Category: Cover

Mike Johnson: Thinking Plague

Mike Johnson

The deaths last year of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, who were two thirds of the progressive rock power trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer, elicited a great deal of renewed attention in the mainstream media for their once extremely popular but frequently maligned synthesis of rock and classical music. ELP’s grandiose and virtuosic performances—as well as those of other popular “prog” outfits such as Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Yes—reflected the zeitgeist of the 1970s—a time when rock went from being the soundtrack of teenage rebellion to something far more ambitious and, to its detractors, unbearably self-indulgent. But while so-called progressive rock was an attempt to create a music that went far beyond the trappings of rock, there were other even more ambitious musicians working within the rubric of progressive rock that wanted to take that music even further—exploring not just the structures and harmonic language of classical music, but also the rhythmic complexity and tonal instability of contemporary and avant-garde composers. Among the most successful and long-standing of such groups is the Robert Fripp-fronted British band King Crimson (which has included in its various line-ups some musicians from the United States since its early 1980s incarnation). Even more experimental are the German band Can (which was formed by composition students of Karlheinz Stockhausen) and the short-lived Henry Cow (which was rumored to have been named after maverick American composer Henry Cowell, but actually wasn’t), whose personnel included English guitarist Fred Frith who is currently a professor of composition in the music department at Mills College.

Prog rock in its various guises (both mainstream and fringe) was predominantly a European phenomenon, although many of its innovations can actually be traced to Americans such as Brian Wilson (of the Beach Boys) and Frank Zappa. However, in 1978, as the heyday of punk led most music fans to dismiss prog as bloated and irrelevant, two guys in Denver, Colorado, came together to form a prog cover band inspired by an unlikely combination of Yes and Henry Cow. Those two guys were multi-instrumentalist/recording engineer Bob Drake and self-taught guitarist/composer Mike Johnson, whose heroes were not just Steve Howe (of Yes) and Jimi Hendrix but also Shostakovich and William Schuman.

“I heard Stockhausen just a few times,” Johnson recalled when he visited us at the New Music USA office in late January. “I remember I had a record of Xenakis, which was literally the sound of fire burning being filtered for two sides of an album. And I thought, ‘Hmm, I could do that.’ But I guess I’m old fashioned. I believe in my heart of hearts that you can make bigger emotional impacts on listeners if you plan it musically, as opposed to setting up events or preparing things and then letting them happen. … I’m looking for these dramatic kinds of builds and decrescendos, and things emptying out, things getting sort of nostalgic, things getting very intense—that’s Shostakovich, or my favorite, William Schuman, a good New Yorker. That’s extremely high art in my mind.”

Pretty soon after Drake and Johnson’s initial rehearsals, they stopped playing covers and by 1982 they had enlisted a classically trained vocalist and morphed into a vehicle for performing Johnson’s own complex compositions, scored for a rock band instrumentation, playing their first gigs in venues in and around Denver in 1983 under the name Thinking Plague.

“I don’t think we dealt in genre terms when Bob and I were doing this early on,” said Johnson. “Later, if people asked me, I’d say we were trying to combine 20th-century harmonic sensibilities with a rock band. I still don’t know what to call it, and I don’t much care.”

While not initially successful with local audiences, they labored on in the recording studio, self-releasing an eponymous debut EP in 1984 and pressing only 500 copies of it.

“We made this horrible, crappy, cheap pressing with a really nondescript industrial-looking label on it,” remembered Johnson. “We didn’t know anything about shopping it. We didn’t think that it was shoppable. … We didn’t think we could get on a label because we didn’t know what label we could possibly get on. We didn’t think that anybody would take it seriously.”

But some important folks did take it seriously, including the legendary New Music Distribution Service, which took 30 of those 500 copies, Henry Cow’s former drummer Chris Cutler whose own independent label/distribution service Recommended Records stunningly took 200 copies, and—perhaps most importantly—Wayside Music, the mail-order retailer that also runs Cuneiform, a label whose roster includes pioneering electronic/minimalist composer David Borden and the iconic free jazz innovator Wadada Leo Smith. Though the band has gone through tons of incarnations since then—Johnson is the only original member of Thinking Plague—Cuneiform has been the band’s label ever since.

Thinking Plague’s ninth album, Hope Against Hope, was just released on February 10, 2017, and it is every bit as uncompromising as its predecessors. To realize Johnson’s musical conceptions, the musicians in the band—like members of a contemporary classical music ensemble—read from fully notated scores. Because of its instrumentation and volume, it still sounds somewhat like rock but it is light years away from popular music.

“I don’t really understand the mainstream music industry,” Johnson opined. “I don’t quite know what they do and how they do it. I don’t even understand why anybody listens to that music. It’s like I’m a person from another planet, as far as I can tell, where all this is concerned. But when it comes to music that’s more serious, that’s got more depth to it, I don’t know how anybody manages to make a living. … I’ve never gotten a grant for this band. It does seem that there are not many grantors who have a word for what we do musically. Their tendency, because you’re going to hear electric guitars and drums, would be to call it rock music. … But as to how much money there is in any of it, nobody in Thinking Plague has ever made a living from the music. Nobody. Not me. Not anybody else. We’re a dot-org phenomenon. As a matter of fact, my Thinking Plague website is a dot-org website. There was no pretense that this was going to be commercial, so I figured better call it what it is. It’s not for profit.”


Mike Johnson in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at New Music USA
January 27, 2017—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  You’re pretty much self-taught as a composer and a guitarist, but you actually studied classical music as well as electronic music. I think these studies definitely wound up informing what you do, both as a composer and as a guitarist, so I’m interested in what you thought you were going to do back then, versus what you wound up doing.

Mike Johnson:  Well, it really goes back even before that.  When I was very little, my uncle gave a record to us—to my mom I guess, because my dad had no interest whatever in any kind of symphonic music but my grandfather on my mom’s side was an aficionado.  So my uncle gave her an LP of Copland’s Billy the Kid with Appalachian Spring on the other side.  I must have been three the first time I heard that—me and all my brothers got sucked in.  This would have been the ‘50s when doo-wop music was on the radio.  I didn’t listen to the radio; I was oblivious.  But then I sort of discovered that my mother had some other classical records so I was listening to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and some Bach.  There was even a Shostakovich piece in there mixed in on a compilation that I guess was on a 78.  I didn’t know what it was, but I thought it was cool. I sort of forgot about all that later.  I went to school and the English invasion took place. All of a sudden, everybody—even my brothers—were all agog and excited about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.  And that’s where I went.  I got sucked into that after some resistance.  Then my brother got a guitar, and they gave me a guitar for Christmas.  He got an electric guitar that my cousin didn’t want, so they gave me a cheap acoustic guitar just to keep me quiet.  There was this big trapezoidal box under the Christmas tree and I was like, “What in the world is that?” I was 11 years old.  So when I opened it up I said, “What do you want me to do with this?”  Because there were no music lessons in my family. My mother had had piano lessons as a kid and hated them, so she just decided her kids weren’t going to do that.  More’s the pity is all I can say, again and again.  But by the time I was 13, I taught myself to play guitar.  My brother had sort of learned some, but I passed him right up.  I was a lead guitar player in a rock and roll band with a bunch of guys that were 18 years old, because I was tall for my age.  Then at some point my older brother went off to college. By that time we were living in Colorado.  He came back for a break once with an armload of records. One of them was Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, one of them was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and one of them was Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem.  There was something by Prokofiev—I forget what—and maybe one or two others.  And he just said, “These are great; you’ve got to listen to these.”  And he left them with me.  Anything my brother said, I did.

“I had this simultaneous epiphany with the very beginnings of progressive rock plus a reintroduction to 20th-century symphonic music.”

About the same time I started hanging out with these guys and we’d go down in this guy’s basement and play records. These guys turned me on to King Crimson.  So I had this simultaneous epiphany with the very beginnings of progressive rock plus a reintroduction to 20th-century symphonic music. Those things worked into my psyche and I didn’t really know what the heck to do with it.  I was trying to play rock and roll and be a high school student, and I managed to get through high school but I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I wasn’t interested in studying.  I didn’t read music.  I’d never had any lessons. It had not been a supportive family situation where your mom is going, “Oh, you’re interested in that?” It wasn’t like that in those days.  It was just a bunch of boys, and we lived in North Carolina and it was the ‘50s and early-‘60s.  So it was all about “shut up, get out of the kitchen, go outside, play football, we’ll call you when the food’s ready.”  Basically that was the parenting. I didn’t think of myself as a prospective music student.  I’m completely self-taught.  Everything was by ear.  But I was very interested in this stuff that these masters were doing, and I couldn’t figure it out.

FJO:  So what did your family wind up thinking when you actually became a musician?

MJ:  My parents, as far as I can remember, never saw me perform anywhere.  Not when I was in teenage bands, you know, playing like Beatles, Stones, and Kinks.  Not later when I was playing whatever it was, like early-‘70s rock and roll music. They didn’t view being a musician as a meaningful, viable option, particularly being a rock and roll musician.  It was just something that they didn’t believe was legitimate in any way, shape, or form, even though my dad loved Chet Atkins and certain kinds of popular music as well as lots of guitar-type music.  But rock and roll wasn’t acceptable.

Both my older brothers went to college and became engineers.  That was considered how you go.  So I was like, what do I do?  In the meanwhile I got a letter from Uncle Sam saying that the Marines needed a few good men. It was 1970 or ‘71 and the draft lottery was still going on.  I knew that my number was up, because they picked a certain amount of birthday numbers every year and mine was pretty low on the list. So I knew that I was going. My older brother had already gone in because he lost his college deferment.  I ended up spending four year in the U.S. Navy during which time I played guitar a lot.  I actually honed my skills probably more than any other time, sitting around playing scales and copying my hero then, Steve Howe of Yes.  I was trying to learn to play like that.  Before that it had been three-finger blues licks and Jimi Hendrix was my God.

FJO:  Were you ever in any of the Navy bands?

“I never did get any kind of credentials in music.”

MJ:  No, because you had to be a good player to be in those.  I couldn’t read a note of music.  I was a Navy patrol plane radio operator chasing after submarines in the Cold War.  I was a lonely, enlisted man, but I went all over the world.  I was in Iran.  All kinds of stuff.  But I didn’t want to be there.  I figured I’d get the GI Bill out of it at least.  All my friends back from high school were doing things.  It was a tortuous kind of experience for me, but I came out of the Navy with some equipment and a lot more chops. Then I moved back home.  I became a music major at the local city college, but they only had classical guitar or all the usual classical stuff; I was an electric guitar player and I didn’t want to play classical guitar.  So I took all the theory classes, the history classes, sight singing and reading, all the usual first two-year and some of the third-year music classes, and then some general classes.  Then I just wandered away from school because I was playing in bands and I needed to do other stuff. At one point I was playing six nights a week in a really skanky lounge band, from 9 to 2 every night.  I literally fell asleep at one point while playing some song.  I found myself in the next song and didn’t remember how I got there.  But it was paying the bills.  I went back to school later, in the ‘80s.  Thinking Plague was already a thing.  I took a different major and finished a bachelor’s degree.  Then I went back to school later after that.  But I never did get any kind of credentials in music.

FJO:  So, to go back to when you started playing in various bands—I imagine these were basically cover bands. You were not doing any of your own music.

MJ:  Not at all.  Not a bit.

FJO:  So how did you make the transition to doing your own music?

MJ:  Well, when I was getting turned on to all of this 20th-century symphonic stuff, I was in bands with these guys who were turning me on to King Crimson, ELP, Yes, Genesis, and a lot of other bands that were way more minor than that.  So I was just all aflutter with all these possibilities, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I had another band with the same guys a little later and I started trying to write some tunes kind of in the flavor of what I thought was Yes, but I didn’t really have the chops at the time to do that sort of thing.  Subsequently to that—I must have been 18 or 19 and working some kind of stupid job—some friends of mine started a band. They were doing covers of progressive rock tunes and, in some cases, they were arranging them a little bit.  I hung out at a rehearsal and they were working on this one tune. They wanted a middle part and they didn’t know what it was.  I just had this idea jump in my head, and I started saying, “Here, bass, you play this.”  And then I heard this kind of thing. “Guitar player, you play this.”  I built this part for them right out of my head, just talking to them; they started playing it and they used it.  That was the first example of me actually writing something in the genre that worked.  It was really angular and tritone-y

But nothing came of that because that’s when I started getting letters from Uncle Sam.  I was just messing around. I didn’t know what I was doing, but they thought it was pretty cool.  The seed was there, but I had to learn to believe I could do it and had to find a path that I thought was legitimate.  When I was in the Navy, I was living with a friend at one point and trying to write some stuff.  A lot of stuff had a 12-string, and I was doing finger picking, so it sounded a little bit like Mahavishnu [Orchestra] and there was stuff that sounded a little bit like Genesis with maybe a little bit more science fiction-y sounding chords.  A lot of this stuff is recorded, very low quality, but it exists.

Then I was in a music store in 1978 in Denver and saw a little note on a bulletin board: “Seeking musicians who are into Henry Cow and Yes.” So I called the number, and it turned out to be Bob Drake.  We started a proggy cover band that never got out of the basement despite eight months of rehearsing, but he and I hooked up. After that we were hanging out and doing wacky stuff on cassette decks. It was about 1979 or ’80 and we were recording some stuff which I would call early proto [Thinking] Plague kinds of music.  There was at least one tune that never had any words, but it had a part A and a part B and a noise section, and that exists too, if you twist my arm hard enough; it was called “Doppelganger.”

Then I remember sitting down at a little table in the little kitchen where I was living in 1980 and writing this tune “Warheads” which ended up on the second Thinking Plague record some years later. That was when I think of [Thinking Plague] as officially being born; me and Drake did a four-track reel-to-reel demo of it with us singing and no keyboards and all kinds of wacky noise going on.  That exists, too, by the way.  Then by about ’82, we put together a band of sorts to try to play some of these songs, and I was coming up with more stuff.  Basically I had written the songs that I wrote for our first LP.  Then Bob put together a couple of wacky things and our singer at the time put together a zany little tune, and we had enough [material] for a record.  But we had no idea what to do.  We sat for a year trying to figure it out. We didn’t know anything about shopping it.  We didn’t think that it was shoppable to some record label, although we were getting Option and all these other magazines in the ‘80s that were printed on cheap newsprint and which were chock full of ads from record labels and distributors. DIY independent recording was huge. We didn’t think we could get on a label because we didn’t know what label we could possibly get on.  We didn’t think that anybody would take it seriously.  So I talked to my oldest brother, who was the most staid, settled, and established member of the family, and he ended up loaning me enough money to press 500 copies. We made this horrible, crappy, cheap pressing with a really nondescript industrial-looking label on it.  And we hand spray painted the album covers and stuck a little insert in that we had printed.  I think we shrink wrapped them, but maybe we just had plastic sleeves that we put them in.  Then we managed to contact Wayside Music [a mail-order retailer that also runs Cuneiform].  They took some of them.  And we contacted Recommended Records.

FJO:  I know that Cuneiform reissued the first two Thinking Plague albums on a single CD many years later, but I didn’t realize that your relationship with them went all the way back to the beginning.

MJ:  All the way back to 1984.  We got on their maps, even though at the time I thought we’re just nobody, small fry.  We also sent music to New Music Distribution Service, which was in New York. They were famous for not paying people, so we never saw anything from them, but they took 30 copies.  Then Chris Cutler at Recommended took 200 copies and boom.  That was the year we established contact with some important people in the future.  And by that time, I was thinking to myself, “I am the writer in this band.”  Drake was the producer-arranger aesthetic vision guy.  But I was writing. I was putting together the notes and the chords and the rhythms.  And the words, too.

The members of the band Thinking Plague in 1987.

The members of Thinking Plague in 1987. Back row (left to right): Bob Drake, Mike Johnson, Eric Moon (Jacobson), and Lawrence Haugseth; front: Susanne Lewis and Mark Fuller. (Photographer unknown, photo courtesy Mike Johnson.)

FJO:  I definitely want to talk with you about words, but first I want to riff on something you just said vis-à-vis not knowing what to do with this stuff or who would take it, and you making a connection to Cuneiform and, for better or worse, to New Music Distribution Service.  We talk all the time these days about being in a post-genre environment, but during that period, roughly from the late-’70s to the early-’80s, labels formed like Cuneiform which released rock that was on the fringe as well as contemporary classical stuff and experimental jazz.  And New Music Distribution Service distributed all this music without making distinctions between all of these things.  These folks loved all of this stuff.  It was all part of this larger umbrella of new music. In terms of what you were doing, you refer to it as rock and coming out of performing in a rock band, but you were listening to all these other kinds of music. So you were poised to enter this proto-post-genre environment.

“I knew that what I was doing was informed by the 20th-century symphonic music, but I was never into the avant-garde.”

MJ:  From way back when I was a teenager, I had this idea because I was listening to the ‘70s prog stuff, but for the most part they didn’t sound like 20th-century music.  They sounded like 19th- or even 18th-century music combined with rock instruments. I had this idea of using a rock band to somehow communicate content or the essence of what these symphonic 20th-century guys were doing.  I was interested in those kinds of polytonal or atonal harmonies and some of those odd rhythms, not just getting in 7/8 and staying there, but using changing meters as part of what you actually compose with as opposed to just laying down a framework that you now have to work on. The real composers use time and pitch as variables in expressing what they’re trying to express.  This was all very germinal for me at the time, but it was in the back of my mind that this is what I wanted to do and did ten years later.  So I was 27, 28 years old when I started moving in that direction and figuring out how to do it.  I had to get the proggy stuff out of my system; I had to stop wanting to emulate the prog bands of the ‘70s.  Henry Cow and the Art Bears helped me to do that—Art Bears in particular, and the last Henry Cow album, Western Culture. I was agog at it and it was inspirational for me.  It showed me so many possibilities.  So I wanted to do something more like that.  That’s when the roots of Thinking Plague really took hold.  So I knew that what I was doing was informed by the 20th-century symphonic music, but I was never into the avant-garde, like Stockhausen, and later on I was never into minimalism and the pure aleatoric music of John Cage.  I was into the dramatic, heavy stuff that those composers from the first half of the 20th century were doing, because I was so moved by it.

FJO:  That’s funny because I hear elements of Stockhausen and even Philip Glass from time to time on Thinking Plague records.

MJ:  Well, I have a little section called the Philip Glass moment in one of my tunes, but it was definitely a “Philip Glass moment.”

FJO:  It’s on one of the later albums so we’ll get to that in a bit, but even early on I hear musique concrète elements and I know that you had studied electronic music. But maybe that was not in your initial conception of the material and came more from Drake during post-production.

MJ:  Drake never studied anything as far as I know, other than just what he listened to.  When I was living in California, I had one electronic music class.  It was taught by Alan Strange and it was definitely out there.  It was a junior college class out in the Bay area, basically an appreciation class, but it opened my mind and made me very interested.  So there was a piece of that.  Early on I would try to write these scores, because when I went to school the first time, I learned how to notate.  I never learned to read music well, but I learned how to read music on paper without having to perform.  I learned how to write music.  I would draw shapes and say, “This is going to be a synthesizer.” So I had these graphic things going on in the midst of my muddled notes.  I was envisioning this kind of electronically enhanced rock music—this was before techno or any of that stuff came out.  I was still sort of thinking ‘70s style. And then, as you say, Drake was just into sound and noise.  He and I were both inspired by Fred Frith’s prepared guitar stuff, so we did hours and hours of tape loops of scratching and assaulting pickups with paper clips and files and stuff like that.  And we had a band that got together and we would improvise for two or three hours doing all this stuff with tapes.  We recorded a bunch of it and most of it we’d just throw it away.  We would do it maybe as a transition or as something in the middle of a piece.  We’re going to go into some noisy, weird place and then we’re going to emerge on the other side of it.  But there was never any conscious thinking about the avant-gardists per se because we didn’t really listen to them.  I heard Stockhausen just a few times. I remember I had a record of Xenakis, which was literally the sound of fire burning being filtered for two sides of an album.  And I thought, “Hmm. I could do that.” But I guess I’m old fashioned.  I believe in my heart of hearts that you can make bigger emotional impacts on listeners if you plan it musically, as opposed to setting up events or preparing things and then letting them happen.  I also believe that human beings can listen to anything and if they listen to it enough times, they’ll begin to build the associations even if it’s the sound of dirt falling on totally random insects, whatever.  If you listen to it enough times, you’ll begin to hear patterns and your brain will make associations that were never there.  That’s what humans do.  But my preference always is to hear it in my head and guide what’s going on.  To plan.  It’s more old fashioned in that I’m looking for these dramatic kinds of builds and decrescendos, and things emptying out, things getting sort of nostalgic, things getting very intense—that’s Shostakovich, or my favorite, William Schuman, a good New Yorker.  That’s extremely high art in my mind.

FJO:  But Shostakovich and William Schuman both conceptualized their music, then wrote it down mostly for other people to play, whereas in a band situation you have a group of people coming together and it’s way more collaborative.  It might be your tune and your chords and your words, but then it’s Drake’s drumming or whichever singer you have at any given time, what she brings to it.  It’s what the reed player brings to it and the post-production. It’s all these levels.  So in rock or other music that is created in a group situation and that is crafted in a recording studio, the urtext usually winds up being the produced album. Of course this music is also performed live in concert, sometimes very much like the original recording but also sometimes very different from it. I know that you made a point in the press release for your latest album that even though many things on it are multi-tracked, everything could also be done live.  So I wonder what the urtext is for you.

MJ:  Obviously the score.  But it wasn’t always like that—only since about 1990. Before that there were rough scores, sometimes just scribbles in a book that I took to a rehearsal where I said, “Listen to this. Here play this; try this. We could stick this with that and we’ve got a song.”

An excerpt from Mike Johnson's musical score for

An excerpt from Mike Johnson’s musical score for “The Great Leap Backward” (which is featured on the new Thinking Plague CD, Hoping Against Hope)
© 2017 Malaise Music. Reprinted with permission of the composer.

(MJ:) The stuff from the ‘80s was written out, but it wasn’t necessarily finalized. I would generally write a primary bass part and I’d write the guitar parts and keyboard parts and I would sometimes write a vocal line, but there were never drum parts for it. For the first two records, I basically wrote the vocals lines and the words as I recall, except for one song by the lead singer on the first album, and then another song by the lead singer on the second album.  For one of the songs on the first album, “How to Clean a Squid,” all the words are literally out of a cuisine magazine.

FJO:  Yeah, that one is really bizarre; I love it.

MJ:  It is bizarre.  The drummer brought in that idea.  He had this magazine and he gave it to the singer, and she went and figured out how to put it on top of the song we were working on.

FJO: I hope the recipe wasn’t under copyright.

MJ:  Well, it was changed sufficiently enough.  I like the part: “Turn body sac inside out.  Turn body sac inside out.” We repeated it several times.  “And clear away any grit or tissue.  And clear away any grit or tissue.”  That was just a Dadaist kind of thing, an Absurdist kind of a thing.  We were into that.  But over time, my tendency to want to compose started taking up more of the air in the band.  By the time we did our third album, In This Life, I had pretty much written all the music, but I didn’t have finished vocal parts and I didn’t have words.  I collaborated with our singer at the time, Susanne Lewis, to do that.  For me, it was always a burden. I would write the music and I didn’t have the words yet.  Sometimes I didn’t have the vocal lines.  Or I did have vocal lines, but no words.  That’s a real problem.  You’re taking this structure and you sing, we need to put some syllables onto this that work. I had it sort of partly structured.  I had motifs.  I had names of songs that I wanted to use.  But I didn’t have any words for them.  So I presented all this to her and let her go.  And that album is the result.

FJO:  One of the songs on that album is completely by her, both words and music.

MJ:  She contributed a song.  And then she made decisions like what the vocal line would be in the song “Love,” because I didn’t have a vocal line for that song.  So she just took the top note of the little chords that were going on and made a little melody out of it, which made perfect sense.  And I said to myself, “Why didn’t I think of that?”  It all worked out pretty well.  Her particular musical personality and style, and her whole underground ‘80s background—that Lydia Lunch/Nick Cave flavor—definitely comes across, but it becomes a new thing in that context.  She does a lot of indefinite wandering pitch things. Sometimes it sounds like: can’t she sing the notes? But she definitely is doing everything on purpose.  That woman could nail notes.  Wonderful ear.  It took some getting used to, but then it became like, “Wow, I love what she does.” Some of our fans either love her or can’t listen to it, but she found something. We got lucky on that album in terms of collaboration.

But then the band flew to pieces basically after we put that out. The key players moved, even though we just got onto Recommended Records and we had our first CD.  It was the first RēR CD that was manufactured in the States.  And it was one of the first that was CD-only, because in those days people would make an LP and they would make a CD.  Anyway, I thought, “Wow, we could do something with this.”  We were all working stiffs.  Bob Drake was working for a guy who had a mobile car wash, a truck with a big tank on the back, and they’d go around and they’d wash people’s cars in parking lots in the middle of winter.  Drake was in blue jeans full of holes and crummy sneakers that were full of holes and wet. It was 20 degrees and he got peanuts.  He would go home and he would have generic spaghetti with tomato paste for his supper.  That’s part of the reason he went to L.A. because he was tired of starving to death.  He thought he could parlay his engineering skills into an actual engineering job, which he did.  Susanne wanted to go off to New York because I think she thought New York was the place where her artistic tendencies and vision could be fulfilled. But I just stayed there.  Anyway, we ended up putting together a few shows with some airlines involved, some long distance rehearsing with Dave Kerman and Bob Drake coming from L.A., driving in and then driving back after spending a week in a basement rehearsing.  We were developing and practicing stuff, but then it really fell apart.

FJO: There’s something I don’t want to lose in your referencing of Lydia Lunch—which is something I definitely hear in her vocals, too, so I’m glad that you confirmed that.  Lydia is definitely on the punk end of the musical spectrum. We talked about the divides between rock and classical music, but at that time—from the late ‘70s through the early to mid ’80s—there was also a real schism between the people who were into more proggy things and people who were into more punky kinds of things.

“The proggers were called dinosaurs.”

MJ:  Absolutely. The proggers were called dinosaurs.

FJO:  But now if you listen back there are lots of musical connections between the two. It’s sort of like that famous Stephen Sondheim comment when he was asked what the difference between opera and musical theater is, and he said it’s the venues that they’re performed in.  The biggest difference between prog and punk might have been that they had very different audiences. If you listen to a Public Image Ltd record, it sounds very prog.

MJ:  But it’s very different from the Sex Pistols.

FJO:  That’s true.  But Gang of Four was also very proggy and, only a few years later, so was Sonic Youth.

MJ:  I actually played with those guys a couple of times.  We opened for them in Denver in ’87 in some big old, noisy, echo-y theater and then I had another little band that opened for them in Denver in ’86 or something like that.  I had no trouble communicating with them. They were cool guys.  But they were as loud as loud can be.  The best way to listen to them was outside the building through a wall.  That’s what I got to do once—behind the stage, through a wall. You could hear everything.  You could hear all the weird frequency bending and shifting. But back to your point, I think that in the ‘70s, one of the things about the progressive rock bands was that they allegedly had a level of virtuosity playing their instruments and a lot of the music was about showing off that virtuosity and making big, long songs that were involved and had lots of parts and would get quiet and get loud and blah, blah, blah, stuff like Genesis’s “Supper’s Ready.”  Then the punks came along and it was all like: No. Two-minute songs. Three chords.  Everything’s loud, and we’re yelling. And they were bitching with us because they thought we were pompous. I was calling myself we because I was into the prog thing, even though I wasn’t one of those people officially.  It felt like it was a countercultural revolution.  We were throwing out things we learned and going back to the beginning.  We were actually going back to the ‘60s, just crude rock and roll, except we were trying to be a little bit more crude and the players were even worse.  That’s how I felt, but it quickly changed.  It quickly looked to me like this ethic of rebellion and destruction was literally a wave that passed through and, in its wake, it left the new wave as opposed to punk. And new wave immediately started getting more technical and strict. Then a lot of people, like Peter Gabriel, made this transition. Then The Police came along, and the musicianship levels started recovering quickly.

FJO:  But by the time Thinking Plague officially became a band and started releasing recordings, prog was a dirty word.

MJ:  Yes.  Absolutely.

FJO:  I remember living through that.  The rock critics turned prog into a dirty word, even though you could clearly hear prog elements in some of the punk stuff.

MJ:  But you couldn’t call it that.

FJO:  Right, but you did. Or did you?

“I read something that said, ‘Thinking Plague RIO,’ and I said, ‘What the hell’s that, a town in Brazil, right? Uh, whatever.'”

MJ:  I don’t think so.  I don’t even remember what we called ourselves. I don’t think we dealt in genre terms when Bob and I were doing this early on.  I just knew that my influences were everything from Henry Cow and the Art Bears to Genesis and Mahavishnu, to Shostakovich and so on.  I just knew that was what I was interested in.  And Bob was kind of this enthusiastic “yeah, let’s do it” guy who would do anything but who had a Rickenbacker bass—still does—and he was a Chris Squire devotee. He liked lots of other stuff, too.  He was a huge Henry Cow fan, so that threw him very left of the normal field of what most people listen to.  So we stopped thinking about genres. I was always saying, “Well, this song is kind of like King Crimson” but he didn’t know about it.  He didn’t listen to King Crimson and didn’t care.  So we just didn’t deal in that.  We let other people label us. The first time I ever heard this term RIO was in the ‘90s.  I read something that said, “Thinking Plague RIO,” and I said, “What the hell’s that, a town in Brazil, right?  Uh, whatever.”  Then I read more and I tried to figure out what they were talking about, Rock In Opposition, but there were no musical descriptors in it, so I thought, “How come they’re grouping us with everything from Samla to Stormy Six plus Henry Cow?  We don’t really sound like any of that stuff.” If you don’t like Henry Cow, that doesn’t mean you won’t like us.  It’s what I always dislike about categorization: taking a bunch of things that are different but are similar enough to put into this box so that all the people that don’t like one of those things in that box automatically don’t like any of the things in the box.  That’s why I objected to it.  Later, if people asked me, I’d say we were trying to combine 20th-century harmonic sensibilities with a rock band.  Sometimes I would use the term progressive rock, but that’s not really how I’d looked at it although I was informed by that.  Frankly, I admired a lot of the musicianship of that.  When I heard the term avant-progressive, I said, “Yeah, that’s probably the most accurate I’ve heard.”  Whatever.  I still don’t know what to call it, and I don’t much care.

FJO:  But by the ‘90s the word progressive had been rehabilitated.

MJ:  Right. The so-called resurgence.

FJO:  Although after the band fell apart there was this long hiatus in the ’90s.  There was almost a decade where Thinking Plague didn’t really function.

MJ:  Except for what I was doing.

FJO:  I’d like to know more about that.  I know that you were involved with other groups.  I know that you played with Dave Kerman’s 5uu’s.

MJ:  I toured Europe for 2 months with them in 1995.

Mike Johnson playing guitar with Dave Kerman on drums and Bob Drake on bass

Mike Johnson (left) as a sideman for 5UU’s performing with Dave Kerman (drums) and Bob Drake (bass) in Grenoble, France, 1995. (Photo by Laurent Angeron, courtesy Mike Johnson/.)

FJO:  But you never recorded with them.  You were also part of this other group, Hamster Theatre, and you actually made several albums with them as a side man while your own projects were kind of on the back burner.

MJ:  I never stopped working on it, or thinking about it.  People moved away in ’89-’90, but we did a few more gigs in ’90 and we had plans. We had songs in the works.  I would send recordings to Bob or we would get together.  At one point, I went out and spent a week with Dave Kerman and Sanjay Kumar, who was the 5uu’s keyboardist, and Bob, in Bob’s little Burbank house behind the house, a little backyard house.  Dave put blankets over his drums, because we couldn’t make too much noise.  And we spent the week working up one of these tunes that I had sketched out in a book.  But I came to find out later somehow that we weren’t all on the same page about what this project was about.  I thought we were working on a song and it’s probably going to end up on a Thinking Plague record.  I didn’t know, but I thought so.  But I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, if there was going to be another Thinking Plague record.  It turns out that at least Kerman, and maybe Drake, were thinking this is a new project.  It was a song called “This Weird Wind” and it’s on the In Extremis record.  It sounds like if Yes tried to keep going in the direction they were going in when they did Relayer.

FJO:  When I listened to it again recently, I made a note to myself that it sounded to me like a bizarre amalgam of Yes and the more experimental moments of The Beach Boys.

MJ:  I never thought of that.  Okay.  But anyway, there was another song, “Kingdom Come,” which was something that I had written in the later part of the ‘80s.  It was sitting on paper.  I made a really awful sounding sequence of it on a synthesizer that I had that you had to step program everything in really tediously.  It sounded horrible. I played it for Bob and he hated the way it sounded.  He couldn’t get excited about the song, so for the longest time it just languished.  But I was going to get this song done.  So I sent Kerman a chart and I sent him that tape, I guess.  He learned the drum parts.  Then we flew him back to Denver, went into a studio, and recorded the drum tracks.  I got another bass player who reads to come in and just play direct-in bass, really clean tones.  Then I just built the tracks.  Bob was never on it because he never showed any interest in it.  He was in L.A. doing all this other stuff, but that song got assembled despite that.  Then we had this song which we ended up calling “Les Etudes d’Organism” which was based on an earlier thing.

FJO:  It sounds like an expansion of the track “Organism” from In This Life that Fred Frith appears on.

MJ:  And there was one before that called “Etude for Combo” on the second album.  We took themes from that and then themes from “Organism” and put them together.  We were trying to figure out a way to make a live performance piece that incorporated this stuff.  We called it “Etude for Organism” and we worked that up in the basement at another place in 1990.  Then we performed it in Boulder and we played it in L.A. once.  It was a little bit rougher, but the parts were sort of all there—this whole big wacky thing with all these silly tunes and big, huge sections.  Bob was determined to finish that.  And we recorded some of it.  He recorded drums, bass, and a lot of other stuff in a big studio he was working out of there in the middle of the night.  I recorded stuff in Denver and I took the sax player into a nice studio to record.  Then we put the tracks together.  It wasn’t finished until ’94 in terms of mixing.  Shortly thereafter, both Kerman and Drake were in France. I was still thinking maybe there’s another chance for this thing, but now that they were in France it got a lot harder.  The internet was not really a thing at the time.  So I went and I spent a lot of time there, but by the end of that I knew this thing was dead.  There’s no practical way with them on the other side of the ocean and there was not enough momentum or interest on their part.  So I came back home and thought about it for a while and finally thought, “I’m going to reform this.” I had four other tunes sitting that I had worked up on Finale that I wanted to record, plus there was “Les Etudes” and “This Weird Wind” sitting in the can—I couldn’t stand over 20 minutes’ worth of music sitting in a can.  This had to get out somehow.

FJO:  As long as we’re talking about the material that eventually surfaced on the In Extremis album, is “Behold the Man” the track that has what you described as the Philip Glass part?

MJ:  Exactly.  We called it the Philip Glass part.  That was a joke.

FJO:  Before we leave this moment when you were finding a way to reform Thinking Plague, I think there’s an interesting distinction between the earlier and reformed groups. While it’s true that in the original line-up it was primarily your material compositionally, the end product was the result of a real collaboration involving several people.  But with the re-formed Thinking Plague and everything that’s been happening since, it’s really been your band.

The members of the band Thinking Plague in 1990.

The members of Thinking Plague in 1990 (clockwise from lower left): Mike Johnson, Shane Hotle, Susanne Lewis, Mark Harris, Dave Kerman, and Bob Drake. (Photo by Andy Watson, courtesy Mike Johnson.)

MJ:  That’s really true, and the musicians would tell you that.  I became the overseer.  The only way to get the music done was to just do it.  More and more, the only way to get what I wanted was to do it myself.  I was getting more invested in each piece, and I wanted to make sure that it fulfilled what I wanted to get from it.  My experience with other people had always been that it’s a compromise and that things get watered down, so it misses the mark a little bit.  Sometimes, certainly, there’s synergy, and sometimes it’s so much fun, but for the serious stuff when I wanted to really mine a vein, I found that I needed to do it alone.

FJO:  Well I’m going to make a conjecture, and I could be totally wrong about this. We don’t really know each other and I’m reading into your life story.  But it seems like it’s a reaction to that almost decade-long period, where the band was in hiatus and you were essentially a side man in 5uu’s—

MJ:  —Just briefly—

FJO:  —and Hamster Theatre—

MJ:  That was about the same time that the new Plague was formed.

FJO:  Yes, but I wonder if going from being a de facto co-leader of a group to spending your time being a side man in other people’s bands made you think that you really needed to grab the helm and be the leader of your own thing once and for all.

MJ:  I would say it was more the departure of Drake in particular, but also Kerman. Kerman was a strong personality.  You care about what he thinks; he’s got incredible ideas and he was enthusiastic. But he was gone, too.  They were just gone—physically and mentally.  But I was still invested in this thing.  I felt it hadn’t fulfilled what it was trying to do.  It hadn’t reached what I thought it could reach. I had no idea what it was gonna do, but I had to keep trying.

In terms of being a side man, I didn’t do that so much. I decided I needed to get out a little bit.  Dave Willey contacted me and asked if I would be willing to play guitar with this project of his.  So I said, “Sure, I’ll give it a shot.”  I showed up and it was pretty weird; it took a few rehearsals to feel comfortable.  There was some quick personnel shuffling and then it settled into a thing and it started to work.  Then it got better and better and pretty soon, by ’97, ’98, I was pretty invested, but it was definitely not what I would normally do.  It was much more charming and humorous or sweet sometimes, and a little weird, a little out there.  Sometimes it got really out there because Dave’s got this streak of “RIO” and it’s pretty big.  But that wasn’t really it. It was just the desire that had already been there to fulfill this thing so if nobody else was going to help me do it, then I was going to do it.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2003.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2003, left to right: David Shamrock (ex-Sleepytime Gorilla drummer/composer), Matt Mitchell, Dave Willey, Deborah Perry, Mark Harris, and Mike Johnson. (Photo by Rick Cummings, courtesy Mike Johnson.)

FJO:  And curiously, you not only played in Dave Willey’s band Hamster Theatre, he wound up playing in Thinking Plague as well.

MJ:  Well, that was a case of needing a bass player. I knew Dave Willey from ten years before, about ’88 probably.  As a matter of fact, he was good friends with Deborah Perry, and when Susanne Lewis took off to New York, Deborah Perry came down with Dave.  Dave brought her down to our little rehearsal basement, and she tried out with Thinking Plague in ’89.  After we did In This Life and Susanne was gone, I was very interested but Bob Drake didn’t like her voice.  He still doesn’t like her voice.  So that didn’t happen.  But I knew Dave was a guitar player.  I didn’t know he was a bass player.  When I got in his band, he was playing guitar, accordion, keyboards, and everything else.  Then I got a taste of what he could do on bass, and I was like “Jesus!” I also realized from playing his music that I didn’t understand how musically deep and capable he was.  So I asked him and he said, “Sure, I’ll try it.”  Then it wasn’t too big of a leap to say to myself, “Well, I need a singer, what about his friend Deborah?” And she was willing to try it as well.  The first song we did was “The Aesthete.” She had a cold and we did it anyway; I think it came out pretty well.  This was after me trying to work with Janet Feder.  She’s a prepared classical guitarist from Denver.  She was recording on RēR for a little while.  She does neat stuff and she’s done some stuff with Fred Frith.  She sings a bit, so I tried to get her to sing.  It was the song “Maelstrom.”  She actually recorded the opening vocal tracks.  I decided, “Nah,” but she made an effort.  She did alright, but I didn’t think it was going to work.  Then Deborah came along and she had a real ability to nail pitches and to find the notes.  And she did homework.  She studied her parts.

FJO:  Since we’re talking about singers, you’ve been referring to all the Thinking Plague music as songs.  One of my pet peeves is that we’ve reached a point in our history where we call every kind of piece of music a song so it has rendered the word meaningless.  A lot of the things on the Thinking Plague albums I don’t think of as songs.  For starters, many things are much longer.

An excerpt from Mike Johnson's musical score for the instrumental composition

An excerpt from Mike Johnson’s musical score for the instrumental composition “Gúdamy Le Máyagot” (which is featured on the Thinking Plague CD, A History of Madness)
© 2003 Mike Johnson. Reprinted with permission of the composer.

MJ:  I call them art songs.

FJO:  Okay, but you also said that a lot of time the vocal lines and the words will come much later than your original conception.  They start as instrumentals.  And yet in every incarnation of Thinking Plague you’ve always included a singer, though there are instrumental tracks on many of the albums. Even though you’ve always been the leader of the group, whether de facto or total, you’ve never sung. In fact, with one exception where you featured a male singer, it’s always a female singer.

“I’m always writing guitar parts that are at the very limit, much of the time, of what I can play.”

MJ:  Well, I never thought of myself as a strong singer.  I still don’t, although I can sing.  I do sing in other things sometimes.  When I was young, I was a backup singer in rock and roll bands.  But I was never strong; I have a soft voice and I have a fairly limited range, although I can do falsetto.  I’m in a Beatles band right now, just for money.  It’s money and kind of fun.  We do realistic versions of Beatles recordings, and I have to sing so I do it.  But, for Thinking Plague, my hands were full.  I’m always writing guitar parts that are at the very limit, much of the time, of what I can play, so the vocalist is a full-time job on its own for the most part.  The thing about having a woman developed over time.  I began to feel that since the music was oftentimes so male, so angular, so mathematical sometimes, and so challenging and difficult, even off-putting, that if you placed a woman’s voice—and not some kind of growling or in-your-face blues or disco singer—but the idea was to have this little human heart that you could latch onto in the middle of this maelstrom of music that’s going on.  And I think it works.  It gives something for more normal listeners to latch onto.  The human thread that goes through this music, which for a lot of people would not be a nice place to be traveling.

FJO:  But it seems to me that there’s something else going on with having a singer who is singing lyrics. From the very beginning there were lyrics that were clearly political, such as “Warheads.” And almost everything on the last three albums has a political bent.

MJ:  Definitely.  Absolutely.

FJO:  So, if vocal lines and lyrics are often an afterthought, I’m wondering where these things came from.  Obviously, this band was originally formed in the early ’80s during the first term of Ronald Reagan.  That has been called a great era for punk, which is essentially protest music.  Some people have suggested that there could be a real re-flowering of punk now given the current political climate.  Even the title of your new album, Hoping Against Hope, feels particularly timely though I know that you had already finished the album and had given it that title before the election.

“It is important for my artistic activity to make some commentary about what’s going on in the world.”

MJ:  Yeah, I know.  It was named well before, even before the campaign. And it was floating around as a possible name quite a long time before that, because the times just felt like that to me.  Part of it was, after the last album, Elaine and I were talking and she said, “Can we do something that’s maybe a little bit more hopeful?  Can we do something that offers some solutions or hope?”  And I said, “Sure, if we can figure out how to do that.”  Well, we didn’t really do that very well, but it made me think about trying to do that a little.  I’ve never been able to go with a direction that’s just celebrating or joy and I have felt for a long time that it is important for my artistic activity to make some commentary about what’s going on in the world.  Part of that is my work background.  Since the ‘80s, I have been working in human services programs, like working with the homeless, helping people to get shelter, helping people to get jobs.  Then I worked with poor students to help them deal with all the issues that were keeping them from being able to be successful.  I had a day career out of this, and I was good at it.  That informed my music, because when I went back to college after the music stuff, I took a lot of social science classes—politics and sociology and all this kind of stuff.  My perspective definitely moved left, and I’ve been there ever since.  The cliché is that as men get older, they get more conservative.  Me, I’m moving left.  I’m left of left now.  I don’t even know where I am.

Warheads” was in response to the Iran hostage crisis.  There was a wave of Islamophobia that came to the country then, like ’79 and ’80, and I was appalled by it. So I made a comment about that, and I got my younger brother, who fancies himself a poet, to write some lyrics with me and so the lyrics are pretty abstruse. But there’s this one part that deals with warheads and the board of trustees are counting up their funds, warheads are counting their guns.  This all struck me at a time when our society seemed a lot more peaceful: there wasn’t gun violence all the time; we were not at war.  But it struck me as ugly and that something needed to be said.  I didn’t really try to make much in the way of political statements. The song “Moonsongs” has a kind of environmental pagan slant, using pagan things as kind of an angle for the earth, not that I was on a pagan kick.

Then, with In This Life, Susanne was in charge of the words basically.  “Run Amok” is about when you have too many rats in a cage and their behavior starts to alter and they try to eat each other and kill each other.  That’s what I felt was starting to happen on the planet.  Every now and then, somebody goes nuts and kills a bunch of people.  It was rare in those days; now it seems to be every other day on the news.  I really think that parts of this society are now running amok.  All I did was give Susanne this title and tell her what I was thinking.  She took it and did her thing with it.

Then when it got to the phase where I was fully taking the reins, “Kingdom Come” had a definite angle that way.  “Dead Silence” also has an environmental angle. And A History of Madness had its own themes, but they’re not unrelated.

FJO:  “Blown Apart” definitely has a political agenda.

MJ:  “Blown Apart” is a good example.

FJO:  And on Decline and Fall, there’s “Sleeper Cell Anthem,” which is intensely frightening.

MJ:  It was supposed to be.  The message was about who are really the terrorists here.  “We are your daughters, sisters, and wives.”  We’re the terrorists.  We’re creating the terrorists.  We’re creating the terror that’s creating the terrorists.  Then on the new album, there’s a song about drones and execution from the skies called “Commuting to Murder.”  I didn’t realize how timely that was.  I wasn’t watching it at the time.  People are seemingly being arbitrarily eliminated from on high without due process and without concern for collateral damage because it’s so important to us that we eliminate this Abu blah-blah-blah guy here.  That was the one thing that I most objected to about Obama’s administration, the reliance on that.  In general, I’m not disinterested in abstract poetic expressions that come from deep in the soul.  But, in the absence of anything that’s hit me in the face, I had a certain level of anger and disappointment that I wanted to be expressed through the music.

The members of Thinking Plague, all with their mouths open, in 2011.

Thinking Plague in 2011 (left to right): Robin Chestnut, Dave Willey, Mark Harris, Elaine, Mike Johnson, and Kimara Sajn. (Photo by Rick Cummings, courtesy Mike Johnson.)

FJO:  So, to attempt to tie this all together.  You create very sophisticated music, but you perform it with a rock band, which is a medium that’s been very central to our popular culture for more than half a century at this point.  In addition to the very sophisticated music, your songs frequently have super charged political lyrics.  By getting these messages out, through what is essentially a popular medium even though the kinds of things you’re doing go against the spirit of most of what is popular, are you hoping this music is going to change people’s minds?  What’s the goal in terms of changing the listener?  Can the listener be changed?  What’s the purpose of making art that has this charged message?

“I had a certain level of anger and disappointment that I wanted to be expressed through the music.”

MJ:  I honestly don’t know.  After this last election, I’m not sure I know anything.  You have to consider who listens to this music.  They are all over the map politically, but they tend to be educated so the differences are not usually cultural at a level that’s just hopeless.  So I always think maybe somebody will be—as opposed to converted—awakened about something, because a lot of guys that are into progressive music are sort of apolitical.  They don’t like to deal with it.  They want to deal with fairies and dragons, or with magic, strange mysterious glories.  I’m trying to hit them with some gritty realities, but not in an overly literal, strident way.  It’s a little bit subtle, I’d like to think, a little bit indirect.  You have to read it and think about it.  You have to actually pay attention, notice what the themes or the words are.  But I keep thinking that somebody will be like, “Oh, that’s interesting.  They’re talking about drones.  I better think about that.  I’d better look and see if I can find out what they mean.”  So it’s kind of like saying, “If you’re listening to us, if you’re following us, if you like what we do, here’s something that we think you ought to think about if you listen hard enough and you care enough.”

But I don’t really have any expectations that it’s going to have any impact.  You know, I wish.  First of all, we don’t reach enough people, not as many as we could, and they are all over the world. There’s never that many on the ground in any one place. But if you influence somebody, they talk to somebody else and turn them on to something.  If it influences their thinking about social or political issues, great.  I don’t know what else to write about really.  I wrote a song on A History of Madness, which was a love song of sorts.  But there were some other songs on there that had a humanity theme.  So it’s always something about man’s inhumanity to man, the stupidity, the selfishness.  Right now the list is so long of adjectives that you can talk about with things that should be addressed.  It does seem like a lot of people are addressing them.  So, in a way, it’s a hopeful thing.  I like to say it can only get better, but I’m afraid that may not be true.  There’s a lot to write about right now.  I’m not a political activist who’s going to spend a lot of time working on issues in that way.  My mission in life is to do music, so I feel like I’m obliged to have these kind of messages in the music, but not like strident marching songs.

FJO:  It’s interesting to me that from the beginning up to this day, in the year 2017, Thinking Plague has always been about making albums that are these larger statements.  There are pundits who claim that a lot of people don’t listen to albums anymore.  They listen to individual tracks and everything gets mashed up.

“If you influence somebody, they talk to somebody else and turn them on to something.”

MJ:  Right.  They don’t download whole albums.  They download single tracks.

FJO:  It’s great that you have a label that’s so invested in you.  I didn’t realize it went all the way back to the ‘80s, but I know they’ve reissued your whole catalog.  To have your whole catalog in one place is tremendous—to have that support, and for albums to be carefully recorded, produced, designed, and released. But it’s sort of weird, because the economics of all of this is shifting. How do you survive in this environment if what you want to do is make records?

MJ:  Well, like I said, I had a day career.  And, in as much as I am rather moved on in years now, I managed to retire from that. I was working for a state community college system, so I have a state pension, one of those things that our current president would probably just as soon eliminate.  But it’s based on investments, my whole existence is tangled up in the dirty money that I sometimes write about or I’m going to write about.  And I figure that’s okay; we should extract whatever we can from them.  I had to spend many years earning that.

I hear all the time from our label that they are struggling.  They have made all of our records available on Bandcamp.  You can go and you can listen to everything.  Most of the older ones have now finally gone out of print because it is not cost effective to press them and sell them anymore, because they don’t sell enough and you have to be able to manufacture so many in order to have economies of scale. So it became impractical for them to do that.

“I don’t really understand the mainstream music industry.”

I don’t really understand the mainstream music industry.  I don’t quite know what they do and how they do it.  I don’t even understand why anybody listens to that music.  When it comes to music that’s more serious, that’s got more depth to it, I don’t know how anybody manages to make a living from recorded music.  They say, “Oh, you’ve got to go out and play.”  Yeah, if you’ve got a wide enough appeal, I guess.  And if enough people have heard you.  I don’t think going out and playing will make you very much money if they haven’t heard recordings of you first.  So we’re at a kind of weird impasse.  The ready availability of music in electronic form has made it basically too easy to get, and now it’s not worth much.  People have gotten used to the idea of not paying much for it.  I remember counting my pennies together until I had a couple of bucks and could go by a Beatles LP.  I would listen to it until there was no vinyl left on it.  You have to wonder if there is something about people’s psychology: if they pay something for it, do they value it more?  Because they don’t seem to value it much now, except for those few people who actually care about the sounds coming into their ears and what it does to them, emotionally and otherwise.

Of course, there are so many people that love music, but they love it in different ways at different levels.  It seems that for so many people now, music is just a background thing.  It needs to keep a certain part of their brain busy, so they have it going in their ear buds as background all the time and it’s on shuffle, and they don’t really care what it is.  And they listen to MP3s; they don’t care about high fidelity.  They don’t care about really in-depth audio detail. It’s much less about what’s going on with the notes. It’s just a little hook melody and this over-processed drum groove and some pitch-corrected vocal parts.  I don’t know what to think about all of that. I don’t know where it’s headed. But I do think that in its current model, it is unsustainable.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to continue making records.  I’ll have to make them myself or they’ll become electronic downloads only.  I’ve had some guys say, “You should go hi-res.”  But sooner or later, somebody will figure out a way to pirate that as well.  But that’d be great.  Let’s make the audio product something that’s really worth something—you really need to pore over it and listen to it.  Everything that we do in the recording industry is reduced to 16 bits, no matter how it was produced before that.  If it wasn’t, then the files would be too gigantic for most people. There are a certain number of techie guys that would download it all night onto their computer and love it that way.  But most people want to put it on a player on their phones.

FJO:  But there is a different economy that operates for a lot of the other music we’ve talked about— avant-garde music and even the music of people like William Schuman.  All of that stuff doesn’t exist in the marketplace.

MJ:  Of course.

FJO:  And it never has.  It exists either as the result of private funding or through grants from foundations or governments. Shostakovich, for better or worse—definitely worse under Stalin—was a state-sponsored composer. Over the past half century, jazz has also been embraced by the funding community and that has allowed it to continue to thrive now that it is often no longer remunerative in the marketplace.  But that hasn’t happened with rock. We talked earlier about that moment in the late 1970s and early ‘80s when labels like Cuneiform and networks like New Music Distribution Service equally embraced avant-garde music that stemmed from classical music, free jazz, and fringe rock. There was no internet back then, but all of it is what we’d call dot-org music. Certainly what Thinking Plague does is dot-org music in the same way as the music of, say, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Ornette Coleman, Wadada Leo Smith, etc.

MJ:  I totally get that.

FJO:  So might this music continue to exist if it’s somehow subsidized?  Could that be the way to make it keep going?

“Nobody in Thinking Plague has ever made a living from the music.”

MJ:  Well, it’s interesting that you bring that up.  I’ve never gotten a grant for this band.  The closest I can say I’ve come is a Kickstarter campaign that succeeded—not on a gigantic scale, but enough to make it work.  I’m looking at some grants that would help us to be able to travel. There’s a RIO festival in Japan that has some money issues, but if I can get a grant they’ll bring it back to life, just for us to go play at it.  So right now I’m trying to figure out where the band is going to be, in what condition. Our singer is completing her master’s degree in music.  She’s still trying to figure out what she wants to do when she grows up and she’s 46. God bless her. I can relate. It does seem that there are not many grantors who have a word for what we do musically. Their tendency, because you’re going to hear electric guitars and drums, would be to call it rock music.  So then we’re not eligible for these jazz things.  I’m not sure how many, but there may be cracks that we could squeeze into.  We’ve got a horn player, so does that make us jazz?  I almost got us invited to the Vancouver Jazz Festival.  Almost.  So this is something I need to look into.  But as to how much money there is in any of it, again, nobody in Thinking Plague has ever made a living from the music.  Nobody.  Not me.  Not anybody else.  There’s never been that kind of income from the music—not even in 1985.  Certainly not from In this Life or In Extremis, which was probably our best received record and the biggest explosion for us.  It didn’t change our situation at all.  We’re a dot-org phenomenon.  As a matter of fact, my Thinking Plague website is a dot-org website.  There was no pretense that this was going to be commercial, so I figured better call it what it is.  It’s not for profit.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2009.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2009, front (L-R): Mark Harris and Mike Johnson; back: Dave Kerman, Kimara Sajn, Elaine di Falco, and Dave Willey. (Photo by S. Navarre, courtesy Mike Johnson.)

Avner Dorman: Point of View, Personal Choice, and Duty

Avner Dorman on a Manhattan rooftop

As a teenage whiz kid growing up in Israel, Avner Dorman was simultaneously drawn to music and physics, studying the score of Stockhausen’s Gruppen and taking college-level mathematics courses by the age of 15. Although to this day he credits his science and math background with how he conceptualizes music, Dorman the composer was deeply moved by music’s emotional resonance from very early on and was quickly drawn to postmodern aesthetics, starting with his 1995 Concerto in A for piano and strings, a work he completed at the age of 19 which is still in his active composition catalogue and is available on a recording released on Naxos.

Dorman’s earliest works made him something of a superstar in his home country.  By the ripe old age of 25, the top Israeli orchestras were performing his music and he became the youngest composer ever to win the Prime Minister’s Award. But rather than basking in the glory, Avner decided to apply to graduate school overseas and he wound up here in the United States.  At first it was a bit of culture shock.

“In Israel, if you put on a concert it’s in the paper,” he opined when we met with him in early January at the office of his music publisher, G. Schirmer. “I remember the first time I had some concert that wasn’t listed [in The New York Times], I was like, ‘Why wasn’t it listed?’ And people said, ‘Why do you think you should get listed?  They list six concerts and that’s it.  There’s like a thousand today.’ I couldn’t quite fathom the size and variety that goes on here.”

By moving from Tel Aviv to New York City, Dorman went from being a big fish swimming in a little pond to trying to stay afloat in the music equivalent of an ocean. Dorman, however, was enrolled in The Juilliard School and his principal teacher there was John Corigliano, to whom he remains extremely grateful for helping him realize his own compositional identity.

“You only learn who you are when you’re not where you grew up,” said Dorman.  “Early on, people often would mention the Middle Eastern flavor of my music.  In Israel no one ever said that because other people are so much more extreme about it.  So [that] was a big revelation.  The other thing—and this I credit John for very, very deeply—is that I remember he would always say, ‘You’re very emotional and expressive, and you’re not afraid to express emotions in your music.’ … Since then, I’ve come in touch with it more and more and I think having him as a guide for several years really helped me understand who I am.”

But for Dorman, finding out who he was as a composer has never meant remaining in any particular aesthetic comfort zone. His music is constantly evolving and he is constantly challenging himself to go places where his music has never gone before—even sometimes to places that are decidedly uncomfortable. A prolific instrumental composer who has created numerous works for soloists and orchestra, particularly for less standard instruments such as mandolin and percussion, Dorman has begun to deeply explore vocal music. Last year, he completed his first opera, Wahnfried. It received its world premiere at the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe in Germany on January 28, 2017, and will remain in repertoire there through May. Aside from the fact that Dorman’s artistic collaborators, Lutz Hübner and Sarah Nemitz, wrote the libretto in German and he is not fluent in German, Wahnfried poses many other challenges for the 41-year-old Jewish composer. Not only is the opera the story of the notorious late 19th-century anti-Semite Houston Chamberlain, another one of the opera’s characters is Adolf Hitler.

“Hitler met with [Chamberlain], and that’s actually in the opera,” Dorman explained. “If you listen to Hitler’s speeches, there are direct quotes from his book.  I actually transcribed some of his speeches as musical notation … and that’s the music that he’s singing.  … I am aware that some people from Israel might be offended by this, but I think they would be mistaken.  I’m obviously not advocating my own death and my family’s death.  Who would do that?  But I think it’s an important part of history that is rarely told and that needs to be told.  I definitely think it is a politically charged piece.  Even more so today than it was when I wrote it.  I do think, especially in this era, that one of the mistakes is not to say things.  We need to know that racism and hatred are a feature of humanity.  It’s in our language. These things exist and they catch on like wild fire.  When you don’t counteract and contradict them, they will continue to grow.  I think as artists we have the opportunity to make a statement that will be heard.”

Avner Dorman in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
at the New York City offices of G. Schirmer
January 6, 2017—1:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  You became pretty prominent as a composer when you were still a teenager and some of the pieces you wrote back then are still in your active catalogue.  In fact, some of your earlier works have even been commercially recorded. There are two CDs devoted exclusively to your music out on Naxos, and one of them contains a piano concerto you completed when you were only 19 and the other contains your first two piano sonatas.

Avner Dorman:  My first piano concerto was from when I was still a teenager, but those piano sonatas are from my early 20s.

FJO:  You were still really young.  That’s many years ago.  If people discover you through these recordings, they’ll hear this music before they’ll hear more recent pieces which haven’t been recorded yet.  So I wonder, now that you’re a slightly older composer, how you feel about those pieces being an entry point that a lot of people will have for your music.  Do they represent who you are still?

AD:  I think in certain ways they do and in certain ways obviously not.  If you just look at the outer stylistic layer, their harmonic language, then certainly the first sonata and the early piano concerto are not stylistically how I write now.  I don’t even know how to describe what they are, but they are not the language that I use now.  But I think some of the deeper levels are still the same, like the energy that these pieces have and—maybe—this idea that music stems from the base up. A Baroque concept of harmony and a little bit of a physics-related concept of harmony is already in there.  I think I always was thinking about harmony like that.  And in all these pieces, there are a lot of elements from popular music and non-Western music—again, not in the same way, but I think that’s still there.  To a degree they obviously don’t represent me now, but they represent a time in my life and a stage in my development. So I don’t have a problem with people finding them first.  If someone went to see my most recent work, especially a lay person, they would probably have a hard time figuring out that this is the same composer, but I think that’s a very common thing, so I don’t have an issue with it.

I know some composers withdraw a lot of pieces later on.  I had actually written a lot of pieces before those pieces and had withdrawn them.  But I do feel like these pieces [that you mentioned] work well, even after a long period of time.  To a degree, I don’t think I could write them now; I just couldn’t do it.  So I almost feel like that person that wrote them deserves not to be put aside, even though I’m not that person anymore.  I do feel that they have artistic integrity and are rich enough that they merit having their own life.  That being said, I obviously hope that what I’m writing now, and what I’ve written since, has more to offer because otherwise I did my best when I was 20.  And that wouldn’t be great.

FJO:  Very fairly stated.  You remind me of this wonderful quote from Thomas Pynchon.  In the ‘80s, he authorized the publication of a group of short stories he wrote back in his early 20s, before he wrote his first novel. He contributed a new introduction where he wrote that though there are some good things in these stories, he wouldn’t have written them today. But that young writer also deserves a chance to be read.  There was this wonderful line that was something like, “I like the young me.  I’d even go and have a beer with him, but I probably wouldn’t loan him money.”

AD:  I would subscribe to that.  Also, I would say, the first concerto and the first sonata are very neoclassical and sometimes people think it’s because I was still studying.  But in high school, I studied [Messiaen’s] Turangalîla and [Stockhausen’s] Gruppen very deeply, and I had written some pieces that were all cluster harmonies and collectional concepts. Then—I was still playing Prokofiev, Mozart, and Bach—at some point I wanted to try to write something neoclassical.  That’s how these pieces were actually born, like after knowing some of the avant-garde and experimenting with that.  I actually felt like that would enhance my abilities as a composer.  So I think they’re less naïve than someone might imagine. At 19 you’re young, but if you started writing when you were 10 or 12, or even 15, you’ve had several years.  I was lucky enough to go to an arts high school where my theory and composition teacher was very well educated about Schnittke. I also got to know more recent scores.   I think he was roommates with David Lang at Yale, so I knew David Lang’s music when I was in high school.  So I wasn’t that naïve, thinking, “Oh, let me write something in A-major.”  It was really more like I want to try to do this.

FJO:  It’s interesting to hear you name drop Schnittke because I don’t think of those early pieces of yours as being necessarily neoclassical as much as being postmodern.

AD:  Right, the result is more postmodern than neoclassical.  But at the time I didn’t know that.  I didn’t quite know what postmodern meant yet, although I did know of David Del Tredici.  I didn’t know his music, but my teacher in high school did mention his name when he heard my concerto. So, again, I think it’s not by accident that I ended up studying with John Corigliano.

FJO:  You were saying that your harmony is derived from physics. You majored in physics as well as music, so your physics studies actually paid off.

AD:  Certainly, and I was even more involved in math and physics than a double major would be here.  I was in a special program at Tel Aviv University which lets you focus on different areas that generally you wouldn’t be able to focus on.  The amount of math and physics that I had taken was like being a math-physics major at a major university, and not a double major; it was even more extensive.  For the ability to conceptualize music, I think that knowledge has been invaluable. Like managing patterns over long periods of time—it’s the big question for a composer, right?  It’s also the question of math.  In my mind, they’re almost the same.  To play around with numbers and to write a piece of music are very, very, very close.  So yes, I think it really did pay off.

FJO:  So getting the double degree was actually complimentary to your composing. It wasn’t like you majored in physics in order to mollify your parents when they balked at you saying that you wanted to be a composer.

AD:  Well, my parents—especially my father—wanted me to study physics and math because it was more practical, but I was kind of a prodigy in math as a little kid.  I was already taking mathematics classes at the university level when I was 15.  A lot of my friends growing up ended up being in start-up companies and making enormous amounts of money.  So my father, who was professional musician, had very high hopes that I would not be a professional musician and that I would be a computer programmer.

I got into this program at Tel Aviv University which allowed me to do both. It was a very competitive program, but there was no tuition and they gave you a stipend.  I couldn’t say no to that.  Basically, for four or five years the university took care of it all. I still had to work, but it was too good to pass up.  Then when I started studying, the math and physics classes were very challenging but it was very rewarding.  I like this stuff.  So yes, I think it paid off and I think that program and that structure was very good for me as a person, because it was so free.  I could pick and choose courses from different parts of the university and skip certain requirements—all the things that they don’t like to let you do.  I will only thrive if I can do it a little differently and not have to go through all the steps that everyone has to go through.  That program is designed for people who are little off track—that the university feels have potential to contribute intellectually, but who don’t exactly fit the mold.

FJO:  So, the physics shaped the music to some extent.

AD:  Again, to me, math and music are so intertwined that I will sometimes sketch a piece as a series of numbers.  And to me notation is a graph.  So I can’t completely distinguish. I don’t know that I have as clear a distinction of where one begins and where one stops.  The great thing about music is it’s so emotionally connected; physics not as much.  I think that’s why music is such a holistic thing—the entirety of my being is involved.

FJO:  Well, it’s interesting in terms of what we were talking about earlier—neoclassicism and postmodernism versus the high modernism you were studying, things like Gruppen.  When people think of modernism, whether it’s the music of the integral serialists or practitioners of indeterminacy, or even the earliest pieces by the minimalists as well as the microtonalists—what all these various –isms have in common are a systemic approach that involves mathematical stuff.

AD:  Yes.

FJO:  But I think what postmodernism did—and co-relationally postminimalism as well, since you mentioned David Lang—is that it went beyond the mathematical procedures shaping the music. So it’s very weird, given your own compositional aesthetics, to hear you say that music is very close to math!

AD:  Yeah.  I think my music is definitely postmodern—anything that is sort of the middle brain, social, emotional, all that stuff.  I think what people were reacting against with modernism is that to a lot of people it sort of ended up being cold and separate from the human experience.  But I also find that there’s something really beautiful and rewarding about pure mathematical structure, and I think that goes back forever if you go back to Guillaume de Machaut or even Perotin. Ockeghem is one of my favorite composers. Mathematically it’s beautiful, and then musically it’s just sublime.  That combination, at least for me, is where the transcendence of music comes, when these two elements meet, like they do in nature.  You look at the stars and planets, and they’re both beautiful and also just incredible to think about.

FJO:  Since you brought up early music composers, I definitely hear in your music a deep dialogue with music history—with standard repertoire, a canon that spans a thousand years in Europe and has spread out to the rest of the Western world, the stuff we call “Western classical music” for lack of a better term.  At the same time, I hear much less of a dialogue with the so-called avant-garde.  In fact, I think you’re music is decidedly about not being avant-garde.  Is that fair to say?

AD:  I think I have some pieces that do that, but generally those pieces don’t get played that much.  I don’t know why.  In my first string quartet, for example, there are a lot of extended techniques. But for me, it’s a very personal piece and emotionally very loaded. I wrote it in memory of a very close friend who died in a motorcycle accident.

I do feel that the avant-garde is part of our musical history and I certainly don’t avoid it intentionally, or haven’t thought about it like that.  But I also think that—and this is the other side of the postmodern and postminimalist movement—there is a social aspect to music.  If the music is such that people don’t listen to it, then it is marginalized.  I feel like in my catalogue, partly that’s just what happened—pieces that are in dialogue with the avant-garde are less appealing—but maybe not.  I don’t know.  It’s hard for me to say.  I would have to maybe think about it more.  I do think my new opera does perhaps do that more.  I think opera allows for more extremes.

FJO:  We’re going to eventually get to the opera, I promise.  But while we’re still talking about your early days—you mentioned it in passing, but we didn’t really bring it up specifically—I’m curious about how you feel growing up in Israel shaped who you are as a composer.  It’s a society steeped in thousands of years of tradition yet, at the same time, it’s relatively a newly recreated country.  And, as a result of the number of European émigré musicians who moved to Israel, there are deep connections there to Western classical music. However, in another sense, it’s kind of a brand new frontier.  So I wonder what it was like for you to be involved in the classical music there.

AD:  I would say that I think one of the unique things about growing up in Israel is how much geographically you are at the center of the Arab world.  Israeli popular music, which is what I mostly heard growing up, is this kind of blend of Arabic and Western popular music.  I certainly think that has influenced me in a very deep way.  I think a lot of my pieces have those elements in them.  And I think my interest in rhythm, to a great degree, is because of that—because I grew up in a place where the rhythms that you heard come from Arabic and North African, even Indian music.  It’s a different rhythmic world.  People here hear it, but as an imported element.  Obviously, I didn’t hear it in a traditional context all the time, but it’s so prevalent there that you’re steeped in it.  Also, a lot of the early experiences that I had working in music were crossovers with Arabic music, popular music, and traditional Jewish music. It’s a small country and a very small market, so if you want to survive when you’re young, you just have to do all these kinds of things.  Even in the army, my job was to be an arranger for bands and orchestra, so I got to work in a lot of genres and types of music that I don’t think you would encounter elsewhere, because it is in the Middle East.

My family is from Europe and I grew up in a very central European household, but in Israel.  So I think that is also a big influence on me personally.  The new music scene there is very European.  If you go to a new music concert in Israel, you might not know that you’re not in Germany.  A lot of the composers are still very close to Paris, Darmstadt, and Frankfurt—all those influences.  Personally for me, the immigration from the former Soviet Union was very influential.  My main teacher in Israel came from the country of Georgia.

FJO:  Ioseb Bardanashvili.

AD:  Meeting him and starting to work with him was definitely a turning point in my life.  He brought in a lot of knowledge and expertise.  Georgia is even more of a different place than Israel, and just this point of view was so distinct and so unique. I think he was the person who encouraged me to focus on my point of view. Your point of view is the most important thing.  I remember he heard my piano concerto, the early one, and he said, “I can see your face in this piece.  This is you.  That’s your point of view.  Never forget it.  You’ll be tempted to try to be someone else.”  Here we talk about “finding your voice.” But to him, the idea is that it’s your point of view. He always talked about it in cinematic terms, like being a cinematographer who is invisible to the viewer but who makes the most difference in the movie. It’s the person who gives you the point of view. I think that really helped me to be more focused on my point of view when I’m composing.  It’s something I feel that you have to recreate from piece to piece.  So he was a huge influence on me. Going back to your question about the avant-garde, he would always say, “Why do you only use major and minor chords?  What about a cluster here and there?”  And we would argue about it.  I’m still very close with him.  He’s an incredible human being and an incredible composer.

FJO:  Now in terms of the reception history of your music, when you were a young composer in Israel you were essentially a superstar.  You were the youngest person ever to receive the Prime Minister’s Award.  You were named composer of the year by the second largest paper in Israel.  Your music was played by the nation’s leading orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic.  It was as high as you could go.  You said it was a very small community, but you were more than a big fish in a little pond.  You were as big a fish in that small pond as you could be.

AD:  It was really shocking.  I think within a matter of four weeks, all of these things you mentioned and a bunch of other prizes just happened.  I won this award and that award, and then “we want to play your piece here,” and “we want you to be composer-in-residence for this orchestra.”  It all happened at once.  I was obviously quite happy, but nothing really changed in the world.  You know, I didn’t write any new pieces during those four weeks.  It just happened. And that was actually the point where Bardanashvili and my father both told me I should probably go somewhere else—some big cultural center—and get my doctorate to grow more.

The Ellef Symphony, for which I won most of these awards, was played in a dress rehearsal. My score reading professor was an incredible character who was a pianist for the Bolshoi, I think, before he moved to Israel. He was a really odd character, but we got along very well and he was a fantastic teacher.  I remember he came to the dress rehearsal and we went out.  Everyone was so excited, but he said, “Well, you know, if you think about your career as a staircase, you’ve made the first step. You are now on the first stair. That’s a big step, you’re now a real composer.  But now you have all these other steps to take.”  I’m grateful that the people around me were smart enough to realize that that was the opportune moment for me to go somewhere else where I could develop more and make larger connections. In a small market, you can be really successful quickly.  But there’s nothing else left.  It’s like, what’s going to happen tomorrow?  What are you aiming for? It was great, but where do you go from here?  It’s a very challenging market to be in.  It’s a very small country with a lot of geopolitical issues, obviously.  I’m not telling any secrets.  I think I was very fortunate that people around me were saying that this was my moment to leave and get another perspective.

FJO:  In terms of risk taking, you went as far beyond being a big a fish in a little pond as you could to swimming in an ocean—the New York City music scene is much bigger than a pond.

AD:  You want me to regret it?

FJO:  By no means!  You’ve done well.  You came here to attend Juilliard, which is a world-famous school, and you studied with John Corigliano, who is an extremely famous composer and was a very important mentor for you. But I still wanted to point out that, aside from it being a great opportunity for you, it was also a big risk, at least initially.

AD:  Yes, it was a big risk.  There was a financial risk, too.  I actually had founded a startup company before I came to the United States.  I got some venture capital and I was still running it for the first couple years when I was at Juilliard.  The company eventually closed down but I’m pretty sure that, had I stayed in Israel, we would have had a better chance to survive.  It was a music software company and, I think, a very interesting concept, but maybe too early in those days. Maybe the technology was not ready. Maybe we didn’t have enough money. I don’t know. Maybe had I stayed it would have worked out.  I will never know.  So, yes, I risked a lot.  But I think for me, being in a place where there are so many other composers and so many other points of view and so many organizations, I feel like I needed that challenge and that dialogue.  I thought that I would grow and expand my horizons.

People around me were worried that I would be frustrated staying in a small pond and that, as a person, it wouldn’t be the best thing for me.  I wasn’t someone who was ready to take on a big job and become a power player in that scene.  Some people really like that and some people did that and do very well.  I’ve always wanted to focus on composing.  I’m fairly certain that, had I stayed there, I wouldn’t have had as much time and energy to dedicate to the work and I wouldn’t have had the same opportunity to engage with other composers and get feedback from conductors. At Juilliard, one of the great things is that you work with such good musicians and you get feedback from them. That’s not to say that the Tel Aviv University music department is not strong; it’s very strong, but it’s much smaller.

You’ll probably find it funny, but one of the first things that shocked me about New York is how difficult it is to get a listing in The New York Times.  In Israel, if you put on a concert it’s in the paper.  There’s no question. I remember the first time I had some concert that wasn’t listed, I was like, Why wasn’t it listed?” And people said, “Why do you think you should get listed?  They list six concerts and that’s it.  There’s like a thousand today.” I couldn’t quite fathom the size and variety that goes on here.  But again, why not take on the challenge?  I’m always up for a challenge.

FJO:  And you found a way to thrive here.  We talked about you going to Juilliard and studying with John Corigliano. Here we are in the office of his publisher which is now also your publisher, G. Schirmer, one of the world’s leading music publishers.  You were signed by them almost twelve years ago, just a month after you turned 30. So ultimately, coming here was the right decision. But I think it’s important to remember the moments of uncertainty.  We talked about ways that growing up in Israel shaped your music.  Do you feel like coming here changed your music?

AD:  I do. And I think it took me a long time.  People would ask me what the most important thing that coming to New York or that studying with John Corigliano did for me, and I didn’t know exactly.  But I think now I have enough perspective. One thing is that you only learn who you are when you’re not where you grew up.  So, if you grew up in a small town in, I don’t know, rural Pennsylvania, it’s only when you move to New York City that you realize that you’re from a small town in rural Pennsylvania.  Before that, you know it theoretically, but you don’t really understand it.  Early on, one of the things that happened here was that people often would mention the Middle Eastern flavor of my music.  In Israel no one ever said that my music had a Middle Eastern flavor because other people are so much more extreme about it.  But it’s there.  So I think learning who I am from people who are not from exactly my background was a big revelation.  The other thing—and this I credit John for very, very deeply and it took me a long time to understand what he actually meant—is that I remember he would always say, “You’re very emotional and expressive, and you’re not afraid to express emotions in your music.”  I was like, okay, but he felt that was really important.  You should listen to your emotions and think about them and start from the emotion. That’s why I wouldn’t say it starts from the numbers for me.  They’re a huge part of me, but I think emotion and expression is a huge part of me as well.  And I think that’s something that he saw very clearly and helped me come in touch with more.  Since then, I’ve come in touch with it more and more and I think having him as a guide for several years really helped me understand who I am.  So I think to a great degree, I was able to know myself much better because I wasn’t in my original environment.

FJO:  I’m going to throw out an assumption I’ve had and see where it goes. An early orchestra piece of yours, which was in fact a piece that the Israel Philharmonic played under Zubin Mehta, is Variations Without a Theme.  Variation form is one of the most common forms in Western classical music.  But, as we had been saying, Israel, while connected to European traditions, is also somewhat removed from them and has its own traditions, some going back millennia even though it was built anew in modern times. It’s an old place, but it’s also a new place.  So you’re taking variations, this time-honored form, but you’re doing variations that are completely unlike what we think of as variations.  Your variations are without a theme.  They’re homeless.  There’s almost a diaspora quality to it. Am I reading too much into this?

AD:  That’s an interesting thought. In the Ellef Symphony, the main theme is the same note repeated four times and then a rest.  I was trying the old Beethoven thing of “can you write with a smaller and smaller and smaller motif?”  So then I was like, I don’t want a motif at all.  I don’t want a theme.  In variations, most of the interest is not in the theme.  We love variations and sometimes the theme is nice, but really it’s because the variations are interesting, what you do with the material.  It’s almost like it’s what you do despite the material that is so interesting.  Take the Musical Offering; the theme there is not a very good theme.  You know, the king wrote it, whatever.  But it’s what Bach did with it, despite the theme, that makes it a great piece.  That was my impetus for that piece: just throw it out, why do I need to deal with a part that bogs me down.  In the variation process, I’ll just play with elements of music.

The other thing is that variations are short and they change often. It’s like 50 seconds later—boom, we’re doing something else. I find that very exciting.  I don’t feel I need to be committed to a certain texture, to a certain idea, to a certain aesthetic.  The postmodern part of me loves variations, because I don’t need to justify why three measures after I started one idea, it’s like—whup—we’re doing something completely different.  Obviously the challenge is to make a piece like that coherent, but being so mathematically oriented, that’s usually not the challenge for me; that usually almost happens on its own. So the more I stretch the boundaries, I think it usually works out better than when I try to work in a box.  I understand why some composers need that.  If you’re like a Jackson Pollock personality, you need the box.  But if you’re very mathematical, then maybe the box will happen on its own.

FJO:  Alright, I’ll try another one. You’ve written a ton of concertos.

AD:  Yes.

FJO:  Once again, it’s another centuries-old, Western classical form. And while you wrote a piano concerto very early on and a violin concerto more recently—two most often used solo instruments in concertos—you seem to be more drawn to instruments that are more outside of what we think of as being soloists with an orchestra. You’ve written several pieces which feature percussion soloists, as well as a piccolo concerto, which is not very common.  Saxophone concertos are getting more common, but it’s an instrument that’s not typically associated with the orchestra so it is also an outlier.  And one of my favorite pieces of yours is your mandolin concerto, definitely an outlier to the orchestra.  In a way, it’s an interesting sonic metaphor for growing up in a somewhat outsider place in terms of Western classical music that’s also partially inside because of all the European immigrants.  But do you think of these concertos that way, or am I just inferring it?

AD:  I don’t want to make this disappointing. I love writing concertos.  It’s perhaps the medium that comes easiest to me.  I don’t know if it’s because I started out as a pianist and played a bunch of concertos, or maybe it’s because of my affinity for Vivaldi.  Concertos are easy for me to write and to conceptualize.  I think part of the reason that I’ve written all these concertos for unorthodox instruments is that these instruments are beautiful and there’s so much to do with them that hasn’t been done.  But partly it has to do with basic market demand.  With Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!, [the percussion duo] PercaDu were colleagues of mine at the academy in Tel Aviv and they just nagged me to write something for them.  That piece developed into the concerto.  A piccolo player asked me to write for him fairly early in my career. First, he wanted it to be a piccolo and harp sonata. I’d written the first movement, and I called him up and said, “You should come hear this, I think it’s a concerto.  I don’t think it’s a sonata.  I want to make it into a concerto.”  That’s how that piece came about.  The Mandolin Concerto started in a very similar way.  Avi [Avital] wanted a piece for mandolin, harpsichord, and harp.  And I said, “Avi, I love your playing and I appreciate that you like my music, but I don’t think I’m the person to write that piece.  I think Henze should write that piece, or Webern, like someone with that sensibility.  I think it could be beautiful, but I just don’t see it myself. Why not something with a string quartet, a little concerto with string quartet?” And we made that work. Then it became a real concerto.  I asked him to bring me recordings.  Avi gave me stuff from Russian and Brazil, and bluegrass; mandolin is prevalent everywhere in the world.  In Israel, it has a really interesting history as well. There are a lot of mandolin orchestras in Israel.  It was a social-political move of the government in the ‘50s to help educate immigrants, especially from poorer backgrounds. They would have the kids study mandolin so parents could work.  It was kind of a real socialist thing.  So yes, I’m fascinated with these unusual or non-traditional instruments, and with all of these soloists.  But partly it’s just that these people want to play solo concertos.  There’s no Tchaikovsky marimba concerto and no Brahms mandolin concerto.

FJO:  But there is a very famous Vivaldi Mandolin Concerto.

AD:  Yes, and I’m a big fan of Vivaldi.  Some people don’t appreciate it, but I really do like his music.  But yeah, there aren’t that many [mandolin concertos].  There also aren’t that many saxophone concertos; there are more, but there’s no canon so there’s an opportunity there. The thing with piano concertos and violin concertos is that you’re always in dialogue with the past to some degree, because you’re writing an old genre.  And you’re always in competition. The orchestra world has to be driven by a lot of considerations.  It’s difficult for a piano concerto to get played a lot, but a lot of soloists are coming to me for these kinds of concertos.  I’m not the only one, obviously.  Percussion concertos are a big driver of new orchestral works.

Also, when you’re writing a concerto, you can write longer pieces than the regular seven-to-ten minute orchestral commission and you have the soloist as your partner.  When they get to the first rehearsal, they know the piece really, really well.  With Avi, he knows it so well and most orchestras can probably read that piece at this point off the page because there’s a recording and YouTube. Any orchestra can also basically read Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!  It was not like this at the premiere. It’s not an easy piece, but as it gets into the rep, then the conductors can hear recordings.  It just becomes much easier and the soloists bring so much with them.  You can count on the soloists to help the orchestra learn the piece more quickly, so that’s a very helpful thing.

FJO:  And it is one of your most widely performed pieces at this point.

AD:  The two percussion concertos are, definitely. I think each one of them has exceeded a hundred performances.  That’s a lot.

FJO:  And for both of those pieces, I think it also helps that you gave them such evocative names. Instead of just calling it Double Percussion Concerto No. 1, it’s Spices, Perfumes, and Toxins!, which actually immediately conjures up the Middle East, though perhaps once again I’m reading too much into this.

ADSpices, Perfumes, Toxins! is definitely sort of a Middle Eastern piece. The first movement is based on an earlier piece of mine that I wrote just for PercaDu. The goal was to write a piece that really reflects young Israeli culture.  If you go and analyze that first movement, a lot of the rhythmic aspects of that piece are actually drawn from South Indian music, but the flavor of it is very Middle Eastern, I agree, and that was the idea of that title as well.

FJO:  And for the other one, Frozen in Time, the movements are all named after different continents and inspired by their musical traditions. We were talking before about how we’re formed by local influences, but for this piece the entire world’s music was your playing field.

AD:  Right.  That was from Martin Grubinger when we started talking about this piece. He said, “You’re from the Middle East, but your family is from Europe and you live in the States.  You’re kind of a citizen of the world.”  His perspective actually got me thinking about that concept for that piece.  Again, that’s one of the reasons I love working so much with soloists: the exchange of ideas is very fruitful.  When I write a concerto, I insist on meeting with the soloist and seeing them play in person.  Recordings don’t do the same thing.  There’s something about the physical presence of a person: the way they move, the way they hold their instrument.  Often when I’m composing, I imagine them playing the piece.  And when I orchestrate, I always imagine an actual orchestra on stage.  I’m always thinking—back to physics—about the physical manifestation of the piece.  I don’t know how other people do it.  When I teach, I always find that students, as long as they’re thinking of composing or orchestrating as pen to paper, it’s very difficult for them to do it well.  Once I imagine a specific stage with a specific orchestra and a specific soloist, I’m actually doing the work that I want to do.  I’m actually thinking about reality and not about just page and paper.

FJO:  Early on we were talking about successes and risks.  You’ve actually managed to have a career as a guy who writes music for orchestra, which is something that is elusive to many others. There are tons of composers who maybe have only one orchestral piece in their catalogue, or it’s not even part of what they do or aspire to do. There are many composers who write well for large ensembles who work outside of the orchestral sphere entirely and instead write music for wind band where it is not uncommon for a piece to get played a hundred times.  You have not yet written for wind band.

AD:  No, but Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! has been arranged for band.

FJO:  But by someone else.

AD:  Yes, by someone else, by my wife. And she did a great job! It was premiered by the Musique Militaire Grand-Ducale in Luxembourg, and it was also done by some other bands in Europe.  And I think San Jose State did it last year.  There are talks of other American bands that want to do it as well.  There was a graduate student in North Texas who arranged my piece Astrolatry for band. I’m hoping to work with him to make a few adjustments and get it performed again, maybe at my college. I find that world very interesting, first of all because the ensemble is so rich.  Bardanashvili always says that strings are like the canvas of the orchestra and winds are the colors.  So when you’re writing for orchestra, you’re designing the canvas and then on top of that you add the colors.  The wind symphony is all color, so to me it’s a very attractive ensemble—also for the fact that you can have basically as many percussionists as you want, which is always a struggle for me with the orchestra.

My percussion parts for orchestral pieces are like these little books.  I wrote a piece for the Cleveland Orchestra that was premiered last year.  It’s a seven-minute piece, and the percussion score is very thick. The percussionists there did a phenomenal job, obviously, but they’re not used to seeing stuff like that. Partly it’s because I love writing for percussion—the rhythmic and color aspects of percussion are so central to my writing.  I will often write six parts and just somehow squeeze them into three, because you only get three plus timpani.  So I find the band world really fascinating, and I would love to write for the band word.  But I feel like it’s a completely different market and I just haven’t had experience with it.  I can say this: when they played Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! with the wind symphony, it almost sounds the same; it’s very difficult to tell that it’s a different piece.  Some things bands are really good at—like rhythmic things and accents, because they play a lot of marches and a lot of them play more popular music. And of course John Corigliano often talks about the amount of time that they rehearse, which means you can actually write differently for a band.

Because I’ve written so much for orchestra, I think at this point I can write what I want to hear in a way that is very practical.  And I think that’s one of the hardest things to learn as an orchestral composer, because you write your first piece and someone’s played it, but then the phone doesn’t ring.  So how do you actually learn to be good at orchestrating and all the endless details common to orchestral composition?  How do you make it practical?  How do you get better at that?  By having written a lot for orchestra, I’m much more confident that I can do that work.

FJO:  Another part of your experience with orchestras which we haven’t even begun talking about is that you now also have an active career as a conductor, and not just of your own music. You’re the music director of CityMusic Cleveland. That’s another of way of honing your craft writing for an orchestra since you actually get many practical takeaways from directly working with an orchestra.

AD:  Right, and you learn things the score never tells you—which pieces and which things actually work well in first rehearsal.  This is something I’ve learned as a composer, but even more so as a conductor. You learn on the job that some things that look great on paper and sound great in all the recordings are actually not very practical.  I did the Mozart Haffner Symphony. It’s a piece I love. I’ve known it forever. I thought, “Oh, this is gonna be a walk in the park.”  But it’s so difficult to put together.  It’s so difficult to play.  It’s very transparent. Mozart never writes anything that doesn’t have to be there; this is one of the things people admire him for.  But that means if anyone plays something wrong, there’s no one else to cover.  On the other hand, Rossini is the most practical composer.  Everything that you put in front of an orchestra, it just sounds great.  It plays itself.  We did the Dvořák Violin Concerto.  The balance is so difficult in that piece, but how do you know until you actually do it?  And the same goes for Ravel.  Ravel is always quoted in orchestration books, but there are so many things that Ravel wrote that orchestral musicians actually change.  In Alborada del Gracioso for example, there’s a place where the second violin is pizzicato, and it’s divided.  One half is playing on the quarter notes, and the other half on the off beats.  But they just play all the notes.  No one divides it, as far as I can tell.  How would you know that?  When you’re studying Alborada, you’re like, “Oh, that’s a good idea.  I understand why he does it.  I will do that too.”  But it’s actually a mistake.

So, as I conduct more and get to know the pieces from the actual practical point of view, I think it makes a huge difference.  Also, I’ve worked with so many different conductors, some of the greatest in the world.  Having conducted myself, I feel much more at ease now working with conductors.  I have much less angst about saying things. I know what it feels like to be standing there and moving your hands and thinking that’s really not what I wanted, but that’s what came out.  This idea that whatever comes out of the orchestra is what the conductor wants, it’s not true.  Sometimes you do something, and it’s just not what you wanted.  So as a composer, if you say that probably should be like this not that, the conductor may say, “Yeah, that’s what I wanted.”

I’ve learned that that’s much more of an integral part of the process and sort of a natural thing to have happen all the time.  Conducting has been great learning, especially for orchestration. The best way to learn orchestration is to conduct.  Obviously it takes some time to study scores and it takes away time from composing, but I think it’s worth it.

FJO:  Also, CityMusic Cleveland is an organization that has a very significant community agenda.  It isn’t about doing a concert series in a concert hall that people from around the city of Cleveland come to.  It is about going into the communities directly and serving different groups of people.  There really is a mission to build audiences.  You were saying early on that if music is not reaching people, why do it?  I think what they’re doing ties very neatly into that.

AD:  My first experience with CityMusic was when they played my piece Uzu and Muzu from Kakaruzu, which is a piece for kids based on a beautiful Israeli children’s story.  It’s all about building bridges and resolving conflict.  They did it and I went and did outreach work for the orchestra.  I went to inner city Cleveland schools; I talked with kids and did presentations.  I love doing those things.  I also did that in Miami last year for the Cleveland Orchestra. I very strongly feel that that’s one of my missions in life.  So the more I can do that, the more I will do it.  I narrated some of the concerts, too.  It really is in my heart and soul to bring art and music to people who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to have these experiences.  CityMusic’s concerts are free and we go to churches all over Cleveland. Your local church, so it’s a place you’re comfortable in.  And during intermission, the musicians talk with the audience and there are cookies; it’s a very community-oriented experience.  I think that partly why they decided to hire me as their music director is because I do share that mission very, very deeply and very dearly. And the orchestra is so good.  Some people make the assumption that if you’re going to do that, then maybe you sacrifice some of the musical integrity.  But that’s not the case.  The orchestra is really a top notch ensemble. The atmosphere in the orchestra is also very special, because a lot of the people playing in the orchestra do it for the mission, not for the gig.  We rehearse more than most orchestras.  We usually have four, three-hour rehearsals, plus a dress. And then we perform five times.  So by the last concert, we’ve been through the music a lot.  I’m very encouraging of collaboration during rehearsals as much as is possible in an orchestral setting, so I think the musicians in the orchestra really take ownership of the orchestra. That’s not always the case.

FJO:  The kind of community engagement you’re describing sounds similar to what you did when you served as the composer-in-residence with the Stockton Symphony through the Music Alive Program that New Music USA administers in partnership with the League of American Orchestras. I think what was particularly noteworthy about doing outreach activities there is that it was a deeply troubled community. There’s a lot of talk at orchestral conferences about how to make orchestras more relevant to people’s lives; there you were, actually on the front lines.

AD: That was an incredible experience.  By the end of the residency, I think 7,000 students heard the concerts and another 5,000 students heard some form of presentation or were somehow engaged by the orchestra.  There must have been some overlap, but we’re talking probably near 10,000 elementary school students in the Stockton area.  And yes, it’s a city that went bankrupt and that has great divisions and economic gaps and a lot of social problems.  In some of these schools, you come in the morning, and you see the kids eating their breakfast, because their parents don’t have money for breakfast.  I didn’t know that was the case.  I didn’t know this is how things are in some places.  Yet you start talking about how to write music—I showed them that in Uzu and Muzu there’s a diatonic row, a row of seven notes that are from C major.  I showed them all the permutations and I showed them how the theme is built from that.  And these kids got up and they started making up their own tunes.  And other kids were singing in the retrograde. They get it. You see that their minds expand and their hearts calm down. Music has that ability to engage people in a very healing way and in a very developmental way. We need to give them all the tools that we can so they grow as much as possible.

As musical institutions, that’s a great goal.  Stockton [Symphony] is another example of a very small orchestra that is both high quality and that took on this giant project.  I was in awe of how they manage to produce so much outreach and I think I only spent three week there, maybe four weeks, during that year. That was a big production to reach that many students.  And I got letters from students. They sent me drawings that they made.  Some schools put on their own pieces that the kids made based on the story.  They made up stories and they acted them out and played.  They actually created these musical stories.  It’s so heartwarming to see that you can touch lives in this way.  It makes everything so much more a part of the world.

The tendency as a composer is to lock the door and say see you in six months; it’s such a solitary experience.  There’s nothing more solitary than composing a piece of music.  Of course, I enjoy that.  But I think in order to be a complete human being, giving to the community is very enriching for me, and obviously I think it’s our duty, or my duty at least, to do these things. I grew up in a place where everything was basically available. We can’t just take it for granted.

FJO:  In terms of engaging communities and sending messages through your music, sitting on this table with us is the full score of your first opera. You’ve written vocal music in the past, but not a ton. In fact, there’s only one vocal piece of yours that I ever heard, a setting of Psalm 67 from pretty early on.  So I don’t think of you as a vocal composer.  Last year, I know that you wrote a big choral piece which I’m eager to hear at some point, but writing an opera is even more ambitious.  And with vocal music, once you attach words to something, you get into this whole other area of meanings and emotions and telling stories directly.  And the story you chose to tell here, for your first opera, which is being done in Germany—

AD:  —in German!

FJO:  Yeah, which is not a language you’re fluent in.  But what seems even more peculiar is that you’re an Israeli-born, Jewish composer and you wrote an opera that’s being premiered in Germany about this guy who was an anti-Semite who inspired Hitler.  That’s kind of mad.

AD:  Well, this is where we start the therapy session.  I’ve had a lot of time to think about this.  I think from my point of view, to write this is very natural.  It’s a funny thing.  I grew up in an Israeli household, but three out of four of my grandparents came from Germany.  Two of them were born in Germany, one was born in Israel but moved to Germany. During the ‘30s they moved to Israel. So German culture and German music were a very central part of my home upbringing. Nietzsche, Goethe, we had all the books at home and they weren’t in Hebrew.  Growing up, I played a ton of Bach and Beethoven sonatas, Brahms, Schumann. It’s like if you asked someone here where they are from.  “I’m American.”  Where did your family come from?  “Well, they came from Italy and Spain.” My family came from Germany.  So I’m Israeli, but my family came from Germany.  Then this same culture that produced all these things that I identify with very deeply produced the same thing that was trying to very effectively kill all of the people that I am a part of religiously.  That’s a huge paradox to grow up in.  So I think that this story fascinated me.  This guy was not just an anti-Semite, he was one of the first people to put together a racial theory that, on the basis of so-called modern science, distinguished the bloods of different people—between the top Aryans and the bottom Jews.  Not only did he do that, but when you read his book, The Foundations of the 19th Century, he starts from the individual.  He says really what drives history is individuals.  Like the genius individuals. Who is a genius individual?  Wagner.  Beethoven.  So not only did he make this up, he made it up with my biggest heroes.  I wanted to understand why this became so popular.  His book was a huge best seller.  Not just in Germany, but in Russia, in England, in France, and in the United States.  It was huge, and this guy is completely forgotten by most people today.  How did this happen?  I felt like this is an opportunity to understand a little bit more, because the history books start with when Hitler came to power.  But this guy wrote his book in the 1890s.  This guy divorced his first wife and married one of Wagner’s daughters.  He became the head of the Wagner household.  He ran Bayreuth, and got rid of all Jewish influence and socialist influence in Bayreuth.

And he was very influential in the German government during World War I.  Hitler met with him, and that’s actually in the opera.  Hitler revered him, and Hitler quoted him.  If you listen to Hitler’s speeches, there are direct quotes from his book.  The intellectual, pseudo-scientific, brainwashing ideas brewing there that people bought into are where racism starts.  This is where hatred starts.  Of course, anti-Semitism existed in Germany and in Europe for thousands of years.  But I think what drew me to this story was to understand. We don’t play Wagner in Israel. To me, it’s an abomination. How can we not play Wagner in Israel?  But, of course, I understand.  And yet, did Wagner really mean this stuff?  So this has really been an opportunity to get familiar with a part of this history. And I think it’s very relevant.  I think it’s more relevant now than I thought two years ago.  Racism is not gone.

Wagner’s son Siegfried was most likely gay, so one of the things that happens in the opera is that there’s a big scene where the main character, Houston Stewart Chamberlain who wrote the book, catches him with a lover in the garden. He pays off the lover to go away and then covers it up. These ideas that still plague society were there a hundred years ago.  Sometimes I think it’s perhaps easier for people to look back and be like, “Oh that’s really bad. Let’s be better than that.”  That’s one of the things that the opera taught me.  I didn’t think two years ago it would be very relevant, but now people talk about neo-Nazism again. These tendencies in society are not eradicated.

The cover for the full orchestra score of Avner Dorman's opera Wahnfried.

FJO:  So Hitler actually sings in your opera.

AD:  Yes.

FJO:  And you’re staging this in Germany where Mein Kampf was banned for decades?

AD:  It’s now a best seller again.

FJO:  But the Germans are very aware of this horrible history to the point that they’re very concerned about people being swayed, as they had been, by a charismatic figure.  I’ve looked at films from that time and I don’t understand how he could have possibly been perceived as charismatic, but he was by millions of people. So to put his persona on a stage and have him sing, there is a potential danger in making him somehow iconic, since that is what opera does with characters. What are Hitler’s melodies?

AD:  That’s the context of the whole opera. Houston Stewart Chamberlain is not as famous, but he’s a vile, despicable human being.  There’s just no other way to say it.  We actually cut some of the worst things, but there are pretty racist, awful things sung in this opera.  It’s all very grotesque.  When people ask me what genre is this opera in, I would say that the pieces that it speaks with from the past are Shostakovich’s The Nose, Ligeti’s Grand Macabre, some of the staged pieces by Mauricio Kagel. That’s the world that this piece is in. It’s different, obviously, but it’s very grotesque and absurdist.

So, yes, it celebrates these people, but in a very mocking way.  The opera does not advocate for these points of view. I think it’s very clear, both from the libretto—which I think is brilliant—and the music. Also I would say that I think that has always been my way of dealing with the Holocaust.  I always had to make jokes.  I always had to think about it with some humor because it’s just too horrific to actually think about.  In Israel, there’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, and you go to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. Even thinking about it now, it’s just too much to handle. So I think humor and irony and absurdism—like Bulgakov, his spirit is in this opera, this out-of-this-world grotesque—is my way of dealing with it.

Specifically to Hitler, to answer your question, I actually transcribed some of his speeches as musical notation, because he was really a composer as an orator.  He was a brilliant orator. He starts and then he waits and he builds up in pitch and lengths, the number of words.  If you ever watch a speech by him—which is a very bad feeling but I had to do it—when he gets to the climax, it’s always like very high and then some word, the Jeeeews, he will say as a very long word.  And he will basically yell it.  I actually transcribed some of his speeches.  And that’s the music that he’s singing.  It’s actually from the intonation of his speech; it’s actually Hitler.  Weirdly enough, some of the motivic structures that I found in his speeches are related to the scene in the first act when Houston Stewart Chamberlain first comes up with his racial theory.  By complete coincidence, but that ties in really beautifully.  The first time that this guy comes up with the racial theory is the same motive that Hitler ends up using for his big scene.

It was very tough to write the end of this opera.  The ending is very harsh.  It’s very evocative of death and death camps and not in a very beautiful way, but a very artistic way. I ended up thinking about the three last scenes of the opera as the beginning of the next one, which is the one where World War II happens.  I wrote it like the beginning of another opera, because that was the biggest block I had in the whole process. What are you going to do with Hitler?  How do you sit down and write notes that Hitler is going to sing?  That was really tough.

FJO:  So you’re going to write a second opera about this?

AD:  I don’t know, but that was how I imagined it. If there was a sequel, this would be the beginning of that sequel, so then I don’t have to think of it as an ending so much, which was very hard.  I think also transcribing Hitler’s speeches was a way to deal with what to write for Hitler.  At the end of that scene, he’s like, “I’m going to have the Reich for a thousand years.”  It’s very optimistic, but not.

FJO:  Now in terms of being a big fish in a little pond, an opera in which Hitler has a singing role probably could never have been done in Israel, I would imagine.

AD:  No, I don’t think so.  It would mean a lot to me if it will ever be done in Israel.  I am aware that some people from Israel might be offended by this, but I think they would be mistaken.  I’m obviously not advocating my own death and my family’s death.  Who would do that?  But I think it’s an important part of history that is rarely told and that needs to be told.  There are a bunch of quotes from Wagner, so maybe because of that, they won’t play it.

FJO:  Obviously this is a very socially charged work.  We talked about the emotional qualities of music, and what Corigliano said to you about you challenging emotion in your music. And also what Bardanashvili said to you about having your identity in a piece.  And then the work you did in Stockton and now with CityMusic Cleveland, interacting with the communities and how important that is to you.  A final observation, a lot of people are talking about these days being the beginning of a new era that’s very uncertain. So what is the role of a creative artist in such a society?  What is our responsibility as artist citizens?  When you say that you had to tell the story of this opera, I feel you’re touching on that.

AD:  Obviously this is a very personal choice.  When I say I feel this is my duty, I really mean my duty.  Is it another composer’s duty and responsibility?  It’s not. I don’t feel like that’s anyone’s choice, but for themselves.  With a piece like this, you have a captive audience for two hours and you get to design the whole experience—which is, I think, the most exciting thing about writing an opera; there’s not going to be a Sibelius symphony on the second half. I think it’s an opportunity, if not a responsibility, to say something.  I definitely think it is a politically charged piece.  Even more so today than it was when I wrote it.  I do think, especially in this era, that one of the mistakes is not to say things.  We need to know that racism and hatred are a feature of humanity.  It’s in our language. These things exist and they catch on like wild fire.  When you don’t counteract and contradict them, they will continue to grow.  I think as artists we have the opportunity to make a statement that will be heard.

The problem for most people is that if you’re sitting home and you hear some personality, politician, celebrity, or whoever, talk on TV or on the radio and don’t agree, what are you going to do?  I guess today you can put it on your Facebook and in your Twitter.  Great.  But if you write an opera, or you write a symphony, or you release a recording, or you get interviewed, you can say these things and maybe more people will take notice.  When someone comes to the symphony and they hear a piece and it has a message like this, maybe it touches them in a different way, because they get an hour off from their crazy and busy life and the music touches their emotions.  Maybe it reminds them, you know, I was once a child. We all have love and compassion; that’s the other feature of humanity.  Everyone has a certain element of prejudice and not being tolerant, even without being aware of that.  But we all also have love and compassion and care about the people around us in our communities and beyond.  So I think we do have an opportunity to raise these questions and to make people think and to encourage people to think, and to encourage people to feel and maybe not go in those directions even when it’s tempting.  So I do think artists play that role in society.  Historically it’s basically been proven that the last step before the really horrific steps is when that role is blocked by the government. In those societies where the government says to artists, “You can no longer speak your mind,” that’s one step before genocide and war and the massive imprisonment of people.  That’s the moment that people really need to worry about.  Like the Nazi government felt that certain artists, like Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, were a threat to the country. That shows us that we shouldn’t underestimate our ability to influence.  Hitler was afraid of Brecht.  So Brecht had some power there.  Stalin was afraid of Shostakovich.  Well, obviously Shostakovich was afraid of Stalin.  Not to get too into current politics, but you see it now with the inauguration and who was not willing to perform, and who was willing.  It’s a big deal.  It’s a big deal when an artist who is invited to do something, says, “You know what, for you, I won’t do it.”  That’s always a big deal when artists say, “I won’t support this kind of rhetoric.”  I think we have power, or at least there’s some opportunity and possibility, that we can affect the world positively as long as it’s not blocked by the government.  Obviously we’re not there, but I think we shouldn’t be afraid.  But again, that’s me.  I completely respect people who feel like music is separate and shouldn’t have anything to do with anything else.  It’s their choice.

Joshua Fried: Let’s Dance

Joshua Fried

Joshua Fried begins each of his RADIO WONDERLAND shows with a spin of a boombox radio dial, snippets of caught commercials and DJ chatter popping out of the static and drawing his audience’s ears in on a raft of mainstream culture before he starts cutting it apart.

There is also a boombox in nearly every room of Fried’s apartment, which after a few hours in his company chatting about processing sound, seems to be not just a fun decorating choice but also an illustration of how connected he is to his music-making tools.

More than sharing space, however, it’s time that Fried has invested deeply in his music, labor-intensive processes becoming something of a hallmark. As a result, his projects have a tendency to spiral out across years of his professional life. Splicing elaborate tape loops and coding his own software have been just par for this artistic course—intimacy with the tools and materials an essential part of the work.

Yet whether in a dive for self-preservation or simply a yin-yang bit of balance, Fried sets up his musical game boards with elaborate care, but then prefers to play out the final aspects of his creative process live in front of an audience. In the ’90s that meant feeding his performers their material in real time over headphones. Since 2007, it most often finds him alone on stage, a couple pairs of men’s dress shoes concealing gate-triggering microphones and a Buick steering wheel drawing the audience’s eyes as he grabs bits of radio chatter from which he builds each RADIO WONDERLAND concert.

His creative path has led him from The Pyramid Club to more esoteric new music circles, but he hasn’t abandoned his pursuit of great grooves, and it’s a prime driver of RADIO WONDERLAND. “I had this metric, which is that I wanted it to be actually danceable,” he explains. “As a creator, as a composer, to have that metric and believe in it, to me, it’s not a cheap thing in the least. It’s so helpful. Sometimes you need a framework to hang your musical efforts on.” In live performance and in track after track on his just-released album SEiZE THE MEANS, the drive of the pulse, the transparency of the process, and common commercial radio core prove to amplify rather than dilute the music’s broader unique aspects.

Fried anticipated that his lack of interest in “high-end signal processing of very theoretical stuff that you do your Ph.D. thesis about” might result in his work being dismissed in certain circles, but while that has happened, he has actually felt accepted and free to pursue the work he wants even if it comes attached to a beat that encourages serious toe tapping. It’s not something he’s looking to transcend. “I love dancing. I sometimes find myself bopping my head in music concerts when it’s not really thought of as head-bopping music, but I’m hearing a pulse. Okay, maybe in that situation, maybe you could argue that I’m missing something. But there are many cases where I feel like no, I’m not. I am moved and I’m moving, and I’m immersed and involved. And I just love it.”

Joshua Fried in conversation with Molly Sheridan
November 10, 2016—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Joshua Fried: I think I have long had this idea that I’m going to be the thorn in the side of some establishment that isn’t going to like me, and it turns out they do.

Molly Sheridan: But you don’t trust that?

JF: I have a little bit of imposter’s syndrome, but I’m on much more solid ground than I was when I started. It’s funny because “new music” is awash in people doing sophisticated things in funny meters and odd things with tonality and pitch, and whether I do or don’t, I tend to be accepted and no one has a problem with 4/4. It’s kind of amazing to me. I’m sort of waiting to be dismissed—and that’s happened to me—but I feel very accepted and able to pursue what I want. It just so happens that what I want is rather clubby, especially with RADIO WONDERLAND.

MS: I actually wanted to start by just talking about the evolution of RADIO WONDERLAND, especially for readers who may not be familiar with this project. It seems to me there’s a sort of ritual to these performances and to the pieces you create, including the equipment that you use and have used for a number of years now.

JF: Oh, yeah.

MS: So I want to trace the evolution of that visually and sonically, whether you have to go back to 1987 to do that, or just 2007.

JF: I have been cutting up sound and processing sound since I first started composing, and I started using radio really early on. I did one piece where I would start with FM radio playing the easy listening station—cascading strings and completely mellow “beautiful music”—and then cut to this underlying tape loop that was cut up very precisely. I would do it several times and it was random what I got from the cascading strings station. Then I was performing in clubs in New York with multi-channel tape-loop processing. Basically I was taking the technical structure of dub reggae, only instead of remixing an existing reggae song, I would remix a multi-channel tape loop that I had constructed laboriously and do that live.

I also had a thing where I would use something to trigger a gate. Like I would speak into the microphone, but it would be opening up a gate on a tape loop. It was theatrical. As a performative schtick, I started hiding the mic inside various objects. I put the mic inside a shoe and took it to the Pyramid Club where I was performing live, and I was whacking the shoe with a drumstick so the tape loop could be in time with my underlying groove. Then as I evolved as a composer, I wanted to do more with gates, so I said, let’s have four shoes. And this is 1988 at the La MaMa New Music Festival. I had the shoes and a radio—two channels of shoe-controlled gates from radio and two pre-recorded ongoing sounds.

Fried's stage set-up with shoes

Fried’s stage set-up with shoes (Yes, that’s Todd Reynolds in the background!)

Then a few years later, I realized I could do something that’s all radio. What I had to do next was the club-oriented funky tape loops that I had done in the ‘80s, only make those collages in real time in front of an audience and all out of commercial radio. I could do that with technology. I didn’t know what technology, but I knew I could do it with technology. I could trigger the radio with the shoes, but I wanted to do more. What I was doing in the ‘80s in clubs, these tape loops that I mentioned where I did things based on dub reggae, got increasingly intricate and I would do very high-precision tape splicing. As digital sampling was taking off, I would kind of say to myself, oh, I can do that with splicing and I would end up with something that was like those samplers, only more hi-fi because I had a quarter-inch tape deck, which was giving me better quality than the 8-bit or 12-bit samplers at the time. So there was this kind of odd period where, because I felt that I would live forever and it didn’t matter how long a project took, I would just do even more labor intensive, high-precision tape splicing.

But I slowly transitioned to MIDI and sampling, and so getting back to the beginnings of RADIO WONDERLAND, I realized that I could use technology to precisely cut up the found sound that I got off the radio and turn that into a groove. I have notebooks full of notes about what I could do and the more I thought about it, the more I got serious about it. I went through a period where I thought: how far am I willing to really elaborately process? Because what I love most in processing is the cutting up, running backwards, playing at different speeds, collaging as opposed to the high-end signal processing of very theoretical stuff that you do your Ph.D. thesis about. The simple processing that has a big musical payoff is more fascinating to me. What’s the least I can do, the most transparent processing I can do, and have it give me my musical result?

Sometimes you need a framework to hang your musical efforts on. And sometimes I think it doesn’t matter so much what that framework is.

And I had this metric, which is that I wanted it to be actually danceable. As a creator, as a composer, to have that metric and believe in it, to me, it’s not a cheap thing in the least. It’s so helpful. Sometimes you need a framework to hang your musical efforts on. And sometimes I think it doesn’t matter so much what that framework is. You need it. Especially when it comes to structuring things over time.

I was doing the tape loop stuff in clubs, and that was more or the less the ‘80s, and in the ‘90s it was the headphone-driven performance, [concert work that requires performers to try and imitate vocal sounds that are played over headphones]. Then halfway through that, I realized the next thing I wanted to do was club-oriented again, but by that time, I was so steeped in sort of the new music scene, it was no longer the Pyramid Club, it was the Bang on a Can Festival. And so when I first started doing RADIO WONDERLAND, it was music festivals and electronic nights, the Juilliard Electronic Music Festival and Boston Cyberarts. It didn’t really steer back to the clubs until I went through this long, long period of software development and then started channeling it to the clubs, and that’s a transition I’m sort of still making because I had so many years with the—if you want to call it—new music audience. The NewMusicBox audience! I still sort of feel like I’m steering back. In the late’80s, I was known if you read Billboard and not if you read the American Composers Forum newsletter. And then that switched. I still sort of feel I’m switching back.

MS: Was that all self-selected or did you feel pushed?

JF: It’s funny because I’ve sort of been following my nose the whole time as far as what I do. I was so involved with the clubs in the ‘80s, and to me it was equivalent with innovation. No, that’s not right. It’s not that simple. I was doing experimental stuff, and I was working a lot with Linda Fisher who’s a composer who worked with Cunningham and David Tudor and Douglas Dunn, who was a Cunningham dancer. But I was focused on the clubs; I was working in clubs. I could go on stage in any open-minded nightclub if I had my tape-loop act—I say open-minded, because at the time there was a certain population of people who enjoyed popular music but had to see a drum kit and/or a guitar on stage. There was one guy who said to me at the end of a gig, “If you had just had someone with a guitar on stage, even if they were just standing there, it would have made me feel more comfortable with what you did.” I was amazed at that. And I also really appreciated his honesty. He knew how absurd it was, and he was being completely real about it.

And then I got a record deal with a big record label. It went nowhere and it’s a long story, but it was a great thing that happened to me. I think I was kind of blown away emotionally, because I had this major label deal and I sort of didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t have the skill to adapt. I tried to write some conventional pop songs for the occasion, but I didn’t do very many. They didn’t really fit. I needed to be like Howard Jones or M, the guy who did the song “Pop Muzik,” but I wasn’t versatile enough to do that. So I was just the tape loop guy doing my innovative stuff—which certain people really loved—marketed the wrong way.

It took me a long time to sort of get over it and decide what to do next. I didn’t have a next step for the record label, or I guess for the clubs. And then the headphone-driven stuff kind of took off, although it’s a slow motion take off. Over a few years, I did a lot of that stuff, and then the Bang on a Can All-Stars said, “Well, can we perform it?” And I said okay and I worked with them. I basically won’t let people perform this work unless I feel that they can do it—because it’s so awful if people don’t have the proper training. It’s hideously boring and uncomfortable, and it gives me and it gives the music a bad name. But if performers can handle it and they have worked with me or someone that I’ve worked with to know what I want from it, it can be this compelling, rigorous, worthy stuff. So anyway yes. The Bang on a Can All-Stars did it and then other people said they wanted to do it, and it had this life, including a 16-week series at HERE Arts Center in 2001.

It was so enormously labor intensive. It was amazing to be able to do it, but each performer can do each headphone role only once, so I rotate through performers. We had a total of 64 people over the course of this run. I would have to get more and more performers. How could I tour with this? I decided that this piece, if it can’t walk on its own, is going to have to be set by the side of road where if it wants to walk, it can walk, but I can no longer be pushing it along. I need something more practical, and that was going to be this radio, found sound, groove-based thing.

That’s also solo, so it makes so much more sense. Then all that was left was the years of doing the software programming. I did it myself in Max/MSP and it was a wonderful adventure, but it took years. It was absurd. By fall of 2007 I realized I have not utterly, thoroughly 100% debugged my own code. However, the state of performing this is hampered more by my lack of knowing how to do it and lack of rehearsal than by the bugs. I could put this on stage, work around the bugs, and six months of being on stage is going to put this out in the world. And it’s going to get that much better. Better than six more months of programming to iron out the last few bugs or add the last few features that I want. So all of sudden, I realized, oh, it’s not a matter of being done and then going on stage. I’m going on stage now. Let’s start gigging!

 

I decided that for a year I would just perform any and all performances—paid, unpaid, bring my own PA, what have you. This adventure started and I was going to do this for a year and then record. So that was fall of 2007. And then 2011—that’s a year after, right?—I realized I was doing more and more gigs. I started going out of town. I performed at this big sort of techno/rave-y complex in Venice, Italy. It was so great, but it was also crazy. I didn’t have a record to sell at the gigs. It seemed almost counterproductive. And also I didn’t mention, I made a deal with myself: not only was I going to stop coding—only since it’s Max/MSP, it’s drag another line with the mouse—but I was declaring a technology freeze. I wasn’t going to upgrade any piece of hardware or software until I had that record out. So I figured I’d gig for a year, do the record, upgrade the software. Instead it was a few years of gigging. Now, it’s antique software and a G3 Powerbook. It’s the same thing with my tape-loop stuff. When I started doing tape loops, it was high tech, but then I did it for so many years. Same thing kind of happened with RADIO WONDERLAND where I had a Powerbook that was state of the art and I just kept it. And I was so glad that I did.

Now my case might be extreme, but there are musicians and composers who are upgrading so fast, I feel like they’re not going into depth. On the other hand, they don’t need to go into depth the way I do. I get really involved with materials, the tools, and that is a big part of what I’m doing. Other composers are different. They’re pursuing other things, and they can have a—not a derogatory use of the term—more shallow connection with the nuts and bolts of their technology and it’s not such a wrenching big deal to upgrade. If they throw out their old software and have new software, great. They take advantage of that.

Fried's boombox collection

For me, it just couldn’t be that way. I wrote this software myself. I’m very intimate with it. It’s just not the same deal. I love that kind of intimacy with tools and materials. I guess for some composers, the intimacy is on the level of the score, or the concept, and the technology is secondary.

MS: Okay, that was a lot of answers to a lot of questions.

JF: Whew. So we’re done?

MS: We’re done! No, we’re not done. You were talking about intimacy, which makes me think about your use of commercial radio as your raw material. I’m curious, of all the things you could pick, what is your attraction to that specifically as your primary source?

JF: Well, there are a couple things that really dovetail nicely. Since I was kid, I’ve had this attraction to the commercial stuff and just reframing it as something that’s funny. When I was in fourth grade, we had a field trip to the L.A. airport and we got to walk inside an airplane. Then the next day, or maybe that afternoon, we were back in our homeroom in my elementary school, and we were asked to write about it. I wrote some spiel and at the end of it I wrote, “Welcome to the friendly skies of United.” It was a laugh line that has a certain needling twist to it.

Maybe that’s the whole sort of appropriative, ironic shtick that we’re all so tired of now, but I think I am of a generation where that is compelling to me. It’s a way of talking and of negotiating the world by quoting the mainstream stuff in this kind of snarky way. I feel in many ways, culturally we’re past that, but that kind of appropriation is like a language. And maybe this is a loaded word, but it is subversive. It is knocking, needling, and when I am cutting it up, it is cutting up the mainstream culture. It may be very basic, but great—be basic. Also, it’s ubiquitous, so it’s something that’s familiar and when I process the familiar, the process is that much more transparent. Just like when you do a cover tune, if you have an odd musical bent, your odd musical bent can be revealed by performing someone else’s work.

That’s why Devo’s version of “Satisfaction” is so satisfying, because we know this song and you get what Devo is. FM radio is dynamically compressed and has a decent frequency range. It is made to be grabbed and sampled. It’s so technically easy to grab the pre-compressed feed from FM radio. I know exactly where I have to put the volume control on my boombox. I don’t change the input level on my rig. I haven’t had to. And that’s great. It is perfectly pre-processed for the stuff that I’m doing.

MS: Is your choice of controllers born out of that same instinct—the steering wheel, the shoes? I mean, is that a joke? Is that a commentary? Is that playing off familiarity?

JF: It’s not the subversive appropriation kind of thing. I’m not knocking the industrial age because the steering wheel is a symbol of something evil. Arguably, it is. But I am doing it because of the transparency of the process when the controller is so large. I don’t want a tiny little knob that no one can see, so I want this object that’s the wheel.

Instead of the shoes, I could use electronic drum pads, but they have this sort of added message to me that you have to have something that looks like fancy high tech music hardware in order to whack something. But this is a completely un-acoustic instrument. The sound that you’re triggering has nothing to do with the physical makeup of the thing that you’re hitting. There’s this disconnect between the controller and the sound that results, and I want to underscore that disconnect. It’s a funny thing, and I’d rather have it be that funny thing than have it be like the cool drum pad. If you had the money to buy this in the music store, you could have this cool drum pad. I don’t like that.

Fried takes the wheel

Fried takes the wheel

Once I had the shoes, I knew that I wanted to have not just a large knob, but an ordinary object taken from life and give it that surreal feeling. I was really taken by surrealism when I was kid. It’s that kind of twist I was talking about before with appropriation. There’s a different, maybe related sort of twist when there’s something absurd. I just love it so much.

Another thing about the wheel is that, technically, it’s no different from the little knob you can get in the portable controller, which is a lot easier to pack on an airplane than a steering wheel, but you would never play a melody on that little knob. With the steering wheel, I can, and so now I practice the wheel, and it’s become this whole other level of instrument that I didn’t even realize. The quantitative difference of size is a real qualitative difference, and it’s so much fun.

MS: You’ve been working with commercial radio for a long time now. I’m curious if you’ve noted any changes to that particular stream of media and how that’s impacted your work.

JF: Well, part of it’s a little sad because when I started doing this, radio was more monolithic. Everybody knew half the songs on any of the pop stations. I don’t feel that’s the same thing now. Radio, even mainstream commercial radio, is in its niches. There was a sort of lingua franca of pop in the heyday of Michael Jackson and Madonna and Culture Club. They were so ubiquitous and corporate and massively popular. I was dismantling this common mainstream.

I have developed my aesthetic, but I haven’t really adapted. That’s just the way it goes.

I have developed my aesthetic, but I haven’t really adapted. That’s just the way it goes. My projects take absurd numbers of years to fully play out, and that’s more acceptable in the movie business than it is in the music business. But I’m here, and so part of what RADIO WONDERLAND signifies has evolved out from under me. I’m using vintage technology now in a way that I wasn’t back then by virtue of not changing the technology. Very recently, I decided to use AM radio because I need more topical stuff because of what’s happening in the world. That’s one thing that I decided only in the last few months. It’s not enough for me to know that crazy stuff is happening in the world. They’re kind of talking about it on NPR, but I want to be dealing with more commercial culture and they’re not talking about global warming on the rock station.

MS: Not just RADIO WONDERLAND but also your work with headphone-driven performance leads me to thoughts of how it pushes and pulls on the ideas of Cage, which is something you address specifically on your website:

It celebrates randomness in a way that’s utterly different from Cage.  Chance choices can be simply betterin the right context.

What are the elements of that “right context”?

JF: Well, there’s no one right context. But if you can create a context in which the best choice is going to be by the roll of the dice, you’ve created a beautiful situation.

I guess what I’m talking about is hey, we’re stochastic instead of completely random. I like the negotiation of what’s chance and what’s not chance, and also the extremes of how much I prepare, how much I work on my algorithms, and then how much I’m dependent on what happens to be on the radio or, with headphone-driven performance, how rigorous my input is and how it interacts with the complete lack of control of the performers. The chance choice can be the right choice, if in the right context. Building the kind of context that can do that gives me something that to my ears is just better than any other way. And it’s such a beautiful thing. You feel like you’re tapping into something, instead of sort of cheating it. Well, there’s my chord progression and if I avoid all the leading tones in the first half of the phrase, and then I hit octaves in the second half, then it will kind of cover up the fact that this is a lame chord progression. No, no, no! I want this. I want the dappled sunlight to fall on my fabric and it just has to be good enough fabric so that it looks good, however the sunlight falls on it. Something like that.

MS: I want to dig further into the process of the headphone-driven performance and learn more about what is really happening in those headphones—the audio score, if you will—that is generating the performance you want. Can you pull the curtain back? I’m sure that there’s a lot of thinking that went on with why you’re even doing that in the first place.

JF: You want to understand the mechanics.

MS: Yes, but you can be philosophical too.

JF: What the performers are hearing is mostly spoken word and some singing, and a lot of the spoken word is taken from very expressive, emotional parts of old movies. Like Richard Burton bellowing.

Just to be clear, I have six different channels of headphone material, all independent. So they can be unison or not, and they can have conversations and such. But it’s completely, rigorously timed because they’re not separate tape decks that are running out of synch; they’re all coming from the same multi-track sound source. The synch is maintained, and the accompanying music is on two additional tracks for left and right playback over a PA system. So the musical accompaniment and all six headphone tracks are audio scores—or audio parts, you could say—sent out via a headphone feed to the performers.

My instruction to them is not to repeat immediately after the input, which would be a sensible thing to do, but my instruction is to talk along with the input, which is not sensible. It’s ridiculous. It’s impossible. I’m asking them to be listening and talking at the same time, which kind of ruins their chances of hearing most of it, because they’re talking over it. But the headphones are fairly loud. They’re listening, they’re picking up stuff, and they’re vocalizing and catching stuff as they can, and as the headphone material repeats—and it repeats a lot—they get more of it and their proportion of gibberish to regular language gets more towards the regular language. I work with performers, one-on-one or in a group of two or three people, I demonstrate, I have them try this. It takes some understanding and most people don’t really believe until they try it that this really means doing this ridiculous thing of talking over. Now, sometimes your cue to start talking is the input itself. So obviously at that moment, the performer will enter late. I know that. That’s just the laws of physics. But I tell them, don’t think about that. You are there the whole time; just imagine that and keep on jumping ahead to the present moment. Try this for about a minute, and then you’ll kind of find a place where you can just go.

Headphone Driven Performance (demo)

Practice track for two performers (stereo)

One thing I say to them is you are doing this with utter confidence, believing that you’re absolutely getting it. That input, as you are saying it to yourself, is you. You are that accurate and you have that much confidence. At the same time, I’m not saying just pretend everything’s perfect because I told you to. I want the performers to really be trying. It takes effort. It takes a lot of concentration. You’re tuned into what’s happening. You’re picking up stuff, so you’re keeping these two things going. You’re working, but you also are constantly outputting with complete gusto. This kind of conversation over a couple of hours of demonstrating gets good performers in a place where I need them to be to do this, and so it comes out this sort of proto-language—half gibberish, half non-gibberish.

This evolved from a party game with these performance artists that I was collaborating with, and they called this party game the Nancy Sinatra game, because they were using a cassette tape of Nancy Sinatra’s greatest hits. I kind of took the idea for my own compositions and started making my own source tapes with the musical accompaniment. That covers a lot of it, doesn’t it?

MS: That does cover a lot of it, and it leads me very neatly to my next question, because even before knowing that bit of backstory, I was already struck by how big a role the aspect of game play or a puzzle to solve in the moment figures into both in the headphone-driven performance and RADIO WONDERLAND. Because you have a structure and there are rules, but then you’re getting things that are chance-y that are being thrown into the mix, and then you’re having to do something with that for an audience.

JF: The game is how I handle the input. That makes it exciting for me. One thing I sometimes say is that I feel like I come from a planet where it’s not live music unless it’s completely unexpected. If it comes from a score and you’ve rehearsed it, what’s that? You can’t do that. That’s just cheating. That’s not anything. Where we come from, live is where you deal with life as it comes, or something like that.

I feel like I come from a planet where it’s not live music unless it’s completely unexpected. If it comes from a score and you’ve rehearsed it? That’s just cheating.

I don’t actually come from that planet, but this sort of thing is compelling to me. It is such a great discipline, and it also puts the emphasis on things that I think should be emphasized. In this case, when it comes to RADIO WONDERLAND, it’s the process. It’s the juxtaposition. It’s what I do with it, as opposed to choosing the perfect sample—which would be, I think, just an awful way for me to compose. I’m kind of a perfectionist. So, given that, what would I do? I’d go over what’s in the commercial media and decide what’s best to dismantle because it’s sonically good, but more importantly, the content is what I think is just the thing that needs to be interrogated and subverted. I’m exhausted just thinking about that. I don’t want that. It’s not a good compositional challenge for me. It might be sort of a moneymaker, if I can grab something that’s so telling and it’s so hysterically funny. Then maybe I have to bargain to get the rights to it. Then I cut it up, and I make it into a dance track that could be fun and maybe get a lot of attention, but that’s so not the discipline that I want. To me, if I can develop the algorithms and train myself as a performer to deal with it as it comes in, those are good musical processes. That’s good performance training. It’s going to be a good performance.

It’s amazing how well things fit together, how the synchronicity seems to come up again and again. I remember one time when Will Smith, the movie star, was in the headlines a lot. I got the name Will Smith off the radio, and someone said to me, “Unbelievable! How did you get that? It’s so amazing that you got that because he’s iconic, and it’s such a coup.” Well, but that’s how this thing works because the stuff that’s the most popular comes up the most. And I love that. I find I’ve really learned a lesson that you can take two different pop songs from two different times—let’s say a commercial or a station ID and a pop song—cut them up, try to juxtapose them tonally, and your odds are better than even that they will somehow work.

Inside Fried's home studio

Inside Fried’s home studio

Now maybe I’ve had this sort of brilliance at improvising and choosing things that I don’t give myself credit for, but I think a big part of it is that there’s more sense in the stuff that we would grab by chance than we ever imagined. When I first made RADIO WONDERLAND, I made sure that there would be a means to take any of the individual bits and suck away the pitch—the De-Pitcher, I called it. Turns out what I used was ring modulation. Boom! Computationally, it’s incredibly cheap and easy, but I found after a while—it took me a long time to even believe it—I almost never have to use it! The pop song that I get 15 minutes after I grab the other pop song is gonna work. Or I can transpose with the wheel, so I have these five different bits from a pop song or a commercial from 15 minutes ago. Here’s a new slab of audio. I take a couple of different bits, juxtapose them, they’re in rhythm and maybe two thirds of the time I need to transpose with the wheel. And that’s it. I never suspected it would be that easy. I was kind of terrified. I figured you take two random songs, even if they’re both based on A-440, then we have like 24 different choices of different modes and stuff, different keys. They’re not going to match. They’re going to be badly dissonant in that way that’s just not fun musically, especially when I’m trying to be funky and groovy and melodic in a more-or-less conventional sense. It’s just not going to work out, and I’m going to need the De-Pitcher. I’m going to have to transpose like mad, that’s just how it is. That’s going to be part of the game of RADIO WONDERLAND. And it turns out that it wasn’t. It just tends to work.

MS: Does this process ever feel like it “fails”? Or maybe just that you couldn’t easily see how you were going to make it work in a way that was going to satisfy you and you had to sweat through that on stage? It sounds like that hasn’t happened.

JF: Oh, it happens and of course I blame myself. To the extent that I take credit when it works well, I also blame myself when I think it isn’t funky. I’m highly self-critical and I also have this absurd metric where I want it to be as danceable as my favorite dance track, even though that was worked over in a studio for three weeks and I have five minutes in front of people. I do have to scramble, and a lot of it has to do with timing. It’s also a question of how well I can hear, because it’s a most unforgiving set up in terms of monitoring.

If you’re in a rock band, or even if you’re playing from a score in a formal concert setting, you know your instrument is tuned. You know where the underlying beat is. You know what the conductor’s doing. You know where your hands are. You’re okay, even if you can’t hear that great. In a rock band, things are loud and chaotic, but your guitar has frets and you have your tuner. You feel the kick drum. You’re good to go. But with me, I don’t know what my instrument is until I’m on stage with it. I’m taking a piece of radio, usually around one second, and I cut it into eight bits and deploy them. I need to get a sense of how they differ from each other and what they sound like, and then decide how I want to further deploy them and transpose them. I have to hear them really well. I can’t decide that since my finger’s on the right fret and I know my telecaster and it’s in tune, that I’m okay. I’m kind of sunk. So it really depends on them.

MS: Why is the dancing so core to you?

JF: It’s a metric that I can believe in, and it’s so great to have that metric as a composer. I almost feel a little embarrassed because it’s so basic. A lot of my favorite music has never been assessed on the basis of whether or not people dance, and it’s successful on the basis of much more subtle things, but I’m in this situation.

But in addition to that metric, I love dancing. I sometimes find myself bopping my head in music concerts when it’s not really thought of as head-bopping music, but I’m hearing a pulse. Okay, maybe in that situation, maybe you could argue that I’m missing something. But there are many cases where I feel like no, I’m not. I am moved and I’m moving, and I’m immersed and involved. And I just love it.

And when the emotion isn’t completely positive, when it’s not just catharsis or love, when it’s sad, angry, difficult, and it’s danceable, oh that’s so powerful. It’s dark, but there’s this cathartic dancing. It can work so, so well. And I go out dancing; I’m still going to clubs. I feel a connection to that culture or cultures. I am also looking forward to going back to other stuff. There are areas I want to go with it that aren’t quite so dance-y, but the initial concept is so focused on that, mostly because of this idea of a metric.

And what a great guide it is. Because otherwise, if I was going to do a sound collage with radio and sophisticated algorithms, it doesn’t matter where you go with it. To put RADIO WONDERLAND through this almost absurd metric of having to be done in real time, without choice of material, and have it be danceable, to sort of make it through to the other side gives me these incredibly powerful tools, software which I intend to finally further develop now that I have the album out. I think I’ll be able to do longer-scale things and different time scales. It won’t be as much about dancing, which is a little bit like the dance music artists that branch out.

I kind of imagine that trajectory. This first album is basically a bunch of dance tracks with kind of a slower one at the end, but even the slower one at the end has this boom-boom bass drum. I like that trajectory, not because it matches to some sort of commercial flight pattern, but artistically, that discipline and those rules are putting me in a great position for the next step.

It’s a little bit like my performance technology which, believe it or not, does not allow me to loop anything that I have just played. It allows me to loop what was just on the radio, but when I process the radio with the shoe or the wheel, that doesn’t loop. It’s crazy if you think of the current state of Ableton Live and live processing technology, which is all about the live looping. You’re a soloist with your instrument and a bunch of pedals and software. You play your thing, you loop your thing, you play over the thing you looped. I don’t do that with RADIO WONDERLAND. If I’m not hitting the shoe, that sound doesn’t come out, and it has been such a discipline over the past few years to perform that way.

Now I’m ready to revise my software and say okay I’m going to include the ability to retain that pattern. When I transpose on the wheel, I’ll make a riff, and here’s this piece of radio, it’s deployed over one bar. It’s got some nice syncopation, but it’s all taken from one second of radio. Then I transpose it with the wheel, so all of sudden we have a four-bar phrase, and it’s fun, it’s tonal, and there’s something cool about the transition because it’s transposing a whole chord, which is a little bit like classic house music where there’s a sample and the musician just has one finger on the keyboard and they’re transposing the sample of that. That’s part of the house music sound that I really like. I do that with the wheel, right now, but if I have that four-bar pattern, it stops being a four-bar pattern when I turn away from the wheel and go back to the shoes, or what have you. But it’s been I think a more interesting, at least for now, that I got to this point without these various crutches or enhancements.

Fried's software

MS: So you’ve mentioned a few times since we’ve started the milestone position this record has in your mind. Let’s talk about the fact you have a new record out.

JF: That’s right.

MS: Congratulations!

JF: Thank you very much.

MS: Why did this record become so important for you? Every bit of the philosophy you’re underlining here is how exciting it is that it’s live. It’s live radio. You’re doing all the processing live. Why the hell did you want to make a record?

JF: You know, it’s funny, the turntablist Maria Chavez has talked about how she does not release recordings. And boy, I respect that. I’m a good candidate for not releasing recordings, but I wanted to. For one thing, and I’m glad you reminded me of this, one of the motivations of RADIO WONDERLAND was to become prolific because my process became slower and slower. I had this thing that became Headset Sextet. I finished it—or so I thought—in ’94, and then about three days before the opening night at La MaMa, I realized no, this is too good not to make it right. So I renamed it Work In Progress, and then I spent about another five years revising it, but the time scale is indefensible. It’s just absurd, but I’m proud I finally finished it.

But with RADIO WONDERLAND, I thought okay, let this be a ticket to being prolific. The album is part of that process. Can I be prolific in that I generate this new material and can have it out on recordings, which do this great job of representing you when you’re not there playing it? I never had a full album out, which seems crazy because in the ‘80s I had a record deal on a major label. I worked on remixes for famous recording artists. I work with recording technology, and yet I didn’t have my own album.

So the emotional stakes became kind of high, and it’s too bad because I’m older now, and maybe I’m less resilient as far as the sheer emotional strain of getting it all done. Part of the test of RADIO WONDERLAND is: Are these algorithms, or the algorithms plus me manipulating them, are they so robust that this can be a dance groove even without the loud PA and me up there in the excitement and electricity of live radio? I love that electricity. I live for it, and it is still fundamentally a live show. But I wanted to put it to that test.

Given that I wanted this album to sound good to my ears, I knew there was going to be some post-production. Well, how much? That is something I had to answer by doing it. One thing I’m happy about—and this had a lot to do with my co-producer Marcelo Anez—is that each track really is taken from a single concert without any non-radio overdubs. Some of it is highly processed—more processed by a long shot than anything I was able to do on stage. But a lot of this extra processing I can do on stage in the future. So it’s somewhat of a prospectus for new projects.

seize the means cover

Listen/Buy via Clang/iTunes/Spotify. Also available on vinyl or USB drive. No CDs!

MS: What about that fact that you’re going back and revisiting the work for this, because you’ve avoided that in the live version quite explicitly. It was all about the new, the first brush, and now you’re going back and not just looking at them once, but looking at them many times as you crafted them into an album.

JF: Well, I did resist that. I did a sort of test album—it was just three songs—a few years ago, where I chose three different concerts that I edited, not very carefully. I have hundreds of concert recordings, so isn’t it the perfect test of RADIO WONDERLAND to pick concerts at random and see how well they work as recordings? That was really dumb. What I want to do is choose the best concerts, and for me, a lot of that was the best grooves. It makes it a heck of a lot easier to go through hundreds of hours of concerts when you’re looking for good grooves, as opposed to simply looking for the best music. In order to favorably represent RADIO WONDERLAND, I realized what I had to do was listen more and edit less. So I went through and listened and listened and listened, and chose the best shows, the ones which needed the least amount of editing. And that felt fine. I’m very focused on live and real time and all the ephemeral stuff that we talked about, but I also like to geek out in a studio. I’ve long used recording technology and I love making records. This was a good reason to go and get into that headspace.

Some of the issues that I had to address on the album were almost purely technical having to do with the low end, and I can address that with the next iteration of the software, and that’s a really exciting prospect. So maybe instead of working on a track for three weeks before it’s really ready for a final mix, I can work on a track for a day before it’s ready for a final mix. My fantasy is that I will be able to put out as a live recording whatever I did that night without any post-production.

MS: But weren’t you distilling to a larger degree, because these tracks are like seven minutes, and it does seem like there’s a ritual to RADIO WONDERLAND performance. I don’t know if they’re always 30 minutes, but it has that kind of scope. And then you’re condensing it in some way.

JF: Oh, absolutely. Part of the process is to distill a 30-minute concert into a four- to eight-minute album track and not to pretend that they’re mini RADIO WONDERLAND concerts. The idea is to take a half hour to create a great groove, and that’s going to create a monster five-minute radio mix and twelve-minute remix of a dance track. It is perhaps an easy adjunct to the RADIO WONDERLAND concert format, but that is the needle I seem to be trying to thread. And it’s worked out okay. But you’re absolutely right. That’s a crucial part of it. Yes, I’m condensing them.

Oh, you brought that up because I was talking about releasing a live concert as is. Yeah, that would have to be a different thing. But that’s not what the album was. The album was to see, if I throw you right into the middle of the groove, is this going to make sense without the construction of the groove and without me jumping around and spinning wheels and stuff?

Fried's desk

Michael Torke: Life After the Ceremony of Innocence

Composers who are still in their 20s and early 30s have arguably never been as prominent as they are right now. But what will happen to them when they turn 40? Or 50? The future is impossible to predict with any certainty, though there will likely be many different scenarios—some composers will remain very strongly in the public eye, others will remain active though less visibly so, and a few will probably drop off the radar altogether. In, say, the year 2036, many listeners might be more focused on the young composers of their own time, some of whom have not yet been born. (I won’t even venture a guess as to what kind of interface those listeners will employ to hear this music.)

But only a generation ago, most composers were ignored until they turned at least 40—orchestras would not program their music, opera companies would not commission them, publishers refused to sign them, radio stations would not play their recordings (if there were recordings), and on and on. In a field that has long been dominated by tried and true repertoire, taking a chance on someone who had not been sufficiently vetted was long deemed too much of a risk. Of course, the history of Western classical music has had some very famous exceptions to this paradigm and the boy wonder Mozart remains the standard-bearer for many music lovers. But again, what if Mozart had lived beyond the age of 35? Would that have changed the way we think about his music today? This question, of course, is completely unanswerable. (At least, we will know how today’s wunderkind composers will fare twenty years from now—in 2036!)

All of these questions were on my mind when, after many years, I finally had a chance to have a long talk with Michael Torke in his small studio apartment overlooking the United Nations where he spends a little less than half of the year. (The rest of the time he’s based in Las Vegas.) Torke is someone I have known and whose music I have admired for decades. And once upon a time—actually back when we were both in our 20s—he was a towering figure in the new music community. At the age of 21 and while he was still an undergrad at Eastman, Torke’s Ceremony of Innocence—a 22-minute quintet—was performed at Tanglewood. Another one of his undergrad compositions, Vanada, received its premiere at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. Early into his first year of grad school at Yale, a major international publisher—Boosey & Hawkes—began courting him. Then after dropping out of Yale and moving to New York City, a whirlwind of activities occurred in rapid succession. An orchestra piece of his was performed at Carnegie Hall and he ssigned with Boosey. At 25, he became the de facto composer-in-residence for the New York City Ballet, and before he turned 30, he was given an exclusive contract on a major international recording label, London/Decca’s Argo imprint (which was owned by Universal Music Group), and the CDs they issued of his music were in regular rotation on many classical radio stations all over the world. While Torke was still in his early 30s, which was around the time I first met him, an opera of his was televised in the UK and he was even commissioned to write an orchestra piece for the opening of the Olympics in Atlanta.

“There was a lot of attention towards me,” Torke acknowledges at the outset of our free-ranging conversation. “I’m in my 50s. I’m not quite one foot in the grave, but it does kind of feel like it’s all over. I’m glad that the royalties will pay my bills and that I have enough new work, but boy, it sure seems like a different world we’re living in.”

But of course it’s far from all over. About a month ago I heard a new recording featuring David Alan Miller conducting the Albany Symphony Orchestra in two recent Torke concertos. I was floored by the music and was determined to finally have a chat with him about it in front of a video camera. In these works, Torke seamlessly synthesizes the frenetic pop-savvy process-driven post-minimalism of the music for which he first became known (pieces like Vanada, as well as The Yellow Pages, Bright Blue Music, Slate, and—a piece I still treasure more than almost anything—Four Proverbs) with an expansive romanticism that is more akin to standard repertoire classical music. This is the music that had been his first love growing up and he actually first attempted to incorporate such a sound world into his own musical vocabulary back in the 1990s, but was ultimately not satisfied with the results.

“I wrote a piano concerto that I called Bronze,” he remembers. “I performed it myself at Carnegie Hall and then I wrote something that Lincoln Kirstein commissioned, Mass. Both were kind of regressive, because I thought I wanted to write a piece that sounds like it’s in that era. Why not? You know, we live in a post-modern time where history means nothing. And if they’re doing it in the visual arts, we should do it. Those pieces, of course, failed miserably.”

There have been many other transformations for Torke since that time as well. At the dawn of the 21st century, after releasing five all-Torke CDs, Decca/London discontinued Argo. Suddenly all of Torke’s recordings were out of print. It took him a few years, but by 2003 he was eventually able to license and re-issue them all on his own Ecstatic Records label, an outlet that serves as the repository for most of the subsequent recordings of his more recent music. In 2004, he completely severed his ties with Boosey & Hawkes, becoming fully self-published through his own company, Adjustable Music. Torke’s emergence as a completely DIY composer might ultimately prove to be a prescient business decision now that the music business has changed so much.

“All those industries have collapsed,” he claims. “Boosey is a ghost of what it was. If you’re a composer signed by Boosey, the kind of promotion that they would do for you today is a fraction of what they did for me back in the ‘80s. They worked hard on my behalf and I’m so grateful. It was just thrilling what they did. … And at one time, there were the big record labels. They still exist, but thanks to the digital revolution that all has collapsed, too. … There were these big institutions that were gatekeepers and it was highly criticized, because there were the select few and if you were a Boosey & Hawkes composer, you were suddenly promoted around the world. If you had a record contract, people knew of you. If you didn’t, what options did you have? So it seemed really undemocratic. It seemed unfair. It seemed like there were tastemakers making these decisions that could be wrong. It seemed almost corrupt. Now we have the democracy of the digital world. Everyone is on equal footing. The problem with that is that who are the tastemakers?”

These days, Torke maintains a careful balancing act between writing music and getting it out into the world. As he explains:

When I have a new release, I send it with personal letters to the music directors of 250 classical radio stations. And they write back and say, “We loved hearing from you. We’ll take a listen.” And then when it’s on the radio six to twelve months later, I see it on my BMI statements. There still is money there. And that helps also because, who knows, some choreographer’s driving down Highway 1 in California, and they hear it and then that might lead to some dance piece that would have grand rights. So the publishing is still really important in classical music. And I’m still able to monetize it to the extent that I can make a living at it. … I would say it’s probably three-fifths composing and two-fifths doing the business side. I keep a stopwatch so I keep track of all of this.

It’s a sobering wake-up call about the real life of a composer who is still at the top of his form and wants to remain in the game. And while it’s a far cry from what many composers initially experience in the ceremonies of innocence through which they are first welcomed into the music community—that first big award, the initial commission, the early critical raves—it is the future for the overwhelming majority of people who write music. But still, if there’s a way to get it to reach people, like the early works of Michael Torke so convincingly did and like his recent works should, it is totally worth it.

Michael Torke in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
at Torke’s Tudor City pied-à-terre in New York City
September 28, 2016—1:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  These days there’s a ton of attention being paid to younger composers—both in terms of how many of them are being commissioned by high-profile institutions and how many are covered in what’s left of the media. Once upon a time, composers never seemed to be paid attention to until after they were 40 years old, more likely 50.  Although you were the exception to that rule—you were a super star in your early 20s. But now you’re in your 50s.

Michael Torke: I feel disconnected from everything. That might be partly because of the decisions I’ve made.  I don’t have a teaching position.  I’m not married.  I’m not raising a family.  I live in two places. Whenever I’m in Las Vegas, people think I don’t live in New York.  And when I’m here, all my Las Vegas friends forget about me.  You can be kind of incognito, which serves me well because I like privacy.  I like to work on my projects. Promotion is something I find really grating. I don’t really like to do that.  Maybe I’m just getting old.

I was unaware of the fact that everyone is heralding young composers.  This is news to me, but maybe it helps explain things. When thinking about conductors, I knew that there was this cult of the young.  And so maybe that does relate to what you’re saying, the cult of the younger composers.  Here I’m in my 50s. I’m not quite one foot in the grave, but it does kind of feel like it’s all over.  I’m glad that the royalties will pay my bills and that I have enough new work, but boy, it sure seems like a different world we’re living in.  We live in a new century, a new time.  Maybe this is one reason that there’s a lot of attention paid to the younger generation, if that is true.  I’m not really complaining, it just feels different.

When I was in my 20s, there was a lot of attention towards me.  I remember at the time what some people said when Boosey & Hawkes decided to sign a younger composer.  This was at a time when they weren’t doing that.  They had done some recent signings—it was around the time when they got Leonard Bernstein and Elliott Carter. Steve Reich was maybe the youngest one that they were looking at.

A picture of a very young Michael Torke.

This is one of the earliest press photos of Michael Torke.

FJO:  Aside from it being extremely out of the ordinary that they found you so early, though, what is perhaps even more unusual I think, now decades later, is the actual music you were composing at that time. It is very strong music and of course you still acknowledge it and it still gets performed, but you were still a student when you wrote some of it, like Vanada.

MT:  I was an undergraduate at Eastman. Then I went to Yale for one year and I wrote The Yellow Pages and Ecstatic Orange, and then after one year, I came to New York and got out of graduate school. Not that I hated school, although I was tired of it, but there were things that were happening—Boosey & Hawkes, New York City Ballet wanting to do stuff, commissions were coming in. So I thought I could try making a career of it in the city that I wanted to be in.

FJO:  So, to step back.  There are only two pieces in your catalogue prior to Vanada: the solo piano piece, Laetus, which I’ve studied the score of although I’ve never heard anyone play it; and Ceremony of Innocence, which was played at Tanglewood and won a BMI Student Composer Award. Those couldn’t have been Opus One and Two.  What were you doing before that?

MT:  I started composing at age five and had private lessons starting from about seven.  I was writing pieces all the way through. When I was the bassoonist in our youth orchestra in Milwaukee, I convinced the conductor to have me write a piece for them.  And he was like, “O.K., we’ll do it!”  That was in my youth of being very pushy with everything. I remember they were doing the Bartók Third Piano Concerto and I said, “So the soloist comes in the week before.  I know the piece.  How about I come in and rehearse with you?”  “Oh, you’d do that for us?”  So I got to do it.  I was always doing things like that—pushing and pushing and pushing. Maybe that’s the difference today, just being off in another orbit.

So I was writing pieces. Most of them were chamber pieces, but the first orchestra piece was the one for that youth orchestra. They played it and it got a review in The Milwaukee Journal.  It was kind of cool. I was in high school. Then I went to the Interlochen Music Festival for two summers, ’77 and ‘78, and wrote pieces there.  One composition won all the awards that you could win as a teenager. I would enter and so the name was starting to get around.  Then I went to Eastman.  But all of those pieces were kind of juvenilia.  They were written in a kind of a neo-classic style.  I love Stravinsky and Bartók.  I remember my first day at Eastman [being asked], “What composers do you like?”  Stravinsky and Bartók is what I used to say.  And they’re still favorite composers of mine.  That hasn’t changed.  But the music has changed.

FJO:  So you didn’t say Chaka Khan.

MT:  No, that came later.  I was a classical music nerd and didn’t know a lot about pop music, so when I started listening to it seriously, in about junior to senior year at Eastman, I thought about it in a different way from my classmates who grew up with pop music.  That was kind of why it made such an impact.

FJO:  But how could you grow up in the United States in the ‘70s and not hear pop music?

I was a classical music nerd and didn’t know a lot about pop music, so when I started listening to it seriously I thought about it in a different way.

MT:  I did, obviously.  Everyone does.  But I didn’t take it seriously.  I thought that there was this dichotomy—classical music was the real stuff and popular music was the stuff that you hear on the radio and on TV all the time.  I wanted to be a serious guy.  That was how I thought as a 14-year old.  Then when I was at Eastman, I thought about things like why is it that so much contemporary music, especially touched by modernism, seems to come at the ear at a distance [stretches his hand far away].  It’s way out here and you think about it, and then you enjoy it.  And then I said, if you listen to Tchaikovsky, it’s here [moves his hand closer toward him].  You think about it, and you enjoy it.  And if you listen to pop music, it’s here [moves hand right up to his face].  That seems to be a quality that is important.  So we should embrace whatever that is.  That was the thing that got me going.

FJO:  It wasn’t also the excitement of the actual sound of the music you were hearing?

MT:  Well, yeah.  I don’t know quite what makes it here [gestures hand in front of his face again].  It’s very presentational, and it’s short.  It doesn’t develop, and it’s disposable.  Those were qualities that I admired, but I wasn’t interested in disposability.  I wasn’t interested in non-development.  Modernism taught us that we have to find new ways to express things, even if they’re difficult to hear.  And I was thinking popular music isn’t difficult to hear and yet it seems to resonate with the culture.  So, why is difficulty a virtue?  I didn’t understand that.

FJO:  I’m not sure I know what that word disposable means.  I’m not sure that those folks who were doing it would have considered what they’re doing to be disposable.  And certainly now, 50 years later, the music of Elvis and The Beatles has probably continued to resonate with people more than any of the other music that was written at that time.

MT:  One could say that those are the exceptions, but in classical music, all this stuff that survived from the 19th century were the exceptions, too.  So, you can’t make that argument.  But I think that if you were a songwriter in the 1970s and you were writing a lot of songs, you wanted to get into the Top 40.  You wanted to make a lot of publishing money. Then three years later, if it was never done again, that wouldn’t bother you.  That was the nature of the business.  Whereas, I don’t think anyone writing a symphony would say, “Oh, I hope I hear it twice, and I hope I never hear it again.”  Or let’s say, if you never heard it again, that would bother you.  You would say, “Well, maybe that symphony isn’t working.”  So I think there was a difference.

FJO:  It’s very funny you say that.  Lewis Spratlan, who won the Pulitzer Prize in the year 2000, said to me back then that after he got a performance of a piece of his he would move on to the next piece and not worry about the older pieces. He was somebody who really did not push his music, although he has always been extremely dedicated to his craft and is extremely skilled at what he does. Some of these pieces are extraordinary, and people have only started to become aware of them since he won the Pulitzer. There were very few recordings of any of his music before that.

MT:  So maybe it didn’t bother him.

FJO:  I don’t think it did.  In fact, the piece that wound up winning the Pulitzer was something that he wrote in the 1970s for an opera company that folded and so it was never done.  A quarter-century later, a concert version of the second act was performed by Dinosaur Annex in Boston and that’s how he won the Pulitzer, but it was due to the advocacy of Scott Wheeler, who had been one of his students, not him.

MT:  But here’s the difference.  When that guy in the ‘70s was trying to write Top 40 for radio, he was interested in one thing.  Not artistic expression.  He was interested in money.  Lewis Spratlan wasn’t interested in money. He was interested in artistic expression.  And those are two big differences.

FJO:  Wow, I think there were plenty of songwriters who cared more about artistic expression than money.

MT:  Like James Taylor, he’s interested in expression.  O.K., you’re right. But I do think all of those guys had a more commercial edge.  Even The Beatles, when John Lennon had ten years of doing his solo work, he was like, “Why don’t I have a number one hit?”  And I thought, “You don’t need a hit; you’ve accomplished everything.” Then I realized, “Oh, it’s because he’s doing commercial music.”

FJO:  Well, did he want the money from the hit or did he want the popularity?

MT:  It’s different, but it goes hand in hand.  Again, that isn’t something the classical guys are thinking about.  Fandom?  I mean, maybe the younger composers are today.  Maybe Verdi did.  But is anyone writing to have millions of people throw themselves at you? That’s a different impulse, isn’t it?

FJO:  You don’t think that Stockhausen was all about having fans, and the cult of personality?

MT:  I do think that modernism had this great alliance with fashion in a kind of weird way, so yes. But anything post-modern, I don’t know.  Maybe I have to think more about it.  I do think that there are different impulses going on.  I like that you’re challenging me.

Michael Torke sitting on the couch in his New York apartment.

FJO:  Alright, let’s accept it for what it was in your mind back then. So you have this epiphany. All of a sudden you’re listening to this music that’s here for you and is very immediate.  And you think that as a composer, you need to do this, too—not out of an interest in being rich and famous, but simply to write a really good piece that reaches people in an immediate way.  So what did that mean to you as a composer?  How did that change what you were writing?

MT:  It meant that we needed to hear what was going on, rather than think about it. Other composers have said this better than me. I was hugely influenced by minimalist composers like Reich and Glass.  They said, “I want to write something with a key signature.  I want to write something with rhythms you can understand.  I want to write something where the melodic contour could be easily understood.” These are things where the elements of the music are much closer.

FJO:  For Glass and Reich, it was essential that the structure of the piece was audible.  Back in the so-called classical period, most pieces had very discernible structures.  It got very complicated in later generations, but if you grew up with that music and were immersed in it, you could always tell when the themes come back in a Haydn symphony.  But I think Glass and Reich took that idea of an audible structure much further by the way they used repetition—a phrase getting longer and longer in Glass’s early music or two voices going out of phase with each other in Reich.  You can hear that happening even if you’ve never studied music theory.  What you were doing with your early pieces is a fascinating extension of that concept—repeating a phrase and then making one or a few notes in it a half-step sharp or flat by changing keys, which alters where the melody sits in relation to the tonic center. It’s a completely new approach to harmonic modulation.

MT:  You can modulate by taking your material and going up a fifth. That’s transposing.  But what if you had all the same notes on the staff, but just changed the key signature? That would throw off all the intervals, because you’re introducing differences in the seven steps of the scale.  The half-steps are now falling in different places.  It’s a small change. If you went through the cycle of fifths by just changing the key signatures rather than changing the notes, you would come up with something that you could hear and that would be something a little bit different—fresh, or whatever you want to say.  So that was the idea.  Again, it was trying to find a new way to put notes together that didn’t need to be explained.  It’s fun to explain it, but it could be heard right away.

FJO:  The time when you were writing that stuff, we now look back on it historically and describe it as post-minimalism.  But when you were doing this initially, you were still a student and minimalism still wasn’t really looked on favorably in many academic establishments. It was talked about disparagingly, if at all. I wonder how aware you were of other composers who were trying to take the next logical step after minimalism.

MT:  Was I aware of it?  Well, insofar as I was aware of John Adams’s music. At the time, he was said to be a second generation minimalist.  You remember that?  I think it’s really funny, because we lump them all together now.  Well, maybe we don’t.  Anyway, I wasn’t aware of what other people were doing so much.  My idea was to invent new ways to put notes together.  I didn’t care if anyone else was doing something; I just wanted to do my own thing.  That was the point of view.

FJO:  So how did your composition professors react to that?  I remember reactions to minimalist-inclined music at Columbia when I was an undergrad.  It mostly wasn’t friendly.

MT:  Well, I went to places that were very open-minded.  Remember, at Eastman, you got a different teacher every year.  There was a visiting professor who was very resistant and that’s a story we can tell off-camera.  But, in my senior year when I was working on Vanada, I had Christopher Rouse as a teacher and he was a huge influence in shaping that piece.  I originally had that opening material and then I went into a softer kind of slower second group, and he said, “Why do you go into a new tempo?  It should all just be one thing.”  One tempo, one idea, monothematic, and I thought, “That is a strong idea.  I’m going to do it.”  I have Chris to thank for that.  It actually has nothing to do with minimalism, even though you might say that it does.  It was unifying the focus of what I was trying to say.  And so, thank you Chris.

FJO:  What’s so interesting about this is his own compositional aesthetics are very different from yours.  He writes very expansive music. But I suppose, now that I think about it, his music has an insistency that relates it to what you ultimately did in that piece, at least conceptually if not aurally.

I thought that if you want to make a career, if you want to get out there, focus in on your strengths.

MT:  Yeah, our music sounds very different, but you can trace back the similarity of focus and drive.  Then at Yale working with Jacob Druckman, he just loved everything that there was.  One of the great educators, so open.  I had another teacher who said, “Well Michael, let’s concentrate on your weaknesses.  I see you haven’t written any vocal music.  I see you haven’t written for solo cello.  Why don’t you do that?”  And I remember thinking, because I was always so arrogant, why would you focus in on your weaknesses?  That didn’t make any sense.  I thought that if you want to make a career, if you want to get out there, focus in on your strengths.  Then I thought, well, as an academic, for education, he is saying a very prudent thing.  But as someone who wants to strike out, you can see why I would be resistant.  That’s why I only lasted a year at Yale.

FJO:  Now, were you there at the same time as—

MT:  Julia Wolfe.  We were classmates.  I didn’t know her that well.  She was always friendly.  I didn’t really make any friends that year.  It was kind of a solitary year.  But she was always filled with wide-eyed energy.  We never got that close, but I always liked her.

FJO:  What’s so interesting is that you, Julia, Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Aaron Kernis are all roughly contemporaneous and you all went to Yale. Even though you all have distinctive compositional voices, you were all responding to similar things.

MT:  Maybe some.

FJO:  Well, for starters, the idea of taking minimalism somewhere else.  And then you all had an openness to popular music and finding ways of incorporating aspects of it into your own music on your own terms.

MT:  I think that’s right.

FJO:  I think that it was the zeitgeist.  But this was obviously before there was a Bang on a Can and there was no codification of this kind of eclecticism.

MT:  Right.  David, Aaron, and Michael were all just a little bit older.  At the time when I graduated from Eastman, I had an offer to go to Columbia.  And remember, my dream was to live in New York—that was the end all, be all.  So of course I’m going to accept Columbia.  And everyone said, “No, you’ve got to go to Yale.  That’s where the things are happening.”  People like David Lang, who I knew from Aspen and we overlapped at Tanglewood together in 1983.

FJO:  When Ceremony of Innocence was performed there.

MT:  That’s right.  David said, “You’ve got to go to Yale.  Are you out of your mind?”  So, at the last minute, I called back Yale and said, “Is your offer still standing?  And if is it, I’d like to come.”

FJO:  Was Martin Bresnick the connector for everybody?  Or was it Jacob Druckman?

MT:  They were both talked about as being people you should work with.  But at the time, Jacob was the king of the new music world.  He was writing an opera for the Met.  He was the composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic and was running the Horizons concerts there.   It seemed like he had his finger on the pulse of everything.  What I didn’t know was how open-minded and enthusiastic he was about everything.  I thought, “Well, he’s kind of a neo-Berio guy with his music,” but no—his music was one thing; his world view was really wide.

FJO:  Just as your music starts getting paid attention to in the so-called real world, you drop out of school and you move to New York, but then it seems like all these significant milestones in your career start happening all at once.  The commissions from the New York Youth Symphony and the Brooklyn Philharmonic, so you have a performance of your music at Carnegie Hall and another one under the direction of Lukas Foss, who was extremely influential. You’d already had your music performed at Tanglewood.  Soon after that, Boosey & Hawkes approaches you.  Then New York City Ballet enters the picture.  Things that other people wait decades to have happen in their lives seemed to happen to you in only six months.

MT:  The other component, which was a little bit later, was when Decca Records decided to do the imprint of Argo and Andrew Cornall took an interest in me. Imagine a guy coming to New York, taking you out for dinner, and saying, “We’d like to record all your music.”  That will never happen again.  It never happened before.  It’s ridiculous and of course, relatively speaking, that was short lived—from ’89 until maybe you could say ’97—but still it was so crucial for getting the music out.  Another thing that happened in 1985 right when I got to New York was the ISCM World Music Days.  Do you know that festival?  Is it still going on?

FJO:  I’m now on their executive committee.

Imagine a guy coming to New York, taking you out for dinner, and saying, “We’d like to record all your music.” That will never happen again.

MT:  Oh, good.  Congratulations.  I have to thank them because they picked Vanada to be done at the Kleine Zaal at the Concertgebouw.  It was the first trip I ever made to Europe.  This was in October of 1985, and what I learned later was that Boosey & Hawkes heard about it and they were there at that concert.  That was one of the key things making them interested.  It was a real turning point, which I didn’t know.  I just was excited.  It was a good performance, I was excited to be in Europe; I met a lot of people there.  But that was key.

FJO:  This is great to hear.  Ellen Taaffe Zwilich credits the performance of her String Quartet at the 1976 ISCM World Music Days in Boston, which was the only time it ever happened officially in the United States, with putting her music on the map. It’s very interesting to hear how many people’s careers were established this way. Of course, you know that Boulez’s Le Marteau Sans Maître was premiered at the World Music Days back in the 1950s and so was the Berg Violin Concerto, in 1936, the year after Berg died?

MT:  Are you serious? I didn’t know that. That’s huge.

FJO:  You’re in illustrious company.

MT:  Yeah.

FJO:  And it’s interesting that this is what put you on the radar of Boosey & Hawkes.

MT:  There’s also another element.  I went to the MacDowell Colony for the first time in June of 1984.  This is before I started Yale.  And who should be there among the composers but David Del Tredici, whose music I admired.  To me, he was a superstar.  At the time, he was a celebrity in my mind.  I just couldn’t imagine I’d be in the same room with David Del Tredici.  We played four-handed piano together.  And I was like, boy he’s so friendly.  What I learned was that David Huntley at Boosey & Hawkes said to David Del Tredici, “Can you secretly get some scores of Michael’s? We want to look at them, but we don’t want to ask him because we don’t want him to know that we’re interested.“ And so David said, “Could I have some scores?”  I said, “Sure, why not?”  So that was happening behind the scenes. It’s weird, because that would have been before ISCM, so I don’t know how it was that they had first heard my music.

FJO:  I imagine someone from Boosey & Hawkes attended the ASCAP Young Composer Awards and BMI Student Composer Awards ceremonies. Reps from the major publishers still attend them. And you won both of these awards. Ceremony of Innocence won.  Someone probably also showed up at Tanglewood when Ceremony of Innocence was performed there.

MT:  Yeah, that could be.  And then Vanada won, too.

FJO:  Often pieces win these awards before they ever get performed. Did Vanada win before or after it was played at ISCM?

MT:  It won before it was played.

FJO:  That’s probably why they showed up at ISCM, to hear it.

MT:  Yeah, maybe.

FJO:  Very interesting.  I want to talk about the recordings, but I want to stay with publishing and with orchestral performances a bit more, because all this happened before you were 25. Nowadays, as I said at the beginning of our conversation, everybody’s programming emerging composers, but back then it was really not the way business was done.

MT:  Certainly in classical music, there was so much emphasis on the older people doing it.  So that was unusual from the publishing point of view.  But then Peter Martins went to Boosey & Hawkes and said, “Who is the young Stravinsky?”  That was, I think, what he said.  Well, there is no young Stravinsky, but they said, “We’re interested in this person who we are now representing.  Take a listen.”  So he purposely asked to work with someone young.  O.K., that’s outside of music, but there was always interest in youth, because if you have a relationship with someone young that can last, it’s like putting a young judge on the Supreme Court, it’s going to last for a long time.  You know, it’s a good investment.

FJO:  But maybe part of why that was happening and maybe why a lot of young composers then weren’t being paid attention to is because the whole self-publishing thing hadn’t yet exploded. The internet wasn’t around for most people yet.

MT:  Right.

FJO:  So if you wanted to reach someone like Peter Martins at New York City Ballet—

MT:  You couldn’t.

FJO:  Unless you were at Boosey & Hawkes or Schirmer, which had established relationships with all these key tastemakers.

MT:  And you couldn’t reach Boosey & Hawkes.  I had a friend whose dream was to be a Boosey & Hawkes composer.  He said, “Michael, don’t even try.  If you make a submission, it’s going to go nowhere.  I’ve tried a million times.  I have the best connections through Ned Rorem and all of that.”  I didn’t know there was all this behind-the-scenes stuff.  I never wanted to be with a publisher.  Steve Reich and Philip Glass said the only way you’re going to make it is to start your own ensemble and work your ass off for 20 years, and if you’re lucky, at age 40, you might get some attention.  And that was what I wanted to do.  So when Boosey & Hawkes finally came knocking officially, I thought, “Do I even want to talk to them?  Because that isn’t the game plan.”  But they said, “We can do a lot of stuff for you, and in Europe, too.”  And I thought, “How can I say no to that?”  So I said O.K.

FJO:  But other tastemakers were already paying attention to you as well. The endorsement of Lukas Foss was significant; you were an untested composer and you were given the opportunity to write for an orchestra. What’s even more interesting, though, is when young composers get a break to write a first orchestra piece it rarely sounds like their subsequent music since they’re still finding their way.  Yet those early orchestra pieces of yours, Ecstatic Orange and Purple, sound fully formed.  They’re remarkably consistent with your compositional language—clearly extending minimalism on the one hand, clearly acknowledging standard repertoire music, while also embracing the immediacy of pop music and unabashed tunefulness. These are qualities that people associate with your music to this day, but you were only 24 years old at the time.

MT:  Well, I look at it as not really being fully formed at all.  I was just sitting around experimenting. But to the extent that those pieces are still played today, that probably means that they take up some kind of musical real estate.  So I’m grateful that those pieces landed so well.

FJO: The other thing that’s so unusual about these pieces is the whole backdrop of associating different types of musical content with color.

MT:  Synesthesia is this phenomenon of mixing the senses in some primitive part of the brain. In my case, I experience color when I hear music.  I hear it in keys and pitches.  So therefore, the prerequisite is having perfect pitch so that when you hear something you know what key you’re in.  Whether it is a hyper-association I developed at age four or five when I first started listening to music or whether it truly is a physiological phenomenon of truly mixing up the senses, I don’t know. Did you read Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia? I’m in it.

If you write a piece in D major that never modulates, but the piece is only six or seven minutes long, that isn’t some great accomplishment. Try doing that if it were 55 minutes long.

There’s still a lot of investigation into all of this.  Sometimes in my interviews, I put down the whole notion of synesthesia because how it informed my music is very different from what the scientific and musical community who want to talk about synesthesia think.  If I think that D major is blue, to me that’s irrelevant to the world.  In fact, it’s indulgent.  So what.  Big fucking deal.  When I was in school, someone taught me that the way to create form is to establish some kind of concept of a room.  Then you move out of the room, and then you come back in it.  Sonata form is that way.  You have the exposition, the development moves out, and the recapitulation is coming back to that center.  But I said, wait a minute, if you’re at a great party on Saturday night, why would you ever leave the party?  So the idea is why do we need modulation?  Therefore, if D major is blue, and I want to write a piece in blue that never modulates, then what you’re doing is you’re celebrating the non-modulation, so you can call it Bright Blue Music as a way to say something about the form.  That’s what my idea was.  But they don’t want to talk about that. They want to talk about what it’s like to experience blue.  To me, the actual physiology of it is of no interest at all.  To me, it’s the form, whether those pieces work by never modulating. I don’t know.  Modulation is one of the great tools we have as composers.  I don’t believe that it’s some great virtue to never modulate.  I love modulating.  At the time, I was just working on something.  I can be very self-critical.  If you write a piece in D major that never modulates, but the piece is only six or seven minutes long, that isn’t some great accomplishment.  Try doing that if it were 55 minutes long.

When Torke was in his 20s, he explained on Japanese television how his unusual perception of synesthesia relates to his music.

FJO:  But it’s interesting that you were exploring harmonic stasis as well as changing keys without transposing melodies around the same time.

MT:  Well, I was thinking about modulation, I guess.  Or the lack of it.

FJO:  A piece like The Yellow Pages keeps changing keys.  It would be a rainbow if you were going to give it color name.

MT:  Well, the truth is it’s anchored in G major, which is yellow. It modulates, but it comes back. It clearly in my mind is yellow.  Again, these are semantic concepts where I would see if I could make it relate to music.  They’re not always consistent.  It was just the way that it got me to put notes together.

FJO:  Ha, I didn’t realize there was a synesthetic connection with the title.  I thought it was a goof on the fact that the Yellow Pages is a phone book that goes through all different kinds of companies in the same way that you’re going through every key.

He was saying don’t write tonal music. I have no patience for that kind of directive.

MT:  It’s a musical alphabetical order, so it is like the Yellow Pages.  And it’s written in G major, which for me synesthetically is yellow.  Also, I had a professor at Yale who said if you go into the pawnshop of tonality, you pay a steep price.  Well, I just did.  If you went to a pawnshop, all the pages would be yellowed because they would be old.  So that was my little quip on that professor.  Because what he was saying is don’t write tonal music.  I have no patience for that kind of directive, so I was making a joke—an inside joke.

FJO:  The other interesting thing about The Yellow Pages is that it is a piece that you kept thinking about ten years after you initially wrote it when you added two additional movements to it: Blue Pages and White Pages, which is weird because The Yellow Pages was a fully formed piece and was already out there getting performed by different ensembles. But the goal was to create something even more significant, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts—The Telephone Book.  It’s interesting how seamless those three movements fit together even though in the intervening ten years your compositional language had evolved.

MT:  Thank you, but I don’t know if all three work.  There was a dance piece made to all three movements, and that’s when I thought maybe it does work.  But there was some resistance, since The Yellow Pages does its own thing.  Why bring in these other things?  It’s almost like when you make a movie sequel—come on, that’s just a cynical thing of trying to cash in on all of that.  I think that even my publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, was a little resistant.

FJO:  I think this idea of playing out a process three different ways is an innovative way to deal with the structure of a multi-movement piece. So many of your early compositions are single-movement pieces. But there’s another early piece that you originally conceived as a multi-movement piece, Slate, in which you present the exact same material untransposed in four different keys. It takes the concept of The Yellow Pages to yet another level.

MT:  There was joke behind it, too.  Because while working with City Ballet, what I realized is that choreographers listen to the ictus of everything.  They listen to the attacks.  I said arrogantly that they’re not really listening to the harmonies or what’s actually going on in any kind of horizontal way.  That’s a terrible thing to say, because it’s untrue.  They listen to the essence of the music, and they make creative, beautiful pieces for dance.  But in my arrogant state, I said, “What if I wrote four movements where all the attacks were exactly the same, all the orchestration was the same, everything was exactly the same, except I changed the harmonies just slightly?”  That would force a choreographer to concentrate on the harmonies because everything else is the same.  Lincoln Kirstein heard that piece, and he said, “Now that’s an idea.”  That’s what led to him wanting to work with me.  He commissioned the Mass and also he had commissioned another ballet that didn’t happen—he wanted Puss in Boots to be done, but that fell to the wayside.

FJO:  But Slate has lived on as just one of the four movements which is one of the great disappointments for me as a listener since it destroys the whole form of the piece.

MT:  Well, that was in ’89 and around that time Decca came calling.  And Andrew [Cornall] said, “O.K. Michael, it’s an interesting concept.  We’ll record one of the movements.  I guess maybe the first movement would be the best one to record.”  I said, “Couldn’t you record all of them, and even separate them on an album?” No.  That was, you know, God speaking from above. So that’s what we did.

FJO:  Well, now you have your own recording label.

MT:  I could do it.

FJO:  Do it.  Please.

MT:  Thank you, because I kind of thought that idea really failed big time.  I didn’t know whether it was worth doing.

FJO:  It’s totally worth doing.  I’ve looked at the score.  At one point, many years ago, I even convinced you to give me a MIDI-mockup of it and I’ve listened to it. It would be great to hear it with actual musicians.

MT:  All right, I’ll work on that.

The CD cover for the very first all-Torke CD on London/Decca's Argo imprint shows four identical images of Michael Torke with four different color backgrounds.

Curiously, even though the recording of Slate that was released on the very first all-Michael Torke CD on London/Decca’s Argo Records only featured one of the four nearly-identical movements of the piece, the cover for that recording, reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s famous silkscreen portraits of celebrities, consists of four identical images of Torke against four different color backgrounds.

FJO:  Since we’re talking about something you perceived as a failure, even though I don’t think it is, I’d like to get back to this teacher who told you to concentrate on your weaknesses. I’m really glad that teacher told you to write vocal music and that you eventually did since some of my favorite pieces of yours are the vocal ones, especially Four Proverbs. I still hear those tunes in my head more than 20 years later.

MT:  Wow.  Thank you.

FJO:  Part of it is that the melodies are really catchy and they repeat.  But another reason I think is that my brain is trying to process how you matched syllables to pitches, which is very peculiar.

I have these invented ways to push the notes around that I want people to be aware of; I want them to hear it.

MT:  The idea was that I have these invented ways to push the notes around that I want people to be aware of; I want them to hear it.  So you have a little flag attached to every note with the syllable from a proverb, which has incredible meaning, and then they get all mixed, but then they come back together.  I thought that those flags would help the listener’s ears, the reinforcing nature of a word being attached invariantly to a note.  I thought that that would be self-reinforcing and help matters.  If there’s this notion of an additive process in music, what about adding not from the beginning but adding from the end where it’s the last syllable, the last two syllables, and the last three syllables working up this way, so it gets more and more in focus.  That was one thing I played around with.  I played around in the second proverb with the notion of something Robert Morris taught me at Eastman of three levels of hierarchy where mathematically you can have something going at its original duration, and have something happen the exact augmentation above it, and then four times the original where there’s this property where the attacks all line up.  It’s a mathematical thing that he showed me.  And I thought that would work in my music because you could actually hear that.

FJO:  Even though there’s all this math behind it, it’s really effective prosody. You can also hear every word, even if they don’t quite make sense when they’re jumbled up.

MT:  Another piece, Five Songs of Solomon, is kind of like the Slate idea.  I asked Margaret Lloyd, “Which are your two best notes in your range?” And she said, “The E-flat in the top space of the treble staff and the A-flat a fifth below.” So I wrote the same song five times using those intervals.  Everything is the same formally, but they’re all in slightly different keys. It’s exactly like Slate.  When you hear it, it sounds like French salon music, but then, by the time you’re on the third song, you’re like, “Wait a minute!  What’s going on in the meta-thing?”  Then you hear the overall architecture, which I hope is satisfying.

FJO:  Let’s get back to that record company deal with Decca.  How did it happen?

MT:  I don’t know exactly, except that this is the story that I always say: The invention of CDs gave a false feeling to the big record companies that they were more successful than they really were—especially in classical music, because everyone replaced their vinyl with CDs. And all of those big companies said, “Wow, we’ve got a great business. Now that we have all this extra cash, let’s do a new music imprint.”  And Andrew Cornall, who was one of the big Decca producers at the time, said, “I want to run that.”  And so he was given Argo.  And he said, “I want to identify some British composers and American composers.”  At the time, he identified two Americans—Aaron Kernis and me.  And he identified Mark Turnage and now I can’t remember the other guy.  You would know him.

FJO:  Graham Fitkin.

MT:  Yes.  And it seemed like at the outset there were only four composers he was interested it.  Then it got bigger and bigger.  He branched out to people like Michael Daugherty, Julia Wolfe, other people got involved, over in the U.K. even more.  But I don’t know how he got interested in it.  Did Boosey give him stuff?  I had no relationship to Decca or to him.  He was a complete stranger to me.  Once we started working together, it was fabulous. We’re still friends. The Concerto for Orchestra that I wrote for the Liverpool Philharmonic in 2014 was because of him saying, “We want to do some big commissions, so we’ll go to Michael.  I worked with him years ago.” That’s how that came about.

FJO:  Wow. The important connections you establish early on are often the ones that help you throughout your career. A lot of these connections developed because you were a house composer with one of the biggest blue chip music publishers in the world and then had this record contract with one of the world’s largest media conglomerates. But the world has changed and these once seemingly all-powerful publishers and record companies have a lot less influence. At the same time, you’re now self-published and run your own record company.

MT:  All those industries have collapsed.  Boosey is a ghost of what it was.  If you’re a composer signed by Boosey, the kind of promotion that they would do for you today is a fraction from what they did for me back in the ‘80s.  They worked hard on my behalf and I’m so grateful.  It was just thrilling what they did.  I didn’t even know all the things they did for me. My arrogance just took it all in stride.  And at one time, there were the big record labels.  They still exist, but thanks to the digital revolution that all has collapsed.

FJO:  But from being on Decca, you got radio airplay all over the United States—and I imagine all over the world.  It put you on the map with large audiences even more than the orchestra and ballet commissions did. Now there’s also a shift in how the media works.  So reaching an audience requires a completely different strategy, one that hasn’t really been figured out yet despite what some spin doctors claim. Still, some folks today can’t believe the way things used to happen.

There are so many billions of people doing billions of things. What’s good? What’s bad? I don’t know.

MT:  That was the way the world worked.  There were these big institutions that were gate keepers and it was highly criticized, because there were the elect few and if you were a Boosey & Hawkes composer, you were suddenly promoted around the world.  If you had a record contract, people knew of you.  If you didn’t, what options did you have?  So it seemed really undemocratic.  It seemed unfair.  It seemed like there were tastemakers making these decisions that could be wrong.  It seemed almost corrupt.  Now we have the democracy of the digital world.  Everyone is on equal footing.  The problem with that is that who are the tastemakers?  Who are the ones pointing to what you should hear?  I miss going into Tower Records and having, just in the pop world, the new releases.  I knew what to listen to.  How do you follow pop music today?  I don’t even know.  Maybe that’s because I’m old.  Maybe you can just surf around on YouTube.  But there are so many billions of people doing billions of things.  What’s good?  What’s bad?  I don’t know.  That wonderful democracy that we all speak about, I wonder if that goes hand in hand with art, because we’re always trying to make distinctions in art and we had a lot of help in the old century.

FJO:  The other part that we haven’t talked about yet is how to make money in this new environment.  You have your own publishing company.  You have your own record company. Are you able to sell recordings and scores?

MT:  Yeah.  I was lucky because I was set up by the old system where the monetization of what I was doing enabled me to concentrate on composing.  I could make a living at it.  Remember that this digital revolution was gradual.  So, as I was learning about the business, I learned how to monetize what I was doing better and better.  A simple thing like having works going forward from 1992 be my copyrights—rather than Boosey & Hawkes’s copyrights, but they would administrate them—was huge in terms of turning the money around.  But I just didn’t know that.  I learned the whole do-it-yourself thing on the job. So I had a publishing company in 1992.  That was before any of this stuff we’re talking about, so I was set up for that.  But then it occurred to me that I actually could do better than Boosey & Hawkes administrating my copyrights if I had a boutique guy like Bill Holab do it.  That happened as late as 2004 when I was saying no to Boosey even being an administrator.  And the whole recording thing? What’s great is that everyone can make perfect records.  Everyone and their aunt and their aunt’s dog can do that.  That’s really great.  But no one cares anymore.  And there’s certainly no money in it.  So why we make recordings today is as a promotional tool.

The one thing that’s left with recorded music is radio.  Because BMI pays very well with radio.  Better than ASCAP.  So when I have a new release, I send it with personal letters to the music directors of 250 classical radio stations.  And they write back and say, “We loved hearing from you.  We’ll take a listen.”  And then when it’s on the radio six to twelve months later, I see it on my BMI statements.  There still is money there.  And that helps also because, who knows, some choreographer’s driving down Highway 1 in California, and they hear it and then that might lead to some dance piece that would have grand rights.  So the publishing is still really important in classical music.  And I’m still able to monetize it to the extent that I can make a living at it.

A shelf with bundles of Torke CDs grouped together with rubber bands.

FJO:  Now I wonder about the kinds of things that you can do now that you’re on your own and don’t have any gatekeepers telling you what to do, like the kinds of pieces you can write.  You wrote this massive piece for ten pianos a couple of years ago, which I imagine is the kind of piece that a publisher would have rejected out of hand. “Are you out of your mind?  We’ll never be able to get another performance of that!  It’s a one-time deal, so we can’t invest our resources in publishing that.”

MT:  Yeah, right.  The fact is that you don’t have to worry about things like, “Well, we can’t engrave that because no one’s ever going to do it.” It’s already engraved by the time I put the double bar by virtue of the great programs like Sibelius that I use.  But I think even more important than that, which I’m saying in a kind of lopsided way, is that you can do these deals with these funky outfits like this woman who has this zany ten-piano group in Miami and has no money.  How did she hear of me?  She was the rehearsal pianist at the workshop for my Metropolitan Opera commission.  That’s how we met. She called me up a year later and said, “I have this idea for ten pianos.”  I said great.  She raised a little bit of money, and I said the way to make it work is that we’re going to record it right then and there.  We’re going to record the concert, but we’re going to do a patch session, and I want the rights to that recording to put on my label.  And so we did a deal.  I can do the piece, which I thought would be fun, and I could have the recording.  I thought it would an easy piece to monetize.  Think about it.  Every music school, how many pianos do they own?  There’s a piano in every practice room.  What would it take to move ten pianos into one room?  Nothing.  What would it take to get ten pianists?  There’s 50 pianists at every music school.  It should be played across America in every conservatory.  It hasn’t yet, but why couldn’t it?

FJO:  Because most pianists are trained to be soloists and they don’t want to play with anybody else.

MT:  Yeah, well, that kind of idea is going down a little bit.

FJO:  O.K. there are other things.  You’ve written a bunch of band pieces and have issued them as a series.  The big publishers have now caught up with the band world, but once upon a time they totally ignored it and focused mostly on trying to get performances with big orchestras and opera companies. But the band world offers incredible opportunities for composers in terms of getting multiple performances, multiple recordings, and simply selling lots of sets of scores.

MT:  It’s huge and there’s tremendous respect for composers who are doing it well.  They’re like heroes, the real great practitioners like Frank Ticheli or John Mackey or Eric Whitacre.  But I write these weird pieces that are rhythmically difficult, and band directors say, “Oh, I like the sound of it.”  But then they start rehearsing it and then they don’t want to play it.  I have a piece called Bliss that just was re-recorded because I revised it. I sent it to 347 band directors across the country.  That’s me doing what a publisher used to do.  And ten percent wrote back.  One percent said that they might like to play it.  And I think I got maybe three or four rentals.  A friend pointed out that that’s success.  But I thought I would write this—okay, somewhat challenging—piece that every university band would want to play.  And it didn’t quite work out.  So, is that a failure?  No.  Do I stand by the piece?  Yes.  But as far as capitalizing the band market as a way to monetize what we’re doing, I think I’ve failed.

FJO:  Writing personal letters to 347 band directors takes a long time. That’s a lot of time to be taking away from writing music.

MT:  Well, if you don’t, you can’t write music. As my friend Jim Legg once said, you can’t write music 24 hours of the day.  If you don’t have a wife who’s demanding time and you don’t have children’s diapers to change and you don’t have a teaching job, there’s no excuse not to do this stuff.

FJO:  So what’s the balance?

MT:  I would say it’s probably three-fifths composing and two-fifths doing the business side.  I keep a stopwatch so I keep track of all of this.

Michael Torke's spare work desk contains just a lamp, a computer with an oversized monitor; a digital piano is off to the side.

FJO:  I just heard the new recording that the Albany Symphony did of two of your recent concertos even though you don’t call them that.

MT:  That’s true, but that’s what they are.

FJO:  These piece reminded me about a dichotomy that started happening in your music about 25 years ago. Back then it seemed like there were two different Michael Torkes. There was the Michael Torke who did this very-much-part-of-the-zeitgeist, rhythmic, post-minimalist stuff that I personally found very appealing as a composer since it connected to things that I was interested in.  But then there was this other Michael Torke who was really interested in the standard repertoire and wanted to write really lush, romantic music.  Back then there were these distinct polarities, but I think in these pieces you’ve finally merged these two strands somehow.

MT:  If that’s the case, then I’ve finally solved one of the biggest problems of my life, because I think that you’ve identified it.  In 1990, I wrote a piano concerto that I called Bronze.  I performed it myself at Carnegie Hall and then I wrote something that Lincoln Kirstein commissioned, Mass. Both were kind of regressive, because I thought I wanted to write a piece that sounds like it’s in that era.  Why not?  You know, we live in a post-modern time where history means nothing.  And if they’re doing it in the visual arts, we should do it. Those pieces, of course, failed miserably.  They were highly criticized. Boosey & Hawkes did that, too.  So, by 1992, when I wrote the first piece after that little period, which was Music on the Floor, I remember Steven Swartz said, “He’s back to his rigorous style.”  And I thought, “O.K., you tried something and it doesn’t work.  You have the humility to say we all fail, and you move on.”

Pianists need repertory. They’ve run out. In the past, composers fulfilled those needs. Now we’re off doing other things and we say we can never appeal to them.

But look at the industry.  There are incredible piano concertos that all the great soloists play in all the cities and with all the orchestras.  And yet you know, in the Janet Malcolm piece on Yuja Wang that just appeared The New Yorker, she said that she wants to branch out now and maybe play the Messiaen Turangalîla. Well, that’s not a concerto.  It’s good that she’s doing pieces like that, but what she’s really saying—between the lines—is “I’ve run out of pieces to play.  What else am I supposed to do?”  What if someone could write something that is fresh and well-orchestrated, that audiences can get excited about, pianists want to play, and conductors respect, meaning the notes are well put together?  It’s not like you’re going to try to imitate Brahms or Gershwin. All the intellectuals will say, “You can’t just cop another style.”  What if you write it in such a way that people say, “That’s his style”?  You’re fulfilling this thing.  Pianists need repertory.  They’ve run out.  In the past, composers fulfilled those needs.  Now we’re not.  We’re off doing other things and we say we can never appeal to them.  You write some turgid piano concerto or some experimental thing that everyone respects, but who wants to play it?  It may sound cynical, but I’m trying to do a very hopeful thing.

FJO:  It’s so funny to hear you say that since, when we began this thing, you said that you’re in this little corner off to the side.  It sounds like you’re totally in touch with what’s going on.

MT:  I think to have the impulse of trying to write for that industry is out in left field; I don’t know if there’s another composer thinking that way.

FJO:  But if it’s not about being that ‘70s pop songwriter that you don’t want to be who is trying to have a few hits and make money, what’s the reason for doing it?

MT:  So you’ve connected all the dots, Frank. I’ve even thought of that.  What would happen if pianists did play Three Manhattan Bridges and it was circulated in the concert halls around the world?  And there was a 15-year phenomenon where I made a lot of royalties.  Then after that, it was kind of forgotten because maybe I wrote a new concerto or there are other composers doing even better things.  That wouldn’t be so bad.  Because after all, 15 years from now, I will be 70.  And maybe I’ll have slowed down. That might be a nice run.  So maybe I’m thinking exactly like the ‘70s Top 40.  And so maybe that’s the way to go.

The view from the window of Torke's studio apartment showing the United Nations and the 59th Street Bridge.

Part of the time Torke was composing Three Manhattan Bridges was in his New York studio which has this view of the 59th Street Bridge.

Adam Rudolph: Languages of Rhythm

It’s very difficult to categorize Adam Rudolph and that’s perfectly fine with him.

“I prefer not to adhere to the idea of a genre or category,” he advised when we visited him at his home in Maplewood, New Jersey, over the summer. “I think those things exist for the convenience of buying and selling.”

But verbal communication—by its very nature—often involves categorization. It’s how we explain things to each other and try to make sense of the world we live in. And making sense of the world we live in seems to be one of the focal points of Adam Rudolph’s life, even though the way he has chosen to do so is through making music, most of it collaboratively. He could just as well have become a philosopher—he even looks and sounds like one when he speaks—but that would not be hands-on enough for his worldview. As he explained:

[E]verything is vibrating in the universe. So, we’re sitting on this planet. We’re sitting on these chairs. We’re bodies, but when you move into the finer elements of vibration, we can talk about it as thought, or even feeling or spirit. By spirit, I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about mystery. Music is all about communication in this finer element of vibration. But it’s not just words. When you really think about it as a manifestion of what we do, vibration manifests as a duality. That’s what you were referencing. The duality being motion and color, we could say. What motion is, of course, is that we perceive reality temporally, so that has to do with musical terms, what we call rhythm, and how rhythm comes into being. And then the other side is color, which has to do with the overtone series and of course harmony and melody. But the thing is they’re both manifestations of the same thing.

Although Rudolph tries to eschew compartmentalizing music into different genres, he does acknowledge that music has emerged for three distinct purposes among most of the world’s peoples: an “art” or “classical” music which has “a pedagogy associated with it and a certain kind of codification of elements and a class thing about who consumes it”; a “folk” music that comes straight from the people, usually poorer people; and finally, devotional music. But he’s quick to point out that most of his musical heroes—such as John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, and Don Cherry—played all three. All of the musical activities that Rudolph himself engages in blur and merge these demarcation points as well. He has played hand drums and a variety of other percussion instruments both alone and in improvisatory collaboration with others (such as in his duos with Lateef, fellow multi-instrumentalist Ralph Jones, Moroccan Gnawa master Hassan Hakmoun, and Cuban pianist Omar Sosa, as well as in the seminal Mandingo Griot Society he co-founded with Gambian griot Foday Musa Suso in the late 1970s). In the 1980s and ’90s, he composed for and fronted the quartet Eternal Wind, which incorporated instruments from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas; since then he has led an equally eclectic octet called Moving Pictures. He has also composed fully notated chamber works for a variety of ensembles, including the Oberlin Percussion Group and the Momenta String Quartet. Perhaps most importantly, he has established a new kind of orchestra which seamlessly weaves composition and improvisation and has involved musicians from across generations and the world’s musical traditions.

“I was interested in trying to solve the challenge of how you can have as much freedom in this spontaneous compositional setting as possible with a large orchestral ensemble,” said Rudolph. “The Organic Orchestra came about because these musicians were from different backgrounds: people who were trained in so-called classical music; people who were in world music, especially percussion—Indian, African, Indonesian, Middle Eastern musicians; and then people who wanted to expand their conception of so-called jazz, or we’ll call it spontaneous composition American music.”

While Rudolph’s multifarious musical activities seem almost by design to exist beyond labels, in his conception they all relate to one another and speak a common language—call it a language of rhythm or an acknowledgement, through music, of the vibrational forces that are always at play in the universe as he has explained, all of which ultimately derive—at least for him—in the physical gesture of playing hand drums.

[T]here’s no doubt that when the hand strikes the drum it’s a kind of sacred act, because it’s a motion. … If you took that sound and slowed the other waveforms way down that would even be a symphony. That’s what’s being informed through me physically interacting with the wood from the tree and the skin of the animal—the vegetable world and the animal world, all of those things are in the act of playing the hand drums. … It absolutely has informed who I am as an artist and as a person. So it manifests when I write a through-composed string quartet, that activity, the physicality of it. I think about my music as a kind of yoga. … [T]ension and release, moving through different colors, all of these different processes inform one another.


Adam Rudolph in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
at Rudolph’s home in Maplewood, New Jersey
July 15, 2016—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  World music is a label that gets attached to you for a variety of reasons, so I was wondering how you feel about that term.

Adam Rudolph:  I prefer not to adhere to the idea of a genre or category.  I think those things exist for the convenience of buying and selling.  You can go to the fresh vegetable section of the grocery store or the dairy section.  It’s like that.  When I started being interested in doing research and performing in an arena that is now referred to as world music, there was no term like that. But I like even less the word jazz, which has also been attached to my music.  So I don’t know.  We all live in the world.

FJO:  You grew up in Chicago. What was the first music you were exposed to there and how did you get connected to it to the point of wanting to make music yourself? What initially sparked your passion?

AR:  My father was a music lover in the best sense of the word. All his life, he went to at least four or five concerts a week.  Always.  He had an LP collection and it was enormous. He had all kinds of music up until probably 1955 when I was born, when I think maybe he had to start buying diapers instead of LPs.  He also took me to hear Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, Mongo Santamaria, and Max Roach and quite often to the Chicago Symphony just at the tail end of when Fritz Reiner was conducting.

I did some classical piano as a child with a teacher who was uninspiring for me.  But I came to have a passion for music and a real relationship to it myself.  It was something I wanted to do.  When I was 14, I lived in a neighborhood on the South Side called Hyde Park.  Steve McCall lived a couple of doors down from me.  Henry Threadgill lived on 56th Street.  Most of the AACM members were my neighbors.  Leroy Jenkins was good friends with my high school music teacher, so a lot of those musicians played at our high school at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. And they also played around the neighborhood.  Also great artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Spann, and Muddy Waters lived nearby.  On Sunday afternoons, you could go to the Checkerboard Lounge and just listen if you were under age.  So I used to go to the Checkerboard and I took some real life-long lessons from experiencing that music.

Being around the AACM musicians really showed me a lot about the idea that whatever you can imagine your music to be, if you have the facility, you can do it.  And not only the facility, but the courage to really pursue whatever it is your vision is.  On 55th Street, there were a lot of drummers playing hand drums.  It wasn’t Caribbean drumming.  I would call it African American Folkloric Indigenous drumming.  I just really enjoyed it and when I sat down, these drummers were really generous with me.  After hanging out all day, they’d let you play.  And it was something that called to me, and came to me.  So that’s how I got involved in playing hand drums.

Later on I did a lot of study and travel, but right from the get go, I was interested in developing my own language and way of approaching hand drums to play the music that I was interested in because I was also listening to the Art Ensemble and to John Coltrane, and then Bitches Brew came out.  So it was a completely intuitive idea.  There wasn’t really a precedent of somebody I could look to who could play that way, so it’s always been for me a process of being self-taught and self-directed in terms of what I’ve developed on my hand drums.   And that expanded into my compositional approach.  Hyde Park, the South Side of Chicago, in the late-‘60s, early-‘70s was an incredibly fertile place.  These hand drummers I was playing with, many of them were part of a group called The Pharaohs, which had come out of Phil Cohran, who had come out of Sun Ra.  Then a lot of drummers with The Pharaohs actually later became members of Earth, Wind & Fire.  So there’s all this incredible history and cultural vibrancy that was going on at that time.

Some of the many hand drums in Adam Rudolph's studio.

FJO:  One of the musicians you mentioned being taken to hear live by your father was Max Roach. He seems like someone who could have been an important role model for you.  The reason I wanted to ask you what first sparked your passion for music was to get a sense of what aspect spoke to you first. Many people say that before they started making their own music, there were certain melodies they heard—either live or on recordings—that they latched on to. Others have spoken specifically about certain sonorities, instruments, or the sheer power of the sound. And then there are folks who were captivated by rhythms, harmonies, even bass lines.  But the way many people are taught about music initially is that there’s a melody and then everything underneath it.  But music is much more than that.  It’s all of these components.  On your website you include an autobiographic essay in which you mention vibrations being the prime thing that brought you to music. But I think, and maybe you’ll debate with me on this, that vibrations are perhaps an ur-concept that then trickles down first to rhythm, and then to everything else.  Putting rhythm first is about looking at music in terms of how it happens in time and in pulsation.  In Western classical music, the role of percussionists has mostly been marginalized. The role of even the most prominent orchestral percussion instrument, timpani, is mostly just as an embellishment in the repertoire. In jazz, the drummer has historically been a core member of a combo or a big band, but was usually still a side man. Then Max Roach came along and was the leader of his own groups. He really foregrounded the element of percussion to the point where when you listen to a Max Roach solo, he’s playing melodies on his drum set.  Art Blakey, too, and as the leader of the Jazz Messengers, he nurtured generations of musicians. You described the epiphany you had with the hand drummers, so clearly you were responding to the physicality of percussion and rhythm.

AR:  You’ve said a lot of really interesting things.  There’s a great quote of Max Roach that I can paraphrase that resonates with me today: “I’d rather be a musician than a drummer, and I’d rather be an artist than a musician.”  That’s always been very inspirational to me and it’s what I strive to do.  There are a lot of great musicians, but not everybody has a vision about what they want to do.  He did, clearly.

But the other way to respond to what you’re talking about is that our culture in some ways is sort of this upside down world.  When I lived in Ghana in 1977, I experienced what people call a “master drummer.” It meant that you had a significant understanding of a lot more than just playing music.  Often times the people actually looked to the drummers as sort of a moral compass and people who approach things with a certain kind of ethic.  They understood about the virtuosity of what they did in resonance with the functionality of what you were trying to do.  Like if you’re trying to call down spirits, or help somebody pass beyond life into what comes next, or come from what came before into life.  All of these kinds of things.  You have to have a really deep understanding of that.  It’s very inspirational to think about that idea.

Whereas here there’s a sort of denial of the idea of rhythm. I think it’s related to the history of slavery and racism. But even beyond that, I think it goes to the roots of European so-called classical music. It has to do with the denial of the idea of the play of Shiva and Shakti—the male and female energies—which has to do with sex, the fundamental thing from which everything happens and is created and born.  I think that denial or repression of rhythm in European classical or upper class music was also transferred over here.  In this so-called jazz world, there’s this upside down idea that Elvin Jones was accompanying John Coltrane, or Tony Williams was accompanying Miles Davis.  That’s not how it worked, and that’s not even how they themselves thought about it.  Coltrane could never have done what he did without being in dialogue with Elvin Jones.  And vice versa.  One time I was at Ornette Coleman’s house, and we were listening to a duet record that Yusef Lateef and I had done, because he loved Yusef and his playing, and he said, “It sounds like Yusef is accompanying you.”  And I knew exactly what he meant.  It wasn’t that I was out front or anything like that, but we were in a real dialogue.  And actually I think during that period of the ‘40s and ‘50s, especially after Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, there was a certain kind of codification of instrumentation and functionality of what the instruments did.  Yet even when you go back before Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton, there’s much more of this sense of dialogue going on.  But let’s be clear: the drums were banned here.  And there’s still a stigma about it.  I mean, every pianist can be a band leader and go out and front.  But for a drummer, it’s difficult. Beyond that, for a hand drummer, it’s even something else again.

More of the drums and other hand percussion instruments in Adam Rudolph's studio

People have fixed ideas about what they know—about genres, what’s expected of you, and who’s allowed to do what or what should be doing what, or whatever.  To me, the creative impulse goes back to when I was 14 and this intuitive idea of developing my own language on hand drums to play the music that really fascinated me and that I started to imagine.  I didn’t really know what that was going to be, but it’s amazing because now, going on 40-plus years later, it still is serving me, and I’m still pursuing that.  The idea of the cultivation of intuition is very important because there is this interplay, of course, between the intellect and intuition.  But, a lot of times, the cultivation of the intuition itself is fascinating.

To address something else you said—because you actually said a lot—when I was talking about vibration, what I mean is that everything is vibrating in the universe.  So, we’re sitting on this planet.  We’re sitting on these chairs.  We’re bodies, but when you move into the finer elements of vibration, we can talk about it as thought, or even feeling or spirit.  By spirit, I’m not talking about religion.  I’m talking about mystery.  Music is all about communication in this finer element of vibration.  But it’s not just words. When you really think about it as a manifestion of what we do, vibration manifests as a duality.  That’s what you were referencing.  The duality being motion and color, we could say.  What motion is, of course, is that we perceive reality temporally, so that has to do with musical terms, what we call rhythm, and how rhythm comes into being.  And then the other side is color, which has to do with the overtone series and of course harmony and melody.  But the thing is they’re both manifestations of the same thing.  And they relate to each other in a very specific way because when you move into dimensionality, the overtone of the [perfect] fifth is the overtone that gives you the dimensionality of all the pitches possible.  In rhythm, it’s the three and the two element which gives you all the potentiality of rhythms, both horizontally and vertically.  So it’s very interesting because three and two is the sonic relationship of the fifth [3:2], so that’s the same thing.

In 1977, I went up to the Dogon. I stayed in a village called Sanga, which was not so easy to get to then, and I started to learn about the Dogon philosophy.  The female energy they call tolo and the male energy they call nya. They have a proverb that roughly translates, “Everything is a marriage and an interplay between male and female energy.”  So Tolo/Nya, Shiva/Shakti, Ying/Yang, this kind of thing.  Again, we’re into this idea of this energy that becomes creative.  As I said before about the harmonic series, you have a linearity of the octave, but as soon as you have the fifth, the next overtone, that opens it up to the fifth of the fifth of the fifth, the circle of fifths, and the pentatonic scale.  Everything becomes possible, so that three and two, that male-female energy, is very interesting.  Those manifestations of vibration are really significant.  Now why is that important?  It’s important to me because as a composer, as a spontaneous composer and a writing composer, I’m interested in elements.  These are the most pure elements.  I read a book by Michio Kaku called Hyperspace, and in it, he’s talking about theoretical physics where there are 11 dimensions.  What’s interesting is as you move into the higher dimensions, the laws of physics become simpler and simpler.  And I think this is true in music, too, as we move from style into elements.  And it’s liberating to me. It’s a full circle back to Max Roach and this idea of being an artist and what is your vision of what that could be. How that manifests in this culture, in this time and place, is a challenge for many of us in a lot of different kinds of ways.

The doorway into Adam Rudolph's sitting and listening room.

FJO:  I’ve never heard such a succinct correlation between the rise of Western classical music and the suppression of sexuality.  I’m curious about how these relationships play out in other cultural paradigms.  I’m thinking about the North Indian and South Indian classical music traditions where there’s either a vocalist or a melodic instrument in a musical dialogue with a percussionist. They are equal partners to some extent, but there’s still an idea that the musician playing the melodies of the raga is somehow the lead soloist and that the tabla or mridangam player is the accompanist. So even though they feed off of each other, there is a perceived hierarchy.  But then when you get to Africa and all the various musical cultures there, whether it’s the Manding culture that spans from Senegal and Gambia through Mali or the traditional culture of the Shona in Zimbabwe, that hierarchy is largely eroded. In other places, such as Ghana where you spoke of master drummers, the hierarchy is completely flipped. The principal drummer is the central figure.

You could say there’s three kinds of music—classical music, folk music, and devotional music.  John Coltrane played all three.  Yusef Lateef played all three.  Don Cherry played all three.

AR:  I personally don’t believe in class systems, in music anyway—you know, hierarchies.  What I think you’re talking about is actually true in Africa. And the diaspora—we grew up in it, all of us, whether we’re aware of it or not. If you’re fans of James Brown or ZZ Top, you’re basically listening to music that traces its origins back to the Aka and the Babenzelli and the Mbuti, which is where I personally feel is the root of all of that kind of conception—a rhythmic conception that deals with what I call ostinatos of circularity.  And that provides a kind of lift.

Actually when you look at it, you could say there’s three kinds of music—classical music, folk music, and devotional music.  John Coltrane played all three.  Yusef Lateef played all three.  Don Cherry played all three.  But these are not distinct; there are all these overlaps.  So even in India, for example, this hierarchy of the melodic soloist over the drums does not exist in the folk music.  In a lot of the devotional music, too, drums are very, very important—the whole thing about circularity and lifting of the moment.  I studied tabla for over 20 years, and I used to be able to play a one-hour solo in matta tal, an 18-beat cycle. My teacher, Pandit Taranath Rao, shared that with me.  There is an elevation of that drumming there also.

But these classical music traditions, so called, where there’s a pedagogy associated with it and a certain kind of codification of elements and a class thing about who consumes it, a lot of times rhythm can be sort of shunted aside.  I don’t know so much about the history of it, but to me, it kind of has to do with the church origins of European music—Gregorian chant—and of course that exquisite beauty, but also the elimination of this idea of what we call the groove.  But that groove can lead you into the cosmos, too, to transcendence, if we know anything about George Clinton or Bata drumming. Right?

FJO:  I don’t know when you started writing music, but I find it interesting that you didn’t go on to study composition or pursue a performance degree. Instead you got a degree in ethnomusicology. I’m curious about what led to that and how the orientation of that academic discipline helped to shape your musical thinking.

AR:  Well, let me go back.  I was on my way out the front door—I finished high school young.  I was 16—metaphorically with my drums on my back—congas—on my way to New York, and my parents were like, “Hold it.  Get a degree.”  So I went to Oberlin. At that time, ethnomusicology was not considered an undergraduate study.  But you could design your own major, so I designed my major and I called it ethnomusicology. It was a way for me to study everything that was interesting to me as a young artist that I could.  So I read books and things, but it was more of an informal discovery.  I don’t consider myself a formal ethnomusicologist.

Going back to the question about when I started writing music. When I was taking classical piano lessons and playing my Czerny and Mozart, I was already making up my own pieces.  Finally one day, I got my courage together to show my piano teacher. God bless her, poor lady, she didn’t know any better.  I played them for her and her response was, “Okay, now let’s look at your E-flat major scale.” Nothing else.  That was the beginning of my being out the door. I said, “I don’t want to do this.”  But when I really came to starting my own compositional ideas was when I lived with in Don Cherry’s house in Sweden in 1978 and he started showing me a lot of Ornette’s pieces by rote on the piano. It was an inspirational environment where I just started creating pieces. I was also motivated to start composing because there wasn’t really any music that existed that was the vehicle for what I was doing on the hand drums.  Ever since then, there has been this kind of interplay between how and what I play and how I write.

Adam Rudolph at the piano demonstrating his "ostinatos of circularity."

Of course, I’m now writing string quartets and percussion pieces that are completely through-composed and that’s a fascinating process, too.  Process is what’s crucial for all of us.  If you can generate your own creative process, then your music is bound to be prototypical.  So I’m interested in exploring different kinds of processes.  When we say composing or improvising, both of which are ambiguous terms, especially improvising, it really just has to do with different ways of approaching the creative process itself.  Anyway, I started putting music together in 1978.

FJO:  Was this after you first met and started working with Foday Musa Suso?

AR:  Well, okay, a little bit of linearity to answer your question.  You were talking about hearing a transformative concert.  The Art Ensemble of Chicago did a concert at Ida Noyes Hall, not long after they came back from Europe. It was the first time I heard them, and it was a magical experience.  Then, of course, I heard many concerts. There were a lot of great series.  I remember hearing Marion Brown and Steve McCall playing a duet.  And the first concerts of Air.  Of course, all the concerts my father took me to were great, but experiencing music on my own as a young adult or teenager was really transformative.  And also Sun Ra and the Herbie Hancock Sextet—the Mwandishi group.  I saw them many times.  To me, still to this day, they were really playing some kind of future music—Miles’s group at that time with Mtume, the early Weather Report, and what Alice Coltrane was doing, too.  There was so much to listen to and I was hearing it all, along with the blues musicians.  So I was inspired. McCoy Tyner would pull out a koto. All of a sudden they’ve expanded the orchestration, and they’re bringing in these colors, and also these approaches to things.   So, my thought was that I should go deeper into these ideas.  Also, I should mention Don Cherry’s Relativity Suite.  It’s a very important early record for everybody in “world music.” Don, along with Yusef, was a pioneer in collaborating with musicians from so many cultures.  He had musicians from different cultures and concepts from different places going on—Mali, India, China—but somehow in this very integrated, beautiful way. Hearing that record and records like [Miles Davis’s] On the Corner, my thought was, “Let’s study these and then go as deep as possible.” That was the beginning of following my intuition into studying Afro-Cuban drumming, Afro-Haitian drumming, tabla, Indonesian—wherever it led me.

I drove a cab when I finished Oberlin and I started playing in Detroit a lot, which is where I got introduced to Schillinger and a lot of rhythmic ideas, working with the Contemporary Jazz Quintet.  By this time, I’d been playing with Fred Anderson and Maulawi Nururdin, who were really important mentors. The courage that they demonstrated opened this up for me.  So I spent a year in West Africa, kind of on my own; I was 21 by then, living there and experiencing the living philosophy of it there.  And I traveled around.  When I came back, Foday Musa Suso and I started the Mandingo Griot Society in ’78. Then we invited my good friend Hamid Drake—whom I met in a drum store when we were 14—to be part of the Mandingo Griot Society.  He’d been playing with Fred Anderson, and we had listened to Don Cherry together.  So we contacted Don, and he came and played on the record.  He’d liked what Hamid and I were doing, so he invited us to come and stay in Sweden in this farmhouse that he and [his wife] Moki had in the countryside. We spent the summer there.  Then we went on tour in the fall.  That’s how Don became a very important mentor for me, as he was for many people, I think.

Side by side album covers for Mandingo Griot Society's three LPs, two of which show a young Adam Rudolph with Foday Musa Suso, Hamid Drake, and Joseph Thomas.

Mandingo Griot Society (Foday Musa Suso, Hamid Drake, Joseph Thomas, and Adam Rudolph) released two LPs: their 1978 eponymous debut which featured a guest appearance by Don Cherry followed by Mighty Rhythm in 1981. With the shortened name Mandingo they released the Bill Laswell-produced Watto Sitta on Celluloid in 1984.

FJO:  There were so many different musical elements that came together in the Mandingo Griot Society. There’s obviously the Manding tradition of griots singing epic tales and accompanying themselves on the kora; Foday Musa Soso grew up in a family of griots in the Gambia and is one of the world’s greatest masters of that instrument.  But there were also all these other elements that the group incorporated.  Earlier on you talked about there being three different kinds of music—the so-called classical music of the nobility, the folk music of the people, and sacred music.  One could argue that popular music is a kind of folk music, but as it evolved it really morphed into something else—certainly by the time you were growing up. In the late 1960s and ‘70s, people like Miles and Weather Report were doing stuff in the jazz scene that incorporating elements of rock and R & B.  At some point some musicians even started incorporated disco elements, like Herbie Hancock doing stuff with a vocoder on the album Feets Don’t Fail Me Now.  I can also hear those elements on Mandingo Griot Society records.  “Woman Dance with Me” is almost like a disco tune.  It’s certainly very directly referencing the popular music of that time.  So I’m curious about how far the group was interested in going in that direction.  I think it was a very pioneering group in terms of that.

AR:  Well, thank you.  I think it was, too.  There had of course been others.  We talked about Max Roach. He helped present [the Ghanaian musician] Guy Warren to the world—and Ahmed Abdul-Malik and Randy Weston and Dizzy Gillespie and, of course, Yusef Lateef.  So there was this interest.  But the Mandingo Griot Society was unique and ahead of its time in that it was a griot musician bringing his repertoire and tradition, but in terms of the conception of it, it was really a collaboration in the sense that Hamid and Joe Thomas and I brought our sensibility of growing up with what we call rhythm and blues and what we call jazz and blues, in particular, to the table.  The connection is very organic in that way.  So we were one of the first groups many people heard doing something like that, for sure.  People had never seen a kora.  Now there’s a gazillion of these kinds of collaborations, but we were amongst the first and we toured all the time.  We were on the road from ‘79 to like the mid-‘80s, pretty constantly—trains in Europe, driving a station wagon around in the U.S., playing everywhere all the time.  And people would come and they would dance to the music.  So it was exciting.  We didn’t have any sense of what it meant in any continuum; it was just what we were interested in.  The tradition is to sound like yourself. So even though the framework was Mandingo music, and also Wolof and Fulani music, the resonance of it was contemporary.  It was our experience of who we were in our time and place.  That’s been a key part of a lot of the collaborations that became very important for me, like working with Hassan Hakmoun and L. Shankar.

FJO:  Now, in terms of how the Mandingo Griot Society developed, it gradually got more electronic. I’m thinking of Watto Sitta. It definitely seems to be tapping the same well of what groups like Talking Heads had been doing—somehow reconciling traditional African music, contemporary pop music, and a wide array of electronic elements.  It all came together in a way that I think must have overlapped audiences in the same way that had happened in the late 1960s when there seemed to be a great deal of common musical ground between what composers were doing in various electronic music studios, what psychedelic rock musicians were doing in recording studios, what so-called free jazz musicians were doing, etc. They were tapping into a very similar energy and I think a similar phenomenon happened in the early 1980s.

AR:  That’s interesting. I never thought about it that way.  I felt like what we were doing was an extension of my fascination with or appreciation of groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago—but also reflecting on [Herbie Hancock’s] Head Hunters and whatever else was going on.  A lot of us had come up playing rhythm and blues.  For me the really interesting period was the ’70s. There was a real breadth of ways of approaching things—what Tony Williams was doing, and people like Marion Brown and Terry Riley.  It was just an amazing period.  But by the ‘80s, the Mandingo Griot Society just traveled and traveled and followed that thread through.

FJO:  What strikes me as so interesting is that you had started another project concurrently that continued on—Eternal Wind.  Once again, there were tons of different influences from cultures from all over the world.  But I think it was an extremely different sound world.  Eternal Wind and the Mandingo Griot Society are almost a yin/yang. The Mandingo Griot Society was very rhythmic whereas Eternal Wind was much more expansive.  So I’m wondering how that came about and how the collaboration with the other musicians in Eternal Wind worked.

AR:  You’re right. They’re very different.  The framework for the Mandingo Griot Society was the music on the kora and the dusungoni.  There’s something special everybody gets to bring to the equation.  One of the things I learned from Don Cherry was how to be able to play with a musician from any culture, to have enough respect and understanding of what they do, but still maintain your own voice and identity and apply your own musicianship to the overall lifting of the musical moment.  So we were doing that in the framework of what that music could do.  But we couldn’t really go outside of that.  So even while the Mandingo Griot Society was going on, I was starting to write my own music and so I wanted a format for that.

I actually moved out to California from Chicago after living in Sweden, and I reconnected with somebody. I have to backtrack.  While I was at Oberlin, Charles Moore and Herb Boyd were driving down from Detroit every week and teaching African-American music, or so-called jazz.  When I met Charles, I’d already been playing with Fred Anderson and Maulawi Nururdin.  He started inviting me to go up to Detroit and play with the Contemporary Jazz Quintet, which at that time had expanded into a larger group.  This is the group with Kenny Cox and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet.  They did some incredible records for Blue Note, but now they were also opening up.  So I’m this kid.  I mean these are very, very advanced musicians, and I’m like 17, just kind of hanging on.  Charles was the one who really introduced me to Schillinger’s concept.  It was the beginning of my real connection with the Detroit scene which, later on of course, working with Yusef, was my second home and my second school, like Chicago was.  Kenny Cox and Charles Moore were very important mentors.  By the time I came back from Sweden, I was playing with a lot of Latin bands and Haitian bands and things around Chicago, but I was ready to move on and decided to go to California because there was more going on there in African music and Indian music and it was something different. It just felt like I wanted to go somewhere else.  So I reconnected with Charles Moore and Ralph Jones from Detroit, and we started the Eternal Wind group, which became the first real vehicle for my compositional ideas.

The covers for the three Eternal Wind LPs

Eternal Wind released three LPs on the Flying Fish label: their eponymous debut, Eternal Wind (1984); Terra Incognita (1986); and Wasalu (1988)

And it was collaborative. Charles and I were the primary composers, but not exclusively.  It became the outlet for our vision of music.  We were doing what’s now called world music where the orchestration is really huge.  There were instruments from different parts of the world, percussion especially. Conceptually we were thinking about a lot of different things also, but the root we go back to is the so-called jazz world.  We’re coming from that as this tradition of creating environments in compositional functionalities that have spontaneous composition involved in them and were looking for new ways of structuring that and of opening up the instrumentation.  Why do I have to have bass, drums, piano, and horns?  Why do we have to have this kind of formalistic idea of playing a tune and then there are solos? What other things could we do?  Again, this is also what was beginning to be opened up in the early ‘70s.  We talked about ethnomusicology.  My interest in music from other places was not just about studying tablas and different kinds of African drumming and Indonesian music. I also became interested in the construct of the music, which was a deeper element for me—ways that you can organize. For example, how gamelan music is organized with these layers of colotomic structures.  It’s very interesting as a formula, or as a way, or process.

Even beyond that, and what interests me more and more as time goes on, has to do with relationships—what the relationship of musician to music is. (By the way, it’s not always even called music and musician in every culture.)  What is the relationship between the person and the instrument?  What is the relationship of the human being to the context in which they create music? That’s hugely varied, so that can open you up to different kinds of ideas, too.

FJO:  Another term that is largely misunderstood and which once meant something very different is the moniker New Age, which now has a somewhat pejorative connotation.  Groups like Oregon, which was doing a lot of exploration of various world music traditions, got folded into the original definition of New Age. Now we think of Windham Hill and George Winston, even though he has a very broad range of things that he does. People associate a certain sound with what New Age is.  But not originally. So I’m curious if you would have considered what you were doing in Eternal Wind to be New Age.

To reflect the sense of who you are in where we are now is our task.  Every generation has the challenge to manifest those things for themselves.

AR:  Again, I don’t feel like and have never felt like being part of any of those things. I can’t comment on the people you’re talking about who are New Age. I feel more and more like part of the lineage that came from the African-American tradition of so-called jazz, which also is an ambiguous term that I don’t subscribe to.  In terms of how we approached what we did—in other words, creative attitude and the way of thinking about things—we were definitely and I am still now, really dealing in an extension and an evolution from that tradition, I think.  But the tradition is, as I said, to sound like yourself.  To reflect the sense of who you are in where we are now is our task.  Every generation has the challenge to manifest those things for themselves.

FJO:  Toward the end of Eternal Wind’s existence, the group played with a full orchestra in what was in essence a concerto grosso that was composed by Yusef Lateef. I’m curious about how that connection to Yusef came about, especially since it determined a lot of the subsequent course in your musical life.

AR:  Absolutely.  In 1988, I was invited to actually complete my dual masters at Cal Arts.  They gave me a scholarship because they wanted me to teach. I was also collaborating with Peter Otto.  We were doing some work with a lecturer who was working with Morton Subotnick doing electro-acoustic research.  When I finished I then lived in Don Cherry’s loft in Long Island City, downstairs from, I think, one of the people in Talking Heads by the way.  At that time, through Eternal Wind—because of the Detroit connection with Charles Moore and then Kenny Cox—we were put in touch with Yusef Lateef.  He had recently returned from four years of living in Nigeria.

By the way, you mentioned New Age music.  He won the first New Age Grammy for his Little Symphony, the first record he did when he came back.  I remember him calling me and saying, “What is New Age music?”  Anyway, when Yusef came back I think it was another period for him; he was really looking for another kind of orchestration.  He heard Eternal Wind and invited us to do this concert with him in the summer of 1988 at Symphony Space, along with Cecil McBee.  And by us, I mean the Eternal Wind—Charles Moore, Ralph Jones, Federico Ramos, and myself.  And Yusef, in the way that was so beautiful and generous of him, actually invited us all to bring our own compositions.  We played, I think, three or four of my pieces along with Yusef’s compositions.

So the way the Cologne Radio project came about was I was on tour with Don Cherry, Hassan Hakmoun, and Abdul Jalil Codsi and we played at the Moers Festival.  I ran into Uli [Ulrich] Kurth [from the radio station WDR in Cologne]. I said that I was working with Yusef now, and he said that Yusef is such an innovator in so many ways.  One of them is that he was one of the first musicians coming from an improvisational, African-American music background to really be writing very extensive pieces.  Yusef had already written some pieces for orchestra, and so they commissioned him to write the African American Epic Suite, with the Eternal Wind plus himself as soloist, and the Cologne Radio Orchestra.  And that’s how we did that.

Photos of Adam Rudolph and Yusef Lateef in front of various ethnic percussion instruments.

FJO:  It’s an extraordinary piece.  Thankfully it’s documented on a recording, but it could and should have an ongoing life in live performance, I think.  I imagine all the orchestra parts are fully notated.

AR:  They are.

FJO:  But how much of what Eternal Wind was playing was created in the moment?  Could it work with another group?

AR:  I think absolutely it could work.  It’s a shame that it hasn’t been performed more.  We performed it with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and also the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  And I think that’s been it.  Charles Moore passed away and Yusef has passed away, but there’s absolutely no reason why it couldn’t be performed.  Yusef invited each of us to bring to the table that which we do best.  So, the orchestra players are reading, but my parts were somewhat episodic. They were very descriptive in some ways about what to be thinking about.  There are parts where there’s harmonic motion outlined for Federico Ramos or whatever guitar player would be there.  So yeah, it would be different, but the same—which is of course referencing the tradition of so-called jazz, but also referencing the real essential tradition of European classical music, too, where pieces were not rendered in this very codified kind of way.  It would be incredible to perform this piece again. The piece is very playable and straight ahead for a quality orchestra and for any improvisers who have some kind of imagination.  But it’s a challenge.

FJO:  So it makes sense that the next step in your own musical evolution after Eternal Wind and then working intensely with Yusef, including being a part of a large-scale orchestral piece of his, would be to form your own unique kind of orchestra in which the strands of what is composed and what is improvised are impossible to differentiate. That in essence seems to me to be what the Go: Organic Orchestra is about.

AR:  Well, coming from Eternal Wind, I started this project called Moving Pictures, which was sort of my compositional vehicle for a mid-sized ensemble.  And it’s still going on.  I’m mixing a new record now of the Moving Pictures.

Covers of the six commercially released CDs of Adam Rudolph's Moving Pictures

To date Adam Rudolph’s Moving Pictures has released a total of six CDs: their eponymous debut (1992); Skyway (1994); Contemplations (1997); 12 Arrows (1999); Dream Garden (2008); and Both/And (2013).

Go: Organic Orchestra had its beginning in 2000 when I was living in California.  There were a couple motivations for it. This music is an oral tradition.  It’s really about mentors.  For myself, it’s going back to starting with Fred Anderson and Maulawi Nururdin in Chicago, and then Charles Moore and Kenny Cox in Detroit, and then Don Cherry and Yusef Lateef. We stand on their shoulders. It’s not about the information they shared with us, but it’s about creative attitude and the way of thinking about things—creative process, an attitude of courageousness, cultivating your imagination, cultivating intuition, and about, as I said, your relationship with your art.  Those were very important things that those mentors shared with me.  So in 2000, when I living on the west side of Los Angeles, there were a lot of musicians who were interested in what I was doing.  So I thought it was maybe time for me to create a format for me to share a lot of what I had been so fortunate to glean from these great artists. The Organic Orchestra came about because these musicians were from different backgrounds: people who were trained in so-called classical music; people who were in world music, especially percussion—Indian, African, Indonesian, Middle Eastern musicians; and then people who wanted to expand their conception of so-called jazz, or we’ll call it spontaneous composition American music.

When you listen to those Eternal Wind records, they’re very orchestral.  We did a lot of overdubbing.  One of the fun things was creating these amazing palettes of sound.  I was interested in trying to solve the challenge of how you can have as much freedom in this spontaneous compositional setting as possible with a large orchestral ensemble.  That’s how I began to experiment with this idea of the Go: Organic Orchestra.  Those were the two impulses for me.  And it was just a fascinating thing right from the get go, the idea of it not only cutting across musicians from different backgrounds, but the idea of having the instrumentation be wide open.  Also having it be cross generational. Great artists like Bennie Maupin have been in the ensemble.  And he might be sitting next to a 14-year-old flute player. It’s about trying to create an environment of sharing and community that I grew up around.

I still go every year to Los Angeles and I maintain a Los Angeles orchestra.  I go every year to Austin, Texas; I have a regular orchestra there, too.  I also have one in Naples, Italy.  And in Istanbul.  And of course in New York, now, is the core orchestra I work with the most.  We started that in 2005.  Most of those musicians are still performing today with the Go: Organic Orchestra, so there’s something really of value.  But I travel all over the world and teach and do residencies because, through the process of how Go: Organic Orchestra works, there is an introduction to elements.  I’m sharing elements and trying to allow people to have an opportunity to express themselves.  It’s a 21st-century vision of what an orchestra is.  The dynamic of the community of it is setup with a different kind of hierarchy.  It’s not like this hierarchy of composer and conductor and then musicians rendering their vision.  Of course, it’s my vision in the sense of how the process works and what the elements are, but every Go: Organic Orchestra concert and ensemble sounds different than the others.

The covers for the eight Go: Organic Orchestra CDs released thus far.

The Go: Organic Orchestra discography thus far: Go: Organic Orchestra: 1 (recorded live in concert Friday, Nov. 1, 2001 at the Electric Lodge Venice, CA); Web of Light (recorded live in concert March 1 and 2, 2002); In The Garden (with Yusef Lateef, March 1 and 2, 2003); Thought Forms (June 2006); The Pietrasanta Project (recorded live in Italy in 2009); Can You Imagine … The Sound of a Dream (live at Roulette Intermedium, NYC, March and November 2010); Sonic Mandala (studio recording, April 20, May 5 and 6, 2012); and A Glimpse (included in the Ensemble Dissonanzen’s limited edition five-CD boxed set Dissonanzen, 2014).

FJO:  I witnessed the performance you did a couple of years ago at the Shape Shifter Lab, and it was mind-blowing.  It made me want to learn more about how spontaneous, improvisatory conducting works. How much of the material that the musicians perform is written out?  How much is improvised?  I couldn’t tell.

AR:  That’s so interesting. Sometimes you listen to music and you call tell if they’re reading or improvising; it’s very clear.  I’ve always been interested in setting up parameters, through composition, that become the arena in which we discuss things aesthetically and functionally.  With the Organic Orchestra, a lot of things are going on there. But in the most basic sense, there’s a score of three pages.  Page one and two are made up of what I call matrices and cosmograms.  They’re basically interval systems.  It’s not written in the Western notation.  Some of them are related to classic retrogrades and inversions. One of the great things we can do in music syntax is read it forward, backwards, upside down, up.  So they’re based on interval systems.  And then there are these cosmograms that are also based upon thoughts about ways of thinking about intervals—things like triple diminished patterns, symmetric hexatonic scales, plus tonal patterns: pentatonic and some of them are based on actual ragas and makams.  All of these are different and there are ten of them. I have ten fingers, so I can cue people to improvise inside of those.

Or I can orchestrate with various conducting signals also.  This can happen when I have somebody improvising. I can create the orchestration around them based upon listening to what they’re doing in the moment, or we can create dialogues that way.  The reason these matrixes and cosmograms have become so successful is—I won’t say the opposite, but—they’re very different than a lot of times when you see graphic notation.  I’m not directing what kind of shape or phraseology or breathology people bring to it, but we are deciding that this is a topic of conversation.  Like a raga.  Every raga is not like every other raga.  Right?  So it’s more than a scale; it has to do with this combination of intervals and the sound and the rasa.  In Indian music, rasa is what informs the raga.  Rasa is the emotional coloration.

So each one of these matrices and cosmograms have to have their own kind of emotional coloration or topic that we want to talk about.  But the reason it’s beautiful for me is that somebody who comes from a background of, say, rock guitar or somebody who comes from a background of playing European classical music on bassoon or a saxophone player—everybody’s going to bring their own breathology and phrasing, and hopefully project their feelings through this matrix, which is the topic.  They can communicate with each other because we’re talking about a certain kind of sound arena.  Beyond that you can combine these arenas against each other, and then you get into this beautiful, fantastic realm of painting coloration and motion.

Now the third page is what I call ostinatos of circularity.  These are interval patterns that are based upon the same kind of materials you find in the matrixes and in the cosmograms, but they’re patterning like what you find in Aka or Mbuti or Babenzele music—not that sound but that concept.  That is the link to the other part of the Organic Orchestra concept, which has to do with the rhythm concept. Going all the way back to when you talked about Max Roach, Max Roach also famously said something to the effect of that there was another evolution of this music when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Monk started using extensions of chords and higher partials—the rhythm concept really changed.  This rhythmic evolution of the music is not talked about as much, relating to what we were speaking about before.  So my thought has always been how we move the music forward into the next idea of what we can do rhythmically, how we can create new languages and new concepts of rhythm.  Because rhythm ultimately leads to form.  And form next, along with process, are the most significant things that I’m interested in.

FJO:  That 2015 Cuneiform CD of the Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra sounds completely different from any other thing of yours that I’ve ever heard.  You’re conducting it improvisationally, but you’re actually not playing on it at all.  I was reminded of this a few months ago when I went to hear your string quartets at Roulette and you actually couldn’t be there because you had gotten really sick.  So you weren’t there. But you were there because your music was there.  That’s the weird magical thing about this rarified tradition of notated Western classical music. You can be responsible for music that you actually did not perform, whether by conducting what other musicians play or writing the notes that the musicians read and perform from.  You didn’t make a sound on the Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra recording and, in the performance of the string quartets, you weren’t even in the room. At yet you were.  For you, as someone who initially became involved with making music as a physical process—playing hand drums—to venture into this other non-physical way of making music is actually pretty fascinating to me.

AR:  It is fascinating.  What a great thing to be an artist and to be fascinated by and be in involved in a lot of different things.  It’s what I’m saying: creative process itself is so significant.  The process of writing a through-composed piece for the Momenta String Quartet and a series of pieces for the Oberlin Percussion Group, where I don’t have to be there, is fascinating to me.  As is the process of conducting the Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra—which by the way, is the same as how I conduct all the Go: Organic Orchestras. I think there are 12 recordings out now of the different Go: Organic Orchestras, and I don’t play on any of those recordings.

The cover for Cuneiform's 2015 CD of the Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra

The 2015 Cuneiform CD Turning Toward the Light documents Rudolph’s Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra which differs from all previous incarnations of the orchestra in that all the musicians play the same instrument. So while the concepts behind the music are the same as those of previous Organic line-ups, the result sounds like nothing else Rudolph has ever done.
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That process of conducting that music spontaneously and the interaction between the score materials that I’ve generated in advance—I actually call it decomposing.  Or finding those elements that have the most flexibility and then playing in my Moving Pictures Group, where I’m playing drums. Or when I would play a duet with Yusef Lateef.  We would generate forms and we would also play inside of compositional forms.  We got to the point where we didn’t need to speak about what we were doing at all anymore; we would just go out and begin our conversation.  Why not be interested in all of those things?

Four CD covers of duo album featuring Adam Rudolph with Wadada Leo Smith, Yusef Lafeef, Omar Sosa, and Ralph M. Jones.

Four of the many extraordinary duo albums Adam Rudolph has made over the years are Compasssion (with Wadada Leo Smith, 2006), Live in Seattle (with Yusef Lafeef, 2014), Pictures of Soul (with Omar Sosa, 2004), and Merely A Traveler On The Cosmic Path (with Ralph M. Jones, 2012).

The last recording that came out at the same time as the Go: Organic Guitar record is this Hu Vibrational recording, which is the percussionists from the Go: Organic Orchestra.  Since I lived in Africa, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of composing rhythms; this is a great time-honored tradition that people don’t really talk about much.  Look at someone like Doudou N’Diaye Rose [from Senegal] or Jnan Prakash Ghosh in India, or my tabla teacher in fact, or the Diga Rhythm Band with Zakir Hussain, or James Brown for that matter.  This idea of organizing thinking about that, that’s something that’s a big part of what I do with Go: Organic Orchestra, composing these group rhythms.

I felt like this was a new arena that we could be moving into, bringing that idea to this tradition of music that I’m trying to extend or make my small contribution to.  So with the Hu Vibrational record, I actually took those to James Dellatacoma whom I worked with at Bill Laswell’s studio.  We did very extreme, very in-depth, electronic processing of those sounds, which harken back to my work on a Buchla at Oberlin in 1973.  That also referenced my interest in the idea of African handmade musical instruments, which are often designed to complexify the overtone sounds, like on a kalimba or on a djembe or a dusungoni. I wanted to look for ways of complexifying these overtones and creating these sort of secondary voices moving like ancestral voices with these electronics.  So that record was not a document of what we played.  We played, but then I used the recording, mixing, editing, and incorporating electronics as part of the process.  So I’m interested in all of these things.

The cover for Hu Vibrational's 2015 CD, The Epic Botanical Beat Suite which features a drawing of a cat.

The other most recent recording by Adam Rudolph is Hu Vibrational’s The Epic Botanical Beat Suite (2015), a studio creation that could not be performed live.

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What a great thing to be an artist and to be fascinated by and be in involved in a lot of different things.

But there’s no doubt that when the hand strikes the drum it’s a kind of sacred act, because it’s a motion. It’s moving from what in India they call nadabrahma. In the Kongo they call it sese, the unstruck sound, the audible realm of om.  If you took that sound and slowed the other waveforms way down that would even be a symphony.  That’s what’s being informed through me physically interacting with the wood from the tree and the skin of the animal—the vegetable world and the animal world, all of those things are in the act of playing the hand drums.  It’s a really unique instrument that way.  It absolutely has informed who I am as an artist and as a person.  So it manifests when I write a through-composed string quartet, that activity, the physicality of it.  I think about my music as a kind of yoga.  I’ve been practicing hatha yoga since 1975.  And yoga means limbs—the relationship between body, mind, and spirit.  All of those things are always moving, circling around to one another.  Those things inform all of these different processes that are interesting to me as an artist.  It’s great to have a lot of different interests, right?  It’s inspiring.  And they all inform each other.  I mean, writing a string quartet changed my whole way of thinking when I went back to playing, because now I’ve really had this time to sit back and look at life. And wow, how does this form? How do you lay this out?  And you know, tension and release, moving through different colors, all of these different processes inform one another.

Right now I’m in the midst of mixing this new Moving Pictures recording. I don’t even know how I’m going to deal with that yet, and it’s very exciting.  I’ve done a few dozen records now of my compositions, and I try with every recording to do something that I haven’t done before.  And that’s what makes it fascinating and inspiring and interesting.

The inside of the "art car" designed by Adam Rudolph's wife Nancy Jackson

One of the most amazing things we encountered when we visited Adam Rudolph’s home in Maplewood was the “art car” designed by his wife Nancy Jackson with whom he also collaborated on the 1995 opera, The Dreamer.

Yarn/Wire: From The Ground Level

Once upon a time, most performances of new music came about in one of three ways. A performance could happen through the efforts of the few dedicated new music practitioners (many of whom were based at academic institutions). Another way would be by trying to convince more established groups to play a new piece (in addition to the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky pieces those ensembles might rather be playing) and sometimes that worked. Or, if a composer had the requisite performance skills and had some talented friends, she or he could form their own ensemble and hope for the best. But one of the defining phenomena of American music in the 21st century has been the staggering number of dedicated DIY new music interpreters who have established ensembles based all over the country.

Because of the existence of so many self-starting groups of myriad instrumentations, gone are the days when it was safest to write a piece for string quartet or piano trio (though it is easy to find DIY groups with those particular instrumental configurations as well). And because many of these unique groupings lack a pre-existing repertoire, their modus operandi is to commission new work.

One of the most exciting as well as one of the most articulate of these groups is the two piano/two percussion quartet Yarn/Wire, whose studio sits at the edge of Bushwick on the border between Brooklyn and Queens. Admittedly, the combined forces of two pianists and two percussionists is not a completely new idea. Next year marks the 80th anniversary of Béla Bartók’s seminal Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, a work that received its premiere the following year at the 1938 ISCM World Music Days in Basel, Switzerland. There were also important pieces written for that combination in the 1970s by Luciano Berio and George Crumb and then, in the 1990s, IRCAM commissioned a bunch of pieces informed by spectralist ideas, many of which also included elaborate electronic set-ups.

In fact, Yarn/Wire began their existence ten years ago playing such repertoire. But they soon discovered that what excited them the most was being able to work with composers from the ground level up to shape pieces that are best suited to their collective musical temperament. They started out working with composers they had befriended during their college days at Stony Brook—people like Eric Wubbels, Aaron Einbond, Mei-Fang Lin, Alex Mincek, and Sam Pluta. Mincek and Pluta have now each composed two major works for the ensemble. But, as their reputation spread, they also began working with major international figures such as Enno Poppe, Tristan Murail, and Misato Mochizuki. Their world premiere performances of the works written for them by Murail and Mochizuki were presented by the Lincoln Center Festival last year.

A few months ago they debuted what is probably the most unusual work created for them thus far: Material by Michael Gordon, an hour-long work in which the four of them surround a single open grand piano and almost ritualistically proceed to eke out a seemingly infinite variety of sounds. Gordon spent hours with the group testing all sorts of combinations of what was possible (both in terms of sound production and in terms of physical endurance), and the resulting still score-less composition—while undeniably music—could also easily be described as theater, choreography, and performance art.

Being the enablers for bringing to life such pieces makes Yarn/Wire an extremely important catalyst for music that is happening right now. Yet, at the same time, the group is devoted to performing whatever they play at the highest possible level, which means intensive rehearsing as well as constant interconnectivity between the four of them. Earlier this year, their interpretive prowess led them to be runners up for the University of Michigan’s highly coveted M-Prize, a brand new $100K cash prize for chamber ensembles that attracted 172 applicants from 13 countries. The award ultimately was given to a string quartet that is devoted to performing older canonical classics that have stood the test of time and the members of Yarn/Wire realize that the jury is still out on whether any of the works they are performing will wind up in the canon. For them the question is irrelevant. That said, they are committed to building a repertoire that they will continue to play and that will hopefully be embraced by adventurous ensembles in future generations.


Russell Greenberg, Laura Barger, Ning Yu, and Ian Antonio in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
at Yarn/Wire’s Bushwick Studio in Brooklyn, New York
June 30, 2016—12:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  So where did this crazy idea come from to form a group consisting of two pianists and two percussionists?  What were you all doing before it?  Did you ever think you’d be in a group like this for ten years?

Russell Greenberg:  I don’t think any of us thought we would do this.  I know I wanted to play new music, but I didn’t know what form that would take.  Laura and I met at Stony Brook University. Then Ian came in and we played some Steve Reich together.  I think it was Sextet. The group really just formed out of us enjoying each other’s company and enjoying playing together.  It wasn’t so much of a mandate to have this two-piano, two-percussion group.  It just kind of happened. At least that’s my recollection.

Laura Barger:  We wanted to give a performance, and it was part of our doctoral recital requirements. But mostly it was about repertoire we just really wanted to play, pieces we were excited about.  That’s how things got started.  There was not much of a long-term goal beyond that at first.

RG:  Then it changed after that first recital. We started asking composer friends that we knew to write pieces—Mei-Fang Lin, Alex Mincek, Eric Wubbels, Aaron Einbond, a lot of old friends from before we had all met at Stony Brook, and new friends as well.  They started adding to the rep, and then we started playing more and more.  It kind of grew from that.

FJO:  Now Ning, you were not part of the group from the very beginning.

Ning Yu:  No, I joined in 2011; however, I knew everyone from my Stony Brook days, so I knew the start of this group and I’d heard a lot about the group before I joined.  Laura and I actually studied with the same piano professor, so we would see each other a lot.

FJO:  Now, in terms of what you were all doing musically before this.  Russell said that he always wanted to play new music.  I’d love to hear from the rest of you about that.  What you were doing musically before starting this?

Ian Antonio:  I went to Manhattan School of Music for undergrad. My memory is not super clear, but I definitely wanted to be in an orchestra. From the time I was in high school, I loved orchestral music.  I still love orchestral music.  But I found myself drawn towards the collaborative aspect of working on new pieces with living composers and have gotten more and more into it, so I eventually replaced the burning desire to be in an orchestra with the desire to play new things.

FJO:  Certainly, for the pianists in the group, there were many more options besides playing new music. There’s definitely lots of music that doesn’t involve two percussionists.

LB:  I was probably like a lot of music students, especially pianists.  I knew I wanted to be a musician, but I had only a sort of vague idea of what that entailed.  I knew it meant playing music and eventually teaching, but I didn’t really have a clear idea until maybe 2003 or 2004, when I went to Banff.  I did a long residency there and really had time to come terms with the fact that the thing that I was not only the best at, but what I most enjoyed and was most interested in, was playing new music.  So that’s what I wanted to do.

NY:  Before Stony Brook I went to the Eastman School of Music for my undergraduate and masters.  During my time there, there were a lot of groups coming out of Eastman—Alarm Will Sound, JACK Quartet, to name just a couple. There were a lot of great musicians and this really vibrant atmosphere, so I knew from my last year of undergrad that I wanted to devote most of my time to playing new music with all of my classmates.  When I got to Stony Brook, I started realizing this was not just a selective group of students at the school who were into new music.  There were a lot more actually playing at a really high level.

A Yarn/Wire concert poster is attached to a wall across from shelves containing loads of instruments, such as, on one row, a bunch of bells.

FJO:  You formed initially to do a concert, but you weren’t really thinking beyond that. There was just some repertoire you wanted to play.  But there really isn’t a whole lot of repertoire for two pianists and two percussionists.  There are pieces by Bartók and Crumb plus I know a Cage piece that can kind of work for just the four people.

RG:  When we started, there was the Bartók, and works by Berio and Crumb, then there’s like a 20- or 30-year gap, and then there are all these European pieces that were co-commissioned by IRCAM for the Ensemble Intercontemporain and other groups like that.  So there’s a Lindberg piece from the ‘90s and Philippe Leroux has a piece—there’s all this heady electronic modernist kind of stuff—

LB:  —And post-spectral or spectral-influenced music.—

RG:  –So we started playing that stuff.  But I don’t think we’d ever do that concert again.

LB:  Our first concert was the hardest concert we’ve ever played.

RG:  It all had electronics written for IRCAM, so we had to go into MAX and figure it out for ourselves.

IA:  I remember someone who played the [Michael] Jarrell piece in Europe saying that IRCAM literally showed up with an 18-wheel tractor-trailer for all of the electronics gear.  We tried to do it ourselves with a mini-van.  It was so insane, hours and hours of wrapping cables without support staff.  Then the logistics of the percussion—at that time, we didn’t have all this gear [gestures around studio]; we really just had what we had at Stony Brook, and a couple of mallet instruments.

RG:  When you see what was being done in the ‘90s and early 2000s with gear and electronics, that’s all we had to build off of.  So we tried to conquer as much of that as we could.  But it’s a much different mindset than the kind of generative stuff that we do now which, in an ideal world, is asking a composer to have a very small set up and something that’s portable and tourable—something that we can do.

IA:  Or flexible.

RG: Yeah, at least. But it has changed.  In our early days, we were getting pieces that had already been played and we were trying to do our version.  After that initial bump, we started essentially generating material for ourselves.  We’re not co-composers with a lot of the composers that we’ve worked with, but we do collaborate on creating work now.  And that’s been really exciting.

FJO:  So how do you find composers that you want to work with?  Are they recommended?  Do you hear stuff?  How do you put your feelers out?  What’s your process for discovering something new?

NY:  I think just about everything you have mentioned, and more.  I get emails from various people that say, “Have you checked out this person yet?”  And also friends and past colleagues whom we’ve worked with from way before, we’re now thinking, “Can we actually commission this person for a new piece, not for a piece that was written for someone else?”

IA:  It’s largely people we know.

LB:   The new music community is tight-knit, maybe even more so by necessity in some places.  But in New York, there’s so much happening.  Just being aware of what’s going on here, of what’s going on around the United States, and trying to be an active member of the community is a good way to know what’s happening.

Being aware of what’s going on here, of what’s going on around the United States, and trying to be an active member of the community is a good way to know what’s happening.

RG:  I agree with what you guys are saying.  If you look at our first CD, every person on it was someone we knew and had known for years.  So you start with what you know.  Then after that, we got to expand the circle a little bit.  People would suggest things, like Ning said.  For myself, going to festivals internationally was another big way.  Like what Laura said, keeping an eye on the community here, but also paying attention to what’s happening abroad and what seems interesting.  That’s how I encountered Enno Poppe’s music for the first time.  I heard—I think it was—Ensemble Modern play it, and I was like, “This is it! We’ve got to work with this guy.”  It took many years, but then we got to work with Enno.

NY:  The next layer on top of that was getting to play a new work by someone like Tristan Murail, for example. He is not our friend on a personal level. But we also get together and say, “Who are our aspirational dream composers?”

RG:  Like Beethoven.  If he was alive, we would have asked him.

LB:  Totally!

FJO:  I imagine that for a lot of composers you’d be a dream ensemble.  So let’s say that somebody wants to write for you as opposed to you wanting them to write for you.  How does that work?  If somebody contacts you and says, “Oh, I have a great idea for a piece” or “I wrote this piece,” do you deal with envelopes coming in the mail with scores? Does anything ever pass go through that process?

IA:  I don’t think that’s ever happened.  We definitely get envelopes in the mail, but I don’t know if we’ve ever played one, only because we typically like to be involved with newer pieces on the ground level, from the conceptual process to the logistical process, then I think we all like to have a back and forth with composers: This is where we would play it.  This is maybe how long the piece could be. Then they would have this idea.  The back and forth aspect is one of the main things that we enjoy.

RG: All of us have a lot of agency and a lot of desires, and none of us wants to play something we don’t like.  So the matter of taste starts coming up.  I don’t even know how to begin to answer that question.

LB:  And it’s hard for pieces that are already written.  We can’t really do that.

We typically like to be involved with newer pieces on the ground level.

RG:  We can’t just play every piece that comes to us.  We don’t have a venue.  There are so many things that go into putting on a concert and presenting a piece.  So when you get someone saying, “Hey, I got something for you,” we’re really stoked about the idea, but there are only so many notes we can learn at a given time.  When we were students, time was unlimited almost.  But now, as we’re going further and further down this project, we have less of that time so it becomes a little bit harder.

IA:  Logistically also, we’ll get pieces in the mail. I think we always check out and listen to everything.  But I know this happened with me and Russell, we’ll be looking at a piece and it’s got four timpani and chimes. We actually don’t have timpani or chimes, so we just can’t do it.  It excludes it before it begins.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you don’t have timpani.

IA:  I think we have two not-good timpani for special effects like cymbal on timpani or crotale on timpani.

shelves of drums containing a timpano (upside down), three side drums, a pair of congas, and various drum stands.

A lone timpano, upside down, is among the many drums on shelves in the Yarn/Wire studio.

FJO:  That opens up another whole area of questions about what instruments you have and why you have them. Some of what you’ve amassed here, I imagine, came from specific requests from the composers who have worked with you.  I remember coming in here last summer and there being a bunch of bottles with rods in them which you needed, I think, for a piece you were rehearsing that Raphaël Cendo wrote for you. You probably didn’t have those beforehand.

IA:  Wine bottles are not hard for us to get.

NY:  We do acquire a lot of new things.

LB:  Small things.

NY:  Like, what was that, also in Cendo’s piece?

LB:  Oh, the flasks! We had to buy the kind of flask you tuck into your vest at a football game, if you’re wearing a vest. So we acquire a lot of smaller toys and tools.

FJO:  So it’s okay to acquire those, but not four timpani and chimes.

RG:  I would like to, if I could.

IA:  It’s a money thing.

RG:  We have that huge steel sheet also from the Cendo.  We had to go to the steel sheet place and get that cut.  But a set of chimes is a couple grand.

IA:  Seven thousand dollars.

RG:  Set of timpani, same.  So, context is everything.  If we get a grant to do it, yeah.  We’ll get some chimes.  I’d love to get some chimes.

Metal shelves filled with various small instruments as well as various small bells and gongs on a table.

Some of the small instruments warehoused in Yarn/Wire’s studio.

FJO:  But then another thing is how feasible is it to take the instruments on the road. You’ve all said you want things to be practical and you guys tour all the time.  But before we get into that, I’m curious—just in terms of the time factor, because you’ve said there isn’t a lot of time—how much time do you guys actually spend together?  What’s a typical week?

LB:  It definitely depends on how busy we are and how many concerts and projects we have going.  But I would say, at least for the past couple years, we see each other at least three times a week, most weeks.  And we’re in almost constant contact through email, text, and telephone.  So I would say we spend a lot of time together.

NY:  I cannot recall a work day—that’s basically saying Monday through Friday—that we did not communicate with each other.  Whether it’s through email, phone calls, or actually being in here. And that also sometimes includes weekends.  And in a tour situation, we are of course very compact throughout the time we’re on tour.  So we spend a fair amount of time with each other.

FJO:  And the amount of time spent here in this studio?

RG:  We probably do about 12 to 15 hours a week, four-hour blocks.  Some weeks more, some weeks less.

FJO:  If a string quartet wants to tour around the country, that means five airline tickets, one for each of the four players and one for the cello. But with the four of you, I imagine getting on an airplane might be a little trickier.  Obviously, you don’t need to bring your own pianos, but everything else gets packed up.  Right?

IA:  No, we don’t bring a ton. When we have very specific instruments we need, Russell and I will bring stuff.  But it’s limited to two checked bags.  We can check big bags if we need to, but a lot of the places we play will either rent the larger percussion instruments, or it might be at a university where they can wrangle the more generic-type instruments—marimba, vibraphone, those kinds of things.

NY:  Before we go to any venue, the contractual details are a little bit more extended than with a string quartet. We have to make sure that they’re able to host us and that they have all the things that we need.  Sometimes our programming is affected by what we can do in a particular location.

A lone cymbal is suspended on a stand amidst many other instruments including a marimba

FJO:  So, the practical factors that go into choosing a composer you want to work with on a piece: What is possible?  What isn’t possible?  I’m curious about that process.  How long does it take?  How involved are you with the composers while they’re writing their piece?  How often do pieces change from the moment you get handed the score before the first rehearsal to the actual performance?  What have been the extremes?

If you look at our past performances list and see how many times a given piece is programmed, usually it has to do with how logistically possible it is to do a piece.

RG:  Every extreme, you know, because you can say as much as you want but in the end the composer’s going give you the piece that they are going to give you.  In many cases we’ll say, “We would love to play this more than the premiere.” We’re always dedicated to the premiere, and we also want to play it after that.  But if they don’t follow certain things that we say—like, for instance, if you write for three waterphones, we’re never going to get to play that piece anywhere except for this time—it’s going to be very rare.  But if the composer really wants that, it’s going to happen.  We’re going to play the premiere.  They just need to know that it probably won’t get to happen again.  It’s really important that a piece becomes a part of the rep.  And if they’ll take those things into consideration, then we get to play them many times. If you look at our past performances list and see how many times a given piece is programmed, usually it has to do with how logistically possible it is to do a piece.

IA:  And we like to play pieces we like.

RG:  Yeah, that’s a given.

IA:  It’s the meeting of our desire to play a piece again and the logistical possibility of doing it.

NY:  Depending on the composer, the process is also very different.  Because everybody commands different processes. It seems like some people write incredibly fast and some people write incredibly slow.  Certain people really literally write and tell us, “I have a couple of pages.” Then a month later, “Never mind.  Completely new idea.” Then sometimes we don’t get a piece they’re talking about for like three years.  It all varies quite a bit.  But we are enjoying these different aspects of different composers, and their different personalities, as well.  So even ones that we’ve had to wait for three years for, once we have that final piece, it’s also very exciting.  And we’ll try to find every possible venue to perform it.

FJO:  You said final piece; I’m curious about things changing during the process.

Some composers will come in and we will in some ways create the piece together with them.

LB:  Yes.  I think a lot of composers—again just like they have different speeds of writing—have different levels of interest in our involvement and how they write the piece.  Some composers will come in and we will in some ways create the piece together with them.  We have done that before. They have an idea or a form they want to see or hear, and we work together to create that with them through trial and error, or just through playing.  We have composers who’ve come in and made recordings of us trying all sorts of different techniques on percussion and piano, and then they use that to sit down and write in isolation.  Or we all have sketches that we’ll play and some of them will become the piece and some of them don’t. But, for example, I guess we can bring up Murail again, who has a very defined voice and style.  He just wrote the piece, and we got it, and we played it, and that was that.

IA:  Fully engraved.

NY:  Beautiful, and ready to go.

FJO:  And you never met him.

LB:  Well, not at that stage.

RG:  But also then there are other pieces where you get the finished score, and the composer comes in and you’re like, “This doesn’t quite work” and they’re like “Alright, cool, I’ll change it.”  So then the final piece, as you’re calling it, is actually different than what we were sent.

LB:  Or there’s a notation of some technique that has never really been done before, so it’s not perfectly right.  So you and the composer have to find what that sound is.  What do you want?  How does this work?  And that might influence a later edition of that piece as well.

RG:  We even have pieces where we don’t have an official score. That has happened with a very recent one, and we can still play it.  Then we’ll see how the final score ended up—great—and it is the piece, but we actually just have this other thing that we worked on with the composer.

IA:  Reich’s Drumming didn’t have a score for many years.  It was just kind of an oral tradition.

FJO:  I remember that Misato Mochizuki purposefully didn’t give you the last page of her piece until the day before you were premiering it.  Part of her reason for doing that was about ensuring that there was an element of surprise for everybody, including the four of you.  But that’s obviously something you can only pull off at a premiere.  Once it becomes part of your repertoire, the surprise factor is gone unless there are indeterminate elements.  So how do you keep the surprise and the inquisitiveness going once something goes from being brand new to being repertoire?

RG:  We’ve continued to rehearse that piece, and we’ve played it a number of times.

IA:  The end of that piece that you’re talking about is a structure that she came up with in which the content is always filled a little bit differently.  We’re playing it again and she will be here, so I’m curious to see if it’s finished—or not finished, but now fully notated.  I don’t know what that will be like.

LB:  I would also add the performance aspect: any time you do something for the audience it’s new, and so you draw energy and inspiration from that.

Any time you do something for the audience it’s new, and so you draw energy and inspiration from that.

RG:  When we have been rehearsing that piece—we’ve played it like two or three times now since the premiere—every time when we come to it, what we rehearse is actually the pacing, the drama of that thing.  That’s actually a lot of work, because you have to step outside yourself and watch what’s happening with it.  That piece opened up a lot of questions about performance.

FJO:  Getting back to choices of composers.  You’ve now worked with a few very established composers: Tristan Murail, Michael Gordon, and Enno Poppe—you didn’t premiere his piece but you got to work with him on it.  You’ve also done a lot with younger composers and you talked about paying attention to the whole world, the whole U.S.A., and New York City, and you definitely maintain a balance of local and international composers. Additionally, I’m curious, your group is an even 50-50 split: it’s two men and two women.  You’ve worked with several female composers, but our field doesn’t exactly have the kind of gender parity that we might want for composers. So how do these issues factor into your choices of who to work with—gender, generation, geography?

LB:  I think we’re aware of all those things.  We don’t want to be tokenistic, but we also absolutely want to make sure that we are representing the number of really amazing women who are writing music.  So we are aware of that, and I think at the same time we want to work with people that we have access to.  It sounds a little pat to say, but I do think the most important thing, or the thing we want to hold onto, is we want to find good music and interesting music, and that really comes from so many different places.

IA:  Actually, the geography question is maybe the first one that comes up when we’re working on a new piece.  Who do we have access to? Who will we have the chance to be collaborative with?  That’s been maybe the primary driver.

RG:  There’s no prerequisite to who can write good music, so we’re just trying to find what fits that paradigm.  And again, we can’t really answer that.

A bunch of mallets next to a page from a score.

FJO:  One of my favorite pieces that you’ve done is a four-movement work by Andrew Nathaniel McIntosh, who is based in California.  I find his music utterly fascinating, but I first became aware of him in a somewhat random way. He’s not yet on a lot of people’s radar outside of the L.A. new music scene. A piece of his was chosen to be performed on the Gaudeamus Festival a few years back which is how I first learned about him.  Then a few years later, I noticed that you were performing a piece of his which at first I found somewhat baffling since I associate his music mostly with strings. He’s a string player himself and he creates very idiosyncratic microtonal music. It’s not the kind of thing that seems easily adaptable to your instrumentation since, I imagine, you tend to keep your pianos in 12-tone equal temperament.

RG:  I have this friend Corey Fogel; he’s a performance artist and a really great drummer.  He lives in L.A.  I also happen to be from L.A., so I see him every year around his birthday. We were talking about music and he sent a list of people to check out, and I checked out Andrew McIntosh. Andrew’s part of this publishing thing called Plainsound, so you can go on PlainSound.org and he’s listed.  Thomas Meadowcroft is there and Chiyoko [Szlavnics] is there. Quite a number of very experimental composers who are kind of on the—I hesitate to say it—outside; they’re outsider composers.  So the next time I came to L.A. I looked up Andrew and we just started talking.  That’s how that came about.  It was a personal connection.

FJO:  And the piece is microtonal, but not in the kind of systemic ways that a lot of his other stuff is.  So how did that work out?

IA:  He designed a set of pipes for us that are tuned in a very specific way. So that’s a microtonal aspect.

NY:  And also we play wine glasses and bowls filled with water.

LB:  Pitches change as you slowly add or take away water.

NY:  And even though we’re playing the same piano, somehow with the pedal and through the different partials of the harmonics, us playing a seventh or ninth, it creates an illusion of a certain kind of microtonality.  At least that’s how it sounded to me.

FJO:  We talked about working with a composer more than once.  Sam Pluta has written two really interesting and very different pieces for you.  This is a luxury.  We referenced string quartets before; composers tend to write a whole bunch of string quartets, but other ensembles rarely inspire such output. When we did a talk with the Imani Winds for NewMusicBox, they all opined about how most composers will probably write just one wind quintet so they rarely have the same level of familiarity, which comes from experience, of a composer who is in complete control of the ensemble’s resources.  You basically only get their first attempt.  I imagine the same is true for two pianos and percussion.  There certainly isn’t a tradition of writing for this ensemble.

One of the grand pianos in Yarn/Wire's studio.

NY:  I feel that this formation is not easy at all to write for; I can imagine the pain of writing for not just one piano, but two pianos. But the second time around, or the third or fourth time, there is a craft that’s being practiced, so I personally would be really interested in the number threes and number fours.  For example, like Alex Mincek’s new piece for us.  He totally delved into a different type of sound, and we’re just loving playing it.

RG:  That’s his second piece for us.

IA:  I think it is something that we’ve been purposefully doing.  It is actually the exact same thing you mentioned with Imani Winds—the idea of taking the model of writing multiple string quartets and getting multiple pieces.  I know we asked George Crumb a number of years ago if he would consider writing a second piece for our configuration.  He said he wasn’t really in the mood to do it, but he thought it was a great idea.

RG:  A good idea.

IA:  Yeah.  Maybe in a couple years he will want to do it.  He knows our desire is there.

RG:  It would be cool to see, like we have with Alex and Sam, another side of people.  How they develop too, because what’s the space between the two Mincek and Pluta pieces?  Like four or five years.

IA:  Six years.

RG:  That’s a lot of time to develop not only as a composer, but as a person.  Your interests change.

LB:  We’ve changed, too.

RG:  We can play differently, and it’s cool to work with people you know very well as you get older.  And then a new generation can do a whole concert of Pluta or a whole concert of Mincek!

IA:  Yeah.

NY:  The complete Mincek piano/percussion quartets.

FJO:  Then there’s the other extreme, which transcends considerations of whether something is a first piece or a fourth piece—something like what Michael Gordon wrote for you, which totally redefines what this ensemble could be and what you all can do as musicians. You all were all doing things I imagine you’ve never done before.  I’m curious about what the experience of working with him was like and how that piece evolved.

LB:  Well, for a long time Michael definitely was one of those aspirational composers with whom it would be really great to work someday.  He’s so busy, so it was not going to be easy.  But I think once we found the right way and the time, it was a really great process.

IA:  It was really collaborative. It was the most a composer has come to work with us just on pure sound ideas, because it was so specifically exploring what one grand piano can do.  And he probably has six hours of us on video.

RG: Most of that should just get tossed.

NY: There’s a lot of “what if you did that?” 

LB: And “how long could you do that one thing?”

NY:  Then we said, “Have you thought of that turned into this?  We could start at point A, and then go to point B.”  He’s like, “Oh, let me think about that.  And I’ll see you in two weeks.”  Then he comes back, “You know that point B was really interesting.  Can you do a reverse from point B, back to point A?”  So we didn’t know how this piece was going to pull together until pretty late.

IA:  It was really fluid.

RG:  Figuring out the connections.  This is one that we don’t use a score for.  We just have the material we created with him, pardon the pun—this is what the piece is called [Material]. But even the last day, we were changing things. We changed and eliminated.  It was awesome.

IA:  I think there are going to be maybe more tweaks.

RG:  Yup.

LB: And maybe more material. 

IA: Yeah, there could be. 

FJO:  One thing we haven’t talked about yet is the choreographic elements that are often a necessary ingredient to effectively perform your repertoire. It’s obviously very important to Michael Gordon’s piece.  This is the thing that I think people who haven’t written for this ensemble might not understand.  With a string quartet or a wind quintet, typically all the players have music stands and are playing in front of them.  But you move around, all of you.

LB:  Absolutely, yeah.

FJO:  So if a composer is creating a score in his or her studio and not working directly with you, the resulting piece might not be something that is always doable within the originally conceptualized time limits.

LB:  It’s very difficult to get that right.

NY:  With each piece, we talk about that aspect a lot—sometimes the logistics, but a lot of time about drama and about timing. It’s about suspense; it’s about just pure musicality, making something much more beautiful.

FJO:  So things you can do versus things you can’t do.  Things you feel uncomfortable doing.  Is there anything you wouldn’t do in a piece?

RG: Get bloody.

LB:  We would never want to injure ourselves.

NY:  Or the piano.

LB:  There is a limit. Many people would say that we’ve crossed that limit before. But a piano is actually a very strong instrument. The beating that the strings take from the hammers in a Beethoven sonata causes more wear to the instrument than a lot of the extended techniques we do.  However, that being said, there are things that do cross that line. We can’t unfortunately do a piece that asks us to snip the wires of the piano, unless it’s a site-specific piece that happens one time with an old piano.  Then we might do it.  But really, in all seriousness, we have to respect our own physicality and the instrument’s.

We have to respect our own physicality and the instrument’s.

RG:  If someone doesn’t want us doing things on a piano, that’s understandable.  We respect that and we’ll just change the rep.

FJO:  You’re all comfortable with improvisation, since obviously there are improvisatory elements as well as indeterminate elements in a lot of this music.

IA:  And there are two audience participation pieces that we’ve done, but they’re not very fleshed out.

FJO:  So do any of you write your own pieces?

RG:  I think we’ve all written stuff.

LB:  When I was younger I wrote some solo piano pieces for myself that probably should never see the light of day.  My own personal feeling is that composition is a practice and a craft. I would love to have the time to devote to developing that in a way that respects the notion of being a composer.  In some ways, I feel like I don’t have time to do that, so I don’t want to ever call myself a composer because I haven’t put in that time.

I don’t want to ever call myself a composer because I haven’t put in that time.

IA:  I’ve written a lot of youth percussion ensemble music, but that doesn’t take the same time as writing a piece for us to play.

NY:  So the short answer is we don’t play each other’s music.  Not really.

FJO:  I know that this might be difficult to talk about, but I have to bring up the M-Prize and the really profound article Mark Stryker wrote about it—“In first year, M-Prize chooses the past over the future.”  He deeply believed—as did I and a lot of other people—that you should have won the award rather than a quartet that’s devoted to standard repertoire, as fine as they are.  And I think that he really made a very persuasive case.  And yet, mea culpa, even he in that brilliant article wrote, and I quote, “To be clear: I’m not saying that Yarn/Wire’s music, as compelling as it was, is as great as the best of Debussy, Haydn, etc. No repertoire in classical music is more profound than the string quartet monuments that have stood the test of time.”  Is that true?

IA:  Well, they certainly stood the test of time.  You can’t argue with that point.

FJO:  So could a piece written for two pianos and two percussionists ever be as profound as one of the great string quartets?  Could it stand the test of time?  Will it stand the test of time?  Are there pieces that you’re playing that you feel are as great?

RG:  Can we even answer that? I don’t know.  I’ll be dead.

IA:  If someone else is going to play it and decide, maybe. Who knows what the politics will be like in the world?  Who knows anything?  There are pieces that feel good to me.  But I don’t know if they feel as good as—what were you playing yesterday? “Doin’ it Right”? Maybe Daft Punk will stand the test of time for that.

LB:  I think maybe what he’s trying to say is there is a historical tradition. It’s like saying music for flute is not as good as music for piano, because there’s a huge wealth and multi-century tradition of writing for keyboard instruments as a solo instrument.  So, I understand what he’s saying, but I think at the same time, in a way, it doesn’t matter.

A page from one of the drum parts for one of the pieces in Yarn/Wire's repertoire.

RG:  There are a lot of political things behind that question.  What kind of music are we talking about?  What’s the history of that music?  Where are we now?  Who gets to hear that music?  It doesn’t really matter without defining your audience first.  Without defining all those things, it’s a hard question to ask.  What about jazz? Go and listen to Ascension or Giant Steps.  To me, that’s just as strong as that other music.

LB:  Why do we have to limit our discussion to the classical canon?  Music is not necessarily bound anymore, so when we talk about music, it doesn’t feel relevant anymore to only talk about the “Western art tradition” as the only evolved or valuable tradition.  If people feel that way, that’s fine.  I don’t personally happen to feel that way, and I don’t think any of us really do.

RG:  Where does Michael Gordon fit in comparison with any of those other pieces?  How were those other pieces developed?  Were they just developed by themselves?  We don’t actually know one hundred percent.  So maybe we are following in that tradition.  But to compare the Gordon with a string quartet or a symphony or whatever, I don’t even know how that practice of composition is even relatable.

Layers of understanding and meaning accrue over time.

IA:  One thing I would add, though, is that string quartet played some Mendelssohn, or maybe Beethoven, and some Haydn. If you’re comparing that to some repertoire that we play currently—we’ve been rehearsing George Crumb’s piece for the past couple of days.  That piece is from the early ‘70s.  Something that we’ve referenced in our rehearsals is the tradition of playing that piece—like listening to the recording that our teachers made.  Talking about the string quartet repertoire, people have built on many interpretations. There’s now a performance practice that’s been enriched over generations.  I think that’s something that we can see happening with some pieces that maybe are older in our repertoire. Layers of understanding and meaning accrue over time.  There’s also that which you can’t really compare.

NY:  It’s not a value thing.  It’s simply a performance practice question.

RG:  It’s also partly an audience familiarity thing.  To be honest, if you’re familiar with a piece already, like maybe if someone hears composer X’s new piece five or six times over the course of their life, that becomes as important.

LB:  I can definitely attest to the fact that if you’ve never heard Beethoven before, and you hear a Beethoven string quartet, and all you grew up listening to is, say, salsa music, you have a very different reaction to hearing it for the very first time.  And it’s not the same as someone who grew up listening to classical music and going to concerts, or even just being steeped in a certain cultural tradition.  You know, growing up hearing film scores primes your brain to hear instrumental music in a way that if you come from a culture where that’s maybe not as important or as accessible, you’re not going to have that foundation.

FJO:  It’s interesting to hear you talk about listening to recordings of the Crumb, because one of the things that you’ve done in terms of legacy is that you’ve documented your performances and have made them available through recordings.  You have a disc on Wergo, you recorded a few discs for various independent labels, and you’ve also self-released three recordings—all three last year, in fact!  In an era where—for better or worse—recordings are far less remunerative, this is quite an investment. Do you feel that this is an effective way to get that music out beyond live performance?

IA:  It definitely reaches more people than it would if we didn’t do it.

NY:  I think this very last one, Yarn/Wire/Currents Vol. 3, sold really well. But it’s not about selling, it’s really about people hearing it and saying wow.  And then writing to us.  They’re not just complete strangers, but also colleagues who are being moved and are saying how much they enjoyed the music, how much they love certain pieces.  So I don’t think recordings are over because we cannot play Sam’s piece in every single city.

It’s not about selling, it’s really about people hearing it and saying wow.

RG:  When I was in college, I would buy all those Donaueschingen [Musiktage festival] records, those two to four CD sets.  I had no access to any of that music except through those CDs.  So as we’re generating this music, I was like this could be a really cool thing to be able to do something like what they did.  I mean, it’s nothing compared to Donaueschingen—but to have the music out there, so people could check it out if they don’t see the one concert of that stuff that we’re going to do in New York and maybe never again.  It is a way for people to have access to that music.  It’s really expensive to go into a studio, so what we do is we document the shows and we put it out.  You can donate for the CDs, and for the stream if you want.  But it doesn’t even matter.  Hopefully it’s a way for students and people who just like new music to get to the stuff.  And like Ning said, there’s been a really good response from that. The internet lets you see how many people are listening to stuff, and that’s cool.  But that’s beside the point.  The point is that more people have access to it.  And then you’ve developed this history—a performance practice, like Ian’s talking about.  All these things are part of creating that culture, that community behind the music, so it’s not just this one-off thing.  We spent so much time on it; the more people that get to hear it, the better.

FJO:  Another thing you’re doing to give something back to the community is you’re now off to do a ten-day workshop back at Stony Brook, of all places.  You’ve come full circle.

IA:  We’re going to play ten brand-new pieces by institute participants.

LB:  We and our instrumental participants—all of us together. We’re also going to play a few other—sort of “standard”—pieces. It’s weird to call them standard.

IA:  They’re non-premieres.

Russell Greenberg, Laura Barger, Ning Yu, and Ian Antonio holding hand instruments.

Yarn/Wire (from left to right): Russell Greenberg, Laura Barger, Ning Yu, and Ian Antonio.

Eleanor Cory: What I Really Want To Do

Eleanor Cory is one of the most unassuming composers I have ever encountered. I had seen her at new music concerts all around New York City for many years before I made the mental connection that she was the same person whose music I knew from recordings on CRI, Soundspells, and Albany.  When I finally started having conversations with her during intermissions at some of these concerts, I was struck by how much she valued listening to other people’s music. This prompted me to revisit her music, mindful of that devotion, and as a result I began to hear the subtle interplays between instruments in her carefully crafted chamber music in an entirely different way. It turns out that it is the way that she hears her own music.

“There is dialogue in my music; the instruments are people in some way,” Cory explained when we finally had a chance to talk to each other in the presence of a video camera in her Upper West Side Manhattan apartment on a mid-July afternoon.  And as far as being influenced by other composers goes, she never lets her ego get in the way of where the music needs to go. As she elaborated, “I like to put things that don’t immediately seem to belong together into the same piece.  From [listening to] one piece I may get a dramatic shape, and from something else I might just get some great chords.  There are many ways of using the same chords.”

A passage from the score of Eleanor Cory's String Quartet No. 3.

A passage from the score of Eleanor Cory’s String Quartet No. 3. Copyright © 2015 by Eleanor Cory. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved.
All rights administered throughout the world by American Composers Alliance (BMI). Used with permission of the composer.

One of the biggest inspirations for her has been jazz, even though she has never aspired to be a jazz musician:

I didn’t think that I have a natural ability to do it.  I came from a very typical suburban family. … I wasn’t the kind of person that could hear jazz and then reproduce it.  Maybe that’s what I thought had to happen. … I heard this music when I was teenager.  I lived in New Jersey and my brother would bring me with his friends to all those clubs, like Birdland, so I had all that music in my ear.  But you couldn’t do that at Columbia University.

Her years of compositional training—first at Sarah Lawrence College with Meyer Kupferman then with Charles Wuorinen at NEC, and finally at Columbia with Bulent Arel, Chou Wen-chung, and Mario Davidovsky—gave her a very deep immersion in the 12-tone method. But despite this meticulous grounding in sets and combinatoriality, Cory’s phrases echoed bebop. And then she had an epiphany that encouraged her to go deeper in that direction from a seemingly unlikely source: the doyen of 12-tone composers, Milton Babbitt, with whom she had never studied.

“A piece of mine was on a concert at Merkin Hall and a piece by Milton was on the same concert,” she remembered.  “At the intermission, we were on stage talking about our pieces.  At one point, he looked at me and he said, ‘What I really like in your music is the bebop jazz influence.’  He knows that music so well.  And this whole part of me just relaxed.  I can do this!  … Suddenly I found these kind of overlappings. I could go from one to the other. Then I began just saying to myself, ‘Okay, I’m going to sit at the piano and I’m going to play chords.  Chords that I like.  Period.  I’m just going to play whatever’s in there.’  And so many of them came out. I wasn’t using rows anymore.  This was really exciting.  Then I realized, if you took them apart, many of them were the same chords that might be 0-1-3-9s—you know, this stupid language—or 0-2-5-8. I could practically play all these chords and they would be the same chords, but in different inversions.  My ear was in both places, but they were coming together.”

Last year, Naxos American Classics released a disc featuring some of Cory’s most recent works. Her compositional language has grown even more eclectic. There are suggestions of minimalism in the frenetic conclusion of her Third String Quartet from 2009 and there’s even some effusive neo-romanticism in her 2012 Violin Sonata No. 1. (“I can’t believe I never wrote a violin sonata!  I think maybe I was scared to do it because there were so many great ones.”) But the jazziest of the pieces is, fittingly, Things Are, a 2011 duo for flute and piano written in memory of Milton Babbitt.

The cover for the 2015 Naxos American Classics CD of music by Eleanor Cory

The latest CD devoted exclusively to Eleanor Cory’s music was issued last year on Naxos American Classics (8.559784).
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A conversation at Eleanor Cory’s apartment in New York City
July 8, 2016—3:30 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: You seem to place tremendous value on listening to other people’s music. I’ve seen you in the audience for so many different concerts I’ve attended, for probably nearly 20 years.

Eleanor Cory:  Wow, that’s a long time.

FJO: It’s always made me curious about how many performances you attend.

EC:  Maybe one or two a week.  Occasionally there’ll be some crazy week where there will be more than that.  But sometimes there are big spaces where I don’t go to any; there just isn’t anything in particular that I want to hear.

FJO: And yet you seem open to a really wide range of music. I’ve seen you at many performances by the more established new music ensembles uptown, but I’ve also run into you at some more experimental things either downtown or in Brooklyn.

EC: I like getting ideas and just being there.

FJO:  I also know that you’re a big fan of jazz. Somehow, I can hear all of that when I listen to your music, even though you’re not composing in those styles. You’ve absorbed these other musical languages and have made aspects of them part of your own vocabulary.

I think that by nature as a composer, I like to put things that don’t immediately seem to belong together into the same piece.

EC: I think that by nature as a composer, I like to put things that don’t immediately seem to belong together into the same piece.  From [listening to] one piece I may get a dramatic shape, and from something else I might just get some great chords.  There are many ways of using the same chords.  But I also just like going and seeing people, then talking to composers right after their pieces are played, just to ask them questions on the spot, or to tell them how much I liked the piece.  I’m curious and, by nature, I’m always asking people questions.  People say, “You ask too many questions!”  Sometimes it’s interpreted as butting in or stepping on someone’s privacy.  I just like to be aware and maybe I’ll get some ideas.  Maybe I’ll try something that’s out of my box.

FJO:  In terms of out of your box, it was interesting seeing you at National Sawdust during the New York City Electronic Music Festival, since as far as I know you don’t compose electronic music.

EC:  But my husband [Joel Gressel] does.  He wasn’t on that particular concert, but he wanted to go to some of them.  Alice Shields was on another concert, and she’s a friend of both of ours. And Tuck [Hubert Howe] is an old friend.  They went to Princeton together, so we’ve known him a long time, too. So we figured, let’s go hear his piece.  And there aren’t too many purely electronic music concerts these days, I don’t think.

A portrait of Joel Gressel and Eleanor Cory sits next a sculpture in Cory's composition studio.

A portrait of Joel Gressel and Eleanor Cory sits next a sculpture in Cory’s composition studio.

FJO:  So has electronic music influenced you as a composer in any way?

EC:  I think it has. Back when I was at Columbia, I took one course with Mario Davidovsky and it was so wonderful.  He would just dance around.  It was the old days where you had to cut little snippets and then tape them.  I had no ability.  It just wasn’t my thing.  And computer music with Charles Dodge—not at all.  I had another teacher for a while who’s been dead for a long time named Bülent Arel, and he did a lot of that.  There was something about the notelessness of some of it.  And I’ve heard a lot of it.  Of course a lot of people do it with real notes, but it was mostly those guys that were doing these interesting sounds that I thought was very interesting—that wildness, things really fast that are not playable by human beings.  Maybe part of it, for me, is getting that feeling, that energy, trying to get the instruments a little bit out of what they usually do.  Maybe that’s analogous to these electronic sounds.  Maybe living with my husband. He does all kinds of strange sounds, although he tends to use electronic sounds more orchestrally.  That’s another whole story.

Joel Gressel and Eleanor Cory laughing while playing on a piano together.

Joel Gressel and Eleanor Cory playing piano four-hands on June 16, 1973, the eve of their wedding (photo courtesy Tamar Cory Gressel).

FJO:  Now, if you’re really deep into working on a piece, do you feel the need to create some kind of separation between you and other people’s music?

EC:  I don’t think so.  Sometimes if I’m deeply into a piece, it’s really nice to get away from it and go to hear something else and not think about it.  I think I compartmentalize like that.  And I do a lot of other things to put the piece aside.  I may do some reading or some physical activity.  I may sit with friends and talk about music or not music.  Then I come back to the piece.  And a lot of times, I do think that a lot of other things that I do feed into the music. If I’m having a really animated conversation, I might just have an animated conversation with a bunch of instruments. I also go to poetry readings pretty often, and that’s all musical kind of thought—to me a lot of it is.  So I think that’s also something that has an effect on what I’m doing.

FJO:  That’s clear even in the titles of your pieces.  You wrote a really nice piano trio which you called Conversation, and it does in fact sound like one to some extent.  So was there an actual specific conversation you had with people that inspired you?

EC:  I don’t think so.  It was just thinking about how people interact with each other. So I just thought of the instruments as talking to each other, then picking up ideas from each other and giving them back, or talking at once—you get a sort of more chaotic thing.  Slowing down and speeding up, little time to think, then getting back into it.  A sudden wait.  Those kind of moments. It starts maybe as words and then suddenly they’re notes.  There is dialogue in my music.  The instruments are people in some way.  Not for every piece, but I want the people playing those instruments to connect with one another as though they were people in a conversation.

FJO:  Of course, there’s a delicate balance between being mindful of the musicians for whom you are initially writing and creating something that could go on to be performed by many other musicians.

EC:  If I know the actual players I’m writing for, then of course I do kind of think of them playing it.  And I definitely think, “What does this one do really well?”  And I think of something I may have heard them do.  But I don’t think it goes too far.  It’s just a way of getting started with an idea.  Then you’re back to notes, rhythms, range, tempos, and the usual stuff of music.

Joel Gressel and Eleanor Cory on a bench in a park.

Joel Gressel and Eleanor Cory (photo by Tamar Cory Gressel).

FJO:  As to the usual stuff in your music, I certainly hear elements that are clearly tonal or modal and others that seem dodecaphonic. And, in particular, harmonies and phrasings that bear a strong resemblance to jazz even though your music does not incorporate improvisation.

I’m going to sit at the piano and I’m going to play chords that I like.  And so many of them came out. I wasn’t using rows anymore.  This was really exciting.  Then I realized, if you took them apart, many of them were the same chords that might be 0-1-3-9s—you know, this stupid language—or 0-2-5-8. … My ear was in both places, but they were coming together.

EC:  Well, I had such a heavy dose of 12-tone stuff with Charles Wuorinen—rows and retrogrades.  So that was in my ear. And Babbitt’s music, but I didn’t study with him.  In fact, I’ll tell you one very relevant story.  A piece of mine was on a concert at Merkin Hall and a piece by Milton was on the same concert.  At the intermission, we were on stage talking about our pieces.  At one point, he looked at me and he said, “What I really like in your music is the bebop jazz influence.”  He knows that music so well.  And this whole part of me just relaxed.  I can do this!  It’s what I really want to do, because I heard this music when I was teenager.  I lived in New Jersey and my brother would bring me with his friends to all those clubs, like Birdland, so I had all that music in my ear.  But you couldn’t do that at Columbia University.  Suddenly I found these kind of overlappings. I could go from one to the other. Then I began just saying to myself, “Okay, I’m going to sit at the piano and I’m going to play chords.  Chords that I like.  Period.  I’m just going to play whatever’s in there.”  And so many of them came out. I wasn’t using rows anymore.  This was really exciting.  Then I realized, if you took them apart, many of them were the same chords that might be 0-1-3-9s—you know, this stupid language—or 0-2-5-8. I could practically play all these chords and they would be the same chords, but in different inversions.

My ear was in both places, but they were coming together.  I was comfortable with using them, and then I could choose my own order.  I didn’t have to have the I chord then the IV chord; I could just say, “Well, let’s try this one. I’ll change the range, and I’ll put this note up an octave.  Then I’ll scrunch them all together.”  I wasn’t writing any melodies, just putting together a progression based on my ear basically to see what would happen.  And I liked it.  Other people liked it, so that was good.  Then I made melodies out of chords, and put things on top of each other.  I often write words before I start writing music.  I’ll write a story that I want to tell, which isn’t really about people or anything; it’s just the moods that I’m going to have and then interruptions, people arguing, etc. I’ll just have these thoughts of what I want the music to be like.

A Steinway grand piano with an open score on its music rack.

An old Steinway grand piano resides in the middle of Cory’s living room.

FJO:  These narratives seem so important to your creative process, and sometimes you’ve offered hints of that with titles like, as we spoke of before, Conversation. There are many other pieces of yours whose titles allude to this same line of thinking—Interview, Pas de Quatre, even pieces like Play Within a Play and Chasing Time. But it’s less apparent when you title something, say, String Quartet No. 3, which just tells people it’s the third somewhat long form piece you’ve composed for two violins, a viola, and a cello, or Violin Sonata No. 1 which is pretty recent so I was surprised that it was your first one!

EC:  Isn’t that amazing? I can’t believe I never wrote a violin sonata!  I’ve done bigger groups, or smaller, just not a violin sonata.  I think maybe I was scared to do it because there were so many great ones.  If you write a sonata for solo bass, that’s different.  So I just decided to do it, and that’s why it was number one.

A passage from the score of Eleanor Cory's Violin Sonata No. 1


A passage from the score of Eleanor Cory’s Violin Sonata No. 1. Copyright © 1991 by Eleanor Cory. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved.
All rights administered throughout the world by the Association for the Promotion of New Music (BMI). Used with permission of the composer.

FJO: So if there is a back story to any of these more abstractly titled pieces, do you feel it’s important for listeners to know about it?

EC:  They can read my program notes, but I don’t think it is.  I have program notes that are poems, if a piece is written about a poem.  But I hope it doesn’t matter whether they get “the” story, whatever it was. I want them to enjoy the piece, and to feel emotional things. So I don’t think I care, although I will sometimes put in a program note something about voices interacting and sometimes I don’t.

FJO:  Now, along those same lines, using rows versus not using rows—once upon a time, it was very important for composers to say this is based on such and such a row, and now people tend to shy away from talking about that because that way of thinking about music somehow got vilified. Very few people these days seem to acknowledge that they’re writing 12-tone music.  You even said you were happy to escape the row but, from what I can hear at least, these compositional techniques—or at least the melodic and harmonic possibilities that they open up—still inform your language to some extent.

EC:  Oh, that’s interesting.  I don’t think so.  I think of it as being quite separate.  I associate it so much with being a student, and being a brand new composer, and being just happy to be a composer and being told what to do by Charles Wuorinen.  This is what everybody’s doing now.  You better get to it.  This is what everyone’s doing, and so I’m going to do this, too.  Taking my own chords, using my own ears, and getting jazz in was a big rebellion for me against what I had been given.

FJO:  It was interesting for me to read in the autobiographical essay that you shared with me the other day that when you first started writing music at Sarah Lawrence College, Meyer Kupferman told you not to worry about theory or harmony, and that your initial reaction was that you didn’t know what to do. But you had to do something because the piece was due the following week.

EC:  Right.  Don’t come in here unless you have one.  It was very scary. It was really just a “one note, then another note, what am I going to do now” kind of thing. But I think that was wonderful. I somehow wanted to do the class. I didn’t have to take that class.  I just thought maybe I’d like to try composing, because we did all this improvising. Everybody had different instruments.  There was nothing about “now we’re going to be in G major.”  It was just “now we’re going to have a fox going up a tree” or “now we’re going to have a flame.”  Then we would have to listen to each other, and if the bass started doing something, then I’d have to do this on the piano to respond to her.  And a violin would come in and do a line over it. It’s just as though we were dancing almost.

We were just kind of improvising with our bodies and whatever instruments we played.  Some of them were scratching on their instruments, or playing them upside down—people doing funny sounds, some of what now happens all the time, these strange sounds from flutes, and there was no judgement.  We just did these things.  And then they got more and more specific, and we began to have piano concertos or flute concertos, and the rest of us would be the orchestra.  So it got you feeling about how music goes.  We’d all heard music, but to have actually tried to write in the style of Mozart or something would not have been possible at that point, especially without knowing theory.

FJO:  So you started out as a pianist, and your initial background in composing came out of improvisation.  And you also have a deep love of jazz. It’s interesting that you did not pursue being a jazz pianist. You probably could have.

EC:  I don’t think so. It would have been so far from my imagination because I don’t think I knew of any women jazz players, not that I was thinking about that too much.  I just thought it was something you were born with.  I still almost think that.  Some people can just sit down and improvise jazz.  I don’t have that.  Does that make sense?

FJO:  Yes and no.  Because you also wrote in that essay that you were initially not aware of any women who composed music and that did not stop you from becoming a composer.

EC:  But I never gave it a thought.  I did with jazz.  But maybe that was just another way of saying I didn’t think that I have a natural ability to do it.

FJO:  But you do. I think it’s worth talking about this in greater detail because I think it speaks to what leads people down certain paths. Role models are extremely important. In the year 2016, there are tons of prominent female composers—though of course women have been writing music for thousands of years.  But most concerts of older classical music still feature music exclusively by men. There’s also a tremendous gender disparity in jazz. As a young person wanting to engage in these kinds of activities, it can be difficult to find a way to identify with it.  Yet you still found a way to identify with being a composer but not with being a jazz musician.

A childhood photo of Eleanor Cory.

A childhood photo of Eleanor Cory. (Photo courtesy Tamar Cory Gressel.)

I knew the words to all the songs. I listened to it all the time. I always had Dave Brubeck and all these people on my machine. And I just loved it. But at that stage in my life I also wasn’t really thinking about being any kind of composer.

EC:  I came from a very typical suburban family in New Jersey.  Music was in the house all the time because my father loved music, and we went to concerts.  So I got reinforcement for playing the piano and for loving music. Then I went to a girls’ school because a lot of people from that culture went to girls’ schools.  So I went to a boarding school that was a girls’ school and then I went to Sarah Lawrence.  While it didn’t occur to me to write music—because all composers were men—as soon as this was presented to me, I was very happy with it.  I mean, I think I was nervous and afraid, but I didn’t think about not doing it.  I very much wanted to do it.  So why didn’t I want to do jazz?  I don’t think that was really anything to do with being a woman.  I wasn’t the kind of person that could hear jazz and then reproduce it.  Maybe that’s what I thought had to happen.  I guess I could have just started studying it or however people start to do it.  I don’t know why I thought that I loved it so much but I couldn’t do it.

FJO:  But then decades later, that love came out in your music in your own way.

EC:  Because it was in there.  I knew the words to all the songs.  I listened to it all the time.  I always had Dave Brubeck and all these people on my machine.  And I just loved it.  But at that stage in my life I also wasn’t really thinking about being any kind of composer.  Maybe I thought I was just going to graduate and not compose anymore.  I was going to teach music to kids.  That’s what I would do with a music degree.  So I was teaching in this school and I wasn’t really composing.  Then I started to take other classes in other places, and I started composing again.  I had a teacher at the Longy School and then I went to NEC.  But I think it was just something that was in my life; I was still more of a pianist.

Eleanor Cory sitting on a bench in Straus Park

FJO:  So in terms of finding mentors, at some point you learned about Ursula Mamlok and Joan Tower and I know that connecting with them was very important to you.

EC:  When I got to Joan and Ursula, I really liked their music. That was the first time that I felt in synch with composers in general, and women composers in particular.

FJO:  What was interesting about Meyer Kupferman being your first teacher was that even though he was a 12-tone composer, he was also deeply interested in jazz. Every piece of his was based on the same tone row, which he used because it yielded particular jazz progressions.

EC:  That’s what I learned to do, too.  I learned to do collections of pitches that would yield these kinds of jazz things.

FJO:  So long before Babbitt said that he liked the bebop influence in your music, which you said gave you the license to really explore that direction, you had already been exposed to a model for doing that.

EC:  Yes, exactly. And Meyer was part of that, definitely.

FJO:  This also brings us back to your whole conceptualization of music as a dialogue between different musicians, which is a common trait both of small combo jazz and classical chamber music. It’s perhaps no surprise that you’re predominantly a chamber music composer.  You’ve written a few orchestra pieces, but it seems to be less of a focus for you. I’ve only heard one of them, Canyons.

EC:  They just haven’t been recorded.  It’s such a big deal to get them [recorded].  There are two others.  I should be better at sending them out.

A passage from the score of Eleanor Cory's orchestral composition Canyons

A passage from the score of Eleanor Cory’s Canyons. Copyright © 1991 by Eleanor Cory. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved.
All rights administered throughout the world by the Association for the Promotion of New Music (BMI). Used with permission of the composer.

FJO:  But certainly the orchestra is less amenable to the kinds of dialogues between equal participants that are so central to your personal aesthetic. The structure is much more hierarchical.  It’s almost more like military formation. So maybe your sensibilities are not necessarily there, which might be why you haven’t done more.

EC:  I don’t think that would be a reason why I wouldn’t write for orchestra.  The orchestra has all the colors and all the interesting doublings, and all that spatial stuff. But how things come along are that people say they want this piece; you have a deadline and you have to finish it.  And it’s not as though orchestras are coming along.  Although Composers Concordance has an orchestra, and they just asked me write a piece.  I had never been asked to write an orchestra piece by anyone.  And I would like to have it played.

FJO:  But perhaps, dare I say this, much as I like that one orchestral piece of yours I know, Canyons, it sounds very different from the rest of your music.

EC:  You think so?  That’s interesting.  How?

FJO:  It’s dealing with massed sonorities so it doesn’t engage in the same kind of interplay that your music usually does.

EC:  Oh, I see what you’re saying. But I think of the crux of my music as being so harmonic, and the harmonies are there.  And I was thinking of instrumental groups interacting with each other.  The violins are going to talk to the horns. I probably was thinking in those ways as well as building up big sounds; it’s always about something kind of dramatic happening.  Maybe it’s not always analogous to human beings. But I see what you’re saying. I’m going to listen that way to the orchestra piece and see how that’s different.

FJO:  You’ve written a band piece, too, but I’ve never heard it. I’m curious about it.

EC:  Well, I was teaching at Kingsborough Community College, and at the point that I got there, they had a huge music program. They had a band and good players.  It was amazing.  They had a whole orchestra, too, and I wrote for that orchestra, too. So that was why I wrote it.  I had to make it easy because there were students playing. It was a fun thing to do.  But I don’t think I would say I want to write a band piece now, though I’m sure if I did I could have a better time getting it played than orchestra pieces.

FJO:  You’d have a much better time, I think. The band world is much more conducive to doing new pieces than orchestras are, by and large. You managed to get a solid recording of one of your orchestra pieces, but you had to go to Poland for it and, I imagine, to pay for it.

EC:  Well, that recording was conducted by Joel Suben.  He connected with the orchestra and got a very good price.  Then I had faculty grants from the City University of New York, so I could finance it. That really helped a lot.  And he knew the piece; it wasn’t some guy just reading it off.  That made a huge difference.

The cover for Eleanor Cory's CD Images.

A CD devoted to the music of Eleanor Cory on Meyer Kupferman’s Soundspells Productions label (CD-116) featuring her orchestral composition Canyons performed by the Polish Radio Nation Symphony conducted by Joel Eric Suben
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FJO:  They’re fabulous musicians and it’s great for our music to cross international borders, but this is yet another example of this huge body of orchestral music by American composers that has never been done by an American orchestra. The whole structure of how an orchestra operates makes it so much more complicated to bring new pieces to life—the limited rehearsal time, the budget, the basic things that go into making orchestral music happen at this point in time.

EC:  It’s just impossible.  We can blame the audiences.  That’s what people do.  Nobody wants to hear this crazy new music. Orchestra-going people just want to hear the same old, same old.  Isn’t that the usual line that you hear?

FJO:  But is it really true, or is it something else?

EC:  I don’t know, because now we’ve got a lot of European orchestra composers.  Kaija Saariaho, for instance.  Her music’s just crazy wild, and people love it.  She’s very successful.  And I’m really happy about that.  That gets back to this co-existence of very different kinds of music. People are not saying you have to do this kind or that kind. Everyone’s finding a place for themselves in different places.

FJO:  In terms of finding a place in different places, you mentioned that you go to lots of poetry readings. I know that you write poetry as well, and you’ve been working on publishing a book of poetry.

Wall to wall bookshelves surround a work station with a laptop and a chair.

Just a couple of the many bookshelves in Eleanor Cory’s apartment.

EC:  I’ve been doing that for a while. I’ve always had little notebooks and have written in them when I was on the subway. It was not really a diary—like, today I did this—just ideas.  And then, I don’t know why, all of a sudden I just decided I’ll take a poetry class at the 92nd Street Y.  I was writing more and more poems.  Then I went to the MacDowell Colony, and there were some poets and we were all talking about poems. Finally I said, “Well, I’ve written a few poems.”  And they said, “I want to see your poems.”  And I said, “Well it’s so hard, because I’m already doing one art. How could I possibly be a composer and also write poems?”  They said, “That’s ridiculous.  I also do something.  I’m a painter, but I also whatever.”  So they looked at my poems and they said, “These are good.  You should keep writing poems.”  And I think that’s what did it—them saying, “Don’t worry that you are never going to be as good a poet as you are a composer.  Don’t even think about those things.  It’s just another side of you.”  Then I really had some good teachers.  I met all these other people, and we all got to be friends.  Most of them had not been poets before, and we just all get together once a month and read our poems to each other. We have little readings and they say, “You’ve got to send your poems out.”  So I’ve had a bunch of them published.  And now I’ve got this book ready and I’ve got to figure out how I’m going to get that published.  But it could happen.

FJO:  Now, in terms of your setting other poets to music, you wrote a piece for chorus and brass ensemble with a text by Wallace Stevens, whose poetry can be very tricky to set because of the irregularity of his phrases.  You made it very musical.  I wonder if the experience of being a poet affects you as a composer when you treat someone else’s words, if perhaps you have a greater sensitivity.

A passage from the score of Eleanor Cory's composition Of Mere Being

A passage from the score of Eleanor Cory’s Of Mere Being (poetry by Wallace Stevens). Music copyright © 1987 (revised 1997) by Eleanor Cory. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved.
All rights administered throughout the world by the Association for the Promotion of New Music (BMI). Used with permission of the composer.

It was interesting the first time when I was setting my own poem to music. I had to be the subjective outsider.

EC:  I think so. It was interesting the first time when I was setting my own poem to music.  I had to be the subjective outsider.  It had to be somebody else over here who wrote this poem.  But then I did a piece last year for Ensemble π, where they had this theme. So I set one poem written by a prisoner who had gotten out of prison, and then the other poem was one of my own.  I think I was hearing the music a little bit as I was writing the poem.  I think I knew my instruments, and I was just hearing a line every now and then as I was writing the poem.  You know, the violin would like to do this.  I’m much more conscious of doing more metrical poems than I used to.  They used to be sort of abstract, because those were the poets that I knew.  But now I feel like I should study meter just like I studied key signatures and scales. So I’ve learned more about poetry and now sometimes these musical things are in my head as I’m writing.  It’s much easier to mix them. Or I don’t have to worry about it as much.

FJO:  It’s funny because we initially were talking about the breaking down of styles and pluralism in today’s music world.  Besides this rarified world we find ourselves in, in almost every other musical genre—whether it’s punk rock or bluegrass—there isn’t such a separation between writing words and writing music. People either collaborate on songs together or they write songs by themselves, words and music.

EC:  Yeah.  I’m going to write a song.  That’s what they’re doing.  And the words and the music come together for these guys.  For me, this is sort of a new thing.  But I see it’s kind of ass backwards because I wrote this other stuff for such a long time.

FJO:  Now once you have a published book of poetry out there, there’s a possibility that some other composer would set some of your poems to music.

EC:  That would be great.  I’d love to see it.  I’d be really curious to know what they would do with it. This is a fun idea to think about.  If there were other composers who wrote poetry and they set each other; I’m setting your poems and you’re setting mine.  It could become a whole new thing.

FJO:  You’ve got visual art all around this apartment.  You don’t paint as well?

EC:  Oh, gosh no.  I totally could never do that.

FJO:  But one of your daughters is a painter.

EC:  She paints live at people’s wedding for a living and makes a huge amount of money.  But she also does her own art.  You knew it the minute she started putting things on paper.  Everyone would say, “What? She can do that?”  She would make people that looked like people.  It’s just like a musician that sits down and plays something and you just know they’ve got it.

A sculpted head

A sculpture by Cory’s daughter Tamar Cory Gressel.

John King: It All Becomes Music

John King standing against a wall covered with a few branches.

About a month ago I was surfing through my Facebook news feed. Being afraid of rabbit holes, I tend never to do this very attentively or very frequently, but nevertheless something wound up catching my eye. It was just two lines, not even parsed into a proper sentence, about a recent performance. Even though I see tons of these every day, this one probably stood out because it included an image from the score. I was immediately drawn to it because there were no bar lines and it was just a single vocal part that was almost entirely in monotone. Then I noticed the post was from the eclectic composer John King and it had a link to his website. I loved several string quartets by King that I heard Ethel perform over a decade ago, both live and on recordings, and I also remembered an earlier, rather bizarre “double opera” that he had co-written with Polish composer Krzysztof Knittel which premiered at the Warsaw Autumn in 1999. But I had never before seen any of his scores. So I took a deep breath and clicked on the link to his website.

A screen capture of a John king Facebook post featuring an excerpt from a musical score preceded by the following text: "recent premiere of "The Park" by Loadbang....this excerpt entitled "larry" named after one of the denizens of Tompkins Square Park...]"

What I found there astonished me for a variety of reasons. I knew that he embraced a wide variety of styles—from Cagean indeterminacy and post-minimalism to rock, blues, and free improvisation. But I was hardly prepared for all the other kinds of music I found there: canons for chorus, orchestral pieces, a North Indian classical raga exposition, Baroque imitations, and numerous experimental operas. That was just the tip of the iceberg. Not only could I not believe how much music he had written—for example, 14 pieces totaling some six hours of music just last year—but also how open he was about all of it, including a piccolo concerto he composed when he was in high school. Everything was there with no hierarchy other that chronology. It was one of the most interesting composer websites I had ever visited. I had to talk to him for NewMusicBox!

Normally I prepare for these talks by attempting to listen to every single related scrap of music I can get my hands on. But there was no way I could do this with John King’s work; there was just too much of it. What was the secret to his being so immensely prolific and also so non-judgmental about it all? What could the rest of us learn from his equanimity?

I’m still not sure I got conclusive answers to these particular questions after spending a couple of hours with him at his home in the East Village, right across the street from Tomkins Square Park, which for him is a muse.  In fact, if anything, I walked away with even more questions. But I did leave there feeling inspired and more excited than I have in quite some time about the creative process. Our conversation was periodically drowned out by construction taking place in the neighborhood. Somehow that seemed appropriate though.  Initially Molly and I deliberated about how to proceed and what we might do to minimize the disturbances. King, however, was completely nonplussed by any of these additional unwanted sounds. For him it just added another sonic element, one that could potentially lead somewhere that was interesting. He told us stories about how birds chirping outside his window became part of one of his compositions. Occasionally he’d even point out moments when a hammer hit was synchronous with one of his syllables. Being so open, even to what others would perceive as noise or interruption, is perhaps as open-minded as you can be musically.


A conversation at John King’s apartment in New York City
June 15, 2016—10:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: Might it be too noisy for us to talk?

John King: I think we should just treat it as New York.

FJO:  True, and considering that indeterminate sound is actually an important part of your aesthetic, the random construction sounds might actually be appropriate.

JK:  I remember John Cage speaking about car alarms and store alarms in the ‘70s.  That store alarm always went off on a Friday evening at six, and it would be going all weekend long because the people wouldn’t come back.  I remember Cage saying that for a while it sort of got to him, but then the way he managed it was to imagine where the sound was coming from. He just thought about the spatialization of that alarm—it’s on, say, 17th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  Then the unnervingness of it would just disappear for him.  Sometimes I try to do that.  Sometimes I’m successful.

FJO: For me, when I can hear slight variations over time, it goes from being this constant, annoying thing to being music.

JK:  Right, you can all of a sudden concentrate on the overtones or the inconsistent nature of the pitch.  Yeah.  And it becomes music. We all know and love The Stone, but it’s on a very busy corner and some people want there to be complete silence before the beginning of a piece or before the beginning of a concert.  I had a residency there last year and some of the greatest moments in my own music were when the string quartet faded out and the sound of a car faded up and then the car faded out and the string quartet kept going.  So, for the experience of the music and the environment in that particular moment, I think it’s fine.  For recordings probably not, because you want those to be a little bit more indicative of the piece.  When people listen to that recording and a fire engine goes by, that becomes part of the sound world.  But I don’t think of it as a distraction; I think of it as an addition.

FJO: But since a lot of your scores involve indeterminate elements, there are often elements of surprise to the realization of what you’ve put on the page.  So when you say that you want a recording to be more indicative of the piece, what exactly is the piece?

“I’ve been fortunate to have some pieces done many times, so we can hear many, many versions of the same piece. It’s like looking at a globe or a sphere and just turning it and turning it or pulling it, like it’s taffy; you see it’s still the thing, but you’re seeing all these different possibilities within it.”

JK:  For quite a while at least some elements within almost every single thing that I’ve written have been chance determined.  That to me is opening the door to all kinds of experiences. I’ve been fortunate to have some pieces done many times, so we can hear many, many versions of the same piece. It’s like looking at a globe or a sphere and just turning it and turning it or pulling it, like it’s taffy; you see it’s still the thing, but you’re seeing all these different possibilities within it.  The hammer downstairs just hit on one of my syllables, so that makes it beautiful for that second, that accident, that simultaneity. It’s all beautiful.

FJO: The thing that finally prompted me to talk to you was total serendipity. I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and there was a post mentioning some piece of yours that included an image from the score. It looked interesting, so I followed the link which took me to your website. When I got there, I was floored by how much music there is on it and how much of it was created in a relatively short amount of time.  I’ve followed your work for years, but I had no idea how much stuff you’ve done.  Last year you wrote 14 different pieces which total over six hours of music. That’s an incredible amount of work.

JK:  Well, it was a productive year, I guess. A lot of that music was for dance companies. I have what I consider to be the great fortune and opportunity of working with choreographers, which began in college at CalArts, the California Institute of the Arts, where I graduated in 1976.  Then I moved to New York, but I kept up relationships with some of those people and I also formed new relationships. Then I sent a cassette to John Cage.  He wanted to come over and listen to some of my stuff and that led to a commission from Merce Cunningham, and then that led to an almost 25-year association while I worked with other choreographers, too.  I’ve worked a lot with a choreographer named Kevin O’Day.  Each time someone says, “Do you want to write a piece for this choreography that I’m working on?”—and a lot of them are evening-length pieces—I go, “Well, sure.”  Then I say what I’m interested in. “I want to write something for choir and string quartet.”  “Okay.  Great.  Why don’t you do that? We’ll work with a young people’s choir in Mannheim, Germany, and we’ll get students from the Hochschule and have them be the string quartet.”

Then live electronics. I have a long-evolving electronics scenario that works through chance, but for every piece I can go in and change and manipulate little things, and then it becomes the electronics environment for that particular piece. Then some other piece will come along and I’ll continue the evolution of that particular way of manipulating, processing, and locating sound.

I’ve got these other ideas for this other long series of pieces called Free Palestine that I started in 2013. I’m still writing them.  I get an idea and for some reason the string quartet is the ensemble that I go to for fulfilling an idea.  I’ll have an idea for a compositional structure or a compositional motive or what I sometimes call an epiphany, and it somehow crystallizes into the string quartet.  So I write a lot of string quartets for that reason.

FJO: Part of that I’m sure grows out of your being a string player.

JK: Yeah, I’m sure.  And I use improvisation. I played violin for a while, very poorly, and now I play viola very poorly.  But I play the instruments, so the physicality of working out some things, getting the fingerings, feeling how the bow works—I do have that visceral, physical connection in parts of the creative process so then I can go, “Oh man, this feels great.”  And then it goes right into the piece.

FJO: So pieces evolve from playing around with ideas physically before you get to the page?

JK:  Well, that’s the way it works sometimes. Then other times I’m just walking through Tomkins Square Park, which is a great source of inspiration.  I just walk and often how things are put together comes from free, mindless thinking.  I’ve been working with a way of organizing time, which I call time vectors. I used that in the piece for six pianos that was done last year at Knockdown Center called Piano Vectors—six Steinway Ds in 40,000 square feet of space. I had this idea of how to organize them temporally and that’s where I began. Not a note was written.  I went through the whole thinking process of how it was to work with just time, like how to fill the time, and then from there it got more crystallized and I got to the actual notes for the piano and how it was going to be put onto the page.  Most of that was chance determined, then some of it was also a kind of physicality at the piano, with me playing.

John King leaning on a fence outside Tomkins Square Park.

FJO: This compositional process seems somewhat reminiscent of the micro-macrocosmic rhythmic structures that John Cage was composing with before he started using chance and which, in fact, led him directly to compose using chance: having a larger-scale structure of the piece in place before there are any specific notes.

JK:  Right.  The pre-composition or meta-composition, the composition before the composition, the overriding way things are organized.

FJO: So, maybe this is a silly question, but with a piece that lasts a relatively long amount of time—let’s say an hour—how long does it take to compose it?

JK:  Well, sometimes it doesn’t take very long at all.  It can take a couple of weeks or a month. Piano Vectors was the first piece that I fully realized within these time structures that I call vectors.  Then from there, there was a series of string quartets that were written, and then I also thought, “Well I’m going to write a string orchestra piece.”  Then I wrote a brass ensemble piece, because I was thinking about that, then a piece for percussion quartet. It’s like what Cage used to do with Fontana Mix. It can be done by itself, with Aria, or with Concert for Piano and Orchestra, because the system that he used to create one was the system he used to create all of them, so why can’t those things be played simultaneously?  The piece could be an hour long or 25-minutes long or an hour and a half long.  All those things are able to be accordionated—stretched or compressed—yet the structure, which to me is the overriding thing, is maintained.

FJO: Certainly the most extreme example of this that I can think of is the performance of Cage’s piece Organ2/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) in Halberstadt, Germany.

JK:  They’re still doing it…

FJO: They’re going to be doing it for 639 years.  But obviously he didn’t spend more than six centuries composing it.  Theoretically you could have a structure for something that lasts six hours, but maybe it took you only an hour to work it out.  Is it possible for the process of creating one of your pieces to actually be shorter than the realization of it?

“It’s surprising what happens when the mind has to get ideas together and you have to have something within a deadline. I can’t be like, ‘Is it a b-flat or a c-natural?’ All those things are gone—all those kind of self-doubts, self-criticisms.”

JK:  I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced that.  I taught at Dartmouth.  I took over Larry Polansky’s composition seminar for one semester.  I did these things with the graduate students that I called lightening composition.  If you play chess, you know what lightning chess is—it’s super fast.  You go with what you know, whatever your experience is with chess.  I had them do that with compositions, just as a way to kick start some ideas.  I gave them 15 minutes to come up with a piece.  I did it myself, too.  I never like giving students anything that I don’t participate in myself.  It’s surprising what happens when the mind has to get ideas together and you have to have something within a deadline.  A lot of people say, “Uh oh, I’ve got this deadline.” But I think, “Wow, I’ve got this deadline.”  You know, it’s got to be there.  I’ve got until Monday morning to finish it.  Great.  Because that means that I can’t be like, “Is it a b-flat or a c-natural?” All those things are gone—all those kind of self-doubts, self-criticisms. You just have to go with what you believe is coming from you as purely and as transparently as possible, and just do it.

FJO: So then do pieces ever get revised?

JK:  Sometimes they do.  The more notated the piece is, the more likely it is to be revised.  Some of the Free Palestine pieces were very open in terms of their interpretation. Then when we got into rehearsing them and then finally recording them, I had to do more arranging to make sure that everything worked.  So I took away some of the openness, but that was more pragmatic. I don’t think I’ll edit them.  But sometimes pieces change.

FJO: So, 14 pieces last year.  Six hours of music.  A productive year.  But I was just using 2015 as an example. It seems like you’ve been almost equally prolific every year for at least the past decade. How much time do you spend composing music in a given week?

JK:  Well, if I’m not traveling and don’t have something else going on, if it’s a week that’s just more or less a normal week and I’ve been commissioned to do something, I would guess between six and eight hours a day, sometimes more and sometimes a little bit less.  But I don’t divide the week into five days with two days.  I divide the week into seven days.

The upright piano in John King's apartment which has books of scores by Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus.

FJO: And, in terms of inspiration, you mentioned to me before we were on camera that the piano you have here is a little bit beat up which could be a good thing—it could take you out of pre-conceptions about what a piano is supposed to sound like. I see a laptop over there and I saw some recording equipment in another room. So I imagine that this is your composition studio as well as your home; this is where you create your music.

“I don’t divide the week into five days with two days. I divide the week into seven days.”

JK:  Yeah.  There’s a little, mini-studio that I use, but even that. I remember—I think it was last year or it might have been the year before—I worked on some poetry of Wang Wei, who’s a Tang-era poet, a really beautiful poet, and he was also an artist and a kind of a political consultant to various people.  So I’m in there working on the piece, and it was eventually going to be for soprano and then myself on viola and Robert Dick on flute, and with live electronics.  But I’m in there working on it, I think it was April, and there were all these birds singing back there.  So I just threw out a microphone and grabbed some of the birds singing and tried to bring that into the piece. And that did become part of the piece.  Then when I was editing the piece, I remember wanting to make sure the bird sounds were there, but then the bird sounds were outside, too, and also inside what I was editing, so that was an interesting process of hearing what inspired something and then hearing where it ended up.

FJO: You’re able to create amid construction noise and birds singing—that’s all potential compositional fodder. So do you ever go off to artist colonies?

JK:  Well, I’ve had the good fortune of being at three residencies this past year—in Florida, Venice, and Bellagio, Italy.  That focuses you there for a certain amount of time and focuses the work that you can do there.  But New York is very inspiring, too, in terms of walking through the park.  I hear great things both from the park and what’s buzzing around inside.  I think both are great experiences.

A window in John King's apartment.

FJO: I’d like to take it all the way back to the past. Your website is an incredible time portal and archive of almost everything you’ve ever done.  I couldn’t believe it!

JK:  1972 is, I think, the earliest.

FJO: You included a piccolo concerto that you wrote when you were in high school. You included an image from a page of your manuscript.

JK:  And a very poor recording made on a cassette player.  Remember those cassette players that had one red button? It was my mother’s cassette player. I can still remember the piece. It’s in a very rudimentary baroque style.

FJO: And then there was this six-minute piece for guitar and piano that survives only on the recording from, I think, 1973.  I’m trying to remember.  It was hard for me to keep track of it all.  You might finally be the person who defeated me.  I always like to listen to everything somebody does before I talk to that person.  But with you I couldn’t possibly do it.  I would have wound up spending the rest of my life just listening to your music.

JK:  I’m so grateful and fortunate. Tony Kramer, a friend of mine from Philadelphia, looked at my old website and said, “You’ve got to get this organized and get it together.” And he helped support that new website.  It took many, many months.  I went back to reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes.  I digitized it all.  I remember putting a cassette into the machine.  I hit play and I didn’t know if the whole thing would come off the spindle—that was the age of some of these recordings!

FJO: But to me the most interesting thing about it is that you decided to include all this stuff, even something you wrote in high school.  You still have a sense of it being you and you’re O.K. with it being out in the world representing you. And yet, there are some things that appear to be missing.  You posted a String Quartet No. 2, but there isn’t a No. 1.

JK:  There’s also a String Quartet No. 3.  I stopped numbering after three.

FJO: Right.  But what happened to No. 1?

JK:  I do have the score somewhere.  It was written in what they call a gap year now, between high school and my first year of college.  I was not in school, but I was studying with a composition guy in Minneapolis.  He introduced me to Lutoslawski. I used to take people I liked and treat them as models.  I would write something that was sort of in that style to say this is what I liked and this is what I didn’t like.  Then I’d retain what felt like my own voice.  So that first string quartet was such a piece. It was written on manila manuscript in pencil and I never got a string quartet to play it.  But I still have it.

FJO: But you haven’t put a thing about it on your website. Why did that piece get left out, when you were open to everything else?

JK: I tried to find pieces that had some audio. I don’t think there’s anything there that doesn’t have either audio or video.  But I guess I should maybe scan it or something.

FJO: Now in terms of having it all out there, you include recordings and a page from the score. You don’t put up full scores, which means that people have to contact you to get the materials if they’re interested.

JK: Yeah.

FJO: So do people contact you about some of these older pieces?  Has having this resource given you this opportunity?

JK: Well, to a certain extent.  I do sometimes get string quartets that want to get the score for this piece called HardWood which, again, began as a piece for the Pennsylvania Ballet for Kevin O’Day’s choreography.  That was at the time that ETHEL was forming, and they performed it as a piece for the ballet.  Then they really liked three of the movements, so I said you can treat those like a concert version because it was, I think, a 25- or 30-minute-long piece.  They made it into a 15-minute suite. And that piece is the one that most people contact me about because it’s got this blues movement that’s got some really driving stuff in it.

FJO: What if someone came to you and asked to do that piccolo concerto?

JK: Wow, all that stuff that’s on paper with my pencil looks like I was drawing these big fat notes.  And the pencil is kind of smeared a little bit. I was so into Bach and all this stuff at the time.  I don’t know who would want to play that piccolo concerto. But if somebody did, I’d put it together.  I have the score. I bound it with twine.

FJO: One of the things that I thought was so sweet—it’s not as old as those pieces, but it goes back quite a ways—is a piano sonata after Mozart that you wrote for your mother’s 70th birthday.

JK: Oh yeah.

FJO: Once again, it’s totally unlike any other work of yours that I know.  But you put it up along with everything else anyway.

JK: I also wrote an adagio for my father—I think for his 80th birthday.  He really likes Wagner and the high Romantics. It’s not really Wagnerian, but it’s in that world.  It’s for a string orchestra, but I didn’t have the strings, so it’s just a sampler version of the string orchestra piece.  My mother used to tell me that they would listen to it at top volume.  Yeah.  Why not?

FJO: So you grew up in a household with parents who appreciated classical music.

JK: Yeah, my mother was a pianist, and we usually heard her play just at Christmas time, because she would play Christmas carols.  I played guitar in a rock band and they weren’t too happy about that, for many reasons.  But then I took up violin and started playing rudimentary things.  My mom and I played duets together and that was really fun.  My father loved to listen to music.  They had season tickets to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra, and they were members of the Walker Arts Center and the Guthrie Theater.  So those were the places where I got my initial [exposure]. I remember seeing a Bertholt Brecht play for the first time—I was probably 14 or 15—at the Walker.  And I was just so blown away.  It was The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. It had projections and went slam back and forth between 1930s Chicago and Nazi Germany, and I was this kid going, “Wow.  This is so cool.”  And I saw touring operas at this place at the University of Minnesota called the Northrup Auditorium.  Madame Butterfly was my first opera.

John King's kitchen. A table with flowers and some bananas, a bookcase, and a wall filled with framed photographs.

FJO: Were you writing your own things yet at this point?

JK: I was.  When I first started playing violin, I had a friend in high school who played viola.  And I was studying counterpoint.  I wrote all these canons, because canons were these cool things that if you just kind of did them and followed all the rules—that my teacher was always correcting me about—you had a little composition. So I wrote lots of canons for her and me.  In high school, I was in a free education program where you could choose your own classes.  Those were the days of Summerhill.  It was an educational system out of England where kids were given the opportunity to make their own curriculum.  You decide what you want to do with your time, and so I studied violin, piano, and counterpoint.  And I was in a rock band, so that was part of my curriculum.  I was also reading Plato and studying Chinese history, but all on my own.  I just decided to do those things.

During that time, I also helped organize the talent show. So the rock band played and I played these little funny canons for violin and viola. There were people that were there studying tap dance. And I wrote some stuff for brass ensemble.  I was getting into Stravinsky, too.  I was experimenting with polytonality. The band teacher hated my music.  He would make fun of it in front of the band.  He would come over to the piano and play two chords that were meant to be played together.  And he would bang on them and say, “This is how you’re supposed to sound.  This is how he wants you to sound.  Isn’t that pretty?  Isn’t this nice?”  And of course, he got a laugh from everybody.  But I said, “Yeah, that’s how I wanted this.”

FJO: Good for you.  I love how some of these early crystallizing moments stayed with you. Just a few years ago, you wrote this piece for chorus that’s a three-part canon which was totally breaking rules and, in so doing, you created these wonderful textures. It’s canon your way.  And that can be traced all the way back to those violin-viola duets.

JK:  Yeah.  It’s still hard for me to write parallel fifths.  There’s a big feeling of freedom to have parallel fifths or parallel octaves or things like that, because all that stuff was driven out of me.  It was counterpoint from the 1600s on, all those rules.  But yeah, those structural things like canons or how to unify a piece of music, it’s still there.

FJO: One thing that I find that’s so interesting about your story is that you were immersed in this world of playing violin and viola and in string quartets.  But you also had another foot in this world of the electric guitar and playing in a rock band.  Of course, they’re not really separate worlds.  And in the music you would later come to write, they definitely aren’t separate worlds. There are passages in string quartets of yours that sound like deep Delta blues and even hard rock.  Then there are things with electric guitar that almost sound baroque.  I came across a piece of yours called Dance Piece that sounds like square dance music, but it was done with all electronic instruments—electric guitar and synthesizers. It’s totally out of context for those instruments, yet it totally works.  So there are no walls that compartmentalize music into different genres for you. It’s all one big continuum; even within a piece, it can suddenly go from one thing to another.

“My mother liked me playing violin, but she didn’t like me playing Jimi Hendrix.”

JK: In high school, I was playing in two or three bands simultaneously.  I was getting as much playing as I possibly could.  Chicago blues was what gave me my inspiration.  Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were my big idols, so I was learning their stuff and playing their stuff.  My mother liked me playing violin, but she didn’t like me playing Jimi Hendrix.  She tried to ban Jimi Hendrix in the household, but I said no.  She had heard these things about what he did and what he stood for and all that. But I was not copying that; I was just listening to the music and playing in bands.  Later on I played on and off in blues bands here in New York for years and years.  It was that period in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s when the electric guitar also could become an instrument—as were lots of jazz and rock instruments—for pure improvisation, free noise, and noise that was mixed with all sorts of other elements from the universe.  It was not just about one thing. Let’s put everything together.  Let’s have there be a continuum where there are no walls, no borders. One thing just flows to the next as quickly or as slowly as you want to make them.

Another recent piece that’s on the website that’s just for guitars is Requiem for Eric Garner. I had discovered Erik Satie, probably through Cage.  Then I found these pieces that had no bar lines—Ogives.  So immediately I loved it—1880s and no bar lines!  And then I read that ogives are things in Notre Dame [Cathedral], the kind of arcs that were used.  Satie went in there and just got inspired by l’Ecole de Notre Dame composers and he wrote this thing.  And it’s just so beautiful.  If I transpose it a little bit, I’ve got it all on the guitar.  So I learned those, and incorporated that. It goes from Ogives, then 11th century, then back to root pedals and strangeness with the guitar.  It’s all lots of fun.

The sun reflected in John King's glasses.

FJO: I have a notation question regarding your electric guitar music.  The tradition of writing for string quartets is an old tradition, and it is very clearly and very precisely notated, down to all the articulations and bowings. You can break that down in various ways and open it up, and you get all sorts of other things.  But with electric guitar, there are elements of performance practice that notation really hasn’t caught up with, like settings for amps and pedals that are so individualized. All the great players have a very personalized sound on the instrument. If you want someone to recreate your sound, there is a great deal of information you’d need to convey that isn’t part of standard musical notation.  How much of an issue is that for you?

JK:  Well, I think that if any guitar player were to pick something up, I think they’d just have to have the recording and take it from there.  I have another piece called White Buffalo Calf Woman Blues. I think the recording is up on the website.  I got an email from a guitar player in Italy who said he wanted to play that piece and did I have the music for it?  Well, I didn’t. I didn’t have the sheet music for it because it was kind of an improvised piece.  But then I said, “If somebody wants to play it, I’ll put it together.”  And you know, it can be put together. Some things were written out and then there were some areas that were improvisational.  But something like tone—guitar players are so particular about that, so to notate it would be like telling the guitar player to throw that away. So I wouldn’t want to be too precise with that kind of stuff; I would encourage the player to change the settings.  I have this kind of guitar, I have this kind of amp, and I have these kinds of pedals.  Maybe I’ll try this version of it.  If then out from that someone wants to interpret it various ways, I think that’s just a great thing.

But when I do string quartet music or orchestral music, I try to really go through and make sure that everything is correct about the bowings and things like that.  But then you go to rehearsals, and you hear the string players go, “Let’s take these bowings and let’s not take those bowings.” If they feel like they can get the grit, the beauty, or whatever the musicality is that they find in it with a different bowing, I’m fine with it.  I’m not really into saying, “This is the way it has to be.”  I’m not that kind of guy.

“I’m not really into saying, ‘This is the way it has to be.’ I’m not that kind of guy.”

FJO: With an orchestra, the more precisely something is notated, the less rehearsal time it requires.  As soon as you give people choices, they have to take time to debate what they’re going to do in terms of those choices. Because they’re on a clock, they’re forced into certain kinds of music-making paradigms.

JK: That’s exactly right.

FJO: While you have written for orchestra, it’s not a ton of what you do.  I imagine that’s probably because you prefer for there to be more freedom with the players.

JK: This is again something that is on the composer.  What kind of freedom do you want, and how much time are they going to have to digest it and to be able to understand it and do something with it?  That means the notation has to be really clear.  You can’t waffle at all about things and you have to be maybe like, “I want them to do this, this, and this, but maybe I should just have them do this and this.”  Go into those things, and then they’ll get it more precisely.  With these things that I call time vectors, I’ll try to explain it to the musicians and they’ll play through it once or twice. Then I’d say, “That one thing that you did, you’re not understanding what I meant.”  A clarification comes, and then they get it.  But you’re right, it’s about time.  It’s about being on the clock. If it’s an orchestra, how many orchestras in colleges or conservatories work with a digital clock? How much experience do they have with it and when are they going to use it?  Maybe no orchestras will ever want to do a piece that’s on a digital clock or that has anything but bar lines in it.  How much music do they get that has no bar lines?  How long will it take?  But then what happens if the players come out and they say, “Oh yeah, I’ve done that 50 times before; this is nothing to me.  Let’s go.  Let’s explore this.  It says that I can choose any articulation.  Well great.  Let’s do it”?  If someone were to commission me to do an orchestra piece—and it’s been done, but in Mannheim, Germany—usually what I do is I end up in 4/4, trying to put it into that kind of configuration. I get the sense that things are changing, but I don’t know how fast it’ll change.

FJO: Well, I’d love for you to explain time vectors to me.

JK: Okay, well I’ll explain it by way of where it comes from.  The first piece that I did for the Cunningham company was for a dance called Native Green.  The music was called gliss in sighs, and it was written for an electric prepared violin.  John Cage hooked me up with Max Mathews.  Max was making all these electric violins. The violin that he gave to me was so cool; every string had a separate microphone on it.  The way the Cunningham company works is they have speakers all over the theater.  So by making a broken chord across those four strings, you make the sound go around the auditorium.  It was just so beautiful. Playing a double stop, we had sounds coming from two sides of the auditorium.

“With time vectors, the direction is that you begin after or before a certain time and you end before or after another time.”

That was the first piece where I began to use time as the way things were organized.  I had a grouping of material—what I called a time window: Like from zero to 30 seconds, this can take place.  From 30 seconds to 45, these materials can be improvised or used.  That’s how it worked.  Cage later had those things that he called time brackets, where you had to start within a particular window; that was the way that time was organized.  With time vectors, the direction is that you begin after or before a certain time and you end before or after another time.  So, you can think of it this way: You have to begin after zero and end before 30.  You have to place this material within that.  Then, another kind of vector is you have begin before a certain time and end before a certain time.  Another way is that you have to begin before a certain time, and end after a certain time.  And the last vector, the last possibility, is you have to begin after a certain time and end after a certain time.  So I give you a musical phrase, and I say this has to fit like this, or you can stretch it here, or you can compress it here, or you can place it here, or it could become the entire piece sometimes.  Or it could be that you’d have to stretch those three notes if you wanted to be really extreme with your interpretation of these time vectors.  You can play three notes over the entire duration of the piece.  Or you can place it here, or place it there, stretch it this way, or compress it that way.  Have it fall at this particular point, have it fall within another particular point, but within these chance-determined timing points.

FJO: So you were doing this before Cage’s Number Pieces?

JK: Well, what I call the time windows thing was done before them.  But the idea of how to stretch these vectors was after.  It was maybe four or five years ago.

FJO: So would you say that that grew out of the influence of the Cage Number Pieces?

JK: I’m sure it did. And because of being with Cunningham, we played this pretty famous piece of his called Four3, which is based on chance-determined reworkings of the Erik Satie 24-hour piece Vexations. Cage took the cantus firmus, and he made all these different single lines where the pitches are chance determined, either above or below the cantus firmus. The rhythmic element of the cantus firmus is intact, but it is stretched out over a minute and a half or two minutes.  I used to play it for a while with David Tudor.  The last time I saw Cage was after a performance of that that I’d done with David Tudor at City Center.  When you’re playing that piece, you put yourself in this very interesting mind frame.  You get the piece of music that you’re about to play, but very little. There are maybe 16 or 18 different phrases you can choose, and so you get ready to play and then you look at the clock, and you look at the time score, and you think, “Okay, is this between 35 and 45?  Yes it is, so I can begin now. And then how long do I have play?  Well, I have to make it last until one minute, or until one minute and 20 seconds, and so I have to stretch it out.  I’m going to end at 1:20.  I’m going to go to the very end.” And you make that decision, then you play, and then you end.  So it puts you in a place where you really have to be focused. David Tudor’s doing his version of it and I’m doing my version of it. I’ve also played it with Christian Wolff and with David Behrman. You’re a performer and you’re also completely an audience.  You’re somehow aware of what’s happening around you.  You’re not reacting to it, but you’re aware of it.  That always fascinated me about that piece.  You have to be totally invested in that decision that you make.  “Okay, I’m going to do this one.  I’m going to do it here.  I’m going to do it for this length.”  But then what’s happening?  What else is out there in the world that’s co-existing with this thing, with this decision that I made?  That experience was really fascinating.

A small painting leans against one of the window panes in John King's apartment.

FJO: When you mention being the audience you open up a whole other Pandora’s box full of questions. We talked about how performers respond to the score, but not really about how audiences respond when they’re hearing things. How much concern do you have about audiences knowing how these pieces were put together? What does an audience coming to this music need in terms of advance planning, if anything at all, to really experience what you’re doing?

JK: Well, in those kinds of pieces, I think if an audience understands that they don’t have to understand the particulars of how the time’s being organized, but that the organization of the sounds that they’re hearing, the simultaneities, is chance determined, then what they gain from their experience is unique and totally valid. What do you hear? What is interesting to you? What do you notice? What those things are is completely valid and the best is if someone is sitting next to you and hears a completely different thing. That’s fine. It’s the experience you bring to it, then what you get out of it is valid. But there are also pieces that I’ve written that have more of an emotional or dramatic trajectory.

FJO: Your string quartet AllSteel immediately comes to mind. Once someone reads that you composed half of the movements of the piece before 9/11 and the other half afterwards and that the before and after movements alternate, there’s no way to un-know that information. It becomes a very significant part of the listening experience.

JK: But I don’t how much there are connectivities with the more abstracted time organized pieces. At the performances of Piano Vectors at Knockdown Center, the audience was just wandering.  It was like an installation. People would park themselves in different places. One person fell asleep under one of the pianos. They were constructing their own journey through these expanses of music that were done at different times and different ways. Those kinds of pieces I think are the ones that are the most open to the individual creating their own experience and getting from it what they notice. But there are other pieces that have a program or a beginning inspiration behind them that does impact the way they’re experienced, like Requiem for Eric Garner or the Free Palestine pieces.

FJO: I’d like to continue talking for a bit about AllSteel. It’s interesting to me that before 9/11 you were writing a certain kind of music but that afterwards it was a completely different kind of music. You’ve described it as the point where the 20th century ended and the 21st century began. It somehow changed the music you were writing. So I wanted to explore what exactly you meant by that.

JK: The piece was a commission. Some ideas I was gathering before, but I sat down on September 10 to begin the piece. It was a Monday. I remember going through those four movements and writing a good minute or two into each of those four parts. The beginning was this groove that I had in my head. I knew that there was going to be a very kind of sleazy blues thing from a pizzicato cello. Then I had this other kind of technical thing that I was going to use in the fourth movement. I really had a lot of it planned out. Those four movements were pretty well in place. Then 9/11 happened and I just couldn’t go ahead with it as planned, because it was pretty aggressive. So I wanted those other movements to be reflective and I think it did well for the piece.

FJO: There’s another string quartet of yours that has even a greater variety of musical styles co-existing together, 10 Mysteries, but I don’t have the same kind of window into it that I do with AllSteel because of your comments about that piece. These kinds of back stories are certainly helpful to me as a listener, but I wonder how important they are to you?

JK: Well, I remember 10 Mysteries was one of the pieces that I also wrote when I had this idea of the convergence of composed music, indeterminate music, and improvised music. I wanted those three things to be present, but you couldn’t tell what was what.  I called it the trilogic unity—having these three ways of making music be so connected that it was a unified thing.  I would like an audience to know, to the extent that they are able to understand, something that’s written down is going to be the same thing every time but there’s also something that comes purely spontaneously from improvisation and then other things that were embedded into the music with indeterminacy.

“I had this idea of the convergence of composed music, indeterminate music, and improvised music. I wanted those three things to be present, but you couldn’t tell what was what. It’s like you make a reservation at a steak house. And just before you get in the door, you think, ‘I feel like having a vegetarian burger down the street.’ Then on the way there, you run into a friend whom you haven’t seen in 20 years who just happens to pass by, and he says, ‘Let’s go have a drink.’”

I had this metaphor that I said once in a composition class.  It’s like you make a reservation at a restaurant.  It’s a steak house.  You plan it in advance: Friday I’m going to go to this steakhouse.  And just before you get in the door, you think, “I feel like having a vegetarian burger down the street.”  A spontaneous thought comes in.  I determined to do this, but now I’m going to do that.  Then on the way there, you run into a friend whom you haven’t seen in 20 years who just happens to be in town, who just happens to pass by, and he says, “Let’s go have a drink.”  Three kinds of ways of interacting with the world.  I just wanted to put that in the music somehow, that little compression of possibility.  Let’s put those close together so they’re always present.  That’s what I was trying to do with that piece.

FJO: Now how my brain works is that you messed with my head by calling this piece 10 Mysteries even though it only has nine movements. Where’s the tenth movement?

JK: I know. I threw off everybody with that. At the very end of the piece, it finishes and the quartet just holds—if it’s done live—for 30 to 45 seconds because I wanted there to be a moment where people would just collect all that at the end, all the stuff going on in people’s experience.  So the tenth mystery was what happens in the listener when the piece is finished.  It’s like the seventh direction for Native Americans. There are seven directions: north, south, east, west, up, and down, and then there’s where you are.

FJO: Another piece of yours that has thrown me off somewhat is The HeartPiece, which you co-created with the Polish composer Krzysztof Knittel for the Warsaw Autumn festival at which it was described as a “double opera.” I’m not sure what that means.

JK: There’s this great text by Heiner Müller called Herzstück and it has two characters in it: A and B. I was at the Warsaw Autumn performing with a friend of mine—Krzysztof Zarebski—who is a performance artist. He’s good friends with Krzysztof Knittel, a composer who lives in Warsaw.  I remember speaking to him about this crazy idea I had: “What if we were to write a double opera, kind of like an exquisite corpse. We take this text, and we do different things with it. You do your version, and I do my version, and we just go back and forth. And we’d use a string quartet.” He played electric keyboards, I was playing guitar, and then the singers would be David Moss, who’s a friend of mine, and he knew a well-known Polish soprano, Olga Pasisniek, who was open to doing something really wild and crazy. So that’s how we did it. We had some disagreements; it wasn’t like [John Cage and Lou Harrison’s] Double Music, so we had to come up with some kind of structural agreements, and then we just put it together.  I thought of that A-B text being like the structure for how the piece would be composed: A-B composers. The text is very open and it’s very funny. A could be a man and B a woman.  It could be two men; it could be two women.  It is without any gender, though people have their own thoughts about how that could be.  We put it together very quickly before we played it in a small theater in Warsaw and, fortunately, we did two performances.  And it was done for Polish TV. The set was designed by Krzysztof Zarebski. The string quartet was inside this big tent made out of paper. They start playing, then they poke through the paper and it reveals them as the paper is torn apart. It was an all-female string quartet called Dafo.

FJO: Doing that project seems to have opened up a whole other world of you. Since then you’ve composed a bunch of these weird kinds of operas that are experimenting with texts in a completely different way. Or works that play with narrative or a lack of narrative, like impropera, where the text and the staging also have indeterminate elements. This has now become a central part of what you do.

JK:  It is. For me, that fascinating juncture of staging, lighting, text, and music is what opera is supposed to be. It was done in a certain way in the Baroque period, and different ways as we’ve gone along in history. But both the team of Brecht/Weill and Cunningham/Cage took the idea of staging in kind of similar ways. They wanted to treat the music separately from the text. They wanted to treat the text separately from the stage design. The stage design with a Brecht piece wasn’t meant to be naturalistic: “Oh, we’re really in someone’s room.” Instead, it took the opportunity of staging something and saying, “Let’s put a cow skull on the top of a pole and that will represent what goes on in this room.” The audience wasn’t being told how to think. The audience was encouraged to think about what goes on in that room, not because it’s got chairs and sofas, but because it’s got a cow skull on the top of a stick.  That puts people in a slightly different place.

Another opera that I did was called Dice Thrown. It was based on this Stéphane Mallarmé poem.  Mallarmé was very particular about where the words appeared on the page, what font they were in, whether they were italicized or bold. I found it at the end of a collection of poetry by him.  When I opened the book for the first time, I looked at it and I said, “This is a musical score.”  And when I looked at his notes, his introduction to it, he said that it is like a piece of music.  The space on the page is meant to be like silence.  The way that the words are written is meant to be like how they could be read.

A page from a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé that uses space and various types of typography.

I looked at this and I said I just had to do something with it.  So I took the text apart.  I put all the italicized words together, because that’s a kind of a narrative, even though it stretches from top to bottom.  And then there’s the title—it’s also embedded from the beginning to the end of the poem.  I just used that as this rich inspiration for how the music was done.  I also had video incorporated in ways that exemplified that, and I divided the stage similarly to Cage’s Europeras.  He divided the stage into 64 parts.  I didn’t want to get that complicated, so the stage was divided into 16 squares. Every time the piece is played, there’s a projection behind the audience that shows where the singer is singing from.  They look at the score, which has a time code as well as a stage breakdown.  “I sing Aria One from this place tonight.  Then I’m joined.  There’s a chorus. The three singers can occupy these parts of the stage.”  There was a choreographic element. They had all the negative space—any place the singers weren’t occupying, that’s where a dance movement could be done.  Steve Koplowitz was the choreographer.  He had to do choreography for his six dancers that could exist in one square, or along the strips, or along the back, like he had to have it be mobilized and transformable, so that it fits every night. We did two different performances, and each performance has a kind of an A and a B part.  We’d do a version at the beginning and then a version at the end, so that the audience could experience two passes at this way of organizing material.

The set design people and even the choreographer didn’t think that it was possible in the beginning.  It happened when everyone understood how it was to be organized.  It was beautiful and seamless, and everything about it worked. You just had to make sure that everything’s organized, and people understood.  The singers understood, “I might sing this aria tonight.  I might not.  I might someplace else.  I might sing it from this part of the stage. It might last two minutes, it might last six minutes, but I have to make it go along with all the different variations that are possible.”

John King reading a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé that inspired his opera Dice Thrown.

That was one of those things where all those elements were organized completely separately, but then unified in the performance itself. The audience can notice, “Oh that word was projected on the back wall, and something else was sung, but I made a connection between this appearance that was projected and what the person was singing in French simultaneously with that projection.”  Maybe the dancers were doing something that, again, emphasized something for this person, but the person here didn’t get that, they got something else.  That was how I organized that opera.

“For me, that fascinating juncture of staging, lighting, text, and music is what opera is supposed to be.”

Theatrical work is of great interest to me. With the most recent micro-operas that I did, lighting was also a big element.  Chance-determined lighting. Getting that incorporated into the piece and noticing what happened. Getting reactions from the audience about how they experienced that. I will hopefully do many, many more of these.

FJO: We’re now almost at the halfway point of this year, and you’ve already written three pieces—an hour of music. Maybe you’ve written more, but you haven’t gotten them on your website yet. What are you working on next?  Are there going to be more operas? How far in advance do you plan the next thing you’re doing?  Do you know what the next six months are going to be?

JK: I know that there are certain things that I’m hoping to realize. I’ve had a project in mind for quite a while. I’ve worked with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus a lot. And I’ve made contact with a choir in Ramallah, Palestine. I have contact with people at a place called Culture Hub—that’s the new media part of LaMaMa Theater.  They do multi-site performances, which they call telematic performances. I’ve written a choral piece that’s similar to a lot of the stuff that I’ve written for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus based on a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, who was a great Palestinian poet. I’m hoping that I can get these two choirs to sing together at some point. The idea of a choir in Brooklyn singing a piece or two of theirs for the choir in Palestine and the choir in Palestine singing a piece or two of theirs for the choir in Brooklyn, and then having them sing something together is something that I’m hoping to do in the next six months. The music is finished. It’s now just the technology that we’re waiting on to get everyone to be able to talk to each other. I’m also working on a piece for the Belgrade Philharmonic with my partner Aleksandra Vrebalov. We’re working on the entire piece together without divisions of responsibility, trying to create a work without identifiable “creators” but blended so well that even we won’t be able to tell who wrote what! Plus the recording of the Free Palestine string quartets is another thing that will have to be edited, probably in the fall. Those are the main things right now.

FJO: So never a free moment. I know you drink lots of coffee.

JK:  Café Bustelo.

A can of Cafe Bustelo on the kitchen counter in John King's apartment.

Paul Moravec: The Whole Range of Human Emotion

Paul Moravec in Central Park

Shakespeare’s plays, a novel by Stephen King, and personal letters from American soldiers written in wartime have all served as inspiration for compositions by Paul Moravec, and not only as texts for vocal works. Moravec fashioned three of the five movements of his most widely performed piece, the 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning instrumental quartet Tempest Fantasy, around iconic Shakespearean characters from The Tempest—Ariel, Prospero, and Caliban. And even when there is no discernible literary reference, as in such generically titled pieces as his recent Violin Concerto (which was recently released on CD by Naxos), Moravec claims there is always “a kind of musical narrative” at work even if it does not have a precise verbal meaning.

“I can’t describe to you a coffee cup in musical terms,” Moravec acknowledges when we visit his Upper West Side Manhattan home. “I can draw you a picture of a coffee cup and you can say, ‘Well, that’s a coffee cup.’ But I can’t do that musically. What I can do is to capture and project emotion: joy, sadness, the whole range of human emotion. Whether or not you as an individual listener receives it in that way or understands what I’m saying, that’s a whole other matter, but that’s what I’m trying to do as a composer. All of these pieces have emotional narratives of one kind or another, whether it’s an abstract piece or programmatic piece.”

Given Moravec’s aesthetic proclivities, it is natural that he has been drawn to opera, but what’s perhaps somewhat surprising, given his attachment to Shakespeare, is that his latest opera—which will receive its world premiere in Minneapolis later this month—is based on The Shining by Stephen King.

“This was not my idea,” he confesses. “This idea came from Minnesota Opera. They said, ‘How’d you like to make an opera out of the novel The Shining?’ And I said, ‘Wow, what an idea!’… The Stephen King book is actually very operatic….It’s also about the three things that, in my view, drive opera: love, death, and power. It has all three of those elements on steroids. For all of the drama, the action, the horror, the ghosts, the Overlook [Hotel], and all these wonderful aspects of the novel, it’s really a very moving story about a family trying to stay together under extraordinary circumstances.”

Stephen King’s supernatural psychological thriller gave Moravec an opportunity to explore a broad sonic palette which includes passages of musique concrète. Although he has often been categorized as a neo-romantic composer, Moravec’s early Devices and Desires is a Synclavier-realized collage of samples of cars starting, a telephone ringing, and clocks ticking. An even more elaborate exploration of sampled clocks serves as an otherworldly counterpoint to the instrumental music he fashioned for Eighth Blackbird in his composition The Time Gallery.

to Moravec such experimentation is never an end unto itself

“I’m fascinated by the technology of sampled sound and the fact that anything that can be recorded can become the stuff of musical composition,” he beams. “I can remember being up at the Columbia University Electronic Music Lab splicing tape; it’s like The Flintstones when you think about it. Now we’re in the age of The Jetsons, where anybody sitting at their own Mac or sitting on the train or wherever can fashion these remarkable musique concrète creations digitally.”

But to Moravec such experimentation is never an end unto itself. In fact, no music should be.

“I don’t think that music is really about music,” he posits. “I think that music is about something else….We as creators, as composers and musicians, spend our whole lives trying to get the right sounds. It’s very, very difficult and we fine tune the sounds till we get just exactly what we want and so on. But that’s not really what music is about. What music is really about is love and sorrow and the whole range of human emotion—making audible the whole range of human existence and human life. I’m interested in sound only to a certain extent, to the extent that it gets me to where I want to be in terms of my musical storytelling, my musical narrative. That’s the importance of sound to me.”


A conversation in Moravec’s apartment in New York City
April 13, 2016—3:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: A lot of your pieces have some kind of literary inspiration and even the ones that don’t are often extremely narrative in some way. So much so that listening to your music often feels like a form of reading, a deep immersion into a storyline.

Paul Moravec: I’ve written about 150 pieces and some of them are programmatic or they refer to literary texts. A lot of them are not programmatic at all—sonata number one, wind symphony whatever. But all of them, I think, have musical narratives. That’s what they all have in common. I very often think in terms of neural-cognitive narratives that exist in the central nervous system. So whether or not there are literary associations—for example, many of my pieces involve Shakespeare and Shakespearean themes—there is a kind of musical narrative that I’m very concerned with.

FJO: So when you read, does it inspires you to write music?

PM: Sometimes it does, as in the case with Shakespeare. I wrote a piece called Tempest Fantasy which is inspired very directly by my favorite play, which is Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I saw a production in the late ‘90s at the Public Theater with Patrick Stewart, which was fantastic, and that very definitely inspired me to write that piece, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. That piece has been very good to me. Shakespeare has been my silent partner, so to speak, on a number of projects.

FJO: Including a pretty recent choral piece that just came out on CD.

PM: Right. A piece called Amorisms, which was a ballet commission. And what I did was take single quotations about love from Shakespeare’s plays and set them each in a separate movement. There are five movements. One of the things I discovered about ballet is that if you have too much text going on in the composition, and if it’s an intricate or complicated text, it actually interferes with the ballet. The audience will be thinking, “Wait a minute. What’s that interesting line?” They’re following the text. So I decided to keep the texts to a single line repeated over and over again. Once they got the idea, they could concentrate on the dancers.

FJO: And the literary inspiration for your new opera premiering in May in Minnesota is also literary, although it’s quite different from Shakespeare—Stephen King’s The Shining.

PM: This was not my idea. This idea came from Minnesota Opera. They said, “How’d you like to make an opera out of the novel The Shining?” And I said, “Wow, what an idea!” This would never have occurred to me, actually.

FJO: Had you read the book?

PM: I knew about the book, but I didn’t actually read it until they mentioned it to me. But I knew it was different from the famous Kubrick [film] adaptation, so I knew that it was going to be different from the get go. The Stephen King book is actually very operatic. There’s a lot of warmth in it; the principal character, Jack Torrance, is in some ways very sympathetic. It’s the kind of story that draws the reader in because the reader identifies with him and thinks, “There but for the grace of God go I. This could have happened to me.” That is very operatic. It’s also about the three things that, in my view, drive opera: love, death, and power. It has all three of those elements on steroids. For all of the drama, the action, the horror, the ghosts, the Overlook [Hotel], and all these wonderful aspects of the novel, it’s really a very moving story about a family trying to stay together under extraordinary circumstances. And that is super operatic. That’s what attracted the librettist Mark Campbell and I to this story, and this is what we’re going to put on stage.

FJO: I think that it’s possible to interpret the book, as well as the movie, in a number of different ways. The paranormal, supernatural, and horror elements of it could all be explained away as psychosis. The opera seems to lean more toward a psychological interpretation rather than a supernatural one.

PM: Well, there are two ways of viewing the supernatural. One is that the supernatural is real; that these ghosts actually exist. And the other is that all of these ghosts and supernatural happenings and “shining” itself are really just projections of Jack Torrance’s imagination. So what we did was to get into the imagination of the protagonist. He tells the story, or rather his central nervous system tells the story to the audience. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, it doesn’t matter. What we’re doing is to tell the story through this character. And yes, it could all be taking place in his imagination.

FJO: In a way, because of that, I get the sense from just perusing the vocal score of the opera that it’s not a horror opera so much as it’s a tragedy.

PM: I think that what attracts me more to this story is the emotional resonance of the piece; that it is about love. It is about genuine emotion. It’s a dynamite story. Stephen King is a great storyteller.

FJO: But the tricky thing about setting a story that is so famous, and probably even more famous because of the film, is how deeply it has seeped into our mass consciousness. It’s part of our popular culture.

PM: One could describe it as an iconic film that Kubrick adapted from the book. But I think the book is an icon, too, in and of itself.

FJO: Yes, but because of that, people might walk in with certain expectations about it that they wouldn’t necessarily have when they hear, say, your Violin Concerto. As a creator wanting people to experience your own original piece, how do you deal with this legacy—the reception history of the novel and the film? The people who might compare the singer singing Jack Torrance to Jack Nicholson?

PM: I don’t know what to say to that. We’ve been very clear from the get go, and we’ve made a point about it, that we’re adapting the novel. By the way, you know that there are at least two film versions of The Shining. There’s the Kubrick adaptation, which came out in 1980. Then there was the version that Stephen King himself was involved in in the late ‘90s; it was an ABC mini-series. I think it’s about six-hours long. It goes into much more detail, and it’s a lot closer to the book. Now we’re doing our own adaptation in the operatic genre, which is a completely different genre. So each of these iterations of the story, partly because of the differences in the genres, are going to be rather different from one another.

[s4wmlt]

FJO: I want to probe a bit more your saying that the emotional content was what primarily attracted you to that story. But I want to take it to instrumental music. You’ve written quite a bit of vocal music, but you’ve also written a considerable amount of non-vocal music, where you’re not dealing with setting words, so there’s no discernable syntax that someone can latch onto. You said you’ve written programmatic pieces, but there’s still an unresolvable debate among people about whether specific meanings could be conveyed through the abstract medium of music when there are no words involved.

PM: Music is a non-representational art. I can’t describe to you a coffee cup in musical terms. I can draw you a picture of a coffee cup and you can say, “Well, that’s a coffee cup.” But I can’t do that musically. What I can do is to capture and project emotion: joy, sadness, the whole range of human emotion. Whether or not you as an individual listener receives it in that way or understands what I’m saying, that’s a whole other matter, but that’s what I’m trying to do as a composer. All of these pieces have emotional narratives of one kind or another, whether it’s an abstract piece or programmatic piece.

all of these pieces have emotional narratives of one kind or another, whether it’s an abstract piece or programmatic piece.

What I can say about a programmatic piece—for example a piece inspired by The Tempest, which I turned into the Tempest Fantasy—is that Shakespeare absolutely influenced the structure of the piece. How I wrote it and a lot of the details of the piece are absolutely tied up with Shakespeare and drama and literature and so on. You can’t necessarily hear it in the music because there are no words to it and there’s no reference to it. But I also think the piece has to speak for itself on its own terms. It cannot rely on any literary association or any non-musical association. The musical logic has to be baked into the piece itself. It has to be structural; it has to make sense on the basis of its own musical logic.

You and I spend our lives trying to figure it out. It’s really hard because music is essentially an abstract language. It’s completely made up out of whole cloth. It’s very hard to make these things work structurally, but it has to be that way. I do, however, think that knowing what motivated a composer to write a piece—the literary associations, etc., that the composer might bring to that piece—can be an enhancement in the listening process. I think that that can help. But I’ll go back to saying the work itself has to convince a listener by its own musical logic and in its own musical terms. This is also true of opera. As you know, it’s an immensely complex, collaborative art form. But in the end, in my view, all problems in opera are musical problems. It’s ultimately music that’s driving the agenda and that’s making it work or not. This is not, by the way, true of musicals necessarily, but certainly for opera it’s definitely the case.

FJO: You made a very interesting remark in a talk you did in 2010 with Greg Simon and Dan Kellogg in Colorado that’s posted online, something I thought was very poignant about who you’re writing your music for. What you said was, “I write for myself as a listener.” And then you said that you ask yourself, “Would I buy a ticket to this? Would this be something I would go to and get excited about?” When you write music you’re in a dialog with that inner audience member, that inner listener. I think this is very different from someone who says, “I don’t care about an audience; I’m writing for myself.” You’re not writing for yourself so much as you’re putting yourself in the position of being the listener for the piece.

PM: Right.

FJO: And it’s interesting in terms of audience preparedness, because you also said the piece has to work on its own terms. But when you give a piece a title, you’re already giving listeners an association. I would contend that a piece like Tempest Fantasy is going to affect listeners differently depending on whether: a) they’re paying attention to the title; b) they know the title and they know what it’s referring to in a superficial way; or c) they have a deeper relationship—they’ve read or have seen productions of The Tempest. These three scenarios will result in three very different kinds of interactions with the piece. And I’ll posit a guess that someone who has seen a production of The Tempest, maybe someone who’s seen that Patrick Stewart production at the Public, will come the closest to what you’re intending to convey.

PM: As I said, I would describe these associations as an enhancement of the experience, but the necessary condition is that the piece has to work in and of itself, not knowing the title or anything else like that.

FJO: I’m going to bring up a piece you probably haven’t thought about in a very long time, an early electronic piece you composed called Devices and Desires.

PM: That was a long time ago.

FJO: This piece was constructed from various found sound elements, which allowed you to make very specific references to certain things—cars starting, a telephone ringing, clocks ticking. These are things you can’t do in instrumental music. So even though so many people think of electronic music as an even more abstract medium than most other forms of music, it can actually be more representational, at least it was in the way that you worked with it.

PM: Sure. Sampled sound is a whole other matter. I’m fascinated by the technology of sampled sound and the fact that anything that can be recorded can become the stuff of musical composition. I think it’s absolutely amazing, and of course it’s possible only since we’ve had recording. I can remember being up at the Columbia University Electronic Music Lab splicing tape; it’s like The Flintstones when you think about it. Now we’re in the age of The Jetsons, where anybody sitting at their own Mac or sitting on the train or wherever can fashion these remarkable musique concrète creations digitally. In The Shining, we’re using a lot of really cool sound effects to bring the Overlook Hotel to life. Musique concrète is very much a part of this production. But you could use it in any context. I used this idea of recorded sound, clocks ticking, in a piece called The Time Gallery which I wrote for Eighth Blackbird. I added all these recorded sounds and so on to help to tell the various, very programmatic stories that I’m telling in that piece.

FJO: So, would it be fair to say that using these enhancements, using musique concrète and sampled sound, is a way for a composer of abstract instrumental music to make music less abstract.

PM: Yeah, I never thought of that, but it’s quite possible.

FJO: I never thought of it until I listened to that early electronic piece of yours. As luck would have it, I’m currently reading a book which is an ethnography of IRCAM, if you can imagine such a thing.

PM: What’s it called?

FJO: It’s called Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalizing of the Musical Avant-Garde. The author is Georgina Born who, prior to becoming an academic, played in the experimental British rock band Henry Cow. Anyway, she talks about the aesthetics of the people involved with IRCAM, who have a very different aesthetic from yours and from mine, but there’s a great quote she has about musical sound and meaning that ties into our discussion: “Music is a logogenic, unrelated to language, non-artifact, having no physical existence and non-representational. It is a self-referential, aural abstraction. This bare core must be the start of any socio-cultural understanding of music since only then can one build up an analysis of its social-cultural mediation.” I thought that quote was really weird because almost immediately after reading it, I came across Devices and Desires. I listened to it and thought, “This is the one piece that Paul Moravec wrote that could have possibly been done by somebody at IRCAM.” And yet it probably wouldn’t have been, because it’s so much about narrative. It’s taking these technologies and subverting what the Modernists wanted to do with them, which is to further abstract things, to explore sound for the sake of sound. Instead, you made it less abstract.

PM: I don’t think that music is really about music. I think that music is about something else. We can’t always articulate what music is about. If we could, then we would just write an essay about it. And then we wouldn’t have to write the piece. But it expresses the otherwise inexpressible. It’s a very mysterious language and we get into the whole question of whether it is a language at all. I think it is, in an abstract sense. In any event, I’ll go back to what I was saying before, which is that music isn’t really about music. It’s not the end-all and the be-all of the whole transaction.

There’s a great word that Hitchcock used to describe a device in one of his movies. It’s called the MacGuffin. My understanding of the MacGuffin is it’s what all of the characters care about, but that we don’t care about. So for example, to use a non-Hitchcock example, in Casablanca, it’s the letters of transit that trigger the action at the beginning of the narrative. All of the characters in Casablanca are trying to get letters of transit. That’s the MacGuffin. We don’t care about the letters of transit; we care about what the people feel as they try to get them. So, in a certain sense, sound is the MacGuffin in music.

We as creators, as composers and musicians, spend our whole lives trying to get the right sounds. It’s very, very difficult and we fine tune the sounds till we get just exactly what we want and so on. But that’s not really what music is about. That’s the MacGuffin. What music is really about is love and sorrow and the whole range of human emotion—making audible the whole range of human existence and human life. I’m interested in sound only to a certain extent, to the extent that it gets me to where I want to be in terms of my musical storytelling, my musical narrative. That’s the importance of sound to me.

FJO: Then why write a piece called Clarinet Concerto and another one called Violin Concerto? Why use such abstract titles that only refer to what these piece are formally?

PM: Well, for the Violin Concerto, something sang in me and was trying to get out, so I spent time articulating it musically, working very hard to get the right sounds and so on. But it’s to the end of doing something else. I’m after a bigger game than just pretty or beautiful sounds. By the way, I hope that it’s beautiful; I want to make beautiful things, but that’s not my ultimate intention. I’m trying to achieve something beyond that which I can’t describe. You just have to listen to the piece, and it either makes sense to you or it doesn’t.

FJO: I think it’s an extremely beautiful piece, particularly the second movement. I think it’s one of the most moving things of yours I’ve ever heard. But you’ve just said music isn’t ultimately about sound, and what strikes me about that piece, as a listener, is how beautiful it sounds. And that’s all that it’s about. You didn’t give listeners any other associations by giving it a name like Tempest Fantasy, or Circular Dreams, or The Time Gallery. So all we can think of is what it is: a composition for violin soloist and orchestra.

PM: But in creating a beautiful effect in sound, I like to think that it takes the listener to another level of experience, which I can’t describe. Beautiful music is the medium that opens the door to an elevated feeling of existence, of joy. I think that’s the difference between a work of art and a work of entertainment. I think that a work of entertainment can be very beautiful, but entertainment is really about taking a person out of themselves for a certain amount of time. We all need that psychologically; we all need to release and to get out of ourselves. Art tends in the opposite direction. Art takes us into ourselves. After an experience with a great work of art, we’re actually changed in some sense. For me, beauty in a work of musical art can do that.

FJO: When you call something a violin concerto, you’re associating it with every other violin concerto that’s ever gone before. Some people might think, “How does this stack against the Brahms, the Tchaikovsky, or the Beethoven?” But that’s a very specific set of listeners who know that repertoire, just like the very specific set of listeners and readers who would have seen productions of The Tempest. Whereas everybody is aware of the passage of time. So calling a piece The Time Gallery might have greater reach. Similarly Circular Dreams, since we all dream or at least we hope we sleep long enough to have a dream. Penderecki originally used the title 8’37” for his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. It’s a much more effective piece with the revised title. All those strange sounds—the quartertone clusters, the screeching of the bow playing behind the bridge—sound like the atomic bomb is falling. But that title was an afterthought. It only came to Penderecki after he heard the premiere. Could it be that by not giving a piece some kind of descriptive narrative title, you’re allowing listeners to create their own narratives?

PM: I’m sure that’s quite possible. I don’t disagree.

FJO: Curiously, the Clarinet Concerto has a fascinating backstory to it, but listeners wouldn’t know it from the title.

PM: David [Krakauer] wanted me to write a klezmer concerto, and I said to him, “I’m an Episcopalian. I don’t know if I know how to do this.” And he said, “You’re Slavic. Close enough. Same vibe, you know.” In any event, I did not try to write a klezmer concerto. What I did was to write a virtuoso piece that uses what David does so brilliantly. But in using the techniques that he’s developed with his neo-klezmer style, it ends up referring to some klezmer things. So there are these certain little eastern European things in it, but that’s not intentional. Krakauer’s one of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever heard. And it’s been such a joy to work with him on several projects.

FJO: Both of these concertos were written for players you’ve worked with a lot. In fact, Maria Bachmann, for whom you wrote the Violin Concerto, has been one of the most dedicated champions of your music, and has played many of your pieces going all the way back to another abstractly title piece, the Violin Sonata. It begs the question of what role these players have had in inspiring you.

PM: Well, it’s a great thing for a composer to write a piece knowing what, to some extent, it’s going to sound like. My long association with Maria Bachmann, for whom I’ve written at least a dozen pieces now including the Violin Concerto, has been a tremendous help to me and an inspiration because when I sit at the piano and try to work out the notes, I know exactly what it’s going to sound like on her fiddle, what exactly she does, and I write to her strengths. For example, among other things, her amazing, very high lyrical playing on the e-string. It just sounds spectacular. Not all violinists can do that as well, so there’s a lot of that in my Violin Concerto and that’s because I was writing for her. It’s a little bit like being able to write a play when you know that Al Pacino is going to be speaking your lines. You know right away that you’re in the world of this guy who looks a certain way, talks a certain way, slopes across the stage the way he does, and so on. That’s tremendously inspiring, and it’s extremely helpful to composers to write for their friends.

FJO: That level of specificity, though, goes against the game composers play with immortality: writing notes on paper that exist as a recipe that then gets made into a piece of music by a group of performers in city X on date Y, then again, in city Z on date Q with different people for a different audience and yet is the same piece. It has to translate, no matter who’s playing it. If these pieces are to have a life, they have to have multiple interpretations which will all be slightly different from each other, but will somehow still be “The Piece.” Tempest Fantasy has been played by many different groups at this point. Performances of it by two different groups have been posted to YouTube, and neither is the group that premiered and recorded it. And now there’s a second CD recording of it, with yet another ensemble, on the new Delos disc that also includes Amorisms. This piece is clearly becoming repertoire. But I wonder how that plays into your expectations based on the associations you’ve had with the original people for whom you wrote the piece. What is your reaction as a composer when you’re confronted with a second, or third, etc., interpretation of a piece?

PM: I wrote a piece called Brandenburg Gate for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and they premiered it at Carnegie Hall almost ten years ago. Of course, famously, it’s a conductor-less orchestra, and they’re absolutely fantastic. But then I heard it done with a very good group called Symphony in C, which is, by the way, the same orchestra that did my Violin Concerto that we’ve been talking about. Rossen Milanov conducted it, and the element of having the conductor coordinating everything made a different impression. In a certain sense, as much as I’d admired and loved what Orpheus did, having the conductor control everything made a difference; the piece made more sense to me, even though I wrote the piece originally with Orpheus in mind and with those wonderful four soloists in mind. I had worked very closely with them trying to get the sounds that they can bring to the piece. But what Rossen did with the Symphony in C made more musical sense ultimately.

FJO: To get back to music with lyrics, you’ve written a lot of pieces in direct collaborators with writers, which is considerably different than, say, setting Shakespeare, who can’t disagree with the way you’re setting his words.

PM: Right. Whew. Yeah, it’s a good thing.

FJO: Anyway, it makes me curious about the level of give and take that happens when you’re dealing with a living collaborator.

PM: I’ve had very happy experiences with Terry Teachout, with whom I’ve now written three operas, and we’re about to premiere a cantata this weekend at the Bach Festival Society in Winter Park. He’s a joy to work with. In the process of collaboration, if it’s really going well or even when you have a disagreement, or you run into a snag involving the words, I’ve had the happy experience of actually coming up with something better simply because we talked about it and just took it to the next level.

That’s certainly been the experience with Mark Campbell in writing The Shining. I would email him or call him up or we would actually talk in person, believe it or not, and I would say, “I’m having trouble with this line, or this moment doesn’t work. Can you help me out?” Very often, I’m glad to say, we came up with something that was much better than what we had originally. So it keeps compounding. That’s the great thing about working collaborations: you come up with better solutions as you go along. Mark and I are now going to write a big oratorio about the Underground Railroad for the Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall in 2018. These will be found texts, actual historical records that Mark will fashion into a narrative.

There’s another project like that. I’m working with Ted Kooser, a former Poet Laureate of the United States and a Pulitzer Prize winner, who lives out in Nebraska. He wrote a book called The Blizzard Voices in which he took actual survivors’ accounts of the blizzard of 1888 in the Midwest, in particular around Omaha, and fashioned it into a modern text about trying to survive this unbelievably terrible Old Testament Biblical disaster. Ted stepped back and he said, “I give you carte blanche to fashion what you have of mine and make it into a libretto.” I borrowed texts from the Bible and made it really into a kind of Old Testament oratorio à la Handel or Mendelssohn and Ted said, “Okay, fine.” I’ve been lucky with my collaborators. They’ve all been great.

FJO: Your collaboration with Terry Teachout is somewhat unusual because at first you didn’t know him personally, but he was one of your biggest advocates early on among music critics. It’s really weird to go from being written about by somebody to writing stuff with that person.

PM: Yeah, unfortunately, he can’t write about me anymore because of conflict of interest. But I remember—this must have been over 25 years ago—he called me up and left a message and said, “Would you call me?” And so I did. He picked up the phone and I said, “Hi, I’m Paul Moravec.” And he said, “Who are you?” We’ve been friends ever since and great collaborators.

By the way, this thing that we’re doing this weekend for the Bach Festival is a tribute for their conductor John Sinclair. It’s his 25th anniversary and there’s a big celebration. So Terry had the idea of making an ode to music. One of the things I like about this is that it’s a community event. There’s a lot of warmth, generosity, and good cheer. I feel like a useful citizen; I feel like a participating member of society. This is immensely gratifying to me.

FJO: The world of composing music can sometimes feel so rarified, so these kinds of community engagements are extremely important in terms of making the music more relevant to the communities we live in.

PM: Participating in a civic and community event, I think, goes back to my upbringing as a boy chorister in the Episcopal Church. You might know that the Episcopal Church is the Anglican Church, and there’s this tremendous literature and discipline that the English have had through the English men and boy choir tradition. I was lucky enough to have that in my life, growing up in Buffalo and in Princeton. From the age of ten, participating in a ritual that has great importance to people was hard-wired into my thinking. Somehow in my mind, I got the idea that music and ritual and community participation are all one. They’re all connected somehow. In some ways, they’re indissolubly linked. And I’m sure that comes out of my youth. By the way, also from a very young age, I was a professional musician. I think I got $1.16 a week when I was ten years old, which is tremendously impressive to a kid. Of course, it’s all been downhill since as a composer! But I remember because of that I had to get a social security card at the age of ten. I know it sounds silly, but the impressions that a ten-year old gets live on. Sometimes I still feel like I’m 16 years old, except when I try to go running, then I realize I’m not that age anymore. But emotionally I feel very much the same way.

FJO: Well, to counter what you just said about it all being downhill from there, I would say that it’s definitely gone uphill. I mean, here we are meeting in April. On Monday, they’re going to announce the winner of next year’s Pulitzer Prize. I think it would be pretty fair to say that although you had some significant commissions and performances before receiving the Pulitzer, there was an imprimatur that award gave you that—to repurpose a metaphor you used earlier today—opened doors in a really important way.

PM: Oh, absolutely. My being awarded the Pulitzer Prize in ’04 was absolutely a game changer. There’s no question about it. I wasn’t unknown before that, but it was nothing like after that. It was really like night and day. It made a big difference. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true for other people, but that was certainly my experience. And it definitely opened doors. It gave me opportunities that otherwise I probably would not have had. It changed my life. But it didn’t make me a better composer because nothing can make you a better composer except hard work.

FJO: Why do you think that award has such an impact?

PM: I think the Pulitzer Prize has cache in society because it’s essentially a journalism prize. The Grawemeyer is a big deal, but who knows what a Grawemeyer is? It just doesn’t have the same reach. When the Pulitzer Prizes are announced, it goes out all over the world. Everybody’s instantly famous because it’s the media. And these five or six categories of music, literature, etc., sort of ride on the back of it. This year is the centenary of the Pulitzer Prizes, so I got an invitation to this celebration at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue [in Washington, D.C.] at the end of January. My wife Wendy and I went down and saw that it’s really all about journalism. I think I was the only composer there besides Roger Reynolds. We didn’t see anybody else. There were hardly any writers. There were a few poets. There were lots of political cartoonists.

FJO: Everybody has this idea that the Pulitzer is this secret cabal and nobody knows how it works, but anyone can enter even though it traditionally always went to somebody who had a big publisher, probably because the big publishers made sure always to enter the required materials by the deadline. You have a publisher, but you actually entered the piece yourself, which is something anyone could and should do.

PM: Yeah, and then I forgot that I’d sent it in. It was early April 2004 and it was spring break from my job at Adelphi University where I’m a professor, and we thought, “Let’s go off to Sicily.” So we did. We were in the town of Taormina, and my wife’s assistant at work called from New York saying that there was a leak in our apartment and the super was freaking out. Then she said, “And so what do you think about the prize?” And I said, “I don’t know. What prize?” “You know, the Pulitzer Prize. You won the Pulitzer Prize.” And I said, “I didn’t know this.” This, by the way, was before cell phones were ubiquitous and even the internet was sometimes hard to get to; it was before all this technology had come of age. It really was quite possible not to know this. So we checked online, and it was in fact true. I couldn’t believe it. I was floored, partly because I’d completely forgotten that I’d sent in the piece. It was a happy day.

Muhal Richard Abrams: Think All, Focus One

Muhal Richard Abrams sitting in front of the New Music USA mural (created by the staff at New Music USA in 2015)

Muhal Richard Abrams

A conversation at New Music USA
January 15, 2016—2:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Although very early on in our conversation Muhal Richard Abrams adamantly denied ever being anyone’s teacher, I learned more during the hour I spent talking to him than I had in most of my music classes. And yet, I feel like it’s almost impossible to adequately communicate what it is exactly that I learned. At the risk of sounding like a Zen koan, that is precisely what I learned.

Let me attempt to explain. To Abrams, there are no boundaries. Any label we put on something—fixed composition vs. spontaneous improvisation, group vs. individual, even old music vs. new music—is artificial and limits possibilities. From his vantage point, all dualities are contained within each other. All improvisations are compositions and all compositions begin as improvisations. A solo performance can inhabit multiple personalities and an orchestra can be the embodiment of a pluralistic individualism. As for old and new, “None of it’s real because the situation that is characterized as old often times is revisited and found to be useful for some future purpose. And something new can be visited and found that is reminiscent of something that’s old.”

Though an iconic figure in the history of jazz, the 85-year-old composer/pianist also eschews the word jazz since it only describes certain aspects of his music.

“The word jazz can be confusing,” Abrams points out. “But if we say music, it could be anywhere. It’s just music. The next question, what type of music? Okay. No type of music. Just sound.”

And indeed over the past seven decades, Abrams has created music that some listeners might categorize as blues, Latin, classical, and all kinds of jazz from swing to bop to free. He’s even experimented with electronic music.

“That came about because sound can be produced in any way that you feel that you’d like to produce sound,” Abrams explains. “It’s just electronic sound. … But sound, that’s the thing, because before music can be called music, it has to be harnessed and structured from sound. Music is a by-product of sound. Sound is the thing. Sound.”

While the music he has created is extremely individualistic, it is also the by-product of his humility and deep sense of community. I titled this feature “Think All, Focus One,” which is the name of one of his most fascinating explorations involving electronics, the closing track of an album released 21 years ago on the Black Saint label. It’s as succinct and definitive a summation I can conceive of for a creator whose life’s work embraces and reconciles such a broad range of aesthetics.


This Spotify playlist containing over seven hours of music by Muhal Richard Abrams merely scratches the surface of his immerse and highly varied discography.

*

Frank J. Oteri: There’s a beautiful quote by you at the end of your liner notes for a record that came out in 1987 called Colors in Thirty-Third which I think sums up your belief system about music: “May the past, present, and future be ever before us as one.”

Muhal Richard Abrams: Well, I think I was trying to be in any time. I was thinking infinitely, if that’s possible. And I believe it is. Whatever I said could be in any time because it applied to what I feel is your essence, your inner focus.

The CD cover for Colors in Thirty Third (Black Saint, 1987)

Black Saint released Muhal Richard Abrams’s Colors in Thirty-Third in 1987

FJO: So many people describe music as either being “old music” or “new music.” But sometimes the lines can be very blurry. For example, in jazz, changes in style happened very rapidly; the transition from swing to bop and then cool and free all happened in a relatively brief period of time. Your music incorporates elements from all of these styles. For you, it’s all part of the language. And your music tells us that we can do it all.

MRA: Well, it’s partly human language. We can’t separate ourselves from other human beings because we are expressing ideas and all human beings express ideas. I may express it through a musical continuum and a poet may it express through literary continuums, but it’s basically the same thing because when we confront the whole idea of movement or rhythm, all these different sections or areas have rhythm in common, you know. And human beings have rhythm and breathing in common.

So, in reference to people saying this is old or this is new, if it’s old for you, then it’s old for you. If it’s new for you, it’s new for you. But those are just terms that are useful to describe the particular mood that that person or those people are feeling. None of it’s real because the situation that is characterized as old often times is revisited and found to be useful for some future purpose. And something new can be visited and found that is reminiscent of something that’s old. Take women’s fashion or men’s fashion. We see it every day. You know what I mean? And we certainly see it in music. Why is it that Beethoven and Bach are current and present today and valid today? Why is Duke Ellington still extremely important? When we view him as an individual creator, there’s a lot to learn. We’re observing an individual’s output, and I think the fact that we are all individuals for some reason or other is the basis of real education.

FJO: When you started to answer my previous question you said that you express things in music that other people express in poetry. Before we began taping our conversation we were talking about visual art, which is another avenue for personal expression. What caused music to be the thing that you expressed yourself in throughout your life? How did you come to music?

MRA: I expressed myself in the visual arts first, though certainly not long enough in terms of a practice. I was attracted to all of it at the same time. But I applied myself to the visual arts and then music took over. That’s it. It just took over.

FJO: Was there any kind of crystallizing moment of hearing something?

MRA: I think I started remembering something. I think that’s what it was. In the visual arts also, I was remembering something because it didn’t seem like I had to learn it. It certainly required practice, of course. Everything requires practice because if you don’t practice, then you’re kidding yourself, in terms of developing and receiving really great ideas. I started remembering things and my musical memory started to dominate. It’s the best way I can explain it. It just started to dominate, so I just put the bulk of the practice in music.

FJO: Was there a lot of music in your household when you were growing up?

Cover for Eddie Harris's 1970 Atlantic album Instant Death

One of the most unusual entries in the Muhal Richard Abrams discography is his appearance as a sideman for Eddie Harris’s funky 1972 Atlantic album Instant Death.

MRA: I grew up in Chicago, and there was music all around. It was a blues center. I listened to all kinds of that. I grew up around Muddy Waters and all those guys. And there were a lot of great jazz musicians. And a lot of those great jazz musicians played classical music. So I was impressed with all of it. Then I got a chance to listen to regular so-called classical music. I was enjoying and appreciating that, and having the desire to learn how to compose all sorts of music because my training was like a street improviser. I learned to play standard tunes and what not like that. But I always held two situations at the same time: making up things and being with things that were made already. It all was happening at the same time.

FJO: One of the things that I find so fascinating about your development is that playing the piano and composing music are both things that you pretty much did without a teacher.

MRA: Oh yeah.

FJO: This is pretty extraordinary. Of course, there have been others who have done that, but there aren’t too many of them, especially not many who have taken it to the level that you have. But what’s ironic about that is that you have been an important mentor to so many other people, both your contemporaries and musicians from younger generations, yet you yourself had no such mentor.

MRA: I can certainly identify some people that I associated with that were older than I was around Chicago. I certainly learned a lot from them. But I don’t claim to be a teacher. I never have claimed to be a teacher. If someone claims that they’ve learned something from being close or around me or associated with me, that’s fine. Those kinds of things happen through association, but mentor or teacher? If people want to apply those terms, fine. But I don’t think of myself in that way. I love sharing and collaborating with people, young or old. There’s something to learn from each person’s individualism, and if I’m associating with you, then your individualism can tell me something that I don’t know anything about. And my individualism can possibly do the same for you, because we all, as individuals, have something that no one else has. As I tried to state earlier, I think that’s the basis of the real human education.

FJO: Well, one of the things that’s so transformative about small group improvisatory music—call it jazz or whatever you want to call it—in its history in America is that it is such a human music because it is about people spontaneously creating together and reacting to each other. So you can hear someone’s individuality, and it leads you down a certain path, and then they hear what you did, and it leads them down a certain path, and it’s this wonderful, fluid conversation between individuals.

MRA: We have used the word jazz, but any type of description of music, especially the word jazz, can be confusing because, like we spoke of earlier, some people say they like the old or that this is new and the word jazz has stuck with a lot of people as a certain type of activity, so it can’t describe anything past that for those people. But if we say music, it could be anywhere. It’s just music. The next question, what type of music? Okay. No type of music. Just sound. You know, because that’s what it is. Sound. Before it’s even organized into any kind of continuum that we would call music, it’s just sound. As we speak here, I certainly feel that every serious practiced output that has come about since the beginning of time, is good—and valid. A style name limits the scope or the focus and that turns out to be unfair to quite a number of people.

FJO: Jazz has certain associations for people and so does classical. It was interesting to hear you say “so-called classical.”

Cover for the 1981 album Duet featuring Muhal Richard Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers.

In 1981, Muhal Richard Abrams joined forces with Amina Claudine Myers for an album of duets for two pianos that explores a wide range of musical styles.

MRA: It’s the same. You’re putting a restriction on a vast area of activity. And, by the way, you alluded to the fact that one could learn from the other. Classical music is the same thing. It’s written composition, of course, but the great composers did a lot of improvising, too. All of them. When you play their music, you can tell. It’s not just mechanical. Rachmaninoff sat down and played ideas at pianos. I’m sure he did that. Then he said, “Well, I’ll make this a piece.” Certainly Chopin must have done that. But they were well-trained musicians, so they knew how to handle the material of harmony, rhythm, and melody, because you hear all those things. It’s just too human in its feeling and its activity to be strictly mechanical. As a composer, if you give me a score pad I could just sit right now—I don’t need to have a piano or anything—and I can just write; I don’t have to know what it sounds like. I know how to structure it. That’s one way. If I sit down at the piano and start playing and say, “Yeah, I like this. I’ll write this down.” That’ll sound a little different. So I’m sure in their case, they improvised a lot of things. But it’s quite different from a person that has had the experience of improvising as a focus; theirs was compositional as a focus.

FJO: So to take an improvisation and turn it into a composition, the lines can often be very fluid and very blurry, as they ought to be. And I think they always were, as you’ve said. But what are things that make something that was spontaneously conceptualized in the moment into something that could theoretically be something that you’d want to repeat and do the same way other times, again and again? What gives it that essence of compositionality? How does it go from being an improvisation to being a composition?

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album Afrisong.

Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1975 album Afrisong is a collection of seven of his solo piano improvisations.

MRA: I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think what I’ll say is probably pretty similar in each case. Some things you want to keep for several reasons, but one of the main reasons is that you learned something from doing this. You were enlightened by it. So you want to keep it because it might have constituted an area where you solved something that you might have been having questions about. Let me try this. Let me see what this is like. Oh, I think I’ll write it down. Sure.

FJO: So when did that first start happening for you?

MRA: It always happened.

FJO: But you said that when you first started making music, you were improvising.

MRA: But I was doing that too, though.

FJO: So you were writing stuff down? How did you come to learn music notation?

MRA: Well, I came to a point where I wanted to be more technically enlightened about composing, so I started to study on my own. I remember they had these harmony books. They’re teaching people harmony out of a book. I’ll just go buy the books, and I’ll read the books. And so I just see what it is. I didn’t need the teacher. No disrespect to the teachers, it’s just my kind of feeling. I’ve always had a kind of feeling that I could teach myself if I could find the information somewhere because I had the patience to spend the time to try and learn it no matter how difficult the learning curve.

FJO: But there’s also another kind of learning that happens from working relationships. For many musicians, working as a sideman in someone’s group has been an analogous experience to being that person’s student. And there were all these great musicians you played with when they came to Chicago—like Max Roach and Dexter Gordon. This had to have been a learning process for you.

MRA: Oh yeah, on the stage—listen, that was it! You didn’t go up on the stage unless you could really complement the scene.

FJO: So how did those opportunities come about? How did Max Roach learn about you?

MRA: Mostly through Joe Segal, the person who had a venue called the Jazz Showcase. He had it at different clubs and things, but he really started with having jam sessions at Roosevelt University, so we would all participate in jam sessions. Then he started to bring in national and international entertainment and would hire us as sidemen for the people that were coming. That’s how that came about.

FJO: You attended Roosevelt briefly.

MRA: Very briefly. I was searching for a learning path. However, I found that I didn’t really need that either.

FJO: Well, there’s a quote from you I came across where you said you wanted to go there to learn about the music, but what they were telling you about the music wasn’t the same as what you were experiencing.

MRA: It was very basic, and I was performing more advanced type things than they were. But let me be fair to them. You know, if teachers are going to teach, they start with the basics. I don’t blame them for not having different information than I had from actual playing in the street. But, like I said, what I did decide is that the same literature that they had there to teach me, I could just get the literature and teach myself. That way, the pace by which I would learn the literature could be a pace that I would set. It would take me six months to learn that a triad has a positive and a negative, but you could learn that in two days.

FJO: I wish there was some recorded documentation of your performances with Max Roach.

MRA: No, we didn’t record. I performed with him, and it was great. That was some education. That was like a Ph.D.

FJO: And Dexter Gordon?

MRA: Same. And Sonny Stitt.

FJO: I’m also intrigued that you worked with a really great singer who’s not as well remembered now as she should be—Ruth Brown.

MRA: Yeah. Believe it. And Percy Mayfield. You remember Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love”?

FJO: What do you feel you got from working with Ruth Brown?

MRA: Her feeling was so great. It was a challenge to present the right complement every night. Just basic things. But my experience in Chicago around blues and different forms like that came in handy. I was ready to do it.

FJO: One thing that I hear, and I was wondering if you will agree with me or not, is I find your piano playing so melodically rich; the melodies just soar. It almost sounds like singing at times. Some pianists are really rhythmic, or percussive, or really big on harmonies, but I feel that your pianism is a very melodically flowing pianism.

MRA: Yeah, I guess it is. I don’t know. I feel a lot of worlds all at the same time and respect for a lot of worlds, even the percussive world sometimes. I do that, too. Actually, I think what it is for me is I’m composing. I think it’s basically that. I’m composing. And for me, there are two ways of composing: writing it on a paper and improvising. So when I’m playing the piano, it’s improvised composing or composed improvising. The memory of what you’ve been and what you are and whatever you will be comes out.

FJO: None of what you did with Max Roach, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Percy Mayfield, and Ruth Brown got recorded. But you did record with a group called Modern Jazz Two + Three.

MRA: Oh yeah. It was the first recording I ever made.

FJO: I’ve been trying to track down that record for a very long time, but somebody posted one of the tracks on YouTube—a composition of yours called “Temporarily Out of Order.”

MRA: George Coleman reminded me of that piece a couple years back. He used to play it. He sang it. I’m surprised that he remembered it.

The cover for the 1957 album Daddy-O Presents MJT+3

The first recording on which Muhal Richard Abrams appears is the 1957 Argo album Daddy-O Presents MJT+3. It was briefly re-issued on CD in Japan in 2002.

FJO: It’s got a great melody and some interesting chord progressions, but what strikes me about it is how different it is from what you started doing very soon afterwards with the Experimental Band. I don’t know the whole album, but judging from that one track, wonderful though it is, it is not experimental music. So what led you to go from straight-ahead type playing to wanting to really be open to the full range?

MRA: I was always that way. It’s just that I came to a point where I needed to express the more open type approach. You know, you evolve. So I came to that point and, because I was seeing it all the time through writing original pieces, I just decided to open it up. There were a couple of musicians around Chicago who agreed with that. And we just started opening things up.

FJO: But what’s interesting about what happened in Chicago with you and the other musicians there is that it was very different than similar developments with free music in New York and Los Angeles at the time. While you were opening things up, as you say, you remained mindful about earlier history and also about contemporaneous popular music. It was never experimental for the sake of being experimental. It was really about just having this open view, as we’ve been saying before, of being mindful of the past, the present, and the future all at the same time rather just making music for the future and forgetting about the past.

MRA: Well, I don’t even think that’s possible. People could fancy themselves doing what you just said, but I think basically people were trying to be composer-improvisers and the main generator was the individualism of each person. That is very important because I believe that individualism resulted in a scene with quite a few very strong individuals, like those that came out of the AACM. They were very strong individuals because they were encouraged and presented with a situation that asked them to present their individualism in concert. So there was a constant challenge to meet those challenges.

Cover for the 1985 Muhal Richard Abrams Black Saint album View from Within

On Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1985 Black Saint album View from Within, styles range from straight-ahead hard bop to free jazz, Latin, Chicago blues, and even contemporary classical music.

FJO: Since the past, present, and future are all a continuum, I’m going to jump decades ahead and then we’ll jump back. In the ‘80s you released a record with a very interesting title—View from Within. There’s an incredibly wide range of music on there. One track is Latin music. Another one is a full-on Chicago blues.

MRA: That’s right.

FJO: There’s also material on there that sounds like classical music, as well as stuff that sounds like straight-ahead jazz. But what’s interesting is that you describe all this as a view from within as opposed to the view from outside.

MRA: I’ve kept a better balance by respecting other things. Somehow it balances me to do that. Learning from another individual’s information—that’s extremely important.

FJO: Now in terms of balancing, to bring it back to the 1960s, your second LP—Young at Heart/Wise in Time—is like two completely different records. You reminded me of it when you were saying that sometimes you also get all rhythmic and percussive. There are sections on the ensemble side, Young at Heart, that are throbbing and really intense, especially in the interplay between you and the percussionist, Thurman Barker. But the other side, Wise in Time, is a beautiful, lush, at times almost Rachmaninoff-esque piano solo.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album Young at Heart / Wise in Time (Delmark, 1969)

Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1969 Delmark album Young at Heart / Wise in Time is ideally suited to the LP format since it consists of two very different side-long tracks: a composition for ensemble and a sprawling solo piano improvisation.

MRA: Well, listening to people like Art Tatum, and also Rachmaninoff, it was sitting down getting a feeling of how the piano sounds as a complement to all these people. That’s all it was: Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Art Tatum, Monk. Just sitting down and being musical in that way, to explore how the piano can sound. I think that’s probably what happened in that instance.

FJO: It’s a perfect listening experience on an LP because you have the two sides, whereas on a CD or an online stream you don’t get that same sense of duality.

MRA: It was limited, but yet not.

FJO: Now, in terms of the composition-improvisation divide, how much was worked out in advance and how much was completely spontaneous.

MRA: The piano solos were improvised. Period.

FJO: Completely improvised?

MRA: Yes, that’s what I’m saying—just sitting down and respecting the fact that it’s important to make an effort to be musical and to explore, as best you can, how the piano can sound. So that’s a compliment to Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Chopin, Monk, Duke, and also one of my first influences on piano, King Fleming. I just mentioned him because he needs to be mentioned. He was the first pianist I heard who was a jazz pianist and was classically trained. The way he played the piano, he was aware of the piano sounding in a combination of manners—jazz and classical, all at the same time. He listened to a lot of people who were like that: Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum. But I think King Fleming’s influence as to how a pianist should sound hit me first and early, because he was the first pianist that I’d gotten close to who could play like that. And he had a large band, and the arranger who orchestrated for that was a trumpet player, Will Jackson. I need to mention him, too. I learned a great deal from both of these gentlemen. I learned performing in a jazz band from King Fleming and writing for a jazz band from Will Jackson. They’re both deceased now, but I think that other people should know about them.

FJO: Curiously, on your first recording date as a leader, in addition to playing piano, you also played clarinet.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's first album as a leader, Levels and Degrees of Light (Delmark, 1967)

On Muhal Richard Abrams’s recording debut as a leader, the 1967 Delmark album Levels and Degrees of Light he plays clarinet in addition to playing piano.

MRA: Well, I just feel musical with anything that I would apply myself to. I wanted to play the clarinet, so I just picked up clarinet and respected the fact—I practiced clarinet. I certainly didn’t stay with it as long as I could have, but I stayed with it long enough to do what I needed to do in terms of when I did perform with it.

FJO: And I imagine that it gave you other ideas that you might not have gotten on the piano, because of the different physical relationship it requires, producing sound with your breath.

MRA: It’s a different feeling because it’s a different mechanical manipulation. Sure.

FJO: This multi-instrumentalism is a hallmark of AACM members. In terms of the beginnings of the AACM, you were its founder as well as its first president. You were the person who brought these people together. But notions of hierarchy seem antithetical to you, as well as to aesthetics of the AACM overall; so how did that work?

MRA: There was no hierarchy. We all agreed to agree; sometimes we agreed not to agree. But we certainly agreed to contribute to each other’s efforts to express one’s individualism. And that was the basis of it.

FJO: So how did that whole thing come about?

MRA: Well, I had organized a band called Experimental Band, which was a precursor of the AACM. I needed a place to try out some of the newly learned things that I was educating myself about in terms of music through my studies. I needed a place to express those things. They were more open things. They weren’t things that you’d play in jazz clubs. So I organized what I called the Experimental Band. The musicians could come and experiment with composition and improvisation. We were of like minds. And so from there we came to a point where I collaborated with three other musicians to create a formal association based on the same idea. That’s how the AACM came about.

FJO: It began from a group, but it’s not a performing group per se. It’s sort of a composer collective, but it operates in a different way than most composer collectives. It came from this idea of not playing in clubs and finding alternative venues for this kind of music, but it’s not a venue in and of itself.

MRA: We presented our own concerts. We also created the venue for producing the music or, rather, for presenting the music. We created a venue through just renting a space and presenting the concerts. In other words, it was a total effort. We weren’t looking for a place to perform the music. We created a place to perform the music. And so it was all one.

FJO: There are two things that could be strong motivators for doing this. One is what you had said about making music that wouldn’t work in a club. Or maybe it was music that the club wouldn’t want necessarily because it didn’t fit with the definition of music the people at the club were interested in presenting or that they felt the audience expected from that club. But there’s also another motivator which is about creating a space for the kind of listening that is most appropriate for this music. To really be able to focus on it requires a different kind of space than a club.

MRA: Well, no. Not really. Let me say this. It could have been played in clubs. In fact, we did. We were in residence every Monday night at a club. We played the way we played, and the place stayed packed with people who wanted to hear what we were doing. So it could be played in clubs. It was just that it wasn’t regular gig music. People come to hear standard things. But certainly we played in several clubs and the night we played was the night that people would come to hear what we would do. So it could be played anywhere. In Chicago, it was like that. It could be played anywhere in the city.

FJO: The reason I wanted to talk about it now is because the world 50 years ago is quite different from the world today in terms of venues. Nowadays, people who doing the most experimental kinds of things want to go back and play in clubs and suddenly clubs have become an even more tolerant space; whereas a half century ago there were more limits on what you could do. I think the notion of what is possible in a club now is very different.

MRA: Certainly you go to clubs here in New York now and you might hear anything because it’s wide open to individualism. I think that is the real factor that brought this type of situation to the fore, because individualism is not something that’s strange. You know what I mean? People today expect to hear an individual doing an individual type of presentation.

FJO: I’m also curious about this in terms of recording and how most people experience music. We didn’t really talk about listeners so much in this, like the ideal listening experience for somebody hearing what you or what other people associated with the AACM do. I don’t expect you to speak for the others, but to speak for yourself. What is an ideal listener in terms of focus on the music? Should the person be paying full attention? Could the music just be in the background? So many people nowadays walk around wearing headphones and listening to music as they’re going through their daily routines. Is that an okay way to experience this music versus being completely focused on it and having it speak to you— and have only it, ideally, speak to you?

Cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's 1995 New World CD One Line, Two Views

Another provocatively titled Muhal Richard Abrams recording is the 1995 New World album One Line, Two Views which once again demonstrates Abrams’s penchant for reconciling seemingly opposing aesthetics.

MRA: Well, let me ask a question. How many different ways can a person decide to concentrate? I think that question asks many other questions. If a person is concentrating and seriously listening, it could be through earphones walking down the street. I wouldn’t even attempt to try to say what would be the ideal situation or where a person should listen to music. I think they make that choice. But the fact that there are people who seriously want to listen to certain kinds of music—well, they’ll do it anywhere, even through earphones. You know what I mean? They’ll do it anywhere, if that is convenient for them, and they’ll just do it whenever they find a convenient time to do it. I think that’s the answer, because people are listening to all sorts of things and I think a lot of them are quite eclectic, too. I mean, they’re listening to all kinds of stuff.

FJO: Well, if they listen to you, they’ll be hearing everything.

MRA: [laughs] I don’t know about that.

FJO: To bring it back to those early AACM years, you were such an important voice in the Chicago music scene, and yet in the mid-1970s you moved to New York City and have been here ever since. What made you uproot yourself?

MRA: What can I say? It was just time to move. Chicago is a great place, but New York is a different kind of place. The intensity and the challenge is quite constant. I guess it was just time for me to do that. You’re swimming in a pond and sometimes you go where it feeds into the ocean.

FJO: You came to the ocean, but a lot of the things that you did here were similar to what you had done there. In New York City, you were a major force in developing the loft concert scene. So to some extent you brought a Chicago idea to New York.

Cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album 1-OQA+19

The somewhat cryptically titled 1-OQA+19, Muhal Richard Abrahms’s first album as a leader recorded in New York City (in November and December of 1977) and featuring four other AACM alumni (Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Steve McCall, and Leonard Jones), is definitely a continuation of the ensemble music he was involved with in Chicago.

MRA: Well, I don’t know about that, but I didn’t intend to function in any other way except for the way I was functioning. I have to include other people, of course, but we all came to do what we do: presenting concerts, same as we’d been doing in Chicago. Now we’re in the ocean; we do it according to this space.

FJO: It was such a vital time for this music, but now, 40 years later, a lot of that scene has disappeared or has changed very fundamentally. Back then Roulette was a loft. It was Jim Staley’s apartment. Now it’s an official, street-level concert venue. It’s amazing that we finally have such a venue that’s dedicated to new, exploratory music. That’s wonderful. But I also think we might have lost some of the personal, home-grown, DIY quality that we once had when so many of these concerts were taking place in people’s own homes. With the way the real estate market has played out, the way demographics have changed, we probably can no longer have such a scene in quite the way that we had it back then.

MRA: You hit it on the head when you said real estate market. There’s a reason for that. The real estate requirement for higher rents caused people to just give it up in terms of maintaining those venues. It happened to quite a few, without naming them, as I’m sure you know. But with Roulette, his [Jim’s] perseverance in terms of what he wanted to do paid off, which is great.

FJO: But what’s interesting is now he’s got this great space, but it’s not a loft anymore. It’s something else. It’s a fabulous something else, but it’s a different listening modality. It doesn’t have the same intimacy. It can’t.

CD cover for the 2005 Pi release Streaming featuring Muhal Richard Abrams and George Lewis

The 2005 duo album Streaming, released on Pi, is a truly collaborative effort between two old friends and musical co-conspirators, Muhal Richard Abrams and George Lewis.

MRA: Well—and I’m sure you know this—you have to upgrade. You’re asking people for money, so you have to put it on a level where you can use that kind of money you’re asking for, if you’re fortunate enough to make those kind of contacts. But I think the music itself or the idea of the music and the presentation of the music hasn’t changed. At Roulette, they present a great variety of musical approaches. If anything, he expanded, but I suppose it has to be what it is in terms of physical structure in order to accomplish what it is that they want to do. If you do something for ten years, you say, “I want to do it again for the next ten years; however, I want to levitate and do it like this.” Things just have to grow. There’s a nostalgic feeling in reference to vinyl records and CDs, there’s a nostalgic feeling for the lofts and whatnot like that, but I think that the musical content in the lofts is still at play. It’s just not in the lofts.

FJO: So, for you, where are the ideal places where you would like to either play music or have your music played by others to be heard?

MRA: Oh, I don’t have any except for the AACM concerts. We’re still producing those concerts. But Roulette is a good place for having things done that are not AACM-type presentations. And Tom Buckner’s series does quite a few good things. I mean, I like seeing some things on his series that otherwise maybe wouldn’t be on an AACM series, some compositional things. I’ve done some things on his series. There are a few venues in Brooklyn. I don’t function in Brooklyn, so I’m not in touch with those other venues, except for Roulette. But they have other venues around that seem to be pretty consistent in presenting written and improvised music.

FJO: To bring it back to your music again, my all-time favorite piece of yours is The Hearinga Suite. I feel it has a foot in both of the worlds we’ve been talking about: that of composed improvisation and improvised composing—so-called classical music and so-called jazz. It’s a fluid interplay that is both at once—informed by both, yet neither. It’s its own thing. So I wanted to talk to you a bit about it and how it came into being. Do you feel it represented a turning point in your music because of its scale, both in terms of its length and the number of players involved in it?

MRA: No, I was always like that. I mean, it’s just happening. It’s a project that I did at that time, but in terms of the musical ingredients, they were always there. The idiom, the compositional makeup of the piece, that’s just me in that.

FJO: What does the word Hearinga mean?

MRA: It’s an expression, like a song—Hearinga—like a name or something. It has nothing to do with the music, but it’s an expression that is used to speak in reference to the music.

FJO: I thought it was about hearing, because it’s “hearing”-a. I thought you gave it the title as a way to focus listeners on hearing this multiplicity.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's The Hearinga Suite (Black Saint, 1989)

The Hearinga Suite, arguably Muhal Richard Abrams’s most ambitious work, was released by Black Saint in 1989.

MRA: That’s great, because certainly I intended for the title to provoke thought and wonder. But the intention was to bring a thought from the listener that would require the listener to deal with the listener’s self. You see what I’m talking about? It’s hard to explain, but I mean—it’s like I’m thinking and I’m looking at the table. I’m thinking about the table, and all of a sudden I’m seeing shapes within myself and getting questions and answers about something that I might not have been thinking about at all.

FJO: The individual movements go in so many different directions like, for example, “Conversations with the Three of Me.”

MRA: Oh yeah, that’s the piano thing.

FJO: I love that title, but there are so many more than just three of you.

MRA: Well, hey, right. But that’s rather metaphysical and also quite mundane at the same time. I used three improvised approaches.

FJO: So what are they?

MRA: There are three different moods, but they’re not moods that are separate. They’re played like a sonata. You play this slow, you play this a little fast, and then you play this fast. But it’s not exactly that type of thing because everything is improvised on the spot. The name came after the performance. All names come after the performances.

FJO: You also use a synthesizer on it.

MRA: That’s one of the moods.

FJO: Certainly there are things that can be done on synthesizers that are impossible to do on a piano or with other instruments. Even by the mid-1980s when you made this music, electronic music was largely a new sound world. So what brought you to use synthesizers, and do you feel that changed your language in any way, musically?

MRA: Well, let’s think of it this way: we’re actually talking about sound. We’re talking about music, but we’re talking about sound. So that came about because sound can be produced in any way that you feel that you’d like to produce sound. And that’s it. It’s just electronic sound. That’s the difference. There’s electronic sound, then the two piano sounds—three moods. Three of me, you know, a conversation with the three, so there’s an electronic part, and then there’s two different moods for the piano. So that’s the conversation, you know what I mean? But sound, that’s the thing, because before music can be called music, it has to be harnessed and structured from sound. Music is a by-product of sound. Sound is the thing. Sound.

FJO: You went even deeper into exploring electronic timbres in the ‘90s with “Think All, Focus One.” That’s probably my favorite of your electronic improvisations. It’s from another extraordinary album with a really great title: Think All, Focus One.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album Think All, Focus One (Black Saint, 1995)

In addition to six compositions for septet, Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1995 Black Saint album Think All, Focus One contains a fascinating synthesizer improvisation.

MRA: Well again, here I have a provocative statement which has nothing to do with describing the music. It’s a statement that is intended to provoke, but not for control or anything. It’s just meant to provoke. It’s a feeling that comes together in that statement. You know what I mean? Think all, focus one. And I know what I get from it, but I don’t know what you might get from it.

FJO: Well what I think I got from it is that there’s all sound out there available to you, and you should be mindful of all of it: all styles, all possibilities of what you’re doing on any instrument, the whole breadth, the whole line between complete spontaneous improvisation to fully worked-out composition, as well as the rhythms and the melodies of all cultures. But despite thinking of all of that, you must be an individual.

MRA: That’s very good. That’s a nice compliment to the title, I must say.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's 2001 Mutable CD, The Visibility of Thought

In 2001, Mutable released a disc devoted to Muhal Richard Abrams’s notated compositions called The Visibility of Thought which includes performances by baritone Thomas Buckner, pianist Joseph Kubera, and the string quartet ETHEL.

FJO: Now when you write music for other people to play—like, say, the music you’ve composed for groups like the Kronos Quartet or ETHEL who performed a piece of yours for baritone and string quartet with Thomas Buckner, or the orchestra pieces you’ve written that have been performed by the American Composers Orchestra or the Janacek Philharmonic—these are situations where the musicians are working from written musical scores and they are performing this music without you. I imagine there is no improvisation in any of this music.

MRA: No. It’s written.

FJO: How does it feel to be apart from the music and for it to be fixed in that way?

MRA: Well, I’m improvising all the time, and I’m composing all the time. It’s the same thing. It’s the application that’s different. I am applying the approach to this orchestra with a written presentation, but it’s the same process. The difference is in the sense that I can make a certain kind of a texture with fifty strings. Four French horns can make a certain kind of texture. So I’m dealing with respect for the orchestra. That’s a component. I have elected to respect this instrument called the orchestra. And the possibilities of sound that can be gotten from treating it in a certain compositional manner.

FJO: But when you do something for an ensemble of improvising musicians, they bring their own individualism to the table.

MRA: I insist on it.

CD cover for the 2015 ECM CD Made in Chicago

Though released under the name of percussionist Jack De Johnette, this extraordinary live recording from a 2013 Chicago Jazz Festival concert in Millennial Park (which was released on ECM in January 2015) is truly a group effort by all the members of the quintet which also includes Henry Threadgill, Larry Gray, Roscoe Mitchell, and Muhal Richard Abrams.

FJO: And you’ve performed as a sideman with others and you bring your individualism to them.

MRA: That’s right.

FJO: But when you’re writing a piece for orchestra, the whole idea is that it’s all on the page. They’re following the notes, and then they’re following the conductor’s interpretation of those notes. There’s a lot less room for self-expression.

MRA: Well, but there’s room for self-expressions, plural. You follow what I mean? People who are adept at playing classical music, I mean really great orchestra people, interpret musical symbols in a manner that can conjure up all sorts of pictures and panoramic images in terms of what you feel and what you hear when you hear a piece played by a really good orchestra. The way they interpret what you put down, that’s another element. You’re getting a plural of individualism, a pluralistic individualism, as a result of all these people playing together and playing with each other. There’s something that happens with them. There are certain people that couldn’t play with them because they wouldn’t be able to transfer that, they maintain the orchestra feeling for whatever is going on. It’s very important to them. In those great orchestras, it’s very important what happens among them. And that’s the other element. See? So you’re getting this plural individualist situation that goes on with them. It’s hard to explain because I think that the whole situation of individualism is transferable in terms of what a situation might be in terms of numbers of people.

FJO: So would you be okay with them taking a lot of liberties with something you’ve written down? How much can they change it and have it still be your piece? How much give and take is there in that process?

MRA: But the orchestra doesn’t change. The conductor might want to—

FJO: Speed it up?

Cover for the 2010 Mutable CD Spectrum

The 2010 Mutable CD Spectrum features a performance of Muhal Richard Abrams’s orchestral composition Mergertone, a work commissioned by the Ostrava Days festival and premiered there in 2007 by the Janáček Philharmonic conducted by Petr Kotik.

MRA: Yeah, he might, but he doesn’t really change it, because if something sounds one way going at a slow tempo and you speed it up, then it’s a different mood. You discuss that with the conductor. And any changes, certainly a good conductor will consult with you before he make them; he’ll ask and make suggestions. And if you say, “No, leave it,” he’ll just leave it like that. So there’s always that collaboration. I mean, it’s a rare moment when a conductor will go off on his own, because he’s endeavored to interpret what the composer has written.

FJO: The structure is so large, so it requires a different way of working. There’s so little rehearsal time, so even if you wanted there to be room for improvisation in that context, there wouldn’t be enough time to make that work. Plus a lot of these musicians don’t have experience with improvisation and feel uncomfortable with it. But would you want to create such a piece?

MRA: No. To ask people who don’t improvise to suddenly improvise, it’s been my experience, you don’t get a great result. And it’s not the fault of the people. They’re great musicians and great on their instruments, but you’re asking them to do something that they don’t do! That doesn’t work out too good. You have to approach that situation differently. If you want improvisation, then you bring improvisation with you, so they don’t have to deal with it. And mix it.

FJO: The last thing I wanted to talk about with you is that on all your recordings, going back decades, there’s always a line stating how to obtain scores of this music. I wonder how many people have contacted you for scores and if they have then gone on to perform that and what those performances have been like.

MRA: Oh, I can’t speak to that. I don’t quite know what they do with it. They can do what they want with it. I don’t ask that they do anything when they get it. But usually they’ve listened to a recording and they try to stay as a close or true to what they heard. You know what I mean? Some people may change it, but what can you do? I don’t have any requirement beyond what I ask of myself.