and maybe you do have to have a connection with some populated area, where there are musicians.  There’s nothing wrong with being with musicians.  Even at Bard, where it’s a tiny microcosmos of an urban community, there are fantastic musicians.  So I tell the composers, especially if they’re anti-social, you have to meet these performers, because these performers might be the ones that are going to do your works and request your works in the future.

When I was in New York City, I’d be walking down Broadway, and it led to a commission.  Somebody would say, “Hey George, you know, we’re thinking about you.  Thinking about doing something.”  The fact that we were in front of Zabars kicked it over to, “Yeah, let’s talk.”  That was a big difference.  So there are advantages.  But as far as creative energy goes, “New York, New York” and the other urban areas have a lot of static electricity.  You’re there walking around and you feel energy.  But is it your energy?  That’s the question.  By retreating to this quiet place, I know where my energy ends and the other energies begin, or vice versa.  So I don’t adopt any energies of the urban areas.  You have to make all your energy here.  It’s a more subtle energy, but it’s a dependable energy.  And I love nature, too.  You hear all these creatures? I feed birds. They inspire me as well. I have that in common with Messiaen. I love the birds, but I don’t know who they are.

A view of the Hudson River from George Tsontakis's home

FJO: But you actually grew up in New York City. You were born in Astoria.

GT: That’s another thing. I don’t need it because I’ve been there. I’ve done the urban area. Back to my advice to young composers: “I finished undergrad, where do I go to grad school?” I’ll say, “Where did you go to undergrad?” “Well, I went to New York, Manhattan School of Music.”  I say, “Well then, find a country place to go to for your master’s and doctorate maybe.” If they say, “I went to some country school in the middle of nowhere,” I’d say, “Find an urban school to go to because you need both to a degree.”  It’s the diversity of learning about these different poles.  There are some composers who will never leave the city.  That’s you, Frank!  Definitely, I can tell that already.  In one hour, you’ve demonstrated all the urban tendencies.  I think New York is one of the most provincial places I’ve ever seen.  A friend who lives in Woodstock read a chapter at the Woodstock Library about those New Yorkers who only read three publications.  And each one has New York in the title.

FJO: I don’t do that.

GT: No, I know. But he said, “Thank God for those people. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have anybody buying tickets!” New York is provincial that way. If a restaurant is not in The New York Times, you don’t go.  But out here, you have to fend for yourself. I also want to mention that there’s a lot of stuff going on here.  We’re only an hour and forty-five minutes from the George Washington Bridge. So, like the pollen, these New Yorkers come up here. They get off the Amtrak and we know what they’re doing, and they know what we’re doing.

A cottage which was George Tsontakis's first residence in Shokan and is now a cottage for guests.

FJO: [laughs] Okay, but I’m going to take you back to New York when you were growing up in the very tightly knit Greek community. I know that you had multiple interests, not just music; you were very deeply engrossed in theater. But how did you get exposed to all this stuff and when did things start to resonate with you?

GT: I can tell you the day I became a composer. I didn’t spend that much time in Astoria.  We moved to Long Island, to a school district that had good music. But my grandparents and I spent a lot of time in Astoria when I went to Queens College.  So that was important. I had a dual cultural life. You know, Astoria is really Greece in a way, although I was just in Greece in April and May and when I speak Greek, they say, “George, you speak Greek, but it’s Astoria Greek.”  Astoria’s a suburb of Greece.  And those roots are very important for what I do.

But I went to a good school on Long Island, and they handed me a violin when I was seven years old.  So I studied violin and I knew a little about classical music. But when I was around 15 or 16, I got this new pair of headphones (they didn’t have good headphones until the ‘60s) and I listened to a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Stravinsky’s Firebird.  It blew me away, because I hadn’t heard something like that live.  Now, if you had told me that Igor Stravinsky was a Polish jazz composer, I would say cool man. I like his music. I didn’t know enough about music to know who Stravinsky was. Someone recommended a recording. I also heard in the same week Beethoven’s Opus 135. Blew me away, too. I listened to the Fine Arts Quartet. That week I decided to be a composer.

I just said, “Between Beethoven and Stravinsky, I want to do that. Whatever that is.”  It’s like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, the chocolate and the peanut butter. You put it together; I want to do that.  And I have been trying to do that. I added Debussy and Messiaen to the mix, but basically I wanted to do that.

“Try to remember when you decided to be a composer and why.”

I argue this point with many composers, especially in Europe, who have had pressure put on them to be more progressive, more avant-garde, whatever it is, less tonal, whatever you call that.  I say, “Try to remember when you decided to be a composer and why.”  I decided to be a composer because of what I heard.  I didn’t become a composer because of my compatriot Xenakis or Boulez or Karlheinz Stockhausen.  I became a composer to emulate the music that I wanted to do.  And I will take that music, and I’ll bring it forward in my own manner.  I’ll decide on the colors. I call tonalities—dissonance or not dissonance—colors.

FJO: It’s funny you say that because every composer has a different story about what triggered the desire to be a composer. I confess, although I had already been writing music, a really formative influence on me when I was in high school was actually discovering who Stockhausen was—his whole persona, as well as his music and all his crazy pronouncements. It really impressed me, and I wanted to figure out what he was doing.

GT: Aha. I studied with him in Rome in an eighty-hour seminar over two months as I was studying with Donatoni. In Europe, you’d have these spontaneous things.  I read in the paper: Stockhausen seminar. He had just finished Donnerstag aus Licht at La Scala. So there were about ten of us who were students in Stockhausen’s class. Paul Sperry, who I knew, was there. Stockhausen did this thing with these big rolls of paper.  It was four feet and you unrolled it. He did all the staves in different colors.  It was a typical Stockhausen happening. I was the skeptical American.  I have cassette tapes of us arguing in English while the Italians are listening. But Donatoni and Stockhausen made me realize what I could do if I wanted to.  So I didn’t make a choice out of ignorance.  You wanted to learn what Stockhausen was doing.  Well, I found out and I still didn’t want to do it.  So I tell composers in Europe, or wherever they think we’re not modern enough, “Look, we can turn around tomorrow and do what you’re doing, and you could do what we’re doing.  We made a choice.”

That’s because we find, like my old friend George Rochberg did, the materials that you best communicate with, and that’s it.  You know, you don’t become affected because of someone telling you that your materials aren’t modern enough.  I give them the example that if in 1450 sackbuts and crumhorns started to play Lachenmann and then in 2018, two cats came along from Italy, Gabrieli and Monteverdi, and started doing their music, somebody would go,  “Holy cow, I just heard the most modern music I ever heard. These guys are flipped out, man.”  There’s no forwards and backwards in music.  I’m so happy that, these days, young composers don’t seem to care.

FJO: We’re now in an era where anything is possible.  But it’s interesting to hear you say all this because there’s a piece of yours I’ve read about in a New York Times review by Tim Page. I’ve never heard it and wish I could. It’s a very early string quartet that is probably either number one or number two.

GT: The Emerson one?

FJO: Yes.

GT: It’s very much like [Wolfgang] Rihm.  It’s not 12-tone, but at least it has 12 tones.  It still resonates for me.  I know you know [the recording of] the third and fourth quartets on New World.  The American [String Quartet] had a choice, to pair the fourth that I wrote for them with either my second or third quartet.  The third is very tonal.  And the second is completely out there—dissonant and dissonant—but there are some lyrical aspects, too.  They voted.  Two of them wanted to do number two and two of them wanted to do number three.  And I would still love it, if the Emerson is listening out there, my buddies—would you want to bring back number two?  I’d love to hear it.  I’d love for someone to do that really well.  You mentioned Tim Page?

FJO: Yeah, I’ll read you the quote that got me: “This piece, which was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, under whose auspices Sunday’s concert was presented, proved a somber, knotty work in four movements, rather in the manner of Alban Berg. The composer writes that he attempted a ‘clear reaction to our times,’ and speaks of fears and frustrations. To this taste, Mr. Tsontakis lays on the angst a little thick.”

GT: Very good telling.  Tim’s a great guy, too.  I remember “lays on the angst too thick.”  Now I don’t have to lay it on at all, because I did it then.  I remember Andrew Porter in The New Yorker wrote something similar. I don’t remember the quote, but something like: “It wasn’t to my taste.” or “It was a little bit over the top.”

FJO: When I read negative reviews like this, it doesn’t turn me off the piece; often it makes me want to listen even more! But what stuck with me in that Tim Page review was his reference to your comment about the piece being “a clear reaction to our times.”  You talked about Europeans thinking that their music is progressive and ours is not. I don’t think it can be reduced to binaries. But one of the things that I find so exciting about your music, and why I wanted to talk to you—particularly now, in this current zeitgeist—is that although I don’t think your music sounds anachronistic, I also don’t think it sounds like it’s of the present time.  You seem completely oblivious to what is going on now, and it’s nice to be able to kind of get away from what’s going on, especially right now, through this music.

“Any music that is specifically yours has a character that can’t be duplicated.”

GT: Well yeah, I mean, that’s the whole point. Any music that is specifically yours has a character that can’t be duplicated. It’s like a fingerprint or DNA. I learn a lot by teaching, and I’ve always said to my students, “Don’t try to be original.” Only two composers every century are original, and they’re usually French—Messiaen and Varèse or Berlioz and Debussy, the big revolutionaries. The rest of us kind of do mop up, we do what the others do.  So I say, “Don’t try to be original, be specific. Be as specific as you can. Mold your music in your own specific way to your DNA, even if you start with C-major.”

It doesn’t matter what you do. There’s been proof of that.  Look at a composer like Arvo Pärt or Gorecki or Valentin Silvestrov. They have nuanced their music in a way that nobody can duplicate.  Benjamin Britten’s a great example, too.  One of our problems is that we think of chronology—1800, 1900, 2000—and music progressing, whereas I think of it as different things going up. [gestures hands] Here’s Bach. Here’s Beethoven. Here’s Haydn over there.  Here’s Messiaen. The higher you go with the lives of these composers, the more modern music is. It’s more modern because you can’t get there from going this way. So the late Beethoven quartets, those are all eternally modern. Or Gabrieli and Monteverdi—you can’t get there by imitating them. Chronology is not adding more and more dissonance, and being more and more abstract, scratching the instrument instead of sul ponticello. Eventually the violin is going to break in half from somebody trying affectations of texture! So be the life of a composer going up.  You make your own pedestal.  That’s why I can use whatever elements and it’s a personal dialogue in my language that I picked somewhere between Opus 135 and Stravinsky’s FirebirdRite of Spring was on the flip side [of that LP], but I went for the Firebird even though kids viscerally like Rite of Spring. I think that’s how I discovered Debussy, because Firebird is Debussy and Rimsky-Korsakov.  Again, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Take Russian tunes instead of French tunes, and you use Debussy’s techniques that Stravinsky obviously did in Firebird, and you have a new music. So if I pick that up, and Beethoven’s late quartets, and I blend those in my mind, my concoction is what you’re talking about that you can’t understand where it comes from.

FJO: So this is you as a teenager in the ‘60s. You were a weird kid.

GT: We were all weird. We had a group of weird kids in our high school. We were listening to Bartók and other stuff. That’s the way we rebelled, by listening to contemporary music.

FJO: Instead of listening to The Rolling Stones?

GT: Well, I played in rock bands. I played keyboard and electric violin.  We did stuff by Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears with Al Kooper. Those were the days, you know. And we did some Stones. I think that was really healthy to do.  But don’t look for fame in the business we are in.  It’s a very small, rarified world.

A tower that was added to George Tsontakis's house.

I don’t worry about anything. One of the reasons I can live where I do, and be disassociated to a degree with what else happens is because I’ve gotten myself down to a science in what I want to do.  I’ve realized that the only time I have to compose is when I’m composing.  I don’t have to have anything to do with music otherwise.  I have enough listening experience, unless I want to keep up with the latest stuff.  But all I have to do is sit and compose.  If I sit and compose for two hours that day, I don’t have to talk about music for the rest of my time.  I don’t have to live music.  I don’t have to go to concerts.  I don’t have to do anything.  I think it would be wonderful if somebody did, but I don’t need that.  So I can do that anywhere.  I pack my bag, and I’ll go in the woods.  It doesn’t matter where I do it because I don’t have to listen to it.  I love Beethoven and I love listening to Debussy, but I don’t have to in order to compose.

FJO: There are certain tools that you do need, though.  Yes?

“Nobody wants to just listen to the music of a composer who does nothing but be a composer.”

GT: You definitely need tools, but you develop your own.  All we have to do is compose when we want to compose.  Being involved in music otherwise is an elective.  I don’t need that elective.  I’d rather be involved with other things in my life and do other things.  And I think the broader the package that we make of ourselves, the more we will communicate—because nobody wants to just listen to the music of a composer who does nothing but be a composer.  So I tell my students that.  Enrich yourself.  Do other things because you’ll never write a piece that’s larger than what you’ve created as a person.  Where does the material come from?  How do you write a piece that’s beyond you living in a box, or in NewMusicBox?

FJO: Well, that’s where I live most of the time. But in terms of boxes, I know that you also build things.

GT: I do carpentry.  I love it. You have hobbies. Cage was a mushroom expert.  What is that called?

FJO: A mycologist.

GT: A mycologist. Messiaen was an ornithologist, and others do things that are completely different than music. I like acting and woodworking.

George Tsontakis staining wood on a futon.

FJO: I want to talk to you a bit more about acting because I know that when you were younger, you were being pulled in two different directions—acting vs. music. I’m curious about how your parents responded to all of this. Were they supportive?

GT: They were very supportive.  You know, they were Greek. My father was a furrier and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. I think I was persuasive because my energy just convinced them that I’m not going to be a furrier. Plus, I was a vegetarian.  My father said, “You want to be in the fur business?” And I’d say, “Hey, I’m a vegetarian.  You think I’m going to be cutting up 40 minks to make a coat?  No way.”  They respected it, because even young people make their pitch.  They persuade, the way a composer persuades you through music.  Of course, if you have stubborn parents, that’s harder to do.  But I think my parents recognized that whatever I did, I could be good at it.

I remember my father coming to my first Juilliard concert.  “I’m going to Juilliard to hear my son’s piece.”  It was a string quartet, number zero, and it was like Webern [sings].  He only listened to Greek music and American pop music, and yet he was so proud that people stood and clapped.  Well, they didn’t stand, but they stood to leave after the concert.  By the way, that’s the piece where Persichetti came up to me and said, “I liked your piece; I like the way it ended.”  I knew he meant the fact that it ended. He was a wonderful man.  I loved his sense of humor.  Andrea Olmstead just came out with a book about Persichetti.

FJO:  I have to get that.  Anyway, you said your father came to hear this Webernian thing you wrote and he was proud of you, even though he only listened to pop music and Greek music.  Did he listen to Greek classical music—composers like Kalomiris, Riadis, or Skalkottas?

GT: No, they knew no classical. Skalkottas? He didn’t know Beethoven.  But my parents sang Greek songs.  Or they’d sing “You Are My Sunshine” and harmonize in the car.  They had good voices and they had a great musical sense.  But you know, he just was not educated in those things.  He went right from high school to World War II.  He fought in Italy and got shot up.  There was no time for classical.  But they had an appreciation.  They’d play Mantovani classics, you know.

FJO: Now in terms of having an acting career, you almost got cast in the original Jesus Christ Superstar.

GT: I don’t know how you found that out! I had generous hair. And a beard. I looked like Jesus. I was 20, I think, and the guys I was playing keyboards and violin with in a flaky summer gig rock band called The Mann Act got hired for the road tour of Jesus Christ Superstar so no more band. I asked the clarinetist Dave Hopkins, “So what am I gonna do?” He said, “Why don’t you try out for the open call for actors?” They were trying to cast it like Pasolini, who used people from the street in his movies. The auditions were in two days.

So Dave’s girlfriend and I went to the Mark Hellinger Theater and stood on a huge line. When I finally got in, after several hours, I stood in the wings as some nut-job before me dressed up with St Pepper’s Nehru Jacket placed two incense things on each side of him on the floor and lit them as the directors were waiting impatiently. He started to sing, “My Sweet Lord” and by the time he sang “Krishna,” they said, “Thank you, goodbye.” I went next. I didn’t know the show, but I had learned a short recitative-like song. The pianist had to find the music in a pile. Right after I sang—no mike—Michael Shurtleff, the casting director stopped the auditions and called me to the seats. He asked if I could learn “Gethsemane” and return in a few days. The director was then Frank Corsaro, an opera director who I hadn’t heard of. The audition process became protracted and Shurtleff told me he wanted me for Peter the Apostle which he called a major role but it wasn’t, really, just on stage a lot with Jesus and the other eleven. I ended up auditioning six or seven times, but was knocked out after the dance part of the audition. I didn’t dance well. But then I was reinstated by Shurtleff. Eventually they changed directors and I auditioned two times for Tom O’Horgan of Hair fame. The plan to have Pasolini-like people off the street faded and they ended up with pros. Thank God!  I would have been in theater, and I don’t think I would have liked it as much because you can’t get out to the woods.  You’ve got to get to rehearsals. I wouldn’t have found my true self.  It’s not that I couldn’t have been in something else besides music, but probably not something so extroverted.

FJO: It’s quite a switch to go from singing Andrew Lloyd Weber to studying with Roger Sessions.

GT: That’s true. But there was Queens College in between. I was at NYU in the School of the Arts for Drama. I didn’t last very long because I didn’t like acting classes.  But I went back to my roots playing the violin and studied with Felix Galimir while I was at NYU.  I ran out of money and I wanted to be independent, so I went to Queens College and studied with Hugo Weisgall, George Perle, and Leo Kraft.  It was a very good school, and it was basically free.  From there, I went to Sessions.

I was very lucky because I knew Felix Greissle, who was Schoenberg’s son-in-law and Sessions’s publisher.  I don’t think I would have gotten into Juilliard without Felix’s recommendation.  I was Felix Greissle’s gardener in Manhasset. I did his shrubs. I brought music with me because I knew who he was.  I’d be all dirty and I’d bring these sketches to Felix after I did his gardening, and he said, “This is good.  Someday I will send you to Roger to study.”  And his voice—if you know Schoenberg’s voice from the Kraft Columbia recordings, where Schoenberg says, “My painting is like my music and my music is like my painting.”  It was frightening. Greissle had the same voice as Schoenberg. I wasn’t ready for Juilliard or Roger Sessions, but thanks to Greissle, I got in there and I went right to Roger Sessions.

On top of one of George Tsontakis's grand pianos there's a sign that says "nothing on the piano, please"

FJO: But there’s a missing piece to this jigsaw puzzle.  You had this epiphany on headphones listening to Firebird and then listening to Beethoven’s Opus 135.  That’s before the Jesus Christ Superstar auditions.

GT: Yeah, it’s before.  I was 15. By Jesus Christ Superstar, I was like 20 years old.

FJO: So at the time you had the epiphany about wanting to be a composer, had you written any music at all?  That’s the missing piece.

GT: Right. I was playing in the school orchestra…

FJO: Playing violin?

GT: Playing violin.

FJO: Not viola yet?

“When you compose, you have to give up violin for viola.”

GT: Not viola.  No.  When you compose, you have to give up violin for viola.  That’s the rule, because you can’t practice as much!  But then in high school, I started composing.  I started composing the last years in high school—funny, odd little pieces.  That’s when I became interested.  It was right after that.  My high school teacher got mad at me because I stopped taking violin lessons.  He was discouraging about my music; he made fun of it, in a way.  It was very crude, but promising.  But I continued and then I played in bands and wrote original tunes.  We had a band doing Blood Sweat & Tears and Chicago, so I wrote pieces for the band with brass.  I guess it was pop.  Then I started to compose more seriously and went to Queens, and—through Hugo Weisgall and Leo Kraft, and, as I mentioned, George Perle—I was on that track.

A pile of CDs and violin bows on a table in George Tsontakis's home.

FJO: Did you know who any of those people were before when you went to study with them?

GT: No. Well, I probably did when I investigated Queens and looked, but George Perle wasn’t George Perle, either.  In those days, he was really not known very much at all.  In fact, when I went to study with Donatoni, I mentioned that George Perle said hello.  And he said, “George Perle, is he a composer?”  He only knew George Perle as a theorist and someone that wrote about Berg.

FJO: Was Sessions a name that you knew of as a composer when you got this recommendation to study with him?

GT: Oh yes. I knew Sessions through Weisgall. So one step at a time, as soon I started seriously studying composition at Queens College. I also had Henry Weinberg, who was this Schoenberg freak. I learned a lot from him.  And I spun off my own theories about fourths and whole-tone scales that I spun off a system I call heaven, which happens to be a hexachord of six fourths in a row.  I think Henry Weinberg started that off in me.  We analyzed The Book of the Hanging Gardens using his ideas.  He was influential on me and Weinberg studied with Sessions.  Weisgall studied with Sessions.  Perle didn’t.  But there were two people of great influence that wanted me to go to study with Roger Sessions. Fate had it that I met Greissle and that flipped it over the top.  I don’t know what Carter thought of me at the Juilliard audition or Persichetti, but with Sessions something resonated.  And, by the way, I stayed with Sessions for five years.

FJO: Well, it’s interesting.  Perle and Weisgall both used 12-tone techniques in their music and so did Sessions. But Persichetti and Carter both did not.  So you were groomed and molded by people who were partial to the 12-tone method, but that’s not what you do.

GT: But I think the lines are in there.  They’re just not as angular.  I have passages of music that sound 12-tone. When I studied with Sessions and I mentioned “atonal,” he’d go, “Well, after all, if it’s atonal, it means it just doesn’t make any sense.”  Because he believed in tonality, no matter what.  And he used the 12-tone system very tangentially.  He did not really write pieces in 12-tone religiously or in a strict technique.  And he believed that it has to sound tonal.

FJO: As did Perle. His whole theory was based on the concept of a 12-tone tonality.

“‘If it’s atonal, it means it just doesn’t make any sense.’”

GT: Like Sessions.  So if I wrote something and it just didn’t make sense, that was atonal.  So I never wrote atonal music.  It’s just a matter of degrees between tonality and chromaticism; to write a really chromatic piece, you actually need more tonality. I can go from what is recognized as a very tonal space to a very—not dissonant, but—chromatic space seamlessly. It’s the stuff in between—the melting sort of thing in between—that is very interesting to me.  I think Berg was the closest, something like Wozzeck.

FJO: Or Lulu or the Violin Concerto even more so.

GT: The Violin Concerto. Right.  Is it tonal or not?  You can’t tell.  I know Schoenberg was not happy with Berg using triads in his music, but so what.

FJO: I actually hear echoes of Berg in your second violin concerto, the Grawemeyer piece.

GT: Oh, there’s a lot.  There’s Ligeti, too, I think. I consider Ligeti a very fine engineer.  I call a lot of the stuff that happens in Europe, which is textural, the school of engineering.  A lot of the composers are working with new textures, but they’re not composing.  They’re engineering stuff in a way that is wonderful, but to be more communicative, I think you have to take the engineering and—it’s like Pinocchio.  Geppetto built Pinocchio. That to me is what the many texturalists are doing.  But it takes a composer to breathe life into it.  How does Pinocchio become alive?

FJO: It’s interesting you say that because I find a lot of emotion in the later Ligeti, in particular the Violin Concerto, the Piano Concerto, and the Piano Etudes.

GT: Well, there’s tension and release.

FJO: And the Horn Trio is fascinating.

GT: Well, there’s drama. But I think there’s a difference between drama and empathy. I remember when Jacob Druckman was coming out to Aspen, he created a new emotion. I called it a new emotion. It was fascinating.  The word fascinating is an emotion now. And I do find Ligeti fascinating.  But I’m not sure how—well, there’s a lot of Bach that’s not emotional either, yet it moves us in a way.  It’s not overtly emotional. Because you are a contemporary music listener, you are so into the nuance of everything that things relative to what you listen to are emotional. But for the average listener, for the people? I mean, who are we going to reach?  Are we aiming to be popular, eventually populist, or are we going to think that Xenakis’s music in two hundred years is going to be Beethoven? No.

FJO: Well, I’m not so sure populism is a good thing, especially these days.  And at the end of the day, it’s all subjective anyway.

GT: I’m not saying you need a large listenership.  There’ll be esoteric little portals, especially with the internet everywhere now.  But how many are listening?  We talked about birds before.  An ornithologist will pee in their pants to see a certain type of warbler, but most people aren’t interested in that.  This is a philosophy.  We could debate it. You can write music for five people to get so excited about. It’s not for everybody, but to those five people, it’s the perfect thing.

The view from the interior of George Tsontakis's home

FJO: So do you think then that there are specific musical gestures that—in and of themselves—could reach more people than other musical gestures can?

GT: I think Rochberg mentioned that in his program notes for my quartets.  He says DNA cells from the past give messages. In late Beethoven, there are little tonal cells that actually have content in them that evokes our emotions.

FJO: Alright, I’m going to play devil’s advocate now.  At this point in time, for the majority of people in the world, Beethoven is completely esoteric.  In relative terms, only a handful of people listen to and understand his music.

GT: That’s right.

FJO: So if you really want to reach a broad audience, you should be writing stuff that sounds like Elton John.

GT: Well, we have to differentiate between abstract music and song.  We don’t teach young people to listen to abstract music—that is, music without words.  If we’re going to have an enemy, why people don’t get into classical music, they’re brought up listening to just song.  Song is fantastic.  We all love song.  Song form is the most popular thing.  It’s the greatest thing we have, in a way.  How long is song form?  What are we competing against when we do a 15-minute Mahler movement?  We’re competing with a song.  How long is a song?  Three minutes, right?  No, a song is about 50 seconds long, repeated twice.  People’s attention spans are very small, plus they have to have words.  It’s very hard to make your point in 50 seconds, so it’s hard to write a good song.  On the other hand, if we taught young people the abstraction of listening to music—jazz, classical, Kenny G., Yanni (oh, God forbid!)—any music without words, they will develop a cognitive ability to listen to abstractions, and they would start.  Those who want to listen to Beethoven will listen to Beethoven.  But just like teaching children to read, some of them are going to read trash, some of them are going read articles, some are only going to read their textbooks, and some will read Beowulf or Socrates.  But we don’t even teach them the equivalent of reading.  You can’t break out of a song.

FJO: But two of those names you mentioned, Kenny G. and Yanni, have both been hugely popular doing instrumental music with no words.

GT: Right. And does anyone go from that to Beethoven?

FJO: Yeah, or another example I was thinking of when you were saying all of this is John Williams. He predominantly writes film scores, but it is abstract, instrumental music with no words. To a great many people, his music is more immediately identifiable and resonant than a late Beethoven string quartet ever would be.

GT: Well, let me tell you a story. I mentioned how I got into classical music, but the other thing that really hit me before that was that I was in plays in high school. I played Tommy Albright in Brigadoon, which my mother always thought was my greatest achievement. You know, “Georgie had a piece commissioned by the Boston Symphony and had the Emerson Quartet play his music, but you should have seen him as Tommy Albright in Brigadoon in high school.”  I didn’t know any classical music, but I loved musicals.  Richard Rodgers is a genius. And I grew up with Oliver and My Fair Lady.

Now what happened was eventually I started liking the overtures more than the other music. You hear Oklahoma, and that overture is fantastic music. I started saying that I really like the music without these dumb words sometimes, or whatever the words were. Now, we have to teach people to do that somehow. I don’t know if Yanni and Kenny G are going to convince them, because that’s a little bit simplistic. But Peter and the Wolf, they don’t speak while there’s music, the speaking is in between the music, so it’s a great way to do it. But you’re right. People listen to Philip Glass who never heard Mozart. That makes me question if that audience will go on to Mozart after that. I think in this day and age we’re just skipping classical music.  People go from Philip Glass to world music or other sophisticated music.

FJO: Well, why do they have to go to music of the past?  Wouldn’t it be great if they could go to other living composers?

GT: I don’t think they need the music of the past, except there are many good examples to teach people how to listen music without words from the past.  Something like Pictures at an Exhibition, which was in Fantasia. I have friends from high school that got interested in classical music because of The Rite of Spring in Fantasia.  You know, they saw the images.  Nobody was speaking.  No one was singing.  But it’s not going to happen with just a couple.  You have to teach people.  In class, even young students concentrate.  And when they have that concentration in the class, even if they hate the music they’re listening to, something happens subliminally.  I remember I was fourth grade, and they played Mozart’s 40th symphony.  I couldn’t stand it.  It was so boring.  I said, “Stop, I’ll confess!” you know? But if you choose the music well, even if they don’t like what they’re listening to, young people will learn that the cognitive idea of form is repetition.  You hear something, then you hear it again in a varied form. Variation and repetition is our business. We’re not dependent on the words to tell the story.  Maybe instead of 4%—in America maybe 4% listen to classical music—it would be 9%.  That’s a lot of people.  Leon Botstein at Bard says that classical music was always an elitist thing.  In Vienna, you couldn’t get into the theater if you didn’t have the clothes to go to that elite theater.  You’d probably hear Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony once in your lifetime, and you had to take a six-hour carriage ride to hear it once.  So it was always a very small number of people. It was never a populist form.

FJO: So then how is that different than the Helmut Lachenmann acolytes of this world who are writing music for a small coterie?

GT: Yeah, but if in America let’s say 4% listen to classical music at all, only 2% of those listen to contemporary classical music. But there is a problem with the museum people, who are the older people that go to concerts. I’ll have a piece played by a symphony orchestra. I go to a lot of these concerts. Even at my age, I’m the youngest person there—it’s really crazy. And those people are there for the museum music.  They’re not there to hear my piece. They’re tolerating my piece. The conductor, the musicians want to do a contemporary piece.  They like my music, but the audience tolerates it.

“If in America let’s say 4% listen to classical music at all, only 2% of those listen to contemporary classical music.”

That brings us to the various audiences that a composer can aim to write for. One is that classical audience.  One is the Emerson Quartet audience, where they have one contemporary piece, and they have Mozart, and then Death and the Maiden by Schubert on a program. Or there’s the contemporary music concerts, or festivals in Europe.  I do admonish young composers that as they’re doing what they really want to do, they might have in mind where their music’s going to go, because unfortunately there’s nothing in the middle.  It’s either you write for the contemporary music concert audience, which is that small, esoteric audience, or you write for the general population and they probably won’t like it. I’m sort of in between those. I have a few pieces that can be played on a contemporary music concert in London, but not at IRCAM. Meanwhile, the music’s played for the traditional audience. Neither one likes what I do. By the way, they said Roger Sessions was too modern for the public audience and not modern enough for the contemporary music field.  There are many composers that are between those poles.

The viola part for a standard repertoire string quartet sits on a music stand near a grand piano in George Tsontakis's living room

FJO: But then I think there’s a third path, which is different from either trying to fit in with standard repertoire or being embraced by the more established contemporary music networks. You mentioned Philip Glass in passing.  People like him, Steve Reich, or Meredith Monk, ensembles like the Kronos Quartet and entities like Bang on a Can have all found a way to galvanize a completely different audience which is none of those audiences.

GT: And that’s fantastic. But a lot of those people are the ones that have never heard Mozart, too.

FJO: Exactly.

GT: And that’s fine. We need all the forces we can get. But what is the music? As long as that music has the sophistication of the great composers—I’m going to be in danger saying the great composers—but the sophistication of, say, a Messiaen, if they have that integrity, then they’re following a classical line.  I think all you mentioned have a combination of music that does do that and music that has more of a pop end of it, too, an appeal, but the materials may not be as—I don’t know a better word than—sophisticated.  And that doesn’t mean elite.  World music, Greek music, I mean that is sophisticated within its own realm, but again, it’s song form and it’s limited. Jazz is very sophisticated music, but it’s not accessible. Jazz is accessible only to those people that come to it.  But it’s all a question of whether there is a main classical line.  I think only the future will decide that.

FJO: I think it goes back to what you were saying earlier about how people continue to promulgate this idea that there’s this straight line from 1800 to 1900 to 2000, but in the year 2018 it’s very clear that there isn’t a linear progression.

GT: Well, it depends. We have to decide what our genres are. With the contemporary music thing, any combination will work. You can have a xylophone and three piccolos. Whereas, if you’re talking about the classical line, about orchestral music, what do we do with that music? Andriessen said he would never write for orchestra, but he did eventually.  So what do we do with the orchestra?  Why isn’t the orchestra expanded?  Why hasn’t it added saxophones or Chinese instruments for texture? It’s so museum-ish, that the orchestra is becoming a museum in itself. So it depends what we’re talking about. What are the lines we bring forward? Electronic music has dispelled a lot of that. But even if we stay on acoustic music, there are so many divisions.

FJO: To bring this all back to your music, you’re obviously attracted to the orchestra. And you’re attracted to the string quartet. You’ve written eight of them.

GT: Well that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because I write a quartet and another quartet likes it. The Network for New Music commissioned a piece about ten years ago, and I said, “What’s the combination?”  “Whatever you like.” And I go, “Holy cow, I get to think on my own.” So I chose soprano sax, harp, piano, horn, whatever, this ideal thing. But when I sat down to write the piece, which became Gymnopedies, I said, “I hate this combination; what am I going to do with this?” It turned out that I liked the combination. But I write quartets because the next person commissions a quartet. I write orchestral music because it appeals to a conductor.

FJO: But if you write a piece for a crazy combination, no matter how good it sounds, how many performances is it going to get after the premiere? Who has the resources to put such an ensemble together?

GT: Well, my combination was more accessible than many combinations that people write for, weird things like accordions and kazoos. A lot of young composers are writing impractical works that way.  But Gymnopedies has been played quite a bit. And I conduct it, too. If you think of the Pierrot plus percussion ensemble, it’s only a few more instruments, and instead of a clarinet, you have a soprano saxophone and a harp.

FJO: Well, the Pierrot ensemble with or without percussion is an interesting phenomenon. The closest thing to it I can think of in earlier repertoire are some J.C. Bach quintets for flute, oboe, violin, cello, and harpsichord. It’s something that really did not become established as a common instrumental combination until the 20th century.

GT: To a detriment, almost. But not only is the Pierrot ensemble reminiscent of a successful combination by Schoenberg, it’s also a low-budget orchestra in a way. It just doesn’t have the brass instruments. I have a piece that I wrote for Da Capo [Chamber Players] called Gravity. It’s with just the five, without the percussion.

FJO: It’s much more typical though, for you to write for the same combinations that composers in the 19th century wrote for. An instrumental combination that you’ve returned to several times, that was very popular back then, is the piano quartet.

GT: I’m writing a fourth one. It’s on the music stand over there.

A page of music manuscript paper with hand written notation on it sits on top of a table with a Tanglewood program and a pair of binoculars.

FJO: Wow! This is very interesting to me, because despite how prominent this combination once was, there haven’t been a ton of them in recent times. There’s this great Stephen Hartke piece, Kingdom of the Sun

GT: —Wonderful piece.

FJO: There also aren’t a lot of ensembles that are commissioning new pieces. One I can think of is the Ames Piano Quartet in Iowa.

GT: That’s who I’m writing for.

FJO: Hah!

GT: But Ida Kavafian’s group, OPUS ONE, commissioned No. 3. No. 2 was for the Broyhill Chamber Players. Brian Zeger commissioned it for the Cape and Islands Festival. No. 1 was commissioned by Larry Dutton and his wife, who have a piano quartet.

FJO: So there are a handful of groups. But it’s another one of those things. You were talking about people who listen to certain contemporary music who don’t know Mozart and don’t listen to his music. If you described one of your pieces to these folks as a piano quartet, they’d assume it was for four pianos.

GT: Right.

FJO: It’s a wonderful combination, but it is not something that’s really part of contemporary music parlance very much these days. Still, it’s an area you have repeatedly mined. Which is why it was very interesting to hear you say earlier that the orchestra has not expanded to include saxophones or Chinese instruments. You don’t really throw things like Chinese instruments or, say, electric guitars into your pieces. You’ve made a very conscious effort to write for standard ensembles.

“I have not written a piece since 1983 that wasn’t commissioned.”

GT: I have not written a piece since 1983 that wasn’t commissioned. I’m very lucky—knock on something here.  Or maybe stop commissioning [me]. I’ve said it’s enough already. But no, I just do on-demand. If nobody asked me to write a piece, I wouldn’t compose. I’d be doing other things. I’m very happy to not compose.  It’s been a great, great thing. Same thing with teaching. But one of the secrets to life is that I only write what people ask for. So what am I going to do? Network for New Music was the only one that said I could have my choice out of probably 80 pieces I’ve written. The others say, we’ve got a quartet; we want you to write this.  So what am I writing now? I’ll tell you: the Piano Quartet No. 4 for the Ames Piano Quartet. They recorded my third and they did a beautiful job. For the Dallas Symphony, I wrote a piano concerto for Stephen Hough. They’re commissioning a piece from me for their co-concertmaster Gary Levinson. It wasn’t my choice, but I love orchestra.

And I have the Albany Symphony; they’re commissioning a requiem. I’m very excited. It was going to be an orchestra piece; they got money from the New York State Council on the Arts. But my mom passed away in January, so I asked David [Alan Miller], “Can it please be a requiem? I’ll do it for the same money as common orchestra.”  So that’s very exciting to me. Then a consortium commissioned Portraits by El Greco 2—Book 2. It’s a piece that I mentioned with slide projections of El Greco.  It’s very personal to me because El Greco was from Crete, as I am from Crete, in Greece. But I didn’t ask; people ask me for pieces. In fact, for the El Greco piece, they asked for the same piece. Steve Copes, concertmaster of St. Paul, played [the first one] at the Colorado Music Festival and, I don’t know, maybe I said I’d be interested to do another one, so he asked me, “Can you do an El Greco sequel?”

FJO: Well, this is the thing. You say you only compose on commission, but there are ways to maneuver that so that you write the pieces you want.

GT: But not if they’re piano quartets.

FJO: Sure, but I’m thinking of one of my all-time favorite pieces of yours. It was a piece that was created piecemeal, through various commissions for short pieces from four different orchestras. Yet you had this larger thing in your mind—the Four Symphonic Quartets, which is the symphony that you didn’t name a symphony.

GT: That came about because I loved Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot.  I learned a lot from that. It took T.S. Eliot years to write that because he wasn’t old enough.  When you hit 50, you can understand Four Quartets, because it’s a bit about dying and growing. You have to get to be a certain age. A 25-year-old can say, “Well, it’s cool,” but they don’t know what T.S. Eliot was talking about.  So I got to that certain age where I started descending, when life starts biologically descending, even though you’re still excited about it.

FJO: But were still in your 40s when you wrote those.

GT: I wasn’t 50 yet. Okay, you’re right, I forgot. But I felt like I was descending anyway, and I started to understand T.S. Eliot. Roger Sessions wanted to write When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d when he was in his 20s, and he said he couldn’t. It wasn’t until the death of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. that his maturity enabled him to do that. He told a story about that. He said, he was like 60-years old and finally he could tell the story of Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. It’s a great example because he was in his 20s understanding how great it was, but not being able to explain it.

And that’s what happened when the first commission came along from Ransom Wilson for the Tuscaloosa Symphony. I said I wanted to do something influenced by T.S. Eliot, so I named it Perpetual Angelus. Then the next commission came along, and I said, “Can I make it another one of the four quartets?”  But you’re right, it was piecemeal. In the back of my mind I wanted to put those four pieces together, but who would commission an hour-long piece?

FJO: It’s similar to the way David Del Tredici commissioned the various sections of the piece that is now An Alice Symphony. Then, after that, he composed so many other Alice-themed pieces.

GT:  Who knows whether David at the beginning said, “I’m going to engineer this whole series of Alice pieces,” or if he started with one and said, “I think I’ll do more of that.” Maybe my Portraits by El Greco will be book eight or nine. I’m going to run out of paintings I like by El Greco, but the impulse will be there. That’s interesting.

FJO: Alright, even though you claim you don’t need or want another commission, what pieces would you want to write if anyone could commission you in the world?

GT: Well, let’s say I quit composing, which I talk about to my friends. Then I’d get a lucrative commission. “It’s terrible,” I say. Then all my friends say, “Well, give it to me, I’ll write it.”  But if I had the choice, I’d want to do acting or something else. I would still want to write the occasional piano piece.  I’d like to write for a capella choir, canzones like Gabrieli or Monteverdi, and maybe some songs. I would do that on the side. I’m also a little bit upset after Ghost Variations. I think Sarabesque, which I wrote for Sarah Rothenberg might have been written after that, but no one’s asked me to write another piano piece.  I’m pretty pissed off about that.

FJO: But you’ve done some little ones.

GT: Well, the Bagatelle was my first attempt to write a piano piece for Yefim Bronfman since Ghost Variations, which was for Bronfman, was due.  So I wrote Ghost Variations and then the dedication piece for Sarah Rothenberg. But no one’s asked me and yet Ghost Variations is played all the time. And I’m going, “How come nobody wants any more piano music, including Stephen Hough?” Now Stephen Hough is composing his own music, he doesn’t want to learn any more new music!

FJO: Well, he learned your concerto.

GT: The Man of Sorrows and it was recorded with the Dallas Symphony on Hyperion.

FJO: That’s one I haven’t heard yet.

GT: Well, you should hear it. It’s 39-minutes long and no one wants to do it again.

FJO: But you mentioned another piece of yours happening in Dallas.

GT: A violin concerto for Gary Levinson. Yeah, that’s on the books, as soon as they get a new director.

FJO: It’s interesting that you keep using the word concerto because except for the violin concertos, you avoid that word in the titles of your pieces. All the other pieces for soloist and orchestra have other names, like the piece I was calling your trumpet concerto, which has a lot of jazz inflections.

GT: True Colors. You’re right. And Unforgettable is a two-violin concerto.

FJO: That’s the George Soros piece. How did you get commissioned by George Soros?

“You’re writing for people like you and you’re trying to convince everybody else to become like you, which makes composing an amazing persuasive art.”

GT: Through Jennifer Chun and Angela Chun. They’re a wonderful violin team. Jennifer was dating George Soros for seven years. Jennifer was looking around for somebody [to write them a piece] through some sources, including Leon Botstein who’s a friend of George Soros. I think he recommended me. It was very similar to how they came upon me for an English horn concerto at the Boston Symphony where Rob Sheena was promised a concerto from James Levine and he went on a search for composers. Rob had looked for years for someone to write the concerto and it was like Goldilocks—this one’s not quite right and that one’s not quite right. I think David [Alan] Miller was a schoolmate of his and David recommended me and it resonated with Rob.  It’s just a matter of taste.  I’m not saying they chose me above these other composers. When it comes down to it, I don’t write for everybody. But I don’t write just for myself.  As John Gardner wrote in Moral Fiction, I write for people like me. People who are like you are going to like your music better. Composition is also persuasion, so you’re writing for people like you and you’re trying to convince everybody else to become like you, which makes composing an amazing persuasive art.

FJO: And that’s where you can throw in the esoteric things that you like and make them un-esoteric.

GT: You can also introduce them to ideas and say I didn’t make it in that piece. I didn’t get that across. I’m going to try it again in the next piece. This is another problem we have—are you a first-listening composer? When I talk to young composers, I ask, “Are you going to write a first-listening piece, or are you going to write a piece that you need repetition to get?” You’re not going to read Eliot’s Four Quartets the first time and go, “Wow, it was really good.” No, you have to keep reading it over and over again. People don’t stand before a Cezanne and clap after seeing it for a few minutes.  You have to come back.

That doesn’t mean you can’t write a good first-listening piece. But a lot of young composers are persuaded to write that piece because probably that audience will never hear it again.  Or no one will hear it again. You have to keep in mind that there is a world where you need to listen.  Maybe I don’t listen enough times to really get Lachenmann. Or Ligeti. Maybe there is an emotion there if I gave it more of a chance. There is something to be said for that. And by the way, composers talk about awards, and of course I have a couple big, good money awards. I do believe that that’s also an aspect. I wouldn’t live for awards; the award is a by-product. But the interesting thing about awards though is that they [the judges] have to listen more than once.  They listen many times. We talked about Tim Page. Tim told me for the Pulitzer they listen over and over again.  What happens is that during that first round, the first-listening composer might be the one that everyone on the panel likes.  Then they do the second round of listening, and that first-listening piece isn’t as interesting anymore.  It moves back to number five.  Maybe a piece like mine that just made the cut can move up.  Those multiple-listening composers wear better for people listening over and over.  Meanwhile, the easy listening ones are going backwards.

I know with the Grawemeyer, they listen to pieces a hundred times. The lay panel at the end that decides the final, they listen to it so many times that they must go crazy: “I thought I liked that piece, but I listened to it five times.” So if we had any parallel to that where we could get people to listen over and over—we do; it’s called recordings.

George Tsontakis's backhoe

FJO: It’s interesting that you bring up the Pulitzer, because I read somewhere that you refused to have your music submitted to the Pulitzer.

GT: I will not sign for it. You have to sign, and I won’t do it. It’s just a personal thing.  There’s some great people who have. To me, it’s too facile. When I had to call Aaron Kernis a few days afterwards for something else, and I congratulated him, I said, “You know, Aaron, this is going to facilitate introductions at parties; you have this label.” And he laughed. I don’t like that label. I think it’s overdone. I think there’s nothing wrong with it, but I would not like to have a label that stuck on me that’s more important than being a composer. If I were a journalist, I would probably want it. But as a composer, I don’t want that label, because I wouldn’t believe in it as much as the people that would hoo and haw about it.  It’s a little bit like my mother saying Georgie was fantastic in Brigadoon in high school. And I’d go, “Mom, I’m beyond that.”  So it’s a personal thing. I wouldn’t stop someone. I don’t think the young composers care that much about things like that, but back in the day, when it was very important, everybody was thinking maybe I’ll be so good I’ll get a Pulitzer Prize. I don’t have to worry about that.

“Back in the day, when it was very important, everybody was thinking maybe I’ll be so good I’ll get a Pulitzer Prize. I don’t have to worry about that.”

I came in from my lesson after it was announced that Roger Sessions, who was 80 years old, got the prize.  And I said, “Mr. Sessions, congratulations on the Pulitzer Prize.” And he said, “Oh thank you, George.” I said, “You must be excited.” And he said, “Well, they called me at home, and when I got off the phone, my wife says, ‘Who was it?’ ‘Apparently, my Concerto for Orchestra won the Pulitzer Prize.’ And she said, ‘How much is it?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s a thousand dollars.’ And she said, ‘Oh, goodie. Now we can have an extra egg for breakfast every morning.’” They were not impressed.

The other thing is that this Astoria thing comes back. I do consider myself a Greek composer, too. They do a lot of my music in Greece. I’m going to start a multi-year residency with the Athens Megaron in January. The Megaron is like the Lincoln Center of Greece—beautiful buildings and auditoriums. I’m an American composer, for sure, and I love being an American, but I feel international at the same time. I think the Pulitzer defines somebody as more American than I want to be, except in spirit.

A bunch of post-it notes on George Tsontakis's door with reminders of things he needs to do.

FJO: But of course, now the Pulitzer’s completely opened up. It’s not only—

GT: —Classical. In fact, yeah, who won it, what kind of musician?

FJO: This year it was awarded to Kendrick Lamar, who is a rapper.

GT: Right, that’s amazing. I guess it’s fine, but it’s like the MacArthur. Remember when they gave out MacArthurs to Ralph Shapey and George Perle and John Harbison. Now they’re giving it to young people.  They can use the money.  And giving it to George Perle when he was 75 is not going to help his career. But I think that’s the way of the world now, maybe to a fault in a way.

This is the question: is the quality still there? I’m not questioning it, but I am questioning it! What is the meaning of this?  We talked about the artist colonies. It’s not only classical composers, it’s somebody in rock or jazz. Well, jazz has always been accepted and I love it; jazz is a powerful idiom.  But everything is becoming “whoever has talent should be supported” basically. The MacArthur has really been looking for more esoteric people that do something that someone else doesn’t do. And looking for a contradictory profile or something like that, not just somebody who’s great at whatever.

The field is opening up and that only makes more competition. It’ll be a big melting pot of what happens. But I go back to the point, as long as the sophistication is there, it’s okay with me. The skills and craft that a composer or an artist has are serious stuff. It doesn’t have to be serious, but it’s a serious commodity that I think we have to keep up with.  Again, one could argue that writing a good jingle is a hard thing to do. Geniuses have to write jingles. When I have composition class, the first piece I teach is “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks.  It’s only two notes and there’s diminution like Beethoven when they go [sings]: “You really got me. You really got me. You really got me.”

It’s an amazing piece of music. And how many could write a piece of music that economical? But is it Debussy?  Well, there’s a DNA like Debussy, but other characteristics are not expanded in a sophisticated way.

The spark of creativity has unlimited value. So is that as sophisticated as anything?  Yeah, in its own, minute way. But with classical music, it’s the expansion of that idea—that seed, that spark of creativity, that genius—through time. That’s one of the things that makes classical music, even contemporary classical music, different than other music. Usually the lack of words and the expansive movement of it; it’s not a small form.

FJO: This could be a much larger discussion, which I’d love to have. But I think, unfortunately, that we’re running out of time here. So a final area, for now at least. You’ve been offering advice to younger composers throughout this conversation. In the 20th century when you came to be you, you did all of these things the way one should in the 20th century. You studied with some very prominent teachers. You were signed by a major publisher, there were all these recordings of your music out there, and you won some huge awards. But in the 21st century, things are very different.

GT: Extremely.

FJO: People get attention for their music in very different ways now. But you don’t have a personal website.  You don’t use social media.  You don’t do any of the things that composers do to put themselves in people’s faces. And you live here, so you can’t run into somebody outside of Zabar’s and get a commission!

“If there was a site, LeaveMeAlone.com, I’d join that immediately.”

GT: It shows what you can do if you just write the music. I think that’s the answer. Of course, I had the benefit of becoming known before you needed a website. So maybe I’m going on fumes here. Maybe I was lucky to get elevated and have not many people know what I do, but enough that I get to write the next piece.  As I always say, I’m only interested in who’s going to ask for the next piece, and maybe who’s going to record it.  Those are the only two things I need.  Multiple performances, you get that through websites or whatever. I don’t care. I’m not a promoter. I’m not even a person that wants pieces to be played all the time. I just want to know what the next piece I’m going to write is. If it has to be piano quartet number five, it might have to be.  Whatever. That’s why I can live here. If you live minimally, and you just do the thing you’re supposed to do, you don’t need all the other stuff. But yeah, I tell my students, “I don’t do Your Face, My Ass. I don’t do any of that stuff! If there was a site, LeaveMeAlone.com, I’d join that immediately.” But I’m lucky to be able to do that.

At a lesson once, I said, “Mr. Sessions, I think I should do go back and do species counterpoint.” He said, “Well, you can George. After all, counterpoint is confidence.” That’s all it was to him. You’re not going to write like that, but it’s confidence in your composing.  And faith is a very important thing if you want to go it alone and be independent.

The road leading to George Tsontakis's home.

One quick metaphor. The other day I was in my old Honda Accord. It’s got a big hatchback window, and this huge bee was trying to get through the glass. I opened all the doors. I took paper, I tried to shoo him away, but he kept going right back to that glass. It was a great metaphor, but this glass ceiling was not necessary if the damn bee would just go out the door. I tell young composers, “Open up your horizons and go through the doors!” So maybe that bee is like trying to appeal to the contemporary music crowd, this limited milieu; whereas, there are so many performers and so many orchestras that would be happy to do their stuff. You’ve got to broaden your horizons.  Or you’ve got to hope that glass disappears and suddenly you’re free. I think my life has been a combination of those two things. I haven’t depended on the unusual channels for where my music is going to go.  So that’s going out the doors of the car.  And yet I still have faith that that glass thing will open up.  And sometimes it does.  I think it’s a matter of knowing what you’re supposed to do in life and having faith that eventually you get a break and that glass will open up occasionally.

It’s a hard path to go on. But it’s worked somehow. So many events in my life were serendipity. Like meeting Felix Greissle, who led me to Sessions because I was a gardener.  Also for young composers, you should accept any work you get. I know some composers, “I’m not going to go for that commission; I’m not going to get paid for that.” Take it. Keep in motion. And that leads to other things. No job is too small.

Jane Ira Bloom: Valuing Choices Made in the Moment  

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

While thinking beyond musical genres is a hallmark of a great many of today’s musical creators, Jane Ira Bloom clearly maneuvers within a genre while at the same time subverting any attempt at making generalizations about her work. The primary mode of music-making she engages in is performing her own instrumental compositions on the soprano saxophone in the company of a small group of like-minded collaborative improvisers, and those compositions are clearly indebted to the jazz tradition. But there are important exceptions to just about every detail of that description that are key to defining who she is as a musician.

She primarily performs her own musical creations, but just about every album she has ever recorded, as well as most of her live performances, also include at least one example of her own extremely personal interpretations of an American standard or a classic jazz composition. But while the American songbook has been an unending fount of inspiration for her improvisations and has even informed the ways she has constructed melodies in her own compositions, she has never featured a singer in any of her projects thus far. And, with the exception of her most recent recording, Wild Lines, which includes recitations of poetry by Emily Dickinson, all her performances are un-texted instrumentals. She performs almost exclusively on the soprano saxophone (there’s been a stray track here and there over the years of her on alto), but she began her musical studies on the piano, and the grand piano she keeps in her living room is the main instrument on which she composes. She has primarily performed with and composes for a small cadre of fellow travelers with whom she has worked for decades (e.g. Fred Hersch, Mark Dresser, Bobby Previte), but she has also written music for orchestra, wind band, dance and film, and has participated in improvisatory world music collaborations with Chinese pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen and South Indian vocalist and vina player Geetha Ramanathan Bennett (who died just a day after we recorded our talk with Jane Ira Bloom). Bloom acknowledges and embraces the jazz tradition, but for more than 30 years her saxophone improvisations have incorporated an electronic music component which she triggers in real time through the use of foot pedals, and sometimes the other musicians in her combos operate electronic devices as well.

“I’m definitely a lateral thinker,” Bloom acknowledged when we visited her to talk about her various musical experiences and how they have shaped her aesthetics as a composer and a performer. “There’s no question in my mind that my strong background as a melodist, as someone who’s loved and studied melody in many forms, takes me wherever I go. I’m a saxophonist who’s very much interested in sound, and I’ve spent a long time working on a particular sound that I really invested a lot of thought in on the instrument I play—the soprano saxophone. And I’m interested in phrasing and breath. All those things travel with me wherever I go, and when I’m using the live electronics, that’s where they’re compelled from. It’s me; it’s not a black box. It’s not an idea. I’ve learned an awful lot from the Afro-American music tradition and the American songbook, as well as exposing myself to world musics and all kinds of contemporary classical music. … I know what’s authentic and real about who I am, and I take that with me wherever my imagination takes me.”

In addition to the aforementioned 2017 Emily Dickinson-inspired album, Bloom’s imagination has led her to create a series of responses to abstract expressionist paintings by Jackson Pollock (“the freedom he was in touch with … is something that, as jazz musicians, we can tap into so easily”) as well as motion-inspired melodic improvisation (“I collaborated with choreographers who were much more cognizant of this quality … you could make sound change by moving”). Her use of real-time live electronic processing in her saxophone playing has been an ongoing component of her musical explorations. Her description of it makes it seem a lot simpler than it actually sounds:

Basically what I do with the electronics is I still play the saxophone, but I play through microphones that access electronic sounds that I blend and combine with my acoustic sound. And I trigger them using foot pedals, live and in the moment. Over the years, I’ve gotten skillful playing on one foot and tapping my toe on some pre-programmed settings that I’ve designed—on basically an old harmonizer and an old digital delay—and combining them in unusual ways. … I’ve spent some time trying to get the way I use them as an improviser as fluid as if it was a key on my saxophone. … It makes sense to me when the sounds appear and when they don’t, when I choose to use them and when I choose not to use them. It’s got to be fast. It’s got to be intuitive, because I’m using them very much in the moment of improvising.

Perhaps the most unusual place Bloom’s imagination has taken her was to work with the American space program, which happened, as she explained to us, as a result of an unsolicited letter to NASA that her friend, actor Brian Dennehy, suggested she should write.

“I thought he was nuts,” she remembered. “But some time went by and I actually sat down and I wrote a letter in the dark—a letter in a bottle, right?—inquiring whether NASA had ever done any research on the future of the arts and space, in zero gravity environments. Something I was always fascinated with. Six months later, I get this envelope back, which has the NASA logo on the front of the envelope from a guy by the name of Robert Schulman, director of the NASA Art Program. … Bob and I corresponded for years. He was interested in jazz musicians—lucky me, you know. Eventually I posed the idea, how about NASA commissioning the first musician for the Art Program? And he loved the idea.”

Dennehy’s “nutty” suggestion ultimately culminated in a 1989 concert at the Kennedy Space Center featuring the Brevard Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Fire and Imagination, an original work by Bloom scored for soprano saxophone, electronics, orchestra and “a whole bunch of ringers, the jazz musicians that were in the piece.” Although the work has yet to be performed in its original version since the premiere and has also never been commercially recorded (though some reworkings of that material surfaced on her landmark 1992 album Art and Aviation), Bloom’s association with NASA has had some unusual ripple effects. In 1998, an asteroid discovered on September 25, 1984 by B. A. Skiff at the Anderson Mesa Station of Lowell Observatory was named after her—6083 Janeirabloom!

As for what her next project will be, she has no firm ideas and, as an adherent to valuing choices made in the moment, she seems to like it that way.

A conversation with Frank J. Oteri in Bloom’s Manhattan apartment
August 14, 2018—5:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Frank J. Oteri:  You do a variety of different things.  You’re a composer, a saxophonist, and a bandleader. Is there one word that you gravitate toward more than any other to describe what you do?  If you were to meet somebody randomly, say on an airplane, and that person asked what you did, what would you say?

“I’m definitely a lateral thinker”

Jane Ira Bloom:  Wow, nobody ever asked me that before!  I’ve got to think about that.  Usually I always call myself a saxophonist-composer, but I’m definitely a lateral thinker because I’ve always been interested in multi-disciplinary thinking.  It’s an interesting question, but I haven’t got an immediate answer.

FJO:  That’s fine, but there’s a corollary to that, which is perhaps equally unanswerable. You have been inspired by so many different things—such as electronics and non-Western musical traditions—and you’ve even composed works for symphony orchestra and wind band, as well as collaborated with filmmakers and choreographers, but your music primarily exists within a rubric that, for lack of a better term, we call jazz.  So if that same somebody asked about what kind of music you do, what would you say to that?

JIB:  I can’t come up with words.  I think the world of my imagination goes wherever it goes and has been its own explanation for itself, whether I’m interested in dance, lighting, theater, film, movement, painting, or whatever grabs my attention.  I’m just trying to keep myself interested. I think, as time has gone on, I’m just letting that process happen more fluidly than it did in the beginning when there were more careful definitions to the different areas where I worked, whether I’m working with world music musicians or with jazz or new music improvisers or in an environment that looks even slightly more classical.  It’s just me being interested and still being curious.  Maybe that’s why it’s not so easy for me to find the categorical word for what it is, but I can tell you how it feels.

FJO:  So how does it feel?

JIB:  It feels open.  It feels like there are possibilities.  It feels like I can’t always anticipate what’s going to happen next.  I go through periods of time where I get interested in a topic and go down the rabbit hole. Then there are also fallow periods where I don’t know what’s coming next, and I start getting nervous.  It’s a kind of ebb and flow.

FJO:  So are you okay with the word “jazz” to describe your music?

JIB:  Sure.  Creative improvisation.  We’re improvisers who make up musical ideas in the moment and value that—that’s the important thing.  We value those choices.  I guess the thing I’ve learned over time is that the more you’ve done it, the more environments and the more experience you’ve had doing it, sometimes you can make better choices.

FJO:  I would posit that in addition to what you said about valuing the choices that you arrive at in the moment, you also value the choices that other musicians make in the moment who are performing with you. That seems to be a very big part of it.

JIB:  Absolutely.  I’m a completely collaborative animal.

FJO:  One of the reasons I wanted to begin our discussion by asking these questions is that one of the reasons we have these conversations on NewMusicBox is so that music creators have an opportunity to describe their music in their own words and it is not filtered through someone else’s ideas about them. In preparing for our talk, I was reading a lot of things that others have said about you and one thing that struck me, which I read in a few different places, was seeing you described as “an avant-garde jazz composer.” While there are certainly elements of what you do that are extraordinarily progressive and very innovative, I personally don’t think the term avant-garde accurately describes it since, no matter how out you go with some of these worlds, you’re always very clearly mindful of the tradition at the same time.

JIB:  Well, there’s no question in my mind that my strong background as a melodist, as someone who’s loved and studied melody in many forms, takes me wherever I go.  I’m a saxophonist who’s very much interested in sound, and I’ve spent a long time working on a particular sound that I really invested a lot of thought in on the instrument I play—the soprano saxophone.  And I’m interested in phrasing and breath.  All those things travel with me wherever I go, and when I’m using the live electronics, that’s where they’re compelled from.  It’s me; it’s not a black box.  It’s not an idea.  I’ve learned an awful lot from the Afro-American music tradition and the American songbook, as well as exposing myself to world musics and all kinds of contemporary classical music.  But I don’t reflect a lot on what I call myself.  I know what’s authentic and real about who I am, and I take that with me wherever my imagination takes me.

FJO:  One thing that definitely strikes me about your love for the jazz tradition and the American songbook is that although most of your recorded output is devoted to your own compositions, with the exception of your album Modern Drama, I can’t think of any recording of yours that doesn’t include at least one reinvention of either a song standard or a classic jazz composition.

JIB:  You’re absolutely right.  I guess I can’t let go of that.  And Sixteen Sunsets was a compilation of American songbook standards.  It was my ballads album.

FJO:  So what motivates you to keep going back to that material?

“I didn’t learn it; I grew up listening to it. It’s in my bones.”

JIB:  Those are primary sounds for me.  That understanding about how melodies work comes from knowing that music on the most primary level.  I didn’t learn it; I grew up listening to it.  It’s in my bones.  I know the lyrics to all the songs.  So I think the knowledge of that music and that largely Jewish songwriting tradition—whether it comes from cantorial song or not—also follows me, and it informs me even when I’m writing. The kind of linear line-writing that you hear on many of my original compositions—they have this different kind of motion and flow, but it’s informed by the same kind of pearl stringing that I’ve learned from studying Harold Arlen or Richard Rodgers, their great melodies and why they work.  That stuff still informs even the melodies that I write that don’t sound anything like that.

The pile of pencils and erasers that Jane Ira Bloom stuffs inside her piano on the frame in front of the strings and some music manuscript paper.

FJO:  It’s interesting to hear you talk about melody and line and breath as I stare to my right at your beautiful old grand piano, which has manuscript paper on it and a bunch of pencils and an eraser stacked inside it.  And I’m remembering reading somewhere that although you’ve been playing the saxophone since you were a child, your first instrument was actually the piano.

JIB:  A composer needs to know the piano, and I studied piano for a while. I started when I was very young. But I must have been 9 or 10 years old when I started studying saxophone in public school.  Then it wasn’t long after I began studying that I started to study with this master teacher Joe Viola, when I was living outside Boston.  Saxophone players know about this guy.  He was a great woodwind virtuoso, and he had this special feeling for the saxophone. Why did I pick up the saxophone in the first place? I was in third grade and it was shiny, that’s why.  But the soprano saxophone—I think when I heard that sound, I said, “Yeah, I like that!”

FJO:  Of course, the soprano saxophone has the most unusual history of the entire saxophone family in jazz.  There isn’t this through line the way there is with alto players or tenor players.  There was Sidney Bechet early on, but later a huge gap during the bop era. Then all of a sudden Steve Lacy appeared on the scene and soon after that John Coltrane takes up the soprano sax, but not as his primary instrument.  And starting in the ‘70s, the soprano sax has had this other whole life as a smooth jazz instrument due to Grover Washington and, later on, Kenny G who is almost an exact contemporary of yours.  But what you do sounds nothing like that.  Going back to running into that random person talking to you at the airport, when you say that you play the soprano sax, I’m sure the first thing that person is going to say is, “Oh, like Kenny G?”

JIB:  Not any more.  Actually, the latest thing people say is, “Do you play pool?”  They see the soprano case, and it looks like a pool cue case.  But it used to happen a while back, and the fact that people knew what a soprano saxophone looked like was pretty interesting—just on a general audience level.  That’s certainly what Kenny G brought to the instrument, so thank you.

I’ve always thought that if you’re the kind of person that’s interested in playing an instrument that doesn’t have too much of a stylistic lineage attached to it—unlike all the great saxophone players on the tenor and the alto—and that if you’re interested in doing something new, soprano is maybe not a bad choice.  It suits me, for sure, that it has the history that it does and that I’ve been able to create a sound on it.  I suppose you could think, not having been over-influenced by a whole stylistic lineage, to create a new sound on it.

FJO:  That’s a very inspiring thought, although you were not completely without influences. You mentioned Joe Viola.

JIB:  A primary influence, yeah.

FJO:  But since there isn’t this lineage in terms of who you grew up listening to and who you gravitated toward musically, it probably wasn’t other soprano players.

“I pick my own notes.”

JIB:  No, not at all.  I was listening to Sonny Rollins.  I was listening to all kinds of things.  I was listening to violin players, but especially trumpet players.  And I was listening to vocalists.  I was getting ideas from other places that I’ve attached to this instrument.  I spent some time studying how people negotiated on a different instrument.  For example, I’ve always loved the sense of struggle that’s in the trumpet.  That’s what I’ve always loved about Booker Little and Miles Davis, so I’ve gleaned something from them.  Same thing with Sonny Rollins.  It’s not necessarily looking around for influences to imitate the notes that people play; it’s more getting a kinesthetic feel for where they were that informs me and what I do.  I pick my own notes.

FJO:  Now in terms of picking those notes, you said that the piano is a necessary thing for composing.

JIB:  Yeah, there it is.

FJO:  So you compose your music at the piano, not at the saxophone, or do you do a little bit of both?

JIB:  Sometimes ideas come from the horn, too, so a little of both.  But primarily I sit at the piano.

Jane Ira Bloom sitting in front of her grand piano.

FJO:  One of the most interesting comments we recorded in a conversation in the last few years was when we did a talk with Béla Fleck, who’s now writing for orchestra.  He talked about how he came up with clarinet lines in the orchestration at the banjo.  He composes from the banjo. He jots down ideas in banjo tablature and then someone else turns it into something that other players can read from.

JIB:  Cool. That’s so unique.

FJO:  I thought that your compositional process might have been somewhat similar, but then I learned you had a background in piano. When we walked in and saw the piano with all the manuscripts on it, I realized that the way you write music was completely different and that the piano plays a significant role in how you compose.

JIB:  Well, for the harmonic information that you hear on my original compositions, yeah.  But let’s face it, I’m a line player.  I’m a horn player, so I play the piano like a horn player.  They inform each other, believe me.

FJO:  In terms of what informs your musical ideas, for almost a century people have come up through improvisatory music by woodshedding and apprenticing as a side person in other people’s ensembles.  What’s amazing to me is that you really didn’t do that at all.  You seem to have emerged fully formed. I’ve only heard two albums that you’re a side person on, and I think there are only three.

JIB:  There are a few.

FJO:  Well, the two that I am aware of are both really wonderful records, but you recorded them after you had already released recordings under your own name.  The first one is this really odd record from pretty early on in your career, Frederick Hand’s Jazz Antiqua.

JIB:  Oh my goodness, yeah. This flute player, Keith Underwood, was a friend of mine from New Haven, from Yale.  He was doing this work with Fred Hand, so when the call went out for soprano saxophone, I think Keith told Fred about me.  That was a long time ago.  I’m trying to think of some other ones.  I apprenticed with vibes player David Friedman and recorded with him.  I also recorded some albums, but it wasn’t at that early time, with vocalist Jay Clayton and did some guest appearances on some other people’s albums. But you’re right.  Largely I had a different path.

Coming out of New Haven in the ‘70s, I was around a fascinating community of new music improvisers and jazz musicians.  I’ve read books about this. They now call this the New Haven Renaissance. If I listed all the musicians who were actually in New Haven at that one time in the ‘70s—it was this fascinating creative music community and everybody was inspiring everybody else.  At that time, Wadada Leo Smith was in New Haven, and he was making albums on his own—LPs; there were no such things as CDs then.  He had important music to document that he was playing, and there were no record companies that were getting Leo to record for them.  So he was making his own albums and documenting his own music. Everybody got inspired by him: George Lewis, Gerry Hemingway, Pheeroan akLaff, myself, Mark Dresser, and Mark Helias—loads and loads of musicians were there, and it inspired all of us.  I was inspired to start my own record company.  It was like 1976.  I had been playing duets with a bass player named Kent McLagan.  We had important music that we were making.  Why not document it?  And I learned how to make a record and how to promote my own music. Trial by fire, I learned how to do it myself, by asking a lot of questions and making a lot of mistakes and figuring it out. They turned out to be my calling cards when I moved to New York City.  That’s a really different path than going off to apprentice with some great. I have a few early stories. I remember I sat in once with Mercer Ellington. But I knew that wasn’t my path.  It just wasn’t me, so I followed this different direction.

FJO:  I have to confess that I don’t know either of those first two records, aside from the little snippets from them that you posted on your website—one of which was a very intriguing gamelan-tinged piece.

JIB: Oh, “Shan Dara.” That’s with David Friedman.

FJO:  I’d really love to hear the whole thing one day. But after these two completely self-produced and self-released albums, you recorded an album for a very highly respected independent label, Enja, with an unbelievable cast of characters.  Two of the members of the quartet album you recorded had been part of the landmark Ornette Coleman Quartet—Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell.  And the other player was Fred Hersch, who went on to become a very important collaborator of yours. So how did this come together?

JIB:  Thank you Matthias Winckelmann, the head of Enja Records. He knew about me through David Friedman, the vibes player, because I’d been on tour with David.  He said, “I’d like to make a record; who’d you like in your rhythm section?”  I was given the chance to name my dream rhythm section. So wow, hell, I want to play with Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell!  I want Fred Hersch playing piano with me! It was just me having my chance to pick the dream rhythm section of all time.

FJO:  So you didn’t know those people?  You’d never worked with any of them before?

JIB:  I had met Blackwell and I had played with him in New Haven.  And Fred and I had also done some playing together.  I don’t think I had played with Charlie, but I knew I wanted to play with him.

FJO:  To stray a little bit from the chronology here, I find your history of making recordings to be somewhat emblematic of our times.  You formed your own record label.  After that, you recorded an album on this really prestigious independent label.  Then you got picked up by one of the global Goliaths, Columbia/CBS, now Sony.  You did two albums with them.  Then you went back to do doing stuff on indies—a series of really important albums on Arabesque, a terrific label which no longer exists, and then a disc on ArtistShare. But your recent albums are back on your own label. So you made a full circle.

“I was the only self-producing jazz artist at CBS.”

JIB:  Complete circle.  But having all the skills as a producer from the get-go has been an asset throughout everything.  I was the only self-producing jazz artist at CBS.  I produced those albums myself.  It was unheard of.  But it was because I had the skills.  At the time, George Butler was the A & R person at CBS.  He knew I could do it.  He had evidence. But isn’t it interesting—the full circle?  I started off on Outline Records, went around the block, and now I’m just back doing what I always did on Outline Records.  And, you know, it just has kind of worked.  I’ve been making albums for so long now that I’ve been fortunate enough that even with an independent label, when I’m ready I can produce an album and it comes to the attention of people in the writing community and the jazz radio community and they look forward to it.  I have a long-time history with people.

And I work with a terrific team. Max Horowitz at Crossover Media has been working with me for over 15 years, and now my niece Amanda Bloom is working with him. So I’m not doing it by myself anymore.  I’ve got good help.  And I also work with Jim Eigo at Jazz Promo Services. These are people who are very, very helpful.

FJO:  I imagine the same has been true for how you’ve published your music.  You’ve written several works for wind ensemble, as well as for orchestra, so you had to prepare scores and parts for all of these.  Is there a place where people can go to get this material?  I imagine it’s all self-published.

JIB:  Yeah, I’ve got them.  All the scores and parts are sitting behind those two cabinets over there.

Shelves in Jane Ira Bloom's cabinet filled with her orchestral scores and parts.

FJO:  So you had a whole self-publishing operation, preparing performance materials, renting them out, etc.?

JIB:  Well, at that time I was getting grants and I got help from some great copyists to find my way through the orchestra.  I remember a particularly wonderful copyist by the name of Randa Kirschbaum, who is the best there was and who helped me get through my orchestra experiences.  That’s a whole other issue.  But I didn’t find a continuation of that work that was easy for me at that time, and I was less successful about recording a large ensemble work.  So the stuff that you hear is for smaller ensembles.

FJO:  It’s all very personal and very intimate; the exact opposite of orchestral music. You’ve mostly recorded quartets—you with piano, bass, and drums. But you also frequently feature unaccompanied soprano saxophone solos on many of your recordings and Early Americans, the recording you made just prior to your most recent one, is with a trio of just you, bass, and drums, no piano.

JIB:  Yeah, I’m just getting comfortable with that.  I’ve been playing in a trio for years and years with Mark Helias and Bobby Previte, and finally the guys said, “Hey, Jane, it’s time to document this thing.”  So we literally just went into the studio and did what we do.  It was a long time coming, but you can feel how natural it is. And winning a Grammy for surround sound for that, I can’t tell you how it makes me smile on the inside, collaborating with the engineer Jim Anderson and my co-producer Darcy Proper.  These were people who took me to a new place.

FJO:  So in your experience does winning a Grammy still have the ability to get significant attention for a recording? Does it increase sales? What role does it play at this point?

JIB:  Well, I did start getting more calls. It’s just more public awareness of my work, that’s all.  There’s just something about the mystique of it.  The fact that this jazz trio album won in a category of music against musics from all other kinds of disciplines was really a very satisfying moment for us.  We didn’t expect it.  There were all kinds of music, but it was about the surround sound technology and the music that made it happen.

Jane Ira Bloom's Grammy

FJO:  Going back to talking about your earlier large ensemble music for a moment, creating music with a small ensemble of people you’ve worked with for a long time is such a stark contrast to how, especially, orchestra music gets rehearsed, performed, and—if you’re fortunate enough—recorded. It’s a very different experience to create music for a large group of people that you might never have met before to working with a small group of creative improvisers who you’ve known for years. You know what they can do and you have an idea about what they’re going to bring to your music, as opposed to when you’re dealing with a large ensemble, for whom you have to have everything worked out in advance and very clearly notated and with whom you’re lucky if you get two rehearsals.

JIB:  Oh believe me, I know.  You spend several years writing a piece of music, you get a few hours of rehearsal, and boom.  That was a startling realization.  They’re completely different worlds, and the task and the skill of the colorist, the orchestrator—their knowledge of instruments and their combinations and the unique qualities that create sonic originality in the orchestra—is a skill like no other.  I was dabbling.  I was just taking my world and seeing where I could go in that playground.  But the world that I largely work in is, as you say, more long-term collaborations with people who I’ve gotten to know over long periods of time.

“My greatest excitement comes from playing with musicians who I know really well.”

I tend to stay playing with people a lot longer than most.  I think it’s because of what you’re talking about, that unconscious communication that develops among improvising musicians over long periods of time.  Not that it shouldn’t be informed by new input and new ideas, because we’re all growing and are going in different directions at times, but I do truly value what’s very special about musicians who’ve known each other and played with each other for a long time—particularly when you go into the studio, which has its own set of issues.  How do you get spontaneity and creativity and the unexpected to still happen in places where just about everything in the environment is trying to tell you the opposite of that?  I tend to find my greatest excitement comes from playing with musicians who I know really well.

FJO:  That’s very different from that first non-self-released recording where you picked your dream team, and then they just showed up at the studio and you recorded an album with them.

JIB:  Yeah, I think I got together with Blackwell and Fred a couple of times, but I don’t think Charlie was ever there for any of the rehearsals!

FJO:  Now, for Modern Drama, was that an ensemble that had been touring or was that also put together just to make the recording?

JIB:  We’d been playing together some.  It was a combination of some of my work with vibist David Friedman and some developing work over a long period of time with Fred Hersch, and at that time it was Ratzo Harris on bass and Tom Rainey on drums.  That was an expression of things I was doing with live electronics, compositions that expressed that, and I wanted to document that and this very special chemistry with those people.

FJO:  It would be great to have you explain how you operate the electronics in a performance, but first, how did you first become interested in working with electronics and how did you learn about it?

JIB:  I always loved electronic sound—I’m talking early electronics, analog electronics.  I’m talking about when the Moog synthesizer first hit and when some of the first composers integrated electronics into their music, like [Morton Subotnick’s] Silver Apples of the Moon.  I can remember being in college and studying electronic music with Robert Moore, having our first hands-on sessions with these synthesizers that looked like refrigerators.  There were lots of faders and dials.  That’s how I learned about electronics. It was really old fashioned.  So I have a predilection in my thinking toward this less digital and more analog approach to these Forbidden Planet kinds of sounds.  That’s what appeals to me.  So I worked with some specialists who helped me design what you would call an effects processing setup.

Basically what I do with the electronics is I still play the saxophone, but I play through microphones that access electronic sounds that I blend and combine with my acoustic sound.  And I trigger them using foot pedals, live and in the moment. Over the years, I’ve gotten skillful playing on one foot and tapping my toe on some pre-programmed settings that I’ve designed—on basically an old harmonizer and an old digital delay—and combining them in unusual ways.  What you’re hearing on the recordings is balancing that electronic sound with the acoustic.  It blends a little easier because I’m dealing with more analog kinds of electronic sounds.  They’re not as cold and digital sounding as some can sound.  I’ve spent some time trying to get the way I use them as an improviser as fluid as if it was a key on my saxophone.  I wanted to have the breath that still compels my saxophone sound to the electronic sound.  I still wanted to have the phrasing that’s behind who I am as a saxophonist.  I’m still a saxophone player.  That’s really what’s at the core of it.  It’s just I hear this expanse of electronic sound that can open up from the acoustic.  And that’s why I feel like it makes sense to me.  It makes sense to me when the sounds appear and when they don’t, when I choose to use them and when I choose not to use them.  It’s got to be fast. It’s got to be intuitive, because I’m using them very much in the moment of improvising. And it has to have a warmth and a breath that is still compelled from being a saxophone player.

FJO:  So in terms of it being in the moment, you’ve got these pre-set things, but you might decide to take it out of the recording studio into a live performance, let’s say, which comes with another whole set of baggage.  How do you make sure the space can handle the balances with that?

JIB:  It’s always a balancing act.

FJO:  But it could be that the spirit moves you in a live setting and there are tons of electronics in some of them, or it could be that the spirit doesn’t move you and you’re completely acoustic.  That decision happens in the moment.

JIB:  It does.  And also the composer in me is thinking about a set of music that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and also hears when the ear needs to relax from being saturated with electronic sound, when things needs to thin out, just as an orchestrator would go from a thicker density to a thinner density.  There’s a lot of skill to thinking about how you go from an acoustic to an electronic place in a piece that helps listeners’ ears not feel jarred.  I have thought about that a lot.  When you hear the electronics on the recordings, there’s a lot of extra help from Jim Anderson, now my almost life-long engineer. How we work, how we record the saxophone, how the electronics appear in the sonic picture, lots and lots of detailed thinking goes into making this thing that I’m talking about in a recorded fashion.

FJO:  I wish I could have heard this material live, if it was done live, but one of my all-time favorite recordings of yours is Like Silver Like Song, which is the one record where you’re not the only person using electronics.

JIB:  Jamie Saft, what a foil.  Mark Dresser. Bobby Previte.  All master composers, by the way, in their own rights.  And, interestingly enough, whether they’re playing acoustically or not, all are clearly influenced by electronic thinking in their sonic palette.  It was another dream team.  I love that recording, too.  I treasure listening to the music that we made together.

FJO:  How did that material work live?  Did it work live?

JIB:  It was easy.  When the guys are on same page with you, it’s just fun.

FJO:  But in order to make it cohere in a live performance setting, did you have a live mixer with you on stage?

JIB:  I would have loved to have had an onstage mixer.  But we were all composers balancing our instrumental contribution live somehow and doing the best we could.  We played in all kinds of spaces.  I remember once playing in the Rose Planetarium with Jamie and Mark. Somehow we make it work.

FJO:  To take it back to Modern Drama, there’s a lot of stuff on there that seems like it would be hard to replicate live.

JIB:  The only thing that would be hard to replicate was the gizmo designed by my friend Kent McLagan, a bassist whom I spent my early years performing with who is also a mechanical engineer and physicist.  We designed this strain gauge attachment that we put on the bell of the soprano so that, based on how fast I was sweeping the bell of the horn, it would create a flurry of sound regeneration in the harmonizer.  So I kind of hot-rodded my harmonizer to be controlled by this strain gauge—Kent called it a strain gauge; it was measuring velocity.

FJO:  So that’s the wacky sound on “Rapture of the Flat”?

JIB:  Yeah, and it appeared on many things.  On “Over Stars,” a lot of the electronic, silvery, shimmering sounds that you hear, that’s the strain gauge of me swirling the soprano around.

FJO:  I’m a huge fan of “Rapture of the Flat” since it’s such a strange combination of things. It starts out with this kind of straight-ahead rock and roll riff, but then all of a sudden it becomes this insane, out-there electronic thing.

JIB:  It’s one of the pieces I dearly love listening to.  I’ll never forget Fred Hersch playing the Hammond B3.  That was a great time we had doing that. But the strain gauge wasn’t very portable.  It looked like a piece of equipment out of War of the Worlds actually.  But I still travel with the harmonizer and the digital delay. They look like antiques.  And I have these foot pedals and stuff, it’s very old-fashioned, live-electronics effects processing.  It’s not fancy, but I can still do it.

FJO:  Now when you say War of the Worlds, where my mind immediately goes is thinking about how you got connected to NASA.

JIB:  Wow, that’s a story.  Flashback to me in the 1980s.  Things were not going great with my career. I was having dinner with a friend of mine, the actor Brian Dennehy.  And I said, “Brian, things just aren’t looking so good.”  This is a true story.  Brian said to me, “Well, what are you interested in?”  And I said, “Well, I’ve always been interested in the space program.  I’ve watched every launch since the Mercury days, and I’ve always been fascinated with space exploration.”  He says, “Well, why don’t you write a letter to NASA?”  I said, “What do you mean, write a letter to NASA?”  “Just write a letter.  Tell ‘em what you’re interested in.” I thought he was nuts.

“Brian Dennehy said, ‘Why don’t you write a letter to NASA?’ … I thought he was nuts.”

But some time went by and I actually sat down and I wrote a letter in the dark—a letter in a bottle, right?—inquiring whether NASA had ever done any research on the future of the arts and space, in zero gravity environments.  Something I was always fascinated with.  Six months later, I get this envelope back, which has the NASA logo on the front of the envelope from a guy by the name of Robert Schulman, director of the NASA Art Program.  I didn’t even know what that was.  I’d just basically written this letter saying I’m a jazz artist and I’ve been interested in exploring. Anyway, turns out a correspondence develops between me and Robert Schulman, and I learn about this organization that’s been in existence at NASA since the beginning of the space program called the NASA Art Program where they commission visual artists, famous ones, to experience what goes on with the space program and everything, from the launch, the landing, the deep space program, astronaut training.  They invite artists to observe this, and from this, to create a work of art, a visual work of art that they would contribute to NASA’s Space Art Collection, which I didn’t even know existed.

Bob and I corresponded for years.  He was interested in jazz musicians—lucky me, you know.  He started sending me all kinds of wonderful stuff, press releases and stuff from NASA. Eventually I posed the idea, how about NASA commissioning the first musician for the Art Program?  And he loved the idea.  That was the start of it.  We had all kinds of corporate sponsors for this big concert to happen.  I basically joined a NASA art team that came down to the Kennedy Space Center for the first launch after the Challenger accident.  It was the space shuttle Discovery.  I traveled with the artists and went to all the facilities, to the launch and the landing at Edwards Air Force Base.  I went to a jet propulsion lab to see the deep space telemetry.  It was a peak experience in my life, no question about it.  And from that, I created a new work, which we premiered at the Kennedy Space Center.

FJO:  Now when you say NASA commissioned it, there was a concert, but then what happened?  Did they send it into space?  What was NASA’s role in it?

JIB:  Well, I can tell you about the concert.  It was an experience like no other.  It was this wonderful special NASA audience concert that was held at the Kennedy Space Center with the Brevard Symphony Orchestra. I brought down a whole bunch of ringers, the jazz musicians that were in the piece.  In addition to the visual artists who were also there contributing to the evening, there were several astronauts who gave talks before the concert took place.  I remember meeting Astronaut Robert Crippen and Astronaut John Young. I shook hands with a guy who went to the moon.  It was a NASA evening that was documented; it was video-ed.  Where did the piece ultimately land in NASA’s Space Art Collection? Wherever it goes. There’s a piece of my score that’s there, and there’s this video recording of the piece.  But more importantly, it turned out to be an experience that’s informed almost all my musical thinking and writing since then.  It was one of my first large orchestration experiences, and it was also a time when I was integrating live electronics and surround sound. So many concepts that were channeled into that experience are still with me in work that I’m exploring today. I cite that experience as incredibly pivotal in my thinking.

FJO:  And yet it has still never been released in the original format you conceived it.

JIB:  No, just the electronic trio piece that’s in the middle of it—a piece that I performed with Jerry Granelli on electro-acoustic percussion and Rufus Reid on bass and prepared electronic tape, and me on electronics—that’s called “Most Distant Galaxy.”  That’s recorded on my album Art and Aviation. That was the second or third movement.  I forget which.

FJO:  Although most of the pieces on Art and Aviation also have space-inspired names.

JIB:  Yeah, it was right around that time, but that’s the only one that’s directly material from that. Art and Aviation was a spin-off of the work that I did for NASA.  I did a huge piece at Town Hall.  Oh, I’ll never forget that one.

FJO:  I was at that concert.  It was the first time I heard you perform live.

JIB:  Wow!  Yeah, that was a fun one.  That was the first time I integrated getting the brass section up in the balconies to do some surround sound effects.

FJO:  Now the other thing that’s on that record, which I find funny because it’s quite a contrast from all these space exploration-inspired things, is a piece called “I Believe Anita.”

JIB:  That piece was very important, and it’s important today.  I still perform that piece, and I still believe her.  Absolutely.

FJO:  Anita Hill was just in the news again recently. They were talking to her about how back then there were no hashtags.  There was no #MeToo back then. A lot of people believed her, but it ultimately didn’t make a difference. Clarence Thomas still got nominated to the Supreme Court.

JIB:  Hard to believe, but I believe Anita.

FJO:  So when you play that piece now, how do you frame it?

JIB:  History.  It’s bearing out history—sticking to your convictions and seeing how history plays things out.

FJO:  You were talking earlier about being a melodist. That’s another area I would love to talk about in greater detail with you because you developed this whole technique that you call motion-inspired melodies, which you’ve also described as painting with sound.

JIB:  On a detailed level, there’s always been an interest in melodic lines that have their own unique sense of motion flow—accelerando and deccelerando, groups of fives and eights and nines, not just chugging along in eighth notes and sixteenth notes.  It’s been a characteristic of my melodic line writing for a long time.  You can hear it in almost all—I can show it to you.  It has informed so much.  It comes from this sense of motion filled-ness, physical motion.  I’ve always been interested both in my own body when I play and then translating that into sound and how that compels melodies in different ways, too.  It’s all one thing.

“Even before I even thought about it, I always moved a lot when I played.”

Intuitively, even before I even thought about it, I always moved a lot when I played.  I didn’t know why I was doing it.  I just felt things in my body when I play.  As time went on, I collaborated with choreographers who were much more cognizant of this quality and interested in it and actually made me look at it in a much more concrete way, to think about what you could do, to look at it and think about it, and how you could make sound change by moving. It was really choreographers like Richard Bull—who did Improvisational Dance Ensemble—that got me really thinking about it.  So much other compositional thought was generated from the movement, whether it was making melodies or being inspired by Jackson Pollock in the Chasing Paint album, trying to think of arcing sound in space the way Pollock moved a brush.  I was always a visual thinker, so this was a real natural place for me to go, to think of sculpting sound with movement and then augmenting that with electronics and melodic line writing.

FJO:  Your first Pollock piece goes all the way back to your first combo album, and then it grew into this larger six-movement suite that’s on Chasing Paint.

JIB:  Yeah.  I was always interested in Jackson Pollock. He spoke to me, I guess, as he’s spoken to many improvisers.

FJO:  A painting of his was even used for the cover of Ornette Coleman’s album Free Jazz.

JIB:  Absolutely. He speaks to improvisers.

FJO:  So, in terms of this arcing sound, do you encourage the other players in the group to also move around?  If you’re sitting at a piano, that seems like it might be hard to do.

JIB:  Well, I don’t dictate.  But I know there was a period of time when I was recording with Fred, I can remember one piece called “The Race (for Shirley Muldowney),” where we put some of the effects processing in the strings of the piano, so Fred was actually playing with effects processing in that piece.  I can think of times where Bobby Previte—although he himself was not using any extended electronic sounds, his compositional thinking on the set is so compelled by visual thought.  It’s just in his head.

FJO:  Yeah, well he’s created a whole cycle of pieces based on paintings by Joan Miró.

JIB:  Oh yeah.  Right.  I was on one of his Joan Miró pieces.  I’m with like-minded collaborators.  So again, I don’t dictate to people about that, but clearly there’s something in the air.

FJO:  So were your Pollock pieces inspired by specific paintings?

JIB:  Absolutely.  And when we played the pieces, I made some really good color printouts, the best I could, so people had them on their stands. And then at one point, we did play at the Museum of Modern in Art in Houston, where we actually played in front of a Pollock. It was not one of the ones that I’d literally written a piece about, but it was right behind us.  You could just turn around and look at it.  And that was so cool.

FJO:  And the group you performed those pieces with was another dream team.

JIB:  Yeah. Fred, Mark Dresser, and Bobby Previte—wonderful quartet.

FJO:  There’s a real chemistry between the four of you.

JIB:  Absolutely.  And sometimes it’s not what people think, that you put likeminded people together.  Sometimes it’s the very unique characteristics of each of the players, and the strengths that they bring that are very different from one another.  And those people had it.  That’s what I remember about that quartet. I think very fondly about that collaboration now.

FJO:  You’ve recorded at least two albums with that exact lineup, and then others where there’s almost all of them.

JIB:  Yeah, it shifted a little bit.  But we did the Red Quartets and then the Pollock album, Chasing Paint.

FJO:  Another thing that’s probably related to your being inspired by painting is that you are also a photographer.  When did that start?

JIB:  High school.  I was one of those people who spent a lot of time in the old days in the dark room sniffing chemicals.  I just had a passion for black and white photography.

FJO: Interestingly though, in terms of everything we were saying about the melody line and hearing something, having it be balanced and wanting it to be just right, is that it shows how mindful you are of the world around you—in the way that a photographer also usually is, but in a way that perhaps abstract expressionist painters aren’t as much.  Their processes inform their work, and the work is what it is.  So even though you’ve been inspired by Pollock, your aesthetic is very different from his.  Or at least it seems to be.

“The freedom Pollock was in touch with is something that, as jazz musicians, we can tap into so easily.”

JIB:  Who knows?  He just speaks to me.  The freedom he was in touch with, this motion in nature is something that, as jazz musicians, we can tap into so easily.  I know so much about what he was talking about, that fractal nature of the movement of wind and moving grasses or branches or trees, and how that manifests visually in the natural world, and also feeling how that might be in sound.  You don’t know how people inspire you.  It’s not that you’re like them; it’s that they speak to you about something.  Thank you, Jackson Pollock.  That’s all I can say.

One of the many pieces of art that is hanging in Jane Ira Bloom's apartment.

One of the many pieces of art that is hanging in Jane Ira Bloom’s apartment.

FJO:  Jumping to the present moment, when I first heard about this I thought it was so incongruous, yet it totally works.  Another person who’s inspired you, another great American cultural icon, is Emily Dickinson.  But I never would have made that connection.

JIB:  I think the first time I was exposed to her poetry was through The Belle of Amherst with Julie Harris on WGBH in Boston. It was a basically one-woman show about the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson.  I think that’s where it began.  It took a long time simmering, but I think I went to a lecture on Dickinson’s poetry given at the Philactetes Society.  I’ve forgotten who the poet was who gave that lecture, but that’s what sparked it.  I forget when that was.  But then I started re-reading.  Somehow I didn’t understand her, but I got her.  I don’t know why.  I don’t intellectually understand her, but there’s something about the way she used words that feels like the way jazz musicians abstract notes and ideas.  That’s where I started from.

FJO:  And it’s so fascinating that you issued performances both with the words being recited and without them, so listeners can either hear it with the words or not.  You can have two completely different experiences with it.

JIB:  Those fragments of the poetry inspire the music that you hear, where we go with it.  But it’s a different approach to intersecting music and words than traditional settings of poems.  I was not interested in that approach at all.  It’s really a much more abstract relationship to her and to her poetry.

FJO:  You mentioned performing with Jay Clayton, but on your own music you’ve never worked with a singer.

JIB:  No, nor had I ever done anything with words.  Never.  This was the first time.  And my husband is an actor and a director!  But this was the first time that I actually did a collaboration with literature, and it was very meaningful to me.

FJO:  I find it somewhat strange that you’ve never included a singer in your music, especially after hearing all of the stuff that you’ve said about melody, as well as being inspired by the American Songbook.  I could imagine a recording of you with a singer that would be as symbiotic as the album that John Coltrane recorded with Johnny Hartman, which really sounds like two singers—Hartman singing the words and Coltrane singing on his saxophone.

JIB:  That’s right.  It may be in the future.  In truth, I do think when I play ballads that I am singing those songs into the saxophone.  But what collaboration might be in the future, who knows?

FJO:  Okay, so what would be a dream project that you’d love to do that you haven’t done yet?

JIB:  I just went this weekend to the MOMIX Dance Theatre.  Years ago, I wrote some music for the dance company Pilobolus and one of the original dancers, Moses Pendleton, started this company called MOMIX, which is dedicated not only to dance but a high use of stagecraft in lighting and illusion, to create very magical looking effects on stage.  I remember thinking when I left, “I wonder if I could get a grant to get together with a really powerful design team, lighting designers and stage production designers, people who do this kind of thing.  How fascinating it might be to create the music that I create with this other kind of visual element—simultaneously.  But we’d definitely have to get a grant for this one.”  That’s the latest thing that occurred to me.

A pocket-sized audio-recorder on a pile of music manuscript paper in one of the corners on the right hand corner of Jane Ira Bloom's grand piano.

Along with all the music manuscript paper, Jane Ira Bloom also keeps a pocket-sized audio-recorder at her piano.

FJO:  One area that we didn’t touch on that we should are those fascinating world music collaborations that you did about ten years ago, which really took you in new directions.  I actually heard a connection between those performances and your Early Americans trio album, where there’s finally no piano which means you can freely venture beyond the 12-tone equal-tempered scale and improvise on other modes. I did hear things that hinted at this terrain in several of the pieces on that album, like “Dangerous Times” or “Other Eyes,” which perhaps came from your experience in those world music collaborations.

JIB:  Well, I’ve always been interested in world musics.  Not that I’ve studied any in great detail as some of my colleagues have, who have gone to different parts of the world to study shakuhachi or Indian music. But I’ve always had this open ear.  It all started probably in the 1970s when I listened to the Nonesuch World Music Explorer series in the library.  I used to listen to music from all over the world and let it into my musical thought.  Over the years, I’ve collaborated with musicians who were more studied than I in traditional world musics, whether it’s Geetha Ramanathan Bennett and her husband Frank Bennett and being exposed to beautiful South and North Indian music, whether it has to do with the years listening to Asian music, the shakuhachi or the Chinese guqin, having experiences improvising with the master pipa player and improviser Min Xiao-Fen or Korean music, being exposed to it through my friend Jin Hi Kim. Again, it’s all learning by doing and being around the musicians themselves.  And they themselves were interested in collaborating with jazz artists.  I was improvising together with musicians who wanted to share vocabulary with me.  That’s how it happened.

FJO:  It was so incredible hearing Geetha Ramanathan Bennett play “Cheek to Cheek” on one of those performances. That blew my mind.

JIB:  Wasn’t that amazing listening to “Cheek to Cheek on the veena, how she can handle the harmonic changes on a veena?

FJO:  That would be a great thing to take into the studio and record.

JIB:  I know.  I still talk with Geetha every now and then.  She’s out on the West Coast with Frank.  We’re longtime friends and collaborators from 1970-something.  Again, the collaborations that I really value are deep, long-term ones.

FJO:  So we’ve already planned at least three new projects for you, something with a singer, and a multi-media improvisation with music and lighting, and a cross-cultural recording.

JIB:  Thank you.

Two shelves in Jane Ira Bloom's living room reveal some of the sheet music and books that have been important to her.

Two shelves in Jane Ira Bloom’s living room reveal some of the sheet music and books that have been important to her.

FJO:  A last area I was curious about, because it’s been a part of your life for a very long time, is your teaching at the New School.

JIB:  I’ve been there 20 years.

FJO:  So what keeps you doing it?  What inspires you?

JIB:  I’m the most reluctant educator there is, but what inspires me is I like being around young people.  I like being around unfettered enthusiasm, the idealism, all of the energy.  It fuels me. I give it back to them, but they give it to me.

FJO:  So what sort of projects do you do with them to get them thinking out of the box?

“I like being around unfettered enthusiasm.”

JIB:  There are several courses I’ve taught over the years to do just that.  A class called “Linear Composition for Improvisers”—definitely getting improvisers into a composing mode and thinking outside of their comfort zones.  I’ve taught the music of Ornette Coleman.  I’ve taught a course on how to play ballads.  Teaching young people how to play slow.  I have a course that I designed that I teach with my husband called “Improvisatory Artist Lab” where we combine classical artists, jazz artists, and drama students, to do new creative work together.  For them to learn about each other’s vocabularies, cross-disciplinary projects and thinking.  There’s a course I designed taking young composers up to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, having them research a topic of their choice and then creating a new work of art that we perform at Lincoln Center at the end of the semester.  All of it is pushing the boundaries.

Randy Weston: Music is Life Itself

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

It has been more than three quarters of a century since the bebop revolution transformed how people made music together. So it is not surprising that so few musicians who came to prominence during that era are no longer with us, especially since so many—like Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Herbie Nichols, Elmo Hope, Eric Dolphy, and on and on–had tragically short lives. But what is more surprising is that one of these musicians, 92-years young Randy Weston, is not only still around, he’s still actively performing and composing and evolving, although to him there really isn’t a clear distinction between old and new music.

When we visited Randy Weston in his Brooklyn apartment, which was once the site of a restaurant his father owned when he was growing up and which helped to shape his attitudes about how to connect with audiences, he expounded on his all-inclusive worldview.  He pointed out that bebop and all of so-called jazz, which he prefers to call “African American classical music,” as well as numerous other musical genres have their source in the traditional music of Africa:

You can call it rock and roll. You can call it hip hop. You can call it jazz. Many titles.  But for me, it’s Mother Africa’s way of survival.  …  We have to stop to realize: No Africa? No jazz, no blues, no bossa nova, no calypso, no reggae! … My father said to me three things.  He said, “Africa is the past, the present, and the future.”

To Weston, different generations listening to different music from one another makes no sense. “When I was growing up, music was for everybody,” he said.  “I’ve got to move a three-year old or a 100-year old.” And it’s something he has aspired to do since he first started playing in clubs as part of a trio at the age of 17.  Over the course of the last seven decades, several of Weston’s compositions—such as “Hi-Fly” (1958) and a waltz he composed in 1956 about one of his children called “Little Niles”—have become standards, and his 1972 album Blue Moses was a bestseller.

Weston wants to harness the power of music to make people aware of their history.  The contemporaneous declarations of independence of many African nations was the inspiration for his landmark 1960 suite Uhuru Africa, which featured a poem expressly created for it by Langston Hughes and was arranged by the undersung Melba Liston for an all-star ensemble that included Clark Terry, Slide Hampton, Gigi Gryce, Yusef Lateef, Cecil Payne, Kenny Burrell, Ron Carter, Max Roach, Candido Camero, and Babatunde Olatunji, as well as operatic soprano Martha Flowers and actor/singer Brock Peters. The album was banned in then Apartheid-governed South Africa but also led to Weston being invited, under the auspices of the American Society of African Culture, to perform in Nigeria in 1961. Weston returned there two years later and then in 1967 embarked on a U.S. State Department tour to Senegal, Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. The following year he moved to Morocco and lived in Tangier for seven years.

Living on the African continent and working extensively with musicians from a wide variety of traditions further expanded Weston’s compositional palette, and he continued to explore ways to make the European piano sound African.

“I go back to before it was a piano,” Weston explained.  “You’ve got wood.  You’ve got metal.  When the piano was created in Italy, they didn’t know what to do with the keys of the piano, so the keys of the piano were wood.  After that, the ivory on the elephant was what they used before the plastic and whatnot.  So when I go to the piano, I approach it as an African instrument.  It just traveled north and some other things were done to it.  And inside it is a harp, an African harp.”

Although he ultimately returned to the Brooklyn neighborhood he grew up in, Weston took back with him a whole world of experience which has informed the music he is creating up to this day. His magnum opus, the two-hour African Nubian Suite, which premiered in 2012 and was released as a two-CD set on his own African Rhythms label just last year, incorporates musical traditions from across the entire African continent, as well as the diaspora and even China.

“We all have African blood,” Weston asserted.  “Every person on the planet Earth.”

After such an ambitious tour-de-force, Weston refuses to rest on his laurels. He just issued Sound, another two-CD set which is all solo piano music, and a few days after we visited him he flew to Europe for performances in Nice and Rome:

Wherever I go, I tell people—students, grandmas, you know—I’m so happy now because when I play, all the races come to me holding their hearts.  They say, “You’re taking us back home.”  I say, “We all are from there.”


A conversation with Frank J. Oteri in Weston’s Brooklyn home
July 13, 2018—4:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Frank J. Oteri:  There’s a statement in your autobiography African Rhythms that I thought would be a great place to begin our talk.  It was an observation about African traditional music: the audience and the music are one.  I think the same could be said for just about all the music you’ve done in your life, and the same could have been or perhaps should be said for all music—any music that really works.

Randy Weston:  Well, I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and I became a young musician, playing local gigs and marriages.  We played a lot of dances.  You had to play for dance, otherwise you weren’t a musician.  And that goes all the way back to ancient Africa, that they’re one and the same, which means that the dancer is also an instrument.  Also, in our community, it wasn’t The New York Times that told us whether we played good or not, it was that African-American audience.  I don’t care whether it was calypso, the black church, the blues, or European classical music, they knew when the music was right.  And if you weren’t playing right, you were in trouble.

“It wasn’t The New York Times that told us whether we played good or not, it was that African-American audience.”

Growing up as a boy, I loved music before I ever even touched a piano.  Music was our way of life.  I grew up in a community of all the nationalities—people from the Caribbean, people from Africa, people from the South, people from Europe—all bringing their cultures.  It was so rich and so wonderful, but music was the key.  And I can’t emphasize too much, it was my mother and father who would bring the best music in the house—Duke Ellington, gospel, blues.  They weren’t musicians and they never studied music, so I wanted to find out how they could know so much about music.  But when you go to the motherland, the people in Africa are music.  Music is the first language.  It’s how we survived slavery.  It’s how we survive many hardships.  During the early ‘20s and ‘30s, they were lynching black people in this country—your skin was no good, your hair, all the stereotypes.  But it was music, whether it was the black church, where I had to be every Sunday with my Virginia momma, or during the week when I was with my Caribbean father—Panama, Jamaica, proud, Marcus Garvey, Africa, all the time. We would go to calypso dances.  We were just surrounded with music and there was no separation between the ages, no such thing as music for the young.  When I was growing up, music was for everybody.

So when Randy Weston plays the piano, I’ve got to move a three-year old or a 100-year old.  And that’s the foundation of music in spirituality, which was passed down from our ancestors.  Every day I’m amazed at how they could create such beauty in this country after coming here in such terrible conditions.  I still don’t get it.  When I went to Africa, I found out that for African people, spirituality is so important, even despite all the diversities of people.  That’s the only way I can describe it, so a long way of answering your question as usual.

Some LPs of Randy Weston's music as well as piles of his CDs.

FJO:  You touched on many different concepts here. But since you touched on when you were growing up, I’d like to talk more with you about other things that were around you that I would dare say might have influenced your approach to how you relate to audiences.  Your father ran a restaurant and took meals very seriously.  A great chef can be considered a great artist, but you’d never have a situation where the chef is a great artist and he makes food that most people wouldn’t want to eat.  Yet we do harbor a notion that there is some great music that very few people can relate to.  What happened to create this distance between people who make music and everybody else?

RW:  We got away from the truth.  My father always taught me to always look for the origin of everything in life.  No matter what they tell you.  Try to find the origin of whatever that is.  Whether it’s language, whether it’s football, whatever.  My dad loved Africa with such a passion.  He would talk about Africa to people he didn’t even know in the street or in the restaurant.  When I was a young, young child, around six, he said, “My son, I want you to understand one thing: that you are an African born in America. Therefore you must study the history of Africa before it was colonized.  Before it was invaded.  Before it was sterilized.”  My dad had books on African civilization in the house and he had maps of Africa and also African kings and queens on the wall.  When we grew up, it was British East Africa and the Belgian Congo; Africa didn’t have its independence.  But he said, “We come from royalty.” He said, “They only thing they’re going to teach you is after slavery and after colonialism; you’re going to have a mountain full of lies. When you go to the cinema or when you go to school, people are going to say you’re inferior.  There’s a billion people on the planet, but I want you to be strong when you go out the door.” So growing up, because of my dad, I’d look at books and I’d go to museums.  I’d go back 6,000 years ago.  Just imagine what it must have been before Africa was occupied.

The way we were treated in this country, how come we don’t hate people?  You don’t do that because we’re all members of the planet earth; we’re all human beings.  We grew up like that.  We really loved to welcome all the different people of the planet.  My father’s friends were Jewish, Swedish, German, Italian.  You name it.  We’d go to their house and had Italian food.  Or we’d have Jewish food on a Sunday. My mother with her Virginia accent and my father with his Caribbean accent. They had different accents, but they were the same people. They got married and they produced me.

My dad’s second restaurant was right here in this house; my dad died, but his spirit is in this house.  He would have people come here from Africa, or from the Caribbean, or Europeans who told the truth about African history—scientists, musicians, painters, actors.  And with my mother at the black church every Sunday, I was absorbing these gospels and spirituals when I was a little boy.  So that’s my foundation.  And every day, I talked to my father and mother.  They gave me everything.  They gave me spirituality, which is difficult to understand.  They loved me and I was spoiled.  I’m not talking about financially.  My dad was a great cook.  He would cook all the Caribbean cooking.  My mother made Southern food from Virginia.  I had all that love, and not to mention the neighborhood, but that’s the foundation—mom and pop.

A framed photo of Randy Weston's parents

Randy Weston keeps a framed photograph of his parents on one of his walls as a constant reminder of their importance to him.

FJO:  Andy they had you take piano lessons.

RW:  My father, yeah.

FJO:  But that first set of piano lessons didn’t really work out.

RW:  No, because you know, I was six-foot at 12 years old.  In those days, I thought I was going to the circus.  I was tall.  Today, that’s nothing, right?  I played baseball and football.  And I couldn’t identify with the scales because all the music we grew up with was swinging—whether it’s the black church or a blues club on the corner or calypso dance, all the music had, as Duke Ellington says, that African pulse.  So I couldn’t identify with European music.  But that piano teacher, God bless her, for 50 cents a lesson, she had to deal with me for three years of torture—for her and for me. She’d hit my hand with the ruler.  But she gave me the foundation and that’s why she’s in my book.  I learned some things I got to appreciate when I got older.

FJO:  Well I have a theory that, aside from you saying that you didn’t identify with European music, you wanted to create your own things instead of playing what someone else wrote.  Even before you ever created your first composition, you had the attitude of a composer.

RW:  I didn’t know. I had no idea.

When I had come out of the Army, I went to my father’s restaurant and I was a frustrated musician. Remember, this was the period of royalty.  This was the period of the greatest musicians in the history of the planet—people like Art Tatum and Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Erroll Garner, and I could go on.  This was our royalty.  In the restaurant, you could go to the jukebox and play everybody from Louis Armstrong to Sarah Vaughan, to Louis Jordan.  We’d be open 24 hours a day in this restaurant and I was so in love with the music on the jukebox.

At this time, Miles Davis was living in Brooklyn and so was Max Roach, who I called the emperor of Brooklyn. Max was my teacher. Max Roach’s house was two blocks away from where we lived and my father’s restaurant.  When I had a break in the restaurant, I’d just go to Max’s house and sit in the corner.  That’s where I met Dizzy Gillespie.  That’s where I met Charlie Parker.  That’s where I met Miles Davis.  That’s where I met George Russell.  I’d sit in the corner and just listen to what they talked about.  And thanks to Max Roach and George Russell, I discovered the modern European classical music— Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Darius Milhaud.  And Max would always tell me to listen to Baby Dodds, to go back and listen to all the African-American music you can find because that’s the purest music, because those people couldn’t speak the language.  They hadn’t gone to music school, so during the time of slavery and even after slavery, they approached it as African people.  The way they dance and the way they cook their food.  The way they attempted to speak the European languages.  Max taught me that.  He taught me about Chano Pozo.  When I heard that African Cuban drum with Dizzy’s orchestra in 1949 in what George Russell was writing for Dizzy, Cubana Be Cubana Bop, I fell in love with that drum.  I said I got to work with this drum.  Again, Africa.

And we had people like the great Cecil Payne.  Eubie Blake lived on Stuyvesant Avenue in Brooklyn, right around the corner from my mother’s church.  I would go to Eubie’s house when he was about—whoo!— 95, something like that.  You didn’t have to call up and say Mr. Blake, can I come by and see you.  Oh no, you just rang the bell.  I’d go to Eubie Blake’s house and sit in the corner and he’d tell about the piano battles they had in 1890.  How they had this guy named One Leg Willie, and this guy could take one song and in each chorus he’d completely change the harmonies.  He never made a record.  So from Eubie, I got the history of our music going way back to the early-20th century.  So Brooklyn was very special because it was so much culture.

A shelf in Randy Weston's home featuring a variety of trinkets including a miniature model of the Brooklyn Bridge

FJO:  Your encounters with Charlie Parker were really interesting.  You actually even performed with him.

RW:  Again, Max Roach.  Max made me play for Charlie Parker.  I was shaking, because Charlie Parker was a high spiritual man—what he would do with that saxophone.  But Max said, “Hey man, play one of your songs.” I played something, but I was very nervous.  And then I went back to the restaurant and said, “Why did Max make me play for this guy?”—it was me and a drummer who studied with Max Roach named Maurice Brown.

“You don’t interrupt a musician when he’s playing.  That’s a way to die.”

In those days we would hang out two or three days looking for music.  Some clubs would close at three o’clock in the morning and others would open up at four o’clock in the morning.  There was no television and no disco.  Everything was live, so we had that kind of experience.  So that night we went to go hear Tadd Dameron at a club called the Royal Roost.  Tadd Dameron was in a band with Fats Navarro and Charlie Rouse; I’m not sure who the drummer was.  When you go out in the Royal Roost, you go down the stairs, and the bar is right there.  And there’s Charlie Parker at the bar.  Now Charlie Parker always kept his saxophone.  If he went to the supermarket—saxophone.  You’d never see him without that saxophone.  So he sat at the bar and I’m looking.  I wondered who he was talking to.  I didn’t think he remembered me.  So the young drummer said, “Man, he’s talking to you.”  He said, “Randy, how you doing, man?”  I said fine.  “So, whatcha doing?”  I said, “We’re gonna hear Tadd Dameron in the band.”  He said, “Come with me.”  He takes us upstairs and calls a taxi.  We go to 52nd Street, to a club, I’m not sure whether it’s the Three Deuces.  I’ve forgotten the exact name of the club.  We go into the club and there’s a group playing.  They’re playing their music.  Now you don’t interrupt a musician when he’s playing.  That’s a way to die.  Don’t dare do that.  But Charlie Parker was so powerful; in the middle of the song, he went up on the stage and told the piano player to get up. Just like that.  And the piano player says, “Yes Bird.”  And then he told me to sit at the piano.  He did the same thing with the drummer, told the drummer to get up in the middle of the song and told the drummer [Maurice Brown] to sit.  Then he took out his saxophone.  He played one half hour with us, then packed up his horn and left and never said a word.  You don’t forget things like that, because I was with a master.

FJO:  That was your one and only gig with Charlie Parker.  The other really interesting, formative influence story in your life was your encounter with Thelonious Monk, which I think had a profound effect on how you make music and how you think about music.

RW:  Sure.  Absolutely. Why do you love certain artists?  What happens?  There’s some kind of communication there.  When I was 13-years old, I heard “Body and Soul” [played] by Coleman Hawkins. He was really the father of the tenor saxophone, and it was a big hit.  Coleman Hawkins was such a genius.  What’s so incredible about that “Body and Soul” is he’s not playing the melody, but you can hear the melody.  So when I heard this music, I went to my father and I said, “Dad, I want an advance in my allowance.”  I got 75 cents a week.  “I want to go buy some recordings.”  So he gave me the advance, and I went to the record shop.  I think it was about 35 cents for a disc in those days, and I bought three copies.  I hid two in cellophane.  The other copy I put on my pop’s record player, opened up the windows in the apartment, and put on “Body and Soul” loud so everybody could hear it.  I played Coleman Hawkins almost every other day.

The first time I heard Monk was with Coleman Hawkins on 52nd Street. He’s got Monk playing the piano.   I’m this amateur musician, and I didn’t know him. Monk wasn’t playing too many notes that night, so my immediate reaction was what’s Coleman Hawkins doing with this guy?  I had his recordings with Art Tatum and with Benny Carter.  But I went back again and heard “Ruby, My Dear” for the first time with Monk on the piano and Coleman Hawkins on the saxophone.  It was just love, the kind of love that you can only get with music.  My connection to Monk goes back to Ahmed Abdul-Malik, the bass player.  He also played the oud and he would take me to downtown Brooklyn to listen to the oud and experience the music of North Africa and the Middle East.  He could play notes in between the notes.  I tried to do the same thing on the piano, but I couldn’t do it.  But Monk did it.

FJO:  He creates a very idiosyncratic sound, but of course it is still with the notes on the piano.  There aren’t any extra notes there, but he’s messing with your head.

RW:  Music is magic.  So when I heard Monk, and I heard that sound on the piano, I said, “Wow.  I want to find out how he’s doing that.”  So I went to his house, and asked if I could come see him.  There was a picture of Billie Holiday in the middle of the ceiling.  Monk was sitting in a chair playing music very softly.  I started asking him all kind of questions.  No response.  That’s it.  But I couldn’t leave the room.  I stayed in that room for hours.  Finally, I had felt I had to try to get out of this room.  I must have asked about one hour of questions.  No response.  I’m getting ready to leave.  He said, “Listen to all kinds of music.  Come and see me again.”  I went back one month later.  He played the piano almost two hours for me.

He pushed the magic of Africa in the piano for me.  Piano was not created to get that kind of sound. I discovered later on that he comes from Duke Ellington.  Duke was doing things with the piano, which I didn’t realize.  He was also creating all kind of magic sounds on the piano—basically the bass of the piano.  A lot of pianists don’t touch the bass.  But Duke, he’d do things with the bass of the piano to create things, you know. Oh, that music.  And all the music is so beautiful.  Dizzy, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, all these people.  They create such original beauty.  They’re all original people.  So for me in 1959 to do a recording with Coleman Hawkins playing my music—man, that was one of the happiest moments of my life.  Roy Haynes was on drums on that date and Kenny Dorham on trumpet.

One of the walls in Randy Weston's home which is full of posters and photographs of various African people.

FJO:  Before we get to 1959, at some point several years before that something changed in your attitude about being a musician. You were on the fence for a very long time before you finally decided that that was what you wanted your focus in life to be.

RW:  Oooh, I was 29.

FJO:  That’s late.

RW:  But I was playing at 17.

FJO:  So what caused you to devote your life to being a musician?

RW: It happened up in the Berkshires.  I was working in this hotel up there—breakfast chef for a while, washing dishes for a while, chambermaid for a while, cutting down trees. But I discovered the Berkshires and all that music—the Boston Symphony Orchestra, chamber music, music students coming from all over the world.  I met Aaron Copland.  I met Lukas Foss.  I met Leonard Bernstein.  It was just an incredible place of music.  Plus the Music Inn and Marshall Stearns.

“I don’t play Bach and Beethoven and Mozart.  That’s not what I do.”

I’ll never forget this.  I helped these artists from Germany.  They were all victims of Nazism.  They were all elderly people, and they had a concert. They were violinists, violists, singers, and whatnot.  And I helped them with their baggage.  But in the meanwhile, when I’m in these places, I was playing the piano at night.  But just for me, you know.  So these three old ladies come to me and said, “Randy, we’re going to have a recital.  And we decided we’d like you to play.”  I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t play Bach and Beethoven and Mozart.  That’s not what I do.”  They said, “No, no, no.  We want you to do what we hear you do at night.”  And that’s what I did.   They were saying to me, “We’re from the European classical world, but you’re doing something special on the piano.”  Max Roach was pushing me.  And other musicians.  But that really did it.

FJO:  And it wasn’t very long after that that you made your first studio recording.

RW:  Yes.  That’s correct, because I had discovered the music.  Marshall Stearns, oh man, he was something incredible.  I did about ten summers in the Berkshires.  Who do I meet up there?  Langston Hughes.  Olatunji.  Candido.  Mahalia Jackson, who was doing an afternoon class on African spirituality in the black church. Willis James, who specialized in field cry hollers, and he talked about how our ancestors during the time of slavery created music with sound because they couldn’t speak the European languages. I met so many incredible people.  Everybody I listened to and took something from.  Asadata Defora, the great dancer-choreographer from Guinea.  And because of Marshall, I also met John Lee Hooker, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Josh White.  He had this pan-African concept in music, and he would have these classes.  He’d have a blackboard, and underneath the blackboard would be Africa.  Then he had the different branches, like calypso.  I met Geoffrey Holder up there, too.

FJO:  But to go from being immersed with all those people to saying I’m now going to do my own thing was still a huge step as a musician. The first album you recorded was a collection of your interpretations of music by Cole Porter, because the record label wasn’t going to take a chance on an unknown person doing his own compositions.  But after that, most of what you’ve recorded is all your own music.  Every now and then, you would include a tune of somebody else’s that you made your own.  But it was very clear from very early on that you were creating your own music, whether you were performing by yourself or with other musicians.  And when you worked with other musicians, you weren’t telling them what to play, because you wanted them to bring their own thing to it.  You’ve actually said that you feel like a piece of music you create isn’t complete until you work on it with other people in a performance or in the studio—then it becomes complete.

RW:  Absolutely, because music is life itself.  In ancient tradition, music was just as important as science, astronomy, any kind of education.  Music was required because music was our first language, our spiritual language.  Even up to now, even up to last week, when I go to the piano and I look at that audience—and I’ve been doing that for a while—all the religions are there, all the colors are there, all the ages are there.  But we become one people when the music is right.  And it’s always magic for me.

“We become one people when the music is right.”

I have to be very humble with music. Why do I say that?  Well, what you talked about came from Duke and Monk.  They did their own music.  They’re my two biggest influences.  But at the same time, I had a talent and I didn’t realize I had a talent.  And I loved my children so much, so my first recording with Melba Liston was setting waltzes for children.  Children are so free.  So I put them to music.  I wrote those waltzes up in the Berkshires, because after the season was over, I stayed two or three weeks afterwards and it was very quiet, with a nice fireplace.  The Berkshires are so physically beautiful, as you know.  It’s gorgeous there.  And all of a sudden, these melodies came out.

Where this talent comes from, I will never know.  But it happened. How it happened is amazing.  I went to Boys High School in Brooklyn. That was a very good school.  Max Roach went there.  Cecil Payne.  Ray Copland, the trumpet player.  I was in this school, but I wanted to go to music school.  My father wanted me to get those academics; he wanted me to be a businessman.  Another reason why I had my own groups is because my dad would always do his own thing.  He said, “If you work for yourself, you work harder, but you can get your message across.”

FJO:  That album of waltzes for children was very important in your career. And the title track from that, “Little Niles,” became one of your most famous compositions.

RW:  Exactly.  Duke and Monk, and the other composers too, wrote music for their families.  Duke would write music about his mother, about his father, about his grandfather.  Monk would do the same thing.  That was our tradition.

FJO:  And Duke and Monk—and you, as well—were also part of the tradition of pianist-composers.  When people now think about the 1950s, they say Thelonious Monk, but there was also Elmo Hope.

RW:  Herbie Nichols.

FJO:  Exactly.  I was thinking about Herbie Nichols when I was thinking about your early recording career. He only ever got to record in a piano trio setting—piano with bass and drums.  But he always wanted to record with a mixed quintet, and it never happened.  The record labels never let him do that.

RW:  Wow.

FJO:  And then he died so young.  It’s interesting to compare that with the chronology of your recordings. That first album of Cole Porter tunes is just you and a bass player, Sam Gill, so it’s a duo. Your next two albums were trio sessions, but the album after that was a quartet with Cecil Payne. Then you recorded a mixed quintet session, and after that you began recording with larger ensembles, which is when Melba Liston entered the scene as your arranger. Talk about somebody else who never really got proper recognition; there was only one album released under her name in her lifetime. And even when she appeared on other people’s albums, she rarely took a solo.

RW:  I had to fight her to take a solo on our first recording.  She was just a humble person.  She was just like that.  First of all, I had never heard a woman play trombone before.

I must confess when I heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy and Monk, I didn’t understand what they were doing.  What kind of music is this?  I didn’t understand it.  It happened right after the Second World War when everything changed.  I started working these clubs in New York.  I would play Birdland every now and then with a trio.  And Dizzy brought the big band.  He brought that band that had Lee Morgan, Benny Golson, Charlie Persip, and Melba Liston—all the heavy young players playing this incredible music that they called bebop.  So he featured her.  He said, “I want you all to listen to an arrangement of ‘My Reverie’ featuring Melba Liston on trombone.”  She had this big sound on trombone, and she did the arrangement.  And the arrangement was so beautiful. When she came off the stage, I just had to introduce myself to her.  I said, “You don’t know me, but it was like magic.  Like we were supposed to meet.”  Then she moved from California to New York, and she got to know Mary Lou Williams—I knew Mary Lou, the giant; another queen, right?—because the two of them lived in Harlem. So somehow when I had a chance to do this recording for United Artists, my first recording for them, I wanted to do several waltzes for children, and I asked Melba if she would do the arrangements.

All Melba Liston wanted to do was to play and write music.  She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman.  But when she was working on music, she’d have the girls go and buy her a dress, or buy her a pair of shoes.  She didn’t want to be bothered.  She didn’t want to be glamorous. I used to bring her a coffee to keep her awake when she was writing arrangements for Quincy Jones.  [And we worked together] from that point on, until she died. What a great, great, great arranger.

FJO:  Now, it’s extraordinary how successfully your music and her arrangements melded, but that doesn’t always happen. Many people did their own arrangements for that reason. Duke Ellington did his own arrangements until Billy Strayhorn came into his life and then they created things together, which were also extraordinary. To turn that work over to somebody else, there has to be a level of trust.  I’m jumping decades ahead now to your Blue Moses record. You thought it was going to turn out one way, and then you heard the record they released and it wasn’t at all what you thought you had recorded.

RW:  Well, that was in the electric piano days.  In the early ‘70s, if you wanted to make a gig, you’d better have a Fender Rhodes.  Don’t look for no piano.  Melba did the original arrangements of Blue Moses.  We were still living in Tangier, so my son and I came from Tangier to do the recording, but when I got there, Creed Taylor said his formula is electric piano.  I was not happy with that, but it was my only hit record. People loved it. [The arranger] Don Sebesky did an incredible job.  Because what had happened was we went back to Morocco, so I didn’t hear the music until it came from New York to Tangier.  Me and my son listened to it, and he said, “Is that us?”  But Don Sebesky did a fantastic job to capture all those colors of Blue Moses.

FJO:  So you were ultimately okay with all those extra layers that he added to it?

RW: Everybody’s okay with that.  And I can’t resist. I just don’t like electric piano.  But everybody says, “Man, you were fantastic on electric piano.”  So many people.  And I loved the musicians—Freddie Hubbard and Grover Washington and Hubert Laws, Airto, and my son.  Everybody played beautifully.  I just was not happy with my sound, but that was required.  That was Creed’s concept, and it was a good concept.  It was a good concept because it became a hit record for me.

FJO:  And because it was a hit record, it actually got you out of debt for the music festival you organized in Morocco.

RW:  Exactly.

FJO:  It’s fascinating to hear that you’re okay with it even though it wasn’t what you thought it would be.  As you had said, you never have a finished idea. It’s always going to get reshaped in some sort of fashion when you work with other people. But you still have some kind of control over it when you’re actually there.  Or maybe you don’t.

RW:  Absolutely, because it was the story of my life in Morocco.  That’s a very, very personal experience—also for my son, because we lived there.  We lived with the people.  We traveled.  We hung out with the traditional people.  You know, we’d get together, we would read the Koran together, my son and I.  We would play chess together. He listened to the Gnawan musicians and started playing rhythms that I didn’t know he knew.  That’s what Blue Moses is all about.  I was in this small French car with my son, Ed Blackwell, and the bass player Bill Wood, and we drove from Tangier all the way to the Sahara. I’m driving.  The car’s so small that the wheel is between my legs, but I just loved adventure, I guess, at that time.  So we go to this village up in the Rif Mountains, and we see snow.  So I said, “Wow, I didn’t know there was snow in Morocco.”  I saw the people skiing, so I said, “I got to put music to that.” Then through the Rif Mountains and you go down to the Sahara.

FJO:  I think Morocco has the most extremely different kinds of terrain for that small a geographical area.

RW:  It’s true.  The music, the art, the clothing, the instruments—oh man, Morocco, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow.  I used to go to the festival in Marrakesh. Once a year, they’d have people coming from everywhere.  Cats playing music on camels, on horseback, all kind of drums, dance music, it’s wonderful.  And I just say wow.  See, I love traditional music with a passion, because that’s where you get the soul and the spirit of the people.

Various musical instruments and other objects from Africa

FJO:  But how to reconcile that with the piano? The piano is this creation of the industrial revolution. It’s a machine, to some extent.  And there are all these stories about your tours in Africa and how difficult it was to get a piano for you in a lot of places.

RW:  Or they had an electric piano, and I would break it up.

FJO:  Well, some of them weren’t in very good shape to begin with.  But it’s still interesting given what you say about traditional music that you can create something that’s so personal with something that’s a machine—not an electric machine the way we think of machines today, but the product of industrialization to some extent.

RW:  Well, I go back to before it was a piano.  You’ve got wood.  You’ve got metal.  When the piano was created in Italy, they didn’t know what to do with the keys of the piano, so the keys of the piano were wood.  After that, the ivory on the elephant was what they used before the plastic and whatnot.  So when I go to the piano, I approach it as an African instrument.  It just traveled north and some other things were done to it.  And inside it is a harp, an African harp.  So you took that harp and you laid it down, and you put the hammers and whatnot in it. That’s why I was saying the origin of things is so important for me. So when I go to the piano, spiritually, it becomes an African instrument.  Because I’m going all the way back to the beginning when I touch that piano. The Moors brought their music up through Spain, so it was coming from Africa, you know.

“When I go to the piano, I approach it as an African instrument.”

It’s like I was telling you about Monk and Duke, and how they take that piano.  I used to love the sound of Count Basie and that piano.  Oh my God.  He’d just hit a few notes, but his sound, only Basie could get that kind of sound.  Nat Cole.  Another one.  He’s playing a piano, singing, I mean, looking at the piano, but the sound Nat King Cole got on the piano.  That’s why my latest recording, a double CD, is called Sound.  Why did I love Coleman Hawkins so much? It was his sound.  Why did I love Louis Armstrong so much? His sound.  Louis only had to hit one note and I say, “Wow!” That goes back to ancient times, because in the ancient days, when they started making instruments out of Mother Nature, out of the wood, out of the fish, out of the camel, a horse, whatever instruments, you know, they had to say certain prayers before they did the ceremony to make that drum, or that banjo, or whatever, because that is Mother Nature.

Sure, I grew up in New York, and I heard the best of us here, but where did Louis Armstrong come from?  Who was his great-great-grandmother?  What part of Africa did he come from to produce that kind of sound on the trumpet?  That never happened before.  And going all the way back, how would they tune the instruments?  They would tune the instruments by the sound of Mother Nature.  By the sound of the animals, by the sound of the birds, by the sound of thunder.  That’s how they would tune their instruments.  And that’s why the music of Africa is so diverse because it’s the most diverse place in the world.

And wherever you find African people, I don’t care whether it’s in Fiji—I discovered them in Fiji—whether it’s Brazil, Guadeloupe, Mississippi, Congo. Duke said there’s that pulse in the music.  It’s that pulse.  You can call it rock and roll. You can call it hip hop. You can call it jazz. Many titles.  But for me, it’s Mother Africa’s way of survival because without those early spirituals and blues, we would never have survived slavery.  Even after slavery was abolished, even when we supposedly got our freedom, we had to go over the world, which we had never been in touch with before because we were on plantations.  And from that, they create this music.  Man, I don’t know how they did it.

A poster for a 1985 African Music Festival

FJO:  Hearing you say all this reminds me of another comment you’ve made many times over the years, that there’s no old music.  But, by the same token, that might mean there’s also no new music.  Is that true?

RW:  You know, it’s not fixed, because music is free.  Musicians are free.  I could never speak for another musician, because music is invisible.  It’s the king of the arts.  But when I play with Gnawan musicians, they play the same songs all the time.  Now for Western ears that might seem boring, because you want to have something they call new.  So I wondered about that. But when they play the traditional music, they’re telling a story of their people.  They had given you the spirit of their people.  The way they cook their food.  The way they dance.  The way they dress.

Ellington, Armstrong, Eubie Blake, all those people created music for their African-American community.  You couldn’t just play music like today.  You had to report to the African-American community.  So all those great artists were not just able to play well.  They played in hospitals, prisons, old folks homes, raised money for a school and whatnot.  That was required. In African traditional society, that’s what a musician is.  Not just, “You’re so great.” That’s only a part of it.  You have to serve the community.  You have to tell the stories of your father, your grandfather, and whatnot.  And teach people that they may not have had the education or the technology, but they had wisdom.

“You have to serve the community.”

We don’t listen to the old people today, but when we grew up, we hung out with the old people.  We’d never leave the old people.  I’d go to Eubie Blake’s house, man he told me stories.  I met Luckey Roberts, who wrote a song called “Lullaby of the Nile,” up at his place. He was writing music about Africa.  A lot of the churches in the South were called the African Methodist Church, the African Baptist Church and whatnot.  Those people stayed in touch with the ancestors.  That’s why they got so heavy with the black church.  So despite the fact there was slavery, despite the fact there’s racism, they always tried to communicate with the creator.  Because wherever you find African people, I don’t care where it is, they’re going to have a very powerful, spiritual music.  Because all of our people, we know that there’s a higher power.

FJO:  I’d like to talk to you a bit about the first large-scale piece of music that you created that is African inspired, and that’s Uhuru Afrika. How that recording finally came about is pretty interesting.  You wanted to record it for United Artists, but they said they’d consider it after you made a jazz version of tunes from a Broadway show.

RW: I got to pick the show, but I had to do a Broadway show.

FJO:  And you picked Destry Rides Again.

RW:  Yes, I did.

FJO:  Did you go see it on Broadway?

RW:  Yes, and I met Harold Rome.  It was great.  He was an important composer.  Like I said, I had the experience in the Berkshires. The Berkshires made me check out all kinds of music.

FJO:  And of course that was also where you met Leonard Bernstein, who had one foot in classical music but the other foot was on Broadway.

RW:  Exactly.

FJO:  Harold Rome, though, had a career that was almost completely on Broadway. So what was it about his show that spoke to you?

RW:  Somehow I chose that one.  I don’t remember what the other shows were, but I picked Destry Rides Again.  It’s a cowboy show.  It was my cowboy roots.  (laughs)

FJO:  It only ran for a year and is sadly kind of a forgotten show at this point.  But it’s pretty interesting.  I have the cast album.

RW:  Really.

FJO:  It’s actually fascinating to compare it with your version of it.  I love how the four trombones interact with the piano on it, but it’s a far cry from the record that you wanted to make, which was Uhuru Afrika.

RW:  Of course.

FJO:  And even after you went ahead and recorded a jazz version of Destry Rides Again, United Artists still wouldn’t let you do Uhuru Afrika.

“We knew until Africa gets its independence, we were not going to get our independence because that’s our ancestral home.”

RW:  No, I did it with Roulette Records. I was very fortunate. There was a man named C.B. Atkins.  C.B. Atkins was the husband of Sarah Vaughan.  I don’t remember how we met, but he talked to Morris Levy, the head of Roulette Records, to let me do Uhuru Afrika.  [Atkins] was the key and that’s why I was able to put together that incredible orchestra.  We started right after the album of seven waltzes for children, me and Melba.  Melba was just like myself, in a sense.  She was a very proud African-American woman.  She had great pride in her people.  So we had that spiritual connection.  African cultures were just getting their independence.  And we knew until Africa gets its independence, we were not going to get our independence because that’s our ancestral home.  So I wanted to do a work of music to show—again the influence of the Berkshires—that we are global people.  And so, after spending time at the United Nations, talking to diplomats, going to see Langston Hughes, I got together with Melba a range of African people. We had an opera singer, Martha Flowers, a great soprano; we wanted her to represent African culture and European classical music.  We had Brock Peters; he was a folk singer and a Broadway guy.  Then we had Olatunji from Nigeria, Candido and Armando Peraza from Cuba.  We had Charlie Persip on drums.  We had Ron Carter and George Duvivier on bass.  And we had Max Roach on marimba.

FJO:  And you also had Gigi Gryce on what was probably his very last recording.

RW:  Exactly.  Yusef Lateef, Gigi Gryce, Bud Johnson, Kenny Burrell, Les Spann, Freddie Hubbard, Clark Terry, Reggie Reeves, Slide Hampton, Jimmy Cleveland, Quentin Jackson—it was something.  And Melba did all the arrangements.  It was delayed because I went to Langston Hughes, again who I met in the Berkshires. He was such a wonderful man.  He was an African-American writer who knew the importance of the music.  A lot of our writers have gotten away from the music.  Not Langston.  He wrote the first book of jazz for children.

That was a time when African countries wanted their independence, and the European powers at that time said, “No, you’re not ready for independence yet.” And Africa was saying, “Let us make our own mistakes; we want our freedom.”  So I went to Langston and I talked with him and said, “Can you give me a poem of Freedom for Africa?”  And I also wanted to celebrate the African woman—my mother, my sister, those women up until today, including my wife, who are always in the background and who struggle for us and take care of us but never get the credit, which included Melba Liston.  So he did. I wanted to use an African language, because when I was a child, I was very embarrassed, what you would see in the cinema for African people—always slaves, Tarzan, all that stuff.  We’re brainwashing these kids.  The whole idea was Africa had no language.

But the whole concept of language came from Africa!  So I went to the United Nations, and I talked to a lot of diplomats.  I wanted to use an African language.  They said use Kiswahili.  So I got a guy from Tanzania to translate Langston Hughes’s Freedom Poem from English to Kiswahili. Melba was writing out the music. We had to record two days in a row, starting at nine o’clock in the morning.  Musicians!  Nobody was late!  It was so spiritual.  And Melba was still writing parts.  We had musicians in my apartment writing parts on the ceiling, on the walls.  But we did it.  It was a very powerful message.

FJO:  It was so powerful that it wound up getting banned in certain places. It has the same impact as Max Roach’s We Insist: Freedom Now Suite, which was recorded that same year.

RW:  Oh, absolutely.

A poster for a concert benefit entitled Action for South Africa at the Belmont Plaza Hotel on May 22, 1961 which featured performances by Randy Weston, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and Miriam Makeba (who is pictured on it).

FJO:  But curiously, you did all of this before you ever set foot in Africa, and it was probably what led to your being invited and traveling to Africa for the first time.

RW: I wasn’t supposed to go originally.  I think Phineas Newborn was supposed to go.  I think Benny Taylor was supposed to go.  But something happened, and a friend of mine worked for the American Society of African Culture in Manhattan.  This woman knew I had recorded music about Africa, so she came and took my LPs, talked to the head guy, and said, “You’ve got to take Randy Weston.  He must go.”  So that’s how it happened.

FJO:  And it changed your life.

RW:  Yes it did.

FJO:  You had all of these ideas about Africa, but as you’ve also said, there’s a difference between music that’s about Africa and music that is Africa.  When you visited Africa, you finally saw the multiplicity of what those cultures represent.  It’s not monolithic, even within each nation state.

RW: You could spend years in Morocco.

FJO:  Or in Senegal or Ghana.

RW:  Or in Nigeria.

FJO:  All of these places.

RW:  There are something like 2,000 languages.

FJO:  And all of these different cultures co-exist together.

RW:  And that explains us.  We had a mix, and those rhythms all come together.  It’s tragic what happened to us, but look at the beauty we’ve given to Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Florida, and Mississippi with this music.  So it was almost like it was meant to be.  Terrible, but it seemed like it was just meant to be.

FJO:  That’s quite a perspective to have on all of this history.  And it calls to mind a work of yours from just a few years ago that is perhaps your magnum opus, the African Nubian Suite. Your Uhuru Afrika, which you created more than fifty years earlier, foreshadows it in some ways, but I think that it was only possible for you to create something as expansive and all-encompassing as the African Nubian Suite after having traveled all over Africa and having completely absorbed what you experienced there and realizing that  Africa spirals beyond Africa.  It even includes China, so you include Chinese musical elements in it.  You included the whole world.

“We all have African blood—every person on the planet Earth.”

RW:  You know, we all have African blood—every person on the planet Earth.  And when you tell that story, that’s what Duke was doing.  My god, Ellington’s Black, Brown, and Beige!  And he also wrote music for the Queen of England, but you could hear the blues underneath.  And people like Luckey Roberts, Eubie Blake, and all those early people, that’s what they were doing.  They were telling the story of the beauty of Africa.  But then what happened was integration. It did several things, which are very good.  We could go places we couldn’t go before.  But at the same time, our culture disappeared.  It’s not like it was before.

FJO:  In the last half-century, music has changed to the point that there no longer are any clear demarcations. It’s great that there are no longer these demarcations, but there is also no longer a universally acknowledged popular music in this country or perhaps anywhere in the world.  In the 1950s, Broadway shows were the incubator of mainstream popular music, which is why United Artists wanted you to record the score of a Broadway show. I doubt a record label would ask you to do an album of a Broadway show now.  These days there are pockets of fans that like a certain thing, or like something else.  For better or worse, there is no mainstream.  In a way, we’ve all come closer together, which is good, but we’ve also kind of broken further apart, which is not good.  So what can we do?

RW:  Do what we do.  Realize there’s a higher power.  Study the history of this planet.  Wherever I go, I tell people—students, grandmas, you know—I’m so happy now because when I play, all the races come to me holding their hearts.  They say, “You’re taking us back home.”  I say, “We all are from there.”  We have to stop to realize: No Africa? No jazz, no blues, no bossa nova, no calypso, no reggae!  These are creations of African people. Where did Art Tatum come from?  I’m more amazed with Monk and Coleman Hawkins today than I was yesterday.  How could they take these European instruments, and do what they did and get their own sound?

So I think that Africa will survive.  African spirituality will survive, despite the fact we don’t exist on television anymore.  I’ve never seen it so bad in my life.  During segregation, you could go to the movies and see a Bessie Smith short.  You could see a short on Cab Calloway.  You could see something on Billie Holiday.  Now today, it’s tragic because this music is the classical music of the United States of America.  I don’t use the term jazz; I use the term African-American classical music.  There is classical music in all societies. I don’t care how many Beatles you’ve got or how many how many Rolling Stones you’ve got, you’re going to have opera and you’re going to have Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.  That has to exist, because that is the song and the spirit of people of Europe.  It’s very important, and there they always make that balance.  But us here, we’ve become so sophisticated.  We’ve got to do the latest thing.  We’ve got to do the fastest thing.  So what happened before us is no, no, no.  My father said to me, “Africa is the past, the present, and the future.”  Despite all the corruption and all the stuff that’s going on and whatnot, to me that spirituality and consciousness may help save this world.  I feel that.  And there’s no better example than the music.  So you call it calypso, jazz, or whatever you call this music. When you hear this music, it makes you feel, and when it’s right, it makes you feel good.  It makes you feel happy.  It makes you feel good to be a human being.

So when I’m on the stage and I play, I look at that audience and I see all the colors of the rainbow.  And when they’re all clapping the same rhythm, when they‘re happy, I say, “Wow, music is powerful.”  Because when we play this music, when it goes out, we don’t know what happens.  Each person in that audience takes their own trip.  So when you go up on that stage and get everybody to come together like that, sitting next to each other—if they knew who you were, they wouldn’t sit next to you, but music has that power.  And I think it’s the music that has to save us in the world today.

“I think it’s the music that has to save us in the world today.”

It’s so sad that America cannot recognize its own classical music.  Every child should have Louis Armstrong in the elementary school books.  Every child should know about Duke Ellington, America’s greatest composer.  Everybody should know about Charlie Parker, and Dizzy, and Nat Cole—all these people!  The African people of this country influenced the entire world.  On my first trip to Japan, when I get to Japan, here’s Max Roach on a throne.  The way they love Max Roach, man, I was so proud.  But that’s why they say we are the ambassadors; it’s true.  But the recognition is very difficult, to recognize Africa’s contribution to the Western hemisphere.

FJO:  You’re actually flying out on Sunday to play in Europe.  Do you feel that you have more recognition there than you do here?

RW:  Not necessarily.  But the difference is Europeans made the instruments.  They made the saxophone, the trumpet, and trombone, so they know what we do with them is completely original.

FJO:  Or maybe, it’s because as you were saying before, you can’t learn about this music here if you just watch television and that’s where you get your information. The internet has all this stuff, but you have to know it exists first before you can find out more about it.

RW:  Go back to books.  Every day I read.  The truth is in the books—the right books.  When I go to students, I give them books.  I say, “You will know the history of Africa.  You will know the history of music.” The books are here.  We have the technology.  Everything is here.  You’ll see that Western society came out of nowhere.  Western society came out of Africa and came out of Asia.  It became corrupt in the process, because they don’t give the recognition to the people who created this art.

One of Randy Weston's bookshelves

I’m so happy because they used my music for a DVD about this great Senegalese master Chiekh Anta Diop. He proved scientifically that ancient Egyptians had to be a jet black people, because Mother Nature is a true artist.  If there was serious hot weather, you needed black skin.  For cold weather, you need white skin.  She was the artist, just like she paints her fish and the insects. But we got away from that.  So the message of this thing is so beautiful because he’s explaining it for us to stop and think about the origin of this planet and the origin of Western civilization.  Western civilization corrupted the civilization of the older people.  Everything in Africa is based upon spirituality.  They’re in touch with the universe.  They know the original music comes from the planets and the stars.  They know the original music comes from Mother Nature.  That’s why African music is so powerful, because the continent itself was swinging before man ever arrived. Everything: elephants, the snakes, all of Mother Nature in Africa, they all swing.  Whether it’s a camel, whether it’s an ostrich, whether it’s a bird, they all swing because Mother Nature requires that.  And the same is true with the musicians.  So whether I’m in Morocco, whether I’m in South Africa, whether I’m in Senegal, all the music, all the dance, it’s gotta have that pulse.  I don’t care what the rhythms are, you’ve got to have that.

FJO: So what happens when you create music that gets away from it?

RW:  People get lost.  They don’t know value.  They don’t understand.  If everybody knew the power of jazz, what they call jazz music, or spiritual music, the ways it impacts this planet, coming from people who were taken here in slavery, African people would be honored.  I respect it and am thankful for the contributions.  I never met my grandfather or my grandmother, but I read about their generation and what they had to go through.  They couldn’t stay in hotels.  They couldn’t ride on buses.  Their color was no good.  How did they survive that?  With humor.  With music.  With love.  It’s incredible.

I’m so fortunate now because wherever we go now, the musicians with whom I work, I feel that we give the spirit of Africa in our music.  I describe it as spirit—living with the people, loving the people, reading about the people, eating the foods and drink. What I’m doing now is because of years of love.  Love of my parents.  Love of my people.  Love of life.  Love of humanity.  And love of this beautiful planet.

Randy Weston sitting on his couch om front of many framed posters from performances, awards, etc.

Daria Semegen: So Many Awareness Pixels Going On at the Same Time

Featuring video presentations and photography (unless otherwise noted)
by Molly Sheridan
Conversation transcribed by Julia Lu

Back in the fall of 2000, a 1976 LP with the curious title Electronic Music Winners got something of a second life when it was revealed that Radiohead had sampled two of the tracks from it in the song “Idioteque” from their then just-released album Kid A—specifically Arthur Krieger’s Short Piece and Paul Lansky’s earliest computer composition mild und leise, both of which were on the album’s second side. The story goes that Jonny Greenwood found the LP in a used record bin while on tour in the United States. While the news sent folks scrambling around to look for the then long out of print record (which now can still fetch a fair sum on sites like eBay and Discogs, presumably because of the Radiohead connection), it actually got me to buy Kid A (and soon thereafter everything else in Radiohead’s discography) because I was a big fan of that Electronic Music Winners LP, having bought my copy for a dollar at a Salvation Army store when I was in high school.  But it also made me wonder what might have happened had Greenwood sampled material from the album’s first side, specifically a piece with a rather formalistic name, Electronic Composition No. 1, by Daria Semegen, which had always been my favorite track on it. That piece, along with a longer electronic piece called Arc, which I had fallen in love with when I listened to it on LP at the Columbia University music library as an undergrad, had long been the only music I had ever heard by Daria Semegen, but I always wanted to hear more.

Then about a little over a month ago, I attended the BMI Student Composer Awards ceremony and reception. It’s always a great evening, not just because it’s an opportunity to meet all the new awardees, but also because, from time to time, people who have won the award in previous years show up to honor their new award compatriots. When BMI Foundation President Deirdre Chadwick announced from the podium that one of the previous winners in attendance that evening was Daria Semegen, my jaw dropped. Semegen, it turns out, won the award twice, in 1967 and 1969, for compositions that had nothing to do with electronic music—a duo for flute and piano and two song cycles (for soprano and baritone respectively, both scored for large chamber ensembles). So as soon as the ceremony ended, I rushed up to Semegen, whom I had never previously met, and told her what a fan I was of those two electronic pieces. And she said, “Well, if you ever want to see a real electronic music studio, come out and visit me at Stony Brook University.” She went on to describe some of the vintage synthesizers and oscillators there, as well as the splicing stations for reel-to-reel tapes, and I was transfixed.

Frustratingly, there isn’t a ton of detailed information about Daria Semegen either online or off-line. There has never been a commercially released recording (on LP or CD) devoted exclusively to her music, and the handful of pieces by her that appear on compilations are now mostly out of print. She doesn’t have her own website, and the page about her on Wikipedia is somewhat scant, as is the entry in the 1980 Grove Dictionary of American Music. But she does figure prominently in Women Composers and Music Technology in the United States: Crossing the Line (Routledge 2006) by Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner (whose 1991 D.M.A. dissertation for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was devoted to Semegen’s output), although not in most of the standard musicological literature on electronic music. And scores for nine of Semegen’s acoustic compositions—solo piano pieces as well as works for chamber ensembles (including the pieces for which she received her two BMI Student Composer Awards)—are available through the American Composers Alliance (who proved extremely helpful to me in preparing my talk with her). Other than that, there’s a short biography of her on the website for Stony Brook University, where she has taught since 1974.

But I got the sense after spending a fascinating afternoon chatting with her that the typical goalposts by which so many careerist composers measure their success do not really matter to her.  “Basically I share, but that is not my main drive,” she quipped toward the end of our talk.  “I don’t sit around and think about, “Hey, I’m going to be sharing this.” You listen to Electronic Composition No. 1¸ and that gets pretty bizarre.  When I was making some of those sounds, I would say, “Whoa, this is really kicking it around here.  Gee, I wonder how an audience would react?”  But then I’d basically let them worry about it.  I’m not going to tell them what to do or how to react.  That’s not my job!”

I do, however, feel that part of my job in life is to call attention to people who have created extraordinary music and have insightful things to say about it, and Daria Semegen is certainly one of them. I wish we could have continued talking for several hours, and I look forward to revisiting her studio one of these days and learning more. But in the meantime, there’s a lot of information to process here.


Daria Semegen in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
In the Electronic Music Studio at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York
June 14, 2018 at 1:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Frank J. Oteri: I think you were five or six years old when you immigrated to the United States. Do you have any early memories from before you arrived here?

Daria Semegen:  Oh yeah, definitely.  I remember riding on a baby elephant at a zoo.  For me it was a really out-of-this-world experience, so I’ll never forget that.  I also remember running on a low wall and then falling on the right side of my face.  That’s something to remember, childhood accidents.  And then other traumas—my dad committed suicide in the refugee camp we were in. He was sick. He had appendicitis and peritonitis. They did not have enough antibiotics in those days, and so he possibly had an infection in the brain.  So that happened and that was a very bizarre experience because I also experienced the different way people were behaving, as well as different ways of dressing—the whole ceremonial thing with funerals.  Then for a year, I was wearing a black band on my left arm signifying a death.

FJO:  I know there are people who wear all black for a period of time after a death of someone significant in their lives, but I had never heard of wearing just a band.

DS:  It isn’t done these days, but I wore the band. I also generally had dark clothes.  I choose to wear dark clothes now for a variety of reasons, one of them being that I see the world outside myself as where I want to see colorful things.  It would be too much if I had to deal with managing a colorist wardrobe. I also relate in a different way to colors such as black and white. I even tell my students that one technique to understand something is to push away a lot of other things from one’s consciousness.  I go into a mode automatically that I taught myself, especially when I want to appreciate sonic things, any kind of sounds, which is really like starting from a blank sheet of paper.  So it’s a very important technique, especially when re-hearing sounds and appreciating them—meaning understanding them and feeling them intuitively or technically, depending on what purpose you set out to approach these sounds.  I do it as tabula rasa, which means an erased blackboard, a blank sheet of paper.  It’s a wonderful mode to be able to snap into without having other things crowding you. Your judgment can be fresher and you can really enjoy that experience or not, depending on what is going on with these sounds.  You can have a more authentic experience rather than being influenced all the time by everything, because we’re constantly being assaulted by so many other things going on.

“I think our audio and visual world, as well as our reactions to it, are coming from defense mechanisms.”

If you’re someone who’s sensitive in different ways, you will have so many awareness pixels going on at the same time that you have to manage the situation in order to have a really authentic, focused awareness of whatever you’re dealing with as an artist.  I think our audio and visual world, as well as our reactions to it, are coming from defense mechanisms.  Say I’m walking in the woods and I become more alert.  It’s because it’s unfamiliar; it’s really a kind of experimental environment if I don’t know this place or have any particular set expectations. The alertness is there in terms of the appreciation of different things.  Beauty and danger is this type of alertness that is there when I’m dealing with appreciating—meaning really experiencing and trying to understand—visual and audio art.

FJO:  It’s amazing how you arrived at such a deeply conceptualized approach to creating and experiencing other people’s creations all from telling the story of wearing a black arm band after your father died and then deciding to wear dark clothes throughout your life. That experience was clearly very significant for you.

DS:  That was just one landmark event.  I also have the experience of being someone who could not speak the language of the country I was in because in the home, we were speaking a different language.  Out there was either West Germany or America, these two different places.  So I had to observe, I had to listen and watch, in order to understand what was going on.  When I first went to an American school, I could not speak English. It’s a very different experience, and it involves listening and learning, especially kids being very curious about their world, their situation, and people’s expressions, their tone of voice, all of these things.  I would watch and listen much more than verbally communicate.

Daria Semegen in her electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

Daria Semegen in her electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

FJO:  So what language did you grow up speaking at home?

DS:  I would speak Ukrainian.  I also can manage different Slavic languages, because it’s really a family of languages. During my Fulbright scholar year, I went to Poland specifically to be with Lutosławski, whose music I had heard at orchestral concerts as an undergrad at the Eastman School of Music.  We had Rochester Philharmonic performances, so I had heard his Trois Poèmes d’Henri Michaux and also Jeux Vénitiens and I was totally blown away with the sound, the complexity, and the expression, the nuances, and the subtleties; this is without having seen any of the scores.  Anyway, when I applied for a Fulbright, I actually passed Czechoslovakian language.  I had to be language approved and at the University of Rochester, they only had a Czechoslovak scholar, so I had to speak and read in that language that I had never read before, but later I had to really learn Polish.

FJO:  They had Czech, but they didn’t have Ukrainian or Russian?

DS:  Well, maybe they had Russian, but the person they had was a professor of Slavic languages.

FJO:  But of course, we’re jumping way ahead in your life story, so let’s go back to your speaking Ukrainian at home growing up. Aside from what you were saying about that language sounding totally different than the German and English you were exposed to in the outside world, it also looks different since Ukrainian doesn’t use the same alphabet.

DS:  Of course not.  It’s Cyrillic.

FJO:  So you had a double whammy. In addition to not being able to understand the language, you couldn’t even read the letters to get a sense of how it sounded.

DS:  That’s right.

FJO:  Perhaps in some way this made you susceptible to being more open to and empathic towards completely new ways to experience sound.

“We are every day and every moment, a different listener and a different viewer.”

DS:  Empathic, to me, means becoming more connected, and appreciating, to me, means understanding more in different situations and at different times, because we are every day and every moment, a different listener and a different viewer, a different observer.  So I never have a fixed idea of things being only a particular way.  They could be a little bit different the next time I experience them.  And I’m not upset by that fact.  I’m intrigued by the fact that these things can be different and varied. There is an interesting variance when I re-appreciate different art objects, for instance such as paintings or videos.  They’re all different, unique experiences within the general aspect of supposedly knowing these things.

FJO:  Of course with a painting or a video, although your perception of it will vary each time you experience it, the work is an unchanging set object.

DS:  That’s correct.

FJO:  But with music, you have this extra layer. If it’s a performed piece of music, a piece of music that is interpreted by musicians other than yourself (and even if it’s yourself), it’s never going to be exactly the same twice.  Of course, that becomes a different issue in fixed media electronic music, and navigating between these two realms has been a duality in your creative life.  If you’re writing pieces for musicians who are going interpret it, maybe they’re going to hold a note a little longer, play it a little faster, put some sort of element of themselves in it. This is very different from something that exists in an invariable form.  Yet, as you point out, perception will always be different when you come back to it.

DS:  Yes, it is.  I don’t place particularly one value or another on fixed media or performed works.  I think these are different experiences in terms of how they’re being thought about, conceived, and what they are as finished products.  Fixed media to me is really having the opportunity to get things the way you’d like them without compromising, which is what I usually end up having to do if I’m dealing with live performance.

But in my pieces with instruments and electronic sounds, I don’t want the electronic sounds to sound like an accompaniment to a live instrument.  That’s just doesn’t work for me.  I tend to compose the electronic part as a piece almost on its own.  And I like to have the instrumentalists, if possible, improvise, so their creativity is involved with the fixed media.  It’s a kind of response and also a combination of complement and contrast to different degrees as the player chooses to interpret.

FJO:  It’s also really highlighting the fixed and non-fixed natures of these two different realms. The piece involves fixed media which, by its nature, always stays the same, but the player brings something new to it each time.

DS:  Exactly.

FJO:  To bring this conversation back to your childhood for just a little while longer, I’m curious about your earliest musical memory.

DS:  One memory I have is my reaction to very early piano lessons when I was seven or eight.

FJO:  But you were already in the States by then.

DS:  Yes.

A vintage patch cord analog synthesizer at Daria Semegen's electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

It seems like a great distance from Daria Semegen’s earliest music training, piano lessons, to this vintage patch cord analog synthesizer in her electronic music studio at Stony Brook University. But after learning about her earliest sonic memory, it all makes sense.

FJO:  Do you have any music related memories from before you came to America.

DS:  Well, I know that people sang.  I usually would be around adults having meetings because my father was involved in journalism.  He was a lawyer originally, and also he taught school as my mother did.  But we were in a refugee camp.  We lived in three or four of these places, being moved to different ones.  So that was an interesting disruption and interruption, and meant traveling around.  I thought that this was a normal way of being, and it was interesting for me.  Perhaps adult refugee people would be miserable, but I think for kids, this was a very interesting oddball experience.

I remember one particular thing—a guy moving a ladder around, and the sounds that that made.  What he was doing was improvising electrical wiring connections between different living spaces, made up rooms whose walls were Army blankets.  You’d have a large hall in a building, which had these separate dwelling places, whose walls were blankets.  And this guy was making some kind of shielding.  Later on I figured out what he was doing, but it was fascinating to me. I guess he was connecting light bulbs with each other.  Suddenly these lights went on.  I thought it was fantastic.  It was really fun to see that, and see how somebody can make something like this as really an improv.  Of course, when you’re a kid, you don’t know what that is, or what steps it takes, but this thing is happening, and later on, I understood better what was going on.  And I remembered the interesting noise-scraping sounds on the floor with this ladder.  He would move it along several times.  I was totally fascinated with this odd experience.

FJO:  I love that this earliest musical memory is of something really experimental and unusual. And one could claim that it pre-destined you for a life devoted to exploring sonic phenomena.

DS:  Well, that’s called interpretation.

FJO:  Of course, but those kinds of early memories are the things that stick and have a lasting impact.  It’s like the famous story of La Monte Young listening, fascinated, to the drones that were created by the electrical power transformers in Idaho as a little boy, which eventually left an indelible mark on all of his music.

DS:  There’s a wonderful scene in a Satyajit Ray movie with electrical wires humming on these electronic grids in the middle of vast fields with a train that’s coming in the distance, and then you hear the sound, and it’s kind of a Doppler effect. The Doppler effect is also in the Pierre Schaeffer piece, the train piece.

FJO:  One of the earliest examples of musique concrète.

DS:  Yes.

FJO:  Which was actually created right around the time you were born, entering into an existence when that way of making music became a possibility.

DS:  Mhmm.

A reel-to-reel containing recordings of several classic 1950s tape music compositions by Luciano Berio, Henri Pousseur, and Bruno Maderna is one of the treasures on display in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

A reel-to-reel containing recordings of several classic 1950s tape music compositions by Luciano Berio, Henri Pousseur, and Bruno Maderna is one of the treasures on display in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

FJO:  But of course at that time you wouldn’t have known about any of that. And soon after that, you left Europe and came to the United States where you mentioned something about piano lessons when you were seven or eight.

DS:  Oh, that was very interesting to me.  My mother decided to get a piano as basically a piece of furniture, because this was in vogue—everyone should have a piano and a kid who’s practicing or can play tunes.  So I was taking piano lessons. It was particularly convenient for me because we were living on the third floor of an apartment building and the piano teacher was on the first floor.  So I merely had to slide a banister a couple of times to get to my piano lessons.

“My piano teacher wasn’t always thrilled when I’d come in with a little sketch of something.”

As a child, you’re learning the different note names, coordinating with your body positions, and learning what’s called technique.  But I found out that music had something to do with paper.  It was like a drawing to me.  And so right away I wanted to try to this out. All this stuff started coming together, but I was always being drawn away from the idea of only focusing on the instrument itself and instead was really starting to focus on how these things looked.  So it was a visual experience, as well as connecting it with sounds.  The possibility of varying these things became very interesting to me.  So I would re-write some of these tunes that I was learning, and since this was taking up some of my time, my piano teacher wasn’t always thrilled when I’d come in with a little sketch of something, because that was not considered the goal of what I was supposed to be paying attention to as a piano student, which was practicing and perfecting, not necessarily varying something and being creative with it.

FJO:  So your teacher never remarked that maybe you’re a composer.

DS:  Oh, hell no.

FJO:  So when did the concept of being a composer enter your consciousness?

DS:  I gradually did these things on my own.  And after listening to recordings, I became interested in what this music looked like.  So I ordered some pocket scores so I could see the music notation.  I had a few different scores—Haydn symphonies, Mozart and Beethoven string quartets.  I decided to make a little project for myself.  I asked the music shop person to order me music paper so I could copy the scores, which were tiny, into a bigger size.  I don’t know why I did that.  I just wanted to be with this stuff as notation and to try to understand it in some way.  It was a kind of experiment, but I actually learned a hell of a lot from that in terms of how the material is organized, which instruments are playing when and why, and how this expression is being managed by the composer.  When I was a kid, I was not necessarily having all of these descriptions or vocabulary come to me right away, but I was getting intense impressions and non-verbalized insights that built a kind of intuitive base for appreciating, meaning knowing different things, and also comparing.

FJO:  And at some point, it morphed into composition.

DS:  Oh, this was going on all the time because I would be writing small pieces for piano and then I wrote a couple of string quartet movements.  These things were done on my own, including two orchestral movements.  Then, when I was a freshman in high school, I asked to study theory and so I began studying with a school music supervisor in my area who was also an Episcopal organist and a choir director, and he was the conductor of the civic symphony.  So they played these orchestral movements.  At one of their concerts, they played Respighi and a Beethoven symphony. I went to their rehearsals.  It was great for me to do that because I had listened to these pieces on recordings.  I was given a set of Toscanini Beethoven Symphonies with the NBC Symphony.  My stepfather was associated with a radio station.  He was given a Saturday show, a Ukrainian program on which I sometimes would recite poetry, by the way.  That’s another thing.  But this was interesting, going to rehearsals and learning the musical culture—what the etiquette is and how things are managed.  Observing is a fascinating experience for me.

A group of "benders" on top of a canister.

A group of “benders” on top of a canister in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University is one of the many personal “intuitive” quirks scattered around the space.

FJO:  It’s extraordinary that you had an experience hearing music you wrote for orchestra live so early in your life.

DS:  Very.

FJO:  It’s interesting to me because orchestral music doesn’t seem to have remained a focus for you as a composer, even though you had this early experience.

DS:  Well, it was.  Later on, as an undergrad at Eastman, I had written a three-movement, large orchestral piece called Triptych for Orchestra that had won an award. They had a symposium and that piece was played there.  I also have a piece for orchestra and baritone voice. I have different ensemble pieces, as well as instrumental music.  My first experiences were really with instruments.  They weren’t with electronics, except for a record player.  This came later, from my tendency to experiment and search for new things.  It’s basically curiosity, being inspired by certain things and asking a few questions—what can I do with this?  And how? I would not worry about everything being perfect right away.  It’s possible to not have certain kinds of boundaries, which makes it then possible to think and experience beyond the current stage of experiences that I’ve had.  And that was very interesting for me.

When I was a [college] sophomore, I think, because this was 1965, one of my upperclassmen was Bob Ludwig—the audio engineer who’s got a zillion Grammys by now.  He was given a couple of Ampex portable machines by, I think, his uncle.  He became interested in doing some kind of project, so he came to me and he said, “Hey, you have any ideas for what we can do with these machines?  I want to record et cetera, and try to learn how to edit.”  So I said, “Okay, let me get an idea.” I put together a kind of spatial notation piece for six instruments and then had the idea where these instruments would play and we would record.  So we recorded.  Then we would mess around with the tape, meaning editing.  We took splicings and changed the tape in different ways.  We’re talking really basic, non-studio work, really very experimental, approaching some kind of tape music.  We literally glued together the tape part, then had the instruments play live from the score with the tape parts.  The piece is called Six Plus.

FJO:  I’ve read about it.  I’ve never heard it, but I know of its existence.  When you did that, were you aware of Pierre Schaeffer and all the musique concrète pieces?

“I had never heard the words ‘electronic music.’ There were no courses in this thing. This was basically experimenting from scratch.”

DS:  No.  I had never heard the words “electronic music.”  There were no courses in this thing.  This was basically experimenting from scratch.  What happened after that is some students in town who were from the Rochester Institute of Technology, RIT, were in photography and other visual arts.  And by the way, the term visual arts didn’t exist.  These students had this big studio where they’re taking slides and sorting them.  And they were going to have a show with five projectors.  They explained to me what they had in mind.  They wanted a composer who would work on a sound score.  So I said okay. I didn’t think of it as writing the music from scratch.  I said, “What do you have here as sounds that you want me to work with?”  And they said, “Well, here’s a bunch of records.”  I made a soundtrack for them using tape, but it was really ad-libbing and trying things out, seeing what would happen, and basically learning how to organize and create an expression or expressions that would respond to and be compatible, or not, in different ways with what was going on in their visual expression.

FJO: I’ve looked at some of your earliest instrumental scores. There’s one that probably pre-dates this.  You have a series of pieces that you compiled in the 1960s, but I imagine they’re significantly earlier than that, the Five Early Pieces for solo piano.

DS:  I must have been a sophomore or a junior at Eastman.  They were written after I got bored with the kinds of student piano literature that existed. One of my friends, who was teaching at the Hochstein Music School in town, went away for a few weeks and said, “Will you take my piano students?” My instrument was piano, so I said okay. I went over there and decided that if I’m going to do this for a bunch of weeks, and they have this boring music to play as etudes, let me write my own stuff.  That’s where the Five Early Pieces come from.  So these were not virtuoso pieces.

FJO:  Sure.  But don’t be too dismissive of them. When Peter Schickele gave the keynote address at the Chamber Music America conference some years back, he lamented that so few composers exploring new compositional techniques wrote easier pieces for young players.

DS:  Oh yeah?

FJO:  Such pieces are really a way to introduce these techniques to musicians. And I think your pieces do that.  One of them is in septimal time, and the last one is actually a 12-tone piece.

DS:  That’s right. It’s a 12-tone piece for kids. And it’s actually not unpleasant to play it. It has lyricism in it as well.  I have another piece that I wrote, which is something like a 17-minute long movement for piano and violin, called Music for Violin and Piano.  And I used a few phrases from that 12-tone study for piano students.  I used these phrases toward the end of the piece, because they are very lyrical and they fit into that place in the piece.

FJO:  The other thing I was wondering about when I was looking at the score for that piece is how you were first exposed to 12-tone music?  Was it when you were at Eastman?

DS: It was actually a dilemma for me at Tanglewood.  I was a student there.  So many things happened to me the summer after freshman year and also during sophomore year.  But I think the summer after freshman year, I ended up at Tanglewood with people around like Aaron Copland, Donald Martino, Gunther Schuller, and Elliott Carter who was giving talks on his Double Concerto, which was presented there.  So this was very fascinating for me, and it was like hitting a wall of this suddenly very complex, chromatic music.  So I had little conversations with Schuller asking about 12-tone music.  I was interested in knowing why people chose this way of expression.  And he really couldn’t answer this.  That is stuff that I had to discover on my own.  I had spent two solid years in that phenomenal Sibley Music Library at Eastman, looking and listening to every 20th-century piece I could get a hold of, and in this way learned a lot merely from observation.  Much more than from taking a class, let’s say. At that point, it really was the most valuable thing I could have done because that gradually revealed to me lots of details. Then I started trying these things out on my own.  More than reading a book about something, or being told about something, it was really experiencing a certain reality and coming to different realizations.

FJO:  Of course the other thing that happened when you were at Eastman is you studied with Samuel Adler, who is one of the most significant authorities on orchestration.  Did that have any impact?

DS:  He was a very perceptive person, and he would let me do whatever I was going to do because I was doing things with intent.  Although what I was writing was not at all in his stylistic practice, and I was doing experimentation, he could appreciate my situation let’s say.  I was just doing what I was doing.  So it was not a matter of teaching so much as a matter of suggestion here and there, which I think is very valuable—to have someone stand out of the way, and then make different comments here and there, and in some cases, little practical things such as maybe not two double basses, but three double basses because of certain pitch situations where possibly they may be perceived out of tune or out of focus.  So these little tidbits, and later on, I think in junior year, I got into the graduate orchestration class which I wanted to be in, which I knew would be a lot better than being in instrumentation class.

I tried a couple of weeks of that with Aldo Provenzano, who was visiting from Juilliard and was a chain smoking, Henry Mancini/101 Strings-type arranger and composer.  I really did not need what I considered baby shit level.  By that time I had written a couple of orchestra movements and was into a long orchestral piece with everything in it, including contrabassoon.  It was ridiculous.  I wanted to show that I could get into an orchestration class.  How absurd.  I was told, well you’ve got to write an orchestral piece, so I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”  This is the way they want it, here it is.  Boom!

In that class with grads, there was a lab orchestra every week.  That was the deal.  So I could do my experimental organizing and arranging and trying out orchestral effects with an orchestra there.  I had volunteers in my dorm.  My dorm friends copying the parts for my one-minute, or two-minute, or three-minute musical experiments every week.

FJO:  Wow.

DS:  I think that kind of thing was also fabulous because Sam Adler was conducting and we were getting recordings.  It would be taped.

FJO:  One of the most ambitious pieces you wrote during that time was Lieder auf der Flucht, a song cycle for soprano and eight instruments with German poetry, which actually got you your first BMI Student Composer Award back in 1967.

DS:  Yeah.  That was one.  And then there was another one.  I guess there were several.  And I think for that, I had sent in a couple.  In a way, I was very inexperienced as a freshman and sophomore. I remember meeting Sam Adler for a lesson and he asked me, “Are you applying to BMI?  Are you applying to something else?”  And I said, “I don’t know.  What is that?”  And he said, “Don’t come back for a lesson next week unless you’ve mailed out this stuff.”  He was behaving in a very annoying way— like, “What do you mean you didn’t apply?”  So I said, “Well, I didn’t apply because the piece I wrote was kind of short.  Don’t they want really long pieces?”  He said, “Come on.  Send this thing in.” So I said, “Maybe I’ll send in two pieces.”

FJO: You must have also sent in your flute and piano duo, Quattro, because that piece was also acknowledged that year.

“I remember meeting Sam Adler for a lesson and he asked me, ‘Are you applying to BMI?’
And I said, ‘I don’t know.  What is that?’ And he said, ‘Don’t come back for a lesson next week unless you’ve mailed out this stuff.’”

DS:  Oh, there’s also that.  They were written very near each other, and they’re cool pieces.  So I sent that in with the song cycle, but my idea was, “Unless a piece is 15-minutes long, why bother sending it?”—which is absurd.

FJO:  A striking aspect of that song cycle, which was your first really substantive vocal piece, is that you chose to set another language instead of English.  You set German.

DS:  That’s because what English feels like for me is not the same as German.  And it’s not the same as French.  I also have songs in French.  I have songs in English, but English for me has a different intensity than much more intense languages like German, French, and Polish for instance.  Once I learned Polish, I was reading Polish poetry; it’s no wonder that they have Nobelists who were poets, because it’s really splendid stuff.  Even the sound of it, the nuances are way beyond anything in English.  It may be not nice to say that, but in terms of the comparative experience, the nuances in different languages vary.  And the details in languages such as Polish give it much more intensity for me.  It’s a kind of increased thesaurus of feelings that are available in certain languages.

FJO:  So you’re fresh out of Eastman.  You’ve got your degree.  You’re off to Poland on a Fulbright after you pass the Czech language exam and therefore, weirdly as we discussed, you were allowed to go to Poland to study with Lutosławski.  You’d mentioned that you really admired his Jeux Venitiens. There’s a piece of yours called Jeux des Quatres; it’s a chamber piece, but it’s scored for a very odd instrumental combination.

DS:  Clarinet, cello, piano, trombone.

FJO:  It’s full of extended techniques, and there’s indeterminacy in it as well.  One of the pages looks like a sort of mobile.

DS:  This highly drunk page of gestures, which is one of the movements.

FJO: There definitely seems to be a relationship to Lutosławski in that piece. Was that one of the pieces you were working on when you were studying with him?

DS:  No, that was the year after.  At that point I was at Yale as a grad student. So this was a piece which was different from Lutosławski, but having experienced Lutosławski was part of that difference.  I was pushing in this other way, this other direction of writing scores.  The visual object was very important to getting the sonic result—why that notation and why not some other notation?

FJO:  But then when you got to Yale, you became really deeply immersed in electronic music.

DS:  I started becoming involved. There was a very rudimentary studio.  There was this oddball situation of an ARP synthesizer.  A big whopper ARP, so not a mini, and I thought it was awfully clumsy in different ways.  I also found the ARP sonically too homogenous, believe it or not.  I didn’t describe it to myself that way because it was too early for me to realize why I wasn’t terribly attracted to this thing, which seemed to be able to do all sorts of things.  But in terms of expression, it was not the most exciting thing.  What I did have in there were a few oscillators, which could be made to fool around with each other in different ways.  And these were not part of a synthesizer; they were just an analog, mini-studio.  Then there were filters and noise generators, and also a spring reverb that was kind of strange sounding.  But the strangeness actually enhanced some of my loop sounds that I was making from scratch, from splicing.  I did a lot of splicing. It gave me enough time to hear things and be able to get an up-close-and-personal experience with the sounds because there was absolutely no automaticity involved.

Daria Semegen still manipulates sound using reel-to-reel tapes and teaches her students to do so as well. And, after more than a half century of experience, she has well-tested preferences for what the best angles are for splicing. This is why there is a slab of wood positioned on this reel-to-reel machine (one of four at her Electronic Music Studio at Stony Brook University) which enables people working with the tape deck to precisely eyeball where to position a razor blade in order to make a splice on the tape.

Daria Semegen still manipulates sound using reel-to-reel tapes and teaches her students to do so as well. And, after more than a half century of experience, she has well-tested preferences for what the best angles are for splicing. This is why there is a slab of wood positioned on this reel-to-reel machine (one of four at her Electronic Music Studio at Stony Brook University) which enables people working with the tape deck to precisely eyeball where to position a razor blade in order to make a splice on the tape.

FJO:  You already mentioned doing this piece at Eastman for the six players and messing around with tape, so that was really your first electro-acoustic piece.

DS:  Yeah.

FJO: But it was quite a transition to go from being a composer who was involved with playing the piano and working with an orchestra who did one experimental piece involving manipulating taped sounds to being somebody who knows how to cut and splice tape and mess around with oscillators.  These seem like totally different skill sets.

DS:  Oh, I think it’s part of putting things together.  I also realize, for instance, my Electronic Composition No. 1, which is pretty elaborate, is named that because it is an experience that to me was in a way parallel to visual art composition.  It was much more about construction, rather than a conventional musical composition that stays in its own little prescribed world of what’s expected and what will be subject to a lot of rules and regulations.

“Tonal music is a world that has definite, prescribed behaviors, etiquettes, and expectations.”

We know, for instance, that tonal music is a world that has definite, prescribed behaviors, etiquettes, and expectations. On the whiteboard is [the phrase] “tonal obligations,” which is what I advise students to be aware of when they are writing music which is essentially not tonal, and then they put in something which creates the psychological expectation of tonal music.  Awareness is so vital in terms of the sonic expression.  So I was dealing with this other array of possibilities that was not coming from that world and that I could organize in different ways instead of dealing with absolute pitches and absolute rhythms.  Working in this way was a fascinating experience for me.

The whiteboard in Daria Semegen's electronic music studio at Stony Brook University which includes the phrase "tonal obligations" as well as a couple of twelve-tone rows and a diatonic scale.

The whiteboard in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

FJO:  Writing music for you stemmed from being obsessed with figuring out how notation works and how that then gets translated into sound.  But electronic music is conceptualized in a very different way.  There have been attempts to notate it, but it sort of defies notation, even though there are these bizarre scores for some of the early electronic pieces by Ligeti and Stockhausen, which could probably never be used to recreate a performance.

DS:  Oh, it’s absurd.

FJO:  Right?  Crazy.  But once upon a time, it had to be written down in some form in order to obtain a copyright for it.

DS:  That’s right.  Even if you wrote BS, which a lot of these scores were, only a title page where you scribbled something, and then wrote copyright C and your name.  As you point out, otherwise you couldn’t get a copyright.

FJO:  So is there a score for Electronic Composition No. 1 floating around?

DS:  You don’t need a score.

FJO:  No, but is there one?

DS:  No.  Why would I need it? It’s impossible to notate all of the things that are going on in the piece.  It would just be a superficial skeletal sketch.  I’ve had students who would write analyses of that piece. For instance, one student analyzed densities. The piece has so many parameters going on.  And for me, a parameter is any area that’s available to be varied that you can realize and work with.  That means you have to be aware that a certain area is a viable, working zone for that particular piece.

FJO:  So, in the creation of it, did you make any written-down sketches?

DS: No need.  For me, the most important thing in doing electronic music is that I don’t need some kind of thing on paper.  This is purely a sonic art, just as visual art would be in working with colors, rather than painting by numbers.  You can have a lot of in between things happening, which are not having to comport with conventional ways of writing or visualizing the thing. You can be as specific or as vague as you need to be for musical expression at any moment in your sonic work.

FJO:  So in a way, it must have been greatly liberating for you since you were so fixated on notation.

DS:  Oh, it was not the intent—”Hey, I’m bored with notation; let me break away.”  This was like, “Wow, I don’t even have to pay any attention to notation.  I can just listen.” Now that’s the thrill of it all in the studio.  For me, this is really the purest way of dealing with musical sounds, where you’re only dealing with the sounds.  You’re not being distracted by visual stuff, even though I’ve done soundtracks with visual things and also with choreography.  But creating the electronic music pieces by themselves is not dependent on having to translate a notation or to re-translate the sounds into a notation except if somebody wants to do this for analytical purposes.  The visual stuff is not the piece.

FJO:  Then of course, the other thing is you had the experience of participating in an orchestration lab where you had musicians play whatever you brought in for them every week.  Most people have to wait a lot longer than that. Even folks who receive a commission to write an orchestra piece usually have to turn in the piece many months in advance, and then they eventually get to hear the piece or simply hear a lot of people struggling.  Others may write a piece and it could be more than a decade before they hear it.  Whereas if you create an electronic thing—

DS:  It’s there. So the immediacy of that is very much like mixing your own colors if you’re a painter.  Or creating shapes if you’re a sculptor, or even in working with light as a medium, which is an interesting kind of thing.  Years ago I became aware of light in museum exhibits, and I realized this is an extremely important factor in creating the expression of the visual art, whether it’s a sculpture or whether it’s a painting hanging on a wall.  The color of the light, the shading—the Kelvins now as we say—is part of the expression in showing a visual art piece.

FJO:  To get back to Electronic Composition No. 1. You gave it that title, but it’s not the first electronic piece you did.

DS:  There’s actually a sketch before that which is from Yale.  In Electronic Composition No. 1, I use sounds from the Yale studio, but the rest of the sounds and manipulation is from the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.

FJO:  So was Trill Study a Yale piece?

DS:  Oh, no.  Trill Study was after. It was during the composition of a score for an animation called Out of IntoTrill Study is an intense loop piece.  The trill is literally spliced.  Would you believe that it is more intense a trill than anything from a synthesizer?  It’s very easy on a Buchla synthesizer to create a trill. But it’s not got the same bite—meaning the timbral color of the attack points when you’re alternating from one note to another note of the two-note trill.

The Buchla Synthesizer at Daria Semegen's Electronic Music Studio at Stony Brook University.

The Buchla Synthesizer at Daria Semegen’s Electronic Music Studio at Stony Brook University.

By comparative listening, I said, “Hey, what would this trill be like if I actually spliced the freaking thing together?” It’s a lot more work, but once you have it spliced, you have this beautiful sounding passage and then you can do all kinds of looping and variable speed to create different lengths of loops, and have several loops on different tape recorders, just making sound clouds.

Then recording the result of that, doing some improv and then organizing phrases from that by chopping stuff out and putting it in a different order.  So it’s a lot for me like the visual arts.  There’s something that you can experience with that, but the ultimate thing is: what does it sound like?  If the mechanical uniformity of something like a repeated pattern on any synthesizer or system is too perfect, it doesn’t sound nuanced.

“By comparative listening, I said, ‘Hey, what would this trill be like if I actually spliced the freaking thing together?’”

Now mind you, I’m not trying to sound like natural instruments.  I’m trying to appreciate the aesthetic qualities that I experience with those instruments and trying to break the uniformity and the expectation of uniformity in the more mechanistic musical world of electronic gadgets—which can make very perfect things for you, but those things can be too perfect. So it’s better for me to have spliced that trill. That’s my one loop splice; one loop can create other loops in variance with that.

FJO:  Electronic Composition No. 1 was a watershed piece for you in a lot of ways.  At that point, you were working at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center established by Luening and Ussachevsky, which is a legendary place.

DS:  Mostly Ussachevsky, who actually had training in engineering from Pomona College, California, and a Ph.D. from Eastman later on.  He was very much instrumental in the actual kinks of the place, and the tone, the ambience, the welcoming nature of that place, in encouraging composers, really worldwide, who could come and work there if they were interested.  I think it was run in a way that encouraged creative possibilities.

FJO:  Now when you were at Yale, you didn’t have access to a studio on that level, but you did work with Bülent Arel, who had also created work at the Columbia-Princeton center.

DS:  That Yale studio was rudimentary, and it also had that giant Arp which was not engaging to work with.  I think it was an ergonomics issue.  I had a similar issue with Peter Zinovieff’s machine from his electronic music lab in Britain, which he had loaned to Ussachevsky. This giant synthesizer was put into our faculty studio that I worked in.  And so there it was.  It had wonderful capabilities, but was somewhat ergonomically tedious to work with.

“When some systems become ergonomically too gadgety, it does not intrigue me very much.”

I need a certain degree of immediacy. Getting sonic results now in some of the things that I do obviously takes more time, but when some systems become ergonomically too gadgety, it does not intrigue me very much.  Software often has problems in that way, because the people who design the software have a different way of working than I do, different degrees of intuiting what they go for first and what happens next. Remember I was talking about starting tabula rasa, and then putting certain things in.  I’m also focused on organizing things that I choose if the software allows me to.  When things are too classified, it become impractical.  So I like to organize my gadgets for each piece in a different way.  In a way, it’s organizing your own studio of materials in the software.

A vintage ARP 2600 is still in use in Daria Semegen's electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

A vintage ARP 2600 is still in use in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

FJO:  Of course it’s funny talking about this in the context of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, because the whole thing got started with the ergonomically impractical giant Mark II.

DS:  Yes. That RCA Mark II used rollers, kind of like a piano roll that you would type.  So they had two typewriters with rolls for that.

FJO:  Did you ever work on that?

DS:  No, very few people did.  Milton Babbitt.  And then Wuorinen had a piece on there, but that was a one-time deal.  It was a machine that Milton worked on.

FJO:  So what machines were you working on then?

DS:  Oh, the analog studio.  And there was a Buchla 100 there, and that was terrific.  And that’s used in the Out of Into score.  So yes, a lot of sounds from that place with some beautiful machines, including a terrific filter that was so incredibly discreet.  It was a slider, a kind of graphic filter-type machine, where I could get wonderful sound changes in time.  If I wanted my sound expression in filtering to change in a certain kind of intensity, I could get that from this type of filter.  It was one of a kind.  I’m sure that it’s in storage somewhere.  I don’t think anybody would want to throw it out.

Some of the extraordinary vintage equipment in Daria Semegen's electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

Some of the extraordinary vintage equipment in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

There are some incredible pieces of equipment sonically, like Elektro-Mess-Technik plate reverb units.  We have one of those here, which is this large gray box with a handle. That’s a very special sound.  We also have several models of the giant reverb plate from the same company, EMT, that are in storage.  Those have to be in a separate room, because otherwise such a reverb unit will pick up sounds from the studio through the walls of the unit.

FJO:  To go back to the early 1970s at the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center, you had also mentioned that you were still cutting and splicing reel to reels when you were there.

DS:  Yeah.

FJO:  But since synthesizers were now on the market and were getting smaller and smaller—to the point that people were starting to set up studios in their own homes and even travel around with Moogs and Buchlas—wasn’t it somewhat old fashioned at that point to still be working that way?

DS:  I think that perhaps is a typical perception of things, but I think in terms of the experience creatively, of working with devices.  I tend not to like to work boxed into one box. Whatever work I’m doing on a Buchla or any software, that is only the beginning of what I do.  I have to do a tremendous amount of editing and varying in order to get to a completion with a lot of these sounds that I use.  Patterns, textures, and combinations of timbre—it’s not enough for me to limit myself to the Buchla and for my piece to be about that.  It is not going to be my piece sticking with only one type of expression or one unit.  It involves different types of comparative listening and different listening techniques, which are not conventional ear training.  Then choosing sounds, characteristics, and expressions through comparisons.  Comparative listening is very important.

“Editing is a constituent part of what my pieces are about.”

There are all these techniques that are involved in editing sound materials, and paying attention to things like attack characteristics and the expression of simultaneities—slices of sound, as well as how long the sound landscapes work.  And then what their densities are as they vary and what sorts of expressions they create.  For instance, for me, sonic intensity is only one single parameter.  So I’m aware of that through the piece and in designing and choosing different sound components.  I feel that my sound sources regardless of what they are, or even whether they are analog or digital, doesn’t matter as much as having the possibility to control these things in different ways once they are stored, let’s say.  Because I work with stored sounds, basically on tape or digitally.  Editing is a constituent part of what my pieces are about.

FJO:  I’m going to jump ahead to 1990 then, because what you just said reminds me of a fascinating statement you made in the CD booklet notes for the recording of a piece for MIDI grand piano that you wrote for Loretta Goldberg called Rhapsody: “These new tools cannot change or solve the perplexing compositional problems often encountered in creating a new work, whose ultimate purpose is to communicate with my audience once more with feeling.”

DS:  That’s right.

FJO:  That sentiment is worlds away from “who cares if you listen”!

“You cannot own your sounds or your work too much and be so possessive that you will not change things and ignore your intuitive reactions.”

DS:  Oh, I know.  But I think Milton would say that this was overblown, or improperly interpreted, et cetera.  And, of course, he felt it was sensationalized in various ways.  But in giving a bit of a perspective on that—who is the initial audience to my sounds?  Who is that?  Me.  I have to be the first listener to my sounds.  And I modify them according to the reactions that I have as a listener who is, again, approaching the experience of listening without being, let me say, possessive about the sounds.  I tell my students that you cannot own your sounds or your work too much and be so possessive that you will not change things and ignore your intuitive reactions.  I think intuitive reactions are vital in creating a personal fingerprint on your art instead of being so possessive that you own it too much to improve it.

A collection of loops created by Stony Brook students using magnetic tape saturate a wall in Daria Semegen's electronic music studio.

A collection of loops created by Stony Brook students using magnetic tape saturate a wall in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio.

FJO:  Now in terms of taking work and giving it a personal fingerprint, one of the pieces of yours I find super fascinating and wonderful is Arc. And yet this was a piece that was created to accompany dancers, and the choreography was already completed before you composed this piece. You had to make your music precisely fit with that.

DS:  That’s right. It was very interesting. I was given large graph paper, almost like Chinese scrolls, and each square was a beat. I had these little graph paper squares with annotations by the choreographer Mimi Garrard indicating things like lighting changes—because this choreography was also synchronized with a digitally controlled lighting system which was called CORTLI, as in courtly dancing, but it was also an acronym.

A page from the movement and lighting "score" for Arc which was fixed before Daria Semegen began composing the music for it. (Image courtesy Daria Semegen.)

A page from the movement and lighting “score” for Arc which was fixed before Daria Semegen began composing the music for it. (Image courtesy Daria Semegen.)

It was put together at Bell Labs by James Seawright, who was the head of visual arts at Princeton and was also on the staff at Columbia-Princeton as one of their technical people.  He’s a phenomenal kinetic sculptor.  Just amazing.  I remember as a kid at Eastman I would look through Time magazine and I saw a picture of Jimmy Seawright.  I didn’t know who he was, but he was there with one of his electronic sculptures, and there was a little write up about it.  I had no idea that six or so years later I’d be collaborating with James Seawright and doing two scores for two different choreographies, including Arc.  Anyway, the scores that I came up with had to be really on target in terms of the tempo and their work.  Arc consists of an A-B-C-B-A tempo shape, let’s say, starting with slow movements on the outer ends and then faster, and then the fastest.

FJO:  Arc has deeply resonated with me for decades, and I’ve sometimes wondered—especially after reading that comment of yours about communication and feeling—whether a piece like this could somehow serve as a gateway for listeners who love the standard orchestra and chamber music repertoire but might not be initially amenable to electronic music.

DS:  It’s more accessible.  It’s more familiar.  But the timbral world there is not; it’s other earthly, let’s say, when compared with instrumental sounds.  It’s a simpler score in different ways than something like Electronic Composition No. 1 and things like Arabesque, which is way different.  Arc has more clearly displayed sounds that you can hear as they change and modify, morph in expression with timbre, which was interesting.  And it’s a Buchla piece.

An archival photo from the original Mimi Garrard Dance Theatre production of Arc in May of 1977 which featured a portable computer-controlled lighting system by Mimi Ganard and James Seawright and an electronic musical score by Daria Semegen. (Photo courtesy Daria Semegen.)

An archival photo from the original Mimi Garrard Dance Theatre production of Arc in May of 1977 which featured a portable computer-controlled lighting system by Mimi Ganard and James Seawright and an electronic musical score by Daria Semegen. (Photo courtesy Daria Semegen.)

FJO:  Arabesque is a much more recent piece. But when I was looking at a score of the second movement of your set of Three Piano Pieces from the 1960s, the one that jumps all over the place, I was struck by how reminiscent it was to Arabesque.

DS:  That aesthetic?

FJO:  Yeah.

DS:  You got it!

FJO:  Of course, in the electronic realm there are many things that you can do that you couldn’t do in quite the same way in a solo piano piece. You’re not limited to the timbres of a piano. You’re constantly manipulating timbre, and the electronic medium is also not limited to 12-tone equal temperament. Arabesque is filled with all sorts of microtonal intervals. But the gestures are still somewhat similar. It also doesn’t sound like any other electronic music I know from what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, the post-analog era. You’re still continuing to explore all those wonderful old-school electronic music sounds, yet your music has continued to evolve within that medium.

“I don’t think of old school and new school or in between schools.”

DS:  I don’t think of old school and new school or in between schools.  I simply relate to the material in my piece rather than worrying about or being aware of this or that school.  What you describe in this piano piece that’s way early is a musical behavior that is toccata-like.  Well, there you go.  If you’re going to compare it to body language musically, then you can say, “Well, yeah.  This piece [Arabesque] is kind of toccata-like.” But it’s only a section of the piece and that describes a sort of body language, which I’m aware of in terms of how things move musically.

FJO:  Okay, old school and new school are probably the wrong words for me to be using to explain this, but here we are, we’re sitting in this amazing studio with reel-to-reel machines.  You know, I haven’t really seen a lot of those around elsewhere so much these days.

DS:  Well, maybe people don’t know how to work with them!  And, of course, this is only one part of the experience.  We also have the digital world.  We also have digital editing available. To my taste, people don’t use it intricately enough. They could be experimenting with digital editing in a way that goes deeper and gives a greater array of possibilities to choose from, and that is an exciting thing to do.  That’s what I like to do with digital editing because it quickly expands the choices that I have, but I have to instigate the changes myself, because hey, the job of a composer is to choose!

Various vintage oscillators and reverb units surround a state of the art digital mixing console.

Analog and digital equipment co-exists in Daria Semegen’s electronic music studio at Stony Brook University.

FJO:  So one of the choices you’ve made is to still work with reel to reels.

DS:  Yes, depending on what techniques I’m using.  Because, for instance, I can very easily make elaborate improvisations in a studio that create more complex material or generations of complexity.  Let’s say you’re starting with original simpler material, going to several generations of layers.  And then you can extract chunks from that to be used in other ways.

“The job of a composer is to choose!”

I think of improv as a very viable technique.  When you hear my pieces, they don’t sound improvised; they sound deliberate because the sounds were deliberately chosen. But then we go to consider how these sounds were made.  That’s where anything goes.  It could be improv. It could be something that’s just the opposite, something very precise.  I go between these two different worlds of improvisation and precision, using randomness as a tool to generate material of different characters.  And not staying in one particular catechism of rules.

FJO:  That’s a very inspiring thing, not only from a creative standpoint but also from a pedagogical one. So we should conclude by talking a bit about teaching.  You’ve been here at Stony Brook since 1974.

DS:  Yes.

FJO:  That’s a very long time—44 years.

DS:  Mhmm.

FJO:  And although the studio has grown and has lots of newer equipment, there is equipment here that goes back to when you first got here, and stuff from even earlier than that, that you still use and that your students can also use.

DS:  That’s right.  It’s nice to have an array of possibilities available.  The instruments that you have also influence your perception, your thinking, and the way you can work.  For instance, my digital editing has a lot to do with my experiences splicing tapes.  I used to mess around, changing transients, by cutting slivers off the attack points of tape just to see what the heck would happen.  And then using different angle cuts on the tape attacks or sometimes endings.  So doing these little playing-around experiments are all lessons in sonic experiences.  Because ultimately that’s what happens: You make changes.  You listen to it.  My digital editing is very much influenced by this.  I also have one piano piece, which is influenced by working with electronic sound textures.  I explained that a little bit in a program note. These two seemingly disparate worlds are all interconnected here and there, sometimes more intensely or less intensely.  All these things exist.  So it’s having in my head these various experiences, including this.

FJO:  So a final question.  You said the audience begins with you.

“I’m not going to tell an audience what to do or how to react. That’s not my job!”

DS:  Yeah, I’ll be the first listener.  Then basically I share, but that is not my main drive.  I don’t sit around and think about, “Hey, I’m going to be sharing this.” You listen to Electronic Composition No. 1¸ and that gets pretty bizarre.  When I was making some of those sounds, I would say, “Whoa, this is really kicking it around here.  Gee, I wonder how an audience would react?”  But then I’d basically let them worry about it.  I’m not going to tell them what to do or how to react.  That’s not my job!

Daria Semegen with a bunch of wires in her mouth sitting in front of the Buchla synthesizer at the Stony Brook Electronic Music Center.

Andy Akiho: Inside The Instrument

Having a conversation with Andy Akiho is a lot like listening to his music; it’s a high-energy adventure bursting with ideas and full of all sorts of serendipitous synchronicities. The first of these synchronicities is that Andy lives on Monroe Street in Lower Manhattan, which is where we met up with him. This is the same street where John Cage lived when he wrote many of his important compositions for prepared piano and percussion ensembles, idioms that have played a significant role in Andy’s output since Cage is one of his heroes. And perhaps an even more extraordinary coincidence is that Cage wrote those pieces at the same age that Andy is now and that Andy only discovered all of this after he moved to Monroe Street.

Of course, while Andy’s earliest compositions were scored for percussion ensemble and one of his most significant pieces to date is the solo prepared piano tour-de-force Vicki/y, the instrument that has figured in Andy’s music more than any other is the steel drum. As it turns out, around the same time that Cage was creating his landmark prepared piano and percussion ensemble works in the late 1930s and early 1940s, musicians in Trinidad started incorporating struck pieces of metal into their ensembles, eventually tuning discarded industrial oil containers and thus was born the steel drum.

But again, Andy becoming obsessed with steel drums also happened somewhat by accident. He was initially attracted to hip-hop and rock—his older sister played in various bands—when he was growing up in South Carolina. But at college, also in South Carolina, he got exposed to an extremely broad range of approaches to percussion including bebop and West African drumming, and then a couple of his teachers introduced him to steel drums. After he graduated, he went down to Trinidad to immerse himself further and was hooked for life.

Andy eventually found himself in New York City arranging music for weddings in the Caribbean-American community for large ensembles of steel drums. But he wanted to expand his timbral palette and find a way to combine steel drums with other instruments. Another chance encounter, a conversation with his former classmate Baljinder Sekhon, convinced him to audition for the Bang on a Can Summer Residency Program and to apply to Manhattan School of Music to pursue a master’s degree. He was accepted to both and found some formidable mentors in David Cossin and Julia Wolfe, with whom he eventually also studied composition privately.

The rest, as they say, is history. Though not completely. Andy’s story is still being written. He is still trying out new ideas and is open to discovering other approaches. He’s eager to write more vocal music, as well as score a film. But he still usually begins almost every composition he writes—whether it’s a string quartet or a concerto for two ping pong players and orchestra—by tinkering around with ideas on the steel pan. But not always, as he explained:

I’ll do other things, too, like I’ll go to an instrument I can’t play, like a piano, and come up with material and then apply that to the pan. I try to do it all different ways. But I do want to say it’s not weird to me; it’s weirder to me to think about a guitar, even though that seems like it’s more linear. If I try to pick up a guitar and try to think of melody, or learn it, or understand where the notes for the chords are, I’m a mess. At the same time, I accidentally discover some things that I wouldn’t do on the pan because I’ve been playing it for so many years. You go to certain comfortable places. Taking yourself out of that comfort zone can bring new life to the vocabulary.


May 10, 2018 at 1:00 p.m.
Andy Akiho in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Akiho’s apartment in Two Bridges, Manhattan
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  I was thrilled when I learned that you live on Monroe Street because this is where John Cage once lived.

Andy Akiho: A year after I was here I found that out doing a paper at Princeton about his Sonatas and Interludes that he’d lived here. He was the exact age I was when I was doing the paper.  So I felt really connected somehow. He’s one of my heroes. I’ve always felt that way, but especially now. It was like “You’ve got to be kidding me, because [Monroe Street]’s only three blocks long.

FJO:  But sadly, the building where he lived is no longer there.

AA:  I walked over to see.  It’s a school now, I believe.

FJO:  He was forced to move when the building was torn down in 1953.

AA:  Oh, I didn’t realize that.

FJO:  But it’s interesting that you didn’t know about this until after you moved here. It’s quite a coincidence, since during the years he lived here he wrote most of his prepared piano pieces and many of his pieces for percussion ensemble—and both the prepared piano and percussion ensembles have figured very prominently in your own music.

AA:  I’ve always been influenced by those pieces, even before I was a composer.

FJO:  I’d like to learn more about the period before you were a composer. I know that you were trained as a percussionist, but how did you become interesting in being a musician in the first place?

AA:  My older sister practically raised me; she’s almost exactly ten years older than me.  And when she was a teenager, she was like kind of a rock star.  She never took it too seriously, but she had a double bass and a drum set and she was playing in bands. I wanted to be like her, so she would teach me drums.  And that’s kind of how I started.  I think I was around nine or something, but then I got a little obsessed with it. So by the time I got in middle school and then high school, I drummed all the time.  I couldn’t read music, but I was trying to drum, starting with drumlines and then I started learning to read notes more in college.

FJO:  And you have a couple of performance degrees as a percussionist.

“I was kind of obsessed, so I just majored in percussion.”

AA:  There was such a gap. I never thought I was going back to school. I went to University of South Carolina. That’s where I grew up and I just went to college where I grew up. I was very fortunate to even have an opportunity to go to college back then. I was kind of obsessed, so I just majored in percussion. But I got involved in a lot of different ensembles—everything that had to do with drumming: playing West African drums, steel pan, orchestra, band, a little bit of everything.

FJO:  I was wondering about how you first got involved with steel pan because I wouldn’t necessarily associate steel pan with South Carolina.

AA:  It was a really awesome time when I was in school there.  It was just a lot of new opportunities and a lot of great influences. We had a Professor Chris Lee who was really into West African drumming and steel pan and going to Trinidad.  And my professor down there, Jim Hall, was really into that, too.  So they had a steel pan program. Around the time when my colleagues and I went to school, we were really into different things.  I was the steel pan guy, one guy was the jazz guy, and another guy was more the composer-percussionist.  We were all different, but while we were there, we were into everything.  I was probably even more into West African drumming then; my goals and plans were to go to Guinea like a lot of my friends did.  But for some reason, I really got into pans, and then I went to Trinidad a lot, especially right after undergrad.

FJO:  So you studied with players in Trinidad.

AA:  When I was finishing up, I also did a student exchange program. I went to North Texas for a year and I got really into bebop. I wanted to play steel pans with that.  I think it was the combination of being really inspired by the jazz musicians out there and being inspired to bring something new to steel pan, then going to Trinidad and playing with large orchestras and feeling that energy.  It was like a full orchestra of these things; it was symphonic. I played I guess the equivalent of a violin in the orchestra for the steel pans.  Everything was taught by rote.  I remember one year I learned my part from like basically the “cellist.”  That’s how well they knew everybody’s parts.  And these are like crazy, intricate things. It was almost easier to learn by rote than reading because you feel the rhythms different.  It’s really internal.

Andy Akiho's Spiderweb fourth and fifth lead steel pan

FJO:  So, perhaps a dumb question, is there a consistency from steel pan to steel pan about where the different notes are?

AA:  No, that’s a really good question.  There is, but there’s a lot of differences, too.  There’s a tradition of so many changes. For example, my steel pan is called a tenor pan, but it’s actually soprano range.  It starts from middle C, and it goes to about the F above the treble staff.

FJO:  Is it fully chromatic?

AA:  Fully chromatic.  In Trinidad, they normally start on the D above that, because they can pierce through the orchestra more.  So for range, and to play with 30 others—any of the altos, the “cellos,” the bass—it actually sounds better orchestrationally and acoustically in a different range.  Mine’s called a Spiderweb fourth and fifth lead, so it’s a circle of fifths, upside down from the diagrams you see in schools.  My C is right next to me, and then it goes in fourths and fifths.  But that’s a newer invention.  It’s probably 40-ish years old now, 40 or 50.  Before that, there was an Invader’s lead, and on that the octaves aren’t even next to each other.  It’s incredible how it’s set up. There’s like this random F-sharp right in the middle. But it actually sounds better, because of the way the overtones work.  But it wasn’t as practical as a learning device, because it was just everywhere.  And they have other pans.  I wrote a steel pan concerto for Liam Teague, and his is completely different. So I took a picture of his, and wrote the notes and put it up on the wall to work out something idiomatic.  His is a completely different pan and he’s the only one in the world that plays that one.  But they’re all about the same range.

FJO:  So no one else could play the piece you wrote for him.

AA:  No, I’ve played it.  I always had it in mind that I wanted it to work on both.  So it was more like if I was doing something with four mallets, I just wanted to make sure he could reach it, that it was physically possible.

FJO:  Another thing that’s really fascinating about the placement of the notes on all these steel pans is that they don’t go left to right from low to high like many instruments around the world or even from low in the middle to high on opposite ends like African koras or mbiras.

AA:  Well, if you’re thinking in patterns or shapes or colors, it’s just another platform.  Like with the human language, we might structure a sentence different: you put the verb first or you put the noun first. It’s the same kind of thing.  I feel fortunate that when I was first learning how to read pitches, it was the same time I was learning how to play steel pan. I was quicker at learning pan than I was at marimba or piano, because it just came to me; it was all right there.  With marimba, I got so worried about missing a note that’s a millimeter off.  But with the pan, I just felt like it was all right there, and I just felt really comfortable.  So it made sense to me more.

FJO:  The tactile element of it is very interesting. The other thing I wonder about, too, is that because of the way it’s patterned, it probably gets you to think about different combinations of notes than you would if you were creating from a piano or a marimba.  People always talk about how Chopin’s music is so pianistic; it’s really based on the tactile experience of him sitting at a piano and working through ideas. As a result, certain kinds of figurations emerge in that music which are directly based on how the instrument is designed.  Same with like Paganini on the violin, Jimi Hendrix on the electric guitar, Ravi Shankar on the sitar, all the great virtuosos who created their own music.  But because steel pan has this other way of setting things up, when you then take those ideas and work them out for other instruments, say, writing for a string quartet, since steel pan is in the DNA of how you think, it creates a different kind of music.

AA:  Exactly. That’s why I feel very fortunate that I can come up with material on the pan for other instruments.  I recently wrote a clarinet quartet piece for David Schifrin and there’s a whole movement that’s a clarinet solo.  I wrote it all on pan.  Then I worked out phrasing and slurs, but it was all on the pan first.  Hand written, then I adapted it to clarinet. But I didn’t change the notes or anything.  So it was really coming from that place. I wrote a saxophone quartet one time, and it was all written on the pan.  All the parts.  As was my first string quartet.

“You go to certain comfortable places. Taking yourself out of that comfort zone can bring new life to the vocabulary.”

I’ll do other things, too, like I’ll go to an instrument I can’t play, like a piano, and come up with material and then apply that to the pan.  I try to do it all different ways. But I do want to say it’s not weird to me; it’s weirder to me to think about a guitar, even though that seems like it’s more linear. If I try to pick up a guitar and try to think of melody, or learn it, or understand where the notes for the chords are, I’m a mess.  At the same time, I accidentally discover some things that I wouldn’t do on the pan because I’ve been playing it for so many years. You go to certain comfortable places.  Taking yourself out of that comfort zone can bring new life to the vocabulary.

FJO:  You mentioned earlier that when you were in school there was a composer-percussion guy and you were the steel pan guy, but you became a composer-percussion guy, too.  When did that happen?

AA:  I looked up my friend Baljinder Sekhon and he was going to Eastman after we were roommates in undergrad. After we finished, I moved to New York eventually, this was within a few years, and he moved to Rochester to study composition.  He started taking that more seriously than percussion.  And while he was up there, I was here playing on the streets and playing in weddings in the Caribbean community.  I was also arranging for these steel orchestras in Brooklyn.  I would arrange stuff for like a hundred players, but it was only steel pans.  I loved it, but I felt like I wanted to experiment a little more with timbres.  I’d love to write for a violin one day, or cello. But I didn’t know anybody. I remember calling him one day in January, and I was like, “Man, it would be kind of cool to write for other instruments.” And he was like: “You got to go back to school, because you don’t know one classical musician in New York.”  I’m like: “No, I only know the Caribbean community.”

So he told me about the contemporary performance program they started in 2007 at Manhattan School [of Music].  I’d been out of school for over six years by then. I hadn’t read a sheet of music in six years.  I was just playing gigs and trying to make it as a steel pan artist in the city.  When he told me about that program, he also told me about [the] Bang on a Can [Summer Residency Program]. I found some old footage of me seven years ago in college playing and I submitted that. I had like two days to submit it and I didn’t know what I was submitting it to.  I just knew it was cool because he did it.  And I got lucky.  I got to do that, and then I went and auditioned at Manhattan School. I had to relearn marimba and relearn percussion. I went and auditioned there and that’s where I met classical musicians. And I was really inspired because I was around a great group of really hungry and inspiring musicians.  So I just started writing for them.  It was just very organic.  It wasn’t like I’m going to try to study composition.  But at that same time, I was fortunate enough to be able to study with Julia Wolfe outside of school.  So I was in school as the contemporary percussion guy, playing with all my friends in that program and then I was able to write for them in a very awesome experimental laboratory in school there.

A view of the "office" part of Andy Akiho's apartment which includes a posted of Bruce Lee, a MIDI keyboard on its side, a computer terminal, some music stands, and handwritten scores.

FJO:  Nice.  The earliest piece you list on your website, Phatamachickenlick, predates all of that. I’ve looked at part of the score, but there’s no audio for it. Is that your first piece?

AA:  I guess officially, yeah.  I mean, that was my drumline days.  I used to skip class in high school and just go in the woods with a snare drum and play for hours.  That just came out of me playing with my friends, coming up with rudimentary solos.  It’s not a good piece. I didn’t ever think of it as a composition or anything.  It was just like: “Hey, play this.”  I could write out the rhythms, because I knew rhythms, but I couldn’t read notes back then or anything.

FJO:  But you’ve got a score of it on your website.

AA:  Yes.  It’s fun.  I think literally everything I’ve ever written is available, unless it was like some random assignment like: “Hey, write for your friends in one hour for tomorrow.”  Maybe I should take that down, but I’ve kept it up there.

FJO:  So do people actually order it?

AA:  Yeah, I got two orders yesterday.  But that’s also a coincidence, because not many people do. I always feel bad. I’m like: “Man, I hope they don’t think this is like a real piece.” But it is what it is.  It’s a duet; it’s a rudimentary snare drum duet that I wrote in my hard core drumline years.

FJO:  And then there’s another really early piece for much bigger ensemble called Hip-Hopracy.

AA:  I consider that my first composition.  I definitely didn’t consider myself an aspiring composer or anything.  I just wanted to write a piece for my senior recital at University of South Carolina.  So I wrote it for all my friends I was telling you about.  We were a really tight crew.  And I was like: “I’d love for you all to play on my recital.” So I wrote for the whole percussion department and wrote each individual part based on them.  It was more like Duke Ellington style.  Like you’re the right guy, you’re the right gal.  My girlfriend at the time was in a hip hop dance class.  She was a dancer.  So they choreographed it; it was a kind of collaborative thing.  We were always working with dancers.  It was just a way to end my recital and a fun way to be creative.  What’s funny is that piece is like Cage or Lou Harrison, but I didn’t even know really what that was back then. I knew when I studied it, or when I played in percussion ensemble, getting those influences. It’s written for ceramic bowls. I’m still writing for these same bowls.  I literally have like ten sets right here.  I remember going into stores back then and picking out the right pitches, then I based the piece off of those.  I just found sounds; it was just a natural way to do it.  I could do that before I could write on a piano, for sure.

A group of ceramic bowls in back of a sampling keyboard.

FJO:  So that piece is more like Cage and Harrison than hip hop, even though you titled it Hip-Hopracy.

“I grew up on rock and hip hop, and probably everything else except classical music.”

AA:  I just called it that because it was for a hip hop class. It wasn’t trying to do anything. But I grew up on rock and hip hop, and probably everything else except classical music. I never grew up listening to Beethoven or anything. I do now.

FJO:  So you didn’t have a connection to so-called classical music.  But what you wound up doing was finding a way to incorporate the ideas that you had into the medium of writing down music that other people play, which is kind of an odd way of doing music to most of the world.  You said before that you wanted to write for violin.  You thought it would be cool.

AA:  I guess it’s not that straight forward, even though I said that.  It was more that I wanted to experiment with pan, mixing with other timbres, whether it’s a ceramic bowl or a violin. I just wanted to have a bigger playground to work in and different timbres to explore.  It wasn’t just for the sake of doing it or trying to write for strings.  I really enjoy just working with any kind of new timbre combination, so it actually felt very natural and organic.  It didn’t seem that odd to me because at first, it was to write pieces for myself to be able to play with friends.  It was almost like being in a rock band when you’re a teenager: “Let’s come up with some material.  I got these ideas. Hey, you play this on the bass.” That kind of thing.  But I was old enough to know that I need to be pretty clear about it.  I was pretty aware that the notation had to be pretty clear.  So I learned as I was doing it.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but I would meet with friends, and be like: “Hey, what’s the range of this?  What’s possible?  Can I write a few things down? Can I record a few things?” I would learn how the instruments worked based on having to do it.

FJO:  So some practical things about making these instrument work together—two things immediately come to mind if you’re combining strings and pan. There’s finding the appropriate acoustical balance, getting the volumes right, so there are questions of where to position everyone.  Are there things that work, things that don’t work?  And then there’s the whole question of intonation. How closely do the pans match the pitches of the other players?

AA:  With pan, there are so many overtones that I think it can blend with any family of instruments.  And if it’s tuned really well, I think there’s a lot of potential for that.  It’s funny because I think about these questions more now than I did then.  Then I was just naïve and just going for it.  And I think that was more exciting sometimes.  I didn’t think about intonation.  I didn’t think about balance, or any of that.  I was just like: “Let’s just do this.” I didn’t have anything to lose, either.  It wasn’t like I had a commission deadline.  It was like: “Oh, we’re going to have a concert at school; let’s put something together.”  It was a lot of experimentation without any pressure of it having to work.  And for some reason, sometimes it worked better.  It was not a fatal mistake if you do something wrong.

FJO:  So what would be something wrong?

“I do things wrong all the time.”

AA:  That’s all subjective. I don’t know. I do things wrong all the time.  In the first piece I wrote at Manhattan, I just literally tried to do everything.  There was a huge fan that a trumpet played through.  There was a 16-foot pipe that the trumpet played through and it bounced off the walls.  And a contrabass flute—the first time I wrote for flute, it was for contrabass flute, alto flute, and regular flute—plus trumpet, steel pan, percussion, piano, and bass clarinet.

FJO:  Yeah, that sounds like a real practical piece.

AA:  And we were also shattering glass everywhere.

FJO:  I didn’t notice that piece on your website.  That one’s not up there, is it?

AA:  I’m not sure.

FJO:  So you didn’t put everything up.

AA:  I might have, if I had the parts, then it’s up somewhere.  Or I have to find the parts maybe.

A page from a handwritten score by Andy Akiho.

FJO:  So the next step after writing these pieces to play with friends is that you started writing pieces that you were not playing in.  How did that whole transition happen?

AA:  This was all a very compact year.  This is 2007 and it was all pieces that I played in.  And in 2008, I got into the Bang on a Can [Summer] Festival, as a composer this time.  My first year was as a performer.  I somehow faked my way in.  Got lucky.  Then I wrote all year.  And, I don’t know, for some reason they let me in as a composer in 2008, and the instrumentation they gave me didn’t have myself in it.  It was for the performer fellows. The first time I didn’t write for myself was that piece.  It’s called to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem.  I don’t even think I started it on the pan.  It was a really interesting exercise for me.

FJO:  So you started composing it in your head.

AA:  No, I played around the piano.  I remember I experimented a lot with the vibraphone, and I was messing around with rubber bands a lot back then.  I put these rubber bands on there.  And I just kind of improvised for hours and hours, then I started to record myself.

FJO:  But you eventually rearranged that piece for percussion ensemble.

AA:  Yeah, that was for the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.  Dave Hall, who runs the percussion department there, asked me to write a new piece. But it was a very short timeline and I wouldn’t have had time to rewrite a brand new piece.  He was really into harlem, so somehow we came up with the idea to just make a new arrangement of it. But I didn’t want it to be just an arrangement. So I was like, “Let’s take the same music, but I’m really going orchestrate it, not just make it work, not just take the clarinet part and put it here.  Just rework the entire piece.” The piano part is pretty much exactly the same, though.  That’s the one thing I kept.  I spent a day with them working out some of the kinks, and then they performed it, and they did that video and I thought it came out really nice.  It was really great.

FJO:  I think so, too.  What’s interesting is that it’s clearly the same piece, you can hear the melodies and harmonies, but it has a different flavor somehow.

AA:  Yeah, definitely.

FJO:  The timbres really shape what you’re hearing.

AA:  Yeah, it’s so important.  I mean timbre and rhythm are the world I live in.

FJO:  That’s the mindset of a percussionist.

AA:  Yeah, I guess so.

FJO:  Another key ingredient is the tactile element. Of course playing any instrument is a tactile experience but there’s something about percussion that heightens that aspect, I think. And I would venture to say that your sensitivity to this tactile element informs how you write for other instruments. One example that is particularly striking to me is the two-harp piece you wrote for Duo Scorpio, Two Bridges. It’s totally unexpected, because it isn’t what harp music usually sounds like, because you approach the harps like percussion instruments, which is why I think it’s so cool.

AA:  Oh, thanks.  I met with them many times.  The harp or the piano, anything I can touch and feel, even strings, they’re the closest thing to percussion to me.  If I can start to understand it and wrap my head around it, I feel I can work with that instrumentation better, so I was lucky.  I was up at Avaloch Music Institute up in New Hampshire and I was finishing up my piece for Duo Scorpio, and there was a harp duo there, a different harp duo.  They went out to lunch one day, and I was like: “Can I mess around?  I might use some credit cards and stuff.  Is it cool?”  And they were like: “It’s cool.”  They knew I would respect the instruments, and I wrote the whole first movement in like an hour or two.  I videotaped myself just playing on these techniques, messing around with a finger cymbal, a chopstick—I created that first movement just from this experimental place.

It’s also kind of parallel to bridges being built.  We’re in [the] Two Bridges [neighborhood] right now, and that’s what the piece is about.  So the Brooklyn Bridge is those kind of industrial sounds. But then the second movement is all harmonics. I met with them and learned all I could about how that technique worked—the best kind of range for it. And they taught me how the pedals work. And then in the third movement, I just tried to put everything together.

Andy Akiho under the Manhattan Bridge.

FJO:  Now the titles for the first and third movements are numbers.  Are those the years those bridges were built?

AA:  I think the years that they were officially opened.

FJO:  But that one in the middle that’s all harmonics you called “Audio Sun.”

AA:  I just pictured being in the middle of the East River—it would be kind of gross.  But if you were down there, playing these bridges as if they were harps, the reverberations you would hear underneath the water would be very echo-y. I had to try to capture that.

FJO:  There’s a guy named Joseph Bertolozzi who makes music from playing on actual bridges.

AA:  Oh, that’s cool.

FJO:  But you’ve come up with this other idea, using the harps as a metaphor for the bridges. It’s also really effective and just beautiful.

AA:  Aw, thank you.

FJO:  But it’s interesting because I heard the piece way before I saw the video of the performance, so I didn’t know how a lot of those sounds were being made because I couldn’t see it. It still totally worked as abstract music thing.  Another piece of yours along those lines is Vicki/y, the piece you did for Vicky Chow.

AA:  It was inspired by Vicky Chow and Vicki Ray.  When I was at Bang on a Can in 2007 as a performer, Vicki Ray did a masterclass on preparation, and it reminded me of learning about this in undergrad with Cage and stuff.  So it brought all that back.  She was showing us that you could bow the strings and you could pluck them. Then she showed us the dime and I was just blown away with the way the dime sounded woven in between the three strings in the piano.  That stuck with me.  After that, when I started school at Manhattan, I met Vicky Chow.  She’s phenomenal.  I was always inspired by her being able to play in an ensemble and I learned from her and a lot of the other musicians in that program.  And then that next year, I wrote a piece based on those techniques.

FJO:  So you didn’t come up with the dime thing.

AA:  No, I didn’t.  Though, what was crazy is I really couldn’t find examples of that.  I was influenced by Vox Balaenae by George Crumb.  That blew me away, too, but I was trying to find examples. I didn’t really see anything, so I really credit Vicki Ray for showing me that.  And what I tried do is I experimented with exactly where it was. I found out if you pushed [the dime] all the way up the sound board, or whatever the end of where the strings are, it keeps the fundamental, but it has crazy overtones, so it’s basically like a gamelan or like a steel pan.  It’s like a super-saturated steel pan.  So I felt at home writing for that, and then I just based the whole piece on that.  It’s only on eight pitches, but I didn’t want to create it all to be about that.

“A lot of people think I’m trying to do novelty things, but it’s really the world I live in where I feel I can create the most.”

A lot of people think I’m trying to do novelty things, but it’s really the world I live in where I feel I can create the most.  It’s not just a cool effect. A lot of people will think it’s like trying to be some kind of gimmick, but it’s really just where I feel at home.  So I did that and I experimented with it.  I created this scale that was like a palindrome, and worked around with that.  I remember finishing the last page—it was all hand written back then—and handing it to Vicky about two hours before the concert at the Stone.  I think it was November 1st, 2008.  I remember handing her that last page and she killed it.

FJO:  Yeah, her performance of that piece is awesome. But before we leave the dime thing, dimes are so thin. I’m curious if you experimented with other coins: quarters, nickels.

AA:  I think I did, but I realized really quickly that even a penny’s too big.  It will touch the other strings.  Even a dime sometimes can be too big.  I did a piece for Anthony de Mare, an adaptation of the prologue of Into the Woods by Sondheim. There are two dimes and a poster tack. I remember we recorded up at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the dime was actually too big.  It was touching the other strings.  I remember going to a car shop when we went on lunch break and they were soldering stuff and welding. I found some washers and I was like, “Hey man, can you take a millimeter off this?”  We just needed a little less than a dime.  Zzzzzhh.  I went back and it worked perfectly, because it was thin enough. It was as thin as a dime, and it worked, and it kept the fundamental without making the other pitches ring, too.

FJO:  I thought you were going to say you went to a convenience store, got some change and tried other dimes, since they’re not all necessarily exactly the same.

AA:  That’s true.  Yeah. But I needed to take off more than just the little nuances.  For some reason, the strings were thin in that model of piano.  I never really had that problem with dimes before.

FJO:  Interesting.  Once again, this is another thing that no one would know if they only experienced it on an audio recording. Now, with Vicki/y, I heard Vicky Chow’s recording of it before I knew how any of those sounds were made and I hadn’t seen a score for it, but then I saw the video for it you posted online which lets everyone in on its secrets. It was really interesting to actually see how the sounds were being created, but the video is actually so much more than that; it’s almost like a pop music video.

AA:  Oh, thank you.  Gabriel Gomez did that video and did a really incredible job.  He’s a friend of Vicky’s, and she really loved the work he did before.  He works in all kinds of mediums.  Definitely not just music.  He did a really cool film with Robert Black, and we were just blown away, and we all kind of hit it off when we first were talking.  We set up a Dropbox folder and put a bunch of videos in that inspired us, just random stuff, not necessarily music videos and photos, and a description of what I was thinking with the piece, and he just came up with this very beautiful narrative.

FJO:  One of the details I love about this is that it’s clearly her performance, but it’s your piece, and the film weaves you into it as the composer; you’re like this like creepy bystander.

AA:  I know.  I’m such a creeper in that film.  It’s hard to watch that, because it’s hard to see me on something like that.  But Vicky’s an incredible artist. She came up with that transfer.  It was just a really beautiful concept. We filmed some of it in New Haven, in East Rock Park, and we saw this blue heron.  And then he incorporated that in the film, too.

The white piano we used in the end of that is the one I found on 131 and Broadway, when I lived in West Harlem.  I lived on 133 and Broadway and found that piano outside of a church; I saw it there for like two days.  So I went and asked.  I was like: “What are you guys doing with this thing?”  And they were like: “You can take it.” I never owned a piano in my life.  I pushed it up the hill, right by the 1 train, on these really crappy wheels that were all rusted.  Luckily my building had an elevator.

Every note had three notes because every string was so out of tune.  A friend of mine was in town from West Virginia that tunes pans.  He tuned the piano; it was the first time he was tuning a piano.  So then I had that piano, that same white piano, and that’s how I wrote Vicki/y.  I wrote it on that primarily.  I was messing with it.  It was a cool piano.  And I would just put the dimes in and everything.  So then we were like: “We got to use this in a video.” It was living in New Haven because I was there for two years and my landlord let me keep it up there in the house that she owned.  I called her to say we’re going to do a video and we want to finish it up here. So we took that piano out of there, did the video at East Rock Park and then we left the piano there.  We left it in the woods.  I don’t know why.  We just thought it would be cool.  But then my friend Sam and his friend Molly wanted to get the piano, so it’s in Brooklyn now, I think.  They got it the very next day.  They got a U-Haul and got it.  So that piano has seen a lot.

FJO:  You don’t have a piano here, except for a Schoenhut toy piano.

AA:  I write with that a lot.

Andy Akiho's Schoenhut toy piano

FJO:  And you also have a big digital keyboard.

AA:  Yeah, there are like seven MIDIs all around.  They just sample.  They get the job done.  I have to picture the orchestra sometimes, the range, like okay, I know the trumpet’s here, I know the trombone, I just kind of picture it and sometimes I work with scales.  Like I have one up there, and it’s got a million stickers with Sharpie notes all over it.  So I can’t even really use it right now.  It’s got duct tape; it’s for me to know where I am.  I was creating on that for one particular piece.

FJO:  Interestingly the thing that those keyboards are probably least good at is working on stuff that’s for an actual piano because you can’t prepare them.

AA:  Oh yeah.

FJO:  You can’t stick dimes in them, or if you do it’ll sound like something else.

AA:  I’ll sample it.  But if I do that, I’ll work at a real piano, and sample each note, and then plug it in there.

FJO:  I have two thoughts that grew out of what you were saying about being this creepy bystander in that video.  Composers who write music that other people play usually just sit in the audience.  You are kind of a bystander.  You’re not part of the performance. But you came from this background of playing music, and all of a sudden you’re now this guy who like lurks in the back.  You wrote the piece, but to a lot of people who aren’t knowledgeable about this stuff, it’s difficult to understand what that means.  Who’s that guy?  What did he do?  Oh, he wrote the piece.

AA:  Oh, right.

FJO:  What does that mean?  I thought that video really effectively captured that relationship.  There’s this transference in the video of that tattoo, which seems like a really nice metaphor for what happens when someone interprets music you wrote down.  The music is transferring to somebody else who realizes it and makes it into sound.

“I could write all day, but it takes a life of its own through the performers—the way they interpret it.”

AA:  It’s also the importance of the performer bringing the piece to life. I could write all day, but it takes a life of its own through the performers—the way they interpret it.  Even more so with pieces where they’re in charge of picking out the timbres.  In that piece, with Vicky and the preparations, the subtlety of moving things a millimeter or two makes a big difference.  There are so many parameters.  I guess you could say that with every piece of music, but I felt that especially with that piece, and working with Vicky, like it was really written for her.

FJO:  We talked about the video being really effective, but you’ve posted extremely well-done videography of performances of many of your compositions.  The video of Duo Scorpio performing Two Bridges is also really tremendous.  And then there’s even a fascinating video for to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem which is this really intense and disturbing silent film about human trafficking.  Overall you’ve really set a high visual standard for how you present your music to the world online, which is unusual in our community I think.

“I can’t sing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ without going off key.”

AA:  Well, I grew up on MTV.  I would stay up for anything from Yo!  MTV Raps to Headbangers Ball, back when MTV was videos all day long. Most Wanted, I was so into that.  I think I’m more visual than, than aural.  I learn things visually more.  Even when I’m writing music, it’s visual; it’s synesthetic.  I think in shapes and colors way more than I do the actual pitches.  I’m kind of tone deaf.  I can’t sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” without going off key.  It’s pretty rough.

FJO:  We might have to make you sing that now.

AA:  You don’t want me to do that.  That could be dangerous. This is like so masochistic, but I used to take singing lessons just to try to get develop my ear.  I was always the worst in ear training classes and I was super self-conscious about it, so it made it even worse.

FJO:  This might explain why there hasn’t been a ton of vocal music in your output.  There’s that really cool piece for loadbang based on haikus. That’s such an oddball ensemble.  And none of them play an instrument that’s necessarily tactile.  Right?  It’s brass and winds and then a singer.  That’s totally taking you out of your comfort zone.

“I love being out of my comfort zone, so my comfort zone is being out of it.”

AA:  Right, but I love being out of my comfort zone, so my comfort zone is being out of it. I also wrote a piece called NO one To kNOW one, in 2009-2010 and that was one of my only pieces with vocals.  And the piece I was telling you about that I wrote at Manhattan School that had a soprano.

FJO:  Right. And NO one To kNOW one is really interesting because at the end, she’s rapping.

AA:  Yeah, I never thought of it as rap, but I guess maybe I grew up on that a little bit. I was just thinking of a rhythmic way to say these words, but I wasn’t like I was going to try to mimic rap music and then people started calling that a rap.  I just wanted to mimic the rhythm that was going on, and when I wrote the lyrics, it just all fit together naturally.  I messed with the lyrics, and then came up with the rhythm and how that would be set, and then came up with the music, and it just kind of morphed.

I want to write for voice a lot more. I got more of a taste for that doing an opera this past summer.  Writing my first real aria was really great.  It really grounded me.  It was a nice roadmap and a relief to have some kind of structure to write with and to try to interpret words.  The opera is the first time I wrote with somebody else’s words. For loadbang, I wrote the words because I felt uncomfortable writing to somebody else’s words.  Same with NO one To kNOW one and the MSM piece.  Even though I don’t know how to work with words really, I felt more comfortable doing that. I’m not misinterpreting somebody else’s words for them to be upset with me.

FJO:  To take this back to the music videos of your music, it’s fascinating how detailed they are in the way they show how specific sounds are being made, whether it’s the close up of the dime in Vicki/y or the swipe of the credit card against the harp strings in Two Bridges.

“I enjoy seeing where these sounds come from.”

AA:  If I go to a show, I enjoy seeing where these sounds come from, learning and being inspired by that, and not to say: “Hey, this is how to do it.”  But just to share that experience, to get as close to a different experience from going to a live show, a different experience from listening to a record, and a different experience than watching a music video.  What was interesting about the videos you brought up, especially the harlem video is that I was thinking it’s gonna show the rubber bands, but he went in a completely different direction.

That was Michael McQuilken.  We’ve worked together a lot on a lot of videos, and I feel like we’re on the same wavelength on a lot of things.  I’ve always been very inspired working with him.  He’ll just take something and run with it.  It looked like I wrote the music to his film, but it was completely backwards. He sent me a treatment for every second.  I was living in Italy at the time. I remember reading this and I was just blown away.  What’s funny about that piece is it’s my most programmatic piece.  Usually it’s very abstract, and people try to ask me what it’s about, and I have no idea because they all think it sounds programmatic.  But with that piece, literally every sound has a story behind it.  I mean like: that was a siren; that was me running into a taxi; that was the door slamming; that was the emergency room beeps at the hospital.  I even sent him a treatment of what every sound meant when you listen to this CD.  And then he sent me one back, he’s like: “Man, I’ve been talking with my wife and we want to present this story.”  And she starred in the film, Adina. It was incredible what they did with that.

FJO:  It’s amazing. This is what music and film can be when there’s a real synchronicity.  And it’s interesting that the music existed first.  Because obviously most of the time in the film industry, the music gets written later. There are people who are masters at this.  The music fits the film so well and feels completely seamless, but to make the film fit pre-existing music is a whole different process.

AA:  I know.  He deserves so much credit for doing that.  He’s also a really amazing musician, just incredible artist all around.  We’ve taken other pieces like Prospects of a Misplaced Year, The World Below, where you’re super hyper into it, or NO one To kNOW one, where you’re seeing every single technique.  You’re seeing how the sounds are made on the exact opposite spectrum, even the Duo Scorpio piece, he directed that as well.

“The goal is to really feel like you’re in the instrument.”

The goal is to really feel like you’re in the instrument.  That’s something you can’t even get at a live show, unless you invite an audience on stage while you’re playing.  I’ve tried to do that before, too.  I got a little bit of that from being in Trinidad where you have like 50 people right up on you. Some are judging you, but most are really into it.  They’re two inches from you.  They’re almost in your instrument while you’re playing.  There’s just so much energy in that and I enjoy when you can get a little bit of that in a music video.

FJO:  So in a way, is that the ideal way to experience the music?  You have two CDs out.  Obviously, no one can see anything when they hear the CD.

AA:  No I just think it’s another experience. Most of the time if you’re listening to a record or CD, you’re just enjoying the sounds. I like having multiple ways to experience something, whether it’s a narrative or whether it’s just aurally, or a combination of both.

FJO:  Well to get to this idea of narrative, I didn’t know that every sound has a specific story behind it in to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem.  Music is so abstract. If you’re writing a film score or a score for a ballet, or you have words that someone’s singing or a narrator, you have this other element that gives you the story line.  Music on its own is not going to really do that, most of the time.  Or at least, you might have an idea of what the story is, but someone hearing it is going to come up with something totally different. Ironically that film about human trafficking, which was set to to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem, is really the only time so far that you’ve worked with a bonafide story board in film, even though it was created after the piece was. So have you thought of ever doing a more typical kind of film scoring project?

AA:  I definitely want to do that, without a doubt.  I don’t think I necessarily want to be a full-time music movie composer, but I would love to do film.

FJO:  You were involved with a staged production which I only saw little snippets of, based on Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo. There are multiple narrative layers to this, Brecht’s play obviously but also the actual life of Galileo, the historical figure, as well as the specifics of that particular production. I imagine that those were all layers that theoretically determined, at least to some extent, what direction your music went in.

AA:  Definitely, and that felt a little bit like composing for film, too.  [The director] Yuval Sharon had a lot of specific ideas; it was his baby.  He really understood what each scene represented and he knew what he wanted for every part, which was a challenge for me, too, because I’m used to coming from a very abstract space, and I had to be disciplined and learn how to really work with somebody who kind of knew what they wanted.  It felt like writing for a movie, but it also inspired me to want to do those kind of collaborations more, because they’re bringing a whole other angle that I would never have thought of.  That piece was interesting because I found out about it while living in Rome, and was sitting in the exact spot where Galileo demonstrated the telescope to the Pope in 1611. I met Yuval on Skype who knows I was sitting in the spot in my studio.  And he was telling me about the project, and I was like: “Wow, this is crazy.”

FJO:  That’s like living on Monroe Street and finding Cage.  It’s trippy.

AA:  Yeah.  I don’t know, man.  Maybe we’re in The Matrix or something.  It’s like too many coincidences right now.  It’s just weird how the world works like that.  Especially in New York.  A friend, Freddie Harris, whom I used to play with down in Trinidad a lot—on the second day I moved to New York, in 2003, I run into him.  And he lived in Miami.  He didn’t even live here at that time.  I run into him.  I hadn’t seen him since Trinidad.  Kendall Williams, do you know him? He’s an excellent composer.  He’s at Princeton now, and he was at NYU.  I hadn’t seen him in probably eight years or something.  We played next to each other in Trinidad, for Phase II, in 2003.  And then I run into him at LPR and he was studying with Julia Wolfe.  Another steel pan composer starting to study with Julia.  Neither one of us grew up in that path to either do classical music or become a composer.  We both played pan next to each other in Trinidad.  There’s like a 160 players in that band and we happened to be the ones.

A traditional Japanese bamboo masu for drinking sake surrounded by small knicknacks depicting cats.

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Beth Anderson: Just Dropping In

History teaches us that no matter how meticulously we plan, something unexpected will inevitably occur. And if we take the exact opposite approach to careful preparation, which is to completely embrace serendipity and “go with the flow,” life can be an amazing adventure. Take, for example, the life of Kentucky born and raised composer Beth Anderson.

The only child born to constantly quarreling parents who raised her on a family farm between Mt. Sterling and North Middletown in Montgomery County, Anderson did not have a great deal of access to music early on. But her grandmother, who lived on the other side of the county, owned a Mason and Hamlin upright piano which fascinated Anderson so much that she was given a toy piano for Christmas at the age of three. Just before her seventh birthday, her parents sold the farm and the family moved to the town of Mt. Sterling. Shortly thereafter her parents divorced, and as a consolation, Anderson started piano lessons with a local teacher in town; one of the first pieces she learned to play was Scarf Dance by Cécile Chaminade. Around that time she also began to write short piano pieces as well.

“I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music,” Anderson acknowledged when we visited her in her apartment across the street from the Brooklyn Museum. But perhaps an even more significant chance encounter than the one with Chaminade was finding a copy of John Cage’s book Silence in the Mt. Sterling Public Library some years later when she started high school. As she remembered, “I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read. I looked up every name. I used it as a catalog of what to care about. He was my guy.”

Against Anderson’s wishes, she acquiesced to her mother’s plan for her to attend the University of Kentucky and again, as luck would have it, John Cage and Merce Cunningham showed up there for a week-long residency in 1968. That initial encounter with Cage validated her own compositional instincts, and she decided to leave Kentucky and head to the West Coast. But once she was in California, she tried to randomly connect to Lou Harrison and soon discovered that pure happenstance doesn’t always yield the best results, as she told us:

I had a friend who had a friend who was driving a race car, and he had to be down in the Aptos area, where Lou lived, at a very early hour. He dropped me off at six o’clock in the morning, and I walked up and knocked on the door. I hadn’t told them I was coming, because I didn’t know I was coming until the night before and I didn’t have the phone number. So I just knocked on the door, and Bill Colvig, Lou’s companion, got up and let me in, and went to start water for tea, and went to talk to Lou, to get him up and come talk to me, because I explained what I was there for. Lou was clearly not having it. He didn’t want to get up. He didn’t know who I was, or why I was there bothering them at dawn. Eventually he came out and we had a little conversation and a little tea. … But he wasn’t at all interested in being my teacher. … That was my experience of Lou in 1969. And then, in ’74, I met him again at the Cabrillo Festival, and … then we were friends. But before that, I think I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.

Still, once she was at Mills, pure chance led her to study with Terry Riley, who had only just begun teaching, and Robert Ashley. Infectious melodies and conceptual work inspired by text would be hallmarks of Beth Anderson’s own compositional style.

Beth then relocated again, to New York City, where she co-edited the legendary Ear magazine, spearheaded various initiatives to promote the music of female composers, and served as a piano accompanist for numerous dance companies while she continued to write pieces that explored converting the letters of a text into musical pitches and left the durations up to the performers. Eventually though, she abandoned this experimental approach and began to compose works that showcased unabashed tunefulness and regular rhythms. And yet, all this music is also the result of a form of serendipity, albeit one that is admittedly more controlled, as she elaborated:

I write little shreds and tatters and then figure out how to have more of this and less of that, and cut them into each other. I can write a whole section that was actually on a drone, like on a C, and then another whole section that was on F. Then I would cut them into each other, and I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music. People hear them and hear the harmonic movement, but it wasn’t really movement. It was just cut-ups.

Our own encounter with Beth Anderson this past month was also, by and large, a product of chance. Back in January at the Chamber Music America conference, I ran into her and she mentioned that she was writing her memoirs. Then in March, she sent me an email to ask if I knew of anyone who’d be willing to read them through for her before she attempted to approach book publishers. Since I love to read, I volunteered, and she showed up unannounced at my office to hand deliver a copy. On a whim, I started reading it on the subway that same evening. I was so compelled by her story that I couldn’t put it down and I finished the 258-page manuscript within a couple of days. I had known Anderson for many years and had heard a great deal of her music. I was always intrigued, but didn’t fully grasp it on some level. Yet after reading the story of her life, everything finally made sense—the shift in compositional style, the seemingly “normal” sounding music that becomes less and less normal the more carefully you listen to it, all of it.

“I wasn’t into planning,” she explained. “I didn’t seem to understand the concept, and I still sort of don’t. I mean, I brought you that book the other day, and you were totally surprised. I just sort of drop in.”


April 6, 2018 at 1:00 p.m.
Beth Anderson in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Anderson’s apartment in Brooklyn
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  We’ve known each other for a very long time, but I feel like I know you so much better now after having read the first draft of your memoirs.  So thank you so much for letting me into your world that way.  It was a fascinating trip, and it has helped me to understand so much more about you and your music than I did before. And it also inspired me to want to talk to you about it.  Many people like to feel they know something about the composers whose music they care about, but it isn’t always positive. The more I’ve learned about Wagner, the less I’ve wanted to hear his music.

Beth Anderson:  There is that.  But sometimes it’s fun to know something about the person.  I want my music to be paid more attention to.  I felt like I’d sort of dropped out. It’s nice to have another way to engage an imaginary public by talking about my life.  Obviously, if nobody reads it, it won’t have any positive effect on the number of people that listen to my music, but if a lot of people do, then maybe it would.

FJO:  I do think when people know more about a composer, whether it’s some detail about that person’s life or even just a photo, it is possible to have more empathy with that composer’s music. I think this was a fundamental idea that led to the creation of Meet The Composer in 1974. If we want people to think composers are relevant to our world we must show that the people who actually create it represent the broad and diverse community we live in.  One of the things that struck me in your memoir was how you learned about Cécile Chaminade while you were still a beginning pianist. I think that set you on a path that you might otherwise not have followed if every composer you studied had been an old dead guy.

“I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music.”

BA:  I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music.  That was cool.  But it took a long time to find another one.  They just did not show up in my practicing Bach, Beethoven, and Liszt, until I found Pauline Oliveros.  And there was a big space between Chaminade and Oliveros.

FJO:  But before you learned about Pauline Oliveros you also studied with Helen Lipscomb and learned that she was also a composer.

BA:  But the only things I’d ever heard of hers were a trio and her teaching pieces.  She did not have a big concert output, as far as I knew.  I think that either the music is lost or somebody else besides me has it.  One of her relatives sent me the Trio—that same trio, as though it were her whole output—and wanted me to be the keeper of it because I was the only person they could find on the internet who mentioned her name, which is tragic.  I had hoped that the University of Kentucky would have her stuff, because she lived in town forever.

FJO:  Even though there was this long time between finding women who wrote music, I was struck by something you wrote about your mindset at the time you had discovered Cécile Chaminade: you didn’t realize at that point—because why would you as a little girl growing up who just learned a piece composed by a woman—that there was this really huge disparity between the performances of music by male and female composers.

BA:  And the availability of their music—until the ‘70s, when that set of three records came out called Women’s Work. It was sitting in the window of a big book and record store on Fifth Avenue [in Manhattan]; I was walking down the street and I almost fell over myself.  My God!  Women composers.  So cool.  There just weren’t any records.  I had found Chaminade in a John Thompson book, and I didn’t find anything except Scarf Dance.  It’s not like you could go down to the Mount Sterling Public Library [in Kentucky] and find Ruth Crawford Seeger or anybody else.  So it was very exciting.  It took a long time for that stuff to start coming out, and the musicologists are doing a great job bringing it forward, inch by inch.  But Jeannie Pool, a friend of mine from the distant past, was trying to get a master’s writing about women composers, and her committee told her that this was not something that was appropriate.

FJO:  What reason did they give her?

BA:  There weren’t any primary sources.  There wasn’t any music. They thought that it was unimportant and that she wouldn’t be able to find any stuff to write about.  So she put out a little booklet about women composers which was very nice.  She got a master’s eventually, but in California with different people.  I’m not sure what she actually ended up writing about.  But in New York, she was definitely told not to do it.

FJO:  That’s terrible.  To return to the Mount Sterling Public Library and the things that you did manage to find there in your formative years, it’s interesting how deeply some of the things that you found so early on stuck with you—like John Cage’s book Silence.  You grew up in Kentucky, which is where bluegrass music began. You do seem to have an affinity for similar harmonies in your own music from many decades later, yet—as far as I know—you were not directly exposed to any of that music. You wrote about an uncle who loved opera.

Framed photos of various members of Beth Anderson's family hang on a wall near the entrance to her apartment.

BA:  My uncle hated country music and my mother hated country music.  I wasn’t allowed to listen to the Mount Sterling radio station, which actually had people from the hills coming down doing live singing on the radio there.  That was discouraged. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a live bluegrass concert.  I’d hear it in movies or something, but that’s about it.  The music I was aware of was popular music, and piano music [I was studying], and stuff from the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s that my mother sang, so it took a while to get around to other stuff.  And hymns.  I was big on church music at the time, because they paid me to show up and play.

FJO:  And yet for whatever reason, I hear some kind of relationship between your music and bluegrass, as well as the older music from which bluegrass derived, old timey music. And yet it was not because you were immersed in it.

BA:  Well, I love folk music.  I was a big Joan Baez freak.  My favorite song was “Old Blue.”  I used to have a big old dog named Blue, and she and I used to sing it together.  Every time you say the word blue, she would howl.  So, it was a chorus.

FJO:  I was struck by your list of the three earliest songs that you remember hearing: “Love and Marriage,” “Lover, Come Back to Me,” and Rosemary Clooney singing “This Old House.” What about those three songs stuck with you?

BA:  I think it was the ideas behind the songs more than the actual tunes, because my parents were so busy getting divorced and re-married, and we did live in an old house, then we lost the old house so there were a lot of house and divorce stories going on in my life.

FJO:  And music became central to your life after their final divorce from each other.

BA:  That’s what I got.  I finally got that piano.  My grandmother’s piano came to live with us.

FJO:  But even before that, you had toy instruments and you tinkered with them.  It was almost like you were set up to become an experimental music composer.

BA:  I used to think that all those toy instruments ruined my ears as a child because I was clearly set up to become a microtonal composer.  Those things are so far off, especially the harp.  That was awful.  It jangled and circled around a pitch; the strings were colored rubber bands.  It was a bad instrument.

Beth Anderson, as a young girl, holding a cat and hearing a hat outside on a farm.

A very young Beth Anderson with her kitty at Sideview Farm in Montgomery County, Kentucky c. 1954. (Photo by Marjorie Celeste Hoskins Anderson, Beth Anderson’s mother, courtesy Beth Anderson.)

FJO:  So, looking back to the very beginning of you creating your own music, you obviously experimented with the toy instruments. But there’s no surviving music composed for them by you.  Did you know about the John Cage toy piano suite?

BA:  Not yet, but I performed it on my MFA recital and various moments after that.  I love toys.

FJO:  But perhaps it was only when you started taking piano lessons and had to learn to read music that other people had written that you consciously started thinking about creating your own things.

BA:  Yes, I thought it was fun to write stuff down. As soon as I got a pad of music paper, I was off, not that anybody thought it was a good idea.  It takes away from your time practicing, and everybody wanted me to practice more and write less.

FJO:  Your mother played the piano, but it was basically a hobby for her.  Yet it seems to me that from pretty early on there was this idea that you were going to be a musician.

BA:  Well that’s what I thought, but every year my mother would say, “Do you want to quit?”  It cost her money and it was money she didn’t wish to spend, and she didn’t see any reason for me continuing on with this.  She wanted me to have piano lessons, the way she wanted me to have ballet and tap.  She wanted me to have a certain grace, what little girls are supposed to have who grow up and marry doctors or whatever.  But she didn’t expect it to be a career, and she was mildly appalled that I kept at it, and at it, and at it.  It was not a good thing.  Unlike Prokofiev’s family, who kept pushing and pushing.  His family was so helpful.  Mine was not.

FJO:  But since you were an only child, I think that in some ways music became a kind of surrogate sibling to you, a constant companion.

BA:  Well, it certainly gave me something to entertain myself with that didn’t require other people.

FJO:  But it’s interesting that even though your family didn’t want you to do music, they thought that playing piano was better than writing music.

BA:  Well, according to my teachers.  My mother didn’t care one way or another.  She just was hoping I would quit.  She wanted me to play the flute, because she saw that as social and getting out of the house, and doing something with other people, so she was willing to keep paying two dollars a month for the flute forever.

A group of recorders standing on a bureau with a mirror and various personal effects of Beth Anderson.

FJO:  As it turned out, you wound up playing flute for years in wind bands, even in college.  A very big part of your formative experience with music was playing in wind bands.

BA:  And marching band was my primary exercise for many years.  That was the world’s most exhausting activity as far as I could tell.

FJO:  It also exposed you to a lot of repertoire that you might not have been exposed to otherwise. Certainly much different repertoire than the piano music that you were playing.

BA:  Yes.  If I had been a good enough flutist, I could have eventually played in the orchestra at Henry Clay.  But I wasn’t one of those two girls.  We had a sea of 30 flutes. The fact that I was eighth chair was pretty good;  they had some really good flute players.

FJO:  So your school had an orchestra as well as a wind band?

“The fact that I was eighth chair was pretty good; they had some really good flute players.”

BA:  Yeah. And Henry Clay in Lexington had a really good symphonic band. We marched in the Cherry Blossom parade in Washington one year with the cherry blossoms falling from the sky.  It was so magical.  Definitely the best experience I ever had with marching.

FJO:  And you stayed with it for years and years, even after you could have done other stuff!  What was the appeal?

BA:  Well, in college as a music major, you had to have an ensemble activity, and I could already play flute.  So I just stayed with the band instead of switching to chorus. Not that I didn’t sing in chorus. I was also in Madame Butterfly one summer.  I was one of those girls in a lavender kimono with an umbrella.  I liked singing, but I stayed with the band.

FJO:  One thing that I find so incongruous about your early musical studies is that when you were studying the piano you were basically playing music exclusively by old dead men, but in band you were playing newer music, undoubtedly including some music by living composers, though probably not stuff that would have sounded like Webern and Stockhausen.

BA:  No, but there was Persichetti.  There was an awful lot of Leroy Anderson, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Sousa, and re-writes of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture.  I don’t know why that seemed to come year after year with those clarinets going forever and ever.

FJO:  The reason I bring this up is that it seems so whacky that it was one of your early band teachers who first introduced you to 12-tone music.  That seems like a very odd person to be the person who did that.

BA:  Mr. [Richard] Borchardt. Well, he was a special guy.  I wish I knew more about him.  He’s not with us anymore.  It was [during] a summer band clinic of some sort—we were practicing the 1812 Overture and there was some kind of little composition class.  I, of course, got involved with that, and he chose to teach us how to do 12-tone music.  I thought that it was the coolest thing in the world.  So I wrote this quartet right away, and he put it on the show with the 1812 Overture.  That was kind of a fun side by side.

FJO:  Does that piece survive?

BA:  Possibly.  But it’s not in Finale, I’ll tell you.  And I don’t know where it is.

FJO:  So you won’t be taking it out to show us.

BA:  I’m hoping not to.  It wasn’t a great a piece, but it was hilarious because it kept being performed. There was a wine glass at the end that was supposed to break, but it never broke.

FJO:  Yeah, I love that story.  It’s what actually made me want to hear the piece.

BA:  With the wine glass hitting the metal and not breaking, just going thump.

FJO:  Maybe you should try it again with a cheaper wine glass.

BA:  Oh, I think that’s the point.  It was cheap, and therefore it wouldn’t break.  It was too tough.  It bounced.  You have to get an expensive, really elegant one.

FJO:  One that could cost more than hiring a musician to throw it!  But aside from the curiosity factor of the wine glass at the end, there isn’t a lot of 12-tone band music.  So it’s notable that the person who wanted to put you in that direction was a band person.

BA:  Well, I taught for Young Audiences a little bit.  It’s a lot easier to teach something that’s coding or that has a system than to say, “Give me your heart,” in a clarinet solo to a child who doesn’t know what their heart is or even how to write for clarinet for that matter.  So it was much easier to tell us, “Take these notes, put them in some weird order, and then turn them upside down” and stuff. You could talk about it, so it’s easier to teach.

FJO:  Considering how much band experience you had, it’s surprising that you didn’t wind up writing more band music.

BA:  The only other thing I did was a Suite for Winds and Percussion, and that was a re-write of music I wrote for a film score.  I just took it and turned it into that because Robert Kogan, who had an orchestra in Staten Island, had asked for apiece that would not use his strings because the strings weren’t very strong at that point.  So he wanted me to just use the rest of the people.  So it’s not exactly a real band; it’s for orchestral winds and percussion.

FJO:  An orchestra minus the strings, like the first movement of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto. Curiously though, in addition to being turned onto 12-tone music by your band director and then writing a 12-tone band piece, when you were enrolled at the University of Kentucky, one of the legendary band composers, John Barnes Chance, taught there.  His Second Symphony and his Variations on a Korean Folk Song are really terrific pieces. But I suppose that by the time you got to study with him, your head was somewhere else.

BA:  Yeah, I was into Webern and Cage. I really wasn’t trying to hang out around Korean folk songs.  I was going in a different direction. I wanted to know about electronic music desperately at that point, and he made fun of that.  He thought it was humorous. He could do it, it’s just that what he was doing it with was so basic that it was absurd.  It was useful for the theater department, but it wasn’t exactly something he would call his music.

FJO:  So what made you so curious about electronic music?  How did you even become aware that it existed?

BA:  I don’t know. Maybe John Cage talked about it in his books.  I got to UK (University of Kentucky) when I was 16 and started working in the music library. I was reading Source, and I had a wonderful music history teacher, Kathleen Atkins. She played Tod Dockstader in class. That was my introduction to real electronic music, music that took faucets dripping and turned it into something else.  I love Tod Dockstader!  He doesn’t seem to be the big hit to everybody else that he was to me.  Then I started hearing everybody else. Kathy wanted to build an electronic studio at UK, and they wouldn’t give her the money.  So I left.  When I went back to school, I went to Davis, and they had an electronic music studio, and I studied with Jerome Rosen. I think his level of interest in electronic music was trying to help us learn how to make advertisements using electronic music, because he was always assigning things that were 30 seconds or one minute.  He didn’t want to hear a ten-minute electronic piece.  He wanted to hear some tiny little gem that would somehow excite him.  Then, of course, I finally got to Mills, where they had much more space and an interest in bigger pieces and different styles.

FJO:  Let’s stay for a little bit longer at the University of Kentucky and those early years before you went to California.  You were able to learn about Tod Dockstader, which is amazing because that music was not very widely distributed at the time.  It wasn’t available everywhere, but it got to you.  John Cage’s Silence, which was published by Wesleyan University Press, also reached you.

BA:  In high school.

FJO:  Which is amazing. And also Source Magazine.

“I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read.”

BA:  They had a great a music library.  They used to have a lot of money for it, and now they’ve got more, because there’s some lady down there in Kentucky that supports a lot of things, including that music library. The last time I was down there, I went over to see what was up, and it’s gorgeous.  They have every periodical, even Fiddle Tune News; it’s that big.  They’ve got all of it.  And it’s not like when I was in NYU; I would go to look up a magazine and somebody had stolen half of the issues.  I couldn’t find the whole run of anything.  There were just huge holes in their collection.  I hope they fixed that.  But UK didn’t have that problem.  They had a lot of stuff.

FJO:  So if somebody was interested, they could find these things and go down that route.  They could know that these things exist. That’s really important in terms of developing a sense and a knowledge base, finding that stuff on your own rather than just being told about it.  I think it was really important for your personal development that you found those things on your own.

BA:  Well, I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read.  I looked up every name.  I used it as a catalog of what to care about.  He was my guy.

FJO:  And then by dumb luck, pure serendipity, you go to the University of Kentucky, and he has a residency there.

BA:  He shows up, and then I dropped out of school. And I come back and he’s there.  He was at Davis for a term.  It was freaky and wonderful.

FJO:  One of the big revelations to me in reading your memoir is that your life has been this chain of seemingly pure accidents that completely flow into each other. You take these sudden turns and then you’re somewhere else, but it seems totally natural even though it’s totally unexpected.  Interestingly, it’s similar to a lot of your music, which has been described by other people as collage oriented. I think that word doesn’t give an accurate sense of what it is, because when you think collage, you think these things don’t belong together, but in your music they do.  It’s like they’re carefully woven together, even though they’re not connected. So you don’t realize that they shouldn’t work together, but they do, and it’s kind of the same way your life has unfolded.

BA:  And the quilt.

A detail from a quilt hanging on one of the walls in Beth Anderson's apartment.

FJO:  Yes, exactly, we’ll get to that, too, in a bit.  You initially didn’t want to go to the University of Kentucky, but your mother wanted you to go there. You wanted to go somewhere else because you were interested in John Cage. But then suddenly Cage was at the University of Kentucky.

BA:  And the only reason I didn’t study with Ned Rorem was because I forgot to ask him to hang out and wait for me.  The only reason I didn’t study with Pauline Oliveros is because I got a ride past her when I was hitchhiking. I always say, “Well, that’s the universe.”  The universe was just going with it, whatever it was.  I wasn’t into planning.  I didn’t seem to understand the concept, and I still sort of don’t.  I mean, I brought you that book the other day, and you were totally surprised.  I just sort of drop in.

FJO:  And now here we are talking.  This happened the same way!  It’s interesting that you also had read Ned Rorem pretty early on, around the same time you were reading Cage.  I think of Rorem as a radical composer in a lot of ways, but a lot of people didn’t, especially at that time. They thought he was an old-fashioned composer because he never gave up tonality and he never gave up writing beautiful melodies. There was a real braveness to sticking to his guns and writing the music he wanted to write.  And you learned about him and his music relatively early on.  So in addition to all the avant-garde experimental music you were learning about, you also had a role model for going against the grain and writing really beautiful music, which is what you ultimately wound up doing.

BA:  Well, Cage and Rorem went different places.  But I thought they were both radicals, and I fell in love with Rorem’s stuff through playing for singers.  At UK, that was their idea of modern music, Vaughn Williams and Ned Rorem.  And the stuff was gorgeous.  What’s not to like?  And of course, his books were hilarious and wonderful.  I wanted to go to Paris.  I wanted to know all these wild and crazy people.

FJO:  I feel like Rorem’s influence has even found its way into the writing style of your memoir.  You’re just telling the story of your life the way he did, in a very honest and sincere way.

BA:  I just don’t know some other way to do it.  I haven’t read his books since I was very young, so I don’t think I actually tried to go in that direction.  I’m just doing it the way I know how.

FJO:  In terms of not planning, it’s very interesting how this played out in terms of possible role models you could have had as teachers.  Cage was a certain kind of a role model.  So were Pauline Oliveros, Ned Rorem, and Lou Harrison, a composer who found a way to be experimental and beautiful at the same time, writing music that was really original but also very immediate and very moving. And you tried to connect with Lou Harrison when you came to California, but it didn’t quite work out.

BA:  [My then composition teacher] Richard Swift and I talked and clearly I wasn’t interested in writing 12-tone music when I was studying with him and that’s what he wrote. So you would think we would not go together as a great teacher-student duo. So he thought that I would like to study with Lou Harrison, and he said, “Why don’t you go see him?”  I didn’t have any money to figure out how to get there by paying for the bus, but I had a friend who had a friend who was driving a race car, and he had to be down in the Aptos area, where Lou lived, at a very early hour.  He dropped me off at six o’clock in the morning, and I walked up and knocked on the door.  I hadn’t told them I was coming, because I didn’t know I was coming until the night before and I didn’t have the phone number. So I just knocked on the door, and Bill Colvig, Lou’s companion, got up and let me in, and went to start water for tea, and went to talk to Lou, to get him up and come talk to me, because I explained what I was there for.

“I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.”

Lou was clearly not having it.  He didn’t want to get up.  He didn’t know who I was, or why I was there bothering them at dawn.  Eventually he came out and we had a little conversation and a little tea, and he agreed with me that perhaps I would enjoy meeting the gardener at UC Santa Cruz that Cage talked about in his books and that yes, in fact there were communes in the hills around Aptos and Santa Cruz and that, if I hitched around, I’d eventually find somebody that would take me to one of these places.  But he wasn’t at all interested in being my teacher and having me come and sit at his knee.  And Bill—I didn’t know anything about building instruments.  I thought it would be fun, but I was starting from zero.  I’d never built a bird house, much less anything else with wood.  So they just sent me on my way after a couple of hours, and I hitched down to the beach to wait for the guy to come pick me up at the end of the day. And that was my experience of Lou in 1969.  And then, in ’74, I met him again at the Cabrillo Festival, and he really liked my piece, and then we were friends.  But before that, I think I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.

FJO:  That doesn’t seem like a good way to make a first impression.

BA:  But if the universe spoke to him and said, “Yes, take this girl and help her,”  then something could have happened.  But the universe failed to so speak and so duh.

FJO:  At least he woke up and spoke to you.

BA:  Yes, that was very kind.  And Bill was terrific.  He really tried.

FJO:  Your first encounter with Pauline Oliveros was also really bizarre.

BA:  Yes. I’d been wanting to actually meet her for a while. I created this independent study with Nate Rubin at Mills, so I was going to interview Pauline and write a paper about her. Once again, I got some crazy ride down to San Diego, and these people took me to a Salvation Army for some reason.  They wanted to buy something, and in there I found this big scroll.  It was a paint by numbers scroll of a toreador and a bull.  I bought this thing for a dime, and I thought. “Oooh, this is so cool.  I got this thing about a bull, and I’m going to see this woman who’s so brave and tough.”  I thought it was a great simultaneity, and I went to see Pauline.  They dropped me off at her house, and I went in. She was expecting me; I had written her a letter.  But she had a concert that night, and on the days of concerts, she did not talk.  So there she was not talking, for the whole day, and I spent the whole day in her house.  She had this huge cage with multiple birds in it, and they were squawking. Then the women from her women’s ensemble were there.  They were cooking things to serve at the end of the concert.  So there were the birds, the other women, and the cooking, but Pauline never said a word the whole day I was there.  So I wrote the paper about that.

FJO:  But at least you did let her know in advance that you were visiting her.  So it wasn’t like your first encounter with Lou Harrison.  So perhaps by then you had learned your lesson.

BA:  Well yes, I had managed somehow by 23 or something to figure out you might want to send a letter.  And, in fact, I did bring her some of my really early, awful music, and she turned the pages.  She didn’t say a word, but she looked, and I gave her copies of them.   And she smiled at me. That was fine.  That was sufficient.

FJO:  So how did you first become aware of Pauline Oliveros?  Was that at the University of Kentucky also?

BA:  Yeah, at UK, she was on the flip side of [the LP recording of] Come Out by Steve Reich.

FJO:  Right.

BA:  And Kathy Atkins played it for us in music history class.

FJO:  Wow.

BA:  And, you know, it wasn’t that I was so wild about the piece; I was so wild that a woman composer exists, another one.  Here’s another one!

FJO:  Parallel to your life as a composer, you’ve been a strong advocate for women composers.  During your student days, you put together a festival. Then when you first came to New York—I know I’m jumping ahead here—you were the co-founder of a project called Meet The Woman Composer and got the blessing of John Duffy, who had only recently founded Meet The Composer.

Sorrel Hays (center) and Beth Anderson (right) holding award certificates standing with Julia Smith (left) who is holding a Meet The Woman Composer brochure.

Julia Smith (left) presenting the National Federation of Music Clubs Award of Merit for contributions to women in music to Sorrel Hays (center) and Beth Anderson (right) for Meet The Woman Composer in 1977. (Photo courtesy Beth Anderson.)

BA:  Well, Bob Ashley basically set up that first festival, but he told me I was in charge.  He’d already decided who he wanted to invite. It was a cool array, and you could not find three more distinct people—Vivian Fine, Pauline Oliveros, and Charlotte Moorman.  That was a great group.  Then when I came to New York, Doris Hays, now known as Sorrel [Hays], was soon to be starting this thing, but she wanted me to do it with her at the New School. She got all the funding from John Duffy for that.  Apparently his organization had not existed long, so the idea that he would give us most of his money for the year was really astounding.  He was very supportive.  We did those evenings—10 or 15, I don’t know anymore—of all those women.  And all these musicologists came and wrote articles about them, so it was useful to do.  Then [many years later], B.C. Vermeersch at Greenwich House wanted me to do a women composers series at Greenwich House, and that went on for ten years.  So, yes, I liked the idea of putting together concerts of women’s music because it’s not heard as much as people currently think it is.

FJO:  There are organizations like IAWM, which I think does a lot of really tremendous work, but I know some younger composers who do not want to identify themselves that way.  “I’m a composer and I happen to be a woman, but I’m not a woman composer.  There’s no need for this.” Then you see something like the announcement of the Cleveland Orchestra’s 2018-19 season.  There’s not a single piece by a woman on it. It’s been that way year after year.  Same with the 2018-19 Boston Symphony season.  It seems pretty clear that there’s a real problem.

BA:  You think?

FJO:  If there shouldn’t be concerts of just women composers, why are there so many concerts of just men composers?

“There are piles of music that should be performed that aren’t.”

BA:  All the time.  Or a whole festival, like a hundred composers, and two of them are women.  They think they’ve done a big thing, that they’ve got two.  That’s ridiculous.  Somebody was telling me that he taught composition in Australia and all of his students were women.  I don’t know, are men getting out of the field because it’s so badly paid?  One wonders.  Aaron Copland used to say there were no women composers, which is crazy, or that there were no good ones.  None that have been properly educated. There are piles!  The Baltimore Symphony apparently has been doing all these statistics, and women are just a very, very small percentage.  If you take the ratio of men to women among living composers that are performed by the big orchestras in this country, it’s 85 to 15.  It’s not great, but it’s not terrible.  But if you take the amount of women that are performed, dead or alive, it’s like one percent.  Think of all the wonderful women that are dead that have written fabulous things I would love to hear, for the very first time, like Mary Howe.  Usually orchestras are good at holding onto the past and presenting that.  There are just piles of music that should be performed that aren’t.

FJO:  Part of the reason things are the way they are, which rarely gets spoken of, is the economics of it all—the economics of obtaining the music, as well as the time for rehearsing it.  I’m a big fan of the music of Louise Farrenc, a 19th-century French composer who wrote three symphonies, as well as the first-ever piece for piano and wind quintet.  That alone should earn her a place in the repertoire.

BA:  I played a lovely trio of hers once.

FJO:  It’s wonderful music.  But there are no modern editions of the symphonies.  You can get them from one place that charges a crazy rental fee.  Then, since the players don’t know the piece, they’ll need more time to learn it.  But if they just played Brahms again, they’ve already played it a million times so they can rehearse it only twice and it’ll sound pretty good.  Playing an old unfamiliar piece is kind of the same as playing a new piece.  Worse, because then it goes to the marketing department and they don’t know the name.

BA:  But Henze, which you can imagine would take quite a bit of doing to get on, they will rehearse that to the ends of the earth.  They will rehearse anything big that’s dissonant and difficult.  They understand that they have to rehearse that, and they’re willing to do that for the guys.  But if it’s just a beautiful piece by an antique composer who happens to be a woman, it’s too much of a struggle.  You just can’t keep doing the Beethoven Third all the time—lovely piece, but enough.

FJO:  Do the Farrenc Third instead!

BA:  Florence Price, also. There are so many people.

FJO:  I’m very happy to hear you saying this because as important as it is to do music by living composers, if we really want to learn about the full history of music, we need to pay attention to historical women composers as well and embrace them as part of the canon, if we’re going to have a canon.

BA:  Instead of an AK-47.

FJO:  So how to advocate for this stuff?  One issue is making sure that there are editions that are not only available but also affordable.  A lot of the older music is now showing up on sites like IMSLP.org, so it is possible to easily obtain some of this music.  But then there are also rules to consider. Musicians in most professional orchestras will only play from parts where the paper is a certain size; you can’t just print things out on 8 ½” by 11” sheets, because that’s too small.

BA:  Well, that explains why my pieces aren’t performed because they’re only 8 ½” by 11” paper.  I can make them bigger.  No problem.

FJO:  You definitely should.  Which is a good segue to get us back to talking about your music and how you came to write the music you write.  Connecting with Lou Harrison and Pauline Oliveros ultimately didn’t work out, but you did study for a time with both Terry Riley and Robert Ashley.

BA:  I studied with Terry Riley the first semester he was at Mills; he was new to teaching.  Terry taught me what was called cyclic composition, which was South Indian singing. He sang and then we sang. It was just copying, which was the teaching method of the time.  But I loved the fact that there was a tal—a rhythm, a beat. Cage was sort of against it.  He didn’t like regularly recurring meters, and Terry was trying to figure out what you could do within the meter that was interesting. Terry kept using scale steps and putting things together in interesting ways.  The whole thing came out sounding very beautiful, because it had this beautiful big drone underneath it.

“I kept hanging on to this thing that I kept seeing as a process that Robert Ashley kept saying wasn’t a process.”

My oratorio Joan had a big A drone underneath it, partially for the singers so that they could find their pitches relative to the A.  That was my plan.  Not so easy, but it gave them an A at least.  So Terry had a big effect on me, but not right away.  I kept hanging on to this thing that I kept seeing as a process that Ashley kept saying wasn’t a process.  I was coding words. I like changing one thing into something else, layering things like sedimentary rock.  I like to have the same thing done different ways, so that the text that you would hear somebody singing would be changed into the pitches for the instruments, then the meaning of the text would be another text. They’d all be layered, or there’d be some weirdo video thing that would explain the text as another layer.  I like layers.  Anyway, Mr. Ashley did not see that as a process.  I guess he saw it as a layered collage, which is certainly a way you could think about it.

FJO:  It sounds like a process to me.  I’m very curious about this idea of turning letters into pitches and being so focused on pitch, but not so much on rhythm.

BA:  The rhythm was improvised by the player.  But I was giving them the pitches and the rules. I would have some rule like, if you leap up from A to E, and got to the end of the word, then you would come back down a half step, then go on to the next word.

FJO:  There were also pieces where you’d have certain pitches drop out over time. You’d begin with all these pitches, and eventually have way fewer.

BA:  That was a modulating coding system designed just for Joan.  It started with just the white notes on the piano from A to A, and then you kept decoding the same text, but you kept using one less letter from the alphabet until you ended up with just A-B-A-B-A-B, B-B-B-B.  A-A-A-A.  And AAAA.

FJO:  This also sounds similar to what you did in a later piece that you wrote for solo ocarina called Preparation for the Dominant. You have a bunch of pitches in the beginning, but then fewer as time goes by.  You have this sort of attrition of pitch.

BA:  Do I?

FJO:  That’s how it sounded when I heard it.  I think it’s a very interesting idea, and I think it also sounds really good.  There’s a rigor to it, but there’s also a freedom to it at the same time, which is maybe why Ashley didn’t think of it as a process.  But the best processes are the ones that allow you to do your own thing with them.

BA:  Yeah, like Schoenberg actually broke his own rules.  I love that.

FJO:  Exactly.  And there are parallel fifths in Bach if you look hard enough for them.

BA:  Yay!

FJO:  Rules only get you so far, but then you need to make music with them.  Maybe that’s something that the folks who were so obsessed with process-oriented music in the mid-century lost track of, the process is a means to an end, but not necessarily an end in and of itself.

BA:  That sounds reasonable.

FJO:  Well, it certainly seems to be the way that your music has played out.

BA:  I like that.

FJO:  I only know Joan from the keyboard version that’s on the Pogus CD of your music.

BA:  Which had one performance consequently.

FJO:  But there was also the performance at Cabrillo of the original version.

BA:  KPFA has a recording, and probably Other Minds has it now, because Charles Amirkhanian was in charge of all that.  They also have the original She Wrote from Gertrude Stein’s 100th birthday concert in ’74.  I was complaining online recently, “This should be somewhere, and I’ll never hear it again.” And Charles wrote me back and said, “Oh!  Cut it out.  I’ve got it.  You can hear it by clicking here.”  They probably have Joan somewhere, too.

FJO:  It would be so great for that to be out in the world.

BA:  Well, you know, it is kind of afflicted by those naked guys, the timpani players, that ran through the middle of it and made the whole audience laugh and carry on.  The idea that the critic Robert Commanday thought that that was something in the piece was particularly bizarre.

FJO:  Well, how would he know?

BA:  I don’t know.  Everybody else talked to me—the man from the Santa Cruz Sentinel, as well as the critic from the Tribune.  So they knew.  But Commanday didn’t ask.  He was a don’t ask, don’t tell kind of guy.

FJO:  There has been this crazy idea in music criticism that if you talk to the musicians performing a piece or the composer, you’re somehow tainted and you’re going to be influenced so you’re not going to have objective criticism.

BA:  I hate that.

FJO:  And heaven forbid you’re friends with these people, or worse, that you actually perform or compose music yourself.

BA:  Or that you actually know something about it. Now you’re supposed to have a degree in American studies, and you’re supposed to have a general drift of the culture, but you’re not supposed to actually know anything about it.  I think that’s appalling.  I loved it when Eric Salzman and Virgil Thomson, people who actually wrote music, wrote music criticism.  You would know what their biases were, because you’d go listen to their own music.  And you could see it.  But if you have somebody that has a degree in sociology writing about music, then you don’t even know that their favorite composer is Philip Glass.  I used to think that they should list their favorite composers at the top of their columns, so that you would know.  Well, if they like this, this, and this, then there’s no big surprise that they didn’t like that.  I thought it would be very helpful.  But the only way you could get that sense of bias would be to read them for a long time.  Then you would see over time what they liked, and what they didn’t like.  But I don’t think that there’s a lot of purity.

When I moved to New York, Mr. [John] Rockwell was the best friend of my friend Charles Shere.  They had both done symphony or opera broadcasts together in San Francisco.  Charles stayed on the West Coast, and John came to New York.  When I moved here, Charles said, “You’ll have to meet my wonderful friend John Rockwell.”  So I called him up the moment I arrived, and I said, “I’m a friend of Charles, and I’m a composer. I would love to meet you.” And he said, “Oh yes, come to tea.”  Then the next day, he called back and he said, “Are you moving to New York?” And I said yes.  And he said, “Well, then I can’t talk to you.”  And that was that.  He wanted to continue that purity, that separation of church and state somehow.  But I think that it’s a poor thing.  I think you need to talk to composers—especially if you can’t read music or can’t play an instrument.  That wonderful man from The Washington Post, Joseph McLellan, said that he wrote a guitar piece so that he would have the experience of having written something. He could actually play an instrument, and they shockingly allowed him to write criticism for The Washington Post.  But he mainly reviewed parties.  Apparently he was the social guy.  He went to five parties a week, and then they also let him review concerts.

FJO:  You also had a career as a music journalist yourself. You were involved with Ear magazine in its formative years. I’ve always considered Ear one of role models for NewMusicBox.

BA:  Well, it is certainly the same kind of exhaustive experience that you’re never done.  You do this one, and then the next one’s coming up and how can you get people to give you the stuff that you need for the next issue. I used to have to go over to people’s houses and stand over them, waiting for people to write their articles because people wouldn’t do it.  They would say, “Oh, yeah.  I’ll do it.”  And it wouldn’t happen. But basically Ear was about promoting. I’m not sure we ever wrote anything negative.  I can’t remember if we did.  But we were boosters for sure.  And we were saying, “This is what’s happening.  Isn’t this fun?  Come play with us.”

FJO:  And Ear also had this very key idea that the people involved in making the music should be the spokespeople for it, which I think is a very important thing and a very different model from the separation of church and state, the armchair critic who can’t talk to you if you’re someone he or she might potentially review.  Well, it was almost always he, always a man.

BA:  Well, there aren’t a lot of women critics.

FJO:  But then you had an experience of actually writing criticism that wasn’t exclusively positive when you wrote about the entire New Music America festival.

BA:  Oh, that was a disaster.  I didn’t mean harm, but I think I was thoroughly hated.  The Kitchen never recovered from that, although some people thought it was a great thing because I was the only person that reviewed everything.  And not just the concerts, but also the [panel discussions of the] Music Critics Association, which I found really intriguing.  I loved hearing the critics read their papers, not having practiced them.  They didn’t see performing as something you might want to rehearse.  But anyway, Reports from the Front was something I created because I wanted to participate in the festival at The Kitchen in ’79, and I didn’t think that anybody would see it as negative because I was just saying whatever came into my mind.  It was so clear that it wasn’t thought out and it wasn’t directed in a negative way.  I was trying to describe stuff, and compare stuff to other performances of the same pieces. I thought I was so unimportant that nobody would take it badly, but people did.  It angered the whole downtown scene in one fell swoop, in nine days.

FJO:  And it also angered the music critics, right?

“I never think about—or never have thought about—consequences.”

BA:  Oh yeah, there was that.  There were so many times in my life that it would have been a good idea to be quiet, or to just not be there.  But I never think about—or never have thought about—consequences.  I think about it a little bit more now at this age than I did at that age.

FJO:  Despite the lesson of Pauline Oliveros being silent the whole day.

BA:  Yes.  She sure is a great teacher.  I should have paid more attention.

FJO: Before we completely leave California and keep talking about your life in New York, I was curious if you were at all connected with any of the extremely innovative things that were happening in so-called pop music there at the time. Not only was it a golden era in terms of the amazing things people were doing with electronics, plus early minimalism and all the conceptual pieces, California was the epicenter of psychedelia. Were you connected to any of that music? Were you aware that it was happening?

BA:  I listened to pop music from ’57 to ’69. Acid rock like Steppenwolf and Blue Cheer—I loved that stuff.  But, by then, I was over the edge into Stockhausen and Cage, so that was the direction my listening went.

Beth Anderson holding the original 45rpm recording of her text sound piece "I Can't Stand It" which she performed with drummer Wharton Tiers.

FJO:  All of the seismic shifts in your life feel somehow connected.  There was the move from Kentucky to California.  Then the move to New York.  Those are physical, corporeal things.  But there’s another event that happened once you were in New York, which is perhaps the most important shift of all—how you thought about yourself as a composer. And I think that it relates to your dabbling in music criticism.  You reached a point where you decided to write music that was intentionally pretty as opposed to something that adhered to some high concept.  You approached it initially with an almost revolutionary zeal, being an advocate for beauty. I think it’s possible to hear all of your work as a related continuum, but at the time it seemed like a huge chasm.

BA:  I don’t really understand it myself.  I know that I was doing this kind of thing.  I came to New York, and even in my second concert at The Kitchen in ’79, I was still decoding the word “skate,” all the possible definitions of the word skate [in my composition Skate Suite].  But I also did songs that were actually freely written.  At the same time, part of it was [flutist] Andrew Bolotowsky’s influence that everything had to be on staves.  If I wrote music on staves the way he wanted it done, I had to assign the rhythms, so that took away the player’s improvisatorial input.  I could have coded the rhythms, but I didn’t.  I just did them freely.  I was still decoding pitches [from words], but then I made up my own rhythms.

Then I met Michael Sahl, and he had very powerful opinions about harmony.  His music was very harmonically centered, even more than it was melodically. He was big into this heavy jazz piano, bass, and drums kind of feeling underneath it that I never really got into. I liked cutting up and collaging things, but he still had an influence.

“I want to see you turn on a dime, schizophrenically, and be somewhere else.”

Some people see my music, that’s now in Finale, and when they see the cut-ups they want to finish and stop [the phrase]—lift the bow, then go on. Even though I don’t put a fermata over it, people want to do that because they were taught to do that. But some of my pieces have so many cut-ups in them, if you do that, a five-minute piece becomes a ten-minute piece.  It just drags deathly into the ground. That’s the absolute opposite of what I want.  I want the thing to lie against itself.  I want to see you turn on a dime, schizophrenically, and be somewhere else. So, don’t do that people!

FJO:  When a performance of your music is seamless, the effect can be similar to the hemiolas in Brahms or even Carter’s metric modulation; the sudden shifts are very satisfying musical surprises. In some ways, it’s like looking very carefully at the patterns that are sewn on quilts. Quilts have these purposeful incongruities in them because they’re made by human beings so you will get these things that don’t quite line up, and that’s the joy of what a quilt is.

BA:  Especially a crazy quilt. There’s a whole lot of different patterns of quilts that are traditional, historic, antique patterns.  But those aren’t the ones that are the most interesting to me.  I like crazy quilts best.

A view of the entire quilt hanging on one of the wall's oin Beth Anderson's living room behind a couch and in between two posters.

FJO:  Well, one of my all-time favorite pieces of yours is this big solo piano piece, Quilt Music.  I assume you gave it that name because you heard that connection.

BA:  Yes, it’s like a swale for piano, because the quilt is just another word for that.  It’s equivalent to me.  Anyway.  Yes, I’m glad you like it.

FJO:  Tell me more about how it’s put together.

BA:  I have no idea.  I’d have to get the score and stare at it.  You know, it’s old.  I mean, it’s long ago and far away.

FJO:  Alright, but since you said it’s like a swale, I’m curious. At some point, you started calling pieces swales.

BA:  In 1984. That’s the year that the horse named Swale won the Kentucky Derby, the first Saturday in May.  And I never heard the word before, so I looked it up in the dictionary. At the time, I was writing a string quartet, and I thought that was a great name for it.  I wanted to dedicate it to Mr. James Roy, because he had been so kind to me.  He worked at BMI, and he was a friend I could go talk to in the middle of the day without an appointment.  He was another one of those people I could drop in on for no reason, and he would see me.  So I named it Pennyroyal Swale.  I wanted to use his name somewhere in there.

That’s how the first one came to be.  Then I wrote another one that Dave Soldier’s string quartet played the first time.  The next year they wanted to do another one, so I wrote one for Rosalie Calabrese [who was the manager of the American Composers Alliance]. I named it Rosemary Swale.  Rosemary is actually an interesting herb because you can use it to cook and it’s also some kind of an ingredient in the fixative in perfume.  Practical and artsy and that’s Rosalie.  So Rosemary Swale was that one.  And then there got to be lots more.

On top of one of her tables, Beth Anderson keeps a drawing of her performing on the piano with flutist Andrew Bolotowski and a couple of toy horses.

FJO:  So what is a swale for you musically?

BA:  Well, that is a collage.  There’s no question.  I write little shreds and tatters and then figure out how to have more of this and less of that, and cut them into each other.  I can write a whole section that was actually on a drone, like on a C, and then another whole section that was on F.  Then I would cut them into each other, and I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music.  People hear them and hear the harmonic movement, but it wasn’t really movement.  It was just cut-ups.

FJO:  But not every piece of yours since then is called a swale.  I thought it was very interesting to hear you just say that Quilt Music is a swale, even though you didn’t call it one.  What distinguishes swales from the non-swales?  I know there was a piece of yours, The Eighth Ancestor, that was performed during the ISCM World Music Days that predates your first swale, but it has a similar form to them.

BA:  It was cut-ups. It was from like ’79 or ’80, so I didn’t have the word yet.  But I was definitely doing cut-ups, and part of cut-ups comes from not having the time.  I wasn’t the kind of composer that took three notes and made it into a symphony.  I wasn’t interested in developing the theme and making variations.  I was working all those jobs for dancers, so I would write down things that I had just played while they were teaching the next thing. I was just writing like a crazy person while they were teaching the next thing, looking at them out of the corner out of my eye so I’d know what to play next.  Then at the end of the day, I would have piles of these little scraps of paper. I would take them home and try to figure out how to connect them, or just connect them or cut them up.  Then I could make them into pieces.

FJO:  So when you were playing piano for all those dance classes, you were just improvising?

BA:  Mhmm.

FJO:  Luckily you were able to remember and reconstruct a lot of that music.

“I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music.”

BA: Well, I think I was a pretty boring dance accompanist, but I did do it for 20 years, so apparently I got away with it.  I had certain kinds of things that I did in F, and certain kinds of things I did in B-flat, A-minor, and D-minor; that stuff would just spool out.  I had massive amounts that I could play forever—pliés in D-minor, across the floors in B-flat.

FJO:  Do you think that working with all those dancers might have led you to create music that had a more regular rhythmic pulse. You mentioned that Andrew Bolotowski wanting you to write music using standard notation is what led you to give up this idea of having improvised rhythms, but you were already forced into creating things that had regular rhythms when you were working with these dancers because that’s what they needed.

BA:  For sure.

FJO:  Could that have had an impact on why your music went the way it did?

BA:  Absolutely.  Years and years of banging out things in three, or four, or six, or twelve, unless you work for Merce Cunningham, in which case all bets are off.

In front of a group of paintings there is a grand piano in Beth Anderson's living room with piles of sheet music on the lid and stand.

FJO:  You also wrote the songs for a couple of Off-Off-Broadway musicals in the early 1980s, which is a genre that prizes catchy melodies. When I was 16, some high school classmates and I rented out the Carter Hotel Theatre for a week and presented a musical I wrote, so I was very intrigued to learn that one of your musicals, Elizabeth Rex: or, The Well-Bred Mother Goes to Camp, ran for nearly a month there.

BA:  Oh my God. That’s so fun. Isn’t it now the Cheetah Gentleman’s Club? The Carter Hotel was the dirtiest hotel in America. This was not an impressive venue, but it was very close to Broadway!

FJO:  Are there recordings of those shows?

BA:  Well, there certainly are shreds and tatters of the words and music, but the people on stage were not hired for their musicality. They looked like the part.

FJO:  Elizabeth Rex was about this woman who tries to get her daughter not to be a lesbian, so she takes her to see a priest and it turns out that he’s secretly gay.

BA:  I love it, but now there’d be all these questions about whether it’s making fun of priests fooling around with the altar boys. And it was pre-AIDS.  But it was a very funny show, and I think it could be done as a period piece.  We’ll see if somebody might want to do it.  And Fat Opera could definitely be done as a cabaret show.  It doesn’t need to be done as a musical.

FJO:  All in all, I think you wrote three musicals.

BA:  Yeah, the first one [Nirvana Manor] has a cast of 20, so that was huge.

FJO:  To return to the piece of yours that was performed on the ISCM World Music Days. It was interesting that the piece was chosen by one of the adjudicators at the time, Fred Rzewski, based on what was a misunderstanding of your intentions in the piece. He thought that your return to totality and regular rhythms was a form of irony.

BA:  I think he thought it was political, because he’s very political.

FJO: But in a way, it was political, I mean, you wrote a manifesto on why you aspired to write music that was beautiful that is very political.

BA:  But it wasn’t Communist.  It wasn’t Stalin, Mao, whoever, and it wasn’t Hindemith—Music for Use. It was just me doing what I did.  Michael [Sahl] taught me actually at the ISCM to go around saying, “Je fais la musique de la petite femme blanche”—I make the little white girl’s music—as a defense against people saying you have no craftsmanship; you’re not sophisticated.  This was the response I got from people there, so I was trying to let it fall off of me like water from a duck.

A series of six photos from 1979 of Michael Sahl and Beth Anderson laughing.

Michael Sahl and Beth Anderson in 1979. (Photos courtesy Beth Anderson.)

FJO:  But there was someone in the audience who did like the piece, a very significant Belgian composer.

BA:  Yes, Boudewijn Buckinx, whom I love.  But he was far away in a booth.  It wasn’t apparent to me that there was anybody there who liked that piece except Michael and me.

FJO:  However, despite your feeling such negativity from most of the people there, you stuck to your guns and you stayed on this path, undeterred by what these folks or anyone else thought about your music. And now, decades later, there are four CDs out in the world that are devoted exclusively to your music and several pieces of yours included on other recordings, including orchestra pieces. It’s not as much as it should be and I know it’s not as much as you wish, but all in all, it’s a pretty good track record compared to the trajectory of many other composers.

BA:  Well, I really wanted the CDs out so that these pieces wouldn’t just exist in my head or on these falling apart tapes from the distant past.  I thought I was going to die at the time, so I really wanted them out before I died.  I didn’t think my husband was going to put them out afterwards.

FJO:  I know that you were quite sick several years ago.

BA:  Yes, but “she recovered!”  So onward.  But yes, I very glad that the CDs are out, and I would like to do more, but I haven’t organized it yet.  My husband assures me that I should not do CDs, that nobody’s buying CDs, which is certainly true.  I should only make things for streaming.  But then how do you send a CD to a radio station if you don’t have a CD?

Beth Anderson laughing.

FJO:  We’re living in a very weird transitional time. A lot of people claim they have the answers, but I don’t think anybody really knows where it’s going.  I’m personally thrilled that you made sure these CDs got released. Of course, people stumble upon music online all the time these days, but I love the idea that it is also possible that somebody could chance upon one of these recordings in, say, a library in some small town in Kentucky.

BA:  Yes.

FJO:  It could change that person’s life, just like stumbling upon a book by John Cage changed your life. The same is true with these memoirs you’ve written, which is why I think it’s important that they are published at some point.

“There are not a lot of memoirs of women composers out in the universe, despite Ethel Smyth doing like 12 or something.”

BA:  There are not a lot of memoirs of women composers out in the universe, despite Ethel Smyth doing like 12 or something.  It seems like there’s a space for that in the universe potentially.  And somebody could find the book.  It’s like I found Eric Salzman’s book on 20th-century music and all these other books that were so important to me as a child.  Even when you’re not living in the center of the universe, you can find books and recordings in libraries.  I’m a big library person.

FJO:  But of course now with the internet, anybody can find anything anywhere, apparently.

BA:  If you know what to look for.  The thing about libraries is, you would fall across them because it was red or something. I read all the books in the Mount Sterling Public Library on theosophy because every one of them was a bright color.  I’d see all these old books, and there’d be a bright red one or yellow or blue or green.  On the internet, you need to know what you’re looking for a little bit.

FJO:  Hopefully people will find your music online through reading and seeing and hearing this talk that we’ve just done.

BA:  That would be cool.

 

Scott Johnson: The Cultural Version of DNA Mixing

In his landmark scientific comparison of music and language Music, Language, and the Brain (Oxford, 2008), cognitive neuroscientist Aniruddh D. Patel states that “[s]peech and music involve the systematic temporal, accentual, and phrasal patterning of sound” and that “there are numerous points of contact between musical and linguistic melody in terms of structure and processing. For example, the statistics of pitch patterning in a composer’s native language can be reflected in his or her instrumental music. Furthermore … melodic contours in speech and music may be processed in an overlapping way in the brain” (from pp. 177 and 238).

All of this seems like it should be incredible fodder for composers, as well as anyone concerned about the relevance of music. And indeed, the histories of music and language have been very deeply intertwined throughout history in cultures throughout the world. In fact, Steven Mithen, in his provocative 2006 book The Singing Neanderthals, went as far as to posit that music and language share a common root in a pre-historic proto-communication he named “Hmmmmm” (“Holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical and mimetic”), diverging into separate realms only much later in our evolutionary process.

So perhaps it was inevitable that in the late 1970s a then 20-something named Scott Johnson transcribed four phrases from one side of a telephone conversation he had recorded, and then played those phrases on an electric guitar—an experiment which several years later became his breakthrough musical composition John Somebody. After all, for centuries drummers throughout West Africa have performed on instruments called “talking drums” which so effectively mimic the meter and intonation of spoken language that they were traditionally used to convey complex linguistic messages across great distances. In the earliest book-length study of Chinese music in English (Foundations of Chinese Musical Art, written in Shanghai in 1936), John Hazedel Levis demonstrated the clear relationship between the pentatonic melodies of traditional Chinese instrumental music and the pitched inflections of the Chinese language.

Admittedly the relationship between music and language in Western music has been somewhat more oblique, as anyone who has listened to an incongruous musical setting of a text can clearly attest. Yet, similarly, part of our perception of a text and melody working really well together is the result of a perceptible relationship between the two. Apart from putting music to words, taking actual speech and transmogrifying it into music—Johnson’s initial electric guitar experiment—was not something completely without precedent in this part of the world either. Snippets of speech make cameo appearances in several of the classics of 1950s musique concrete, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry’s Symphonie pour un homme seul (1949-50) and Edgard Varèse’s Poème électronique (1958) being among the most memorable. And in Steve Reich’s earliest phase compositions—It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966)—tape loops of recorded speech fragments are transformed into elaborate musical counterpoint. All of which Scott Johnson acknowledged, along with several other influences, when we visited him in his media-saturated apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

“There was plenty of voice use,” remarked Johnson. “But I don’t think it was rhythmic in this particular way. That’s one thing Steve brought to it. And, although in some of those early concrète things the voices appeared within a pitched context, they didn’t do the transcription thing, which is pretty much what I brought to it. … People talk a lot about Steve Reich’s Different Trains, which happened after he’d heard John Somebody, but as a teenager I’d heard his loop pieces. He did not go to the idea of transcribing the pitches and turning it into instrumental music, but there was that kind of sonic quality of layers, so that was an influence. Then there’s the call and response idea from the blues. And then there was Messiaen, which was a really direct and obvious thing: write down the bird songs. I’ll write down the human songs. So I would say that those three things kind of collided one afternoon.”

But it turned out to be several years before Johnson’s playing of those four speech-derived melodies became John Somebody, a rare occurrence of a piece of so-called “serious music” that has an unmistakable sense of humor.

“It’s about this guy who’s a forgettable person,” Johnson explained. “In the second movement, he’s stumbling. That’s actually me going, ‘I just thought of something; what did I think of?’ In the next movement, women are laughing at him. Then in the final movement recap, it’s sort of a joke about male insecurity to a great degree. That’s partly why the use of the big, macho, power chords to me was always funny. It’s metaphorical, whether or not you get the metaphor.”

It was also a lot more than just an attempt to turn spoken language into music, as Johnson described it.

“I was working very hard to get synchronization, which was the opposite of what Steve did. There’s a 25-foot loop on John Somebody in ‘Involuntary Song 3.’ It’s the one with the fake operatic voice. Underneath that, there are five pitches of ‘hahs’ [laughing sounds]. I made the chord structure by turning them on and off as the chords went by. Any two ‘hahs’ would create the implication of a major chord or a minor chord, so I had to synchronize those multiple loops with this 25-foot tape loop. I still remember it was two and a quarter inches for a whole note. And I was putting sixteenth inch pieces of leader in there, so that I could the run the whole thing in sync with other tracks. It was absolutely insane. This is the kind of thing you could do in two days with Pro Tools. But that was the technology at the time, and it was brand new—multi-track tapes at home.”

Taking recordings of fragments of speech, transcribing them into instrumental melodies, and then harmonizing them provided Johnson with rigorous compositional techniques. But it still allowed him to reference popular culture, as well as the sonorities of contemporaneous popular music (e.g. the electric guitar), which was something he felt he would have been prevented from doing had he written high modernist music according to the compositional training he eschewed. Yet, ironically, he soon realized his methods shared a surprising kinship with serial music.

“You have those notes and you’ve got to deal with them,” he acknowledged. “If you’re a serialist composer, here comes that A-flat. You have to use it. You cannot leave this room until you have said A-flat. I found that what the speech transcription thing did for me is a similar kind of thing. It makes you jump through hoops. … In the late ‘80s, I had a couple of pieces where, after realizing this similarity with being tied to these voices, I literally made a 12-tone row and did the retrograde, retrograde inversion, the whole thing. I made strict melodies and then harmonized them tonally, and ended up with a harmonic language that is not that dissimilar from where I am now. I did it to prod myself, but I was not really interested in this totally constructed, totally logical, totally interrelated artwork that I think the serialists were interested in. In some ways, I’m more of a collagist or a hybridist, the surrealist idea of dissimilar objects jamming up against each other and something happens.”

Johnson also continued to explore the correlation of speech and music in a variety of compositions, but in the last 25 years several of these pieces have taken on much larger narrative arcs, often with social and political implications. How It Happens, a massive work for string quartet and the pre-recorded voice of American journalist I. F. Stone completed in 1994, is a seething commentary on globalization and xenophobia since the Cold War era. The (once-again extremely timely) Americans, from 2003, uses the voices of three recent immigrants to address the complexities of national identity in a multicultural society. Mind Out of Matter (2009-2015), Johnson’s most ambitious composition to date which has recently been commercially released on CD by Tzadik, uses samples of speech by Tufts University-based philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel C. Dennett to craft a sprawling instrumental oratorio for chamber orchestra about human consciousness and the evolution of religious beliefs. It’s super heady stuff, but it’s also extremely satisfying as a musical experience.

“I read a book by Dan Dennett called Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and I was very much blown away by it,” said Johnson. “It actually answered a lot of questions about the evolution of music. … It shed a lot of light on things that I had been trying to say about why people join the groups they do and why certain ideas survive, like high modernism. … Then I heard his YouTube videos and realized that he had this fabulous melody-generator of a voice … probably the best sampled-speech source that I’ve bumped into.”


March 1, 2018 at 2:00 p.m.
Scott Johnson in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Johnson’s home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: We’ve talked with each other many times over the years, but here we are having a conversation that’s being recording and will be transcribed, edited, and published for people to read—which I’m calling attention to since it’s somewhat analogous to the way that you’ve created many of your musical compositions. You’ll record or obtain conversations or speeches of some sort, transcribe them into musical notation, then mold it into music.

Scott Johnson: Well, these begin from two very different positions. Some of the pieces, especially this most recent one with the philosopher Daniel Dennett, initially starts with a lecture from a book of his called Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. He’s explaining how supernatural ideas are a natural outgrowth of the way our brain works, and then they become an outgrowth of the way societies work. In that case, I was starting with words that were already prepared. I edited and pieced things together, moved things around. But this was to some extent a pre-cooked meal. Then I went up to Boston [to record him] and got a few things that I wanted to complete the piece. On the other hand, there are other pieces—like, for starters, John Somebody—where I essentially went over to a friend’s house and had her call someone up on the phone, and I recorded her side of the conversation. I did that again for a piece called Convertible Debts. I went to a number of friends and I asked them to call someone up and ask for a favor. When people ask for a favor, they get a little squirmy; they get self-conscious and their voices kind of go up. So I got better melodies due to people’s nervousness.

So, yes, you’re right. The speech-sampling pieces, which are at least maybe half of the music I write, always begin with some pre-existing something. But I may or may not know what that pre-existing something is going to be when I have somebody just talk on the phone. I don’t know what they’re going to say. Although, afterwards, I of course know what they said. So I can pick and choose.

FJO: Over the last decade, there’s been a great deal of published research, as well as hypotheses, about the differences between music and language as sociological phenomena and their origins. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Steven Mithen’s book, Singing Neanderthals.

“Music and language have certainly diverged, but they still find each other.”

SJ: Yes, but it’s been years since I read it. He has an interesting theory about these being outgrowths out of the same root, that they were related in the same way that chimps and gorillas grew into different things. Language and music grew into different things. I think that in listening to people speak, I can still hear things. One of the early things that I noticed is that when people want to convey certainty, they settle on a low pitch. That’s the newscaster’s way of letting you know that it is an authoritative statement. And everybody’s familiar with question-speak. Then when people are trying to convince you of something, they can get very animated. Of course, there are all the facial gestures that go with that, but these have musical corollaries. There are things that are in between. A preacher is a perfect example. In some religions, some of them actually do start singing. I actually had a grandfather who was a Lutheran minister in Wisconsin, and when he would get to banging the pulpit, there was a sense of repetition in his phrasing and pitch choices. Actually, that’s another thing that people often do when they’re trying to convince you of something. They will repeat a point, then they’ll vary it, and then they’ll give you another example, and they’ll hit that same note. So yes, music and language have certainly diverged, but they still find each other.

FJO: So far, we’ve only been talking about English and the acculturated habits that English language speakers have, like raising the voice at the end of a question. But that’s not a universal phenomenon. All languages do similar things, but not the same thing.

SJ: There are slight variations, but it’s really basically all off the same root. Different cultures have different habits, but they’re all operating on the same hardware. Actually, Dan Dennett has an interesting thing in his new book where he refers to people’s minds; he talks about installing things in your necktop—like a desktop. Everybody in different cultures gets different versions of this installed. But some things are universal. A mother always uses that soft voice to sing to their infants. Guys looking for a fight kind of sound the same. You don’t have to be from that culture to know when somebody’s coming at you. Or when somebody’s smiling at you. There are a set of human behaviors, and they get channeled by culture.

FJO: Of course, one way they get channeled—and a way that makes it even closer to what we think of as music—is that some cultures developed so-called tonal languages, like Chinese or various West African languages such as Yoruba. Among certain peoples in West Africa, there is a clear relationship between the tonal language they speak and the music they create—they’ve even developed a performance practice on talking drums that directly mimics speech. I think it’s the ancestor of your music, because it’s turning words directly into music in a similar way.

SJ: Yeah, it’s a parallel. Like I said, everybody’s got the same hardware here. There are a number of things you can do with it. Tonal languages are apparently very difficult to learn. Some cultures don’t do anything with tone. But there are still variations on the uses that people can make of pitch. In English, we make uses of pitch in question-speak. Going up at the end of a sentence is a cultural habit that developed. Why did it happen? I actually have my own theories, but it doesn’t matter. Once a thing happens, it becomes imitated, and it gets passed on. That’s how human culture works. Basically in one sense it’s Darwinian; certain practices survive because they are copied more often. Although the difference between the regular Darwinian kind of unconscious evolution and the kind of evolution that humans do is that humans are conscious and they have more ability to choose than a dog. But I don’t think we have as much ability to choose as we think we do. Many years ago, to point out the fact that we are to some extent programmed by our culture, I would say, “We invent the sentences, but we didn’t invent any of the words.” I must have said this to Laurie Anderson, and she said, “We didn’t invent a lot of the sentences, either.” Think of all the political arguments you’ve had. So much of it consists of us repeating back what we heard yesterday—maybe in slightly different words, a mutation, but it’s not as if we thought that up. Sometimes we like to present it as if we thought that up, and that is also human nature: people putting their imprint on the viruses that are passing between us and other human beings.

FJO: So to take it directly to music: obviously, if you’re composing music based on the 12-tone equal-tempered scale that the West largely agrees on, all those notes have already been heard. All the possible chords you could make with those notes have also been heard. Maybe these notes and chords can be put together in new ways similarly to how we use pre-existing words to form new sentences, but only somewhat. And if you’re using musical instruments that someone else built and that other people have used, all those timbres have already been heard, too.

SJ: Right. There is possibility for novelty and, in our kind of new music world, it’s almost a fetish and a point of pride to say that you’re the first person to do this thing or that thing. And indeed, inventions occur, or else we’d still be trying to light that fire in the rain and having a hard time with it. But inventions are usually informed by an inheritance. I think there are mainly two kinds. There are variations on pre-existing structures and habits. All the chords and the notes that you’re talking about. Then there are inventions that are hybrids where you get inspiration from outside your field. When I started doing John Somebody, I studied visual art. I remember feeling at that time—this was in the conceptual art era in the late ’70s—that there was more inventiveness and more surprise in the visual arts than in the music world. One of the things I wanted to do when I settled on being a composer was to have some of what I used to call the gee-whiz factor, this sort of delight in something new which is naturally an interesting thing. Not only in music, but in most cultural products or habits, there’s always an interplay between comfort zone and familiarity—which is to say your inheritance from the culture—and surprise and invention. Both of those things can come up with very pleasing results: the piece of music that makes you cry because it pulls all the familiar strings; then the piece of music where you go, “What is that? I have never heard that before.” Of course, both familiarity and surprise can also go very wrong, which accounts for all of the boredom that we have felt and “If I had a gun, I would shoot myself right now in the middle of the concert.”

“There’s always this interplay between inheritance and invention.”

So there’s always this interplay between inheritance and invention, but different subcultures have really different attitudes about what constitutes a nice mix. I was about to say popular music is more inheritance and familiarity, but that’s actually not true. Think of classical music lovers, the kind of people who get mad if you’re not doing Schubert. One thing that’s always bothered me about the classical music world and the new music world is that we have a tendency to consider ourselves to be superior beings who are more aware and more conscious of what we’re doing, more inventive and less structured by what we think we’re supposed to do. Then there’s that old tendency to sneer at popular music. Popular music in general is structurally simpler, but it’s not more imitative or less inventive. There are people like Jimi Hendrix who come along and Radiohead. Again, it’s back to the idea that humans are always using the same hardware. I think the mix of inventiveness to inheritance is probably going to play out to some kind of a bell curve medium, pretty much among any group of people in any culture. Some cultures are very rigid and you don’t have as much inventiveness. Our culture prizes inventiveness and I think it’s a good thing. But then again, I’m a product of our culture.

FJO: The gee-whiz moment in your output is certainly John Somebody, but that didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere. So how did you get to the point of thinking of speech as a possible source for melody?

Scott Johnson Explains the Genesis of John Somebody

SJ: Well, I came to New York to be a visual artist. I was going to give up music. I’d studied both. I had also played electric guitar in bar bands in Madison, Wisconsin; I played with different groups and I loved those sounds. But at that moment, I thought there was no chance to put that into serious music, classical music. I couldn’t figure out how to do it, so I decided to quit music, which I then later on failed at quitting. One influence from popular music is call and response—the singer sings something and the guitar would imitate it. I would imitate what just happened. That kind of call and response is common throughout all kinds of musical cultures.

When I became a visual artist, I started doing installation pieces and performance pieces, and I used tape. I would chop and edit together, in real time, from a reel-to-reel to a cassette. I’d stop and start the reel-to-reel and came up with this very choppy stuff. I read William Burroughs, and John Giorno was around at this time, too. This was the late ’70s, and there was an awful lot of this in the visual art world and related worlds in downtown New York. There was a lot of work with video tape and audio tape, and it all seemed like a new playground. And it was a playground I was kind of familiar with from doing music. But I found I was unable to ignore the pitches. I would make these tapes and eventually I just started paying a great deal of attention to the structure. I would have drone sounds. I have one thing where I would pitch-shift ringing telephones and create these kind of swooping sounds underneath these shattering, chopped up voices. At that point, it was almost like rhythm and melody. I was halfway to music. Then I was just collecting some source material. I went home [with a recording I made of a] painter named Judy Rifka, who was a friend of mine. There were these four phrases that sounded very melodic. And I realized, wait a minute, these sound really good on a guitar. So I wrote them down. By the way, I found the piece of paper with the first writing down of those four phrases [that wound up in John Somebody]. I have to show it to you.

The original sheet of music notation paper containing Scott Johnson's musical transcriptions of four phrases of spoken conversation that eventually became the basis for his composition John Somebody.

The original sheet of music notation paper containing Scott Johnson’s musical transcriptions of four phrases of spoken conversation that eventually became the basis for his composition John Somebody.

FJO: Wow.

SJ: But I ignored it for two years, because I was busy doing other things. Then finally I said, “Okay, I’ll do that transcription thing.” I actually performed a sort of drone-y version of it at the Mudd Club once before I started really structuring it; that would have probably been in 1979. Probably 1976 or ‘77 is when I first got the idea of writing it down. I know that because I remember the loft that I was living in on the Bowery, and I remember thinking, “Oh, this is a fun idea. I’ll get around to it someday.” Eventually I did get around to it. And that’s that. In terms of sources, I’d say there were really three things. People talk a lot about Steve Reich’s Different Trains, which happened after he’d heard John Somebody, but as a teenager I’d heard his loop pieces. He did not go to the idea of transcribing the pitches and turning it into instrumental music, but there was that kind of sonic quality of layers, so that was an influence. Then there’s the call and response idea from the blues. And then there was Messiaen, which was a really direct and obvious thing: write down the bird songs. I’ll write down the human songs. So I would say that those three things kind of collided one afternoon.

FJO: So here’s something that I find so interesting. You said you were in Madison, Wisconsin, playing in bar bands, but since you couldn’t integrate what you were doing in those bands into composition, you were going to give up music. Why didn’t you pursue playing in bands and try to become a rock star?

SJ: Oh, it was really clear that that was not of interest to me. I mean, it was fun. And it still would be fun to get up and play a tune once in a while. Actually that’s how I started picking up guitar again. Laurie Anderson is someone I knew through the art world, and I was in her first band. She had a jukebox in a gallery show at the Holly Solomon Gallery, and we made a bunch of tunes for Laurie’s art show to put on her jukebox. And I used to play with Rhys Chatham, Peter Gordon, people like that.

I knew how to play guitar, and I was pretty good at it. As far as rock and roll, I could have been a contender. But it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. It just wasn’t intellectually demanding enough. But I love the sounds. This was the problem that I had with music in general. The stuff that I was interested in intellectually—the classical world—was not of my time and place, or else it was of my time and place and it was high modernism, which I tried and tried but I did not fall in love with. As opposed to the music that I had a more emotional relationship to, which I played playing electric guitar. But I got bored.

FJO: But we’re talking about the mid-‘70s. This is the era of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, whose music is pretty intellectual.

SJ: Oh, I know. And I like that stuff fine, but one thing I used to notice is it almost never breaks the five-minute limit successfully. That’s about how long those structures will work. But I also didn’t like 19th-century music particularly. I liked it better as I grew older and I began to understand how innovative and brilliant these people were. When I first heard it, I had no music background, by the way. I came to classical music and this stuff as a teenager under my own steam. That music was of another era, and it didn’t really speak to me. It gradually began to as I began to understand what went into it and the structures behind it, but it didn’t sound right to my Midwestern, American, rock and roll, guitar-playing ears. On the other hand, I actually remember the first time that I got really excited about classical music. My teenage hippy friends and I were getting stoned and we listened to The Rite of Spring. You’ve probably talked to a dozen composers who said, “That was my first piece.” It was mine, too, just like everybody else.

FJO: That’s interesting, because people talk about this divide. This is something David Lang has talked about. For composers over a certain age that piece is The Rite of Spring, but for composers who are younger, and I would lump you in the younger category, it would be In C.

SJ: Oh yeah, but I didn’t hear In C until shortly thereafter. I was a teenage Frank Zappa fan and his records had a quote, “The modern composer refuses to die.” The Edgard Varèse quote. Who’s Edgard Varèse? So I went and I got that gray record that everybody had. That was also early on.

FJO: And it’s also another precedent. Varèse used speech as music in Poème électronique.

SJ: Oh, yes. Exactly. That wonderful moment. But the use of speech in concrète music was nothing new at all.

FJO: But it certainly predates the Steve Reich tape-looped voice pieces [It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out].

“Steve [Reich] … was an influence on me, and I was proud to have re-influenced him.”

SJ: Well yeah, Steve got something from that. But then what Steve got out of his voice pieces was not the train of thought that led to Different Trains. It was the train of thought that led to the phase pieces and 18 Musicians. That was his immediate thing, and for more than ten years that’s what he did. He didn’t do the transcription thing until after he heard John Somebody. When that first happened, I felt great. He was an influence on me, and I was proud to have re-influenced him. Think of Manet. He was not embarrassed about being influenced by Monet. He was an older painter who was paying attention. He didn’t make up those late paintings of his. He borrowed a lot of it, and they’re good. So there. That’s the way I try to look at it. Anyhow, yes, there was plenty of voice use before that, but I don’t think it was rhythmic in this particular way. That’s one thing Steve brought to it. And, although in some of those early concrète things, the voices appeared within a pitched context, they didn’t do the transcription thing, which is pretty much what I brought to it. So, back to where I started, these genres are social constructions to some extent. Nobody invented them. You might invent this variation, or that variation, but you probably would not have invented that had there not been a precedent that got you halfway there.

FJO: So you were recording these snippets for an installation, and suddenly you realized these recordings of speech were tunes.

SJ: They sort of became that. The very first ones were more textural. My first attempts were sort of chattering and textural.

FJO: There’s a piece you include in the works list on your website called Home and Variations. It’s from 1979 and it’s the earliest piece you list, but you didn’t include a sound snippet of it.

SJ: I forgot about that. I did it with these French dancers in a dance company at L’Espace Pierre Cardin, this big performance space right off the Champs Elysées. That was my first trip to Europe. It was sort of amazing, because here was this experiment I had done being done in this prestigious space. It’s been all downhill since then, by the way.

FJO: Okay, so you came to New York and decided you weren’t going to do music, and in a few years you get invited to do this thing for Pierre Cardin.

SJ: I didn’t know where it was going to be performed. I got it through a choreographer friend of mine named Charlie Moulton, who was in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. We used to actually go to Chinatown, play pool, get really sharp on our pool, practice some dance steps on the way over to a bar called Barnabus Rex—which was a fabulous artist bar in the ‘70s—and then we would walk in and we’d be the sharpest dancers and pretty good pool players. It was a very fun thing for a 23-year old to be doing. So Charlie knew this choreographer, Susan Buirge, and sent her to me.

Anyway, it was completely vital to coming up with John Somebody. It did not have transcription, but that’s where I did the other innovative technique of John Somebody. I’d take a mono-loop and run it onto a multi-track recording. Then I would run other mono-loops onto other channels of that multi-track recording using a variable speed control to hand-synch the tracks. I would run it for a while, and then I would pick the spot on the multi-track tape where it was most in synch and make a multi-track loop out of that. I would end up with a multi-track loop with these synchronized tracks that I had laboriously laid together. Then I would mix them out, turning different channels on and off. I had a little hand mixer made with on and off buttons and faders. Before I would mix these things out, I would do little exercises: buttons with my fingers, faders with my thumbs, moving them up and down, and I would make a plan. I could actually show you. I have graphic scores for John Somebody for how to mix out the voice tracks. Then I would do takes until I got it just so. But basically I invented this for this lost piece called Home and Variations. I think I have a reel-to-reel tape, but it’s from the ‘70s. It probably would turn to dust if you tried to play it, which is an unfortunate side effect of the environmental movement. They used to make audio tape with oil from whales. They stopped and started using synthetics, then ten years later discovered that all the tapes were falling apart, which is why you’ve heard of people baking tape. So those tapes are probably lost. I don’t know. It hardly matters to me.

Some of the Scott Johnson's archival tapes of his compositions.

Some of the Scott Johnson’s archival tapes of his compositions.

FJO: It mattered enough to you to include it in the works list on your website.

SJ: Sure, because having it listed on my website is what caused you to ask this question.

FJO: Exactly.

SJ: And actually I’m glad you brought that up. I’d totally forgotten. That was a vital link in making John Somebody. I was working very hard to get synchronization, which was the opposite of what Steve did. There’s a 25-foot loop on John Somebody in “Involuntary Song 3.” It’s the one with the fake operatic voice. Underneath that, there are five pitches of “hahs” [laughing sounds]. I made the chord structure by turning them on and off as the chords went by. Any two “hahs” would create the implication of a major chord or a minor chord, so I had to synchronize those multiple loops with this 25-foot tape loop. I still remember it was two and a quarter inches for a whole note. And I was putting sixteenth-inch pieces of leader in there, so that I could run the whole thing in sync with other tracks. It was absolutely insane. This is the kind of thing you could do in two days with Pro Tools. But that was the technology and at the time, and it was brand new—multi-track tapes at home. You know, The Beatles only had four channels.

FJO: So if someone wanted to reconstruct that, now that we have samplers, does it live on a digital file that somebody could get from you?

SJ: No, but the complete mix exists. I’ve considered at times rebuilding it. I actually have all the original loops. They’re sitting in a cardboard tube in the other room, and I’m sure they’re not okay. But I do have the eight-channel home master tape, and then I have the 24-track tape where we ran my eight-channel tape on to it. The 24-track tape is probably still functional and could be fixed. But it’s really fun writing new music. I spent months and months doing the Pro Tools editing on this new piece, Mind Out of Matter, and there is not a note out of place. I’m really happy with the recording. But if you ever hear me talking about doing that again, please tie me to a chair until I get over it, because it is really not fun. Writing music is fun and that’s what I want to do when I get up in the morning. So maybe I’ll never rebuild John Somebody.

Johnson's graphic score for operating the mixing board for "Involuntary Song 3" in John Somebody.

Johnson’s graphic score for operating the mixing board for “Involuntary Song 3” in John Somebody.

FJO: Have there been people who want to perform it?

SJ: Oh, people have performed it. The end result of all of this was initially a stereo tape, and now I have a stereo track. People can buy the solo part and the track from me and give it a performance. In the ‘90s, Lincoln Center sent John Somebody around to public schools in the region. I was busy and I didn’t want to pull my chops back up for this. So I found this wonderful guitarist named John Herington who’s now the lead guitarist for Steely Dan. He’s a fabulous guitarist, better than me. I found him through some musicians I’d known who do a lot of session work.

Those musicians were the Borneo Horns—Steve Elson, Stan Harrison, and Lenny Pickett who plays in the Saturday Night Live Band—which were David Bowie’s horn section from the Let’s Dance tour. They had played in a rock big band I had in the early ‘80s. It was like a guitar band with three saxophones. That music never was released. This is an interesting thing about our world and its pretensions for being not like the popular music world. After John Somebody, I did this rock big band, and no one was interested. The popular music world is not the only place where it’s dangerous to shift your focus, to change what you’re thinking about, and to try something new. So that’s a period of my music that was lost. There’s also some work from the late ‘90s that’s mostly disappeared. One of those pieces, The Illusion of Guidance, is still around, because I recorded it myself. It was written for the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

“I’ve complained about modernism a lot, but it informs my musical world.”

I wrote a number of pieces in that period that were kind of thornier, a little more dissonant and complex. It really paid off because I’ve complained about modernism a lot, but it informs my musical world. It’s actually better than tonal music at doing certain things. It’s better at conveying anxiety. As a matter of fact, the only inroads that high modernist atonal music made into popular culture are in scary movies, which is an interesting commentary on human nature and how we react to musical materials. How much of it is innate? How much of it is learned? Interestingly enough, when I was at Bellagio, there was a psychologist who showed me this study of weeks-old infants. They’d play them a melody, harmonized in parallel thirds, on a synthesizer. Then they would play them the same melody harmonized in clusters on the same synthesizer. About two-thirds of the time, when they did the clusters, the infants would start crying. They had not been taught not to like atonal music, so there’s something else going on in the nervous system. Anyhow, the interesting thing about that thornier music I did is that I felt like it broadened my harmonic palette. Then I put it to work in pieces like Americans. Mind Out of Matter is where it really came into focus. I feel like it gives me a broader palette of expression. It allows access to certain moods and associations. One example I often give is any good modernist composer can do a better storm than Beethoven, because they’ve got materials that work better for creating that sense of ominous disorder.

FJO: Since you brought up coming to terms with high modernist music, there’s a very important concept behind a lot of that music—certainly serial music—that isn’t very different from minimalism. In both cases, composers are generating larger temporal structures from a very small kernel, whether it’s the small rhythmic or usually tonal melodic cell in a minimalist piece or a combinatorial hexachord or a time-point set derived from that.

SJ: Well yeah, it’s the Beethoven Five mythology.

FJO: It’s also the function of those little snippets of speech in John Somebody.

SJ: I always have thought of the speech transcription thing as some sort of odd corollary to 12-tone music, which I don’t like to do, but it is an interesting problem. You have those notes, and you’ve got to deal with them. If you’re a serialist composer, here comes that A-flat. You have to use it. You cannot leave this room until you have said A-flat. I found that what the speech transcription thing did for me is a similar kind of thing. It makes you jump through hoops. The interesting thing about Mind Out of Matter is I never cheated. These words drip around and there’s a lot of glissing, but I always made a reference in the harmonic accompaniment to whatever pitches were going on, which caused me to modulate constantly, sometimes at a really rapid pace. It led to harmonic events that I might not have otherwise come up with. And I was very happy with it.

“I always have thought of the speech transcription thing as some sort of odd corollary to 12-tone music.”

In the late ‘80s, this is again some music that was never recorded, I had a couple of pieces where, after realizing this similarity with being tied to these voices, I literally made a 12-tone row and did the retrograde, retrograde inversion, the whole thing. I made strict melodies and then harmonized them tonally, and ended up with a harmonic language that is not that dissimilar from where I am now. I did it to prod myself, but I was not really interested in this totally constructed, totally logical, totally interrelated artwork that I think the serialists were interested in. In some ways, I’m more of a collagist or a hybridist, the surrealist idea of dissimilar objects jamming up against each other and something happens. This relates to my idea of getting inspiration from outside of music. A lot of my reading of evolutionary psychology, which I got really involved in in the ‘90s, eventually led me to this Dan Dennett piece. I would just go looking for ideas that weren’t about music. It didn’t matter if there was an absolute connection. I certainly was in no way doing scientific research, but I was being inspired by scientific research.

One of Scott Johnson's bookcases which also contains a hat and various knick-knacks.

FJO: So for pieces like The Illusion of Guidance or Rock, Paper, Scissors, which as far as I can hear don’t have any extra-musical, linguistic associations, how were the pitches determined? How was the material constructed? Was it intuitive? Was there a system?

“It’s the system of what Scott likes.”

SJ: When we were working on Mind Out of Matter, the Alarm Will Sound pianist John Orfe—who’s also a composer and is very good at both of those things—asked me about some of the harmonies. “They’re fairly interesting. What’s the system? How do you come by these harmonies?” My answer is that there is no system. It’s what Scott likes and wants to hear next. That’s that. I have the input that I’ve had from the world. I have the habits that I’ve developed on my own. I have my preferences. Occasionally I will set up structures to push me around—like in Rock, Paper, Scissors, there’s one movement in the center where I had a nine-note row. And the opening of it is some fairly strict three-voice counterpoint, if I remember. I haven’t heard it for a long time. It’s plain old-fashioned counterpoint, using these nine notes with retrograde inversions and the whole nine yards, because it was kind of fun. It is not more admirable than anything else I’ve done. The fact that it was strict is not anything that I find to be particularly inspiring beyond the boundaries of that piece. So I guess the answer is it’s the system of what Scott likes.

FJO: Earlier in this conversation you were talking about how you were attracted to the sound world of rock and playing the electric guitar, but high modernism ignored this music and so you felt that there was no way to make a connection. But in your own work you are using tropes from both rock and high modernism.

SJ: I found the connection. Exactly. The point is that I solved my college problem. I think oftentimes composers—and artists in general to some extent—spend their lives solving something that really bothered them early on. The problem we were talking about of how to fuse popular music and various classical inheritances, this drove me away from music. Solving it pulled me back in. Part of what allowed me to was, within a year of when I got there, I had met Philip Glass. He was playing keyboard and I was playing guitar in a piece of Peter Gordon’s at The Kitchen. Suddenly I ran into these people who had found ways around this high modernist conundrum of making a music that’s not the only thing that’s currently respectable. None of them were engaged in popular music to the extent that I was, although now there are a lot of people who are, but I felt like I’d been given permission. I saw Philip just last month, and we were talking about how John Cage loomed so large when he was a young composer. He still loomed fairly large when I arrived here, too. But I remembered a quote from Philip, that John Cage gave him permission. Philip and these guys gave me permission, even if they weren’t doing popular music. There was tonality again. There was rhythm again. And although I’m not a minimalist, some of my best friends are. It’s gone through a lot of mutations, but minimalism has certainly been the dominant outcome of the old Downtown.

“The high modernist problem is a case of sexual selection.”

Even though I was here to be a visual artist, I had been beginning to play guitar again just because I knew how. And it exposed me to people who, even if they weren’t solving my particular problem, were avoiding the thing that was stopping me from solving my problem. In other words, they were finding a way around the road block of high modernism—which, by the way, I really began to understand in the ‘90s when I began reading about evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology and Darwinism. There’s a thing that happens in the biological world called sexual selection. The high modernist problem is a case of sexual selection. Sexual selection is what gives the peacock its gigantic tail. This tail is not a benefit for the exterior environment. This tail actually endangers that peacock. But the peahens like it. It’s a way of showing off, like the exaggerated antlers of an Irish elk. They’re now extinct because they couldn’t run away from people in the forest. They kept running into trees. But these were things that helped them mate. These things that hurt you in the larger environment, helped you produce offspring, because they were attractive to the little circle of female Irish elks. Well, what is reproduction for a cultural item? Schools. Students. Admirers. What gets you the admirers in music? Musicians are like jocks. I can run faster than you. I can play those notes. I am more complex than thou. So how do you reproduce? You become exaggeratedly complex. We have contempt for dumb stuff. You know, dumb rock and roll, dumb popular music. So how do you reproduce as an intellectual composer? You get rid of every hint of popular music. You get rid of everything that Brahms or Beethoven or Bach would have done at the drop of a hat, which is to quote folk tunes, to quote popular dances. What is a Baroque suite? It’s what drunk people do on Saturday nights. Sarabandes and gigues and so forth. So that’s what happened with high modernism. I compare it to the koala. The koalas’ ancestors were generalists. They could eat all kinds of plants. Koalas can only eat eucalyptus, and they can only live in the eucalyptus forest. High modernists can only live in the academy or scary movies. This is a species—there again, the biological metaphor. You think of a train of thought or a genre as a species. It lives in an environment. If it specializes, and that specialized environment becomes threatened, it will go extinct. So in a way, this returning of the influences of popular music is not a transgression against the Western art tradition. It’s actually a reinstitution of something that was always present as Western art music evolved. And it’s also always present in the art musics of every other culture as well. Ragas referred to musics that might be made by less skilled people. There is my rant.

Scott Johnson explains how the high modernist problem is a case of sexual selection.

FJO: So John Somebody was a watershed moment. But I think you’ve had a second one.

SJ: What’s that?

FJO: How it Happens—and the reason why is that up to that point, you were exploring the musical implications of speech, but the specific words themselves were not necessarily important in terms of their specific meaning as words. You may disagree with me on that.

SJ: The words of John Somebody were not serious, nor were the words of Convertible Debts, which actually happened about the same time as How it Happens, now that I think of it. I was going back and forth between those two pieces. Convertible Debts was the funny piece. But, you’re right. How it Happens is really a narrative.

FJO: John Somebody and Convertible Debts are funny because you’re only getting one side of a conversation. It’s enjoyable, but in a way, it’s frustrating because we don’t completely know what it’s about and it doesn’t matter.

SJ: No it doesn’t. It’s sort of metaphorical. The one thing that I’ve never heard anybody notice is that John Somebody has this humorous arc. It’s about this guy who’s a forgettable person, and in the second movement he’s stumbling. That’s actually me going, “I just thought of something; what did I think of?” In the next movement, women are laughing at him. Then in the final movement recap, it’s sort of a joke about male insecurity to a great degree. That’s partly why the use of the big, macho, power chords to me was always funny. It’s metaphorical whether or not you get the metaphor, but it’s not really a narrative.

FJO: It was primarily about you finding the music in the language. Then when you reached this other point, you chose language and made music happen from it so we’d pay more attention to that language as language. Not just as the tunes that come out of it, but what I.F. Stone is actually saying.

SJ: Yes exactly, as content. It was about something. Again, Convertible Debts is sort of a halfway step because it’s about people’s interactions. By the way, the name is a kind of financial transaction, or financial vehicle. I had people ask a favor. It was about obligation between people. But again, it was not explicit. That was never said; whereas, in How it Happens, I.F. Stone is saying this about that. That was new.

FJO: It’s a tragedy that there’s no integral recording of it; only parts of it are scattered on three different Kronos recordings.

SJ: All three of those pieces together are half of the piece. There’s about another half hour. They didn’t record the very opening of the piece. There’s a very short little movement before “It Raged” and then there’s a big long movement, like 20 minutes, that’s mostly instrumental. There’s only a little bit of voice at the front and the back. I thought of it as the opposite of a choral movement in a symphony: suddenly the voice leads. Here the voice suddenly leaves. Then there was yet another movement that they didn’t do. Well, that’s what happened. I had no control over it. When they put the pieces on separate CDs, the idea was that was going to be a way of defraying the expense of a complete recording, which never happened. These things happened away from discussions with me. This is what happened between them and the record company. It’s too bad. No other quartet has stepped forward. The big movement has a lot of complex MIDI percussion and some synthesizer and sampler, and all of that could be done live with three keyboards and a percussion quartet, if I adapted and wrote the MIDI percussion out for live players. I’ve even thought about recording that version separately. But, again, there’s always new music to write and that’s always more fun. I hope maybe someday I can hear that piece, but somebody’s got to pay for that. With my own resources, I’d rather write something new. I don’t know if that’s me turning my back on myself or the right or the wrong thing to do. I have actually proposed this to quartets a couple times, but nobody’s taken me up on it. It needs a quartet.

Scott Johnson outside on his roofdeck.

FJO: There’s another piece from almost a decade later that almost feels like a synthesis of Convertible Debts and How it Happens, since it has elements of humor but also has a very clear political narrative: Americans. And wow is that piece timely to the current moment.

SJ: Oh, it kills me. This piece has only been performed once in Europe, in Milan, and there was one complete performance in America at a college. Two movements got done at Miller by Juilliard students with me playing guitar, because Juilliard didn’t have any guitarists. The thing about that piece is it’s the voices of immigrants from China, Afghanistan, and Romania. This was right smack in the middle of George Bush invading Afghanistan, and there’s a person talking about her conflicting feelings as an American and an Afghani. Now with the whole Syria business in Europe and the sort of crypto-Fascist uprisings here and in Europe, the whole issue of immigration is even more pertinent than when I wrote the piece.

At this moment, I’m writing a companion piece for the same instrumental ensemble with no samples. Part of the reason it hasn’t gotten played is because the sampling pieces require a click track, but also because it’s one of my weird ensembles. I write these pieces that have instruments that I like in combinations that don’t exist in standard ensembles. This is for sort of a rock rhythm section—guitar, bass, drums, piano—plus viola, clarinet, and saxophone. When I was writing it, I thought you could probably go to any small city anywhere in the Western world and find these instruments; it just seemed resonant to me. But in a way I’ve immunized myself against performances. But now I’ll have this new piece, that’ll be 20-minutes plus. Americans is 20-minutes plus. Now there’s almost a concert you can flesh out with some smaller pieces. That’s what I’m going to do next year. I just want to hear the damn thing again.

FJO: So there are times when you care about an older piece.

SJ: I care about all of them. I recognize that everything I’ve done is part of everything that I’ve done after it—whether I liked it or even if I didn’t like something, I like it because it taught me a lesson. You learn from your successes and your mistakes. It’s not that I don’t care about these older pieces. It’s that there are only so many hours in a day. That’s why I stopped performing basically. I like guitar, but I love writing. So who wins?

FJO: So since you mention mistakes, are there any pieces of yours that you would consider mistakes that are out there in the world?

“There’s no such thing as something that’s all good or all bad.”

SJ: The problem with that question is it’s an on and off switch. There’s no such thing as something that’s all good or all bad. There are pieces that have mistakes in them. There are pieces that I’ve revised. If something really bothers me, I fix it.

FJO: So what’s a mistake?

SJ: A mistake is a thing that doesn’t please me.

FJO: But you’re going to change over time.

SJ: Well, you’d be surprised at how consistent my likes and dislikes often are. There are pieces that I would never write today, but that I still like for what they are. I finally made a proper score of an old guitar piece that was everybody’s favorite. It’s called Juggernaut. I think I should play it again if I do this concert. It was very minimalist and it’s got a sort of a whacky, semi-improvised guitar hero thing in the middle, all this stuff that was really great for my 29-year-old self or 26-year-old self, whatever. I wrote this about the time I was starting John Somebody. Probably 1979. I wouldn’t do anything like that now, but it’s a great piece. It’s nice. I like it. But there are other things that could use a fix. Occasionally, I’ll go back and I’ll fix things. In Mind Out of Matter, there’s one movement where I shuffled things around after the premier at Montclair because I didn’t feel it was working well enough. Indeed, it’s better. And there’s a gigantic movement in Mind Out of Matter, 26 minutes or something. I called it my Mahlerian sprawl. It is the direct descendent of this mysterious, lost, 20-minute, mostly instrumental piece from How it Happens which I did go back and revise ten years after I wrote it because there was this thing that just always bugged me, this area that didn’t work. It needed to get from there to there a little bit better. I hadn’t heard it for ten years and when I listened to it, I had the same reaction. The same criticism I had early on.

“The point of music is to be enjoyed, not to be held up as an opportunity for people to assess you.”

Scholars like to see this, that, and the other thing; you’re not supposed to fix old things, because it’s somehow more honest. I don’t give a damn. The point of music is to be enjoyed, not to be held up as an opportunity for people to assess you. That gets back to what I was saying about the sexual selection thing, composers doing things simply because it will help their reputations or make them appear to be whatever it is they wish to appear to be. If I make mistakes and if I catch them in time, I’ll fix them.

FJO: Well, you spent a lot of time working on Mind Out of Matter.

SJ: Not consistently. It happened over the course of six years. From like ’09 to ’15. I think I finished it in December, but that last year I spent only two months writing. I spent a couple of months in ’15 adding a movement. Earlier that year I’d done some cues for a documentary film about Daniel Dennett by a Polish filmmaker. I realized two of them had speech stuff in them, and they were absolutely perfect. I started out this piece not thinking it was going to be all about religion; it was going to be more generally about Darwinism. So here I had some stuff that not only mentioned Darwin, it actually said the title of the big piece. It had Dan Dennett saying, “Mind arising out of matter,” words which had not actually appeared in the piece called Mind Out of Matter. So adding the new movement added a year to the inclusive dates of the piece, but it was only about two or three months of work. Also in the course of that six years, I had a year off when I recorded and I made the Americans CD. I recorded that and did all the editing myself. I did a concert in New York. I also wrote another piece based on a Beckett play for the Cygnus Ensemble.

In other words, this was not non-stop. There were also several family members lost during those years. This is a thing that will take you away from your desk for a little while. It happened over a long period of time, and actually coming and going is something that I think helped the piece, because it’s a very big piece. That’s my longest ever and length creates different problems than shortness. Remember we were talking about Brian Eno and all these other really creative people in the popular music field that, as I said, rarely break the five-minute barrier because those structures have a hard time getting longer. The same thing happens when you go from your typical 15-minute new music piece to an hour and a quarter. I had a lot of time off to think about it and come back to things. And what you’ll notice about this piece is there are some movements that have a general character throughout, but most of them have a whole lot of variation. They’re more like a landscape. There’s the foothills. There’s the flat parts. There’s the mountains. I think of music very often in terms of topography, especially since I started backpacking and hiking and going in the mountains, which actually gave me one of my favorite metaphors for why I gradually came to like older, European composition. It’s like being in the mountains. You turn a corner and you see something you hadn’t expected. You never know quite what’s coming. They’re changing the channels, usually within every minute, sometimes several times a minute. Whereas minimalism I think of as the seashore, the beach, or the Great Plains, or a vast vista. That’s the experience you have with repetitive music. But I find I often like the sort of “Aha” experience of hiking in the mountains. That’s what I like about Beethoven.

FJO: Before we started recording this conversation, you claimed that you’re the slowest composer and you were showing me these charts where you worked out every single pitch for every syllable you used in Mind Out of Matter.

SJ: I did it for each movement. These are 11 by 17 pieces of paper, totally black with words and the notes attached to each syllable, and there are a dozen sheets. But before I even made those, I had to make an idea of what each movement was going to be about. Before making a movement, I had my source files in Pro Tools. I would go through and pick out the samples onto a different track. Then there would be another track where I would actually sculpt the particular samples and download them into a file. Then I would go through and I would write the pitches of absolutely every word, every syllable in that entire 75-minute piece. So what you’re seeing there is not actually the beginning. That’s the second stage of the preparatory work. Then it goes to Finale where I write into a computer file instead of writing on paper; since the late ‘80s, I’ve written directly into a score program.

Several of the 11 by 17 pieces of music manuscript paper containing Scott Johnson's transcriptions of Dan Dennett's speech.

Several of the 11 by 17 pieces of music manuscript paper containing Scott Johnson’s transcriptions of Dan Dennett’s speech.

FJO: But since you start by using Pro Tools and ultimately write the music directly into Finale, why do you work out all the pitches by hand? Why didn’t you do that in Finale, too?

SJ: Because it’s too much of a pain in the neck. First off, in Finale, you have to have rhythm. Look at those pieces of paper. Almost never is there a stem or a beam.

FJO: Maybe you should try using Dorico.

SJ: I should not use Dorico. I should not use anything that’s going to force me to invest time in learning a new program. I’ve gotten so good at Pro Tools I hate myself for it. It’s not as much fun as writing music. That’s that. But, in any case, this way [notating by hand] I can erase things, and the other thing is the pitches aren’t always exact, so I can make little gliss lines, or I can make stems that indicate the syllables, and then a line that indicates that it’s moving up like this. I can write little parenthetic things up top. Little arrows up and down for when it’s a quarter tone. Mostly I don’t fix pitches. But if it’s a quarter tone, then I will maybe resolve it if it’s a held pitch. If he’s moving through it, maybe I won’t. In Pro Tools you can adjust pitch.

FJO: So you’ve never tried leaving the microtones in there?

“I try to restrict myself to that which I can do a good job of.”

SJ: Sometimes I do, but the point is that I’m writing for tempered instruments. There’s really no advantage in having them be out of tune, unless it’s a gliss or a blue note. Singers and instrumentalists do this all the time. And voices do it. But when he’s speaking, I don’t want it to be out of tune because the instruments are right with him and I don’t really want that quarter tone to happen between the bass clarinet and the voice. I just don’t, sorry. I know you write microtonal music, and this is not a personal insult. It’s just I don’t know anything about it. I’m not competent. I prize competence, and so I try to restrict myself to that which I can do a good job of. I don’t take on a giant field like microtonal music without homework. And I’m not willing to do the homework. I use microtones with the knowledge of someone who played blues guitar.

FJO: Of course with Mind Out of Matter, as well as with How it Happens, you were dealing with recorded speech that had already existed before you had the idea of creating a piece of music out of it. This is a bit different from John Somebody or Convertible Debts, where you actually initiated the recordings of the spoken language you eventually turned into music. What about Americans?

SJ: Those were recorded for a book about Queens. They approached me to make a CD to be inserted in with this book. It was called Crossing the Boulevard. So these were existing recordings that had been transcribed. Basically they were made for printed matter. I was an after-thought. I agreed to do it with the agreement that I could use this material for a concert piece.

FJO: So the people who were recorded didn’t know you were doing this?

SJ: Oh no, I actually did interact with them after. One of the pieces is in Romanian. It’s a guy who’s a Romanian DJ, giving his spiel about oldies. So I had to call him up and ask him about some Romanian words. I actually spoke with all three of them.

FJO: And they were all fine about what you were doing with their words?

SJ: Sure. They had already signed up for the book, and this was in the same spirit. This is an attempt to tell the story, to tell their story. I was simply telling their story in yet another medium.

FJO: So how involved was Dan Dennett in the process of creating Mind Out of Matter?

SJ: I [first] got in touch with Dan in 2002, before this piece started. We had corresponded because I wrote a rather extensive, 15,000-word, essay called The Counterpoint of Species. I read a book by Dan Dennett called Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and I was very much blown away by it. It actually answered a lot of questions about the evolution of music. He speaks not only about Darwinian evolution, but also the evolution that happened on a cultural level, which is partly Darwinian and partly, as he now says, intelligently designed by the only intelligent designer in the universe that we know of, which is humans. It shed a lot of light on things that I had been trying to say about why people join the groups they do and why certain ideas survive, like, as we said, high modernism. Why does this very isolated thing evolve out of a thing that once upon a time was very broad-based? There are reasons why these things happen. At the center of everything I’ve always done is: why can’t we get our vernacular music world back in the serious music? My point has always been that the source of the thing does not matter; it’s what use it’s put to that matters. This is a really basic Darwinian principle. The birds’ feathers began the same way that we get our head of hair. They were for heat. Gradually they evolved into these things that control flight. In other words, evolution uses whatever is available for purposes that were not dreamt of wherever it started. This is a thing that answers a whole lot of questions about music. And I ran into it when I read Dan.

“Dan Dennett is … probably the best sampled speech source that I’ve bumped into.”

So I wrote that essay and Nick Brooke, a fellow composer who had met Dan at Bellagio, said, “You should send this to Dan Dennett.” So I sent it to him, and he wrote back and said, “Could you send me five copies to give to my colleagues?” I was very happy this intelligent person that I admired found some value in this, and we corresponded on and off for a while. Then I heard his YouTube videos and realized that he had this fabulous melody-generator of a voice. He spends his life in front of people and he knows now how to not put them to sleep. He’s not only very organized in his presentations, which certainly helped me structurally in constructing the piece, but he’s also funny and lively, and probably the best sampled speech source that I’ve bumped into.

So we’d known each other, but we’d never met. Then, because he happened to be in town, we met at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is where that piece got performed many years later. But, in any case, at some point, since I liked the ideas so much and he was such a good source, I just proposed to him, “May I make this piece?” And he said yes and sent me his lecture for Breaking the Spell, his book about religion. I was initially going to have that be one of a couple of different sections in this piece. But at some point, I realized there’s so much more material than I’m going to cover; I need to focus. The Darwinian ideas come out in the course of this. He has a very clear view of the world, and it comes out regardless of what he’s talking about.

When I was a couple years into it, I went up to Boston because I had certain things I wanted to get. The last movement, Awe, is basically the stuff that I went to Boston to get out of him. It’s about the sense of wonder and the value of a scientific, empirical outlook, an atheistic outlook that appreciates the world without any gilding of the lily. So Dan has been in on this all along. I’d sent him stuff and he never made any suggestions about structure or about how to go about anything. We had corresponded for a while, and he knew he could entrust it to me.

FJO: One final observation—you’ve talked about serious music now existing over here and vernacular music now existing over there, and that serious music should embrace the vernacular again. A lot of younger composers, people younger than both of us, don’t think of themselves either as serious composers incorporating vernacular music or vernacular composers incorporating elements of serious music. They don’t see a distinction between them.

SJ: They do see a distinction; they say that they don’t. I see an external distinction: genres are real things in the world, fuzzy boundaries and all. My desire to put these two things together comes from my desire to use what I like about music. What I like about music comes from these different places. I’ve been doing this endeavor going on 40 years now. When I started doing this, there was such opposition to it that I had to constantly talk about this. By the way, I met the New Amsterdam people when I gave a talk about this stuff at Yale, while they were still grad students. This was one of the places where I realized that I could stop talking about this so much because everybody in the room already agreed with me. Ten years before, that was not the case. What they’re doing is blending the music that they like, regardless of its source, and I’m totally on board with that. I don’t really see an ideological distinction between us. The nice thing is they don’t have to talk about it. Essentially I helped to create an ecosystem where that is not a pair of horns you have to wear or claws you have to have out. The musical ecosystem now, thanks to a number of Boomers who rebelled against what we were faced with when we were growing up, has created a situation where these guys didn’t have to fight that fight. That fight is kind of over. Well, it’s not over, these battles still trickle on, but it’s not crucial. You don’t have to talk about it. You can avoid it. I don’t think there’s a difference of perception between myself and this younger generation of people of how one goes about writing music and where one gets it from. If you look at younger composers, there are many who sound like rockers. Some of these people sound more minimalist, some have much more high modernist or a more dissonant quality in their music. These things are all mixed up. Some of them lean more towards this source or more towards that source.

“One of my hopes is that everybody starts mating with everybody else to the point where it’s not so easy to figure out who to hate.”

What’s interesting is that socially they don’t really have to talk about it, because the person who got more of this in their genome is okay with the person who has more of the other thing in their genome, because they’ve all got a little bit of each thing in their genome. It’s the cultural version of the DNA mixing that happens in modern cosmopolitan cities. One of my hopes for mankind is that everybody starts mating with everybody else to the point where it’s not so easy to figure out who to hate. The musical DNA has happened that way. It’s not so easy for them to figure out who to hate, so hopefully they’re not bothering with it so much. One of the things I’m proud of is to have helped, among a number of other people, to gradually push the goalposts a little bit in that direction such that it’s possible to have that attitude. I’m happy that the fight I always had to fight is an artifact at this point.

A couple of plastic dinosaurs and old photos surrounding some of Scott Johnson's electric keyboards.

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Barbara White: A Plea for Compassion

Thanks to the rise of the #MeToo movement, our society is beginning to be more aware and sensitive about how gender inequities have resulted in long overlooked and unpunished—and, in many cases, tolerated and even encouraged—scenarios of harassment and assault throughout our society. The focus on these toxic abuses of power has led many of us in the music community to look more carefully at ourselves, at our own work, and the work we admire and advocate for. It has caused us to ask some profound questions that take it far beyond the realm of questioning direct personal physical and verbal abuse. Why do we venerate various composers and interpreters over others? How is our repertoire chosen? Who are the composers who are included and who are excluded and why?  In the case of works that are presented on musical stages or that include a narrative text, there’s an extra layer; we’ve begun to more closely examine what stories we are choosing to tell and why.

One recent dramatic musical work that asks a lot of these questions is Weakness, a mostly one-woman opera composed by Barbara White which premiered, presciently, six years ago this month. For Weakness, White chose to set an old Celtic legend about a spirit woman named Macha whom a despotic king forces into a fatal race with his horses despite her begging him, as well as the entire community, to spare her.

“What ends up happening is that there is no empathy,” Barbara White explained when we visited her at her home in Princeton, New Jersey.  “She is scapegoated, subjected to abuse.  It has a real patriarchal aspect to it. There is a woman with gifts, and it’s a problem for this king.  He has to stomp her out, and no one helps her.”

But in her telling of this story, White was very aware of Carolyn Abbate’s assertion that female opera characters are often victims, and so she wanted to tell this story somewhat differently than it would be told in a more conventional opera presentation. Macha is the only singing character. The king’s lines of are actually spoken by the conductor!  Other significant characters, such as Macha’s husband—who in a moment of bragging caused the king to be aware of her and ultimately demand her compliance—is a speaking role for one of the dancers. The community is represented by other dancers, but the members of the audience are also made to feel like they are members of this community as well, which ultimately does nothing to help Macha.

According to White, “It’s very easy to be a bystander.  It happens a lot.  The problem is that a bystander is passive and is watching, doing nothing, not acting.  In the theater, that is what the bystander is expected to do.  So it was really interesting to me to think the audience becomes complicit in the story. … Many side with a perpetrator over a victim because all a perpetrator asks of you is that you do nothing.  A victim asks you to do something—to speak, to stand up, to challenge. … The moment where she addresses the audience is her final plea.  It’s a plea for compassion.”

Although Weakness is the largest-scale project that White has ever created, it—like most of her compositions—is extremely intimate. There are only four musicians in the ensemble, and she chose to write a role for herself playing clarinet in it. In so doing, she made herself as uncomfortable as she was trying to make the audience:

One of the hardest things that I’ve ever performed is in that same spot that I was talking about. There’s a pairing of a singer and dancer playing the same character.  While the singer is indicting the audience, the dancer is appealing to different people on stage—the non-speaking, non-singing, movement chorus and the King.  Then she comes and appeals to the musicians.  Relatively late in the process, it became apparent that … she’s appealing to us.  And we’re not playing at the moment.  So what do we do?  I asked the choreographer, and she said, “Just look at her heartlessly.”  And so we did.  That was so difficult. I had to put myself in the position of the non-sympathetic bystander, the one who was not doing anything.

The deeply personal nature of so many of White’s compositions explains why she has predominantly created music for soloists or small ensembles. Many of these works—such as the solo piano piece Reliquary, which explores the fragility of human memory, or her contribution to Dominic Donato’s tam-tam project Desire Lines—were tailor made for their intended performers, which she acknowledged is “the opposite end of the spectrum from [writing for] orchestra.” In the last five years, White has also immersed herself in performing regularly with musicians who have very different musical backgrounds from her, such as the traditional Cape Breton guitarist Charles MacDonald, with whom she plays in a duo called Fork & Spoon.

On top of all of these musical activities, White retains a busy schedule teaching undergraduates and graduate students at Princeton University, where she has now taught for 20 years. While most of her students “really have a sense of adventure and a sense of commitment,” her own personal compassion has enabled her to be an ideal mentor.

“There is perhaps something of a permission giving,” she noted. “A very common thing with composition students, no matter how joyful they are, is of course to have this kind of fear: ‘Can I do this or not?’ It’s enjoyable to me to see what they bring up. At 12 o’clock, someone will come in and say, ‘I think I’m repeating too much.  I think I should repeat less.’  Then the next person will come in and say, ‘I think I’m changing too much.  Should I repeat more?’  That tickles my fancy, for sure.  And, as much as I love trained musicians, I actually am fortunate that I get to do a lot with people who aren’t trained musicians. That’s really special to me. I teach an undergraduate freshman seminar called ‘Everyday Enchantment,’ which has to do with everyday experience and art making and where the boundary is.  Is there one?”

Her desire to instill curiosity and risk taking is also an important component of her latest composition, a children’s ballet called The Wrong Child, inspired by yet another Celtic folktale, which will be performed by Northeast Youth Ballet and Boston Musica Viva on March 11:

I’ve been intrigued to be writing for a young audience. … I thought about that a lot in reshaping the story.  For example, how dark and brooding can it be?  Another thing that I delighted in was the idea of bringing in sounds that are maybe not traditional classical sounds, but ones that we know as experimental sounds.


February 8, 2018 at 2:30 p.m.
Barbara White in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in White’s home in Princeton, New Jersey
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

FJO:  Every piece of yours that I’ve ever heard is either a solo piece or for chamber ensemble. Even your biggest composition to date, Weakness, which I want to talk about quite a bit but not just yet, is scored for relatively small forces. You haven’t really written for orchestra, and it seems like that’s a conscious choice.

BW:  Well, way back in 2000, I did a project for Continental Harmony where I was asked to write a march for the band and the local orchestra.  It ended up turning into an overture for the orchestra with a march at the end.  We called it the detachable march, so that the band could also play it [on its own].  The really unusual experience for me was that not only was it a march for the band, but it was actually marched to: it was played in a Fourth of July parade in 2000.  But that’s the only time I’ve written for band.  I’ve done a little bit for chamber orchestra, but nothing bigger except for that piece. (Raging River, Rolling Stone is the orchestra piece, and it ends with The Roll Stone Marches.)  I think this came about quite naturally in that I was drawn to smaller groups and a kind of intimacy in the music.  I like to know the names of everybody who’s there. And it’s even gotten more intimate than that: I’m working really closely with people right now, getting to know their particular way of playing, and doing pieces that other people couldn’t sub for.  I go almost to the opposite end of the spectrum from orchestra in that way.

FJO:  Of course, the closest you can probably be to any musician is to yourself, and relatively early on you wrote a solo clarinet piece for yourself, No Man’s Land, which you have described as a “homecoming.”  There are things in that score, like certain non-standard fingerings to get certain specific off-kilter sonorities, that a lot of classically trained clarinetists might not want to do.  Asking players to do something that subverts their training can make them feel concerned that an audience might think that they are not good musicians.  I wonder if anyone else has ever played it and what that was like.

BW:  That’s an interesting question to me.  I did not expect anyone else to play it.  In my clarinet music there are pieces I write for me to play that I don’t expect others to play.  This does not mean that I won’t permit it, but I just don’t expect it to happen because it comes out of what I do.  It’s really inefficient to put these pieces together, so I wouldn’t expect someone who’s more of a classical player to engage with that material, even to deal with the notation.  Nevertheless, it has happened.  I’ve had two or three different people contact me about that very piece, No Man’s Land.  I’ve heard one other recording of it, and it was good.  And somebody contacted me just a few months ago who wants to do it on a Masters recital. So I provided the music and said just let me know how it goes.

But you’re right.  There are the microtonal things and the moaning things.  Another one that did come out of No Man’s Land and went into other pieces was this kind of squawking sound that you might remember in the last movement.  I put that in another piece and was working with one ensemble where, first of all, I felt very understanding if the clarinetist didn’t want to do that.  In rehearsal, I was explaining how to do it, and I provided a sound clip and so on, and the clarinetist just wasn’t doing it.  I let go of it, but we got to the performance and there was this squawking sound.  So it did come out, but just not in rehearsal.

As for it being a homecoming, I had an injury and couldn’t play much when I was young, in my 20s. Then when I started playing again, the instrument didn’t have baggage for me. I was discovering it anew and not taking for granted how things should sound, what fingerings to use, what’s pretty, as you said.

FJO:  I think the fact that you were coming to the instrument afresh after a long hiatus makes it different than many of the repertoire classics by composer-performers which are really mostly concerned with showing off the idiomatic virtuosity that is possible on a given instrument—whether it’s the Paganini Caprices or Liszt’s etudes or pretty much anything by Rachmaninoff or, for that matter, even much more contemporary things. One of the benefits of writing for instruments that you can’t play, like Beethoven writing his late string quartets or David Rakowski writing all those piano etudes, is that it can push the envelope of what an instrument can do.

“I’ll sometimes hit a wrong note and like it.”

BW:  I think it can go either way. I’ve sometimes felt fortunate that I’m a bad pianist; I’ll sometimes hit a wrong note and like it.  I’ve wondered if I had more facility with the piano if that wouldn’t work for me—which is not to say anything about anyone else’s facility. If you have chops, it can allow you to explore, but if you don’t have chops on a given instrument, you might have a tabula rasa.  But that may or may not be appreciated by the performer who ends up playing it!

FJO:  But you found a way to give yourself a tabula rasa as a composer for your instrument.

BW:  That also comes into play in my sort of quasi-trad music experience. I do tend to play clarinet in a way that has lots of inflection. It’s not pristine, continuous, beautiful sounds, but I do like that type of playing and I’d been missing that. One way that it came out was that I started playing in a quasi-trad music context. In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, I have a duo called Fork & Spoon, with a guitarist, and we play tunes. I still have these squawks and bent notes and so on in our tunes, but it’s also encouraged me to play things more “straight” sometimes, and I really have liked doing that as well.  One that I’m very fond of is based on the Beethoven settings of Scottish Songs. I’ve wanted to find the original songs, which may or may not be possible.  One is “The Lovely Lass of Inverness.” It just happens, not surprisingly, that there’s an Inverness nearby in Cape Breton because there’s a deep Scottish heritage there.  Anyway, I looked at the song and basically took out the chromatic notes and approximated what I thought the original might have been and made a new song out of it.  I turned “The Lovely Lass of Inverness” into “The Lonely Lark of Central Park,” and we play that in a set with other truly trad tunes.  With my background, being new to trad music and not being really in that scene, I liked being able to “recuperate” Beethoven a little bit; it was enjoyable.  So I like playing that tune.

Barbara White sitting in her studio with her upright piano in back of her.

FJO:  We’ll talk more about Fork & Spoon in a bit, but first let’s go back to this bifurcation you mentioned about clarinet pieces you write for yourself and clarinet pieces you write for other people. I think perhaps that strikes to the heart of your decision to focus on being a composer, since someone who primarily identified as a performer might not necessarily think in those terms.  I’m curious about how and when and why composing got the upper hand.

BW:  I think it was that I was being asked to write pieces for ensembles and I wasn’t part of those ensembles.  I remember times, 10 to 20 years ago, where I would long to play and say, “I’d really like to make space for a project that I would play.” Gradually occasions arrived where I could play.  It’s nice that you mentioned No Man’s Land, which is almost 20 years old now. That’s on my first CD, but then on my next CD I didn’t play, even though I had premiered one of the pieces [Small World]. I wanted someone else to play it for real on the recording.

FJO: “For real”? Hearing you say that definitely proves that composing got the upper hand.

“What got me back into playing was actually working with the shakuhachi.”

BW:  I caught myself saying that. It wasn’t maybe the best way to put it.  It was a piece that had some klezmer-y things in it.  The inflections that I was using I could do, but I don’t play klezmer music.  So I thought it would benefit from a clarinetist who practices every day.  And the other thing with that piece is that it was written, again, for people who were an ensemble.  That was Larry Passin and Nancy Zeltsman; they were doing a project with clarinet and marimba.  I wrote the piece for them to play, but I played the premiere to test it out.  It was natural that they would play it in the end.  So there isn’t a dramatic story there, but what has happened is in various projects I did start playing again.  It’s been a much bigger part of my life in the last five years or so, maybe longer.  What got me back into playing was actually working with the shakuhachi.  I wanted to learn that instrument, just to experience it, and part of doing that led me to think, “This is the hardest instrument ever.  It’s very gratifying to struggle with and I want to keep playing it, but I already know how to play the clarinet a little bit.”

FJO:  It has been an interesting path, going from writing pieces for yourself to play, to writing pieces for others to play who you know, to writing for people who you might not know, to working more directly with players you do know and sometimes also play in the ensembles with. To jump the gun a bit chronologically, you’re actually playing in the instrumental ensemble for the most recent recording of your music, which is devoted to your magnum opus Weakness, which we’ll also talk more about in a little while. But obviously, when somebody asks for a score, and you send it off and say, “Let me know how it went,” you’re not really connected.  How does that feel, since you obviously want the connection?

BW:  Well, I think it makes a big difference how old the piece is.  I do feel somewhat protective of my pieces sometimes. It might be tempting to aim for as many performances as possible, and that can be great if there’s a piece that any number of people can play.  With that piece you mentioned, No Man’s Land, it is about 20 years old now.  So I don’t feel so protective of it.  And I’m happy especially if it’s younger people who are exploring repertoire and find that piece and are interested in it and want to grapple with the notation.  We end up having the experience and connection we have, so I guess I take for granted that there are going to be projects where I know the people and we’re making something anew.  But once a score is out there, it will also find its way to people and that’s great, too.

FJO:  Well, I also wonder about that in terms of the choices of ensembles that you work with.  You have a piece called Five Elements that’s a standard piano quintet. It could easily be grouped on a program with pieces by Brahms or Dvorák.  But you tend not to write for those kinds of ensembles.  In the repertoire of yours that I know, I don’t know of a single piano trio or string quartet.  You have a violin-piano duo, which is a really cool piece.  But there are a lot of pieces for the so-called Pierrot ensemble, which is more an ensemble of our own time, so there isn’t this heavy weight of the distant past. Still, if you write a piece for, say, piano trio, there are a zillion piano trios out there who could potentially play it. Whereas if you write a piece that’s scored for clarinet, violin, and marimba, like your piece When the Smoke Clears, how many of those groups are out there?

BW:  Right. However, sometimes groups arise, not necessarily formed as a formal group, that will continue.  It’s funny you mentioned piano trios, because I do have one and it has had just one performance. That is one that I feel could travel more.  It’s still intimate, but I think it’s more gregarious than some of my other pieces.  But you’re right.  It often has to do with who asks, and whether the project feels like it appeals. One piece that fits what you’re talking about is a piece for two bass clarinetists and two percussionists [Repeat After Me]. It is a dance score, and fortunately I had the opportunity to choose the instruments.  There aren’t too many ensembles like that, but it has been done by other people.  It was really gratifying that Sqwonk, the bass clarinet duo, recorded it.  I hadn’t gotten around to recording it myself yet and then I heard from Jonathan Russell—who was a Princeton graduate student and bass clarinetist—that Sqwonk wanted to record it.

FJO:  I was going to interject before when you were trying to get that clarinetist to make a squonk in rehearsal that now we even have groups that are named that! I think we’ve come a long way. There are a lot of performers now who want to take the ride, people who just want to do the wacky, out there stuff.  It’s a very different world from the more established chamber music ensembles like, as we were talking about earlier, piano trios, whose bread and butter is being presented on concert series where they’re expected to play the Archduke Trio.

BW:  Hopefully Ravel once in a while.

FJO:  The balance is tricky.  But most of your music tends to be performed on new music concerts.  It doesn’t live alongside older music so much.

BW:  I think that’s largely so.  The piano quintet you mentioned was commissioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Chamber Concert Series.  So the rest of the program was older music.  And my piano pieces will be on concerts with older music.  But you’re right.  Usually if a Pierrot ensemble is involved, it’s going to be recent music.  Related to what you’re saying, I think probably—not surprisingly—the traditional “ensemble,” so to speak, that comes up the most is solo piano, which actually feels a little foreign to me.  But I enjoy getting into the space of writing for it.  Eric Moe is premiering a new piece that will be performed with some older music for sure.  And maybe some newer music, too.

FJO:  He’s a composer, and he performs mostly new music, so you’re probably not going to be the only living composer on that concert.

BW:  Right.

FJO:  But certainly, for the people in our field who write orchestra music, they wind up being in this position where they share the program with all dead composers and many people in the audience might not even know or care about the new composer on the program, so they’re dealing with the potential disappointment of the audience as well as the potential hostility of players who are used to playing a certain repertoire.  That’s a very different world from the one you’re in where you know everybody’s name.

BW:  Sounds like Cheers. [Laughter] Although there’s almost an analog to that for me, which is that when I interlope or interfere in the world of shakuhachi and in the world of Cape Breton music, I am often putting something in a program that stands out from the tradition.

Several of Barbara White's flute including a pennywhistle and a shakuhachi.

FJO:  But the other part of it is I think it affects the music that one winds up writing for those instruments. For example, you mentioned the piano as being the most traditional thing you’ve written music for. It’s an instrument with a huge historical repertoire. When people see a piano, before they hear a note of whatever music is being performed on it, they already have a context for what they’re hearing. Same with a piano trio or a string quartet. But they’re probably not going have as fixed a notion for, say, a solo percussion piece.

BW:  True.

FJO:  So does that affect what you write when you write for solo piano?

BW:  I think it might.  Not counting a student piece, I’m imagining that I have three piano pieces.  And the middle one doesn’t do that so much, but the first and third ones do to some extent.  It has to do with thinking about the specific player, too.  I have two pianist colleagues I’ve worked with a lot.  Of course, I’m about to hear Eric play a new piece, but if I think of the other two—Geoff Burleson and John Blacklow—they’re very different temperamentally.  So for Geoff, I would tend to write something that’s very omnivorous and might have some kind of vernacular—for lack of a better word—aspect to it.  For John, I would tend to write something that’s very concentrated and contemplative.  This is not to say that each of them does not have the other aspect, but it’s the gestalt that comes to the fore when I’m writing for them.  So I think that’s part of it.  In the piano piece I just wrote for Eric, I didn’t expect it to be so much about traditional music, or about repertoire, but it ended up being that way.

Eric asked for a short piano piece, and I was about to say, I don’t know if I can do this right now!  Then I had an idea for the piece.  I’d been thinking a lot about ice, because I went to Newfoundland in June 2016 and had the great experience of encountering what I will call an iceberglet.  I tended to call this “my” iceberg. Basically it was a piece of an iceberg that floated in and out from shore, and eventually it broke into pieces and then all of a sudden, it was literally in front of the house where I was staying.  I audio recorded it—and I plan to do something with that—but I was thinking about it in terms of the piano. The idea of icy frozen sounds was with me. But then, as I was working on the piece, I started to think about Schubert.  Ice and tears, and brooks babbling and so on.  So the piece has this kind of thing where there’s ice that melts, and after it melts, it’s Schubert.  It seems very organic.  I couldn’t have predicted that.  I didn’t set out to write something that refers to Schubert.  And it doesn’t have a quote exactly.  It’s more as if it messes with his syntax.  The other reason that that came about very likely is because I was teaching music theory at the time, and we were working on Schubert song cycles.  And that was what was in my imperfect memory, so it just emerged.

FJO:  I’m trying to imagine how the piano conveys the sound of ice melting. Maybe it’s a loud chord prolonged by the sustain pedal? We can attach these meanings to something abstract like that in a piece of music, but unless you tell people that’s what it is before they hear it, they’re not necessarily going to perceive it that way on their own.

BW:  The relationship was with high and sharp, crystalline sounds with a lot of decay. So things that were very still and steely, so to speak.  But sure, it could be a fire burning at a camp site to somebody else.

FJO:  Now, the piano is not your instrument, but you have a piano here.  So do you test out stuff? What’s your process?

“I like to get physically involved in the music.”

BW:  I do use the piano, but it really depends on the piece.  If I’m writing for percussion, I will often sort of tap things out.  I like to get physically involved in the music.  If I’m writing for clarinet, I will use my clarinet.  And I can get around a flute.  But what I’ve been doing more recently, partly because of the instruments I work with, is mockups. For my opera Weakness, I made a blackmail mockup: if anyone wanted to threaten to release it to the world, they might be able to get some money out of me.  I even sang some of the parts; I’m not a singer.  There were some really high wailing sounds.  I did those just to show the singer what the idea was.  Particularly working with the shakuhachi, that’s what really led me in that direction, occasionally playing things myself but even taking things that I’ve recorded from a player, and so on.

FJO:  I know that physical gesture is also an important component for you in forming your music, but it’s something I’ve hardly been aware of as a listener since I’ve experienced almost all of your music on recordings rather than in live performances. So important aspects of pieces such as your song cycle Life in the Castle or the piano quintet Five Elements, which we’ve already touched on briefly and which was inspired by martial arts, are somewhat lost on me. How did movement—dance, martial arts—play into the creative process for those two pieces and perhaps others as well?

BW: Well, Life in the Castle was meant to underscore dance, but I have a more roundabout answer. More recently, when I started working with shakuhachi, it confirmed an experience I had had with the clarinet, of just how potent the physical experience of playing the instrument is.  Shakuhachi is not a stadium rock band instrument—though it has been for some, actually.  But generally, it’s a very private, intimate instrument that has often been played alone.  There’s something about the way that the different sounds are made where the use of the fingers and the breath become very pronounced.  For example, if you finger a note different ways, that’s not considered an alternate fingering.  They’re actually different things, and you’ll get very different sounds.  You wouldn’t do the same kind of thing you’d do on the clarinet, with forked fingerings.  So going back to the piano quintet, Five Elements, I it might be right to say that the physical gesture was important in that that’s how I learned about the five elements.  There’s a qigong exercise or activity called five elements that cycles through the different elements.  The way that works conceptually is really interesting to me and stays with me all the time.  But I think that I was thinking more imagistically by the time I got to that music, rather than gesturally.

FJO:  I know that you studied taiji at some point.

BW:  Yes. Pretty rigorously.  But at that point I was doing qigong more.  Here’s something maybe related to what you said earlier: Eric Moe wrote the liner notes for one of my CDs and he talked about movement in stillness, and stillness in movement.  That is something that is always there with me.  It actually relates to the yin yang symbol. If it’s black and white, you have a black squiggle with a white dot and a white squiggle with a black dot.  Each half contains a bit of its opposite.  So it’s this idea of duality, but also relationship.  That was very much part of what I thought about in that piece.  There might be a lot of activity on the surface with slow harmonic movement.  Or there might be really quick harmonic movement with a slow gestural thing happening.  That comes into play also in this interesting journey I’m having with the shakuhachi and with Cape Breton music in that in some ways they might sound very opposite.  Cape Breton music has a Celtic aspect to it.  There are jigs and reels, and strathspeys, and so on. There’s a lot of fast music with a lot of ornamentation and so on.  Shakuhachi music tends to be slow, especially the honkyoku repertoire that interests me the most, but it also has a lot of ornamentation.  With shakuhachi, I’m always joking—but it’s sometimes true—every note lasts a minute, but there’s a lot happening in that note.  So it’s a stillness with a lot of movement in it.  And then if I take Cape Breton music, with the Celtic-Scottish-Irish influence, jigs and reels that repeat with lots of eighth notes usually, there’s also a kind of compactness to the syntax that makes it seem still in a way.

FJO:  I didn’t realize this until what you just said, but the first movement of No-Man’s Land is actually called “Pibroch,” which is an example of a type of traditional Celtic music that’s as slow as shakuhachi repertoire.

BW:  Good point.

FJO:  And you wrote this long before you became enamored with either of those traditions.

BW:  Interestingly though, the way that I came to that title was through the Ted Hughes poem called “Pibroch,” which if I remember correctly, begins:

The sea cries with its meaningless voice
Treating alike its dead and its living

So the idea of a cry was very much there.  But then, of course, I did learn about Highland bagpipe music, so that was in there, too.

A bas-relief in Barbara White's kitchen.

FJO:  So, in terms of the inspiration, you said a little earlier, some allusions to Schubert subconsciously wound up in your new piano piece because you had been teaching his music in a theory class. Similarly, you were reading Ted Hughes and his poem became an element of the music you were working on. A piece of yours I really love, Learning to See, is all about trying to make musical connections for experiences that you had looking at visual art. The CD very nicely reproduces some of those images, and your notes talk about Brancusi and Eva Hesse and my favorite detail: your referencing of a John Cage piece because Jasper Johns incorporated the manuscript of it in one of his collages. But if a listener didn’t know any of that, if they didn’t read the notes or just happened to hear it on the radio, they might not hear any of these references. Is that okay?

BW:  Sure, that’s fine.  My original request was not to list the artists in the program notes, so it’s just my titles, but not who the artists were.  And then as time passed, I’ve been flexible about whether to do that or not.  Particularly when I was putting together Apocryphal Stories, I was bringing together things of interest to me that were so specific.  I really didn’t expect anyone else to get what those were, these collage moments of obscure references.  It’s very gratifying that you know the story about Perilous Night, but I certainly wouldn’t expect that.  And it’s also not trying to prove anything about those things.  I’m not saying, “Aha, I found Perilous Night and now I’m bringing it back and this shows something about Jasper Johns.”  It’s more a kind of curio, to explore this unexpected juxtaposition.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you didn’t want people to know initially, because I think that’s what’s so cool about this piece.

BW: I’ve had some surprising experiences with it being done without the information. Also, even if people have that information in the program, they might not look at it.  Right?

FJO:  Right.  Of course.

BW:  So there have been instances where people either didn’t have the information, or didn’t take it in, and I got really insightful comments. The point isn’t so much that they were positive comments, but they might have been really interesting observations on the music—and not necessarily from people who are all that informed about contemporary music.  So I’m always happy when that happens.  And I often think that a big part of that can be performance.  A really fine, persuasive performance can draw people into something that might seem alien otherwise.

FJO: But I do think if someone knows the back story, the listening experience is even richer.  I know that it was for me, so I’m glad that you’ve allowed those liner notes to be out there. To take it one step further, has the piece ever been performed in an art gallery?

BW:  I don’t think so.  That is about my most-played piece, so I might not be able to remember every single performance.  But I think not.

FJO:  For me it’s always important to know what’s behind something, to find out anything that could offer a window into it.  Similarly with your piano piece Reliquary, the idea that there are these echoes of other pieces in it that are only partially remembered, in terms of their accuracy, is something to latch on to when listening to it.

BW:  I hesitate to be so categorical, but even without that much extra-musical apparatus surrounding the music, there could be things in a piece that are intended that don’t get across.  It’s something I talk to students about. A composer can have an idea of what a piece is doing, and maybe that’s not heard because we might not be projecting it so much.  Similarly, I’m always going to have these associations of a narrative in the back of my mind, or a visual image, or something like that. I’m happy to share that, but I don’t expect people to have the knowledge I do.  At the time I was doing Apocryphal Stories, I was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute and gave a presentation, the same way the scholars did.  A historian said, “Oh, your work is not unlike what I do.” And I said, “Okay, yes.  There’s some excavation and some research.”  So I love doing that.  I love having the opportunity to explain and explore and give the background of a piece.  I just don’t expect it to happen every time.  There are going to be performances that don’t bring that in.

FJO:  Novels are perhaps the most direct way to communicate as an artist, but oftentimes someone writes a novel and many people read it and they still don’t get what the author had intended. It’s something that can’t really be controlled.

BW:  Exactly.

FJO:  Although, to take it to literature, when you set a text, there are things that you can control.  For Life in the Castle, you set a bunch of poems about mirrors, so you did things in your music—pardon the pun—to mirror that. Then, in Enough Rope, you also set all these wonderful Dorothy Parker poems and the music you set to these is quite different.  So when you have a text, how important is it for you to bring out that text and how deeply does that text shape what you create?

BW:  With the Dorothy Parker texts, because they have meter, that made a big, big difference.  And also, simply the tone of the poems. What does one make of this arch, wry kind of projection that is sometimes more than that?  That was a big part of it.  There is wit in her poems, but really out-there wit.  Some of the lines still stick with me.

Drink and dance and laugh and lie,
Love, the reeling midnight through,
For tomorrow we shall die!
(But, alas, we never do.)

I was particularly interested in the “zingers” at the ends of her poems, so that very much influenced the form.  So for the one [I just recited which is] called “The Flaw in Paganism,” I used a lot of ornamentation to make the voice dance and laugh.  Then there’s one poem that uses the word “yes” in an erotic way, so I took advantage of that.  And there are some high, florid parts, which doesn’t make it any easier for her to sing.

FJO:  Of course, the tricky thing with writing something very high and busy for a soprano is it can affect the intelligibility of the words. How important is it to you that the words are not just heard, but understood, in so far as we can affect what someone else understands?

BW:  That’s a big question. There’s another direction I’ve gone in that you might know less about. I’ve also used texts that are more everyday.  I wrote a series of pieces for Dominic Donato’s tam-tam project and they got worked into an evening-length theater program called Desire Lines, which I played in as well, along with him.  One of them sets George Carlin.  And there are fortune cookies.  There’s a Zen text, which is kind of wry also.  And there’s also a passage from Bertrand Russell.  Take a guess about what I used from George Carlin.

FJO:  The Blue Food?

BW:  Nope.  I don’t know that one.  It’s the Seven Words.

FJO:  Oh, right.  Of course.

BW:  It might be the shortest piece I’ve ever written.  It’s about 20 or 30 seconds long.  It’s just the clip of George Carlin saying, “You know what they are, don’t you, the seven words you can’t say on television?”  Then he utters the words, and Dominic, the tam-tam player has to race across the stage and bang the gong so we don’t hear the words.  It’s very much about this idea of erasure and danger. The danger I put into the piece is if he doesn’t make it in time, we hear one of these words.  So that affected how I wrote the piece.  That was a case where the text was very significant.

FJO:  I love the idea that you set it up for a mistake. Did he always get there on time?

BW:  He did, but you can hear a little bit of the “sh…” at the beginning of a word that has been in the news lately.

FJO:  For the largest piece you’ve composed to date, Weakness, you set your own text, but it is based on a very old Celtic folktale, which is both beautiful and creepy. I’m curious about what led you to that.

“A bystander is passive and is watching, doing nothing…”

BW:  There’s actually an interesting story to this.  There was an opera project going on at Princeton.  I was invited by Scott Burnham, who was the chair of the department at the time, to participate in this and compose an opera.  I was thinking about different stories to work on, and I had this funny serendipity.  I missed a meeting about the opera project because I went on a road trip to Chicago to take a workshop in Celtic mythology taught by Tom Cowan, from whom I’ve learned a lot of these stories.  And he read this story.  The version he read was from Marie Heaney. She has a wonderful book called Over Nine Waves.  It’s a stunning and startling story to hear.  It’s so rare for me that this is the case, but this was a moment that changed my life. He got to the point in the story where the Goddess, who has become human, is pleading, for the third time I believe, to be helped.  She’s been overpowered by a king and her life is at stake.  And she says, “Will no one help me?”  As he read that, it was very potent, and I actually saw something very specific, which was the Goddess, as she was facing the people in the story . . . I saw her breaking the fourth wall and facing the audience.  I started to see this as way of addressing the way that bystanders see mistreatment and violence.  It’s very easy to be a bystander.  It happens a lot.  The problem is that a bystander is passive and is watching, doing nothing, not acting.  In the theater, that is what the bystander is expected to do.  So it was really interesting to me to think the audience becomes complicit in the story.

FJO:  For the purposes of people who might not know the story, it might be nice for you to tell it.

BW:  It’s not an easy story.  Interestingly, the man I learned it from—Tom Cowan, whom I mentioned—told me later that he would always read the printed text from Marie Heaney when he told the story.  It took a while for him to decide to tell the story impromptu, or to write his own version of it.  This story has a real power to it.  I’ve felt it through the years that I’ve known it and worked on it.  I don’t have a good word to say this.  I don’t want to say I’m superstitious about it, but the power of the story is not lost on me.  It has had reverberations that have been very loud, let’s say.  The context in which Tom teaches the story is the idea of sovereignty over oneself—we tend to hear about that in terms of dynasties and nations—but the idea here is that sovereignty is not about being in control, but being in charge.  One of the things that Tom talks about is that there are people who cannot be in control: children, prisoners, people who have great constraints on them. But if we’re not in control, we can still be in charge.  It has much to do with what happens when you are really stuck and something terrible is happening.  And you really don’t have a way out.  How do you still retain your sovereignty and your personal authority, and perhaps dignity?  You might lose, but you still retain that sovereignty.

So the story has to do with a spirit. We might call her a Goddess, but I’d call her a spirit who assumes human form. The inspiration for this is that she sees a man whom she fancies and wants to get know him.  So she shows up at his place, and he doesn’t know where she’s come from.  His name is Crunnchu; she is Macha.  One of the mysterious and I think charming parts of the story is that she makes him dinner.  So I put into my opera that they wash the dishes afterwards.  There’s this kind of very everyday aspect to this story.  In addition, there’s something very marvelous about her, which is that she runs.  In my opera, she’s spied upon by him, and he says, “Wow.  What’s she doing?  She’s running.”  She’s very fast, so she still retains some superhuman qualities.

Anyway, they live happily, and sometime later Crunnchu, the husband, is called away to a gathering, which might be a political gathering or a festive gathering.  There are different versions of the story.  And she is worried about him going, because she does not want people to know about her.  In my version she says, “Do not speak my name.  Do not tell anyone I’m here.”  And yet he goes to this gathering despite her warnings, and the King is there.  There’s a race involving the King’s horses, and everyone is expressing delight at the speed of the King’s horses.  And before he knows what he’s doing, apparently, Crunnchu yells out, “My wife can run faster than the king’s horses!” And that’s where all hell breaks loose.  The King does not want to hear this.  The King wants his horses to be the fastest.  So the King insists that Macha be brought to him and that she race his horses.  In my version, and also in the originals, she issues pleas.  She pleads to her husband not to go to this gathering and not to talk about her.  Then she pleads with the King to let up on this requirement that she run the race.  Then eventually she pleads with the bystanders. That is the spot I was talking about. This to me is the real kernel of the story.  Another part of the story is that in all the tellings of the story I know, except mine, she is pregnant.  So although she would win the race, who knows what would happen when she runs a race while she’s about to deliver a child?

What ends up happening is that there is no empathy.  There is no help.  She is scapegoated, subjected to abuse.  It has a real patriarchal aspect to it. There is a woman with gifts, and it’s a problem for this King.  He has to stomp her out, and no one helps her.  So she runs the race.  In my version, she expires but she possibly goes back to her goddess-spirit form.  The ending is not just her crumpled on the ground.  There’s more that comes afterward that returns to the spirit realm.

FJO:  But she wins the race.

BW:  Yes, she wins the race, but at great cost.

FJO:  And ultimately also at great cost to the community because she put a curse on them.

BW:  Yes.  There’s some interesting research on the story.  She says that for seven generations they will be cursed. When the men go into battle, they will be doubled over with pains.  Some research actually associates these men being afflicted with—or even imitating—women’s experience of menstruation. Men are visited by this kind of bodily interruption and incapacity.  In my version, I worked with that curse idea a little bit.  It seemed to me that she didn’t need to curse them.  They’d already done it themselves by ceding humanity to dominance, ceding compassion to abuse.  So there’s a line in my opera where she says, “They say that I cursed them.  But no, they cursed themselves.”  One could say she’s speaking from the future, but because she’s a spirit again, she’s speaking through non-linear time.

A bookcase in Barbara White's studio.

FJO:  The interesting thing about all of this is that she always has agency.  She always retains power. She chose the man. She won the race. And the community was cursed because they did not offer to help her. They might have destroyed her corporeally, for that moment, but ultimately she won.

BW:  Yes.

FJO:  I think this portrayal is very emblematic for the current moment in our history. It’s very much a #MeToo story in that it’s speaking truth to power and overcoming.

“Female opera characters are often said to be victims.”

BW:  There’s actually a scholarly resonance for this for me, which is from Carolyn Abbate’s book, Unsung Voices.  Female opera characters are often said to be victims.  She proposes that—at least in some cases—they can be “undone by plot yet triumphant in voice.”  I was thinking about that, that the spirit nature of the Macha character does endure.  So it might be that she goes back to spirit world.  It might be memory, like we were talking about before.  It might be something more impressionistic.  I was very much questioning the notion of triumph as I wrote it.  We don’t always get what we want.  I had had cancer a bit before.  It’s not the main issue in the piece for me, but something that that and other experiences can teach is that being super tough doesn’t necessarily mean you win the race.  It was very poignant to me, and again kind of chilling, that she’s a Goddess and she still loses.  She wins the race, but she doesn’t win.

FJO: She, of course, loses the happy life she had with the man that she chose to be with.

BW:  And in many versions, she actually dies. We’re not always going to prevail.  This is very personal, but the opera has to do with an earlier experience. I don’t know if anyone would guess this, but this idea of a woman being overpowered actually has to do with sexual abuse for me.  I deliberately did not make that explicit.  I have a lot of pieces that deal with something or other, health issues for example, that is not made explicit, but it does grow out of an experience of that.  The moment where she addresses the audience is her final plea.  It’s a plea for compassion. My subtitle for that is The Indictment Aria.  Because she is damning them there: “Is there no one among you who will help me?”  A really interesting historical association with that moment is the McCarthy hearings.  The famous line of Joseph Nye Welch, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” To me, it’s very much like that scene in the opera.  You mentioned the #MeToo movement.  We see demeaning treatment, disparagement, and degradation of others. It’s very easy and very common to let that happen.  It takes a lot more to stand up.

There’s a wonderful writer on trauma, Judith Herman.  She talks about the Vietnam Memorial, which of course was controversial and has its own particular character. She says, we do not have a monument for rape victims.  There is a kind of bifurcation between public and private trauma. Of course, the trauma of war also has its secrecies, particularly in the past.  But things like spousal abuse, domestic abuse, sexual assault, and so on, often are hidden.  This very recent historical period has changed that a lot.  But that’s generally been the way it has been treated.  The other thing she says that is really important in terms of bystander-dom is that many do side with a perpetrator over a victim because all a perpetrator asks of you is that you do nothing.  A victim asks you to do something—to speak, to stand up, to challenge.  So when I think of bystander-dom, I always think of what she’s written about it.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you found a way to prevent the audience from siding with the perpetrator, in this case the King, since only the victim, Macha, has a singing role.  The conductor speaks some lines as the King and there are other ancillary characters, but it’s essentially a one-character opera, a monodrama for Macha.

BW:  That’s really interesting.  There is the husband, but he’s a dancer.  There’s one singing character, and then there’s this breaking not only of the fourth wall, but of the conventions of performance, where the conductor talks.  I was thinking this morning about something that a colleague said to me about the dangers of politicized work.  I wouldn’t call mine political exactly, but we’re often presented with a story, and the composers identify themselves with the good and they’re showing the evil.  They’re indicting the evil.  That was actually something I thought about in that I wanted the shakuhachi to be associated with the spirit, for good reasons—inspiration, respiration, and so on, the kind of Goddess-like otherworldly qualities of the shakuhachi. Then the instrument that would be associated with the man who betrays his wife was the clarinet, which I was playing. I deliberately did that.  I put myself in the position of being the betrayer.  I wasn’t playing the role exactly, but I did not want to say, “I’m a force for good and out there are all these evil people.”

One of the hardest things that I’ve ever performed is in that same spot that I was talking about. There’s a pairing of a singer and dancer playing the same character.  While the singer is indicting the audience, the dancer is appealing to different people on stage—the non-speaking, non-singing, movement chorus and the King.  Then she comes and appeals to the musicians.  Relatively late in the process, it became apparent that—I’m on stage next to the shakuhachi player, Riley Lee—she’s appealing to us.  And we’re not playing at the moment.  So what do we do?  I asked the choreographer, and she said, “Just look at her heartlessly.”  And so we did.  That was so difficult. I had to put myself in the position of the non-sympathetic bystander, the one who was not doing anything.

FJO:  And the audience is indicted for doing nothing, but if someone in the audience stood up and said stop they’d be ruining your performance.

BW:  But that’s the right thing to do.

A set of miniature houses is on one of Barbara White's shelves.

FJO:  So the period when you were creating this piece, which is based on a Celtic folktale, was roughly around the same time that you started deeply immersing yourself in Celtic folk music, but the music for Weakness isn’t noticeably Celtic—at least to me.

BW:  Well, I’d always been interested in and had responded positively to, Celtic music. I did a dance piece in graduate school where the choreographer used a myth told by Yeats, and so I explored some of the music then.  So when I was working on Weakness, people assumed that there was Celtic music in it.  Not a bad assumption, but nah, there was a Japanese flute instead; that’s how it worked.  After that was done, I was still very much working with Celtic stories, but I wasn’t thinking at all about Celtic music.

This is what happened.  I had been chained to this piano in this room for a couple years writing an opera.  I hadn’t had a lot of chances to travel, so I just had this idea: I’m going to take a road trip.  So I got on a very handy internet map—I love how you can zoom in and out and see where you are in any kind of resolution—and as I was looking at the map, I thought, “I haven’t really been much in the South.”  So I started looking south and I said, “Nah.”  Then I said, “I’ve always wanted to go back to Montreal.  I visited there on a band trip in high school.”  So I looked up Montreal.  Then I kept going east on the map.  And I remembered that one friend in particular, but others as well, had visited Cape Breton Island.  I didn’t remember much of what they told me about it, but I just said, “Hmm, that might be the place to go.”  My reason for going there had nothing to do with music.  I did know there was music there, but I’m sure I wasn’t really thinking about Celtic music in Cape Breton.  Really what I was looking for—and this might sound sacrilegious for a composer—was not having any music for a while.  I intended to go sit on rocky cliffs, take in the ocean sounds, and so on, after doing Weakness.  So that was my intention, and I booked a reservation at an inn on the island and was getting ready to go, and then I looked on the website and saw that they were having a music camp there the day I arrived.  I literally did say, “Oh, damn.” However, I couldn’t say no to a music camp in Cape Breton, so I went over to New Hope, Pennsylvania, and bought a tin whistle for $20 and went up to this camp.  It was a 48-hour camp, and it was run by an organization I’ve worked with in various ways since then, called Kitchen Rackets.  I went to this camp for a weekend and—I’ve already said this once today and I don’t often say this—it changed my life. I ended up learning a little bit of tin whistle, but then I sort of stuck around.  I went and sat by the ocean.  I made some field recordings that worked their way into the [Weakness/Macha] CD.  I did some recordings with musicians I’d just met that were in the background of the sound design for Tom Cowan’s [spoken word] story version of Macha [on the CD].

But that wasn’t my impulse for going there at all.  And yet there was this connection.  The other thing I thought about at the time was that after doing this very large, ambitious full-contact thing—where I wrote the music and the libretto and I played in it—was it seemed like the right thing to do was to sit in someone’s living room with a pennywhistle, to move to this very humble, unassuming direction.  But through doing that, I did start playing in the musical community there and that stuck.

A framed map of Cape Breton Island.

FJO:  So since the organization that organized the camp and whom you’ve worked with since is called Kitchen Rackets, is that the reason for naming your duo Fork & Spoon?

BW:  Yeah, a little bit. There’s a tradition where they have what they call kitchen parties. I think this might be true in Irish traditional music, too, but certainly in Cape Breton. The musical tradition there is astonishing.  It’s as if people are born with fiddles in their hands.  And there are lots of fiddles, fewer wind instruments.  It sometimes happens that people aren’t quite sure what instrument I’m playing when I have a clarinet.  And that is not at all to say that people are uninformed, because they are very informed about the fiddle.  It’s just a different kind of economy and ecology of instruments there.  So there is this old tradition of kitchen parties where people would play all night.  There’s even a song written about that: “For the second time since we got up, it’s getting dark again.”  That’s a line from a song about people playing for days at a time.  This is a really informal, family-oriented, multi-generational, and very, very good amateur tradition—in other words, people aren’t necessarily making careers or trying to get paid to play, but they play beautifully. So it happens again and again that I meet people who aren’t showing that they are musicians or talking themselves up, and then you hand them a mandolin and you fall over when you hear what they do with it.

So yeah, it was maybe subconscious, maybe just serendipity, I’m not sure, but I’ve ended up working with Fork & Spoon.  Kitchen Rackets is an organization that promotes local music.  They run the camp and other events as well.  With Fork & Spoon, we’ll sometimes host an evening jam session or something like that.  We play in pubs.

He’ll say, “I can’t believe you can write that down.” And I’ll say, “I can’t believe you don’t have to.”

Fork & Spoon is my duo with a Cape Breton guitarist, Charles MacDonald.  We started playing together more than five years ago and over that time have worked out a repertoire. There’s a little bit of traditional Cape Breton music, but mainly warping it to make our own kind of music.  And some of the exchanges we have go like this.  He will say to me, “I can’t believe you can write that down.”  And I’ll say, “I can’t believe you don’t have to.”  And then I will write a tune, thinking it’s very traditional, and I’ll say, “I wrote this tune; it’s so normal.”  And he’ll say, “That tune’s really weird.”  So it was just this really interesting cross-fertilization. The ways that we meet are really fascinating to me and very nourishing.

FJO:  So how much of your compositional stuff has seeped into these other musical activities and vice versa?

BW:  There are some things that are separate.  There are some things that blur.  My first impulse would be to say they stay kind of separate, but that’s not entirely true.  I’m just thinking of a tangent. There’s a beautiful recording by Jordi Savall of Celtic music.  There are two volumes, and around the time I started to travel to Cape Breton, I got this recording.  He plays these tunes on his early music instruments. Many of them are written down.  They’re by composers like O’Carolan and J. Scott Skinner.  There is actually a notated, sort of closer-to-classical part of this tradition, and that’s something I relate to.  But when I work with Charles in Fork & Spoon, because he plays by ear, I usually start out doing a tune that will have chord changes.  The thing that amazes me is that if I were playing traditional music per se, he can play any tune. He knows them all. But say he didn’t know it—he can hear eight bars and then on the repeat he’ll play all the right chords.  In addition to that, he doesn’t just play the chords, he really plays the tune.  It reminds me of Max Roach, how he didn’t just play his pattern, but he really played the composed tune.  So when I’m working with Charles, I definitely take that into account.  For example, I did some funny meters. It wasn’t just that it was 7/8, but it was shifting meters. When I played it for him, it turned into syncopation for him.  So if we want to actually do funny meters, instead of syncopation that gets normalized, we’ll have to work that out.

But a project that did blur things was a setting of five Celtic airs for clarinet and shakuhachi, originally with obbligato piano, but then this turned into a piece for Fork & Spoon and the shakuhachi.  So now I’ve got this kind of funny trio going.  It was partly inspired by my colleague Riley Lee, who likes Celtic music.  He particularly likes O’Carolan’s music, and I did use one O’Carolan tune. And I like really slow airs.  A lot of the time when one hears Cape Breton music, there is a lot of fast music happening.  But, of course, there are slow things, too.  So between working with the shakuhachi, and with Riley and his interests, and my own interests, I ended up feeling like I had an excuse to spend more time with the slow tunes.  Around the same time I was exploring these two duos, I had asked Riley to play some pieces with me. This got this started in a funny way in that he was in Weakness.  I cast him first, by the way.  I cast the shakuhachi first in my opera because he was the Goddess.  So we were rehearsing Weakness, and he had a concert coming up the next week playing pieces of my students.  I’d arranged that. And he said, “Do you want to put something on the concert?” And I said, “Well, it’s in ten days.  I don’t know.”  I don’t normally do this, and it sounds almost haphazard, but literally backstage, or in the ten minutes or two hours between rehearsals, I would come into this room and try to write something for him and me to play.  This is a case where circumstances made me do something I wouldn’t have maybe done otherwise. I took one of his traditional honkyoku pieces and made a part for me to play with it.  I’m almost like a reverb unit for him.  It is its own piece, but it really has this relationship to shakuhachi tradition.  So I’d begun working with him in a duo and thought about other pieces we might do, and we started thinking about a CD project.

At the same time, more or less, I started playing in this duo with Charles. So I had these two duos and then I ended up combining them into a trio.  So basically if I put it in containers, there’s a CD project with shakuhachi and clarinet, Riley and me.  Then there’s a CD project with Fork & Spoon, Charles and me, guitar and clarinet.  And then each of them is visiting the other CD for one piece.  So we have two trios that we play.  One is the set of Celtic airs, Farewell to Music.  The other is an original that I composed based on a piece that Riley does with a Hawaiian slack key guitarist.  I totally loved it and I asked his permission to arrange it for Fork & Spoon, and what I ended up doing—which was better because we all got together—was I arranged it for all three of us.  Well, it’s not an arrangement; it’s actually a riff taking off from his piece, but there are some parts that would be direct references.  So that’s been very special, and only through knowing these two people and playing with them would I have written this piece, Passage of the Herons.  We keep trying to say what genre it is.  It’s maybe folk at one point, even—we thought—new age, since it’s melodic with chords, very pretty and very flowing.  Not that I wouldn’t want to write music that fits that description, but the particular shape of this piece is something that really could only have happened with those two people in the room.

Traditional Japanese shakuhachi musical notation.

FJO:  To tie some loose ends together here, it’s very exciting to hear you talk so ecstatically about making music in these very different traditions and learn how liberating and inspiring it has been for you. At the same time, in addition to this being something of an alternative stream to your other—I hate to use the word “regular”—compositional activities, you also train composers at Princeton University which is something you’ve now done for 20 years.  So how do you encourage them to look at a map and take a trip to an unexpected place that will change their lives? How do you instill that serendipity and sheer joy?

BW:  That’s a good question.  My first impulse to answer that question is to say I don’t need to; they already have it.  I’m fortunate that the students I work with, both undergraduates and graduate students, really have a sense of adventure and a sense of commitment.  I see a lot of real pleasure and satisfaction that they express.  But there is perhaps something of a permission giving.  I was talking to a graduate student yesterday about a dissertation—which is still creative work, though not composing.  I did literally say to this student, “You can do this your way.  You don’t need to fit into what you think a dissertation is.”  It was someone with a jazz background, and this person has strengths coming from that background—a really strong ear and not needing notation, so I didn’t want them to feel compelled to fit into some other kind of music analysis mold.  That does happen.  A very common thing with composition students, no matter how joyful they are, is of course to have this kind of fear.  “Can I do this or not?” It’s enjoyable to me to see what they bring up. At 12 o’clock, someone will come in and say, “I think I’m repeating too much.  I think I should repeat less.”  Then the next person will come in and say, “I think I’m changing too much.  Should I repeat more?”  That tickles my fancy, for sure.

“It is helpful for me to just say yes to them.”

And, as much as I love trained musicians, I actually am fortunate that I get to do a lot with people who aren’t trained musicians. That’s really special to me. I teach an undergraduate freshman seminar called “Everyday Enchantment,” which has to do with everyday experience and art making and where the boundary is.  Is there one?  And so on.  The students in that course do all sorts of interesting projects, and particularly because they’re freshmen, I figure it is helpful for me to just say yes to them. You can do something with words.  You don’t need to be a poet.  You can make art out of food.  That’s okay.  And they do.  They end up doing performances.  They do things outdoors and try to get people to interact with them. I don’t think of professoring as all that somber.  Teaching introductory music theory has more somberness to it, but luckily a lot of my classes are pretty freewheeling.

FJO:  Of course, the world of academia has changed so much. I doubt if Roger Sessions would put in his bio that he won a photography competition for coffee.

BW:  Are you saying someone did that?!  Yeah, that is true.  Sometimes I think about when I was born and how that affected me. I am just old enough to have experienced, not Sessions per se, but the end of high modernism and partly because of where I was, I was hanging onto that for longer—at Harvard. Then when I went to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, it was really very different. Mathew Rosenblum was writing pieces that had drum set and microtones, and Eric Moe was working with synthesizers and wailing sounds, and so on.  So I had an interesting journey through the landscape of what music is.

The way I’m thinking of that most these days is in my teaching.  I’m currently teaching what used to be called “Music Since 1945.”  I took a course by that name, and there’s a Paul Griffiths book by that name which is now in its third edition.  And I’ve taught it before.  I told my students, I last taught this course in 2000, and they were stunned by that.  And I said, “Yes, you were being born then!  I understand that.” So you can imagine, at some point, we’re going to hit this critical-mass moment where this has to be two courses.  But even to think of how I taught a course that went basically between 1945 to maybe 1998; 20 years later, there’s 20 more years of music.  It’s really fascinating to try to think about what music they need to hear about.  There’s something liberating in that there is so much history now that you know you can’t cover everything.  And I found myself thinking very seriously about the matter of the canon, which has been discussed by scholars for decades now.  I was inspired in part by a recent essay by Anne Shreffler where she pointed out that the canon is not innocent. In terms of giving students permission, allowing for delight, and so on, the last sentence in my course description is: “Whose music is it?” I was thinking very much about what this tradition is.  Where do its boundaries lie?  Who’s been brought in?  Who’s been left out?  Going back to the title, “Music Since 1945” is a problematic title now.  When I was in graduate school, we would have taken for granted what we meant by “music.”  But now that could be any music, and that’s a good thing that we have this more ecumenical view.  So I changed it to “Music After Modernism” and thought very much about: Do I include the important pieces because they’re the important pieces?  Who decided they were the important pieces?  And did they keep being thought of as the important pieces because we’ve said so?  So it’s really interesting.  I’ve been looking at some anomalous composers and pieces.  I’ve been thinking about alternate examples.  It’s fascinating even to think of a linear narrative.  How true is a linear narrative that we would make?

FJO:  Well, you say 1945. Earlier you were talking about Max Roach.  That was the year he recorded the Savoy Sessions with Charlie Parker that are now legendary, but those recordings are probably not mentioned in the Paul Griffiths book about music since 1945.

BW:  Yeah.  He’s not in my syllabus either, but I can tell you what I did on my first day.  I explored things from 1945.  I chose a bunch of things that I was going to play in a row, but I ended up making a kind of mashup, if that’s the right word.  There was a little bit of the Spellbound score.  Then there was Stravinsky’s Babel, which no one knows, but I bet you do.  Then a little bit of Walter Piston’s Sonatina for Violin and Harpsichord.  Then Nat King Cole, the Andrews Sisters, and Bing Crosby.  Then Spellbound again.  Just think of all these things happening at that time!  And there’s more—Daughters of the Lonesome Isle and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” are also from 1945.  Well, I might have fudged some of them, but they’re basically from around that time.

FJO:  Get Charlie Parker in there next time.  And Max Roach!

BW:  Yeah. The reason Nat King Cole was in there specifically is because he was playing Rachmaninoff.

FJO:  Before we stop recording this conversation we should probably talk a little bit about the ballet that’s premiering in Boston in March.

BW:  Let’s see.  This piece [The Wrong Child] was commissioned by Boston Musica Viva.  Boston Musica Viva does a family music concert every year, and they often work with a group called the Northeast Youth Ballet, which is based in Reading, Massachusetts.  I grew up in North Reading, Massachusetts, so it’s kind of neat that this is my old neighborhood.  The choreographer, Denise Cecere, runs the ballet and the conservatory associated with it.  It’s a youth ballet of really skilled people.  I’m excited to see what they’re going to be doing.  It’s a big piece in terms of needing to think about story and interacting with dance, and so on.  Again, as in Weakness, I wrote a text. You might not expect that there would be a text, but it has narration.  That will be done by Joyce Kulhawik, who is a beloved Boston personality and who I remember from when I was growing up.  There’s some kind of homecoming about that.  And it’s another Celtic story.  This one is Welsh, and it’s a story that’s well-known, at least among people from that area. It’s about the birth of Taliesin, who was a real poet, a historical figure whose poetry exists—we have manuscripts of some of it.  But he’s also mythical figure. The story has to do with the birth of the poet and inspiration and shape shifting and initiation.

I’ve been intrigued to be writing for a young audience. I’ve had some interactions with young people, but not in a family concert exactly, at least not in a while.  So I thought about that a lot in reshaping the story.  For example, how dark and brooding can it be? The choreographer has helped me with that a lot.  But another thing that I delighted in was the idea of bringing in sounds that are maybe not traditional classical sounds, but ones that we know as experimental sounds.  I’ve worked in some references to other pieces—most notably Henry Cowell’s The Banshee.  There’s this moment where a raven gets stung by a bee.  Then the piano makes this wailing sound, and then the next line, crucially coming after, is “The raven wails like a banshee.”  I liked the idea of young people hearing this banshee sound. Who knows if they’ve heard Henry Cowell yet?  Maybe.  I don’t know.

A view of the second floor of Barbara White's house in Princeton.

Milford Graves: Sounding the Universe

It is difficult to place Milford Graves into a category. He is lauded as a master drummer of the 1960s avant-garde jazz scene, credited with inventing the martial arts form yara, and is established as both an herbalist and acupuncturist in New York City. Additionally, Graves is a passionate researcher of human biology and brings that knowledge to all of his work.

Milford Graves’s music career began with improvisation. As a young kid, he taught himself to play by experimenting with the sounds he could make on a drum set in the foyer of his home in Jamaica, Queens. His professional career began around 1961 with the McKinley-Graves Band, a funky Latin jazz ensemble he co-led in the neighborhood.  The following year, he led the Milford Graves Latino Quintet with pianist Chick Corea, bassist Lyle Atkinson, conga artist Bill Fitch, and saxophonist Pete Yellen. His career accelerated to place him in the New York Art Quartet, which led him to create two independently released records with pianist Don Pullen. By his mid-twenties, Graves was recognized by artists such as Philly Jo Jones, Elvin Jones, and Max Roach as a drummer with an innovative approach to the instrument, as well as a unique voice in the music scene. His residency at Slugs in 1967 with Albert Ayler is still discussed among musicians today, as is his performance with Ayler at John Coltrane’s funeral.  Graves went on to teach at Bennington College for 39 years and is recognized as professor emeritus by the institution.

Yet, to understand his music one must also inquire into the full scope of his creative pursuits.  Within athletic communities he is known for bringing his ambidextrous drumming into the martial arts through the creation of yara, an improvised martial art that focuses on flexibility and dexterity.  Graves taught yara at his studio in Queens from 1971 to 2000. Similarly, numerous people have visited Graves over the years for his acupuncture practice and to study herbalism. During my first lesson with Graves, he used software that he engineered to record my heartbeat and play back a melody that was derived from my EKG.

When I was first introduced to Milford Graves’s work, I defaulted to the mode of thinking I was accustomed to—that of genre. Even as I was searching for a concept of universal music, I couldn’t help but perceive Graves’s polymathic interests within the stilted categories of martial arts, herbalism, and avant-garde jazz. As I spent more and more time with the artist, I became increasingly unsatisfied with my understanding of his work. Graves employs the scientific method and a vast understanding of biology within his music. He draws connections between analog and digital motions—continuous motions vs. striking different points—in both the martial arts and drumming. He publishes essays, creates works of sculpture, and has recently played drums in a live experiment for non-embryonic stem cells. Yet, this is merely a list of actions taken, and I have long felt that each one is an expression of something much more profound. As I prepared for my recent conversation with Graves, I identified three fundamentals that permeate his work: energy, freedom, and healing.

Miford Graves and Aakash Mittal

Miford Graves and Aakash Mittal

Energy

At its core, Milford Graves’s work sculpts energy. This became evident to me during a previous visit to his house when he was doing some healing work on one of his martial arts students. Graves had recorded the electrical signal from an injured muscle and was feeding the signal back to the damaged tissue with the aid of an acupuncture needle and some wire. The goal was to aid the healing process by using electrical stimulation and specific harmonic frequencies to regenerate the damaged tissue. While this was taking place, we were simultaneously listening to a sonificiation of the damaged tissue’s signal using software Graves had coded. He explained to me that the sound of the speaker, the image of the waveform, and the electricity in the needle were all different expressions of the same signal. This was a revelatory moment for me with regard to understanding Graves’s work. Each of the disciplines he utilizes functions as an expression of energy. That energy can manifest kinetically through the martial arts or sonically on the drum set. The kinetic motion of yara can be applied with sticks in hand to a cymbal, creating a sonification of the martial arts form itself. Similarly the vibration of the drums can be translated into soundless motion. Graves utilizes this approach among his various interests. In his essay “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions,” which was published in John Zorn’s anthology Arcana V, Graves concludes with a statement about the importance of consuming watercress and parsley in order to “transmit high quality solar energy into the biological system.” In his work, Graves applies the relationship of eating food to creating electricity within the body, a process that also pumps the heart and sounds the drum. Whether he is tending his garden, practicing acupuncture, or playing improvised music, Milford Graves approaches each activity as a harmonic of the same fundamental.

Freedom

Milford Graves’s drumming is often associated with the “free-jazz” movement of the 1960s. On the surface, this is often described as a freedom from the previous era’s harmonic structure and traditional forms. When I further explored that musical community, it became evident that the word freedom was used in a much larger context. Among the freedoms that emerge are freedom of thought, freedom of the spirit, and freedom of sound. Albums such as John Coltrane’s Intersteller Space and Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity traversed the boundaries of music and entered the realm of trance experience and conceptual journey. Within this context, Milford Graves offered a unique perspective on freedom. Through his understanding of the fundamentals of energy, Graves’s music incorporates a freedom of motion that stretches beyond traditional audience/performer dynamics. In the New York jazz scene today, a story circulates about the time Milford Graves picked up John Zorn mid-solo and carried him around the stage while Zorn continued improvising. Through the improvised use of his voice and storytelling, Graves’s performances come across as a joyous ritual that loosens up the listener and offers the first step down the path of freedom. The experience of Graves’s multidisciplinary work suggests a freedom from the limiting nature of our mind, which is compelled to categorize and shape the world around us. As Graves re-harmonizes those shapes and brings us back to the fundamental, I believe we are given a glimpse of what true freedom means.

Healing

Artists frequently talk about the healing power of music, but it rarely goes beyond simple conversation. Milford Graves has taken it upon himself to do the research behind it. As I learn more about Graves’s work, I find that his use of energy and freedom is often purposed for healing. His understanding of a listener’s automatic sub-vocalization and the effect the vibrating tympanic membrane (part of the ear drum) can have on other organs informs his improvisations. This results in musical performances that could be perceived as a sonic massage as well as a concert. In this way, Graves is successfully bridging scientific, artistic, and spiritual methodologies in order to free people from societal constraints and remind them of the energy that already exists within. This leads us to what I find to be one of the most challenging aspects of understanding his work. Rather than contributing a body of compositions to an archive or entertaining audiences with his virtuosity, Graves is primarily interested in collaborating with biology itself. This results in a music that mutates, adapts, and transforms in the same manner that our heartbeat fluctuates in reaction to our bloodstream or our various organs create a polyrhythm of life processes.  Janina Wellmann writes in her book The Form of Becoming that “[t]he tension of organic life finds temporary resolutions in rhythm, but always, in its onward aspiration, points forward into the future.” Graves’s work draws from the rhythms of movement, energy, and sound to support transformation and propel the journey forward.

The pathway outside Milford Graves's home.

Creative Spaces

I walk up toward Milford Graves’s house on a chilly and grey day in January. Among a row of ordinary houses and barren twisted trees sits a single house decorated with a mosaic of colored stones and glass that ascends the walls and accentuates the windows. In a recent public interview with Graves, the writer John Corbett referred to this house as a secular “temple.” The house is a work of art in and of itself. From a distance the designs appear to be geometric, but on a closer inspection each mosaic is filled with frenetic momentum and the unique shape of each piece hints of arrhythmia. The golden ratio—expressed as a nautilus shell—is painted next to the front door. It is a meeting place for creative people from various disciplines and walks of life brought together by Milford Graves. I know from my previous visits that I need to approach our conversation as an improviser rather than as an interviewer. Before entering the house, I meditate on the one question I want to approach within our talk: how does Milford Graves utilize music, the martial arts, and biology to sculpt energy, gain freedom, and create healing in the world? Then I open the door and walk inside.


January 11, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.
Milford Graves in conversation with Aakash Mittal
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
With performance footage courtesy Jake Meginsky and Neil Young
Transcription by Julia Lu

Aakash Mittal:  I was watching a trailer for the new documentary about your work, I believe it’s called Milford Graves Full Mantis, and there are some clips in there of you doing yara. I think one might even have been in the yard over here.

Milford Graves:  Yeah, one was in the yard, and the other one was in the back before it was changed.

AM:  You had this motion going on.  I can’t even describe it.  It was fluid, but in your control.

MG:  Oh, no.  That was in Japan when some Japanese musicians were doing a form of martial arts they call shintaido.  They wanted to see what yara was, so we went out in this little area there. I said, “This would be a great area, with the bamboo background.” And I did my motion, because it was on a little slope there. That’s when I went down and disappeared.  The ground wasn’t even, so your balance had to be right because it was uneven.

AM:  That’s really cool.  What it reminded me of was the last time we talked, you were talking about the yawning reflex and the relaxed state, and creating from a place you call the parasympathetic nervous system—how you have to have that relaxed yawn feeling and the sound that comes with it, and you’re thinking about that in your sound. When I saw that video clip, it felt like you were moving in that same way.

MG:  Well, it had something to do with the physiological process. However, that was 1977 and I was just happy to be in Japan and to be around the element I was around—and the people. It was such a great feeling when people from the Far East would come and then martial artists—Chinese, Japanese, and Korean martial artists. Here I am in the Far East putting on a little demonstration.  I have to be very relaxed. People had a much more linear and stiff style of motion.  Shintaido was much more relaxed, but people were doing aikido, so I said, “You gotta be relaxed.”  I just didn’t have the stress factor.  I felt like being in New York.  You look at other martial artists watching you, and you see their facial expressions: “What is that stuff? That’s not tradition.”  I looked out there, and I saw some serious-looking people watching me and some smiles, and that was it.  That was my physiological system: just to relax.

AM:  So were they into it?  What was their reaction?  You said that they were smiling?  Did you get any feedback?

MG:  Well, I was invited as a special guest for them, to demonstrate improvisation and to play with Japanese musicians.  So students were watching the kind of movement I was doing because of the rhythm.  They had to connect that with the music, because of the way I would play. So I think their interest was: “If he’s not playing his drums, what kind of motion will he be doing in martial arts?”  And they were able to ride with it.  They took the ride with me.  And I think that’s why they were smiling.  It was like, this is how you do it—not so much martial arts but ARTS.  There was an art to it.  You take the military aspect out, the fighting aspect out, and just see an artist doing it without trying to be correct from an intellectual or science perspective.

AM:  You’re able to distill out just the creative art form: the movement.

MG:  Right.  The fundamental.  If you want to deal with the harmonics on the fundamental, then you can take that and become a ballroom dancer, a concert stage dancer, or you can become someone who wants to deal with the fighting aspect of it.  But that’s just the harmonics.  I was dealing with the fundamental.  Now how do you want to shape the fundamental or the harmonics you were dealing with from the fundamental?  The fundamental is to get your body just to relax so you can focus.  Then I said okay, I can take from this fundamental, I can use it in really different ways.

AM:  So the harmonics are the form that the fundamental shapes itself into.

MG:  Right.

AM:  That seems like another connection between the way you’re thinking about martial arts in a universal manner, as well as music and all the other activities that you’re a part of.

MG:  Yes.

AM:  You’re not even thinking about them idiomatically.  You’re dealing with it in terms of what is the fundamental, what are the harmonic shapes, whatever the practice is.

MG:  Right.  That’s it.  You have a harmonic, but you may not be able to do all the other shapes, because you don’t understand the fundamental.

AM:  Sorry, that’s just mind blowing already.  How do you understand what the fundamental is of what you were doing physically there?  Maybe it’s not even about the physical; maybe it’s about something else.

“Resistance is the thing that makes you feel like you’re struggling to do what you do.”

MG:  First of all, you’re not feeling any resistance.  Resistance is the thing that makes you feel like you’re struggling to do what you do.  That’s the most basic thing.  It’s like at the point when you’re tired.  You’re just real tired, and you’re in a standing position. We’ve all experienced this.  You may sit down in a chair and say, “Ahh.”  But then you move—“ahh, eeh, ahh”—and say, “You know what, I have to get into bed.”  And when you get into that bed, “AAH.”  This is it.  Just before the point where you’re asleep, if something falls off the table, or somebody knocks on your door hard, or you hear somebody screaming outside, you can jump up real fast and be alert.  But if you were sound asleep, someone would say to you, “Didn’t you hear that person outside? They were in danger.  They were screaming.”  You don’t want to get to that point in your relaxation.  So when I’ve got that feeling I’m in my bed but I can still respond, that’s when I know it’s happening.  I get to that point where I’m standing up like that, I’m in a vertical position, and I want to get to almost horizontal. I almost get there, but I’m just dangling.  I feel so good.  But raargh!—[I can] just shoot on out, right from there.

AM:  And do you get into that same relaxed state when you’re playing drums?

MG:  Yes.  That’s when you can achieve the full energy that I deal with.

AM:  You were saying that when you were in Japan doing that particular demonstration, they were wanting to see how an artist would translate it. They knew you as a musician, and they wanted to see how it translated into what you did physically in martial arts.

MG:  Yeah, because they knew I did that.

AM:  So how has the martial arts practice influenced your drum playing?

MG:  A few years ago I had a very abstract answer.  I said, “Well just do it, and you will find out.”  It was very abstract.  You know, that’s the way you clean up when you can’t really precisely say.  Well, the kind of martial arts that I wanted to develop was based on my experience as a teenager and in my early stages of growing up in the area here, South Jamaica, and then moving into the housing projects when I was eight or nine-years old.  Before I did that, we had little kid wrestling, because I grew up around a family that was called a very tough family—large people, close to 20 people in the family.  And they had a military life. At least one was a sergeant in the Army, so he came home and the house was like a military barracks, so it was rough and tough.  Then when I got to the housing project, we had these body punching arts. We played basketball, but then when the basketball game was over, everybody said, “Sham battle!”  Everybody started getting up there punching each other in the arms and chest. The face was off limits, but when somebody was getting frustrated because they couldn’t punch you in the chest, they would sneak and punch you right in the jaw and almost a real fight would take place.  But you participated in these things because if you didn’t, you should have stayed off the playground. Maybe four guys would grab you and stretch you out and punch you all in the arms and muscles and stuff like that.  So basketball was tough and rough.  It wasn’t like the rules you played by when you played in high school or college ball when you’ve got a referee.  You know, you got hacked.  If you drove through, if you did a drive to the basket, all this fancy stuff, all these turns and angle movements they’d be doing, it was rough to do that because they’d knock you down and really try to hurt you.  And they’d say, “Don’t come here driving like that again. We’re not going to let you look good.”

I remember a whole lot of experiences.  One of the things that I got out of that was I’m not afraid to get up there and sham battle.  There were guys around us who physically were intimidating.  They had the muscles and always kept certain kinds of facial expressions.  And they had that kind of voice, like the bully guys.  When you’re sitting in the basketball court at the housing project, you may have 15 or 20 guys out there.  And they would come over and say, “Come on, let’s sham box.”  And you were hesitant, but then you say to yourself, “Well, it’s not a real fight.  So this guy’s not going to hurt me.”  And I found that some guys that I thought were real tough guys, they weren’t tough guys.  They just psychologically gave you that impression. So it gave me confidence.  When you don’t participate and you just look at images, it could be intimidating.  You have to participate in the event to see what it’s about.

So when I did the martial arts, I said, “This is going to be just beyond a fighting situation.  I’m going to set this up. I want to set up a system where people truly become their so-called warrior within.”  You get to the point where you really intimidate people. I used to get people to come in and some of my students said they trusted me.  They said, “I don’t think you would hurt me.”  And even with that said, I would scare people.  I would take them down. I’d do a takedown, a wrestling technique: I’d get on top of them and put my chest across their face.  They said, “Professor, I can’t breathe; you’re smothering me.” But they were more intimidated by the fact of the potential than that they thought they wouldn’t be able to breathe.

I watched the mixed martial arts UFC.  I just like to see how people react to any kind of danger.  And you see these tough guys come up, and they get in bad positions sometimes.  They get in these chokehold positions, and somebody said, “Wow, they tapped out real fast because they potentially panicked.”

This is beyond fighting, in a sense. How do you react when that crisis comes?  How do you react when pain comes to your body from an illness?  Do you run out to the doctor right away?  Or do you go internally and try to control that pain?  I see people go out to meditate. They think if you do these chants, you can meditate the pain away.  Yeah, that’s easily said, but put a person in a pain position, and then tell them to try to chant and meditate, and see if it works.  So, it’s non-functional.  I try to make it more functional.  Put a person in that position, and I can tell by the pressure, they can breathe.  But they’re seeing potentially, “Wow, I may not be able to breathe.”  Then I’ll let them relax a little and then I’ll let them come back.  The second time they’re not so quick to say that; they try to see how to get out of this.

So I’ve used that as a situation, for you to be attacked by a foreign agent in a sense.  And a foreign agent could be from pathology.  It could be bacteria.  It could be a virus.  So when you get this thing, you don’t panic.  You say, “Okay, well, I think I can handle this.  I can deal with this.”  Then you can release what you have inside.

But to do these different kind of so-called art forms, to be able to increase your thought process or neuroplasticity, you have to put yourself in the position whereas you’re not intellectualizing on it.  So that’s what I did with the arts—martial arts.  It wasn’t just to go out there to say, “Well, I can fight.  I can hurt somebody.  I can protect myself.”  It was beyond that.  I wanted you to have a confrontation with something that was real.  Instead of you being a one-cell organism or a piece of DNA—we’re talking bacteria, funguses, viruses—think of yourself as a multi-cellular piece of bacteria or virus. When you see that person in front of you, or that competition you’re going to have in a sparring session, you have to look at each other.  If you touch the body, it’s like therapeutic massage or active massage.  So when you get on the floor, you don’t say, “Oh, that’s my enemy.”

“I wanted you to have a confrontation with something that was real.”

When you see somebody, sometimes it’s somebody you may know, sometimes, somebody you may not know.  A lot of times you say, “Are you feeling okay?”  And the person says, “Well, I’m not feeling too good today.”  I say, “Yes, I noticed that.  You just don’t look like you.  Is there something bothering you?  Are you sick?  Are you going through any emotional stress?”  What do you do when somebody’s like that?  You give them some advice.  Maybe you need a great medicinal soup.  Take some herbs, you know. Or you need some rest. Or if they’re stressed out from some kind of other factors, [you tell them] don’t let that bug you.  That happened to me before.  This is how I mostly calm myself down.  So the martial arts come, and we’re supposed to look at each other and we’re supposed to say, “You know what, I think you need a massage treatment.”  When we test the body, or we grab the body, and hit certain points and grab certain points, you’re not doing a destructive touch.  I’m trying to massage them back in again. And when it’s over, both people will look at each other and say, “Thank God. I feel great. I feel good.”

If you’re out there in the street, you don’t have to destroy anybody.  You’re a healing martial artist, a constructive martial artist, not a destructive martial artist.  The softer forms like tai chi, some people don’t think it’s a fighting form. By the way, you just don’t do tai chi.  You may put some aikido in there.  You have to mix it, the different martial arts styles. You can’t get just locked into one style, because all of them have some value.  If in a confrontation, if somebody is in the street and grabs you, the philosophy I have is that I may stop that person, grab him up, touch certain points and then melt him right down, sedate him.  If you use acupuncture when you’re doing acupuncture massage for a tonification or sedation, you’ve got to know when to tonify somebody, you’ve got to know when to sedate somebody.  In this case, it’s not so much tonifying somebody, because if somebody’s aggressive, they don’t need to be tonified.  They need to be sedated.  So there are ways just to sedate, but if you don’t understand the healing aspect or the constructive aspect, then you’re not going to know how to sedate somebody in a real confrontation.  You just don’t want to be somebody who learns a martial art to go out and be a bully and hurt somebody.  I think that’s wrong.

Various bottles herbs in tinctures that Milford Graves keeps in his home.

AM:  You’ve talked about before how with music, it’s just changing the pressure in the air, and that affects the tympanic membrane.  I’m curious if the way you’re thinking about massaging physically also happens sonically, or if you’re thinking about that at all in terms of the way the sound might massage either the mind or, through the energy, maybe even the body.

GM:  Okay, we need to backtrack to answer that question with the martial arts and the playing. Two things were said to me by the Japanese.  One was a photographer.  He was a great photographer, I thought; everybody thought he was great.  He used to follow me around Japan.  This was about 1981, but he [first] saw me four years earlier in ’77.  I came back to do this solo and he came over to me and said, “Wow. Before you were very good, but now, you’re much better.”  I said, “I would hope so.  I hope I’m developing after four years.”  And then he made this statement, “You’re so fluid—relaxed and so fluid.”

The second guy who said it to me was one of the [most] respected Japanese internal martial artists who was an official representative for internal martial arts, Chinese martial arts.  He came to the performance, that same one in 1981.  He came back stage, and he said, “You do every punch there is to do in Chinese martial arts.”  He looked at my flow and he thought it was from martial arts.  And I said, “Okay, so what I used to do was instead of doing—again—a nonfunctional tai chi, just getting up in the air and doing certain kinds of movements, I would get down to my drum set and I’d go—ting-raww—frapt!—I would keep that whole flow and go around.  If I was doing a sword technique, I would practice my sword stuff and with the strokes like—thwap!—like this here.  There I would exchange a stick, so if I’m hitting down here—pop!—and hitting the cymbal—shhhap!—the strokes like this here.  I was directing the energy in a very precise, meaningful way, so they helped each other out.  I would hit the sound and just get it, make it go like—rat-a-tat-a-rot-a-toko!

So that’s how I was interchanging them.  I was using the form, because with both things, I’m using body motion.  The photographer enjoyed me from imagining just the flow, and said, “Oh wow, the way he’s flowing.”  [The other guy] saw that and he thought of martial arts.  One of the guys I met from the aikido family over there wanted me to play talking drum and do some drumming stuff for his aikido class.  They wanted to be able to do the movements of the drummers.  They realized it was a rhythm thing that was missing, you know.  I was doing it in a very empty way; that was just timing.  It was putting me on a timer, so that’s how I locked all that in.

One of Milford Graves's drums on a shelf in a bookcase underneath two rows of books which is next to a Japanese scroll.

AM:  Ah, so he saw the martial arts in your drumming. When you’re playing drums, do you think of it as the word I learned when I was doing karate—the kata, which is like the pre-composed form that you have to work through? You’re improvising, so maybe you don’t think about it that way.

GM:  Well, you don’t fight with kata, you don’t use a kata.  That’s not a fighting form.  As an artist, a performing artist, a stage artist, some people think the performance starts when you come out on stage.  So if you’re a dancer, it’s the first steps you do.  If you’re an instrumentalist, it’s the first sound that comes out of your instrument.  But the performance starts, it could be a day before, two days before, three days before.  When you come on that stage, it starts before you even make one motion.  When you’re coming out there, you have to be generating as soon as you walk out on that stage.  The worst thing I see is people come out and start distributing their music charts to people on stage.  The audience is watching that!  Even if you fix your horn, if you’re touching your horn, you have to do it in a way that has theater and drama to it.

The way I interpret kata is I would go from a so-called hard style to a soft style.  I would come and I would do hard karate.  I’d come out—Eeuuooahh!—to show I had that look.  And I see people like, “Whoah!”  They flinch out, because it looks like I’m going to rip you out; I’m going to go through you.  I say [sings phrase].  Bah.  And so kata is like an eagle posture.  A kata is to get your attention.  It’s not fighting or a block.  You’re only doing that to set somebody up.  They see that door or they see this fist; that’s what kata is.  Look at me! It’s almost like hypnotizing them.  And you do just the opposite.  It’s not hard or hard, it’s hard-soft, soft-hard.  You may look just like you’re very soft then—bam!—you come out like this here.  You see?  So tai chi you may be like this here, but inside you’re ready to explode.  If you see a nuclear bomb or you stand next to a nuclear bomb, it looks like it can’t do anything.  But if you set the trigger mechanism off, my gracious, look at the damage.  I say, do you know internally what’s in that nuclear bomb and the damage you can do?  That’s tai chi.  The real internal arts.  You’re ready to explode.  And sometimes you look like you’re going to explode. That’s the whole process that goes on inside.  Everything is moving very quick.

AM:  So the performance begins with the energy inside of you.

GM:  Right.

AM:  Days before the performance.

GM:  Right.  Right.  Get ready.

Various computer monitors in Milford Graves's studio.

AM:  How do you cultivate that energy?  I know that’s something you think about, because you’ve written about it in an essay in terms of food. What you’re consuming matters. You’re also talking about a lot of heavier stuff there, in terms of energy and relationships.

GM: I find myself talking to more people about this now.  I tell people, “Why are you doing what you do?” when people come and they want to do this.  They want to elevate to this level, that level, and then all they have to do is say one thing to me, “I’ve got to see how I can make some money off of this.”  Then I say, “You’re not going to do it then. You don’t really have a divine, deep commitment.”

“People are trusting musicians to do the same thing the cook’s doing.”

Some things you do may not make a lot of money because you’ve got to be dedicated towards doing it.  You’ve got to know why you’re doing it.  You’ve got to know the importance of what you’re doing.  As far as music and being a musician, I tell people, “Why do you play music?  What’s your purpose?  If you’re going to play music and just use it as a mechanism to be able to pay your rent and all of that, I have no problem with that.  Only time I have a problem is when you tell me you want to reach this so-called cosmic or celestial higher level.  You know what I mean?  You want to get people to be able to visualize and transform in this kind of state and that kind of state?”  I say, “You’re not going to do it like that, because you’re going to fail to realize your importance.”

You go to a restaurant. I don’t think people realize when they walk through that door in a restaurant: you’re not cooking your own food.  Someone else is cooking that food. You’re trusting that person in that kitchen to be correct. You don’t know exactly what they’re doing.  If you’re a chef, cook, whatever, you’ve got to say, “Wait a minute, these people are coming here and I’m making food for them to be able to put inside of their bodies to allow them to maintain their life processes that require certain nutrients.  I’ve got to be responsible here.  These people are trusting me.”

As a musician, what do you think you’re doing? Are you trying to win a critics’ poll or get a Grammy? I think people are trusting us, trusting the musicians to do the same thing the cook’s doing.  They want their vibratory system to be fed.  They’re coming in there, you know what I mean?  You got your food, that’s why you see the combinations of restaurants having a band in there sometimes.  And it’s got to be a band that doesn’t cause you to regurgitate your food, or get a spasm in your esophagus because it’s too crazy.  So they want more soft, cooled-out music.  They have nice relaxing music with people eating.  That combination’s always been there—that mouth and that ear have always worked as a combinational thing there.  So you’ve got to get that ear vibrating. We’re vibrators.  You know?  You’re not a saxophone player; you’re not a drummer.  We are there to make that ear drum vibrate, to convert [the sound] into electrical energy.  The brain gets it. Ah, okay, now we’re cool.  We can do our job, man.  And we can energize the whole body.

Once you realize that, then you’re going to say, “I have an obligation.  I have a responsibility.  People are trusting me.”  You do a concert, you see people coming into the hall sitting around, they’re coming in to say, “Turn me on.  Feed me.  I’m here.”  If you come over there to trip on yourself, you’re this person without knowing that you have a responsibility to keep the folks vibrating.  If they vibrate, then maybe the whole planet will all vibrate.  Any culture that wipes out the arts is in trouble, and I think we’re seeing that right here with young kids in school and how they’re taking the arts out.  We’re wiping the whole vibratory system out.

In one area in Graves's studio there is a diagram of hands, a photo of fingers, and an anatomical model of a human body.

AM:  I appreciate how you talk about arts education in medical terms, how it is essential. One of the problems in our culture is we are taught to view the arts as a form of entertainment. Some people are taught to appreciate it on a deeper level, but you’re talking about it not just as spiritual, but as a physical and medical need.

MG:  Well, what we were talking about is the entertainment part.  We’re working on the superficial part of the body.  We’re basically working on a lot of the motor system.  So we get all the motor and muscles and everything moving, but we forget about the cellular level.  The cellular level also has to be fed, but then you’re taking away from the entertainment aspect.  We just do one side; we don’t do the full situation.  If you’re talking about so-called creative arts, abstract arts, you’re not talking on a cellular level.  You know, it’s not going to be as defined; whereas, you see, in the entertainment perspective, if you try to take the art and put it on graphs, and try to put mathematics to it, you’re not going to get the true benefit. I’ve been dealing with people, how do you put numbers to it?

“We are there to make that ear drum vibrate.”

You’ve got to the get to the point where you trust each other.  As a musician, you’ve got to trust each other to get on the stage and get this tremendous feeling happening.  When it’s over, someone will say, “Well, what note did you play?”  I don’t know what note I played.  I just play and don’t worry about it.

Some people just don’t trust that they can do it.  It’s extremely difficult to improvise, to be spontaneous and improvise, make changes in a very small amount of time and space and then come back and make another change in a small space of time and don’t repeat what you do.  After 15 or 20 minutes, you have made it through all of these different changes and so on, but what’s amazing is how when you walk out your door in the morning, you may spend an hour or two traveling.  Think about this.  You’re going to make all kinds of adjustments.  You’re capable of doing it.  But you’re told you can’t do it.  It’s like a little child. The parent takes care of the child.  You don’t know how to cross the street yet.  Then after a certain time, you’re supposed to mature in a way that you’re able to see if you’re walking 20 blocks, that you’re ready to make any changes that can take place.  But when it comes to certain things, like something specific in music, you’re taught that you have study this and you have to study that; you can’t do this.

I remember up in Bennington, when I talked to some of the classical musicians who were teachers there, they would say, “I wish I could improvise.”  And I’m saying, “Wow, they can’t improvise?”  I’m trying to figure this out.  It really hit me.  It made me realize: they’ve been taught piano lessons or violin lessons since they were like three, four, five-years old and they were always taught that you have to follow these kind of rules.  You have to do it this way and that way.  That’s horrible.

AM:  To back up a little bit, it sounds like one of the things you said earlier—that part of your music is about resonating on the cellular level. It sounds like your entire vision and goal of what you’re creating artistically through music and through martial arts isn’t even necessarily in the same category or place as goals that musicians typically have.  Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I was just curious about what you’re saying in terms of your goal of vibrating people on the cellular level, or on a level even more microscopic.

MG:  Well, I’ll tell you what.  When I was coming down the stairs, I was thinking about the two of you down here, and I said, “Something’s happening right now.”  People have been contacting me now, and all of a sudden, it’s like an onslaught.  One promoter told me I’m going to do this festival. We got into a conversation and I said, “It was nice of you to think about me. People had almost erased me out of history. They’re making these historical statements and I’m not even mentioned.” So the person said, “Well, people are ready for you now.”

I was told back in the last century, in the late ‘60s, that my concept of music was in the next century.  And of course, I didn’t want to hear that.  And then 2000 came, and I was trying to find that person to say I think you were right!  Things are starting to develop.  Sometimes it’s not for you to say what you want to do or who you are.  Maybe we all have instructions.  Some higher power that we may not realize. I just feel like I’m carrying out orders from another kind of power. No one ever told me to do this or do that.  It just felt that what I’m doing now is developing it to another level, and the reason I’m developing it to another level is because of people.  I’m not sitting outside wanting to be an oddball.  People talk to me about coming in. They say I want to study with you because of this or because of that.  I’m just naturally doing this.  I want to work on it now because I know I can do that.  People think you’re doing something great, but the feedback is not great.  I was looking at it passing the wrong way.  I can’t fault the people.  I guess they’re just not ready for it yet.  That’s what people were telling me.  They’re not ready.  So I said, “Have some patience.” All you have to do is talk to people my age that I grew up with and they’ll always say, “Milford was always eccentric. This guy was always unorthodox.”  I never thought about it.  I guess I was.  I would always challenge the situation.  If something came up, I said, “Let’s think of another way to do this here.”  So I think I found my mission.  What some people have told me, either directly or indirectly, is they may not understand what I’m doing, but they say, “I respect you because you didn’t deviate.  You’re still doing what you do.  Other people just went for the money.”

“I’m not sitting outside wanting to be an oddball. People talk to me about coming in.”

A long time ago I used to listen to some of the older musicians saying, “Wow, I wish I would have not been playing commercial.  I wish I would have done this, and I wish would have done that.”  In the late ‘60s, Papa Jo Jones told me something, and it really hit me hard. First of all, we were at this political meeting and I didn’t expect to see Papa Jo Jones there.  Then he started talking to me. He said, “We want to do some of that avant-garde playing, too.”  Gee whiz, Papa Jo Jones knows me!  I didn’t think Papa Jo knew me. Then he started talking about Count Basie and all of these things and he said, “They want to make money.”  Then I said, “Okay, Papa, I’ve got to leave.” And Papa just said, “Where are you going?”  I said, “I’m going over here to Seventh Avenue.  I got to get the train to Brooklyn.”  And he said, “I’m going that way, young man.”

And I went that way. He wouldn’t even allow me to buy a token.  He bought a token. I’m impressed with this.  He’s Papa Jo the legend and he’s treating me like royalty.  When those old bebop guys were talking about the so-called free jazz players, they didn’t really dislike us.  They were just saying, “Wow, that’s what we wanted to do. But these young guys coming up now can do it and get away with it.  We couldn’t back in the ‘40s.”  I always wonder what these guys would sound like if they would have kept developing their skill level.  You never know what that person could have been.

So I said to myself, “I’m going to keep developing myself because I want to see what I would develop into.”  Right now there are certain things I can do on the instrument that I couldn’t do then.  I used to think about it.  “Wow, that’d be great if you could play with this hand doing this and this doing that and all this here stuff.”  Now it’s coming so easy, because I stayed with it.  My conviction was: what would the arts be like if artists were allowed to develop ourselves? What would the planet be like now?  How would the people be vibrating?  The educational system in this country is the worst.   We don’t have the innovation.  Creativity’s needed again.  We’ve got to rise to another occasion.  When you wipe out the arts, which is stimulating the vibratory system, it’s going to cause a real slowdown.  That’s what I see now, the feedback I’m getting, like when people come over to me and say certain things when I do performances.  I stayed in there to try to see them the way a human would vibrate inside.  It’s not just Milford Graves—that brings in the ego thing.  Other people say, “Well, that’s his thing.  That’s not my thing.”  I always say, “This is our thing!”  I’m trying to bypass it and I’m trying to follow certain rules, and that’s when the physiological process comes in.  There’s a publication now, I won’t knock the publication, but it’s The Jazz of Physics.  For me, it should be jazz, but if you want to use any kind of science name, it should be physiology not the jazz of physics—that’s a machine, that’s outside of the body.  You know what I mean?  You don’t reduce the human body to a mechanical device.

AM:  At the last interview we did, we talked somewhat more idiomatically about all the different things that you are interested in and how they connect.  And I’ve been thinking about it ever since then.  What struck me was that the one thread through all of your interests is energy—and not just managing energy, but sculpting energy or creating with energy.  I was wondering if you’d speak about that a little bit because it seems like when you’re dealing with acupuncture, you talk about energy.  When you’re dealing with martial arts, you talk about kinetic energy.  When you’re talking about music, you’re talking about sonic, vibratory energy.  Maybe these are also, like you called it, harmonics of another fundamental that’s even lower than all of those disciplines.

MG:  Well, if you’re just going to translate energy to “the ability to do work,” that’s one thing. Like on a construction site, you have workers there and you’re telling the workers, “Come on, you’ve got to get this pipe lined up.”  “But I feel out of it.  I just don’t have energy. I cannot pick up this other section of this pipe to connect it.”  I always say that whenever you see humans doing something on the outside, it’s probably just a reflection of what’s going on inside.  So how do you connect these different pathways in the body with a certain kind of energy?  Now certain pathways call for a major work ethic.  It has to be a work ethic. To be able to create that ability to deal with energy, there’s got to be a whole lot of different mechanisms involved in there.  So you’ve got to have a lot of vibratory things going on.  Vibratory motion.  You’ve got to activate the inactive areas, different parts of the body.

“You don’t even know what light is, if you can’t see.”

I just had a conversation about body healing and morphologic fields.  It may be impossible to deal with the so-called morphologic fields, in a sense that you can create a new liver or can create a new heart.  Some people say, “That’s impossible.”  I don’t think it’s impossible. Instead you should just say, “Well, I don’t know how to do it,” because you don’t know how to do it.  Why would you say it’s impossible to do if you can create this energy? I mean, they demonstrated it in the physical world. Einstein had something going on!  But you have to interpret. The energy is one thing, but how are you going to interpret the mass?  How you are going to interpret what light is?  You don’t even know what light is, if you can’t see.  So it’s a visionary thing.  Right?  As soon as you turn off these lights, it’s dark.  You may know from being in that environment where everything is.  You can walk around and grab a seat here, but if that’s your first time, when those lights go out, you don’t know where the heck anything is.  So light really is about your ability to visualize.  So you have to turn the whole mechanism that’s dealing with light; you have to look inside.

The whole morphological aspect of what’s going on is so you get a way of seeing nature’s design, the patterns that nature has.  What you’ve got to say is there’s a possibility that we can connect this with this and connect that with that.  This is something I’ve been talking about for the longest time.  It’s very interesting that a person can have a certain kind of mythology. A female is capable of nurturing a baby, once that sperm and that egg come together; it’s amazing.  People just take stuff for granted.  That little small ovum can mix with a waggling little tadpole-looking type of thing and make a human being.  Unbelievable.  But it’s coming from inside of us.  Everybody thinks it’s the reproductive organs, but there are other factors in the brain that are controlling that.  You’ve got the pituitary gland and all these other organisms that are connected.  They still don’t know a lot about the brain, the whole circuitry.  On a global perspective, if you can stop killing each other, fighting each other and can come together and work together as human folks and work on the planet, then the planet will help out the whole solar system, help out all other galaxies, all the universes. Once you all know how to do that, the ruler will give you the key to how to deal with morphogenic fields and how to reproduce another kidney.  You don’t need a kidney transplant or a liver transplant.  We will be able to reproduce another one, but it takes a tremendous amount of work to energize that person. It’s almost like a person that’s just worn out and has nothing they can lift.  All of a sudden—Boom!—they’ve become really alert again.  There are many ways to do it, when you’re going to stimulate.  You can use acupuncture. You can use plant foods. You can use visual things.  But the key is you get the body active and moving.  It has to be a holistic, total involvement of the body.  You’re not going to have one little thing working and not the other thing working; it’s a collaborative aspect that has to take place in the body.  Everybody has got to be working towards this.  What I mean by energy is to get all of these different areas of the body activated.  And then once the complementary thing’s going on, that’s the only way a morphogenic field can happen. Your heart, when it acts from a pumping perspective, to pump blood out, is sending nutrients throughout the whole body.  So everything’s got to be coordinated for your body to work as a whole.  One little organ can be disrupted, and then you have a problem.

A globe of the earth as well as globes of other planets and satellites in our solar system sits in front of a shelf filled with cassettes of Milford Graves's performances.

AM:  Another thing I wanted to ask you about is that I’ve never heard you identify as a composer specifically. But from my perspective, I feel you could be equally thought of as a composer, but you’re using biological processes as your form.  And not even as a form where you take the superficial sound and notate it, but you’re actually trying to compose biologically. You’re composing with energy. You’ve created so much that involves improvisation, structure, form, and things that evolve along continuums. To my mind you combine the martial arts, acupuncture, herbology, and sound into—I don’t know what you would call it—a composition of the universe itself.

MG:  Well, if we’re talking about the paper composer, I think that’s a class structure.  Sometimes you do things and then people can be enlightened about what you’re doing, or it can hurt. Sometimes you’ve got to say, “What is it really about that I’m doing?”

I remember an experience I had with Jimmy Giuffre around 1965.  There was a book out called Where’s the Time? by a journalist, Martin Williams; he may be still around. He wrote this book about the different rehearsal bands that Jimmy Giuffre put together.  Joe Chambers was doing some of the rehearsals, and I did about three rehearsals with him. I wanted to take the challenge, because Jimmy Giuffre had this reputation.  So I went up to his house, and he had these charts. I knew he was doing some Ornette Coleman stuff, but when I looked at the chart, I said, “Jimmy, this is a little different.”  He was trying to write the melody down for the drums.  This was not a standard way you would notate for the drummer—try and hit the side of the shell, the edge of the rim.  He was trying to get all these different pitches out.  And just for the basic melody of the head, we followed the instructions.  But I told Jimmy, “Look, I will play the rhythm.  I’ll do my best with the sounds.”  I should have been able to read that the way I wanted to, because I’m the new kid on the block and I’m going to be controversial.  After that, he’d probably go around and say Milford Graves doesn’t know how to read music and want to fire me. That wouldn’t have bothered me.  But then I thought I did bad.  So I took the chart home. I told my wife, “I’m going to my room and look at this guy’s music.”  I spent less than a half an hour [there].   I remember leaving the room.  My wife says, “You’re finished?”  “I’m finished.  I see where he’s coming from now.”  I sketched out what he wanted, so when I came back the next day I played it. Don Friedman was on piano and Barre Phillips was on bass. It was a quartet.  After it was over, Don Friedman said, “Wow, how’d you get that so fast?”  I thought I was doing bad.  He said it took us a little while to get all this stuff together.  And I felt real good after that. It wasn’t so bad after all.  But then what happened was, they had an improvisational section. Jimmy Giuffre walked in. I wanted to go up there and see the challenge, man.  When he came to improvising those sections, I improvised off of the head.  So Jimmy said, “Wow.”  He listened to the recording we did there and he said, “Could you rewrite the head for me, rewrite the drum parts?  Because the way you improvise, that’s how I want the drums to be played.” So he didn’t want to write it like that, but he didn’t want no regular dang-dang-ga-dang.  So when I was playing, I heard something and I said, “This is what I would be hearing.”  But then after that there, I saw him at a concert and he said, “So when are you coming back?”  I said, “You know, I don’t know.”  He said, “Well, I want to see if you can read my charts now.  I got some other stuff.”  It was like a competitive thing.  So I just said that’s it.  No more gigs.  I don’t need to go there no more.  But I was listening to what he wanted to hear from the drum perspective.  All the tonal changes, I can do that with all that stuff.  You don’t have to be hitting it all over.  You can stay on the membrane and play the melody out like I do now.  You can play that stuff right from there.

So that was just one experience I had. I had a few more of the same. “Wow, that’s a composer? So what are these guys about?”  It’s almost like an ego trip.  I know some composer may say, “What is this Graves talking about? This guy don’t know what the heck he’s talking about.  Who does he think he is?” I would say just think about what you’re doing.  You sit down, you may spend days or months, and you are telling your story, and then you finish your story, in a musical way, and then you want to give me a piece of your music that’s talking about what you feel, what you want to express, and you’re saying, play me.  I’m bothered with that, like what [someone else] feels doesn’t [matter]. Or when somebody gives you a composition, you add something in. I had that experience, too.  They say, “Well, that’s not written.  That shouldn’t be in there.” What do you mean?  Your music caused me to feel that, and I thought it was cool to put that in.  So if we’re driving in an automobile, and we have to get some place in an emergency—let’s suppose we’re transporting somebody to the hospital or something—and you make a left turn.  I say, “No, to get to the hospital, you have to make a right turn.”  “Well no, that’s the way we do it.  It’s a left turn.  You’re not listening to me.”  That’s the same thing as music composition. You may do something and I don’t think that’s the way.  You’re not even screwing up, man.  If you do it this way, that adds onto it.

“A composer to me—that’s a responsible situation.  A composer to me is just like a teacher.”

I’ve [also] had that experience with a conductor.  They said that I made the track on this particular recording.  They said the way you was playing, that made the thing.  If I would have done it the other way, it was too dry.  But that person wanted to act like they have control.  They wrote all the music and they conducted. So I said, “You’re not giving me respect.”  When I hire a band, I respect you.  A composer to me—that’s a responsible situation.  A composer to me is just like a teacher.  If you’re in a classroom with students, they’re expecting you to teach them.  And if you’re teaching a subject, and they can’t understand that subject, you don’t go and say, “Oh, you’re stupid.  I’m going to fail you.”  You’re supposed to talk to that person and say, “What kind of difficulties are you having?”  And if they say, “I don’t like history.” Well, say, “Let’s talk about history.  Could you tell me something that happened five years ago?  Is there anything you remember five years ago that you don’t like?”  “Oh, I remember something five years ago. I will never forget that.”  “But that’s history.  It’s important that you don’t forget that.  So you don’t repeat that mistake you made.”

Books, tools, and musical diagrams share space in Milford Graves's studio

Or if it’s a math problem—I’m going to tell you something real fast. In the 1970s, I went up to IS 201.  A friend of mine was an assistant principal at that time.  He wanted me to do three workshops in the summer for these kids up in Harlem.  So I went up, and I had a pocket full of change.  I took the hand drums, congas, and all of that.  I’m going to teach these kids these rhythms, but I don’t know if these kids know about eighth notes, quarter notes, and all that technical talk.  So I said, “We’re going to play a rhythm, but we’re going to pulse beats first.  I’m going to hit the drum four times.  One-two-three-four.  Every time you hit the drum, think of a quarter, a quarter, a quarter, and a quarter.”  I had four quarters out.  Then I said, “How many quarters make a dollar?”  They knew that.  They may be failing in school, but they know how to count that money.  “Oh, that’s one dollar.”  So I had a one dollar bill.  I said, “So that’s a one dollar bill. What’s a one dollar bill, compared to counting four twenty-five cent coins?”  I just boom and don’t hit the drum no more times.  But I quietly say, “Count four.  ONE-two-three-four.  That’s a dollar.  So how do you write a dollar?”  They write what they call a whole note in music.  “That’s all, you got a dollar.  You got a little circle like this here.”

Then I took the quarters and said, “Now, we’re going to play each pulse beat twice as fast.  We’re going to count eight.  We got that whole dollar, now we’ve got to make sure that we’re going to divide this one dollar bill eight times.” I had some dimes and some pennies.  So I took out the dimes and said, “How many dimes and pennies makes twenty-five cents?”  Take out a dime.  Take out the five pennies.  “Alright?”  Anyway, I lined them all up and I took two of the students and said, “Look, we’re going to share this twenty-five cents.  You get a dime and you get a dime, but how are we going to share these five pennies between the two of you?  If I give you two pennies, I give you three pennies.  You may get upset, because he got one more penny than you.”  And they’re looking and I said, “I tell you what, anybody got any scissors here?  Let’s cut this other penny in half.”  And they laughed because they know no scissors can cut that penny.  But if I do that, you’re going to get half of a penny.  So you’ve got a dime, then another penny is eleven, another’s twelve; you got twelve and a half.  And we added all that up and in an hour’s time, guess what, I had those kids doing fractions.  It blew them away.  It blew the parents away. I said. “Yeah, you all can do fractions, but you can’t do non-functional fractions.  Don’t mean nothing if you just write numbers!”

That’s a teacher.  That’s a conductor.  If you come to me as a musician, then I may say, “Here, you play.”  You’ve got more? I say, “I think we’ve got something.”  Then I’ll get down and participate with you.  Then I’ll say, “We’re going to try this; we’re going to try that.”  I’ll lay out something to see how you’re going to respond to it.  You didn’t respond.  I left something open for you.  There was no conversation taking place.  It could be for many reasons.  But I’m going to try to get inside you and inspire you to want to play and make stuff come out of you that you really didn’t have.  That’s the conductor, or composer. And if you don’t need help, I don’t have to tell you what to do.  But if you need some help, maybe I’ll give you some suggestions.  But to out and out come out and not think about what someone can do because you wrote all this music? Then you hear this person in another kind of setting and say, “Wow. I didn’t know you could play like that.”  Yeah, you didn’t allow me to play like that, because you already dictated what you wanted.

That’s why I’m devoted to improvisational, spontaneous music.  And I think that’s what we need on the planet right now.  I think people have to get deeper inside themselves. We all have the potential to be smart and intelligent, and we’ve got to bring it out of people. To resolve some of these major problems we have on the planet, we have to have more people working.

“When it really comes time for a major crisis, everybody has to participate.”

I was just telling somebody yesterday that when there’s peace, then they tell people,  “Oh, we don’t need you.  We have all these regulations; we don’t need your help.”  But when 9/11 came, and what did they do?  They asked for the public’s help because the military, the police, and everybody realized that they couldn’t watch everything.  If anything looks suspicious, just call this number and let us know.  So you’re really saying that when it really comes time for a major crisis, everybody has to participate.  If you want to find out the cures for cancer and all this stuff here, you have to start from an early stage in elementary school exposing these kids to oncology, neurology, all these things, in the classroom.  Make little toys, little games, so everybody can participate. You talk about trial and error. Somebody out of that is going to come up, it could be a five-year old kid, and say, “Well, what if you did this and did that?”  Somebody will say, “Wow, we never thought of that.”  That’s why I’m saying: we have to bring out the innovative and creative potential of what we as humans have, and you’re not going to do it by constantly putting a harness on somebody and saying you’re not allowed to express yourself or do what you do.

The elaborately ornamented exterior of Milford Graves's home.