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Missy Mazzoli: Communication, Intimacy, and Vulnerability

Missy Mazzoli in her composition studio.

A conversation at her home in Brooklyn, New York
February 17, 2016—2:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Missy Mazzoli first appeared in NewMusicBox ten years ago when she kept a daily blog for us about her experiences as a participant in the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. That week-long orchestra boot camp offers emerging composers intensive workshops with musicians and a performance of their music on a subscription series concert entitled Future Classics which is also broadcast live. The piece of Mazzoli’s that was featured was These Worlds In Us, which was also her very first piece for orchestra. In the opening salvo for that NewMusicBox blog series, she expressed concern about how her music, which is “based in communication, intimacy, and a touch of vulnerability,” would “translate to an orchestra.”

As it turned out, These Worlds In Us was a huge success and has continued to be performed by orchestras across the United States as well as in Europe. (It will be performed this month in Akron, Ohio.) And, over the past decade, she has also written additional orchestra pieces that have been performed by the Detroit Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Albany Symphony. When we spoke with her in her Greenpoint apartment, she had just returned from a Music Alive: New Partnerships residency with the Boulder Philharmonic which culminated in a performance of her Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres).

“I still feel like I’m asking the same questions,” she said, “and, with each piece, finding different answers to the question of how to bring an intimate, vulnerable, human experience to a situation like working with an orchestra, which is a little bit disconcerting and I feel kind of disconnected as a composer for a couple different reasons.”

But writing for orchestra forms only a small part of her compositional output. There’s a brand new solo piano piece of hers on Michael Mizrahi’s forthcoming CD (which will be released on March 26) and an older solo piano piece on Lisa Moore’s new disc. A few weeks before heading to Colorado, she was in Brazil for a whole concert devoted to her chamber music. She fronts Victoire, something of a cross between an indie rock band and a chamber ensemble, which is about to record its sophomore album. Plus her latest opera, Breaking the Waves, based on the Lars von Trier film, will be staged by Opera Philadelphia next season.

“I’m still in the beginning phases of my career where I am taking commissions and jumping at opportunities to work with whomever,” Mazzoli acknowledged during our talk. “So it’s really about taking whatever is brought to me and making it something that I’m excited about.” And though she is clearly excited about a very wide range of musical activities, they share a common core. “The thing that I can say consistently inspires me is human beings. It’s not nature as much as it is just me being inspired by human beings trying to live their lives. And, in the case of my operas, human beings trying to live their lives under insane, impossible circumstances.”

The thing that we have been most excited about, however, is that a piece of her choral music, Vesper Sparrow has been chosen to be performed during the 2016 ISCM World Music Days in Tongyeong, South Korea. Mazzoli’s piece will be presented alongside works by composers from Australia, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom, on a March 28 program featuring the Ansan City Choir conducted Shin-Hwa Park. Vesper Sparrow originally appeared on Roomful of Teeth’s 2015 disc Render, a recording that received a New Music USA project grant, which led to the composition’s submission in the ISCM’s call for scores for the 2016 WMD.

“When I wrote it I never imagined anyone else singing it, because it had to be written so quickly and it was so particular for this group,” Mazzoli claimed. “But I’m open to different interpretations. I like the Sardinian aspect of it and I like that there’s a recording that these singers will hopefully listen to, even just to get an idea of what the piece is about and the character. But do they need to have that precise sort of like nasally intonation that the Sardinian music has? Not necessarily. I think that the piece is the notes and the rhythms and the texts. And all that translates on the page.”

Frank J. Oteri: The main impetus for our talk right now is that your choral piece Vesper Sparrow will be performed during the 2016 ISCM World Music Days in Tongyeong, South Korea, at the end of March. But you have a lot of other stuff going on as well. You just came back from a weeklong Music Alive: New Partnerships residency with the Boulder Philharmonic, which culminated in a performance of your Sinfonia, and only a few weeks before that you were in Brazil performing a concert of your chamber music. I read in The New York Times this week that Opera Philadelphia will be staging your new opera Breaking the Waves next season, and Michael Mizrahi’s latest solo piano CD, which is being released in a couple of weeks, includes a piece of yours.

Missy Mazzoli: Lisa Moore also has a piece of my mine on her new album.

FJO: Really? Another piano piece?

MM: Yeah.

FJO: Wow, so there’s some considerable activity with your solo piano music as well as your choral music, your chamber music, your orchestral music, plus opera. You’re writing many kinds of things and you’re getting pulled in many different directions. Is there any kind of music you would not want to write?

MM: I really can’t think of it. But, you know, so many of my opportunities are not necessarily my choice. I’m still in the beginning phases of my career where I am taking commissions and jumping at opportunities to work with whomever, so it’s really about taking whatever is brought to me and making it something that I’m excited about. But it’s hard to imagine something that would come my way that I wouldn’t be excited about.

FJO: You haven’t written a band piece yet, as far as I know.

MM: No. And I’m not terribly excited about it, but that’s not to say that I wouldn’t do it. I think, under the right circumstances, it could be really fun.

FJO: Or a solo organ piece?

MM: Again, you kind of need someone; it’s hard to just write a solo organ piece and just throw it out into the universe. I really would want someone to come to me and say, “I’m going to perform this 20 times, and I’m really excited.” So we’ll see.

FJO: Or a sound installation?

MM: I would love to do a sound installation. I could do one in my living room; it would be awesome, but it would be only for me. So I’m definitely open to that, too. It’s hard, though, writing all these operas lately. I’m working on one for Opera Philadelphia; it’s co-commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and Beth Morrison Projects. And I’m working on another one that will be announced really soon. I’m also dealing with performances of my first opera, Song from the Uproar. Opera can take over your life. So I feel like while all this other stuff is happening, really when I sit down to write, the operas are my focus. That’s been an interesting shift. Usually I’m working on ten different things at the same time, but for the last couple of years, it’s been like this one massive piece.

FJO: The first piece of yours I ever heard was an orchestra piece, These Worlds In Us, soon after we first met, which was ten years ago. Then the piece was chosen for the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute, which is a really extraordinary program. You wrote a series of blog posts for NewMusicBox about your experiences at the Institute that year. I decided to reread them all last week, and I came across a fascinating couple of sentences from your very first post.

MM: I’m afraid.

FJO: You shouldn’t be; they’re great. They were about your concerns about the experience right before the Institute got under way, and they are extremely heartfelt. The sentences are: “My music is based in communication, intimacy, and a touch of vulnerability. How does this translate to an orchestra?” Now, ten years later, your music has been performed by lots of orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony and, most recently, in Boulder. So I wonder what you think about those sentences. Vulnerability is discouraged because of how the rehearsal process works. And, at this point, how do you deal with an orchestra’s inherent lack of intimacy?

MM: Well, I still feel like I’m asking the same questions and, with each piece, finding different answers to the question of how to bring an intimate, vulnerable, human experience to a situation like working with an orchestra, which is a little bit disconcerting. I feel kind of disconnected as a composer for a couple different reasons. You’re dealing with this mass of people—you very rarely get to have individual interactions with the players. You’re flown somewhere and you have two or three rehearsals and then it’s the performances. It’s not set up to have one-on-one pow-wows with your performers, which is what I’m used to.

So this experience I just had last weekend in Boulder was really interesting. They premiered the new version of this piece that I originally wrote for the LA Philharmonic called Sinfonia for Orbiting Spheres. I put harmonicas in the orchestra and also melodicas, the piano that you blow into—I have some around here—and there’s a lot of strange percussion. I really wanted it to feel like this intimate, enveloping experience. The harmonica sounds so vulnerable and so human because these players are not professional harmonica players. They’re professional horn players and clarinetists and they’re just using the length of their breath to play these really simple, almost toy-like instruments. It was so great, but it was a risk for me. I didn’t know how that was going to work in an orchestral context. And I was so happy because I think that it made the experience more intimate for everybody.

FJO: Fascinating. Some orchestras might not be willing to do it. Some players feel very firmly that they should only be required to play the instrument that they’ve spent their lives studying and perfecting making the best possible sound with.

MM: Right, and I respect that. That’s valid. My goal is not to make people look bad. I was really grateful that the Boulder Phil musicians were open to the idea. They might not have liked it—I’m not sure—but they were really great and they wanted to make the piece work. So much thought went into me even writing for harmonica in an orchestra setting. It was not just a whim; it was very considered. There’s this very serious emotional intent that I have. So my strategy with working with the orchestra was to try to get them to understand what I was going for. It’s sort of a music of the spheres feeling, and it was this idea of enveloping the audience in this ether, while all these loops of little melodic fragments were swirling around them. Harmonicas are really like the ether in which everything exists. So once they understood that, I think that they were at least willing to give it a shot.

FJO: An important component of the performance in Boulder was that you were in residence there for a week, so instead of just showing up for a couple of rehearsals and the concert, you had a greater opportunity to connect with the players, so that must have helped that process. I was curious how that experience was different from other experiences you’ve had with orchestras over the years.

MM: In Boulder I did a lot to connect to the audience, but unfortunately I didn’t have so much time to connect with the players, even in a residency situation. I think it’s hard to create that time and space, but I think it’s something worth working towards for all orchestras—to try to create a deeper connection between the composers and the performers. I’ve talked to a lot of my composer friends about this very thing. But it did make a big difference for me, just being in Boulder for a week. I taught for a day at Colorado University. And I performed a concert of my own works at this art space called The Dairy in downtown Boulder. I met with their board. I went to luncheons. I did a stargazing hike where they played my music as people were looking at the stars, because the piece is about the planets in orbit. That was amazing, and it allowed me to have conversations with people about a bunch of different things, and allowed them to have a bunch of different ways to access my music and the work.

FJO: To talk a little bit more about your first orchestra piece, These Worlds In Us, one of the things that struck me about it at the time and every time I’ve listened to it or have thought about it since then, is how ravishingly beautiful it is. Certainly not everything you’ve written is so decidedly and so intentionally pretty, but beauty has definitely been part of your compositional arsenal. It seems to be a conscious aesthetic decision for you, so I thought it would be interesting to talk about that as well as what your view of beauty is.

 

MM: What does it mean to be beautiful? How much time do we have? I think that what you’re saying is that there’s a lyricism, or that there are elements of that piece and pieces that I’ve written in the last ten years that are sort of conventionally beautiful in a way that most people would say, “Oh, that’s pretty” or “That’s a melody I can hum.” I think that a lot of noise music is beautiful and that it’s pleasing, but I know what you’re saying. There’s a lyricism, and there are these melodies that float around the listener in a way that I think could be described as beautiful. That’s something that has been a part of my language from the very beginning. My goal is to try to draw the listener in with something that is familiar, even just a tiny bit, whether it’s a little repeated melodic fragment or the sound of the harmonica, which is a sound that everybody knows. Most people have picked up a harmonica and have blown into it. We know that sound. So I try to draw people in with something that they can latch onto, but then twist it and present it in a different way, present the melody with a strange chord underneath. Or have the harmonicas be this insistent repeating drone that becomes unsettling. The piece I just wrote for the Boulder Phil becomes very dark at the end. All of a sudden, the harmonica feels like this lone person lost in space instead of this warm familiar sound. So I don’t know. These Worlds In Us was the first orchestra piece that I’d ever written, and it was really daunting. I remember really losing my mind trying to write that piece. And I remember having this thought: I can write a melody. When all else fails, I know I can do that. So I’m just going to do that and not worry about what comes next. And that’s where the theme for the piece came from.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that you want to give the audience something to latch onto, because another constant through line in your music is that there’s always a narrative arc behind it, whether it’s inspired by literature or by personal experience. In the case of These Worlds In Us, it was both: a wonderful poem, which is where the title came from, but also you thinking about your father and his experience being a Vietnam War vet. But these kinds of backstories are hard to decipher in a piece of abstract instrumental music with no vocal line; they hinge on people reading the program notes. How important is it for you that people know those stories?

MM: Sometimes it’s important that they know, sometimes it’s not. Certainly it is with the dramatic work that I’m doing, even in an abstract opera like Song from the Uproar, which does not have a conventional narrative. It’s more like a fever dream. But it’s important to me that people generally understand what’s going on, even in the simplest terms. Other times those stories are just for me. That’s just the way that I conceive of music. I conceive it as a human struggle. I conceive these melodies and rhythms as being characters that are sometimes working together and sometimes in opposition to each other.

In my piece for eighth blackbird [Still Life with Avalanche], the percussionist devours all the other instruments and absorbs all the material. It’s a weird, abstract play that’s being enacted by these performers. Whether or not you know that that’s what I was thinking of in that particular piece doesn’t matter because it just leads to a musical result. The same thing is true with These Worlds In Us and Tooth and Nail¸ the piece that I wrote for violist Nadia Sirota, which is about jaw harp music in Uzbekistan. I don’t really care if people understand all the things going on in this piece because, at the end, it’s just leading me to create a musical structure.

My two composer obsessions this month are Anna Thorvaldsdottir and John Luther Adams. They’re both really inspired by nature. A couple of months ago, I was driving around Death Valley thinking: I wonder if there’s something in there for me. I should get inspired by nature. But the thing that I can say consistently inspires me is human beings. It’s not nature as much as it is just me being inspired by human beings trying to live their lives. And, in the case of my operas, human beings trying to live their lives under insane, impossible circumstances. What do they do? How do they get out of it? How do they relate to each other? That stuff to me is so fascinating and juicy, even as a way to think of non-narrative instrumental music.

FJO: One of my favorite pieces of yours is Magic With Everyday Objects, which you describe in your program notes for it as music having a nervous breakdown. But part of the reason I love it so much is I don’t think you even need that program note. That message gets immediately across in the music. Obviously some narratives are harder to convey than others, some details are just too subtle. I wouldn’t have known the backstory of These Worlds In Us just from hearing the music.

MM: But that doesn’t matter to me.

FJO: There’s another backstory with These Worlds In Us which is a purely musical one. You used the same melodic material in another piece of yours, a piece you wrote for Newspeak called In Spite of All This. And yet, though this material sounds so pretty in These Worlds In Us, it’s decidedly not pretty anymore in the other piece. It’s something else entirely.

MM: I think that’s totally a function of the orchestration. I actually wrote the piece for Newspeak first and then orchestrated it out and changed it to fit into an orchestral context. I think when you move into an orchestral context, I don’t want to say it’s inevitably prettier because a lot of composers don’t think that way, but there’s a certain lushness and a lyricism that happens when you have a full string section, versus just a solo violin. So I think maybe that’s what you’re experiencing. And also, because I had more instruments in the orchestra, I was able to flesh out a lot of the harmonies, and so I think it comes across as this richer, more immersive experience.

FJO: Even though they share the same material, that material is presented so differently to the point that I don’t think they’re the same piece at all. They’re very different pieces.

MM: They share a theme and a structure, but that’s about it. I do this all the time. I steal from myself all the time. I think a lot of composers do, and I think it’s a fallacy that we’re supposed to reinvent ourselves completely with every piece. My boyfriend is a painter and he’s been working on the same series of work for the last year and a half; it’s so fascinating and satisfying to watch that happen. I think of music in the same way. I’ll often use the same material to generate a few different works before it’s completely out of my system.

FJO: You wrote the Newspeak piece back in 2005; I don’t know anything you wrote before that.

MM: Before 2005, when I was 24! Well, it’s funny. The piece that Lisa Moore recorded for an album that just came out two days ago is the earliest piece of mine that is published and available for people. It’s a piece for piano and electronics called Orizzonte. I wrote it when I was 24 for a band that I was in when I lived in Amsterdam; eleven years later, it’s finally been recorded by someone else.

FJO: I have a demo recording of you playing it that you gave me the first time we had lunch together ten years ago.

MM: Oh really? Oh my God… Wow. Well, it went through a bunch of different versions. It started off as an improv experiment and then solidified into something I could play on a concert program.

FJO: I didn’t realize back then that you had been in a band in Amsterdam. So even that early on, you were involved in several different approaches to making music. People still package things into “classical music” or “indie rock,” and you’ve certainly done work that could fit in either category, and many things that have aspects of both over the past ten years, but it seems like you’ve been doing that from what you consider the very beginning of your musical output.

MM: I don’t think about it that way at all. This band in Amsterdam was a great example. Was that a band or was it an ensemble? I don’t know. I got a residency in a squat, and was like: Let’s start a band; we’ll work all week in this squat and then we’ll give a concert at the end. Great. So it’s just people together making music. It was a welcome change for me from just working alone in my room and then delivering pieces to people. So it just sounded like fun. That’s where that came from.

FJO: In some ways Victoire is a band, but it’s also an ensemble. It’s a little bit of both.

MM: I don’t lean towards one or the other. My goal in creating the ensemble was to take the best of what was going on with bands. I wanted to make records. I wanted to tour. I wanted to create a show that was a consistent instrumentation for which I was creating new music, because people were asking me to put on concerts. Our first show was at The Stone, John Zorn’s venue on the Lower East Side. I didn’t want to just bring in a string quartet and then a solo clarinet; it just didn’t make sense programmatically. I wanted to have a consistent ensemble and I wanted to tour the world. I wanted to perform all over the place. That was from the indie rock world. But then I wanted a really virtuosic level of performer. I needed people who were classically trained. I wanted us to be performing music that was written down and that I wrote. So that was coming from the ensemble side of things. So it’s equal parts both.

FJO: Of course there were several models from the previous generation of composers forming their own groups to exclusively perform their own music, like The Philip Glass Ensemble or Steve Reich and Musicians. But you didn’t call it The Missy Mazzoli Ensemble.

MM: Because that seemed pretentious at the time. I don’t think it was pretentious of Philip Glass or Steve Reich, but I think that in the current climate, it just felt wrong. I don’t know. We were taking so much from the band world that I wanted to give it a name that wasn’t my own name.

FJO: But do you think of that music differently than you think of the other music you write?

MM: No, I don’t. Often a piece will start as a commission for someone else, and then I will arrange it to be performed by my ensemble. I took Magic With Everyday Objects, which I originally wrote for NOW Ensemble, and arranged that for Victoire. Then I re-arranged it and it became The Door into the Dark, which was the opening track on our first album. I did that with bits of my opera, Song from the Uproar, too. The opera ends with an ecstatic coda, and I really wanted to play that myself. So I arranged it for Victoire. The music is exactly the same. But even if it’s not the exact same notes, it’s the same level of complexity as all my other music. The biggest difference is really just in the way that it’s rehearsed, because I can try things out with the group, experiment with different synthesizer timbres. I’m obviously not really able to do that when writing for someone else.

FJO: Curiously, the biggest project that has involved Victoire is Vespers for a New Dark Age. The first Victoire album, Cathedral City, was credited to Victoire. Only someone reading the fine print could see that all the compositions were by Missy Mazzoli. But Vespers was clearly identified as a Missy Mazzoli album. So even if you don’t think of there being distinctions, distinctions are being drawn somehow.

MM: Sure. Inevitably. But the Vespers album also included three tracks that are electronic pieces I created myself, with the help of the producer Lorna Dune; it didn’t involve the band. And then there were all these other people involved, like the percussionist Glenn Kotche. Lorna also created a remix of this other piece, A Thousand Tongues. Jody Redhage performed the original version of A Thousand Tongues, and we sampled her voice. So there were a lot of people involved. For me, a Victoire album is the five of us getting in a room and making music together. This felt like so much more, and the unifying thread was me as a composer. So I think it felt right to release that album under my name. It felt more in the lineage of Song from the Uproar, which is the album of my opera that was released two years before.

FJO: It was fascinating to hear you say that there was music you wrote for someone else that you wanted to perform yourself, and so you reworked it and made it into something else. This ties back to an earlier thread in this discussion about communication being the core of your music. Certainly performing is a form of communicating, so being directly involved in a performance is an important way to engage with an audience.

MM: Well, yeah. I love to perform. I was a performer before I was a composer. It’s part of my musical DNA. Initially I was just performing to scratch that itch, just to be able to be in front of people because it’s fun and exhilarating and nerve-wracking in all these great ways. And when I’ve performed, I realized that my connection to the audience was much deeper as a composer when I was in front of them as a performer. You tell people you’re a composer and they have no idea what you’re talking about; they don’t have a sense of what you do every day or what your place is in the world. I found that people were a lot more open and understanding when I was up there as a performer saying, “I wrote this, I’m going to play it for you.”

FJO: So you were a performer before you were a composer?

MM: Well, it all happened when I was super young. I started taking piano lessons when I was seven, so in that sense, I was a performer before I was a composer. I was a kid. But really quickly I started writing music and realized that this is what I need to be doing with my life. I started writing when I was about ten, and there was no question that I was going to go to school for composition. This was going to be my life.

FJO: So you definitely came out of a lineage of classical music.

MM: Oh, yeah.

FJO: So the whole indie rock thing came later. How did that come into your life?

MM: Well, it came into my life from being a kid in a small town in Pennsylvania, which means that I spent a lot of time driving around listening to the radio because there was nothing else to do and music was just a big part of my life. My parents are not musical, but I was moved by all kinds of music in a way that I wasn’t moved by anything else. And classical music in particular—because I was able to play it myself and have that connection—had a huge impact on the way that I process the data of the world. It gave me an identity and it gave me a focus as a kid. So I think I just obsessively latched onto it in this really extreme way.

FJO: I couldn’t help snooping around the apartment when we were setting up, and I noticed that you have a bust of Beethoven on a bureau as well as another Beethoven portrait hanging on the wall. I was a little surprised by that.

MM: Really? He’s the best. I fell in love with Beethoven as a kid. You know, you’re not really exposed to John Luther Adams or Philip Glass when you’re seven and taking piano lessons. I loved playing Beethoven, and I loved learning about his life and realizing that he struggled, that he was constantly trying new things and then discarding things. When I was in school in Boston, I would go to the Harvard rare manuscript library and just dig through Beethoven sketches, most of which have these big Xs on them. It was always very reassuring to see that he was not always happy with what he wrote the first time around.

FJO: Unfortunately nowadays so many composers do everything on computers, so no one can see sketches with Xs on them.

MM: Well, I have a lot actually. I still work a lot by hand and there’s definitely some obsessive scribbling there.

FJO: So, are you going to save those things for posterity, or are you going to be like Brahms and destroy all your sketches?

MM: I save them, but I wouldn’t say I’m saving them for posterity. Who knows? That’s for future generations to decide if I’m still interesting. But I do save them for myself.

FJO: Do you ever find yourself going back to those things that you crossed out and using them?

MM: Not really using them as much as just taking stock of the passage of time. I have filing cabinets full of old manuscripts and notebooks and journals. I like to look back and see like, oh, that’s where I got the idea to start Victoire, to start this ensemble. Or my initial notes for creating Song from the Uproar or Breaking the Waves, which is a project that’s taken over my life. It’s fun to go back and just see the initial brainstorms for those projects.

FJO: So what was the initial brainstorm for Vespers?

MM: I wanted to create my own version of a Vespers prayer service. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to do that without being heavy handed and religious, because I’m not a religious person. But I love the musical form of that prayer service, the idea that it’s a series of invocations broken up by singing. The tradition varies depending on what precise religion you belong to, but it seemed like this great, flexible, inherently musical form. So, the invocation in Vespers is not “Help me, oh Lord”; it’s “Come on all you ghosts.” The lyrics were written by the poet Matthew Zapruder, so it’s all by replacing the sacred text with secular poetry; I was able to hint at the themes of the prayer service without being overtly religious.

FJO: But by subtitling it “for a New Dark Age” it has a kind of ominous undercurrent to it. “Dark Age” is a negative term, even though some wonderful things happened during the original so-called Dark Ages, the Medieval period.

MM: Were there? Was there anything good?

FJO: There was some great music.

MM: Okay. If you’re in the top one percent. Well, that line “New Dark Age” comes from a line in one of Matthew’s poems called “Korea,” where he says, “I know I belong in this new Dark Age.” So, that is a little more uplifting than the phrase “new dark age” alone and that summed up my feelings about being alive. I know that we are kind of in a dark age to some extent. Things are messed up. But I also know that I belong here. You know, this is my time, and I embrace that. So when I read that line, I was like: this really resonates with me. That was the impetus to use his poetry for the entire piece.

FJO: So this poetry existed before you set it.

MM: Yes. And Matthew Zapruder was amazing. He’s also a musician, so I think he understood that I wanted to be really free with which texts I used. He let me draw fragments of texts from a bunch of different books and remix them into lyrics that made sense for the project, each individual set of lyrics. Sometimes they come from a couple of different poems, or a couple different books. But all of it existed before, except I got him to write one new piece; the second track, “Hello Lord,” was a new poem written just for the project.

FJO: That’s interesting. You just described it as the second track rather than the second movement.

MM: Well, I get confused myself with that because this piece is a little complicated. There are five acoustic movements, but then there are these three electronic remixes stuck in there. It’s confusing.

FJO: But the reason I brought it up is I wonder if you think of the recording rather than a live performance of it to be the definitive way to experience the piece. It was initially written for live performance.

MM: It was, but it was also written for recording. I knew I wanted to make this into an album even before I started writing. You spend so much time with an album when you’re editing it and referring to everything as a track. I think that was emblazoned in my memory.

FJO: And clearly, in our time, many more people will have heard the recording than would have been at the original live performance at Zankel Hall.

MM: Exactly.

FJO: But what’s strange about that—maybe this is part of us being in a new dark age—is that even though music gets primarily transmitted through recordings, recordings are no longer a viable economic stream for most people now that so many people are just listening to music online. This hasn’t really sorted itself out, but you clearly still make albums. In fact, one of the reasons you said that you formed Victoire was that you wanted to make albums. So making albums is still important to you.

MM: Sure, it’s important to me. I also like the idea of releasing singles on the internet. Or creating music that’s just for video and releasing that on YouTube. I’m not really precious about the album. I do think though that—as a composer and as someone who grew up listening to records—the natural length of a CD is really satisfying to me. I like the idea of making grand statements, coming out with 40 to 60 minutes of music and saying, “This is my latest statement,” rather than saying, “This is something I made this morning, and here’s three minutes of it.” So I think that there is value and weight to this idea of the album and that that length still has significance. My friend Judd Greenstein, who runs New Amsterdam Records, used to say when he was starting the record label that albums are the new symphonies. And that really made sense to me. There are pieces that can be accepted as a whole or can be broken up into movements, and there’s still a logic to that. So that’s how I think of it now.


The video by Mark DeChiazza of “Wayward Free Radical Dreams” from Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers for a New Dark Age is making its debut on NewMusicBox
FJO: Now, what’s interesting is that in your discography to date, you have pieces on different people’s albums, but the albums that are your albums—the Victoire album, Uproar, and Vespers—are all unified as albums. They’re not like most single composer new music recordings which are usually just a collection of pieces for various ensembles. I guess that’s coming from the same impetus as wanting to form an ensemble with consistent instrument to perform concerts of your music. You didn’t want to have all these scene changes on stage that are really awkward. Of course, in an album those kind of scene changes aren’t awkward, because it’s pre-recorded. But it can still be an awkward listening experience.

MM: Yeah. I don’t know. It just seems a little bit awkward. I’m not against the idea of composers releasing these sort of compilation albums of their pieces, but it just has a different feeling from someone like Philip Glass releasing Glassworks with the Glass Ensemble or Meredith Monk and her Vocal Ensemble releasing something like Dolmen Music, which has a bunch of different pieces on it, but it still makes sense because it’s a consistent instrumentation. That to me felt smoother, so it was what I wanted to do.

FJO: Since we’re talking about making grand statements, this seems like a good place to talk a bit about your operas. Once again, these pieces come out of your love of literature and, in the case of the most recent one which we’ll get to a little later, film. I tried tracking down an opera you did based on a story by Boccaccio, but I wasn’t able to find very much information about it.

MM: I knew you were going to say that! It was sort of an exercise, a workshop kind of thing I did in my first year as composer-in-residence with Opera Philadelphia. It was a collaboration with Mark Campbell, who’s a great librettist. He’s very collaborative and I really loved working with him, but we had some trouble coming up with an idea that worked for both of us. He had come to me with one story, and I sort of tentatively said yes, but I think he could tell that I wasn’t that excited. So then he came back to me and was like, “I think that with you we just need to go dark,” I took it as a major compliment. I was like, “Yes. Do you have any stories about sex or death?” Because I feel like all my interesting work is about sex and death. And he said he always wanted to do something with Boccaccio’s Decameron, to take one of those little stories and work with it. And I ate it up. It’s this story about this woman whose lover is murdered by her brother. She plants his head in a pot and then this basil plant grows up and she sings to it. It’s called the flowering basil. It’s hilarious and dark. There’s love and death and sex and intrigue, all in this little seven-minute mini-opera. I think it is being done in Cincinnati somewhere; I’ll get that recorded and let you know.

FJO: Boccaccio, though maybe not as widely read as he used to be, is part of the literary canon. On the other hand, Isabelle Eberhardt is not somebody everybody knows about—yet. But she’s a really fascinating figure, such an amazingly headstrong, independently minded person, a real role model from an era where women weren’t, by and large, allowed to be what she was. At the same time, she’s a really tragic figure; she died at the age of 27. How did you come to know about her, and what made you decide to make an opera about her?

MM: I was 23 when I picked up a copy of her journals in a bookstore in Boston, really just completely at random. A new edition had just been published in English, and I was immediately struck by what I read when I opened it up. It just has this tone and this openness that is really strange for travel diaries of that era. You read Pierre Loti or André Gide and they’re writing about going into the desert with 45 servants and having high tea; she had nothing. She was very poor and extremely adventurous and brave, and had these really raw experiences, sometimes amazing experiences. She was one of the first women to witness this particular religious ceremony that happens in the desert where people shoot guns into the sand in this very colorful ceremony. She also experienced extreme poverty and extreme loss. She seemed to live this very extreme life. I was really struck by how she wrote about her sadness in particular. She had 25 different words for being sad.

I knew immediately that I wanted to do something with her life, that there was something in there that was resonating with me. I started actually by just writing songs about her. I would take fragments of her journal and create texts based on the fragments and just write songs. Then it became apparent that it needed to be an evening-length theatrical work. At that point, I brought on the librettist Royce Vavrek to sort of craft the true libretto. But it’s called Song from the Uproar, because it’s her song; this song emerging from the chaos of her life, that’s the song coming out of the uproar.

FJO: There are some interesting parallels between Isabelle Eberhardt and Stephen Crane, whose poem you set in your short piece for Jody Redhage, A Thousand Tongues, which you mentioned earlier. They probably never met each other, since they were based in different parts of the world, but both were tireless adventurers who scoffed at conventions and both died before they were 30, around the turn of the 20th century. It was a very different world than the world we live in now in many ways. Yet in both cases, the music you chose to convey their words is a very contemporary sound world. You didn’t feel the pull to go back into their sound world.

MM: No, because what’s interesting to me was what was going on in their minds, which I think is something that transcends time and place. So I was interested in the things, about Isabelle’s story in particular, that made her story universal, the things that I identified with as a woman living in the 21st century. There’s this constant loneliness, this feeling of being very much in love with her husband but really wanting this independent life. And there’s a conflict between Eastern culture and Western culture, in her own mind; this stuff was really juicy and interesting and is not just about her being in Algeria in 1904. So I wanted a piece that was unmoored from time and place. That’s why I felt free to use electric guitar, electronics, and samples, and that’s why for the production that we did, initially at The Kitchen and later at LA Opera, there’s film with images of things that happened long after her death—people answering telephones and riding in cars. But I think it all makes sense because the story is about this fever dream of a life that she had.

FJO: And in the case of the Stephen Crane?

MM: Well, that was a much shorter text, but I also tried to get at the universal qualities of that poem. He says, “I have a thousand tongues, and nine and ninety-nine lie, though I try to use the one, it will make no melody at my will. It is dead in my mouth.” Who hasn’t felt like that sometimes? It’s this idea that you have these many faces, but which one is your true face and what is the truth? So it seemed to tap into something more universal.

FJO: Compared with these other pieces, Breaking the Waves is much more contemporary. It’s based on a Lars von Trier film that’s set in the 1970s. But you initially didn’t want to do this.

MM: Right. So my librettist, who’s also one of my best friends, Royce Vavrek, came to me and said we should make this into an opera: Breaking the Waves, Lars von Trier’s seminal 1996 film. And I was like, “That’s a great film. It’s already this complete object; why would we mess with it?” Also, at the time, there were a lot of operatic adaptations of films being made, and I just felt like I wanted to try something different. So he left me alone and let me think about it. But I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I watched the film again and I was like, “Wow, I can hear music for these people. But it’s not going to be what people expect; it’s going to be very, very different from the film. I really feel like I can make my own piece based on this incredible story.” Once I felt the freedom to separate myself from the film, that’s when the project became real and became very exciting to me.

FJO: Of course, that’s an even bigger challenge. When you’re reading a story or a poem, even if it’s from another era, it’s still a disembodied text that allows you to hear it in your own mind rather than a specific way. But if you’re basing something on a film, that film already comes with its own sound world: the sounds of the actors’ voices as well as the music of the soundtrack in the film. There are all these things already there that you have to strip away in order for it to become your own thing.

MM: It’s true, but less so in Breaking the Waves, since there’s no composed soundtrack for it. There is music in the film—some ‘70s rock tunes by Elton John, David Bowie, and Deep Purple—but there isn’t a score that’s telling you how to feel. I think that that left space for me to create my own music for it. That’s really significant. But still, you’re right, especially with Lars von Trier, you have all these amazing hand held shots, and these close-ups of people’s faces. That is such a part of our experience of that story, just being in the room with these people, in their face, as Emily Watson is crumbling, or in her wedding dress waiting for her fiancé to come on a helicopter. It’s really emotional. How do I keep that in the opera, when it’s a singer who’s a hundred feet away from you in a theater where your eyes can look anywhere? You don’t have to look at her face. And there’s no way that I can make you look at her face, except to have her sing something really awesome. So it’s an interesting challenge that I solved in a couple different ways throughout the opera, since that intimacy is something I wanted to maintain from the film.

FJO: There’s that word “intimacy” again, going back to that comment you made on the blog ten years ago.

MM: Right. I haven’t really changed much. I’m still trying to do the same things all the time.

FJO: Now the initial impetus for this conversation was Vesper Sparrow, the piece being done in Korea. Once again the source of it is literary inspiration, although this time from somebody who’s an exact contemporary of yours.

MM: Well, the thing to know about working with the group Roomful of Teeth, who commissioned and premiered it, is that they have this residency every year at MASS MoCA, the museum in Massachusetts, and they invite composers to come stay with them for two weeks to learn about the group and to learn whatever vocal techniques they’re learning. At the time, they were learning Tuvan throat singing and Sardinian su cantu a tenòre singing. So I would try to learn it with them or try to sing along with them, and I just hung out with them for two weeks. During those two weeks, you’re supposed to write a piece or two for them, and then they perform it at the end. It’s like Project Runway without the snarky competition, where you have to create something very fast and then present it. So I did that and the week before I was going to go, I was thinking, “Wait a second, are they going to sing words? If they’re going to sing words, what are they going to sing?” Thankfully my best friend is a poet, Farnoosh Fathi, so I called her and I said, “Send me the manuscript to your book,” which was coming out that fall—it’s called Great Guns—and she did. I just printed it out and on the train ride up there, I sat and read through all these poems. She was also very open to me taking bits of poems, and cutting out what didn’t necessarily work for voices or was too long. She has this great poem that at the time was called “Vesper Sparrow,” which was later changed to “Home State,” and that’s where the text comes from that happens like three-quarters of the way through the piece.

FJO: But there are also all these other syllables that are not really comprehensible as language. That’s not part of her poem? She didn’t write those syllables?

MM: No.

FJO: Now I’m totally confused.

MM: Yeah, rightfully so. So, in one of the versions of the poem, again I don’t know because she was writing while I was writing the piece and a lot of it changed for the final book, but one of her poems began with the call of the vesper sparrow, which translates something like “hey, hey, now, now, all together down the hill,” or something. We put words to it to remember the call. And so the Roomful of Teeth piece is sort of an explosion of that. It’s like these bird songs initially. And then, halfway though, they just start singing words that come out of nowhere. So it’s this mish mash. Farnoush’s poetry is very lyrical and is free association. There are all these beautiful images that you don’t expect that come in out of nowhere. And that’s what inspired the piece. This text comes in out of nowhere. You don’t expect it. And the connections between the phrases are tenuous, and you’re supposed to come up with that in your own mind.

FJO: Before you told me this story, I had no idea that this came about because Roomful of Teeth was learning traditional Sardinian singing techniques. Yet still, when I first heard it, I immediately associated it with Sardinian traditional music because I have field recordings from Sardinia, and what you wrote sounds remarkably authentic at times. And so when I was trying to figure out the connections I thought, well I know that you come from an Italian background, but you were using a poem by a woman with an Iranian background. I couldn’t make the pieces fit together in my head.

MM: Well, now you know the story, which is that I had to come up with something very quickly and called in favors from friends. But I think the result is something that does capture the spirit of not only the Sardinian singing, but also of Roomful of Teeth itself. It’s like this joyful coming together of people from all these different places, of these very particular voices, and somehow the combination of all of them makes total sense. And this combination of bird song and a strange abstract poem by this Iranian-American poet somehow all comes together and makes sense in this little five-minute piece.

FJO: It was written for Roomful of Teeth, and they made a fabulous recording of it, too. But it’s printed in score and so it’s available for other groups to perform. So it can have a life beyond Roomful of Teeth. And now it’s going to be done in South Korea as part of the 2016 ISCM World Music Days. The singers who are performing it there might not necessarily have the same background as Roomful of Teeth. They might not have had the workshop in Sardinian folk music that Roomful of Teeth had that week. How can they do an idiomatic performance without all of that? How necessary are those elements in order for the piece to work?

MM: When I wrote it I never imagined anyone else singing it, because it had to be written so quickly and it was so particular for this group. But I’m open to different interpretations. I like the Sardinian aspect of it and I like that there’s a recording that these singers will hopefully listen to, even just to get an idea of what the piece is about and the character. But do they need to have that precise sort of like nasally intonation that the Sardinian music has? Not necessarily. I think that the piece is the notes and the rhythms and the texts. And all that translates on the page.

FJO: So to come full circle, we talked about you playing your music yourself with your own group, as well as writing for orchestras where you have very little face time with the musicians. Now here we have an example of a piece that’s out in the world and you may have no face time at all with the musicians. That’s actually a very typical situation with composers whose music is published and gets widely performed. At a certain point, you can’t be everywhere. Your identity has to be conveyed exclusively through those marks on a printed page; that’s how it ultimately lives if it is to become repertoire.

MM: Right.

FJO: That’s the opposite of intimacy, but I guess it’s vulnerable, isn’t it?

MM: It is. And if my only outlet was to make these marks on a page and then deliver it to people who I would never meet, I would be really depressed. I created this band, and I perform, and I write for my friends, and I try to be intimately involved with people who are in the process of performing my music to counteract that, to maintain some sense of control and involvement on every level. In a good way, not in a control freak kind of way, but just to be involved in all aspects of the music making. It’s a little bit scary to send this piece off and have people I don’t know yet perform it. But that’s also really exciting, and I will know them in a few weeks!

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Getting To Know Who I Am

Rudresh Mahanthappa

A conversation at his home in Montclair, New Jersey
January 21, 2016—2:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

It has become common practice to describe jazz as “America’s classical music,” but in some ways doing so misrepresents jazz’s role in this country’s culture and also creates a false hierarchy between this extraordinary American-born music and many other valuable musical idioms to which Americans have made invaluable contributions, including so-called “classical” music. Perhaps even worse it circumscribes jazz as a musical practice, limiting what it can be as well as the aspirations of people who create music that has been defined by that word. Last year, Boydell Press published a book with the provocative title The Other Classical Musics edited by Michael Church. The book looks at a total of 15 different musical traditions from around the world and, in the process, redefines the words “other” and “classical”; one of the 15 traditions featured is Western classical music since this music is in fact an “other” to people who grew up thinking of, say, Carnatic ragas as the building blocks of classical music. Another one of the traditions featured in the book is American jazz.

The Italian-born, Boulder, Colorado-raised composer/saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa creates music that is deeply informed by at least four of the traditions featured in Church’s book—the Carnatic music of his ancestors, the Hindustani music that most folks in America assume is the sum total of India’s contribution to classical music, Western classical music which got instilled in him while studying the Baroque recorder in elementary school, and jazz—his pedigree in which is backed up with two academic degrees. But the music he first fell in love with was Grover Washington’s and, he acknowledged when we visited him in his home in Montclair, New Jersey, his earliest attempts at original material were inspired by Kenny G.

That’s what we knew, so I guess it was—well, I’ll never say it was okay, but it was good for where we were.

Rudresh ultimately wanted to be somewhere else. And the ticket to that somewhere else was, first, the Berklee College of Music and then DePaul University, where he finally came to terms with his identity as an American of South Asian origins who wanted to blaze a trail in jazz.

I come from a very academic family and my dad wasn’t going to let me move to New York with a rucksack on a stick and make my way. He’s one of the leading theoretical physicists in the world and he has all sorts of advanced degrees and awards, so the idea of not going to college, not going that route, was just unheard of. … When I first went to college, there was a huge black population and a huge white population, so I was very much confronted with this identity crisis of not knowing who I am. … In a lot of ways, a lot of my music is a by-product of me getting to know who I am. It’s defining what being Indian-American is for myself, and being confused and embracing that confusion and kind of coming out the other end with a real community of people that have been down the same paths as me who are pretty much of the same age and the same generation.

For the last 20 years, Rudresh has explored his composite cultural identity through an extremely wide range of fascinating musical activities. Some of these projects have been direct attempts to synthesize contemporary jazz and much older Indian traditions, such as the duo Raw Materials in which he collaborates with like-minded pianist Vijay Iyer, and a trio called the Indo-Pak Coalition in which he performs alongside Pakistani-American Rez Abbazi on electric guitar and Jewish-American Dan Weiss on the Indian tabla. Perhaps even more intriguing, however, have been projects in which jazz and Carnatic elements co-exist alongside many other components such as Gamak, which incorporates the microtonal guitar experiments of David Fiuczynski, and Samdhi, on which Rudresh also performs on a laptop. In the last couple of years, Rudresh has composed a quintet for saxophones which he performs along with leading contemporary classical saxophone quartet PRISM, and Song of the Jasmine, a score he performs with an ensemble to accompany the Ragamala Dance Company. And his most recent album is an homage to Charlie Parker. In all of these projects, he has come even closer to finding his own voice by deeply probing some of the world’s greatest musical traditions.

*

Frank J. Oteri: This morning I started reading a really interesting book called The Other Classical Musics, which was published last year. There are two very loaded words in that title: “other” and “classical.” But the book is an attempt to turn both of these words on their heads. There are a total of 15 kinds of music featured in the book, and one of them is Western classical music, since for some people it is an “other” classical music. Anyway, among the different musics discussed in the book, you’ve dipped into at least four: jazz, Carnatic music, Hindustani music, and Western classical music in terms of working with an ensemble like PRISM.

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Right.

FJO: In the book’s introduction, there’s a reference to a comment by the musicologist Harold Powers, who has claimed that the difference between a classical music and a folk music is that you can be from anywhere and still be able to learn a classical music with application and talent, whereas you have to be born into a folk music.

RM: You have to have lived it for real. Wow, that’s really interesting. I have this conversation a lot with people about jazz. Jazz has this international scope; everyone’s playing jazz and everyone’s making their own jazz, but there’s always this kind of lurking intimidation among people from these countries outside of America feeling—depending on the population—that they don’t have access to black culture or black American culture. So there’s a bit of a sinking feeling that their jazz is not authentic. And yeah, that’s an interesting issue for me and an interesting thing raised to me by others because, you know, I’m not black, I’m not white, and I’m not Latin. I came to this music through jazz-rock fusion or instrumental soul R&B—people like Grover Washington, David Sanborn, the Brecker Brothers, and the Yellowjackets—because that was music that also sounded like the music that was being played on Top 40 radio. I was born in 1971. I’m really a child of the ‘80s in many ways, so that music all made sense. It wasn’t like I was listening to Charlie Parker when I was ten years old. It wasn’t until I got older that I was finding a place where I felt like I was safe playing jazz. There were plenty of times where I felt like I didn’t belong because of ethnicity, the color of my skin.

The industry had no place for me, either; they didn’t know what to do with an Indian-American jazz musician. They knew what to do with a black jazz musician or a white jazz musician, and Latin jazz is a huge genre unto itself as well. So there was a lot of stereotyping that would take place. I remember talking to an entertainment lawyer who was trying to help me get a record deal when I was 24 or something like that. And she said, “We definitely need to have Ravi Shankar as a guest on the first album.” I was like, “Really? We do?” Here I am with a band that’s piano, bass, drums, and alto saxophone, and we’re playing very traditional jazz forms—blues, rhythm changes, nothing very wild by any means. A common reaction from an audience member would be, “wow, this is great music” not “you should have a tabla player in your band,” which doesn’t even make sense musically. I’m South Indian, you know; tabla’s a North Indian instrument. So do I have to have that conversation, too, about the prevalence of North India as opposed to South India in the United States?

But that’s really interesting because I think at its roots, jazz is often talked about as being American classical music—and in some regards it is. But at the same time, its folk origins are really undeniable. I’d be interested to read that book, because you could argue jazz’s roots having such a strong folk tradition that maybe it isn’t accessible. But I would like to think it’s accessible because I am one of the biggest anomalies in my musical genre that I know of, with a handful of others.

But, you know, those issues of authenticity and validity are the things you confront regardless of what you do in the art world. To find places that are encouraging and nurturing is sometimes more than half the battle in making your way through and making a career out of this. The example I always bring up is everyone feels like they can own jazz across the world. But if they were going to study Indian music, they would all go to India to study it. So why is it that more people don’t come to New York City to study jazz, or New Orleans? But I would say New York City is more the capital of jazz, and there are a lot of people that are making jazz in the world that have never been to New York City. I always tell them that they have to go to the place where Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and innumerable others really made a mark on this music. This is like going to Madras to study Carnatic music. You have to do it. You don’t have to live here, but you got to do it a little bit.

FJO: It’s interesting where you took that comment; you talked more about jazz than you did about Carnatic music except for your assertion about the certainty of going to Madras to study Carnatic music versus people’s lack of certainty vis-à-vis needing to go to New York City to fully understand jazz. Theoretically you can learn jazz from anywhere in the world, but there is this cultural root to it. Then again, there’s a cultural root to any music including Western classical music.

RM: Sure.

FJO: In a way, it’s sort of presumptuous for someone to assume that you’d be fluent in South Indian music just because your parents came from there. You grew up in Colorado and you were actually born in Italy, so technically you should be singing bel canto opera!

RM: We weren’t there long enough, but yeah. This is a really interesting issue. Everybody should try to go visit the roots of wherever what they do comes from. Opera singers spend time in Italy, most of the great ones do. Everyone has to visit the mother tongue of whatever it is they do, the cultural homeland. It might not necessarily make you better at what you do, but it’ll give a perspective to what you do that I think is very important, and also place what you do in the larger scope of what it means to be producing something on this planet—music as a community event.

FJO: So Boulder, Colorado, in the 1980s is your personal cultural homeland—listening to Grover Washington, the Brecker Brothers. How did you get interested in making music yourself?

RM: My older brother played clarinet and he used to practice before school, if you can imagine. It was so early. It was still dark outside in the winter. I was often eating breakfast. It was getting close to the time where I could be part of the music program in elementary school. I think you could start in fourth grade or the summer before fourth grade. Everyone played recorder in elementary music school class. Everyone played “Hot Cross Buns.” But I actually came home and told my mom I loved it and I wanted private lessons. So actually I had two years of Baroque recorder in second and third grade, which was great. I already knew how to read music and the fingerings are practically the same [as the saxophone’s fingerings]. So it was a smoother transition than having played nothing before. But I remember this very distinct conversation one morning where my brother said, “You should play an instrument that allows you to be in the jazz band, because those guys are having a lot more fun than I am.” He also said that they take solos where they get to make them up. He was talking about improvisation, but that was totally intriguing. And the other thing he said was that often times the baritone sax, especially if you’re a kid and not tall enough, will rest on the floor and it will shake the whole room. My mom had all these kitschy knick-knacks from all over the world, and the idea of those shaking off the shelves—I mean, that was it for me. I was really hoping to destroy my mom’s stuff by playing the baritone sax. But I never got to play that.

I’m still very much in touch with the father of my elementary school best friend. My friend actually passed away, but I’m still close with his dad. He was really psyched that I was playing saxophone. He actually was an amateur musician, and he gave me that first Grover Washington record when I was in fourth grade. It’s that famous one with “Just the Two of Us.” Then shortly after that, Grover was on tour and my dad took me to the concert at Red Rocks. We got there early and got third-rows seats. We couldn’t hear for three days, but it was really, really awesome. Everybody was up dancing in the aisles, and it was like going to church or something. It was really amazing. So those were a lot of the inspirations. I heard Charlie Parker by the time I was in seventh grade. I was in it by then. From ninth grade on, I’ve always had a band of some sort and was trying to write stupid songs, butchering Charlie Parker’s music, and eventually butchering Coltrane’s music. I was always into leading a band and just trying to get out there and play.

Some people might know that Boulder, Colorado, has this pedestrian mall that’s very famous for its street entertainers—jugglers, magicians, savants, whatever, and musicians, of course. I think my dad was joking when he said, “Why don’t you go out there and try to make some money?” I was in sixth or seventh grade, but I went out there. I was just playing T.V. show themes and songs like “Mandy.” My brother had this [book of] pop classics for the clarinet, and I just played them on the saxophone. But I met so many other musicians playing out there that were much older than me. Eventually I heard a Dixieland band playing in a restaurant across the way. I went in there and I had my horn in the case. For some reason, the leader of the band saw me and saw the case and he came over to me with a list of tunes and said, “Do you know any of these?” I said, “I think I know ‘Sweet Georgia Brown.’” So he said, “Come up and play.” They played every Friday afternoon, and I played with those guys for like five years. So the first tunes I learned were all these Dixieland tunes—which most people would be shocked to know actually—like “Up a Lazy River,” “Avalon,” and “Undecided.” I know those tunes better than I know what are considered the classic jazz standards. Then I met other older, amateur musicians who would get little gigs at coffee houses, so I was kind of out there playing already when I was 15.

FJO: Now when did you go from playing standards to wanting to create your own material?

RM: I was writing tunes in junior high and high school. I had a little funk-fusion band. We would write some tunes together. The keyboard player was really good. We would try to write tunes that probably sounded more like Kenny G. tunes to some degree. That’s what we knew, so I guess it was—well, I’ll never say it was okay, but it was good for where we were.

I tried to keep writing through college. I had a kind of hiccup in college because the school I started at was a bit oppressive in its way of teaching jazz, so I was a little bit lost there for a couple of years. But then I ended up transferring to Berklee College of Music and had a much more creative experience. That’s when I really started writing a lot and getting a better grasp on what I wanted to do.

FJO: So what would be an example of an oppressive way of teaching jazz?

RM: I think it was very patternistic. It wasn’t about learning from records. It was what we call learning licks, piecing together vocabulary but more from books, so I felt like the aural tradition of jazz was missing. It was all very academic. It was also very big band oriented, which I wasn’t so much interested in. I was really into small groups and improvising, and I felt like all of that was an afterthought. There was also an almost classist sort of feeling within the student body. You know, “I play in the top ensemble and I’m a first class citizen.” It went all the way down to the zero class citizens, which was the world I was in. But I was already thinking about different approaches to creating vocabulary, both as an improviser and a composer back then. In between the first and second year, I went back home to Colorado. I went back to my original teacher, but he said, “You don’t want to study with me, you want to study with this guy.” His name was Chuck Schneider. They weren’t saxophone lessons; they were theory lessons, but they were always very far-reaching. Like, we’d talk about some sort of intervallic concept, let’s say, and he would say, “You see it in Coltrane, but you also see it in Bartók, and in Schoenberg here.” It wasn’t just about jazz; it was about a whole sphere of music. That’s the summer I became a total theory head—Persichetti, Schoenberg, whatever. I went to the library and checked out as many books as possible. The following year we were using Allen Forte and different methods for analysis in the classical theory program, and the first thing that struck me is why can’t we reverse engineer this method of analysis to actually create fresh vocabulary to improvise with and to write with? So I was thinking about serialism and I was thinking about pitch sets. I was thinking about playing 12-bar blues also, but I was thinking about all these things in the same space.

Then also as a listener, I had the same teacher from fourth grade until I left for college—Mark Harris. I was his first student. He was a sophomore in college when we started. And he had just a very open-minded approach to music in general. First of all, every time I saw him play was different. He might be with something that was considered more avant-garde, like two horns and a drummer screaming. Then I’d see him with an Afropop band. Then I’d see him with a prog rock band. He was in a band called Thinking Plague that was actually signed to Cuneiform way back when. Then I’d see him with a big band. So I had this sense that music was large. It wasn’t just about playing jazz, or certainly just playing saxophone. He also came to my house for lessons. Remember those days when people came to your house to teach you? He would always bring three records with him and there’d always be an incredible variety. There might be Stravinsky, Sidney Bechet, and Yes. Then the next week it would be something else. So I was listening in this way that really had no boundaries with genre. It was about music being played well and played with integrity. I was listening to Ornette and Grover Washington at the same time. I just thought they were two great saxophonists. I didn’t really think that one was out and one was in. When I went to college, people were talking about hard bop and all these little subdivisions. I was like, “What are you talking about? This is all just great music.” Those perspectives were instilled in me at a very young age. I didn’t know it at the time, but I look back on it and say holy moly!

FJO: Have you kept up with Mark Harris?

RM: Oh yeah. He stood up at my wedding. He’s one of my best friends.

FJO: You had this really important mentor, but you also had official academic training. As a jazz player, you’re a product of the whole jazz education thing. You actually have a graduate degree in jazz composition.

RM: I do. Well, there are several reasons for that. I didn’t know of another way to gain access to the music in Boulder, Colorado. You have to understand, at the time I graduated from high school in ’88, there were really only ten schools in the country that had a jazz studies program. They were all very competitive, and they all meant moving thousands of miles away. It’s very different now because your local college has a jazz studies program. Everybody has a jazz studies program now. Anyway, at that time there was still a level of commitment that meant displacing yourself at the age of 17. I knew that moving to New York was not an option. I come from a very academic family and my dad wasn’t going to let me move to New York with a rucksack on a stick and make my way. He’s one of the leading theoretical physicists in the world and he has all sorts of advanced degrees and awards, so the idea of not going to college, not going that route, was just unheard of. My mom was the more artsy one. While I was listening to this music, she would say, “oh, I really like that” or “oh, I hated that,” or “what you played sounded great” or “that was awful, what you were doing.” She actually had feedback. With my dad, it was really like, “Well, I don’t know if it was good or bad. I don’t know enough about it.” So that’s to say that I think my dad is really pleased with degrees and awards. And that’s great. I like calling home and saying, “Hey, I just got this.” And you know, my parents are ecstatic, but I can tell that my dad loves it more.

But I didn’t actually know there was another route without going to college. For someone finishing high school in the ‘80s, that’s what you do. It wasn’t until I met people like Steve Coleman, who just moved here and practically lived on the streets. He’s made some of the most important music in the last 20 years. Now I know that’s a possibility. Getting a master’s degree wasn’t really my plan, but there’s this preordained path now—it’s actually quite dumb—that you finish your bachelor’s and you move to New York. That’s what you’re supposed to do as a jazz musician, whether or not you’re prepared to. You either move to New York or you go to school in New York to get your master’s, or something like that. More and more at this point there’s so many great non-New York communities that are producing great music. You don’t need to do that anymore, so I guess that’s all to say that we were all finishing up at Berklee, and everybody was moving to New York. I’d only been here once, for a long weekend, and it was like a 72-hour panic attack. I didn’t want to have anything do with this city. So I was pretty confused. And a friend of mine was like, “Why don’t you come to Chicago? It’s a very healthy scene, you’d probably play a lot and work a lot and get a lot of experience, and by the way, there’s a school here and you could probably do your master’s here.” I was like, “Oh, that’s an interesting idea.” Then I had mentioned this in passing to a teacher at Berklee who said that school’s called DePaul University and it’s a great school. He said, “You know, the best man in my wedding runs a jazz program there. Let me make a call for you.”

So it just kind of barreled forward and it was great. The school was great. And Chicago was great, and it was a great stepping stone to New York because I got a lot of experience and exposure, but more experience than I would have if I had come to New York. I’d probably be temping. I’d probably be an expert in Photoshop now if I had moved to New York. I really got to play in Chicago. I had a steady Monday night gig. I was writing music. A little local label put out my first album. And I learned stuff. I learned how to get a gig. I learned how to get a radio station to play your music. I learned a lot of business stuff. And then every band that was coming through from New York, I went to meet them and would take them out for South Indian food or cook for them.

So, when I moved to New York, I knew all these people. “You’re the guy who took us out for idlis and dosas.” “Yeah, that was me. Here’s my CD.” I was always thinking about the music and the business together because I saw, in some sort of maybe subconscious way, that the industry was—well, I didn’t predict MP3s and the internet and piracy, but I knew that stuff was going to get harder and harder. It was very clear to me. The schools are turning out so many proficient musicians. There’s a lot more to wade through to make sure you are heard, especially if you have a real personal voice.

FJO: During the years you were at DePaul you also played as a sideman in a big band led by Clark Terry.

RM: Well, that wasn’t really true. The university band had hired Clark Terry to be a guest with the group. So I wasn’t really doing that. That was the other thing. I saw very quickly that I was not going to be called as a sideman very often. I always modeled myself after Michael Brecker in the sense that Michael Brecker could do anything he wanted to do. He was amazing. But whenever you saw him as a sideman in anything, or playing a solo in a pop track, it wasn’t because they needed a saxophonist—it was because they wanted his sound. So even back then, I thought of it all as a high road. I was like I don’t want someone to call me just because they need an alto player. I want them to call because they want me specifically. And that meant being just a leader for a very long time. I had those revelations pretty early.

A common summer job for a jazz musician is to go out on a cruise ship and play in one of these mickey bands. So that was my first professional gig when I was still at Berklee. I was 20. It was like, “This is great. I’m going to spend the summer in the Caribbean. I’m going to save a lot of money. I’m going to practice. I’m going to do all this stuff.” And I was horrified. I was horrified by the music, by the other musicians, by the amount of substance abuse. There were a lot of people like me. “I’m just going to be on here for the summer.” And they’d been on there for ten years, you know. There was one guy who—I don’t know if he forgot—almost every day would tell me about how he was going to get off the ship and go study with Joe Lovano at William Paterson. And I was like, “Do you know you told me this yesterday?” I actually jumped off after six weeks. I was very depressed, but I came out of that summer realizing that I was a really good teacher and that I could sustain myself doing that. And also making a real vow to myself that I wasn’t going to put myself in a situation where the saxophone was in my mouth and I didn’t enjoy what I was doing. So I set up a different career path for myself. When I moved to Chicago, everyone was playing weddings and private parties on Saturday nights, putting on their unwashed tuxedo and playing out in the suburbs. In four years in Chicago, I think I did 15 of those gigs. And it was always like a ticking clock when I got on the gig. As soon as there’s a saxophone solo, I know that at the end of that solo I will not get called by this band leader again, because I’m gonna play nutso; I’m just going to do what I want. So it actually became this joke to me. I’m going to get hired and fired by another band in one night. Not that I was trying to be a jerk, but I would look at these people next to me and say, “Is this what you thought you’d be doing when you went to music school when you were 18?”

FJO: So when did you feel you became you, as opposed to just an interchangeable saxophone player, in terms of what you were playing?

RM: Already in college at Berklee I felt tinges of that. I was not only checking out a lot of modern voices in jazz, I also just felt like it was really important to—not just vocabulary and composition—have a sense of what I wanted to sound like. I really listened to a lot of tenor players instead of alto players. After Charlie Parker, it wasn’t really Cannonball and Sonny Stitt. It was really Coltrane and people that came after him, so my sonic picture was very different. And I was listening to all this double reed music from India, like Bismillah Khan on shehnai and players on the South Indian nagasvaram—really reedy. I really liked that. I was kind of trying to put those two together. I had different ways of thinking about embouchure and just the way you position your body when you’re playing the instrument. They weren’t necessarily new, but I just didn’t hear those conversations happening a lot around me.

FJO: So you were already starting to get immersed in Indian music.

RM: A little bit, you know. Indian music was always tough for me because when I was younger, say like in high school when I was playing with all these musicians, there was this assumption that I was an expert on Indian music just because of my name and the color of my skin. So I always felt like I had to know a lot about it, even though I knew nothing about it. My parents weren’t actively listening to it, speaking of that folk/classical thing. They were mainly listening to bhajans, which is temple music. I always describe the difference between bhajans and Indian classical music as the difference between church hymns and Debussy. Indian classical music has the same tools, but it’s much more complex and orchestrated.

Anyway, these certain sounds were in my head from a young age, but I certainly couldn’t pick apart a Ravi Shankar track or a Subramaniam track or anything like that. And I had this thing hanging over my head that Indian music is not a safe space. In Boulder, it was easy to just kind of consider myself white, because that’s what it was primarily. Then when I first went to college, there was a huge black population and a huge white population, so I was very much confronted with this identity crisis of not knowing who I am and also just the newness of an Indian-American identity in this country. The idea of being children of immigrants wasn’t something that was at the forefront. Now we’re everywhere: we’re in Hollywood; we’re on T.V.; we’re writing books; we’re making music. But back then, in the late ‘80s and even going into the ‘90s, there weren’t any role models. So it was all quite scary.

In a lot of ways, a lot of my music is a by-product of me getting to know who I am. It’s defining what being Indian-American is for myself, and being confused and embracing that confusion and kind of coming out the other end with a real community of people that have been down the same paths as me who are pretty much of the same age and the same generation. In ’93, I had already finished at Berklee and was living in Chicago, but Berklee sent a student band to India comprised of the few students from India who were attending Berklee and then a few other musicians like myself and the great bass player Matt Garrison. We did this tour, and we managed to hear some really great music. Outside of Bangalore, which is where my parents are from, there’s this tradition of the all-night concert—a concert that starts at sunset and goes to sunrise. And we went to one of these and I didn’t know that at the time it was really some of the great names in both North and South Indian music; it was just an amazing night. I went to the record store the next day and just bought as many CDs and cassettes as I could handle of the artists I’d heard and then I asked the store owner to recommend a bunch of stuff, too. So I went back to Chicago with all this music in hand and a lot of that very first album that came out in ‘95, all those compositions, is very loosely inspired by that trip to India.

That trip was eye-opening in lots of ways because it wasn’t just about the music. It was my first time going as an adult. It was the first time going without my parents. And it was the first time going to play music. I hadn’t been there in ten10 years, so my relatives were all going to ask why I didn’t speak their language. I was prepared for lots and lots of anxiety, which resulted in some really, really cool music. Then shortly after that, Vijay Iyer and I met, and then we finally had a partner in crime to kind of learn from each other. And we learned a lot of stuff together. You know, we listened to a lot of albums together and picked them apart, and we had very different perspectives on what we wanted to do musically, but enough common goals and agendas that it was amazing. We’ve been playing together for 20 years now.

FJO: When does Rez Abbasi come into the picture?

RM: I actually played a session with him at someone’s house right when I moved to New York in ‘97, my third week in town. But Rez was not so engaged in his ancestry. I think what turned it around for him is he ended up dating Kiran Ahluwalia who’s this great ghazal singer. He started playing with her, too. He started playing with her first, I think. He had lots of agendas at once, I’m sure, but I think that’s when he really started thinking a lot about Indian music. I heard him and Dan Weiss at the same time. And I couldn’t believe—here was this Jewish kid from Jersey who was playing tabla better than anybody. So we had this trio called the Indo-Pak Coalition. I had started a band like that in Chicago with the same name, but it felt very inauthentic. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable working with Indian concepts or instrumentalists, or Indian musicians, because I felt like I wanted to be in a place where the dialogue was meaningful and that it was a real synthesis of ideas and with the right people who wanted to blur the lines. There are so many East-West sorts of projects where it’s two people playing in a room together and not only are they not pushing each other, they’re really just showing up and doing what they do. That’s what the f-word is for me—fusion. You know, it’s really like, ugh, when people say my music is fusion! Please don’t use that word because that connotes all those projects from the ‘60s and ‘70s that were really about exoticism and smoking weed and listening to Indian music. The way Indian music got presented in America initially was a little bit sad. I always say that Ravi Shankar playing at Woodstock was the best and worst thing that ever happened to Indian music.

FJO: At the onset you were saying this lawyer thought that Ravi Shankar should be on your first album, even though you’re South Indian. Immediately I was thinking about how Indian music influenced Western music—jazz, rock, and classical music. Most of that influence was coming from North Indian music, which has a very steady drone and develops very gradually. To me, Carnatic music is much more frenetic and raw; it’s more like early bebop.

RM: Absolutely. The rhythmic engagement is on such a high level. It’s funny because when I talk about blurring those lines, I hear Jack DeJohnette or Max Roach and the greatest mridangam players on the same rhythmic playing field. It’s couched differently culturally, of course, but those things are rather seamless to me; it all kind of makes sense in my head. Plus I’m Indian and I’m American every second of every day, so the music has to reflect that and has to be respectful of that.

FJO: Well, in terms of identities, when the Indo-Pak Coalition really gelled and came together it was Rez, Dan Weiss, and you. You mentioned the Jewish guy from Jersey playing the tabla, which is the Indian instrument, and the two guys from South Asia are playing Western instruments. But that’s a ridiculous way to think about it ultimately since you’re all Americans.

RM: Right. Yeah, totally.

FJO: What instrument belongs to who, a saxophone, a guitar, or tabla? The saxophone was invented in Europe. The electric guitar is an American creation, but it’s a hybrid. American culture is a hybrid culture no matter what we do.

RM: Absolutely. I think so much of this country is based on hybridity and all sorts of cross-pollination. It really is a laboratory for anything to happen—maybe more so than other places in the world.

FJO: So in terms of that f-word, fusion: one thing that immediately does come to mind as a precedent for the Indo-Pak Coalition, although he’s British, is what John McLaughlin did in Shakti, his collaboration with L. Shankar, which at times really did work.

RM: Oh, it’s blazing. I love that music. But I would never call that music jazz. That’s McLaughlin playing Carnatic music. I know they had a jazz presence, because it was McLaughlin, and whenever they regroup, they play all the big jazz festivals. And it’s awesome. There are some Shakti videos that I’ve watched thousands of times, and they’re killing. But I’m thinking more things like the first coining of Indo-jazz fusion, Joe Harriott. There was a time when everyone wanted to reference that album. It actually took me a long time to listen to it. I really don’t like that album. I admire the endeavor and the effort, but the musical results are nothing that I relate to really. But maybe that’s my problem. I’m thinking more about that than Shakti. The reality is McLaughlin’s investment in Indian music is tremendous, both musically and spiritually. He really feels it. He knows that stuff better than some Carnatic musicians. And he deserves all the credit and the kudos, for sure. But yeah, people always want to think of what I do as an extension of that, whereas I want think of what I do as an extension of Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

FJO: When you were mentioning the names of people who influenced your approach to playing the saxophone, I thought you’d also mention Gato Barbieri, who had such a raw sound.

RM: Oh yeah. Definitely.

FJO: But in terms of thinking of what you do as an extension of Ellington, Parker, and Coltrane, I think Coltrane was the only one who really became immersed in Indian music and was trying to find a way to internalizing it and make it completely his own. Where I hear that even more in your work is in what you’ve been doing on albums like Gamak and Samdhi, which derive not only from jazz and Carnatic musical traditions but from lots of other stuff as well. On Gamak, you worked with David Fiuczynski, who plays wacky microtonal guitar, and on Samdhi you’re messing around with a laptop. It’s a lot more than just a fusion. Oops, there’s the f-word. Anyway, it’s something that’s way beyond just two things; I think what it really is, if you need to put a label on it, is 21st-century American music.

RM: Well, the interesting thing with Samdhi and that project with laptop was that it was actually the result of my Guggenheim project, which was all based on spending two to three months in India and informally studying with a bunch of people. The intention was always to take all these ideas, concepts, and ancient techniques and graft them onto the jazz/rock fusion band that I always wanted to have, with screaming electric guitar, electric bass, and distorted saxophone. All those tunes are very much based on South Indian rhythmic cycles and ragas. It’s really funny that that was the mouthpiece I wanted for all this information.

Then with Gamak we moved into lots of different territory. We worked with some modes that are used in Javanese gamelan music. There’s also some stuff that sounds almost like country music. Gamak or gamaka refers to melodic ornamentation in Indian music. That’s the name for it. But I wanted to think about how ornamentation occurs across the world, because that’s such a humanizing factor in the transmission of song, whether it’s R&B or country music, or some East Asian genre. How that yodel you hear in country music occurs in early American music and occurs in Africa, but variations of that occur in Japanese music. So are these the primal and visceral elements of what making music means? That’s what I was trying to address with that album, but also in a very playful way.

Then I turned around and kind of deconstructed Charlie Parker on the next album [Bird Calls]. But at the same time, the first track on that is very much based on a South Indian tala. Now it’s more in my DNA. I have to say when I look back on those first things with Indo-Pak Coalition or Kinsman, a collaboration with the Carnatic saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, even though it’s only seven or eight years old, is that I was trying to prove something. I don’t know if it comes across in the music, but when I go to those head spaces, I’m like, “Yeah, I felt like you have to play like this, because you’re trying to prove that you can do all these things.” And now I’m like, you know what, they’re so embedded. They’re just coming out now. And I can relax with it. It’s always going to be me.

FJO: But in terms of trying to prove something, you really made a statement by calling an album Samdhi.

RM: Yeah, the new universe. I was thinking more like the way that the Hindu calendar has this very finite place; they know when the universe is going to end. Then there’s this space while the new universe is being created. At the time I was feeling like there were new things opening up for me musically—not necessarily that other things were closing, but I felt like I was finding a new voice. So it’s more metaphorically speaking of that space between the destruction of one thing and the creation of another, and what happens during those magical times. It’s like twilight, really—all the weird things that can happen in twilight.

FJO: But I hear Bird Calls as coming from a completely different place than either Gamak or Samdhi. Not in terms of how it sounds, but in terms of how it exists in relation to tradition. I would place it more alongside projects like I Will Not Apologize For My Tone Tonight, your collaboration with the PRISM Quartet, or Song of the Jasmine, the music you created and performed with Ragamala Dance. Working with those dancers resulted in what is probably the most traditional Indian-sounding music you’ve ever done. And working with PRISM, which is a genre-bending ensemble but one that is firmly rooted in the Western classical saxophone quartet tradition, is probably the most traditionally Western classical thing you’ve done. Similarly, Bird Calls, which is a direct homage to Charlie Parker, the most iconic saxophone soloist, is in some ways your most traditional straight-ahead sounding jazz album. You’re still creating things that are clearly in your own voice but you seem to be more directly in specific dialogue with these very different traditions.

RM: Well, it’s interesting that you say that because I was writing all that music at the same time, so I always feel like there are elements of all in each. One of the things I learned writing and playing for the dance company was that there had to be this certain melodic clarity. We get rather intellectual with what we do. How much can I throw in there? How complex can I be? I think it’s a game; at least it’s a game I play with myself sometimes. You know, what’s another layer I can add to this to make it even more convoluted? I quickly saw that that wasn’t going to work with the dancers.

Clarity doesn’t necessarily mean simplicity, but I think there’s a place where melody sings in a way that can reach a lot of people. And that’s what the dancers needed regardless of what’s going on rhythmically. So I felt like that music that I wrote for them had that, and that mindset trickled into the Bird thing and also trickled into the PRISM thing as well. I feel like I’m a different person after that year of working on these three things at once. My approach to writing music, and even how I listen to music, has changed a little bit. Doing something interdisciplinary puts you in a bit of a more selfless space because what they’re doing is equally valid and important and virtuosic. So it’s really not about me. It’s about us making this thing that seems seamless and that is seamless. In the end after all that touring, I always describe that project as ten musicians. It just happened to be that five of them were dancers.

FJO: Now in terms of the PRISM project, this was a collaboration with these four great saxophone players. They’ve done a lot of music where people write them a piece and they play the piece. And then there are pieces where people write them a piece and play the piece with them, which is what you did. But it’s a completely fixed piece, right?

RM: For the most part. There is a section where they improvise, but there are rules. There are rules to how they improvise and certain key points and stuff. So it’s not like they just go for it for a while and then I raise my hand; it’s much more structured than that. It’s based on some pitch sets. It’s very much composed, and it’s very finite. It’s always kind of the same length and the same message comes across. Well, PRISM is interesting. I’ve always liked what they do; they’ve always been very forward-looking in what they’re looking to perform. I actually met Taimur Sullivan back in ’94 at the North American Saxophone Alliance Conference. It’s also known as NASA, if anyone cares. He was a finalist in the classical competition and I was a finalist in the jazz competition. I had this very intriguing conversation with him because I had never met a classical saxophonist who was so aware of jazz and who was just so into modern music. He wasn’t into just playing the Creston Sonata and the stalwarts of the classical saxophone canon; he was doing stuff with tape loops and he was looking to do all this crazy stuff. I was like, “Who are you?” This was before he was part of PRISM, but we kept in touch over the years. Then we had had conversations like, “Hey, it would be great if you could write something for us, blah-blah-blah.” Some of these conversations go back and forth for years and then it finally happens. So that was something I was really looking forward to. And they really wanted me to write something where I was going to actively play with them. I approach that in different ways. But you know, I definitely wanted to be in there, and then the great thing about that part where they improvise is I’m actually holding it down; I’m playing a bass line for them. It’s like, you guys go; it’s not about me soloing. I don’t always want to be the one playing the melody by any means. It’s again, music as a community event.

FJO: So did doing a project like that whet your appetite for potentially doing a piece where you’re writing music that other folks play, that you’re not part of?

RM: You know, I would love to do that. I try to put it out there that I’m interested in doing that. I’ve had a few conversations with Imani Winds. Toyin Spellman, the oboe player, is someone again whom I’ve known for many, many years. It’s a question of logistics and getting calendars to align. But I would love to write something for them. I would love to write for string quartet. I did an interview this morning where someone was asking me if I’d ever thought about writing for orchestra. I would love to do all of those things. And I’m just as happy to write and not play, for sure. You know, that would be really, really fun.

FJO: You just came back from Panama and Chile.

RM: Yeah. That was with Bird Calls. Mainly the bulk of what I’ve been doing is with Bird Calls, the Charlie Parker project. That’s touring pretty much through the rest of the year. Indo-Pak Coalition’s going to make another album, but with a lot of electronics. I’m actually working on a couple of new pieces that will debut at the Walker Arts Center in February.

I also have this idea for a project with a comedian. There’s always been this relationship with comedians and jazz that hasn’t been engaged so much recently. Comedians used to open for jazz musicians. I mean, at the Village Vanguard. That was a thing! Artistically speaking, there’s something very interesting about the commonalities and timing and pace, and the ratio of composed to improvised material, and how different comedians approach that. It’s really like being a jazz musician to me. So I’d just like to see where that goes. I have to think about that a lot more. There’s this great artist I met named Eric Dyer. Do you know what a zoetrope is? It’s kind of like the earliest form of—it’s not even film. You look through this thing with slits in it that spins, and the result would be like someone riding a bicycle. It’s essentially the first form of movie. So this guy Eric Dyer has done this amazing work with a kind of modern take on the zoetrope. They look just bizarre, and then when they start spinning, it’s like a whole civilization moving around. But when it’s static, it doesn’t look like anything. He’s also done it with umbrellas. So it’s like a pretty umbrella, but when you spin the umbrella, it’s an animation. It’s really, really brilliant. We’ve been talking about ways in which he could make something that he can actually manipulate in real time. It’s not just a piece of art that spins. So I’d like to do something with him and a comedian. That’s really on my mind. So those are the two things that I’m thinking about for this year. And then who knows from there.

 

 

Royce Vavrek: So Many Juicy, Amazing Words

Royce Vavrek sitting down in front of a graffiti-strewn wall.

A conversation at Vavrek’s apartment in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, NY
December 4, 2015—12:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

While an extremely wide range of composers are writing operas in the United States today, many of these disparate operas share an important trait—a libretto written by someone who was born in Alberta, Canada: Royce Vavrek. Dog Days and JFK (which both feature music by David T. Little), Angel’s Bone (with music by Du Yun), 27 (featuring music by Ricky Ian Gordon), and Song from the Uproar (music by Missy Mazzoli) are only a handful of the projects he has been involved with in the last five years. The gregarious Vavrek at first seems like an unlikely candidate for the mysterious, and regretfully somewhat anonymous, profession of writing opera librettos.

“I don’t know how I made this career,” he acknowledges to us during our talk with him in his Bushwick apartment. “I’m legitimately only writing libretti. Aside from doing a couple of classes at different universities and one-offs, I’m not working in any other capacity. I’m making no money besides from writing libretti and lyrics.”

Though words have become his primary focus, Vavrek also sang, played piano, and even composed music when he was growing up. Given such an immersive background in music, it’s surprising that his own musical ideas don’t sometimes get in the way when he is collaborating with a composer.

“My words do not have a musical idea attached to them, or at least very, very, very rarely,” he explains. “I always find that my words are a container and the music is always additive. … My principle job is to write exciting words that really ignite the imaginations of my collaborators. … My skill level compositionally is not at the level that David T. Little or Missy Mazzoli or Du Yun are composing at, so I think that I leave the composing for the masters. That being said, I am working on a musical where I am co-writing the music. There is music in me, but I tend to focus on the words because I feel like that’s where my true strength lies, especially within the operatic medium.”

Though nowadays many people don’t think much about Francesco Maria Piave (the man who wrote the libretto for La traviata) or Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (the team that created the words that Bizet set for Carmen), Vavrek is quick to point out that audiences for contemporary opera are aware that the composer is not the only person responsible for the final product in this truly collaborative idiom. According to him:

Especially when you have a living librettist, it’s easier to understand that there are two or more people who have come together to create a work. Similarly, a lot of our work is being developed with strong dramaturgical hands—whether it be a dramaturge proper or a director who has very clear ideas as to how he or she wants to stage something. Not only is the librettist an equal partner, but the librettist, composer, and the director often in my experience are really becoming this trifecta, creating initial productions that are the most dynamic manifestations of what the work needs to be.

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Frank J. Oteri: So many different composers are writing operas these days, and they are often really making us rethink what opera is and what it could be, as well as what a new audience for opera could be. But despite this wide variety of musical voices, so many of these operas have librettos by you. It’s the one common ingredient in all of this stuff. How do you get involved with all these different projects, and how do you balance them all?

Royce Vavrek: I’m a very curious human being, and I’ve been extremely lucky. I just meet really inspiring people who have led to meeting other inspiring people. For instance, one of my first outings in the operatic world was a presentation at Carnegie Hall. David [T. Little] and I did a 20-minute chunk of Dog Days that was commissioned by Dawn Upshaw and Osvaldo Golijov. Missy Mazzoli was at that presentation, and she gave me a flyer and said I should come see her Song from the Uproar. So at this big event in my life, I managed to find another collaborator. Little happenstances like that in this community led to a really healthy family. I continue to identify people that I just have to collaborate with, whom I have to be in dialogue with and marry my voice with theirs because I find their music so singular and exciting. One of the most amazing things about classical music right now is that every composer I’ve worked with has such a completely different language. So each collaborator and I have a particular tract—it’s almost as if each different collaboration is a completely different road that I’m traveling on. And that makes it so exciting.

FJO: But how do you balance them? It seems like you’re working on several of these at the same time, which I can see being very schizophrenic.

RV: I tend to have a major project and then smaller projects. I try not to do too many big, full-length operas concurrently, although I’m sure that there will be a time when that is impossible. But even though my projects are so disparate in form and content, I think that if you did look at my libretti, you would be able to find particular things that would suggest that they are a Royce Vavreck libretto. So while I do have my hand in a lot of different honey jars, they all contain elements of me. It’s interesting to see the different things that sort of link them together. There are these elements that do seem like they are of a time in my life and of a general wavelength.

FJO: So you mentioned working on Dog Days with David T. Little and then meeting Missy Mazzoli. It seems like her project had already started without you, and then you came into it. So I imagine some projects begin with nothing and then you and the composer with whom you are collaborating create a piece together, but for others someone brings you in to work on a project they’ve started, or maybe you also interest somebody in a project you want to work on.

RV: One of the more interesting and exciting things about opera is just how projects begin. For Song from the Uproar, Missy had composed a good portion of the piece and asked me to come and complete the libretto. So I not only had Isabelle’s language—Isabelle Eberhardt is the subject of the opera—but I also had Missy’s interpretation and her music. So there was a way for me to provide my voice, to marry my voice with all of these different elements. But that piece was very particular in that there was a good foundation to leap off of and to create a full-length work based on a seed of an idea.

FJO: So then your answer to the classic question—what comes first, the words or the music?—would be that it really depends.

RV: I would say that, 99 percent of the time, words come first. I’m sure that there will be situations coming up where music comes first, and music dictates lyrical content, but it does seem like for an opera, the words need to inspire the musical landscape—the dramatic landscape of the classical music.

FJO: Until I had read Heidi Waleson’s feature about you in Opera News this past April, I didn’t realize you had studied composition, as well as piano and voice.

RV: As a very young kid—not even in college, but yes.

FJO: So you wrote music?

RV: Yes.

FJO: Do you still write music? And if you don’t, what made you stop?

RV: My skill level compositionally is not at the level that David T. Little or Missy Mazzoli or Du Yun are composing at, so I think that I leave the composing for the masters. That being said, I am working on a musical where I am co-writing the music. There is music in me, but I tend to focus on the words because I feel like that’s where my true strength lies, especially within the operatic medium.

FJO: So I’m curious how you came to realize that strength. You were initially studying piano, voice, and composition, not libretto writing. How did you first find words, or did words find you?

RV: I took piano lessons and composition lessons in high school and I was in a choir. I was also really involved in the theater. I had a drama teacher who basically gave me the small budget that was allotted her class, and I wrote something like 17 plays in high school. We took them on the one-act play festival circuit, so I had this sort of practical playwriting education. And I was in love with movies as a kid. That was my window into the outside world growing up on a farm in northern Canada. I was just so in love with international and American independent cinema, especially of the ‘90s. I applied to Concordia University in Montreal and did my undergraduate degree in filmmaking, but then picked up a creative writing second major. So writing has been such a huge part of my life. Even when I was three years old, I remember my mom would take dictation; she would write down stories that I told her.

Telling stories has always been this innate thing that I’ve been participating in. As human beings, we tell stories all the time. So it makes sense that music and storytelling, which were both such a huge part of my life, are now married. I did my master’s degree in musical theater writing. So I do sort of have libretto training. That was more book writing and lyric writing—a libretto is a slightly different animal, but it is very much related to musical theater writing.

Then right after my master’s degree, I did the American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program and that really set my career on this track. It provided me with the mentorship and the foundations of writing opera, and it also introduced me to my first collaborators. David T. Little actually came to my final concert and learned about my work through that program. Then it was just this snowball effect, really—meeting all these amazing, young composers who all want to tell stories. That’s sort of the lowest common denominator of all of us: we’re all interested in telling stories through music and words, and some of us through dance and through prose. So it just feels like we’re all coming together because we want to tell stories.

FJO: I’d like to unpack this dichotomy between musical theater and opera. Once upon a time opera and musical theater existed in very different spaces, the works were created by different sets of composers and lyricists-librettists, productions employed completely different singers using completely different vocal techniques, and things were performed for totally different audiences. But that’s not completely true anymore. The walls separating operas and musicals have come down quite a lot. So I found it somewhat peculiar to hear you say that you’re writing music for a musical, but you leave it to the masters to write music for operas. In your mind there must still be a difference.

RV: Well, there is and there isn’t. Musical theater often uses popular music to tell the stories, and I think that I am able to work within some of the popular musical languages. Whereas classical music just seems—I don’t want to say more serious, but there is something. But I think that our job is to blur those lines even further. I love musicals. I love, love, love, love that form. That was what I was raised on—cast recordings of 1776, Sunday in the Park with George, Follies, and Shenandoah, one of my other favorite musicals. I’m desperate to contribute to that medium. But I do think that opera and musical theater are both doing many of the same things. They’re both telling stories through music predominantly.

That being said, I do think the label helps identify what and where the venues are. What would 27, the opera I wrote with Ricky Ian Gordon, be like if we had theater singers doing that? Is this something that a theater singer would be capable of performing, or is it just meant for classically trained vocalists? That’s another big concern. Who do we intend to perform it, how and where, and why do these pieces exist and in what form? I think that what Beth Morrison does so beautifully is she says operas don’t need to be done at BAM or the Met. Operas can be done in all these cool venues. They can and should be done at the Met, and they should be done at BAM, but there are alternative homes that are even more exciting and more appropriate for certain pieces.

David [T. Little] also grew up with musical theater as a language that was really important to him. So you’ll see trinkets of more musical theater-y elements in Dog Days for instance, or in Vinkensport. Then there are moments in Du Yun’s Angel’s Bone that also have sort of musical theater-y things. I think that we’re using the best things about musical theater and the best things about opera and creating a middle ground. I also think that we’re extremely excited about the drama, about the theater of opera, so we are really trying to create dynamic works that feel alive, trying to define what opera in the 21st century is and what it’s going to be. I think that that’s a great opportunity for this community of artists that I work in. We get to put a flag in the ground and say this is what we want opera and musical theater to be going forward.

FJO: One of the problems with opera performance today is that most of what is performed in the big opera houses is very old repertoire. A lot of these works are great theater as well as great music, but I think the big opera houses promote the musical aspects over the dramatic ones, to the point that you see posters for Verdi’s La Traviata and the name of the librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, rarely gets mentioned. Same with La Bohème. Everyone thinks of Puccini, but who thinks about Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa? Lorenzo Da Ponte gets a little more credit for the operas he wrote with Mozart, but that’s probably because he is known for other reasons—like coming to America and founding the Italian department at Columbia. Whereas in musical theater history, Hammerstein is as famous as Rodgers, in terms of public awareness. So as someone who walked into the world of opera with a background in musical theater, do you feel like you’re an equal player and do you feel that audiences now have come to this position where they can see a work as being the creation of the composer as well as the librettist?

RV: I think that’s another example of how we are borrowing from musical theater where we understand that if the composer didn’t have a words person, they would be writing symphonies. Especially when you have a living librettist, it’s easier to understand that there are two or more people who have come together to create a work. Similarly, a lot of our work is being developed with strong dramaturgical hands—whether it be a dramaturge proper or a director who has very clear ideas as to how he or she wants to stage something.

Dog Days, for instance, was created in a room with Robert Woodruff, David, and myself. It felt very organic that the three of us came together to identify how that piece was going to be structured. We went through beat-by-beat to make sure that everything was sound and that we all had had a say as to how the work was going to unfold. With Breaking the Waves, we had two dramaturges in the room for our initial workshops and now we have a director named James Darrah, who is really hands-on and is guiding us in the most beautiful way and pushing us to try to make this project as theatrical and separate from the film—using the narrative of the film, but creating our own version of the story. So I think that is an example of how not only the librettist is an equal partner, but the librettist, composer, and the director often in my experience are really becoming this trifecta, creating initial productions that are the most dynamic manifestations of what the work needs to be.

FJO: To get back to musical theater, you were listening to cast albums before you ever actually saw a show on stage I imagine.

RV: My parents were really great about exposing me to the arts. My father played the piano, and was in a band with his siblings when they were high school age. So I did have access. I remember seeing Anne of Green Gables – The Musical when I was about five years old. We would go to the community theater, so I saw things like Marvin’s Room and Steel Magnolias. And I was in Oliver when I was ten, I believe, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Wizard of Oz.

But I was 20 the first time I came to New York and that was definitely the first time that I had the ability to see something that was professional. Although I did see a touring Les Miz. The first opera I saw when I was 18 at Opera de Montreal was the Cav/Pag double bill and that was sort of just mind blowing. That was also my first operatic CD. So that, especially Pagliacci, has such a huge place in my heart. Then, as a singer, I was doing a lot of competitive musical theater classes and stuff like that at the local music festival and the provincial music festivals. So I was learning about pieces not only through the cast albums but also through singing excerpts.

FJO: I find it amusing to hear you say that if composers didn’t have somebody writing words, they’d be writing symphonies.

RV: I understand that a lot of composers do come up with narratives for their non-narrative pieces—their non-vocal pieces. I don’t want to imply that a symphony doesn’t have a story, because I totally understand that that is not the case.

FJO: Yeah, but where I wanted to go with that is that one of the things I find interesting about the collaborations you have had with various composers is that you not only write operas with them, but you also create song cycles and other kinds of pieces that are intended for performance in concert halls. When you enter the concert hall, you really are entering a zone that is the composer’s domain even more so than in an opera house. I don’t know if people are trained to pay attention to the words as an equal component in those contexts at all. So I’m curious about how some of those projects evolved and what you feel your role is in those projects.

RV: My role is very similar. A lot of concert work is very narrative, so it seems like it’s extremely similar to writing an opera, although I don’t get to have people in costumes running around pretending to be men in dog suits or Gertrude Stein. Am I Born was a Brooklyn Philharmonic commission with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. That was something that was set up by Alan Pierson. He came to David T. Little and said he would love to commission something for what I believe was his first season with the Brooklyn Phil. He wanted it to be Brooklyn specific and, being a Brooklynite, that was a really exciting challenge. So we chose a painting that’s hanging in the Brooklyn Museum and decided we were going to try to bring that to life, to animate that through an oratorio. I structured it similarly to how I would an opera, trying to make it as varied as possible and to take the audience on a 30-minute journey. So while it is different, it really does feel like it is alive in the same way that an opera does.

FJO: Yes, but whereas folks in the new opera community can wrap their brains around the fact that Dog Days is by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek, can folks in the concert world do that with Am I Born? I imagine that most concert programs featuring Am I Born will probably list it as a work by David T. Little and your name will only appear somewhere in the program notes. But maybe it’s not that way.

RV: It’s generally a company thing. For instance, looking at how the LA Phil lists things, often it’s just the composer’s last name with a colon and the name of the piece. But I think that times are changing. It seems like it’s less and less difficult to convince people that the librettist or the lyricist is important. For instance, on the cover of the 27 CD, my name is right next to Ricky’s. And with the Hubble Cantata, my cantata with Paola Prestini, my name is right up there with the name of astrophysicist Mario Livio and the film maker Carmen Kordas, and Paola’s name of course.

It is true that with a concert work, it’s less easy. I guess the concert world is a particular animal; it is harder to become recognized for concert work. But I think that a lot of composers, a lot of my collaborators, understand my contribution and they fight for me. A lot of it comes down to that. It comes down to a composer saying, “This is a collaboration, a team effort, and my collaborator deserves to be mentioned.” Often we’re not even mentioned. So I do think the biggest turn is my contemporaries, my collaborators, my colleagues saying, we understand your contribution and we think that it needs to be honored at least in having your name printed.

FJO: Since you have a musical background and you said that the words come first most of the time, I’m wondering if there have been times after someone else has set your words to music that what the composer did clashes with what you thought it should sound like.

RV: My words, when I write them, do not have a musical idea attached to them, or at least very, very, very rarely. The musical idea will be more general, like I feel like this is a sad song or this a happy song or this is a song that accomplishes this narratively. I would never say that the music is wrong. I don’t even know what that means. If there is music that I just don’t connect with, that’s a bigger problem, but I haven’t ever come across that. I can’t even think of an example of a composer who’s let me down, or who has completely derailed my narrative ideas. I always find that my words are a container and the music is always additive. Or it always has been. I’ll let you know when that’s not the case.

FJO: That’s good. You’re lucky.

Royce Vavrek leaning against a graffiti strewn wall.

RV: It’s so hard to make a career, it really is. I don’t know how I made this career. I’m legitimately only writing libretti. Aside from doing a couple of classes at different universities and one-offs, I’m not working in any other capacity. I’m making no money besides from writing libretti and lyrics. But because it’s such a hard industry to navigate, especially financially, you’ve got to be very serious. You’ve got to be very, very thoughtful, and you’ve got to put the time in. These opportunities are gifts, truly.

We’re all working so hard and trying to use our voices to tell the best stories and make the best music possible; that’s the name of the game. I think that if you’re not contributing in that way, that’s where I might have difficulty. Like if it’s just sort of—I don’t want to say hobby, because I think making music as a hobby is a beautiful thing and I would encourage everyone to do that. But I do think that I work with people who are driven to really contribute to the form and to advance the form, and who do really cool things. We have that potential and, especially with these opportunities we have, it seems like we have this unlimited palette with which to create really dynamic stories.

FJO: So what about the reverse of the music being wrong; let’s flip the coin. Have you ever been in situations where you bring in a text and the composer turns around and says, “That’s not going to work; that’s not singable. I need something else there; this isn’t right.” What I’m after with this whole line of questioning is trying to get a sense of what the give and take is in the collaborative processes that you’re a part of.

RV: It’s not so much that particular words don’t sing, I don’t think. The English language is so eccentric and awesome and there are just so many juicy, amazing words. I’ve never had a composer come to me and say it doesn’t sing. I’ve had a composer say I’m having a hard time figuring it out dramatically or finding my way through it. I always think that there are one thousand ways that one can write a scene. So if that ever happens, I’m more than happy—oh my goodness, send me away and have me re-write. I will try to find another way that will get the best music from you. My principle job is to write exciting words that really ignite the imaginations of my collaborators. So if my words aren’t doing that for you, I’m going to do my damnedest to find other words that do. I can give you an example. The final aria in JFK is one big emotional outpouring before the end of the show. I had written a version of that aria and it sort of sat in the libretto for a good nine months, a year maybe. Then David finally got to it. He had worked all the way up to it, but he just couldn’t find a way to make that particular text work dramatically in that moment. So we worked together, talking about what that moment needed to be, and I think I re-wrote that aria two or three times. It’s infinitely better, and it feels so much more true to the dramatic pulse of that moment. So yeah, I’m so open to re-writing and trying to figure out how to make it work for the composer. Not that I want to concede the medium to the composer, but the music needs to be really, really great. So if I can do anything that will help create really, really exciting, awesome music, then I’m more than happy to oblige.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that you go away and write another text. There’s this cliché—which is totally not true—about Broadway collaborators and how they were portrayed by Hollywood and by promo photos back in the day. I particularly remember a photo of Rodgers and Hammerstein, where Richard Rodgers is sitting at the piano and Oscar Hammerstein is writing words. But probably the reality is they worked separately and then they came together to work out things. For you, at least, it doesn’t seem like it’s ever been that kind of Mickey Rooney, let’s-put-on-a-show thing.

RV: Very rarely. Little edits can be done in the room. For instance, I was just in rehearsal for Angel’s Bone a couple days ago, and there was a section that we all decided needed to have some words replaced. That was something I sort of did on the fly. But I much prefer to go home and just have my time and allow for the words to manifest. I have not yet had the experience where I’ve sat in a room with a composer while they were plunking out melodies and saying, “Does this work?” That seems like more of a musical theater thing. With opera there are so many more moving parts, so it often seems like the composer and I want our time to go away to sort of messy things up—you know, so you can tear things apart and put them back together. But, just to be very good about honoring people’s time, it might not be the best usage of time to sort of sit and pray that something comes out between the two of you. It just seems much easier to go away and make your work.

FJO: So the process of making your work—where and when does all of this stuff take place?

RV: I like to sit on the couch and write, but I really like to get out of town. My Breaking the Waves libretto was written at home in Canada. I went home for three weeks and sat in my mother’s house and watched the Olympics. It was right around the time that the Olympics were going on. So that was my time to enjoy that and get a full draft of Breaking the Waves. JFK was written in this house. For 27 I went up to my dramaturge’s house, up in Hudson, and had a really good draft of that, but I had a week where I didn’t leave the confines of the house. I would just write new scenes, and he would sit there and take me through every line and make sure that all my “I”s were dotted and “T”s were crossed. More and more, I’m really loving the exodus from New York to get work done. That being said, a lot of work has to happen here. It seems like there’s just so much time that is spent away from home. You tend to want to really make the time count when you’re here. I’m here for January. Then I have to go to Germany for the new production of Dog Days. I’m in Fort Worth for JFK; I’m in Philly for Breaking the Waves. The big thing for me is that there are just so many events that happen in New York. I’m working with so many people. I love the work of all of my collaborators and contemporaries and colleagues. So it’s important for me to be a part of that. But that also means that a lot of writing time is gobbled up by events. It is really great to go away and have that time and to be sort of not within the machine that is the New York classical music community, because you want to participate so much. I’m understanding more fully why residencies are so important and why people find that going up to MacDowell, closing that door and having weeks of uninterrupted art creation time, is so beneficial.

FJO: But you can create a libretto while watching the Olympics?

RV: Well, I did not do it at the same time.

FJO: I know several composers who write music while watching television. I don’t get it.

RV: If I did do that, I wouldn’t be watching the TV—it would just be background noise, which I’m guessing would probably be the same thing for those composers. But I don’t have that type of brain that allows me to do two things at once. I cannot split my attention. I love audio books, but I couldn’t listen to an audio book and retain what’s coming in and be able to make coherent thoughts on the page.

FJO: Can you listen to a symphony while writing?

RV: It would all be sort of peripheral, background.

FJO: So silence is the best?

RV: It’s not necessarily the best, but for me listening means you’re actually taking that information in. If I were to listen to a symphony and write, it would just be sort of a blanket of sound behind my process and I wouldn’t really be retaining any of that musical information.

FJO: Or your phrases would wind up being the same phrases of that symphony.

RV: Yeah.

FJO: Then you would have music in your head that went with your words that would not be the same as the music of your collaborator.

RV: I certainly do listen to music while I write, but there are moments when I’m just like aargh, this is overload! I have to turn it off, and I’ll have significant silent writing time. I think my ideal writing situation would be pretty much silence somewhere that’s cloistered to a great extent.

FJO: To follow up on what you just said about listening: you follow the work of your collaborators, and you mentioned the first opera CD you got was Cav/Pag, and I see there’s a Janis Joplin poster here in your apartment. I’m wondering, how much time do you devote to listening to music that is separate and apart from your collaborations, and how does that listening then become fuel for your own creativity?

RV: I listen to so much music. And I watch as many movies as possible, and I do watch a lot of TV. I love taking things in, so that is an extremely important part of my life. I do think that every story you encounter and every piece of work that you even begin to understand becomes part of you, and you carry that. They become lessons.

I was given the opportunity to write about a particular poet that had really informed my work in some way. The poet that I chose was a singer-songwriter named Kathleen Edwards. She has lyrics that I encountered when I was in grad school that completely blew my mind and in some ways have informed my work more than any librettist. My narrative sensibility I think comes from being reared on Lars Von Trier, Neil LaBute, and Wong Kar-wai. I’m able to not mimic them, by any stretch of the imagination, but to allow their ideas to be tools or methods with which to explore my own ideas. I just encountered Benjamin Clementine for the first time. He won the Mercury Prize last week. I’m sure that my work will in some way benefit from, or will be informed by, just this absolute consuming musical world that is swirling around my head right now based on my insistence to continue going through Benjamin’s work.

FJO: And reading?

RV: Oh, my gosh. I read so, so, so much. There are so many people that read more than me, but I feel healthier when I read. I really, really, really do. And I’ve been exploring audio books a lot. I love lying in bed and just listening to hours on end of audio books. It’s impossible for me to read these days and not wonder how I would adapt those works into an opera or music theater form. There’s always something about, well, how would I do that?

Even going to the cinema, there’s something about wanting to be in dialogue and how I would approach this particular narrative. Going back to reading, I read a lot based on books that people recommend because they may want to tackle them in some sort of opera or musical way. But I’m always looking for interesting languages and how people tell stories just for my general narrative health.

FJO: I’m also curious about your intake of visual art. You mentioned the painting at the Brooklyn Museum that inspired Am I Born, and while we were setting up the recording equipment you talked about this photograph behind you that is by the subject of your musical.

RV: Visual art has informed so many of my projects. Thinking about 27, my opera with Ricky Ian Gordon that was commissioned by Opera Theater of St. Louis and premiered in 2014, that piece was all about the art that hung in Gertrude and Alice’s apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus. In JFK, my opera with David T. Little that was commissioned by Fort Worth Opera and American Lyric Theater, similarly there is an amazing story where there was this woman Ruth Carter Stevenson who knew that Jack and Jackie were only going to have a very limited window in Fort Worth. She decided that because they wouldn’t have time to go to the museums there, that she would bring the museums to them. So she went around and collected a really great sample of the works that were held in Fort Worth and put them all up in their hotel room. Right before the breakfast meeting, Jackie was about ten minutes late, and some people have this theory that she realized that the art on the walls was real—all the paintings and sculptures. The Picasso owl was real. And she was arrested for those ten minutes and that caused her lateness, which is kind of amazing, and this is embedded into the opera. The art becomes these portals into dreams.

So JFK, 27, Am I Born, and the music I’m writing with Ted Shen about Vivian Maier, who was a Chicago street photographer in the mid-20th century. She worked as a nanny and took a lot of pictures of children, but she would also just go to downtown Chicago and New York and take street photos. She certainly was not a famous woman by any stretch of the imagination and she died in obscurity. A young man named John Malouf bought a lot of her negatives in an auction and realized that they were extremely special. He put them online and was encouraged to take those photos offline because they were just so awesome. We are creating a piece that celebrates the mystery of this woman. We don’t really know why she took so many pictures and then didn’t develop them. She was sort of—I wouldn’t say an anti-artist, but she was compelled to take these photographs but then was not really compelled to complete the photographic process, which is really, really cool. Here’s a woman who was taking selfies. Most of her portraits that are so truly beloved are these auto-portraits.

Royce Vavrek on the sidewalk leaning against a metal grating.

FJO: The first work of yours that I saw on a stage was Dog Days, and while I found it totally compelling, I also thought that it was really creepy and really dark—extremely disturbing. You seem like a sunny person. What attracted you to something so grim?

RV: Dog Days was based on a short story by Judy Budnitz that was a little sunnier than our treatment. It was set in the ‘80s, so the Cold War was still on. The foundation of that piece was very much Judy’s, but then it was sort of amplified and heightened and we made it a little bit more grim in concert with Robert Woodruff, the director. But we didn’t set out to write a grim piece. And there are moments of levity and lightness, too, that I think are really funny. It is a hard piece. It’s a heavy piece. I totally understand that. But I also think there’s great life, especially in the Lisa character. I’m writing Breaking the Waves with Missy Mazzoli, which is similarly a rather dark, heavy work. Because of my being reared on international cinema of the late-‘90s and early-2000s, those stories have always spoken to me. There’s always been this desire to tell serious stories about the human condition. Look at Angel’s Bone. That’s not fun and frothy. But also I love comedy, so thinking of David, Vinkensport or The Finch Opera is as frothy and fun as they come. But even that ends with a twist where the final aria is this outpouring of emotion from this one particular character who is releasing his finch and is basically thanking him for years of companionship. So it’s not that I’m not interested in comedy. I haven’t made a concerted decision to tell grim tales, although opera does have the potential to tell those stories in a really, really dynamic and full way. I think that that’s why our artistic impulses often lead us to darker stories. But I think that you’re going to see a lot of comedy, God willing, from me throughout my career.

FJO: Well, definitely not in JFK.

RV: Not JFK, although what David and I have been talking a lot about is our desire for audiences leaving JFK to be grateful and to maybe hug loved ones just a little bit tighter that evening, to understand that life is precious. It doesn’t end with his assassination; it ends with him leaving the hotel. We don’t see the tragedy, but his leaving the hotel is taking him to Dallas, so there is that sense of doom. And the soundscape that David has come up with is extremely varied and there’s something very ominous, especially after the intermission. It really feels like something very monumental is going to happen. The fates are aligning.

FJO: I didn’t realize that the audience never sees his assassination and only gets the hint through what the orchestra is playing when he leaves the hotel. It’s reminiscent to me of what I think is one of the most effective moments in Dog Days—the end where the mother is on the table and there’s a slowly building wall of noise that just blows out your ears by the end. It’s the most intense thing. You never really see what you know is happening, but you know it’s happened. All this stuff is going on, but curiously—and I want to bring this up to you as the librettist—it was all done without words.

RV: But if you look at the libretto for that moment, there is a very particular stage direction. So it’s done with words, but just not sung words. And she does sort of wail a little bit. And she snivels, and she pees. Right?

FJO: In terms of the collaborative process, how did a moment like that get decided upon and who decided it?

RV: The three of us. Judy’s story ends with the dog being shot and eaten. In the dramaturgical sessions that we had with Robert, I remember very clearly he said, “But what happens next?” That was the mind-shattering moment. There were these images that Robert brought up, I believe, about just seeing lions having eaten. I see lions, and I see an act of ablution, and then we went home. We went our separate ways. I came up with sort of the just the general idea, but we didn’t find the washing of the mother with urine until—that was Robert in rehearsal. In the libretto, it talks about how she performs, or she gathers snow and washes her mother’s body. But we decided that water was gone at that point. So what is she going to wash her mother’s body with? In this scenario where there’s nothing, that was very much a directorial find.

I remember reading the stage management report and being like, “Oh, my goodness. What is going on at rehearsal?” I tend to leave rehearsals to the singers and the director and the team for the first few days at least. I like everybody to get their bearings before the writers tromp in. So I was like, “I don’t really know what this is; this seems really wild.” But it is one of the most beautifully heartbreaking moments that I’ve had a hand in creating. I’m so proud of what the whole team came to create in that moment.

FJO: In terms of the hands-on/hands-off thing, you’re traveling around the world. You’ve got productions happening here in New York in January and then in Germany and Texas, all over the place. It’s going to get to the point where you probably can’t be at all of these things. Hopefully there’ll be productions of these works all the time. It’s interesting to hear you say that you wait a little while before you come in. What about the process of letting go?

RV: Oh, I’m so excited for that. I’m finally at the stage of my career where we do have projects that are taking on a life of their own. Dog Days will come full circle. We’re bringing it back to New York as part of the Protoype Festival in January ‘16, alongside the world premiere of Angel’s Bone. But Dog Days after January will have its first new production [in Germany]. So David T. Little is going over and is going to have about a week with them during rehearsals. I’m going to come for opening night. There is something really beautiful in that we feel like we have created the version that we need to oversee. We’ve created one version that was very much hands-on; we were in the room. We worked with Robert to create the production that began at Montclair Peak Performances, then went to Fort Worth Opera and LA Opera, and is coming to Prototype. What we’ve created is a roadmap that is intended to be interpreted in as many ways as possible. So I think that the most exciting thing at this juncture in the life of Dog Days is that it’s open now. We don’t need to be hands-on. We can let other people come up with ideas that will inform the work in ways that we didn’t even imagine.

FJO: And you’re happy with that?

RV: Yes, because in order to make a living and to make a career in the operatic world, your work needs to be done. And I am obsessed and addicted to creating new work. So I need to be able to allow my earlier work to be interpreted in such a way that I can go make new operas with David T. Little and Missy Mazzoli and Ricky Ian Gordon and Du Yun and Josh Schmitt and Matt Marks and all these fabulous people. Missy Mazzoli did say at one point that you’ve just got to hope to God that opening nights don’t happen on the same night. Especially when I’m working on so many different projects, invariably there are going to be things that overlap. But you do your work, and you attend whatever needs your love and attendance. And you hope that everything just sort of fits.

Mary Jane Leach: Sonic Confessions

A conversation at Leach’s home (a former Catholic church) in Valley Falls, New York
November 6, 2015—12:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography (unless otherwise stated)
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

More than 20 years after being in the audience for a concert by the New York Treble Singers devoted to the music of Mary Jane Leach, I still have vivid memories of it. It was one of the most magical performances I’ve ever experienced. While the breadth of a full SATB chorus was missing (all of the singers were sopranos), it was more than compensated for by the depth of focus on a specific segment of the pitch continuum. Perhaps more significantly, although there were only eight singers on the stage it sounded like many, many others. Eager to hear this music again as well as anything else by Leach I could find, I tracked down Celestial Fires, the one CD of her music available at that time (on Phill Niblock’s XI Records) and was delighted when a second disc, Ariadne’s Lament, was issued by New World Records a few years later.

Since then I got to know Leach personally and, as a result, came to understand how her music works. The peculiar acoustic phenomena I witnessed during that first concert were largely the byproduct of beats (a ringing pulse that throbs in your ear when two pitches are only a very small interval apart from one another) and of the additional sum and difference tones that occur when certain combinations of pitches sound together, based on the prominence of particular harmonics in any given timbre. There’s a particular presence when those additional “ghost” tones result from pitches produced by the same instrument or voice, e.g. the eight sopranos of the New York Treble Singers. So, as I came to know more of Leach’s music and chanced upon pieces for four bass clarinets, seven bassoons, or nine oboes, it all started to make sense. But it was only when we went to visit with her at her home, a decommissioned Roman Catholic church in a small town about a 30-minute drive from Albany, that her process became crystal clear.

“How loud it is, the pressure that you use, and moving in a space changes it drastically,” she explained. “It wasn’t until I wrote the piece for bass clarinet, 4BC, that I really started playing around with specific sound phenomena and I did that tediously. I recorded tones on tape, then I just kept over-dubbing and combining them—what do four unisons sound like? What does it sound like when you add this note? What does it sound like when you add that note?”

Multiples pieces (works scored for an ensemble consisting exclusively of the same instrument or for a soloist performing along with previously recorded multitracks of him- or herself) form a considerable percentage of Leach’s compositional output. Leach has also compiled a massive database of multiples pieces written by other composers and has made it publicly accessible via her website. One of Leach’s favorite multiples pieces by another composer is The Holy Presence of Joan of Arc, a 1981 tour-de-force for ten cellos by African-American proto-post-minimalist Julius Eastman (1940-1990). So entranced was she by this piece when she first heard a recording of it, and was subsequently so stymied in her efforts to find a score, that she devoted years of her life to tracking down scores and recordings of as much of Eastman’s music as she could (much is lost forever), shepherded New World’s seminal 3-CD Eastman collection Unjust Malaise, and co-authored (with Renée Levine Packer) Gay Guerrilla, the first book-length study devoted to Eastman which will be published on December 15, 2015. Devoting so much time to the music of someone else took its toll on her own composing and she was forced to put on the back burner one of her most ambitious projects—a multilayered opera based on the original Ariadne myth (in which Ariadne emerges as a feminist hero rather than a somewhat clueless victim). Now that the book is done, she’s wholeheartedly plunged back in. In a strange way, the two projects (Eastman and Ariadne) are somewhat similar in that both are an attempt to right an historical wrong.

As she pointed out, “So much of myth is political—a lot of times justifying why the people who are occupying your country are there, like a lot of political-ness we’re going through with the Middle East and everything like that. This explains how Theseus, who was like a rapist-solider, could be transformed into the hero and how Ariadne could be transformed from a queen-goddess figure into like this girl who gave up everything for the first cute guy who came by.”

As for why she got so deep into salvaging Julius Eastman’s musical legacy, she mused, “I felt like someone who witnesses an accident—you want to move on, but you know you have to stay because you’re not sure if someone else is going to come by and help. I feel like I realized how dire the situation was and that something had to be done before too much more time passed because the more that time passes, the harder it is to track down the music.”

Leach has been a firebrand for social justice since at least the age of 11 when she was labelled a heretic by a minister after pursuing and ultimately winning a debate during her Sunday school class. Given that bit of history, it might seem strange that she’s spent the last decade living in a church, but as she was quick to point out, being able to immerse herself in a church’s extraordinary acoustics on a daily basis has been extremely satisfying.

“Churches always sound good, you know?” she beamed with a slightly mischievous grin. “I was looking for a quiet place to live upstate and I found this the first day I started looking. […] I clapped and sang, and said, ‘Wow, I want this.’ And it was the cheapest thing I’d looked at too, believe it or not. So yeah, I’ve an affinity for spaces like this and there is, I think, a kind of a spiritual thing going on.”

*

Mary Jane Leach standing outside the entrance of the church she lives in; a stained glass window is visible through the door.

Mary Jane Leach welcomes us to her home.

Frank J. Oteri: For years I’ve always felt that much of your music has almost a—for lack of a better word—sacred quality.

Mary Jane Leach: Hmmm, maybe spiritual is a better word.

FJO: Okay, but the reason I specifically used the word sacred is because there’s something about your music that sounds somehow not of this realm. You hear it and it transports you. I certainly feel that way when I listen to your music, and I identify that same feeling with a lot of sacred music traditions from around the world, whether it’s Vedic chanting or polyphonic masses from the Renaissance period. Your music seems to be channeling a similar energy. And, lo and behold, you actually now live in a church.

MJL: Yeah, I have a history with churches. My mother was a church organist for a while and we lived next door to a church when I was in grade school. We’d go in during off hours and I’d lie on the floor and absorb the sounds while she played the organ. That was kind of a start. Then I lived in a church in Cologne for a couple of years. And churches always sound good, you know? So I was looking for a quiet place to live upstate and I found this the first day I started looking. The real estate agent said, “Let’s just check it out.” And I said, “If it has an organ, I really want it.” And so we got here, and we had no idea it was going to be as big as it is. It is pretty big. And we walked inside, and I clapped and sang, and said, “Wow, I want this.” And it was the cheapest thing I’d looked at too, believe it or not. So yeah, I’ve an affinity for spaces like this and there is, I think, a kind of a spiritual thing going on. But it’s not just churches. There’s this same kind of ambience in, say, Grant’s Tomb, which they ruined once they put those central columns in the cylindrical rooms and put in the flag display cases; it took away that sweet spot. Friends and I would always go there and play around with the acoustics, but once they renovated it they spoiled it for that.

FJO: There are also places in Grand Central Station that are that way.

MJL: Yeah, and the tunnels under Central Park. Almost any tunnel is like that.

Mary Jane Leach playing a church organ.

Mary Jane Leach testing interval combinations on an organ. (Photo courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: But in terms of how it relates to you and the music you write, it was interesting that as soon as I said sacred, you pointed out that you preferred the word spiritual because, at least from what I glean from knowing you all these years, your music is decidedly not religious music.

MJL: No. That’s why it’s so ironic that I’m in a church. I’m pretty anti-religion, or anti-organized religion, for the obvious reasons. I was actually branded a heretic in sixth grade Sunday school. There were a series of debates and I took the anti-Christian side. It was going on for maybe three weeks or more. I began bringing in adults and cross examining them and everything. And the minister gave a sermon about me—how I might have won the debate, but I’d lose in life. I wasn’t really listening to him; I was too busy going through the hymnals singing songs to myself. But when I was about 30, it kind of dawned on me what had happened, and I realized that I’d avoided getting into arguments with people because I subliminally realized I’d been branded as a heretic for getting in an argument and winning it. That’s a pretty heavy thing to lay on an 11-year old.

FJO: But it’s interesting that as an 11-year old you channeled that out by thumbing through the hymnals. Even though you weren’t attracted to the dogma, you were attracted to the music.

MJL: Oh, definitely. I even have a hymnal downstairs. There’s some really good music there. I think a lot of people wouldn’t go to church if they didn’t like the music so much.

FJO: So is church music what first got you interested in music?

MJL: Not really. I mean, I sang in choir and played in band and stuff. But I hadn’t really thought about being in music until my senior year of high school. I had wanted to be an architect, but back then you could openly discriminate against women. I went to interview at Cornell and the guy literally told me that they didn’t accept women because they would just get married and drop out. Now they might have the same policy, but they would never say it to your face. Then he said, “What do you do?” And I realized that I played music all the time. Well, I thought, maybe I should go into music. I started it in college, and I had a very bad teacher, so I became a math major, and then I became a theater major sophomore year. But while working at a summer equity Shakespeare festival doing theater, since I was a musical person, I would be asked to play Elizabethan music. So I got into music through that, which is why it was so interesting for me to do Dowland’s Tears, because Dowland was one of my gateway composers, besides Bach.

I didn’t start writing music until I guess freshman or sophomore year in college. You know how in [music] theory [classes] you get to write examples? Every time my examples got played, everybody kind of perked up. So through music theory class, and then theater, I got into writing music. In theater you do everything, whether you’re qualified or not. Writing music was just something I started doing and I sort of took it from there. I grew up in Vermont and we didn’t know that there was such a thing as composers back then. Seriously.

A reproduction of photo from a newspaper of 12 uniformed young people playing clarinets.

This tattered clip from the Montpelier-Barre Times-Argus contains one of the earliest music-themed photos of Mary Jane Leach as a member of the clarinet section of her middle school band. Can you find her?

FJO: Dennis Báthory-Kitsz hadn’t started organizing the Vermont Composers Day yet.

MJL: No. He came to Vermont the year I left, in 1977. The cultural highlights were high school band concerts and things like that. Vermont is very cool now. There’s a lot of good music going on. But there wasn’t when I was a kid.

FJO: But somebody was writing pieces for that high school band.

MJL: Sousa! Actually one of the highlights was the All-State Festival, when we did a band arrangement of a Bach piece. I really liked that. But I wasn’t exposed to much classical music at all. More jazz and pop and folk, stuff like that. I still have a lot of friends in folk music and bluegrass.

FJO: : The earliest piece of your music that you list on your website is Note Passing Note, which is from 1981—four years after you left Vermont. It’s a piece that already clearly has your aesthetic signature as a composer. Was there earlier work from those intervening years that you don’t want to put out there because you feel it doesn’t quite represent who you are? What was the moment when you felt that you had begun writing your music?

MJL: Actually, the way it started was learning from happy accidents. A lot of things that I’ve come to do came about because of accidents. I was in this group with Charlie Morrow, Daniel Goode, and a bunch of other people called the New Wilderness Ensemble. There were also a lot of people who weren’t musicians or composers and there were funky instruments, so we were always having tuning problems; it drove me nuts. I had just started playing bass clarinet. I’d always played clarinet before, but I started bass clarinet. I really wanted to make sure that it wasn’t me who was playing out of tune. I had a tape machine, so I thought I could sing a note in what singers call a straight tone and tape that, then play my bass clarinet and see what happens, see if I can play in tune and stay in tune.

Then I began playing. I’d go off pitch a little bit and it would start beating. I’d never experienced that before. At first, I thought I’d broken my speakers. But then I realized what was going on and that was kind of the beginning of what I’m interested in—working with sound phenomena, which also might be tied into that whole spiritual thing because it’s tied into frequencies and something intrinsic in the physical world. One of the earliest pieces that I did was Note Passing Note. I envisioned it for two taped parts, one coming out of each speaker, and then I’d do a live part. I went into the recording studio and I realized that I had written these parts where I sang a note for three minutes without breathing and I knew exactly what I wanted it to sound like; it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d have to breathe.

Ever since then, I’ve organized my pieces around the breath. A lot of people who’ve heard my early music say it sounds a lot like Phill Niblock. And it does, except that he cuts out all of the breaths and it ends up almost more electronic sounding. That’s big—tying it into something physical like the breath. I always put in breaths now, especially with long pieces, as much for keeping the pulse going. There were times where I could have extended a note for longer, but I want the attack of an entry so that the pulse doesn’t become mushy, which also helps if you have tape pieces and you want to know where you are. If it’s just this long drone, it’s impossible to keep it in synch.

FJO: It’s interesting hearing you say that it all goes back to the breath, which is something that some composers ignore at their peril. Of course, singers are always conscious of their breathing. If singers can’t breathe, they can’t sing.

MJL: And they’ll let you know about it, too.

FJO: But this is also true for instrumental music. Obviously wind instruments have to deal with the same physical reality of needing to breathe between phrases, but I think there’s even a better flow in music for stringed instruments when players are able to synchronize phrases with their breathing. Of course, you don’t need to be conscious of that breath when you are playing a stringed instrument, but I think there’s something transcendent than can happen when you are.

MJL: It keeps it human, for lack of a better, more profound word.

FJO: But you came to this aspect of composing through performing, because it was a physical phenomenon you discovered both in your own voice and, I imagine, also when you played clarinet and bass clarinet.

MJL: Definitely.

FJO: I’m curious about how some of things that you started to realize were happening when you were performing wound up becoming so important to you as a composer—the beating, difference tones, and other sounds that occur that are not actually played by the performers.

MJL: I guess the first piece that dealt a lot with beating was Note Passing Note; the way that I performed it was walking through this space, between the speakers, manipulating the sound. I wasn’t trying to get any specific combination of difference tones. I was just bathing in the sound. How loud it is, the pressure that you use, and moving in this space changes it drastically. But it wasn’t until I wrote the piece for bass clarinet, 4BC, that I really started playing around with specific sound phenomena and I did that tediously. I recorded tones on tape, then I just kept over-dubbing and combining them: What do four unisons sound like? What does it sound like when you add this note? What does it sound like when you add that note? I basically built up the piece that way.

An excerpt from the musical score for Mary Jane Leach's composition 4BC for four bass clarinets.

Excerpt from 4BC. Copyright © 1984 by Mary Jane Leach, Ariadne Press (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Bass clarinet is a little different than almost any other instrument because it has the third partial come out more. So that piece works specifically—there’s a continual combination tone happening on top, then there are sometimes lower ones that are happening. That’s the only one where I had something so continuously happening. But the more I kept working, the more I knew what was going to happen. So I wrote a piece, which is kind of the next piece in that cycle, for alto flute and my voice called Trio for Duo, and I discovered that my voice basically sounded exactly like the alto flute. So I exploited that sound quality of my voice and the alto flute sounding so similar. I can tell because I can hear Barbara [Held]’s breath and her attack on the flute, but otherwise I wouldn’t know who was who.

FJO: What’s interesting about that piece is that you were dealing with another musician. It wasn’t just you anymore.

MJL: Right.

FJO: One of the peculiar things about music is that even though it is an art form that consists of sounds, it’s transmitted—at least in the Western classical tradition—through visual notation. Aural ideas get communicated visually and the goal is for those ideas to be replicated by somebody else as faithfully as possible to the original conception of the composer. But a lot of what you have been exploring all these years exists beyond the kinds of sounds that notation was designed to convey in a precise way.

MJL: Yeah, I know.

FJO: So how do you convey that information to someone else to get them to do what you want them to do?

MJL: Well, in the case with Barbara, it’s just the nature of the instrument. I originally did a longer version of the piece with Barbara. Then Newband wanted to do it, but when I got ready to perform it with [Newband’s flutist] Stephanie Starin, they said, “We never do pieces over ten minutes.” So I revised the piece a little bit. Stephanie performed it with me and she created the sounds, but she didn’t realize they were happening. She called me one day when she heard it on the radio, and she said, “I’m hearing all of these high pitches. Is it distorting? Is there something wrong with my radio?” Even though she had produced the sound, she didn’t know that that was the point of the piece.

FJO: So you don’t explain it in the score? You just notate it and what happens, happens?

MJL: Yeah, because it does happen. There is a difference, though. I know people who write things by just adding up the frequencies or subtracting them. But I found that that actually doesn’t really work. It works in principle, in theory, but not in actuality. It really takes trial and error. Of course, panning changes things as well. Not so much in those early pieces where the parts had basically the same thing happening, but in pieces where there’s more of a bass part, and each part has its own range of notes.

One thing I did want to mention is that conventional Western notation is kind of like algebra, but the reality is more like calculus, where you have the variables and they’re constantly changing. So even though you think you know what it looks like, a lot of people only hear what they see on the page. There’s actually a lot going on that either people don’t hear or they’re unaware of. For me and for people who write music the way I do, the scores look deceptively simple. But performers find out that there’s a lot more. It doesn’t sound as simple as it looks and it’s not as easy to perform because you have to have spot-on intonation. I’ve had students at Manhattan School and Mannes both perform my piece for trombones. I think at first they thought it was kind of insulting to be playing all these whole notes, but then they found it wasn’t all that easy because you have to have a really good sense of rhythm and you have to have a really good sense of pitch. It’s almost an endurance thing. You know, it’s very difficult.

An excerpt from the score of Mary Jane Leach's composition Bare Bones for four trombones.

Excerpt from Bare Bones. Copyright © 1989 by Mary Jane Leach, Ariadne Press (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: But I want to play devil’s advocate a bit here, maybe at the risk of being labeled a heretic. Clearly these are the phenomena that you’re curious about and this is what you want to have happen. You notate them as simply as possible, and these sounds occur which makes your score actually clear to some extent. But shouldn’t you make it a point in the performance materials to tell people that these sounds will occur and that that is what you’re actually after, especially if someone as versed in new music as Stephanie Starin thought that there was something wrong with her radio or with the recording? Or are you also going for an element of surprise with the performers? Is that part of aesthetic?

MJL: No, no, no. I think by now people know what to expect. But Stephanie wasn’t familiar with my work, and I hadn’t done that much work in that realm before.

FJO: But what about those students at the Manhattan School and Mannes? They might not know what to expect because they’re young musicians and they’re probably getting exposed to your music for the first time. They don’t know all of the composers who are out there and they probably never encountered a score like this. They’re making their initial judgments based exclusively on what they’ve experienced before, so all they see is a bunch of whole notes and they have no idea that it’s really so much more than that.

MJL: I can’t remember now, but usually I have some kind of paragraph or instructions with scores that explain what I’m looking for so that people don’t freak out. I’m not trying to put anything by anybody. But I’ve actually found that people don’t even need to be instructed. Stephanie was sort of an outlier, because I think everybody else hears what’s going on.

FJO: I shudder to say this because I obsessively dote on program notes, whether they’re for my own pieces or if I’m asked to write them for other composers’ pieces, but musicians often don’t read the program notes; they just go straight to the score. So if it’s not written directly on the page they’re playing from, they probably won’t see it.

MJL: Well, sometimes I do put it on the page. I’ll put a little asterisk on the bottom of the page. But one thing that kind of evolved from that was that when I finally got a notation program, I was able to write pieces for instruments I didn’t play. The bassoon was the first one that I was able to do that for. I did experiments to make sure certain things were actually happening using MIDI playback. Then I did a little test with multi-tracking, just to make sure that my MIDI playback was being realistic in terms of what to expect. And it worked. What I was able to do with this was that instead of just having one combination note, or difference tone, patterns started happening. I would play certain combinations of notes, and all of a sudden other patterns would be happening naturally. So I thought, “Well, what I’ll do next is notate that and see what that will do with the rest of the notes happening.” I would listen for patterns that would happen and notate them, then go on to the next thing to see what would happen with that.

Mary Jane Leach at her work desk with manuscripts, an electric keyboard and a computer monitor in the background.

Mary Jane Leach working on a score in her former New York City apartment. (Photo courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: It’s somewhat in the same spirit as Alvin Lucier’s experiment in I Am Sitting in a Room but a completely different way of approaching it.

MJL: It’s almost the opposite of that.

FJO: From there it makes sense that you were so attracted to this whole notion of writing for multiples of the same instrument.

MJL: It was also practical because it’s easy. I originally was doing pieces that I could do and I had access to a four-track and then an eight-track machine. That was how that evolved; I could perform it. Bam! It wasn’t until, I think, 1987 when I was talking with Dora Ohrenstein, and she said, “These pieces that you have for eight-track tape, you could get eight singers to perform it.” It never occurred to me. So I became a choral composer after that.

FJO: So all those vocal pieces were conceptualized as pieces for yourself?

MJL: Not all of them. Green Mountain Madrigal I wrote for myself. Ariel’s Song I wrote for myself. Mountain Echoes, I didn’t write for myself because it would have been really complicated to do because it has all these dynamic changes and that would be hard to do one track at a time. But I did Bruckstück for myself, too.

A shelf full of boxes containing reel-to-reel tapes.

In a side room, there’s a shelf filled with reel-to reel tapes of some of Mary Jane Leach’s multiples compositions.

FJO: Wow, is there a recording of that with just you?

MJL: There is, but it’s kind of gotten corrupted; there’s a hum in it. I made an eight-track version at STEIM in Amsterdam, but I was using used tape and I think there’s something that just didn’t quite work. Something over time has intruded on it, so it’s not really useable. I might be able to go some day and try to doctor the tapes, but I’m not sure.

FJO: It would be amazing to hear the difference between that and it being done by a group of singers.

MJL: Well, the really nice thing about working with live singers is that you have the breath and you don’t have that kind of rigidity that you have with tape, especially when you’re doing one part at a time. Sometimes I would just do parts of parts at a time, depending on the range. Green Mountain Madrigal was the first eight-track tape piece that I did for myself. And I learned a couple of things: I learned that I had to tune everything to one pitch and not change halfway through. Originally everything was in C. Then I changed it to F, so I tuned everything to F. People like George Lewis and Jim Tenney would notice those things. And the same thing happened with the bassoon piece when Shannon [Peet] recorded it. We had only three hours to record. I mean, like no time. And she said, “I don’t think I can start playing the low note first. I’m afraid I’ll blow my lip out.” And I was like, “I really think you should.” “No.” So she recorded the octave first. And then bless him, Jim Tenney said to her, “It’s out of tune, Shannon.” So we went back and redid it later, and tuned to the lowest note and then it was okay.

Then there’s one other thing I was going to say about recording, which is really interesting. When Barbara and I recorded Trio for Duo, we did it all in one long take because it’s all overlapping. There was one note that we hit a lot, which was the resonant frequency of the room. It was so disorienting because all of sudden I was singing, and then, when you sing that one note, it felt like the room had just filled with Jello and you were swimming in it. It was the weirdest thing, and it was very disorienting.

FJO: But I imagine that none of these works are really improvisatory.

MJL: No.

FJO: If they were, and you found that resonant note during a performance, it could totally change the shape of the piece.

MJL: Well, I had an interesting experience. It’s not quite what you’re talking about, but similar. I was doing this performance at Franklin Furnace. I was doing more experimental performance art things at that time and I was playing my bass clarinet without the mouthpiece, I think, or without the reed, and someone was projecting animation on me. I’m part way through the performance and I hear people chuckling. I’m thinking, “Hmm. I didn’t think I was doing anything very funny.” So I just kind of stopped, and I realized there was a dog in the next building that was howling. So I started playing with the dog. I did a little riff and then he would do a little riff. Then I would do another little riff. At the end, Bill Hellerman came and said, “Where’s the tape?” He didn’t realize it was happening in real time. He thought I arranged this thing and it was part of the piece. [That dog was] one of the most sensitive musicians I’ve ever worked with. He really was! He knew when to stop. Then he would listen, and then he would do something. It was this back and forth thing.

FJO: But you could never recreate it. It was a one-time deal.

MJL: And I thought the concert was recorded, but it wasn’t. I’d give anything to hear that tape.

The flyer for Mary Jane Leach's Franklin Furnace performance featuring a photo of MJL playing bass clarinet and wearing sunglasses. The poster includes the following text: "MARY JANE LEACH - COBY BATTY - PHYLLIS BULKIN - VOCALS - CLARINET - ANIMATION - FRANKLIN FURNACE 112 FRANKLIN ST. MAY 5 8:30 $2.50"

The original flyer for that Mary Jane Leach performance at Franklin Furnace.

FJO: You’ve created a lot of pieces of music for multiples of the same instrument. And on your website you also have a list that you have compiled of all the pieces you have been able to find out about that other composers have written for multiples of the same instrument.

MJL: I’m way behind on that list.

FJO: Still, there’s no other resource like it. A multiples piece is actually a very peculiar kind of piece of music.

MJL: Well, there’s more than one type of piece. There’s the type of piece that I write, which is interested in exploring the timbre of the instrument. And then there’s the type of piece that’s written for flute festivals or cello festivals where everybody gets together and plays but they’re not interested in the sound phenomena, per se; they’re just interested in having a piece that ten of them can play together.

FJO: Sure. But the thing that’s even weirder about these pieces is where they fit in terms of scale vis-à-vis solo, chamber, and orchestra pieces. If a multiples piece is done by one player and all the other parts are pre-recorded, then it’s a kind of solo piece. But it’s a solo piece that is much more than just the solo since the one has become many. However, if it’s done, as you described, at a festival with a bunch of people, it’s almost orchestral in that when you get beyond a certain number of folks there will need to be a conductor, and sometimes these pieces are enormous—like Henry Brant’s piece for 80 flutes, Wendy Chambers’s piece for 77 trombones, or Anthony Braxton’s piece for 100 tubas. Yet since it’s all the same timbre, the music is not really orchestral in terms of timbre variance and also there’s always one person to a part. So then, perhaps, it’s a strange kind of chamber music. So multiples pieces share qualities with solo, chamber, and orchestral pieces, but ultimately they really are their own thing. And despite you making a distinction between your pieces and the kind of multiples pieces that get done at festivals and instrument conventions, I imagine a piece like, say, Feu de Joie, which was originally done by a solo bassoonist playing against six pre-recorded bassoon tracks, could be just as easily done by a group of seven bassoonists. It would be a somewhat different phenomenon, since it would involve seven different people and everyone has a slightly different tone. But would that be a fair representation of it? Or does it need to be done by one person over-dubbing multiple times?

MJL: Interesting that you should mention this because I have this piece for nine taped flutes and a live solo part called Dowland’s Tears. It was originally conceived just to be a recording. Manuel Zurria was putting out a CD of pieces around the theme of the Lachrimae of Dowland, and he was asked me if I’d be interested. This struck a chord since Dowland was a gateway composer for me. So I wrote this piece for nine taped flutes and sent it to him. I wrote it pretty quickly for me, and I didn’t hear from him for a couple of days. And I’m thinking he probably hates it. A couple days later, he wrote me, and said, “I love the piece. I’ve recorded it, and I made a video to go with it and I’m performing it three times next month.” So, at that point I really needed to write him a solo part, because I don’t like these music-minus-one things where the live part always sticks out like a sore thumb or doesn’t stick out at all. You know, it’s kind of submerged. So I like to always have the taped parts be uniform and then have a little flexibility in the solo part so it can float over the other parts.

But recently it has been performed by four different groups of ten flutists. It was first performed in Finland at a flute festival. Camilla Hoitenga conducted it. Then it was performed in Amsterdam with Eric Lamb playing the solo, and they repeated it in Cologne in September. Then it was performed in Canberra at the Australian Flute Festival. It worked a lot better than I thought it would actually.

An excerpt from the musical score of Mary Jane Leach's composition Dowland's Tears for 10 flutes.

Excerpt from Dowland’s Tears. Copyright © 2011 by Mary Jane Leach, Ariadne Press (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Were you there for all of those performances?

MJL: Only the one in Cologne. And that was interesting because it was performed in the church that I lived in [previously]. Eric’s a phenomenal player. He was pulling people along with him kind of like that thing you do in tai chi when you harness, you pull along the slow people and you slow down the fast people. There was this interesting kind of ebb and flow going on with him and some of the performers; it was really interesting to watch and sonically it worked pretty well, too.

Photo of 13 people, many holding flutes.

Mary Jane Leach (far left) with the ensemble of flutists who performed her Dowland’s Tears in Cologne. (Photo courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: Do the exact same acoustic phenomena occur when pieces like this, which you conceived for a single live musician and a speaker system, are performed in real time by a group of live musicians who are separated on stage from one another?

MJL: Yeah. And sometimes things happen that I don’t even expect. For instance, I had written Ariel’s Song to perform myself, and I did make a tape of it. But when the [New York] Treble Singers started performing it, I listened to a tape one time, and there was this part where I thought they came in early. But what happened was that there was an actual sound phenomenon that started happening that I’d never counted on. So sometimes more happens rather than less happens.

FJO: And that’s okay?

MJL: Yeah, it’s fine. I’m not a tyrant. I love having things happen that I didn’t expect. I don’t want things to be controlled enough that nothing happens. You want to make sure something happens. But if more happens, I’m happy with that. Sometimes you can learn a lot from musicians.

FJO: So aside from these extra things happening that you are okay with, could something happen that you wouldn’t think was okay? What would constitute something that would just be a bad performance?

MJL: Okay, I’ll tell you. During Dennis [Báthory-Kitsz]’s festival in 2001 in Vermont, he wanted to have my 4BC. Lots of times when I would perform it, I would usually perform it with slides so that it wasn’t just listening to a tape; there’d be slides and then I would also play a note that was happening to emphasize it. So there was this guy who said he would do it. I said, “Just play what you hear.” You know, the notes that you hear. But he was hearing some kind of jazz thing. It was torture, because he was listening to a different drummer I guess. You have to be really specific with some people. When I said play whatever you’re hearing, I didn’t mean play what you’re imagining you’re hearing. That was a really awful experience.

Then another time—Godfried-Willem Raes has the Logos performing center in Ghent and also teaches at a conservatory in Brussels. In Belgium, it’s kind of weird. They have a conservatory in Brussels and then they have a conservatory in Ghent. But all the clarinetists go to one place and all the tuba players go to another. So they have this imbalance of instruments, and they’re always looking for pieces that can be played by all of their tuba players. So he had my piece for bass clarinet performed by tuba players. And of course it didn’t work because the overtones are totally different on a tuba. Those poor guys. You play for 19 minutes without breathing, I mean without a rest, and nothing was happening. At the end of the tape the last guy went “Boo bwooph.” Their lips were blown. And I’m sure they thought, “Well, what is this all about?” It wasn’t the piece at all. And it was programmed by Godfried, who’s a clarinet player, so he should have known.

FJO: They just went ahead and did this without asking you?

MJL: Yeah. It was just a student performance, though; it wasn’t a concert performance.

FJO: Right, but they somehow got the score.

MJL: I think I had left the score with Godfried when I’d done a concert there one time.

FJO: Well, this seems like a good place to transition to where I’d next like to take our conversation and that’s to pieces for variable instrumentation—which in some ways are the exact opposite of multiples pieces. In a piece for a group of bass clarinets, you can explore certain sonic phenomena that are specific, which won’t occur if the music is played on different instruments instead. But in a piece that could be played by any combination of instruments, you don’t know what you’re going to get. And yet, your piece Lake Eden, which could be played by any combination of instruments, still clearly sounds like your music.

MJL: I wrote it for Relâche. We were doing this summer institute that was at the Charles Ives Center, even though it really had nothing to do with Charles Ives. Anyway, musicians would have maybe an hour or so of rehearsal. Then they would perform it. So I had to write a piece that didn’t need a lot of rehearsing and a couple of the musicians weren’t really great readers. I was intrigued by Terry Riley’s In C, but the thing that I didn’t like about it was it just keeps building and building; I wanted a little bit more of an ebb and flow. So I had different sections; it was kind of a perverted rondo. I had whole notes that could be either three, four, five beats, so things wouldn’t always line up vertically. But—I don’t know if anybody knows this—the phrases that I used were basically the same phrases that I used in 4BC. But they were all over the place—in different ranges, whereas in 4BC all the notes were just within an augmented fifth.

FJO: But to the question of variable instrumentation—it was originally done at Relâche’s summer institute, but it’s been done in different places since then with different combinations of instruments. There’s a wonderful performance of it posted to YouTube that was done in Boston earlier this year. The thing about In C is that no matter what instruments you use to perform it—whether it’s six pianos, a wind band, or a rock band—it’s always the same piece somehow. The same thing seems to be true for Lake Eden. So I wondered, since so much of what your music is about is the specific acoustic phenomena that happen as a result of timbre, how is it still so clearly your music even when you take timbre specificity out of the equation?

MJL: I don’t know why it still sounds like me. I guess because I used the same process. I used the same process that I did for 4BC. The phrases are literally the same. I just plucked them out. So it just kind of shows you that everything can be reduced down to very little in the end. If you look at Beethoven, he uses the same rhythm all the time; he does it in such a way that you don’t even realize that he’s using the same rhythm throughout the entire movement. How can you reduce something down to its bare essence then realize that something that seemed like there was so much there is actually not a lot? I don’t know. It’s a good question, but I don’t know if I have an answer to that.

FJO: In a way, it’s what makes the piece so fascinating. Because even though the bass clarinet piece didn’t work on tubas, Lake Eden is designed to theoretically work for any combination of instruments, arguably even an ensemble of just tubas. So why does it work? And are there ways in which it wouldn’t work?

MJL: I had had certain restrictions in terms of how many times you repeated something in a pattern of going back and forth. I’d say do this four times, or five times. When it doesn’t work is when the performers have ignored the timing restraints. Then it just kind of mushes off into sort of not my piece at that point. The only time it didn’t work the way I like it to work was because it had gone on too long. In the Downtown Ensemble, Phil Corner always loved to extend things beyond what you thought they should be. So the piece became kind of flabby.

FJO: Phil Corner recently released a recording of his performances of Satie all performed at speeds that sound four times slower than anyone else has ever played them.

MJL: Oh my God!

FJO: They’re incredible performances, and they’re fascinating even though they are totally unexpected. That’s Corner’s aesthetic, which is really pure minimalism. But while your pieces share a lot of sonic common ground with minimalism, especially in terms of surface sonorities, perhaps they’re ultimately not minimalist in conception.

MJL: I would say maybe a couple of the early pieces were minimalist in conception, but not since then. Is there such a thing as musical DNA? I don’t know. Maybe you could test all my pieces and they’d have the same DNA. That’s something I’d never really thought about all that much. I should have.

FJO: No, you’re doing stuff that works. Don’t think about it now; keep doing what you’re doing! Even though I’d still like you to describe your process.

MJL: Well, I’m going to sound very flaky because it’s very organic and the pieces kind of create themselves. No matter how much I want to plan them ahead, they kind of write themselves. The way I write is almost like knitting. In knitting, if you drop a stitch, you have to rip everything out to the point where you dropped the stitch. I write very slowly note by note, and I don’t write things in sections and then insert things. If I write too fast, sometimes I will just lose the thread and I’ll have to go back to the point where I lost the musical impetus.

A stained glass window

One of the windows in Mary Jane Leach’s home.

FJO: Since so much of it is rooted in acoustics, how much of it is done by testing at a piano or with your own voice and how much of it is done in the abstract, hearing it all in your head?

MJL: Actually I do it all on computer with MIDI playback.

FJO: That’s how you test things?

MJL: Well, yeah, except that now I’ve tested things so much that I pretty much know what’s going to happen. I’ve done all kinds of studies: What do two of the same instrument sound like when they play in unison? What do three sound like? What do four sound like? What do five sound like? What do six sound like? What happens when one of them plays another note? What happens if it’s in the middle, in terms of panning? I’ve gone through all the permutations. After a while you kind of know what’s going to happen, so you don’t have to keep doing studies. It’s like doing scales. You do them mindfully for a long time, and then after a while you just can do them. It just becomes second nature.

FJO: You’re almost saying the exact opposite of what so many composers have said about MIDI. For you, MIDI actually does replicate the things that you want to hear.

MJL: And it’s pretty reliable, too.

FJO: But tons of folks say stuff like, “Don’t get a false sense of how these instruments behave by using MIDI.”

MJL: Well, the only thing that doesn’t really work are glissandos. I’ve been working with glissandos a lot lately, but that I have to just leave to my imagination. Of course, glissandos are going to vary by performer anyway, so it’s probably good that I’m not wedded to an idea of what it’s exactly going to sound like. But I pretty much know what it’s going to sound like at this stage of the game. Still, MIDI is really valuable to me. I wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of stuff if it hadn’t been for it. The only thing that is frustrating is I wish you could get it to do syllables. They don’t even have really good vocal samples. I know what it’s going to sound like, but I know it’s going to sound better than what it sounds like in the MIDI playback. But with instruments, it’s pretty reliable. Especially the ones that are sampled instruments. When I wrote the piece for bassoon, I had a little Casio thing and I programmed in the sounds so that it would have a certain harmonic profile like the bassoon had. It wasn’t a sampled sound; it was a digitally created sound. But it still worked.

FJO: Some instruments sound better than others. The winds generally sound pretty good.

MJL: Clarinet doesn’t.

FJO: Yeah, but you’re more sensitive to that since you’re a clarinetist.

MJL: But I think most people agree that the clarinet doesn’t sound very good in MIDI.

FJO: Cellos sound dreadful I think.

MJL: Yeah.

FJO: But the piano, surprisingly, sounds okay—better than you would think it would, given the complexity of its sonic envelope. Perhaps this would be a good time to talk a little bit about your piano concerto. We’ve been talking about all these pieces for odd one-of-a-kind combinations—seven bassoons, eight treble voices. Most of the time, if you’re writing music that’s done by other people and not by you, you’re reliant on ensembles that have a more standard instrumentation—string quartets, wind quintets, orchestras, SATB choruses. Before we started recording, you were telling me that you came to writing choral music from writing pieces you overdubbed with your voice and that now those pieces are done by choruses quite a lot. But they’re not standard choral pieces, because they were created through this other means.

MJL: Yeah, and it’s very interesting because, for instance, when the Treble Singers perform one of my works on a program of their own, and not on a program that’s all my music, it usually takes them about half a piece to get into gear. If it’s an all-Mary Jane concert, they don’t have any problem with it. But when they have to shift, because it takes a certain kind of intense concentration to sing, it really takes about half a piece for them to get in the groove and sound okay.

A conductor and ight sopranos singing in front of music stands at a church.

Virginia Davidson conducting the New York Treble Singers during their September 1995 concert devoted to the music of Mary Jane Leach at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. (Photo courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: That could be a big problem in a concert. Maybe it always needs to be the first piece on the program so that they’re in that mindset from the onset rather than coming out of singing something else. It’s rare that you have an opportunity to have an all-single-composer concert. If it’s a new music concert, your piece has to co-exist with a bunch of other new pieces that can all be in completely different compositional languages, which could make it harder for both the players and the audience to latch on to any of it. But most of the time, if you’re writing for a standard ensemble, your new piece has to co-exist mostly with old pieces. If you’re writing for, say, orchestra, your piece is almost always going to cohabitate with standard repertoire; your piece will get played alongside Mozart and Beethoven or Brahms and Tchaikovsky. And the musicians will play it and the audience will hear it in the context of that older, much more well-known music. Orchestra music is very different from music for ensembles of all the same instrument and also very different from open scores that any instrument can play. Orchestra music is very much about all the different instruments having specific, often regimented roles. You’ve written a piano concerto. That’s a standard form with a long history behind it. I’ve only heard the MIDI version of your piece, but I found your approach to orchestration very unusual in the way that melodies transfer from instrument to instrument and, as a result, can be perceived differently. There are some other orchestra pieces that do that, but it’s somewhat unusual to use the orchestra as a palette that way.

MJL: Well, Beethoven does, but on a lesser scale. He might have the flute, the oboe, and the clarinet play something, but he doesn’t go through the whole range of the instruments. In the second movement of the Seventh [Symphony], he has that little phrase that goes between the instruments. And I got the idea for that little opening riff from a Mozart concerto because [my piano concerto] was originally going to be performed on a concert with a Mozart concerto. But then I just let all the winds have it. Not the brass or anybody else. It seems like such a natural thing to do.

FJO: But in most concertos, the focus is usually mostly on the soloist.

MJL: Yeah, which I didn’t do very much.

FJO: It’s sort of an anti-concerto.

MJL: That’s because it was such a short piece. I wanted to use the orchestra and the piano doesn’t interest me that much, even though I love playing it. So I didn’t want to have this whole big piano show-off thing and then have the orchestra play for two minutes. I wanted it to be part of the ensemble. Maybe we can do another movement where the pianist gets to do a little bit more. A version of it was done about five years ago.

FJO: It had a different title at that time.

MJL: Yeah. It was just a place holder. And they recorded it, but the engineer erased it before it had been transferred. I was not a happy camper about that. It was supposed to be performed this September in Bari, but it’s been postponed until May. I’m going to get to go, too; since I was already there [when the festival was cancelled], they’re going to pay my transportation.

FJO: That’s nice. That’s like the rainbow at the end of all the clouds with this piece—an accidently erased recording of the premiere, a cancelled performance after you’d made the trek to Italy to hear it.

MJL: I know. And the conductor—I knew that he had conducted at the Met and things like that. So I thought he was just a standard conductor. But it turns out he was the conductor for the premiere of [Morton] Feldman’s Neither. So when he said that it was an intense experience conducting it, now I can say he probably meant that and that it wasn’t because he was such a traditional conductor that this probably was kind of weird for him. And he knows the flute player from Rome that I’ve been working with.

Mary Jane Leach playing a grand piano in a church.

Mary Jane Leach playing the piano at home. (Photo by Jon Flanders, courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: When you write a big piece, you have to be so dependent on all these other people. There are all these variables. It’s a far cry from the very personal way you developed your compositional language—working by yourself with a tape recorder or working with individual musicians. You have such a wide range of sonorities to choose from, but other aspects are much narrower.

MJL: Not having very much rehearsal time, too. So you can’t write something that’s so complex that it can’t be performed, or performed well.

FJO: But one of your long in-progress projects is extremely ambitious—the Ariadne opera, and I imagine it would have to rely on tons of people.

MJL: Well, actually not tons. A lot of singers and then a string quartet.

FJO: So you’re not going to orchestrate it beyond that?

MJL: No.

FJO: I suppose for practical purposes?

MJL: But also I like string quartet and voice; I think it’s a nice combination.

FJO: I agree. I’m curious about what drew you to the various versions of the Ariadne myth and specifically wanting to deal with earlier versions, which is much different than the famous myth we’ve come to know.

MJL: In some of the early pieces, I was dealing with the traditional myth, and then I came across Carolyn Heilbrun, a feminist writer who also wrote mystery novels under the name of Amanda Cross. One mystery book centered on this famous author who, à la James Joyce, had this magnum opus like Ulysses, but his was [based on] Ariadne. So I got really interested in that. Daniel Goode and Ann Snitow knew Heilbrun, so they put me in contact with her and I asked her, “Do you have any recommendations or further information?” She said, “Everything I know, I put in the book.” So I was left on my own to do some research.

I started looking into all the earlier Greek texts about Ariadne, or just even things that would apply to my imagination of what was going on. It was very fascinating because so much of myth is political—a lot of times justifying why the people who are occupying your country are there, like a lot of political-ness we’re going through with the Middle East and everything like that. This explains how Theseus, who was like a rapist-solider, could be transformed into the hero and how Ariadne could be transformed from a queen-goddess figure into like this girl who gave up everything for the first cute guy who came by. It’s been a long, long project.

FJO: What’s the goal for it?

MJL: I hadn’t worked on it for a while. I was realistic enough that I didn’t want to spend years writing a piece and getting one performance of it. So I’d been writing it in discrete sections so each section could be performed on its own. I just kind of got back into it because I had been involved in putting out this CD of Julius Eastman’s music, and then editing a book on him, and that has been very time consuming, so I had gotten sidetracked from the Ariadne project. But when I was in Italy this summer at Civitella Ranieri, I got back into it, so I wrote another piece in the cycle and half of another one. So now I’m kind of gearing up for that. I really like what I wrote, if I might say so myself. I’d kind of forgotten about it, because other things had come up, like the piano concerto, but I’m getting back into it now.

FJO: One of the reasons I’ve always really identified with you is all the advocacy work you’ve done for other composers, so I’m glad you brought up the Julius Eastman project and the difficulty of making time for your own work while you were immersed in that. This has been a strand in your life all along. You were in charge of XI Records where you produced all these extraordinary recordings while at the same time trying to create your own work in that space. To a lesser extent that multiples database you put together is another example of your advocacy.

MJL: That’s how the Julius project started; I was looking for his piece for ten cellos. So that was how I got sucked into finding his music.

FJO: What’s interesting about your advocacy for Julius Eastman is that it has taken him to a whole other level. His music has started to reenter the canon largely through the work that you did to bring this stuff out into the world. You were involved with the 3-CD Julius Eastman set on New World Records that was released ten years ago, and you wrote a huge article for us about him at that time. Since then there have been all these performances and now there’s a book. This person who was literally a footnote in history—not even a footnote—has emerged not only as an icon to several different groups of people but as a major figure of the latter half of the 20th century in America, a groundbreaking proto-post-minimalist composer.

MJL: Post-minimalist before there was minimalist.

FJO: Right. Exactly. And someone with a very unusual life and personality. But part of it is you knew Julius Eastman.

MJL: Yeah, but not very well. I didn’t hang out with him a lot or anything like that.

FJO: So what made you so committed to getting this music out into the world, serving his legacy and doing justice by it?

MJL: Well, I really loved that cello piece. That was the piece that I knew. I was teaching at CalArts. They wanted me to teach a course on real instruments, because so many of the composers there were dealing with computer and electronic music. I thought a good way would be to do pieces for multiples, so you could luxuriate in the sound of ten cellos or seven bassoons. It was fairly easy for me to track down the master of the tape [of Julius’s cello piece] because the cassette that I had been given was part of a radio program. And at the end, it gave the engineer’s name, and the names of all of the performers. And the engineer was an old boyfriend of mine, who recorded Green Mountain Madrigal and 4BC and some other things. So I contacted him and he had the tape, but he didn’t have the score. I thought it can’t be that hard. It turned out that it was very hard, but I was stubborn.

Then, Bryan Rulon made me aware of how Julius’s music had disappeared. It had literally been thrown out on the street. I felt like someone who witnesses an accident—you want to move on, but you know you have to stay because you’re not sure if someone else is going to come by and help. I feel like I realized how dire the situation was and that something had to be done before too much more time passed because the more that time passes, the harder it is to track down the music. I’d also made a commitment to New World [Records] because I mentioned trying to find his music and they were really interested in him. I felt I’d given my word. Then when the CD came out, various people tried to take credit for it, as you know. I kind of bristled at that, but just kept things going and kept waiting for someone to pick up the baton and do the next step, but so far nobody has.

There was just a weekend symposium in Philadelphia by the Bowerbird. Some of us were older, white people who knew Julius and then there were some younger black people—musicians, historians, theater people, and intellectuals. Jace Clayton was there, and he said, “I’m having a real problem with all these white people talking about these pieces.” And I said, “Well, I would love someone to do it. I don’t see anybody picking up the slack. If you want to do it, that would be great.” I was kind of annoyed at that because what’s the alternative—not doing it?

A page from a manuscript of a musical score by Julius Eastman featuring indeterminate notation for singers, trombone, and flute.

Mary Jane Leach was very eager to show us the most recently rediscovered Julius Eastman manuscript, the score for his 1970 composition Thruway.

FJO: But I wonder, to bring it back to your work: when you get so involved with another project, when are you able to let go and get back to your own music?

MJL: Well, I pretty much have at this point. People contact for me for various questions, photos, or scores. That’s not so difficult. But I pretty much stopped. It was very interesting because we had a big deadline for the galleys for the book the day that I left for Italy. So it was like a real dividing line. It was like, okay, I’m done with that. Now I’m going to take care of myself and be selfish and write my own music. Let somebody else worry about it. But it’s hard to say no sometimes, because I would hate to have it fall through the cracks again. I want somebody to take over who would just do it and not just six months later be bored and let it slip.

FJO: Throughout our conversation you dropped suggestions about people who were gateway composers for you—John Dowland and Bach. Since your piece Bruckstück was inspired by Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony—

MJL: —Whom I didn’t like until I wrote that piece! There’s this visual artist, Jack Ox, who did a whole series of paintings based on an analysis of Bruckner. I can’t remember if it was just the Bruckner Eighth, but I was commissioned to write a piece to go with a gallery opening of the paintings. I’d never liked Bruckner much because this guy who had really weird musical taste loved Bruckner, so I figured I wouldn’t like him. I know, it’s sad. My musical experiences are contemporary music and early music; I’ve been kind of working my way into the middle. So the kind of music that everybody knows is the music I know the least. So I didn’t start off liking Bruckner. I got to like him. I didn’t dislike him, I just thought I wouldn’t like him.

An excerpt from the musical score of Mary Jane Leach's composition Bruckstuck for eight female voices.

Excerpt from Bruckstück. According to the performance notes, “Everybody should sing the same vowel. A series of vowels can be decided on, so that the whole piece isn’t sung using only one vowel sound. Each note should be held for its entirety with entries clearly articulated – not staccato, but clear, so that the rhythm and pulse of the piece is
evident. Phrases have been indicated primarily so that breaths won’t be taken in the middle of
them.” Copyright © 1989 by Mary Jane Leach, Ariadne Press (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: It’s interesting that this music was inspired to go with an exhibition of visual art that was created based on Bruckner. The music inspired the art, and then the art inspired this other piece of music that tropes back to that other music. But you mentioning this also gives us the opportunity to talk about something that you hinted at earlier, and that’s the video art that you’ve created to go along with your music. How important is the visual to the perception of the aural for you?

MJL: It’s really not important; it’s just an added element. I think the pieces can stand on their own. When I performed just solo concerts, I think the visuals helped because it just wasn’t one person performing with tape, there was something for people to look at. One thing that ties into my whole process was that I spent a summer working with theater gels. You can cut them in two and they fit perfectly in slide projectors. One summer I mounted all the commercially available gels and I put them in “chromological” order. It was a little like doing the sound studies. Once I’d done it, I knew what combinations of colors and saturations would happen; the same thing that happens in light and in color happens in music; you combine two colors and you get a third color. All the primaries in color have their secondaries in pigment and the secondaries of light are the primaries of pigment and vice versa.

FJO: It’s like visual difference tones!

MJL: Yeah, and saturation and volume change that way, too. It’s interesting, when I first moved to New York, I was working off Broadway as a lighting technician. There was this wonderful lighting designer named Arden Fingerhut and we had lots of talks about how much music and lighting have in common. One of my best friends since junior high school is a lighting designer, too, and the first time he went to one of my concerts where I used handmade, painted slides, he goes, “You’re doing lighting.” Not everything I do with visuals is color based, but I do work with slow dissolves and how things gradually change or transform into something else.

FJO: Will video projects be used for the final composite Ariadne opera?

MJL: I haven’t thought of that all. I’m thinking visually, but more like as a costume designer or a set designer because I have a theater background. But not the lighting or color combinations yet.

FJO: There has to be a production of it first. And, of course, you have to finish writing the piece.

MJL: I also want to direct Measure for Measure. It’s one of my dream bucket list things to do.

FJO: Another project that’s going to take away time from composing.

MJL: Yeah, but it’s creative.

A couple of pots and a tea kettle sit on top of a stove, various containers and other kitchen paraphernalia are to the right of it and on a shelf above it.

And yes, there’s a kitchen in the church, too.

Arto Lindsay: Space, Parades, and Confrontational Aesthetics

A conversation via Skype between Arto Lindsay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Sam Hillmer in New York, New York
April 15, 2015
Transcribed and edited by Sam Hillmer
Video presentation and photography
by Molly Sheridan

I first Met Arto Lindsay at a party I hosted at my house to preview a new set by my band Zs. Of course it was an honor and a privilege to have the man in my house—founding the band DNA alone makes him a legend!

Arto and I have a mutual friend, Arto’s manager Ryu Takahashi, and through him we had occasion to meet a number of times over the next couple of years. As I got to know Arto and his work better, I began to appreciate the breadth of his artistic vision. Not only had Arto founded arguably the most important band from New York’s early-’80s No Wave scene, he is a well-known figure in Brazilian pop, collaborator of Matthew Barney’s, leader of parades, and thrower of sounds in space.

Alexis de Tocqueville has said that Americans “cut through the form to the substance.” Punk, which is quintessentially American, does just that. Born of an urgency around reaching people through disruptive and confrontational aesthetics and social practice, punk is inherently populist at the level of essence. What interested me about getting to know Arto was that, as I learned about his work outside of the band DNA, I felt I was able to identify that spirit in his pop efforts, parades, and the sound design of his various performance works.

Curious to learn more, I invited Arto to have a lengthy chat with me some day. He graciously accepted the offer, which led to a marathon Skype call last spring. What I had thought was breadth of vision was just an opening to an artistic world of Arto’s own—bigger and broader then I had ever imagined. Big thanks to Arto for the time and for his life and work!

*
Sam Hillmer: Tell me about the use of space in your music.

Arto Lindsay: That is something I’ve been doing for years and years, and I’ve done it with the band, I’ve done it with myself. I came up with one piece a few years ago where I use floor monitors that cut right through the middle of the audience. I had my voice in quad around the audience, no guitar around the audience, and I release the guitar into the floor monitors so that sound races right past you if you are sitting in the audience, you know what I mean? You get it, right?

SH: Yes, totally.

AL: So I’ve worked with a few different guys on this, and we’ve gotten more and more sophisticated. Sometimes we’ll have a different event in each speaker, or have different lanes of delay, and it makes it possible to come up with these insane rhythms that I don’t know how I’d be able to come up with otherwise. By myself, anyway.

Arto Lindsay seated

SH: So what about the spatialization itself facilitates the generative rhythmic part of what you are talking about? You’re saying that this process makes it possible for you to come up with rhythms that you wouldn’t be able to come up with otherwise. How does that relate to the spatial aspect of what you are doing there?

AL: I think it’s because I am working with delays, and because of the way they’re set they are pretty unpredictable. I mean, I can layer a few delays on top of each other and make a different rhythm, you know? I’m trying to answer your question—it’s a good one—about how this process leads to complexity that a normal delay pedal wouldn’t. The other thing is that it is in motion. The distance aspect of it adds to the rhythmic possibilities somehow.

SH: To me it seems like it would introduce a degree of clarity that, if it was all just a composite coming out of one speaker—

AL: Absolutely, a degree of transparency, yes—

SH: Yeah, there is a lot of interest in work like that now, quadrophonic work and work for 16 speakers and whatnot, and I always wonder why that’s interesting to people. I’m interested in it, but there is something about that, surround sound and composing spatially, that people respond to.

AL: Also, it emphasizes some aspects of what’s already there when you are listening to music. Already, music itself, if it’s loud it seems close, if it’s quiet it seems far, and stereo has been there since people have been playing more than one instrument. And certainly the Western classical orchestra, the way it’s arrayed—

SH: Sure, there is a spatial dimension to it.

AL: It’s about stereophonic effects, and of course the big bands, they all took advantage of this. There’s the back and forth, the basic panning, the basic joy of stereo, you know—like the early Beatles records where the instruments are all separated. Spatialization, in a sense, doesn’t add anything because music is already waves moving through space. Actually what it does is it adds more points of departure, so to speak. Instead of the music starting from one point of origin, it starts from a whole bunch of different points of departure.

SH: Right, right. It interrupts the sense that the point of origin of the music is this person, and that what’s happening is this two-way feedback loop between the audience and the person on stage, and then it locates that point of origin, at least sonically, in a variety of places.

AL: Exactly. It makes the person on stage seem like they have more points of origin. It opens up the person on stage. It’s like your molecules are a little less settled or something. The illusion of something solid is less strong. It’s closer to the truth, physics wise.

So it doesn’t really change things so much between the performer and the audience as much as it does bring the truth about that situation out. When I do this with the band, I try to incorporate that spatial aspect as part of the musical phrases in what I’m doing.

SH: Okay, this leads into something else I wanted to ask you. Throughout your career you have had some kind of relationship with the art world, and the art world as a context can facilitate certain things more aptly than straight music settings. So, has your exposure to the art world facilitated things generatively for you as a musician that have affected what you’ve been able to do?

AL: Well, when I moved to New York I wasn’t sure if I was going to be a musician, an artist, a dancer, or what, you know? And I ended up becoming a musician, but I had ambitions as an artist as well, so I tried to make a band that could be understood as music, but that could also be understood as a piece of art. So I’ve always considered myself an artist as much as a musician, or along with being a musician, or whatever, but I’ve tried to make what I do come up to the standards of art as well as up to the standards of music.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of collaborating with artists because I like the way artists think, and I like the freedom they have to invent their own medium piece by piece, which is something we can’t do so easily in music. I also like the quality of discourse around art which is more serious, more philosophy-based, and the conversations are often much more interesting. This has changed in the last 10 or 15 years, but in the ’80s and in the early ’90s I really thought this was true. I just wasn’t into the critics and the way they thought about music. I didn’t think about music that way. I didn’t want to hear some evocative description of the American landscape as a way of explaining why Bob Dylan was great; I just wasn’t interested. You know, when they started to draw parallels to the Situationists and stuff, that was kind of the beginning of it getting interesting again.

SH: So, when you’re saying that’s all changed in the last 10 or 15 years, you’re saying the quality of music journalism has changed?

AL: Yeah, and I don’t want to call it journalism, I want to call it criticism, because I value this dialogue between the artist and the critics. I don’t buy this “the critic is a failed musician” and blah blah blah. I also see the value in academics. The idea that “you can’t make a living doing your art, you have to teach”—these are all kind of wrong ways of thinking about it. I think you have to kind of keep things flowing in these different areas.

SH: Right. I think in the best cases criticism or journalism becomes a form of generative cultural practice that functions as an extension of the work, kind of the same way a remix functions. You know, you don’t make a remix, but the remix is there because you made this thing (the original) and you formed a relationship with someone who made the remix. In the best case, an interview or a review or an article, it’s almost an extension of your work—it’s not about your work, it is part of the work, in a sense.

AL: I see what you’re saying. And there’s another aspect to that which is that, in different times and in different places, the criticism is more creative, or poetic, or whatever word you want to use—it’s better art than the art, at times. Especially the French critics in the ’60s, they blew everyone away to the point that everybody wanted to figure out what kind of sense they [themselves] made in that world view, that way of understanding things. And that was very interesting, too. The art was getting really conceptual, and then you had these great conceptualists who stretched philosophy to the point where it was pretty close to poetry at times. You know, things got confusing, and lots of people went down the wrong path. It was an excuse for a lot of badness, but at the same time it was a really important engine for stuff, you know what I mean?

SH: Certainly that work was very exciting, but I feel you about people going down the wrong path. [laughs]

AL: Right, people went down the wrong path, but certainly you can’t deny that it was super important work.

Arto Lindsay set-up

SH: Hell yeah, super important to me for sure! Before moving on past this art world bit, could you give an overview of your more art world-based projects?

AL: I’ve done these two kinds of things that are more strictly in the art world so far. I’m going to do more. One is, I’ve done a sound installation that is pretty narrative. It’s text, and either different people read it or I read it, and each piece of the text is in a different speaker. Speakers are spread out throughout the room and the text plays back in sequence. So I could write a story and the beginning would be in your kitchen, and then it would move to your living room, and it’d be out back, and it’d end up by your front door or whatever, and this would be a little story of some kind.

And then I’ve done these parades. The first parade I did in collaboration with Matthew Barney in Bahia, and it was on a really grand scale, in Carnivale there. They have this wild-ass, ever-changing, ever-mutating street Carnivale, where the ecstatic and the tragic bump up against each other all the time. You have this confrontation across this huge income gap, you have almost religious ecstasy, you have the cheapest pop music, you have absolute social separation and absolute social mixing— it’s just an incredible event. And so we were able to do this really crazy parade as part of that, and people were like, “Wow, that’s pretty crazy.” But it wasn’t like they weren’t used to seeing crazy stuff. I kind of put that backwards, but it’s like we were able to do such crazy stuff just because people see crazy stuff every year at Carnivale there.

SH: So describe what’s going on in your parade.

AL: In this parade here, Matthew bought this giant earthmoving vehicle—it looks like a tractor with these big claws on the front—and he found a tree that was condemned, bought that, and had that in the claws. This thing was rolling down the avenue holding a tree. And the tree was supposed to represent Julia Butterfly [Hill]. She was supposed to be in the parade, but she couldn’t at the last minute. She was a big ecological activist, really beautiful person, who lived in a redwood tree in California for a couple years. [The vehicle] was pulling a shipping container that was covered with dirt, so it looked like a big block of earth, but on top of that was my band, and I also had 30 Brazilian percussionists from two groups there.

I actually pulled off something technically that nobody has managed to do before or since, which was to have the people on the truck play with the people on the ground in sync. It’s very difficult, but we put a lot of time into this. We rehearsed with the leaders of the percussion groups, we found the tempos that were natural for them to play certain rhythms at—they were based on all kinds of things, tradition but also just the size of the drums, how long it takes for the beats to decay and what not. We just felt it out and found tempos that felt good for them and good for us. We blasted them with just a rhythm machine, almost like a click track, and my voice, because traditional percussion groups in Bahia don’t have harmony instruments, and they have conductors, but the real conductor is the singer who gives them the time, and that’s what keeps one of these big groups together.

So then I also designed a sound system for this, because usually these trucks that parade in Bahia are unbelievably loud—a huge sound system and a generator, and it just blasts out. So I tried to work it out so I could have four sound cars, two in the front and two in the back, connected to my band and my percussion by Wi-Fi. So we’d be driving down the street, but preceding the floats and the musicians, there’d be two sound cars, one on either side of the street, and there’d be two behind the whole parade. So the participants inside the parade could circulate inside there. But I couldn’t pull this off because the street was not wide enough. I ended up stringing the whole thing out. I had a sound car out in front, and I had some speakers on the band car, and I had a sound car in back. And I used a lot of up and down the line delay stuff, which I do a lot at these parades.

So, that was the first parade, and it included some pretty hairy imagery. I mean, Matthew had a guy under the truck who took about 30 Viagras and was trying to have sex with the truck while the thing was rolling down the avenue. And we took a lot of imagery from Candomblé [the traditional religion from the area]. Matthew used two of these deities—one was a forest and plant deity and one was a blacksmith deity.

Anyhow, that was that parade, and Matthew was able to invest a lot in that parade, and then make it all back by selling that main vehicle as a huge sculpture.

That is a very interesting beginning. So after that I’ve been getting asked to do parades on my own, and I’ve done them on different scales. Sometimes I work with local artists in a particular place. In each of these parades, they’re kind of based on Brazilian parades in the sense that they have a theme and it’s worked out in different ways by different people. I usually try to put a different sound system together for each one, and one thing I deal with a lot is triggering—just basic triggering. In the Berlin parade, I hired a gypsy band, and they were mic’d, but their mics were all triggered by a Brazilian percussionist. So if you were right next to them in the street you’d hear gypsy music, but if you were down the street you’d hear flashes of gypsy music in, you know, samba, or whatever.

I did one in 2009, and I wanted to work with noise. Super loud white noise, pink noise, brown noise, and I made a group of those, so that it sounded like an airplane idling, you know? And then I had a band, and when the band would play we would shut off the noise. I had two basic ways for it to work: one was, every time you hit a bass note you’d turn off the white noise for an instant, so you’d actually create silence for a second, which sounds pretty cool in description, but in real life just sounds like [imitates white noise in jagged rhythm]. And then sometimes you’d hear the notes in the band, so there was never a silence. White noise was blasting between every note. It was actually cool.

SH: A number of things strike me about what you’ve been describing. Firstly, a parade is a relatively ordinary thing to happen in one’s life. But a noise music, new music, outsider music practitioner applying their work to leading a parade is radically exceptional.

AL: I think a parade is an incredible form because you can have so many different narratives and so many levels of abstraction in there. One reason I was attracted to these is that I was really involved with the parades in Bahia for a long time, and I performed in them, which is kind of like confronting people with my music in the context of a parade. You know, like saying, “Hey, this is alternative hedonism. I’m not trying to inflict pain on you. This is another kind of pleasure.” I was involved there in Carnivale for years doing many kinds of things: delivering costumes, interviewing security companies, helping dream up themes for Carnivale groups, providing support and performing in different ways.

SH: So you’ve been involved in Carnivale just as a local Brazilian participant, not only as an outsider interloping artist.

AL: Yeah, more than just a voyeur, as someone who helped make the carnival. And I really admire these people that do this. In different states there are different ways this works. In Bahia, it’s normally one person or two or three people who decide on a theme, someone writes a song about that, and the costumes and the floats are an expression of that whole idea. And a lot of these groups are black consciousness groups, so a lot of themes are historical themes about something in Africa, or they might be honoring American Civil Rights activists, etc. In Rio, you have a guy or a woman who is hired to work out a whole theme, and then they go through the process of writing a song, but then that person is in charge of the design of all the costumes and the big floats. The people that do this, they’re kind of like opera directors; they’re artists. It’s really interesting, and I’ve been trying to encourage people to do a museum show on them for a long time. I’m still working on it. [laughs]

SH: There are two main takeaways that I have. One, getting back to this idea that a parade is a relatively ordinary occurrence. They happen all over the world at different times for different reasons, but at the same time it is aberrant for a practioner of official culture, outsider music, or what have you, to enact one.

AL: People know how to relate to a parade. It gives you a chance, because they’re expecting something crazy. They expect clowns, or cheerleaders, something out of the ordinary. Of course, they expect something ordinary out of the ordinary, but they give you a chance. And everyone knows how to take part in it. It’s not some kind of forced thing like, you know, “breaking down the fourth wall, you are part of the artwork about the social relation and not about the work on the wall,” and so on. I mean, here’s a chance to actually determine some of the social relations, or at least offer options as to social relations, and not just propose them as a category or as a way of behaving.

Arto Lindsay looking off

SH: That’s what I’m trying to find out about. Is the medium interesting to you because it’s this moment in the body of quotidian cultural life that is kind of ripe for the introduction of something surprising and fresh, but in a relatable way? And one that’s not, like what you were saying, this forced thing—like “my alienating theater piece is about breaking down the fourth wall and making everybody participate—but actually just organically is that way, and so it’s a meaningful medium for you because it allows you to connect aspects of your work to a broader audience.

AL: Not even a broader audience; just to connect to an audience in a different way. You know, some things that annoy me in a concert appeal to me in a parade. Like, the fact of exhaustion and repetition, you know, just as a listener, I can get bored if it’s kind of forced repetition. I mean, if it’s really fine grain repetition and I feel that within the repetition there’s all this variation and I can hear things in different ways, that’s one thing. But in general, I find it hard to reach that kind of altered consciousness thing in concert situations. I don’t know what it is. I’m just too far back from it. I’m just too close to the traditions of South and North America. I mean, I don’t want to come down on anyone in particular, but I can get somewhere in a Youssou N’Dour concert, but I can’t get into it in a concert of minimalist concert music. I just don’t feel that it’s elastic enough, that it’s reactive enough, because, you know, there is nothing in repetitive music that prevents you from responding to changes.

SH: I understand what you’re saying.

AL: Um, I’m not being too articulate here.

I’m interested in trance music and, since I heard it, I’m interested in Candomblé music because it’s very specific. As far back as DNA we were talking about this. Each deity has its own rhythm, and when you play that rhythm, the people who are consecrated to that deity get possessed. You play this rhythm and this deity comes down and inhabits these initiates, you know what I’m saying? But it’s specific! In Moroccan music you go to a house and you drive out the devils, but it’s specific; you can’t play just any music, you have to play the music that drives the devils out! A very practical one-on-one relationship between the music and the listener, which I find fascinating, like everybody else.

I don’t know how I slid into that.

SH: Well, we were talking about the parades, and we were talking about—

AL: Yeah, altered states of consciousness or something like that.

SH: Right.

AL: Yeah, I’ve been interested in that in other ways, so I went off on this tangent. But let’s forget about that!

When you’re in a parade, you just march and march and march and you inevitably feel quite a bit different when it’s over because you’ve kind of been to exhaustion and back a few times. And I love that about it. I love being able to go in and out of things, to alternate, including concentration, or a concentrated state. Like at a club, I don’t watch the entire concert. I get up and make snarky comments, and talk to my friends in the back, and then I’m interested again, you know. It’s a really rare show that commands my attention all the way through. At a sit-down concert of some kind or other, I start to daydream after a while, and then I come back. I mean, maybe it’s a failure on my part not to be able to follow, but I’m also bored, as I’m sure most people are, with the way that most music gets worked out. You know with the chords, the keys, the this, the that, you know what I mean? So much of it, structurally, is simply not interesting. Emotionally this music is supposed to knock you over, but if you’re not knocked over, it’s just kind of boring. Similarly, if you go to a disco, it’s just really loud, and for a little while, that’s enough. It’s just loud and it feels good. It’s like a shower of light; you’re soaking this up. It’s like a thousand cats are licking you, like a thousand slices from the razor blade. So for a little while you’re in ecstasy. It’s just loud, and then, after a while, you need more. And with the orchestra, it’s the same thing. You walk in and there’s just this sumptuousness. There’s this kind of implied perspective which is like—back to the spatial thing—a lot of the joy of the orchestra is that it’s as wide as the landscape. It just implies depth in so many ways—the depth outside, the depth inside, something about that is really selective. But it wears off, the first thrill wears off. I think that’s just part of it, and you need to be able to go in and out of things. The point being, it’s not about maintaining interest all the way through, because it’s impossible.

SH: And you’re saying the parade as a medium helps to facilitate that relationship?

AL: Absolutely.

Arto Lindsay standing

SH: You said something to me once about DNA, that the band was formed with the specific intention of doing this arcane difficult stuff, but being able to do it for a room of people, and win that room of people over, and that that room of people would be people who weren’t necessarily predisposed to like DNA.

AL: Well, when we started out, we had kind of lofty goals. Yeah, we wanted to provide really intense experiences, we wanted to satisfy ourselves, and we wanted to do something new—we had these radical aspirations. At the same time, we wanted that to work to thrill a room full of people. A rock audience, an audience that was there… You know, you don’t give them what they want, you give them what they need, or you give them something that they can’t deny, you know what I mean? What’s the point of just giving them what they want? And even my onstage behavior—I saw so many people pretending to be rock stars on the stage at CBGBs, and I just didn’t find that persuasive or charming at all. I wanted to be able to move in and out of this kind of stance and to be able to use the power of being on stage, but not to be stuck with that. I mean, Lydia Lunch was such a great performer. And she kind of stumbled on this, in that her own aggression and her own way of being turned into this style. I mean, we’re talking about confrontational aesthetics, and as far as confrontational aesthetics are concerned, there were three people that I drew from—Lydia, Vito Acconci, and Karen Finley. And I saw these incredibly confrontational performances, and they were just so perfect in terms of how long they lasted. I mean, I was at the Palladium, which was a night club, but it was full of all these cool art people, and Karen Finley took canned yams and shoved them up her own ass, and the feeling in that room was just unbelievable.

SH: That’s definitely taking it somewhere.

AL: It’s different then, like, hurting yourself, you know? It avoids a kind of romanticism that gets in the way, or a kind of late-Christian thing that gets in the way. I’m kind of rambling.

SH: Well, I want to get back to some things, but talk about that late-Christian thing for a second.

AL: Well, you know, hurting yourself as art. I can understand hurting yourself in some particular situation you might end up in, where that was the thing to do. But people who just routinely hurt themselves in front of an audience, and it just doesn’t go anywhere. It seems to be a reflection of spending your life staring at this naked bleeding guy. Like, the height of something. It’s like an erotic thing, but it’s different from your S&M roles. I don’t know; I’ve never been down this conversational path before. But control and submission, that seems to me to be a different mechanism than just hurting yourself, which is like a way to communicate the intensity of your desire to communicate. I’m also thinking about James Chance now, like, this little guy, pushing people around and stuff, but now I’m just talking about the whole context.

SH: Well, I wanted to cover this, and I am glad to hear you talk about this. There are a lot of threads forming here that I am going to tie back in. But, the thing you said to me about DNA, and the thing about the parades—in my mind, there is a degree of symmetry between the intention you described with DNA to do this kind of lofty arcane thing but in this kind of populist way. So there is a thread of populism between what you described to me about DNA and the parades.

AL: I agree.

SH: There is a thread of populism that makes sense out of the two projects as a progression. But I’m not saying that’s there. I’m asking you if you think that’s there.

AL: Well, the reason we did what we did the way we did in DNA is because we thought about how it worked in a room, not about how it worked in the music business. I didn’t try to make a pop song with some kind of subversive message or something, that just wasn’t my way of doing it. But there is definitely a populist thing. Also the way I write lyrics, I like lyrics to go down easy. It’s like conversational language most of the time, and then if you pay attention, things are a little murkier than they seemed at first. But I have kind of a bad reaction to pretentious-sounding lyrics. I don’t know if you read the Grammy speech that Bob Dylan did?

SH: Whoa! No, I didn’t.

AL: Well, I’ll try and run it down for you. Bob Dylan says, if I hadn’t heard Woody Guthrie, I couldn’t have written, so and so forth, and he just shows you how all of his lines are variations on folk and blues adapted to his situation. I really appreciate that kind of vernacular aspect of playing and lyric writing. But, on the other hand, certain pretensions in lyric writing drive me nuts.

SH: Right. Well, this aspect of vernacular that you bring up gets into another territory that I wanted to explore. I hear something in your recent solo work that I wanted to ask you about. A harsh, austere, at times severe noise vocabulary or wall of sound effect, and at the same time the rhythmic or lyrical vocabulary of honkytonk, rhythm and blues, or Brazilian musical forms, yet not in a way that I’d describe as pastiche. This is interesting to me because the few other attempts I’ve heard at integrating similar content (John Zorn’s Naked City most notably and most successfully) do come across as pastiche, or collage, and are often a bit contrived. Your work evokes these things without setting them against one another and achieves a greater organic quality in the doing, so I’d be interested in hearing whether this is something you’d given any thought.

Arto Lindsay with Zs

Lindsay preparing to record with Zs.

AL: I guess I’m more interested in the thread between these things, or how to get between these extremely different sounds if you want to look at it that way. One thing is to look at them as not being so different. Another one is to go between them, accepting that people hear them as very different, and get back and forth smoothly. And while I can’t speak for Zorn, I think what he is interested in is the shock of the jump from one to the other, whereas I am interested in the continuity between them. Maybe that’s an over simplification. But obviously I’m super aware that I’m using these two seeming opposites, and that I’m playing with them in differing proportions and going back and forth. But yeah, I only wish that the beautiful stuff could be more beautiful, and that the ugly stuff could be more ugly.

I think there is a passive aggression in the beautiful stuff anyway, and there is a kind of rhythmic aggression even in the ballad stuff. Obviously my model is a lot of the Brazilian stuff, but also someone like Miles Davis, who says white people have it all wrong when it comes to ballads—when you play it slow, you have to goose the tempo. To keep it awake when it’s slow, it has to feel like it doesn’t want to be slow. You have to feel some energy that’s like a caged energy or something. You guys [Zs] are prime examples of this. Within that wall of sound of undifferentiated clusters or whatever, there’s so much information; there’s tons of lyricism that you can hear in there, too, if you just don’t back away. If you just stay where you are, stand your ground, you can hear all kinds of beauty in that stuff. And I actually think this is something that we were aware of in DNA and talked about, but it’s become kind of common knowledge. If you think about how popular drone music is, how popular Keiji Haino is, Merzbow, that crew—and there are other crews that I am not aware of—but people use that. You hear all kinds of stuff in that noise. I wish I was a good enough musician to extract some of that stuff into the lyrical territory, make that stuff music. Let’s work on that!

SH: That would be a good project!

AL: It’s interesting to talk about these harmonic and rhythmic strategies in the context of DNA because so much of what passes for punk rock now I feel provides this kind of false or shallow catharsis for people. It doesn’t really make you think, and it doesn’t really pull you up close to that spot where pleasure and pain can be close to each other, and that’s sort of what these strategies are about. But you know, it’s not an intense experience now.

SH: Right, it’s like scratching an itch. There are these people who do this thing, which is supposed to be punk, and there are the people who want the thing, so the people who do the thing do it for the people who want it. It’s just consumption; there’s nothing challenging about it.

AL: Right.

SH: But back to this notion of juxtaposition, or establishing connections between disparate sounds, or what have you. Does this become a strategy in terms of the populist agenda we have been discussing? Here is what I mean by that. I always feel that with things that are represented as being polarized sonically, there is this kind of endowing a musical or sonic artifact with properties that ostensibly make them into polarities, but in fact that constitutes a kind of grafting of the social onto the sonic. So, actually, what is different there are the people who got to hear these sounds—at least more so than the sounds themselves are, inherently. Does that make sense?

AL: Sure. Right, there is that. But I think that there are more essential differences, just if you think about physics, music, sound, consonance, dissonance, clusters, structural properties! The way we hear music, a lot of it is that we recognize in music structures that are similar to our structures. We hear polyrhythm, and we think, “Hey, I’m a polyrhythmic being. I have a pulse here and a pulse here. I have a pulse in my crotch!” So yes, there is a social piece, but there is another component, and I don’t know if it determines the social thing or if it is concurrent with it, but I think the differences are real. And if they weren’t, there couldn’t be such a pleasure in going back and forth. Does that make sense?

SH: I know what you’re saying. I also think that the attitude of establishing continuity between supposedly disparate elements is involved with drawing a bigger circle around the whole thing and looking at the basic unit as something heterogeneous that contains all of these things, rather than looking at the basic units of the situation as these disparate nodes that you bang against one another.

AL: Sure. I definitely can go with that, and that doesn’t take away from the pleasure of the coexistence of the different elements inside of something larger. Coexistence is a difference thing, as well as just a similarity thing. I think that both are there.

SH: Definitely. Okay, last question: is the attitude of play something that you think about in your music?

AL: Absolutely! Like when I was talking before about not being stuck in one role. Definitely there is something to keeping it light, and being able to switch between lightness and something that’s dead serious, life and death, like pointing your finger at the void. “Over there is nothing, and you, my dear audience, you are prime examples of nothing! You may think you are having an opinion. No! I am! I’m inventing you and your opinion wholesale. Ahhhhh!” [growls]

André Previn: How Lucky I Am Now

A conversation in Previn’s Manhattan apartment
July 31, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography (unless otherwise stated)
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

As most folks love to opine, throughout most of music history the majority of composers were also prodigious performers and nowadays composer-performers once again seem ubiquitous. This time around, though, it is in large part because the act of parsing music-making into different stylistic categories has largely eroded. But through most of the 20th century, we lived in a musical environment where the Socratic notion of one person/one job reigned mostly unchallenged and the boundaries that separated various genres often felt impermeable. Despite that, some musicians went against the grain and eked out careers in multiple musical roles, as well as in many different kinds of music. But few have done so as successfully as André Previn who—as a composer, conductor, and pianist—has been equally comfortably making music in and for concert halls, jazz clubs, opera houses, Broadway theaters, and the silver screen for three quarters of a century.

Still, Previn is not one to rest on his many laurels–and there are many! A trio recording featuring him on the piano was the first jazz album to sell more than a million copies. He won back-to-back Oscars for his Hollywood work and garnered eleven Grammys for classical recordings he conducted. In 1998, he received a Kennedy Center Honor for his lifetime achievement as a conductor and composer of orchestral music and opera. Now in his 80s, Previn is composing more prolifically than ever before in his life, yet he comes to composition with a great deal of humility.

“I can’t take myself that seriously,” Previn says at the onset of our visit with him in his Upper East Side apartment. “I love writing and I’m very serious about it, but when it’s over, it’s over. It’s not for the ages. I can’t visualize anybody doing my pieces 50 years from now. I’m just glad if they do them Wednesday.”

And yet, the voluminous amount of music that Previn has been writing in recent years is getting performed quite a bit, all over the world.

“I’m very aware of how lucky I am now,” he says with a grin. “When I first started composing, nobody wanted to know. Now, if I write a piece and I let certain orchestras and certain soloists know that I’ve written it, they all want to do it. Well, not all, but a great many of them. All these orchestras that suddenly are doing my pieces amaze me. They don’t care whether it’s new or old or whatever. It’s just a piece of music they haven’t played, which is really the healthiest thing in the world.”

Not caring whether something is old or new has actually been a hallmark of Previn’s current compositional language, something he has acknowledged many of his colleagues are somewhat baffled by.

“John Harbison said you write these big pieces, and all the things that have happened in the last 50 years are absent, like they never happened,” Previn admits. “I said, ‘I can’t explain that. I don’t know.’” For me, music has to be an emotion and my emotions don’t react well to mathematical formulae.”

But surprisingly for a polymath who has been so deeply involved in jazz and motion picture soundtracks and who even wrote a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical with Alan Jay Lerner starring Katharine Hepburn, Previn has no interest in creating some grand polystylistic musical synthesis for the 21st century.

“I never thought of bringing it together; I see no particularly connective tissue between those things,” Previn confesses. “Very serious jazz, I don’t much like. … It’s a well-known fact that the worse the movie, the more music there is. If you have a really idiotic movie, the music never stops, because the poor producer says, ‘Do something.’ So, we all make a noise. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t wonderful scores, but it’s not music that interests me anymore—at all. … There are many Broadway shows I wish I had written, or wish I could get my hands on, but it’s not a lasting ambition with me. I’d rather write an opera.”

Previn, however, also doesn’t like to repeat himself, and he has already composed two highly successful operas—A Streetcar Named Desire and Brief Encounter—both based on classic 20th-century plays.

“I’d write a light opera, for instance,” he offers somewhat cagily. “Tom Stoppard and I are about to start working on a one-act opera. I can’t discuss it, because he doesn’t want me to.”

But we discussed plenty of other things. Not only did we get into extensive details about many of his compositions, we also talked about many other composers and interpreters. He charmed us with some extraordinary anecdotes–including how, when he was a teenage piano prodigy, he got thrown out of Ernst Toch’s home as well as how, many years later, he was able to mollify Olivier Messiaen during a tense rehearsal with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. We could have stayed for hours, but he had more music to write.

*
FJO & Andre Previn talk in Previn's living room

Frank J. Oteri: You’re writing so much music these days. The only composer I can think of who has been as prolific as you have been at your age is Elliott Carter. For years, he wrote extremely slowly, but he sped up after he turned 80. When I asked him about what changed, he said that he had finally figured out how to write Elliott Carter’s music.

André Previn: That’s very sweet. But also [when we get older] we are all suddenly more aware of the finite term of life and, you know, you want to get it done. I have to make up for lost time because I did not compose seriously for many years. So now in the last ten years I suddenly thought, “Get moving!” I write very quickly and that helps.

FJO: So how long would it take you to write, say, a 25-minute concerto for soloist and orchestra?

AP: That’s a kind of generality. I wrote a harp concerto. I don’t know a goddamn thing about the harp really, so that took a while—but a 25-minute piano, violin, cello, or viola concerto? I don’t know, probably about a month.

FJO: That’s a very short amount of time.

AP: Well, it’s not very good either. My problem and my flaw, if I can pinpoint just one, is that I don’t re-write. I hate re-writing. Once I’m done, I put it away, and it’s over with for me except if I make a mistake in terms of the technical use of the instrument. I once wrote an impossible double stop for viola. I just suddenly wasn’t thinking; the player would have to cripple his hand. So then I’d re-write it—or leave it out; that’s even better! I can’t take myself that seriously. I love writing and I’m very serious about it, but when it’s over, it’s over. It’s not for the ages.

FJO: Really?

AP: Really.

FJO: Not for the ages?

AP: No.

FJO: So the reason you’re fighting against time to write all this music isn’t to ensure a legacy.

AP: Well, that’s an interesting point. When I say not for the ages, I can’t visualize anybody doing my pieces 50 years from now. I’m just glad if they do them Wednesday, which is why I can only write for someone specific. I don’t like to write into the void. I like to know who’s going to play it and where and all that. Then it helps me; it helps me a great deal. I wrote an awful lot for Anne-Sophie Mutter. I know her sound and I know what she can do best. That makes life much easier. I wrote a piece last year—a concerto for trumpet, horn, tuba, and orchestra, which was a commission from Pittsburgh because they had three big stars. That was great fun for me because I don’t play any one of those things. I couldn’t tell you the positions of the trombone and all that, but I have them in my ear, and it helps a great deal that I’ve conducted so much because the sound of instruments and the sound of the combination of instruments are not alien to me at all. I know what I’m doing at the piano, but I don’t write piano music very much.

 

FJO: Since you mentioned the Triple Concerto, one of the things I find so interesting about the pieces that you’ve been writing is how many of them are pieces for multiple soloists and orchestra. It’s interesting to hear you say that you’re not interested in whether they’re performed 50 years from now, because writing for multiple soloists is somewhat impractical in terms of getting a piece into an orchestra’s season.

AP: Well, it would be impractical if the triple were like the Beethoven Triple, because that’s three [hired] soloists. But a piece for trumpet, tuba, and horn—every good orchestra has three of those good people in them, and the same with the winds. Sitting in the chair you’re sitting in last week was Andrew Marriner, and he said, “We’re all so glad you’ve written a clarinet sonata, a clarinet concerto, and a clarinet quintet. We don’t have enough music. So it’s always wonderful to get somebody to write something.” That’s really the case with those double and triple concertos, because the principals of good orchestras want that, and it’s very unlikely that management would hire three big stars to play those things.

FJO: I think my current favorite of your double concertos is the one for violin and double bass, and that one definitely feels like a star vehicle.

 

AP: Oh yes, of course, they’re soloists. That was a straightforward commission. The bass player, Roman Patkoló, is a genius player. Anyway, Anne-Sophie wanted a piece for him, and she’s always practical. So she said, “Write me a fiddle part in it because it’ll be easier to place.” And so I did, and he was very nice about it. He said, “Everything is terrific. I love it. But this octave is a little weird for me.” So we changed that. But that’s not because he didn’t like it. It was advice, and I was glad to get it.

FJO: In terms of being practical, these days a lot of people say that one of the most practical things you can do as a composer if you want a piece done a lot is to write for wind band.

AP: I did that.

 

FJO: The piece is only a year old and already nine different wind bands have done it. That’s amazing.

AP: Nobody’s more amazed than I am, especially since I’m not really a wind band expert. How do I know what trills are possible on a baritone horn? Nobody learns that. But I liked fooling with it. Then when it came out and the sonorities were nice, I was very pleased. And I must say, at Eastman at the premiere, the kids—and by kids I mean between 18 and 25—they could play like demons. They read that stuff as if were the Simple Symphony by Ben Britten. It was really impressive, and I enjoyed hearing them a lot.

FJO: But what happened with your piece is one of the realities of our music scene today. A piece that’s only a year old has already been done by nine different groups. And I imagine it’s going to be done by a lot more, although in a couple years, they’ll probably say it’s an old piece and that they’d rather play something new. But that’s the world of wind bands. It’s the exact opposite of what happens with an orchestra. I can’t imagine a new piece of orchestra music being done by nine different orchestras.

AP: Orchestras tend not to do that. They also get jealous of who else is doing it. But I have a double concerto for violin and cello, and that’s been done a lot. And the cello concerto I wrote for Daniel Müller-Schott—he called me two nights ago from Tokyo where he had done it twice. He was going from Tokyo to Rio, which is quite a jump—and he hates airplanes, too. Anyway, I said to him, “Are you playing it in South America again?” He said, “Oh yes, 20 times.” That’s really terrific, and I was seriously grateful.

But this always amazes me and amuses me in a kind of weird way. I read about the premiere of Rosenkavalier. In the first year, it was done by a 150 companies. Think about that. That doesn’t happen anymore. The whole business of the performance of music is so different now, so different even in the relatively short time that I’ve been around. But when you say it’s an old piece, I know what you mean. It’s quite true. I’m guilty of that too. I say, “Well that’s an old piece; I wrote that five years ago.”

When I was running the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, I had Milstein as a soloist, and I was doing an English festival—not with him, but the weeks following. There was a double concerto for violin and viola by Tippett which was, as far as I could tell, impossibly hard. So I went to our concertmaster, Fritz Siegel, who was a wonderful player, and I said to him, “How would you do this?” He said, “You got me. I have no idea how you even attack this particular passage. Would you mind if I asked Milstein.” I said, “Not at all.” So he went and said, “How would you play this?” And Milstein looked at it and he said, “I wouldn’t! I wouldn’t go near it; it’s impossible and it’s not worth it.” And Fritz said, “But I’ve got to play it.” And he said “Why?” And he really tried to stop him from playing it because it was too difficult. And I know what he means, too, because it wasn’t worth quite the effort that would have to go into it. So soloists have a tendency not to [play much new music]. With the exception of Anne-Sophie, I must say, who’ll play anything you put in front of her. Gil Shaham is another one who can play anything.

FJO: In terms of playing anything you put in front of her, there are so many violin concertos in which the violin soars way over the orchestra, but I can’t think of any other piece that’s as full of ledger lines as your first violin concerto—it’s practically a sopranino violin part.

AP: Anne-Sophie said to me, “Write a lot for me way, way upstairs; I love playing up there.” I said, “Fine.” The piece ends with the highest practical note on the violin.

 

FJO: But when I listened to the recording of this and followed along with the score, I couldn’t help but wonder who else will ever be willing to play this.

AP: I don’t care.

FJO: You don’t care?

AP: No. Really. But when I teach—which is not very often, but at Tanglewood and what not—I know that the technical know-how of the students now is way bigger than it used to be. They all have technique to burn. I remember I paid some compliments to a young fiddle player, and Anne-Sophie kind of brushed her aside. I said, “She plays all the notes.” And she said, “Honey, everybody plays all the notes nowadays.” She’s got a point. Things don’t seem as daunting technically as they used to.

On the cover of the world premiere recording of Previn's Violin Concerto, soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter in a red dress stands next to Previn who is wearing a black shirt and holding the score.

For the world premiere recording of Previn’s Violin Concerto, the composer conducted soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

FJO: So maybe that Tippett Double Concerto isn’t so hard any more.

AP: That’s possible.

FJO: And nowadays there are all these dedicated new music players in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and all over Europe who can play the trickiest as well as the most impossibly notated stuff anyone could possibly imagine.

AP: I read today about a premiere of a new opera by Wolfgang Rihm. It’s evidently fearfully difficult. But I also know Wolfgang very well, and he doesn’t think about that. He just writes down what he wants to write down. It’s like Strauss’s famous remark when, at the first rehearsal of Till Eulenspiegel, his horn player said, “Excuse me Doktor Strauss, this can’t be played.” And Strauss said, “I write it; you play it.” Quite right, too. And it’s been played.

FJO: I want to return to something you said a little earlier that I didn’t jump on at the moment, but I’ll jump on it now—you haven’t written that much for piano.

AP: That’s quite right. I don’t know why. I can’t answer that. I wrote some variations which Manny Ax played for a while, but I don’t write for the piano very much.

FJO: Perhaps this ties into the piano being your instrument and you wanting to write for other people. But you have certainly written significant piano parts in some of your chamber pieces, like your sonata for clarinet and piano as well as your songs.

AP: My accompaniments to songs tend to be a little difficult. I just finished eight songs for Renée Fleming and her pianist, poor girl, she was here, and she said, “Maestro, these are really hard.” And I hadn’t thought of that. I mean, I thought of it, but I thought if I can play them, anybody can play them.

FJO: So, let’s take a piece like your latest sonata for violin and piano, which also has a formidable piano part. Did you write this music for you to play yourself?

AP: That second violin sonata, which I like very much, was for Anne-Sophie and her accompanist, Lambert Orkis, and he plays brilliantly. He said, “God, did I have to practice that!” And I felt like saying, “Well, it’s tough.” But he can play it. A lot of people can play it. They can all play everything now. But if I write for the piano, I tend to let my fingers wander and I’ll write it down. I don’t do it the other way around, which is better. But when I write for any other instrument—clarinet, trumpet, whatever—I don’t have the facility with which to test it. So I write whatever I can think of. And that helps a lot.

FJO: So in terms of your process for all of these pieces, you write to paper from your head. You’re not sitting at a piano working on stuff beforehand.

AP: No, but I have to be honest with you. After a certain amount of time, I will go to the piano to test it out, to play what I’ve written and see if it sounds the way I hope it will.

FJO: This gets into the whole dichotomy of pre-compositional structural design versus intuition. You were a prodigious improviser at the piano, an active jazz pianist for many decades. You could sit at the piano and invent stuff. But that’s a very different process than hearing something in your head, putting it down on paper, and then testing it at the piano.

AP: Oh yes. Ellington said that good jazz is instant composition, which is exactly right. But again, I don’t think about it in terms of preparation versus intuition and all that. I’m just sitting there playing. I don’t take it so textbook seriously. I read Charles Rosen’s book; it’s remarkable, but man, some of the language really throws me because I don’t know what he’s on about half the time. He attributes certain philosophical aspects to what he’s written or what he’s played that it would take you longer to figure out than it would the piano part.

FJO: So this whole idea of, say, a string quartet as a metaphor for a family, or a concerto as a metaphor for an individual versus the society—you don’t think about these kinds of things.

AP: No.

FJO: Do you think in terms of sonata form?

AP: Yes, I do. And I also love variations. But I don’t find it difficult to think in sonata form. I found a book a couple of months ago—Beethoven’s book on figured bass. Did you know there was one?

FJO: No.

AP: I didn’t either. I can say clearly and decidedly that I didn’t understand a word of it, but I thought I better. So I started working on it, and of course it made sense. But again, I’m not much of a researcher. Yehudi Wyner is very fond of saying, “This time when the theme comes, it’s an F-sharp and not an F because that day his wife had a cold.” I say, “What are you talking about? He’s a composer. What if he just liked the F-sharp?” “That’s not good enough.” I said, “Yes, it is.” And we had a terrible fight.

FJO: So there are no hidden ciphers in any of your scores.

AP: No, the best I could do is maybe say this F-sharp is here because I’ve used F already. But I don’t mean it to imply that everything is instinct. It isn’t. I work very hard. But I don’t believe in writing music to suit a theory. The other way around maybe, but this is why I will never be a 12-tone composer.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that, since so much music during the 20th century—which you’ve been active as a musician through—was dominated by various –isms, whether it was serialism, minimalism, post-minimalism, totalism, spectralism, indeterminacy, or microtonality. There were all these different camps, but you managed to stay clear of all of them.

AP: Well, maybe that’s ignorance. But, on the other hand, that lapses over into performing, too, because I know a couple of the early music champion conductors who have 7,000 theories about why you can’t have vibrato here and you can’t do this. They are very great specialists in that, but give them a chance to conduct Swan Lake, and they’re off and running. They want to. So I’m not so sure that it’s ingrained.

FJO: Well, I guess what is ingrained in you is that you’ve been immersed in music since you were a child.

AP: Yes.

FJO: And so you’ve heard and interpreted so much music in addition to your own, that all of it is very deep within you. It’s second nature. So while you might say that you didn’t initially understand Beethoven’s figured bass book, you probably have internalized all of Beethoven’s solo, chamber, and orchestral music from your experience as an interpreter. You might not be a scholar of it per se, but it seeped in in a profound way—the same with pretty much all of the standard repertoire through to Richard Strauss, whom you’ve also mentioned today.

AP: Sure. I can’t argue with that, that’s perfectly true. And the music that I love, I love no matter who’s playing it. That’s a kind of a wild statement, but people who say they can only listen to Brendel’s Schubert are missing quite a lot. So when I read in certain very intellectual reviews that “this phrase shouldn’t be that fast” or “this should be softer,” first of all, says who? Second of all, they don’t ever seem to say, “But my God, it’s beautiful music!” They get stuck on how it’s played. And how it’s played is not that important, I don’t think.

Previn dressed in a tuxedo conducting an orchestra with a baton in his right hand and gesturing with left hand,

One of the many action photos of Previn conducting an orchestra. (Photo by Chris Lee, courtesy G. Schirmer/Music Sales)

FJO: That’s an interesting opinion coming from somebody who was a conductor for decades.

AP: [laughs] Well, of course, except in the case of me! No, I just think that people who say I can’t listen to Toscanini’s Beethoven—which for instance Colin Davis said and I know why and all that, and I don’t disagree with him all the time—it’s a great piece, interpreted a certain way that does not happen to please the certain person who is reviewing it. But it doesn’t lessen Beethoven any. It doesn’t matter. Yet still, I was in a record shop in Munich with Anne-Sophie, and there was a woman—a nice lady, about in her 40s—who said, “You have a series of packages of the complete works of Bach. I’d like to see that.” And the woman at the cash register said, “With who playing?” “I don’t care.” Well, Anne-Sophie and I almost fainted, because it was an interesting way to buy a record, but on the other hand, if you wanted to be complimentary, you could say she loved the music so much she didn’t care who played it. But that’s not quite the source that warrants that.

FJO: No, unless she wanted to get familiar with the repertoire.

AP: Well yeah, that’s right. But the complete anything I find dangerous anyway.

FJO: Now to take these comments about the open-endedness of interpretation back to your own music, you said that you write for specific people so there’s a specific sound that you’re going for.

AP: Yes.

A bound score of Previn's Violin Concerto sits on top of a row of bound scores that fill up Previn's shelves.

A bound score of Previn’s Violin Concerto sits on top of a row of bound scores that fill up his shelves.

FJO: But when you write a score and let it out into the world, it becomes this thing that theoretically anybody could play in any country and at any time if they have the requisite technical facility to pull it off—and sometimes even if they don’t. There’s sort of a built-in anonymity to it in the sense that they’re playing what’s written on the page to serve the composer who created it and it’s important for that composer’s identity to come across first and foremost which is why that woman could go into a record store and say, “Hey, I want Bach.” Bach is obviously not there; he didn’t make records. But he is there in these notes he put on the page that the interpreters playing his music translate.

AP: Yeah.

FJO: After looking at a number of your scores I was curious about how much control you are willing to let go of in terms of pieces. What is sacrosanct? What isn’t?

AP: Oh, a lot of it is not. I mean, I want the notes played, but how they’re played—if you have a good soloist, whether it’s a second oboe player or a great pianist—really doesn’t matter. If it’s a good musician, let them alone. See first what he’s up to. I’ve had people like flute players who play [Prélude à] L’Après Midi [d’un faune] and I think, “Where did they get that from?” But I liked it, and it made me admire the piece even more. So when I write something and it is interpreted in a way that I had not thought of, very often I’ll like it. I won’t prescribe it, but I will like it. On the other hand, I don’t like arrangements very much. You know, when people say, “Yes, but this is easier with two hands instead of one” or “I’m going to go up a tone.” No. That I don’t like!

FJO: So if someone were to do a song of yours in another key.

AP: Well, wait a minute. If we’re going to talk about singers, that’s a whole different world.

FJO: O.K. I’m going to save vocal music for later. Let’s stay with instrumental music for now. If someone were to take your clarinet sonata and say, “I want to do this on viola.” The Brahms clarinet sonatas are also done on viola. Would you have a problem with that?

AP: Yes and no. I would not have a problem because it’s nice to have somebody play the music. But I would have a problem because it’s not what I thought of.

FJO: Now one of the things I find interesting, in getting back to this second violin sonata, is you leave a lot of dynamics up to the players, which I found fascinating given your decades as an interpreter, both as a pianist and as a conductor. I was quite surprised that you were willing to let that go.

AP: Well that’s interesting. I don’t leave it up to orchestra players because they have to play all that I’ve written down. But I must say that the really good interpreters that I’ve written for—like Anne-Sophie, Yo-Yo Ma, or Yuri Bashmet—if they suddenly say, “This would be wonderful if it were pianissimo and senza vibrato,” I’ll say, “Well, try it.” And if I like it, fine. So I don’t mind that.

FJO: But that’s the thing about the way we disseminate music that is notated. You talked about the early music conductors being really scholarly about a work. A hundred years from now, they’re not going to be able to call you up. So, how are they going to know what to play? Your urtext might be missing some important detail like a dynamic marking. Maybe they’ll have access to a recording, but recordings can only tell you so much. Then again, at the very beginning of this conversation you said that that’s not really of interest to you.

AP: Well, I think that a hundred years from now, there will be just as many good musicians as there are now. They’ll have their own opinion, and that’s O.K. with me.

FJO: You mentioned earlier that you will never be a 12-tone composer, to which I responded that you have pretty much stayed clear of all the –isms of 20th-century music. Even though your music is very much of our time, it sometimes sounds as if all this other stuff that happened didn’t happen for you, in a way.

AP: You know who said exactly the same thing about me was John Harbison. John Harbison said, “You write these big pieces, and all the things that have happened in the last 50 years are absent, like they never happened.” And I said, “I can’t explain that. I don’t know.” For me, music has to be an emotion and my emotions don’t react well to mathematical formulae. On the other hand, I admire a pupil Schoenberg had called George Tremblay. He wrote good music, and I like some of the rows that he invented very much. One of them I stole blind. But when I hear somebody like Boulez, who has a phenomenal mind, say that he finds Puccini tawdry. Well, fine. But it moves me. The last act of Bohème or the beginning of Turandot are irreplaceable for me. And the more they go for the throat in the interpretation, the better it is for me. I love it.

FJO: And talk about a great orchestrator.

AP: Oh? You know, as an orchestrator myself, I take a look at some of the Puccini opera orchestrations, and there’s nothing on the page for Christ’s sake. There’s so little written down, but it’s perfect. It’s absolutely perfect. I think that he wanted to have an emotional impact, and he certainly was successful at it. When people say, “Well yes, but at the same time, you had so-and-so and so-and-so and they were much more intellectual”—fine. I know that Elliott [Carter] said that he would call any place purgatory that played Rosenkavalier. It’s a funny line, but I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it because Rosenkavalier is irresistible for me. There are moments I don’t like—Baron Ochs and all that—but that’s neither here nor there. I think you have to surrender to music as it’s played, not on a cheap level but on the level of being emotional about it, which is why I love Rachmaninoff. I adore Richard Strauss, and this is why I like the Berg Violin Concerto more than I do, let’s say, Elektra. I wish I had a really textbook or lecture-worthy reason for this, but if music doesn’t get to me, to put it bluntly, it doesn’t exist for me.

FJO: Well to further riff on John Harbison’s comment about the last 50 years being absent in your music, one of the most important things that has been happening in music during the last 50 years, and something that you have been involved with for the last 70 years, has been jazz.

AP: Yeah. Sure.

FJO: You mentioned the piano variations you wrote for Manny Ax which were based on Haydn. To my ears that’s actually is the most modernist-sounding music you’ve written.

AP: I haven’t heard it in years.

FJO: But there’s an even earlier piano variations that you recorded back when you were a teenager that you called Variations on a Theme which you probably also haven’t heard in years. It was coming out of stride piano, but it also hinted at Debussy and Hindemith. It’s wonderful. It’s one of my favorite things of yours.

AP: Well that’s nice. Thank you.

FJO: I felt like you were continuing the path that Bix Beiderbecke took with In a Mist, the only solo piano recording he ever made shortly before he died so young. He was never able to follow up on that really organic synthesis of jazz and classical music, but it sounded like you were and that you had possibly gone even further with it.

AP: Well, but you see, if I were to pick up a pencil and say, “I’m now going to write a jazz-influenced piece,” you’d have a bigger point than you have. But I don’t do that. If it comes out, it comes out. It’s the point I’ve made all along in our conversation today. Sometimes I write a phrase and I suddenly think, “Well, this would be nice if it were phrased like a jazz phrase.” But I don’t set out to do it. It’s so interesting that even in jazz, new things are looked askance. I personally don’t understand what Ornette Coleman was about. The fact that Lenny Bernstein got up in the audience at Birdland and ran up to the stage and kissed him is beyond me. O.K., be that as it may. I know that my father was a good musician, but not professional. He was a lawyer. I played him some Charlie Parker records once, and he thought it was a looney child blowing ad libitum into a plastic saxophone. He couldn’t hear it. He just couldn’t hear it. And I find it intensely moving. So again, it depends on what you grow up with. The heroes of your youth remain the heroes. For me, my goodness, could Art Tatum play the piano, and Oscar Peterson!

Oscar Peterson and André Previn playing together during their series for BBC Four television, which was originally broadcast in December 1977, is a particularly satisfying jazz piano summit. The entire series can be streamed from Encore Music Lessons.

 

AP: And certainly Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were major people. On the other hand, Ellington’s music is wonderful, but I’d rather hear the Basie band, because the Basie band is really basic.

FJO: It’s really about groove.

AP: There used to be a black Baptist church near where I used to live in Bedford Hills and they had a chorus that I absolutely adored. And I took Ray Brown, the bass player, there once and I was jumping all over the place. I loved it so much. And he said, “You’re an idiot, man. If you had them play what they’re singing on instruments, you’d have the Basie band.” Of course, he was right. So there are all kinds of jazz available for admiration, just as many as there are of classical pieces, I think.

FJO: You said that you didn’t understand what Ornette Coleman was about, but I tracked down and listened to a recording you made with someone who had been doing some pretty radical things with jazz a few years before Coleman started promulgating harmolodics—a composer, arranger, and bandleader named Lyle “Spud” Murphy.

AP: Oh my God. Yeah.

FJO: You were the pianist in his big band.

AP: On one record.

FJO: It’s actually the most out jazz piano playing I’ve ever heard from you, particularly on a track called “Fourth Dimension.”

AP: Really?

FJO: And it’s wonderful.

AP: I don’t think I’ve heard it since we left the studio.

FJO: That was in 1955.

AP: Oh please.

FJO: What attracted me to it is that he claimed what he was doing was 12-tone jazz. In fact, the title of the album is Twelve-Tone Compositions and Arrangements. As soon as I saw that title, I wanted to hear the record.

AP: You got me. I didn’t hear that.

FJO: I don’t hear it either. It’s very chromatic though. They use all the intervals, so I guess that’s what he meant by 12-tone, as opposed to any kind of systemic serial ordering.

AP: If that’s what enticed him to write, then he’s right. It’s perfectly O.K. I don’t care what you call music.

FJO: I’d like to talk with you some more about what you were starting to say about there being a generation gap for likes and dislikes, when you described your father’s inability to appreciate Charlie Parker.

AP: As I told you, my father was a musician. When I was a kid, the Los Angeles Philharmonic played one of the first performances of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. Well I went, and I was floored. I thought it was the most ingenious, happy, wonderful piece I knew. I went home full of excitement and I said to my father, “I heard the most wonderful piece.” He asked what it was and he didn’t know it. But he said, “If you’re that excited by it, they’re doing a repeat performance of it tonight. I’ll take you.” So, I said, “Great.” And we went and we heard it again. And at the end of it, this old gentleman with a German accent said, “Well, it’s not the Eroica.” At that point, I kind of sank in my chair, and I thought, “It’s not supposed to be the Eroica. It doesn’t try to be the Eroica. Why should it be the Eroica?” But he was serious; he didn’t think it was that good, so forget it.

The same thing happens with jazz. But the very, very serious jazz, I don’t much like. I can’t think of anybody right now who’s doing it, but I never thought that Boyd Raeburn was that impressive. It’s a lot of dissonances. On the other hand, I don’t like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band; that’s too primitive for me. I don’t like folk music very much. I certainly hate Hawaiian music, or any of those things.

FJO: Really. I’m a huge fan of Sol Ho’opi’i, an incredible Hawaiian guitarist who made a bunch of dazzlingly virtuosic recordings in the 1930s. He might change your mind.

AP: Yeah? Well, I’ll have to hear it. I don’t know. On the other hand, do you know Conlon Nancarrow’s music?

FJO: Yes, of course.

AP: Isn’t that wonderful?

FJO: Very.

AP: No matter how off the wall that gets, I’m impressed and I love it. And I also get a big charge out of it. I think it’s wonderful. I couldn’t duplicate it, but it’s wonderful. It is quite amazing how different ears receive different music. You know what I mean? I do not particularly like Saint-Saëns’s music, but my goodness, he was a great musician. You know, talk about writing fast and a lot, and if I hear somebody good playing Saint-Saëns—whether it’s a violin concerto, or cello or piano, or even one of the symphonies—it impresses me. I love it and I’d love to hear that again. Whereas the more scholarly of my colleagues say, “I don’t want to hear that again.” Why not? Because it’s not the Eroica?

FJO: It’s interesting when you say Saint-Saëns, because the music of his that I really treasure is his chamber music. And I actually feel it has a connection to your output, since he too wrote a great clarinet sonata and a really formidable bassoon sonata.

AP: And that wonderful septet. Isn’t that fun?

FJO: Absolutely. But, to bring it back to how people come to determine what they like and what they don’t like, the folks who say that something is not the Eroica are a curse to anyone who wants to write a piece of music, because we’ve got that history behind us.

AP: That even floored Brahms before his First Symphony. He didn’t want to write Beethoven’s Tenth.

FJO: And, as you said, it’s true for jazz too—anybody getting on a stage or a club who is trying to do something new on the saxophone or on the piano faces the same dilemma as anybody writing a new piece of music—whether it’s a string quartet or a new orchestra piece. You’re inevitably going to get compared to the stuff that came before that people have heard and think is great. That’s not to deny that it is great, but it’s been heard so many times before that people know it and accept it as great without having to determine that for themselves, so it’s very difficult to compete with; something new doesn’t come pre-approved the same way.

AP: I know what you mean. When I did Turangalîla with the Chicago Symphony, they hated it. Oh God, did they hate that piece! And the old man was there, Messaien. After the first movement, which is considerable, I said to him, “Is there anything you want in this?” And he said, “Well, could it be a little more pink?” And I said, “A little more pink? You mean, plus rose?” “Yes.” Then I turned to the fiddle and I gave him a look that would have wilted a gorilla, you know, and I said, “The composer would like it to be more pink.” And Sam, the concertmaster, turned around to his section, and he said, “Boys, more pink.” And that was it. It was great. It was a wonderful way out because what he was saying really is, “Screw you. Are you kidding?” But, he got what he wanted.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear that story because I swear by the recording you made of Turangalîla with the London Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s. But I heard the Chicago Symphony perform Turangalîla at Ravinia in the 1990s, which I imagine was long after you had performed it with them. They must have gotten used to the piece by that point since I thought they did a really tremendous job.

AP: Even with me, they could play it. My God, they could play anything. That last movement is so rhythmically complicated; it’s like The Rite of Spring times two.

FJO: But you raise an important issue in terms of how to most effectively negotiate with players in order to overcome their resistance to playing a new—or at least a relatively new—piece of music.

AP: Well, there are always people in the orchestra who will feel that way, but they’re usually in the minority. But I’m very aware of how lucky I am now. When I first started composing, nobody wanted to know. Now, if I write a piece and I let certain orchestras and certain soloists know that I’ve written it, they all want to do it. Well, not all, but a great many of them. All these orchestras that suddenly are doing my pieces amaze me. They don’t care whether it’s new or old or whatever. It’s just a piece of music they haven’t played, which is really the healthiest thing in the world. That’s what happens in Tanglewood. I had a piece called Owls, and the student orchestra played it, and they didn’t know if it was modern or old-fashioned or tricky or whatever. It was just a piece. There it was in front of them, and they played it. It’s wonderful.

FJO: I know you said that there are no secret messages in your music, but there’s something that’s been baffling me. I can’t figure out your title Octet for Eleven. I was rummaging through the score thinking, “O.K., it’s for eleven players but maybe only eight people ever play at once, and that’s the trick.” But there’s a tutti where all of them are playing. So what does the title mean?

AP: A corny joke. That’s all it is. The joke is that there is no octet for eleven people. I like tricky titles. I also like Honey and Rue. I like all that stuff. I just thought it’s an octet, yes, but I did put an extra bass in it and this and that, so let’s call it Octet for Eleven. I hate to disappoint you, but there’s absolutely nothing behind that.

 

FJO: I wanted to follow up on the comment you made earlier about early music conductors not wanting vibrato based on historical considerations. There’s also a question of intelligibility when it comes to sung text. One of the things that’s so striking to me about your two operas is that you can always hear the words that people are singing, which is not true for many operas sung in English.

AP: I’m probably very annoying to singers, because I want to be able to hear the words. There are all kinds of technical things. I’m not much for putting one syllable on 14 different notes the way it can be done. I like one note per word, you know. Then very often I’ve said to singers whom I even admire or adore, “Could you sing more oratorio and less opera?” They all know what I mean, and they usually comply. I don’t like terribly operatic singing. It disturbs me; I don’t understand the words and, unfortunately, I sometimes think it’s funny. I like operatic singing, but it depends on what opera, you know. I find some of the most admired operatic singing, which is Wagner, alien to me. I find it too aggressive and I think it’s tough on the voice; it’s certainly tough on the words. On the other hand, if you do Pelléas or Manon or Wozzeck, then it’s worth having whatever they bring to it. In A Streetcar Named Desire, I knew that Renée [Fleming] had three big arias, but none of them are really huge operatic arias. And besides, Renée is much too smart to ever put the voice to purposes that it wasn’t meant. The same thing with Elizabeth Futral in my other opera, Brief Encounter—she’s a wonderful singer. But she started out in full cry, and I said, “Don’t do that. I’m always going to fight you on that. Can you kind of calm it down?” And she did instantly, and it was ten times as good for me. Whether it really is or not, I don’t know, but that’s one of the privileges I take hold of as the composer. I want it sung the way I want it sung.

Cover of the DVD case for the San Francisco Opera production of A Streetcar Named Desire

A DVD of the San Francisco Opera production of A Streetcar Named Desire was released shortly after the 1998 premiere, but it is currently only available in a PAL format reissue from Arthaus that can only be accessed with a Region 2 player. However an audio recording of the production was also released by Deutsche Grammophon

FJO: Well, an opera is supposed to be telling a story on stage. You mention Wagner. Things happen so slowly in those operas. In a way, they have to because if they didn’t, you wouldn’t know what was going on. But both Streetcar and Brief Encounter are fast and action-packed. Words need to be flying back and forth, so a long melisma wouldn’t deliver it; it would be completely wrong. I think you did precisely the right thing.

AP: And also, Streetcar is one of the great American plays. It really is. It’s wonderful. But it is not a play where you want to linger over every syllable. I got confused by Antony and Cleopatra because Sam Barber is one of my favorite composers, but he’s very fond of putting a syllable onto four or five notes. By the time four or five notes have gone by, you don’t know what the first one was. If he were more aware of getting the words into the auditorium, that would not happen. But I can’t argue with Sam Barber, because he’s a great composer.

FJO: Well, with Vanessa it really worked. But once again, that’s a story with few characters and long, drawn-out action, whereas Antony and Cleopatra is this giant pageant and there’s a lot going on. So it’s much harder to process.

AP: Yes.

FJO: It’s important for the music to fit the story it’s going with. Still, no matter what, if you’re writing work for an opera house there are certain conventions that singers conform to, as well as conventions that audiences expect or things that the halls that are built for these things serve best. It’s a catch-22 for American composers. Tons of composers are now writing operas, but not everyone wants to write things that sound like operas. For a long time, you could never get a new American opera programmed; thankfully that has changed. But, in part because of this exile from the opera house, composers turned to other outlets and there’s a whole tradition of a vernacular American opera—the music for Broadway theater. In musicals the words always get across, but you’re not necessarily dealing with singers who can sing music off the page in the same way.

AP: You mean, like Marc Blitzstein?

FJO: Blitzstein is an excellent example. There are many others. You, in fact, also wrote a Broadway show, Coco.

AP: Yeah, but it was a straightforward Broadway show.

FJO: Admittedly, the technical demands you placed on singers in it were nowhere near the level of your operas. Katharine Hepburn would have never been able to sing the role of Blanche Dubois!

AP: She couldn’t sing Coco either. Oh God, that was brutal. When she finally quit after a year, we got Danielle Darrieux. It was the first time Alan Lerner and I knew we had written a musical, because you could hear the words and the melodies. And she was charming.

FJO: But it didn’t last because she wasn’t the box office draw that Hepburn had been.

AP: No. It didn’t last at all. Everybody wanted Hepburn. I didn’t blame them. She’s wonderful. But, in a musical, I don’t know.

During the 1970 Tony Awards, members of the original cast of Coco, including Katharine Hepburn, performed excerpts from the show. The original Broadway cast album was reissued in 1997

 

FJO: So that experience turned you off to writing another Broadway musical?

AP: It depends on what the subject matter is. There are many Broadway shows I wish I had written, or wish I could get my hands on, but it’s not a lasting ambition with me. I’d rather write an opera. I’d write a light opera, for instance. Tom Stoppard and I are about to start working on a one-act opera. I can’t discuss it, because he doesn’t want me to.

Broadway now is so different. When I was a young man, Broadway wasn’t owned by Walt Disney. And all these ridiculous, foppish, stupid musicals that are on now! They’re not interesting musically or visually or anything. Well, Lion King is. But the goal of a Broadway opera is completely different now, I think. I don’t think that Rodgers and Hart, or Jerry Kern would be such a smash now.

FJO: I recently went to see The Visit, which was the last show to make it to Broadway that John Kander wrote with Fred Ebb before Ebb died.

AP: Really? I didn’t know that.

FJO: It only lasted a couple of months even though the cast was headed by a Broadway legend, Chita Rivera. It was a fascinating show, but it might have been a little too serious for the current climate on Broadway.

AP: On the other hand, the musical based on The Shop Around the Corner was one of my favorite musicals. It’s absolutely charming and not at all too serious. But it was not funny. It was witty. And there again, it didn’t last that long. St. Louis Woman is also a wonderful show. I like Broadway musicals, but I tend not to go for a whole bunch of reasons. First of all, the mystique that goes with it makes me nervous. And then $200 a ticket makes me nervous. I come from the day when a Broadway show was five bucks.

FJO: I remember when it was 12 bucks, but now tickets at the Metropolitan Opera can be even more expensive than Broadway tickets. So, in that sense, it’s not different.

AP: No, but you know going in what you’re going to hear. You know, if a ticket for Wozzeck is $200, well, you spend it because you want to hear Wozzeck, not because you wonder how this is going to be.

FJO: Not if you’re going to a performance of a brand new opera. That’s as risky as going to a new Broadway show.

AP: Well, I have no answer for that. New music, generally speaking, is looked askance at.

FJO: Of course in creating a new piece, it can help assure an audience that they’re going to see something of consequence when they know that it is based on something that they know is of consequence. It’s perhaps the next best thing to knowing that the Eroica is on the program, to come back to that conversation. It’s probably why there have been so many operas based on pre-existing literary classics. You certainly are always drawn to great literature. You mentioned Streetcar being one of the great plays. In Brief Encounter, you were also working with great material—the original play by Noël Coward, as well as the David Lean film. And you just mentioned a new project with Tom Stoppard, with whom you’ve worked before, who is a famous, highly respected playwright. But even your songs—you’ve set Emily Dickinson, Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje. These are all top-shelf people. When I did a talk with Ned Rorem, he said the reason why his songs are good is that he only sets the best texts.

AP: He’s probably right. I also love the prose that I set by Isak Dinesen. It’s a terrific paragraph and very touching. I’m not about to set music to drivel; it doesn’t interest me. I like Theodore Roethke, and there’s quite a lot that needs to be set.

FJO: Now there was an Italian novel you were going to make into an opera. What happened to that?

AP: What happened is that the man got greedy and sold it to a higher bidder, long after we were in discussions about it. So it never happened.

FJO: So someone else did an opera?

AP: I think it was played once in Topeka or something. But it didn’t work.

FJO: Of all the texts that you’ve set, that was the only text and the only author I hadn’t heard of.

AP: It’s a very strange novel, but very good. But no, it didn’t happen. The man— you couldn’t blame him. He just suddenly got an incredible offer and the poor bum said “Sure, anything” and took it away from us.

FJO: So in terms of other things that you want to write. You mentioned Brahms waiting so long to write a symphony based on feeling paralyzed by the weight of what had proceeded him in the genre. Is that the same reason you haven’t written one?

AP: Yeah, I’m just scared of it.

FJO: But you’re not scared of operas or concertos?

AP: It’s that first page. I can’t deny that. I don’t want to face it. But I probably will; if I get old enough, I’ll write one.

FJO: Now, one area that we haven’t touched on yet at all is that you spent years writing scores for motion pictures. I think that was probably an excellent training ground for writing music that pushes a narrative forward.

AP: Oh, I don’t. It’s a well-known fact that the worse the movie, the more music there is. If you have a really idiotic movie, the music never stops, because the poor producer says, “Do something.” So, we all make a noise. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t wonderful scores, but it’s not music that interests me anymore—at all. And I mean, I did it; I wrote for some 50 movies. But I could not face as an ambition, years from then, writing music which would be played while Debbie Reynolds spoke. What would interest me as a composer is if they still made those big swashbucklers. You know, The Sea Hawk or something—that’s fun. I’d love to do that with a great big Strauss orchestra—eight horns belting away. But the normal score now? It doesn’t interest me at all. I admire Johnny Williams. He’s very good at what he does, and he writes very good themes. Now, Anne-Sophie made him an offer. She said, “Why don’t you write me a concerto?” And he said, “Oh, I don’t write that kind of music.” And she said, “Yes, you do. You write beautiful themes.”

FJO: But he wrote a trombone concerto?

AP: Did he?

FJO: It’s a pretty solid piece.

AP: He also wrote a bassoon concerto, which I like very much. Anyway, he back pedaled on that, but she kept asking and just recently he said, “Look, I’m not going to write one. I’m just not. I can’t do it. I haven’t got the background for it, and I don’t think I want to.” And she said O.K. But she said to me, “This is silly, because I’d play it everywhere.” I’ve known Johnny ever since we were both rehearsal pianists at a ballroom dancing school on La Brea Avenue. We used to take turns playing “Blueberry Hill.” Oh boy. Anyway, I don’t think he is willing to gamble with his own talent. He’s wonderfully talented and a tremendous orchestrator, but he doesn’t believe it. And a big piece—it’s a lot of pages. I don’t think that he has belief enough in his own talent, even though he has more than enough talent to do it.

FJO: Maybe it’s taking him too far out of his comfort zone in terms of the context.

AP: Comfort zone? He’s a millionaire.

FJO: I mean his comfort zone creatively.

AP: Oh, sure.

The original LP cover of My Fair Lady performed by Shelly Manne and his Friends (Previn and Leroy Vinnegar) features a woman wearing an elaborate hat drinking a cup of tea.

The cover of the 1956 Contemporary Records LP My Fair Lady by Shelly Manne and his Friends (Previn and Leroy Vinnegar) which was the first album ever made consisting entirely of jazz versions of tunes from a single Broadway musical and was the first jazz album to sell a million copies.

FJO: What I find so interesting about the trajectory that you have taken as a composer is that you seem to be always doing things you haven’t done before. You became really successful as a jazz pianist; one of your albums was the first jazz record to sell a million copies. But you started writing Hollywood scores. After you made your mark doing that, winning four Oscars, you wrote a Broadway musical. After all that, you started writing for orchestra, then opera. Last year you finally wrote a wind band piece. So you’re always purposefully escaping your own comfort zones.

AP: Absolutely. I’m a big believer in that. But I think for a composer to suddenly decide, “O.K. I’m now going to write a piece for 12 gongs,” it’s not really an interesting idea. I sat next to Wolfgang Rihm at one of the Siemens Prizes a couple of years ago. They give annual awards to young composers, and they had two of them there. One of them had written a piece for 12 unaccompanied E-flat clarinets. Can you imagine that noise? It was beyond belief. Halfway through, I turned to Wolfgang and I said, “Am I crazy, or is this just a piece of shit?” And he said, “Oh, it’s not good enough to be a piece of shit.” Just to be different isn’t good enough anymore. It just isn’t. It’s like the young instrumentalists who can play everything you put in front of them but not necessarily with understanding.

I like trying something new. I like it very much. I wrote a nonet—double string quartet and bass—just now. It hasn’t been played yet. It’s going to be premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in two months. And Anne-Sophie called me and said, “The first movement isn’t long enough; can you write me a cadenza?” But I’d done that [before]. So then I thought she had that wonderful bass player in the nonet. So I said, “Why don’t I write you a cadenza where you are all over the place and he never stops playing anything but pizzicato? That might be interesting.” And she said, “Really?” And I said. “Really, I think so.” And she said, “Good.” So I’m working on it. I have no idea whether it’s any good or not, but it’s something I haven’t done.

FJO: So that’s actually an example of you going back into a piece and changing it!

AP: Well, adding to it. But only under the threat of “we won’t play it.”

FJO: That’s a big threat. To bring this full circle: in the beginning I referenced Elliott Carter’s flippant comment about writing faster in his old age because he had learned how to write Elliott Carter’s music, but he actually wasn’t writing the same music at all; he was actually writing things that were completely unlike his earlier things.

AP: I love that 20-minute opera he wrote.

FJO: What Next?

AP: Yeah, wasn’t that good? I’m not a big Elliott Carter believer, but that was wonderful.

FJO: Learning how to write the music that you write is the opposite of taking a challenge, the opposite of doing something new. So you don’t want to write a piece you’ve written before. You may not necessarily want to write for twelve E-flat clarinets or eight gongs, but you want to do something different. You’re not going to write a straight-ahead violin cadenza, because you already have written one. Of course, the most effective composers are always balancing what they know they do well with taking on new challenges.

AP: If I were still working with films, which I haven’t done now since the mid ‘60s, I would probably fall back on certain clichés that I know work since I don’t want to spend a lifetime at it. Johnny Williams wrote in Tanglewood in the bungalow next to mine, and then he’d have his orchestrator [Herbert Spencer] come up and he’d hand him whatever he was working on. Johnny handed him something that looked like Meistersinger for God’s sake, and he said, “Let me explain this to you.” Herbie looked at the music, and he said, “No, I know this one.” The orchestrator didn’t mean any insult at all, but it was funny. I could see where he could take that very badly. But on the other hand, it was probably true. It was probably done on purpose. If you write movie music, you’re never given enough time, and they don’t want to hear anything brand new anyway. So it is very likely to be things that they’ve done before. You can always tell a Korngold score. You can always tell a Rózsa score. You can always tell an Elmer Bernstein score, because it’s watered down Copland. When Elmer Bernstein got a western to do, he’d say, “Oh yeah, I did Magnificent Seven. Let’s do that again.” There’s nothing wrong with it. It worked very well. It’s interesting music. You’re not going to wrack your brain thinking of novelties in a medium that doesn’t require it anyway. A very good film composer used to be a man called Jerry Goldsmith—brilliant and interesting music.

André Previn's four Oscars sit together on a table near the window in his living room.

André Previn’s four Oscars sit together on a table near the window in his living room.

FJO: You did all these different kinds of things as a composer—jazz, film music, Broadway, opera, orchestral music. You also were very active as a classical pianist and, of course, as a conductor, leading some of the world’s top orchestras—the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the London Symphony. But these activities have been separate worlds. If anybody was ever in a position to come up with some kind of grand synthesis of music in our time, which would be music that somehow connected all of these things, it would be you. To that end, you did in fact make some wonderful recordings of all your original music for quintet featuring Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, and Jim Hall with you and Itzak Perlman. It seems completely incongruous that these people played together. And yet it really works.

AP: Yes, it works.

FJO: But it’s an anomaly. For the most part, it seems like you’d rather just perfect each separate strand rather than bring them together.

AP: I never thought of bringing it together. I see no particularly connective tissue between those things. I wrote a jazz album for J.J. Johnson and myself and a rhythm section, and the producer of the record, Irv Townsend, said, “Would you guys try playing ‘Mack the Knife’?” Well, that was the day when everybody did “Mack the Knife,” and both J.J. and I went, “Hmmm.” And I said, “I’ll tell you what, J.J. I’ll comp in G-flat, and you play it in C, and then we’ll turn it around.” It’s always in both keys; it’s that Petrushka thing. And we did it and everybody said, “God almighty, what a sound!” There’s nothing to it. You know what I mean? We just played it. We didn’t think about it. I think that it’s important that you don’t spend forever thinking about why you write something. Just do it.

This is out of left field, but Sinclair Lewis gave a lecture. I think it was at Harvard. After huge applause and all of that, he said to the very full auditorium, “How many of you want to be writers?” A great many raised their hands. And he said, “Why aren’t you home writing?” That’s good, isn’t it?

FJO: I heard a variation of that story, only it was Kurt Vonnegut who gave the speech.

AP: Really.

FJO: But he was a lot nastier to everybody, at least according to the version I heard. Maybe Vonnegut stole the line from Sinclair Lewis, but he embellished it. He was invited to give a talk to a group of aspiring writers at a university, so he went up to the podium and began by saying, “How many of you want to be writers?” And after almost everyone raised their hands, he shouted, “So why the fuck are you sitting here listening to me? Go home and write.” And then he walked out. That was the entire speech.

AP: But that’s too rough. Walking out is beyond the pale. It’s interesting that you used that language.

FJO: Well, I was just using the language he used.

AP: I understand. When I was at Eastman, there were two afternoons of question and answer. There were about 800 kids at each one, and the questions were very good because they weren’t all complimentary. They were all over the map. On the second day, a young man got up in the back and said, “When you worked in films, did you work in Los Angeles?” “Yes,” I said. “Did you ever a meet a German émigré composer called Ernst Toch?” I said I was taken to play for him by David Raksin, who was a friend of mine. “What happened?” he asked, and I said:

Well, the old gentleman made me improvise and then made me read something at the end of which he said in this kind of station house accent, “You haff no talent.” First of all, I don’t think it’s the right thing to say to a 16-year old. The other thing is that if he had said, “I don’t like the way you improvise,” that’s fair enough. Or “I don’t like the way you play.” Fair enough. But “You have no talent”? That’s a little heavy for me, because I didn’t agree with that.

And the kids did a collective intake of breath, huuuhhh, because they identified with that moment. And the young man said, “Did you answer him?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “What did you say?” I said, “Fuck you.” This was from the stage of this conservatory. The poor dean turned green with fear, you know. And I said, “Wait a minute. They’ve all used that word. They all know what it means.” It was the biggest round of applause I have ever received from students.

FJO: But how did Toch react to that?

AP: Oh well, he threw me out. But I’m still glad I did it.

Sarah Kirkland Snider: The Full 360

A conversation at the composer’s home in Princeton, New Jersey
August 6, 2015—1:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

September is gearing up to be a big month for composer and New Amsterdam Records co-founder Sarah Kirkland Snider. A recording of her impressive 13-part song cycle Unremembered will be released by her label on September 4, and the North Carolina Symphony will give the world premiere of her Hiraeth just a couple of weeks later. Her 2015-16 season will also include premieres with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and as part of the BAM Next Wave Festival featuring the Young People’s Chorus of New York.

So Snider was already mentally juggling quite a few projects when she hit pause in order to sit down and chat with us. Once her husband (the composer Steven Mackey) and So Percussion’s Jason Treuting wrapped up a high-volume session in the couple’s downstairs studio, she quickly opened up about her approach to integrating disparate influences, embracing deeply emotional content, and the process of developing her signature works.

And being a female composer and mom, of course. No, no…just kidding.

Well, sort of. During the car ride between the train station and her home, we actually joked about how even well-meaning interviews with women in new music too often defaulted to questions about the impact of child rearing and gender on the creation of music, yet we also agreed that there was much that still needed to be said. In her household, she pointed out, the question might be better addressed to Steve, the parent more likely to chaperone their two small children to lessons and outside activities, but it was not one he tended to field as a matter of course. So would we talk about it, should we avoid it? We debated. In the end, the answer emerged as naturally as the bigger themes our conversation centered around: that embracing the full diversity of one’s creative life and mind was essential to generating the most interesting and powerful work—and to better understanding and supporting the artist behind the music.

*
Molly Sheridan: It seems as if no writer can resist pointing out how you mix pop and classical elements in your work, and clearly there are reasons for this—from instrumentation to vocal style to the artists you work with. The tone of shock that often accompanies this sort of description, however, has always seemed strange to me, as if composers were otherwise kept completely sheltered from contemporary life. Still, was this integration of elements a style that you developed over time or was it your instinct from the start?

Sarah Kirkland Snider: Well, looking back for a second, I grew up a total classical music nerd, studying piano and cello, and singing in choirs, but at home my parents were always playing pop music. So I had this life that was filled with a lot of music. I would go to my orchestra rehearsals or my piano lessons and hear classical music, and then I’d be home hearing the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac and Joni Mitchell. For me, it was all just music. I didn’t have anybody telling me that pop was down here and classical was up here. It was all just ways to express oneself musically.

I started writing music when I was a kid, but I didn’t take my first composition lesson until I was 25. At that point, my first teacher made it very clear to me that I needed to bifurcate and strip away the pop influences, set aside my interests and just focus on the classical tradition. I definitely got the message that you were supposed to keep them separate. Then going to Yale was interesting because it was a much more relaxed mindset and there were professors and students with lots of different ideologies. I became increasingly uncomfortable keeping the pop influence away. I remember leaving a seminar at Yale and getting in my car and listening to Sleater-Kinney, and I was just like, why is there this weird divide? And the reason why it was often Sleater-Kinney was because of the female issue. I was frustrated; I was the only female in my class at Yale for the first two years, so it was a constant issue for me. I realized that I was subconsciously associating all the things I didn’t like about new music—pedagogy, ideology, over-intellectualization—with a male mindset, and so I would need to go and get in my car and listen to Sleater-Kinney so that I could just steep myself in a completely different vibe and mindset.

I think that, subconsciously, that also had to do with the reason why, when I left Yale, I started incorporating my pop influences. It was a bit of a rebellion.

MS: So you felt required to strip away something that was important to you. Yet was there something valuable to be found in that because that forced you to stretch in other directions?

SKS: Absolutely. I went into composition with the zeal of a convert, and I didn’t see it as a bad thing that I was being taught to open my mind. My first lesson was with this amazing teacher, Justin Dello Joio. My undergrad degree was not in music, and so he was trying to give me all of that in our private lessons. I brought him a piano piece, and it was basically within the span of two octaves. He said, “Use the whole instrument. You’re not thinking idiomatically enough and you’re not thinking virtuosically enough about the instrument.” I started studying a lot of piano music—which I had played, but I hadn’t looked at from this perspective. I really wanted to write music that was technically demanding and challenging. We studied everything from Palestrina and Bach to Ligeti and Lutoslawski, which really pushed me as a composer.

So there was a lot of great stuff that came from that—thinking about rhythm differently, thinking about harmony. He definitely got me to open up. I’m really grateful for all of that. The only negative thing to say, I guess, is that I felt like there was a side of my musical personality that I couldn’t access in my writing. So it took a while for that to come out, and there’s a very practical reason that unlocked it, which has to do with Penelope.

MS: And what was that?

SKS: After Yale, the playwright Ellen McLaughlin asked me to write music for a commission she had from the Getty Center to do a piece on the five female characters of the Odyssey. Initially, it was supposed to be a song cycle, but then it became a play—a play with some music. It evolved a lot, but in the end, we had a play that she wanted to perform as a monodrama for herself.

She hadn’t sung in years and she couldn’t read music, so it was very important that I write something that she could learn by ear. She and I had been to new music concerts together, and I knew she was frustrated with a lot of the music that she would hear. She felt like there wasn’t a strong enough emotional component. I also knew the kind of music that she liked, which was the ‘60s folk tradition. I wanted to write something that she could really own and get inside of and be herself singing, as well as learn by ear. That gave me permission to write in a style that did incorporate my popular music interests.

It was initially difficult for me, because I felt the voices of my teachers on my shoulder telling me not to do a lot of the things that I was doing—not to write four-bar phrases, not to write antecedent-consequent phrases, not to have verse and chorus. A lot of the poetry that Ellen gave me was written intentionally to have a verse-chorus structure, and she had no hang-ups about that. So I felt like, okay, I need to put aside the problematic things I learned while a student at Yale and try to just write this music the way I think she would like it to be written. So, that’s what gave me permission to write Penelope in that way, but I’d never thought that I would do anything with it. In fact, I kept saying to [my husband] Steve [Mackey], “Oh, I’m spending all this time on Penelope, but you know, it’s never going to get performed again after this.” And he’s like, “You just wait and see. This is really beautiful. You should make a record out of it.” And I was like, “Really? Because this isn’t the kind of music that the new music world would embrace. I’d be blacklisted for writing this kind of music.”

Anyway, I’m sure in certain circles I have been but, bizarrely enough, it became my most successful piece, which I think says a lot more about the musical climate we’re living in now than it does about me as a composer. People are just more open to that now. I guess a cynical person would say that classical institutions are desperate to bring in new audiences, and they’re throwing out all of their important principles. Whatever. It became my most performed piece and the piece that’s gotten me the most commissions. So it’s been an interesting lesson.

The other lesson I took from it was that I really enjoyed writing that kind of music. It felt really good to access that side of myself again. It was the kind of music that I had written from the time I was ten, mixing Debussy and Joni Mitchell, and to me that felt very natural. This is me when I’m in the dark and nobody’s watching. I can just let all of this come to the forefront and not feel self-conscious about it. But, actually, I find that I do still feel self-conscious about it. It’s always an issue, because once you get taught these shoulds and shouldn’ts, it’s hard to get them out of your head.

MS: It’s so interesting that this piece became your calling card, but it started out as this sort of secret side project.

SKS: It really was a secret shame. I probably shouldn’t say that, but honestly, it was. I felt so self-critical, and so apologetic. And I felt very worried about how [the recording] would be perceived by the classical world, and so it completely floored me that it made these top ten lists and that certain classical critics were saying nice things about it.

MS: We put so much stock in the authenticity of a creative voice. In a sense, whether you were willing to admit it to yourself or not, were you taking steps toward your authentic self through this work? For as admittedly loaded as all those words are.

SKS: It wasn’t consciously that, but I think it was that. What I was trying to do when I wrote that music was just immerse myself in the story. Ultimately, I was trying to write from the point of view of this woman who was dealing with this very difficult situation. That more than anything is the guiding principal that I try to have in mind when I’m writing a piece of music.  It’s like: What is the emotional story here? And how do I immerse myself in that?  And how do I be true, most true to that emotion?  And how do I be the most honest, and the most candid, and put aside all of those well-intentioned shoulds and shouldn’ts that I learned in graduate school? I try to think about mood and emotion more than style, or all of that.  Because I think that all of that stuff separates you from what is really a true emotion that you’re feeling.  I think all of that can be very emotionally crippling actually and can really strangle you creatively. I didn’t write any music for my first six months at Yale because I was so worried about breaking any rule that was in one of my teacher’s minds.

I actually think it’s one of the more interesting questions about the whole gender issue that nobody wants to touch—that women are acculturated to be in touch with their emotions. Girls are taught by society that it’s okay to cry and talk about their feelings. And music is an inherently emotional medium—at least I would argue that it is. Stravinsky might say otherwise, but for me there’s no other art form that is as viscerally engaging. So it’s a strange thing to then feel you have to have an intellectual foil for every earnest expression, which was one of the messages I got in my studies.

MS: You did have a long road to your official start as a composer. Now your work seems so sophisticated and carefully considered. There’s a lot of core skill—probably what you walked away with from Yale and the associated studies. So there were these skills learned, but it sounds like you struggled with how to fit your innate approach into that toolbox.

SKS: The music that I wrote at Yale was definitely emotional. No question about it. But it was this painful process of extracting it. I had a teacher who early on said, “You know, as a woman, you’re going to encounter some discrimination about your writing if it’s very melodic and lyrical. For a man to write melodic, lyrical music, that’s courageous. If a woman writes it, it’s sentimental.” When I got to Yale, I remember having a conversation with another teacher there who said something very similar. So there was always this push and pull, where I felt like, eff that: I’m just going to write as emotionally as possible because the only way we’re going to change this is if women actually do it so much that it becomes a normal, unremarkable thing. But at the same time, you know, you have to worry about competitions or your teachers recommending you for things. I often felt like there was a certain way to be emotional that was acceptable, and there was a certain way that wasn’t. Plus there were all these technical goals that I was wanting to achieve with the music at the same time. It would take me a lot of time to write a piece that I felt really good about.

MS: Do those pieces now feel like homework assignments, in a way, because you were exploring craft and you were going about it in a way that allowed you to produce quality music, but there were some fundamental things skewed about it?

SKS: You would think that, but actually, even when I had to do fugue exercises, I would wind up breaking whatever rules I had in order to make the piece more expressive. That’s why I got in to writing music. My earliest memories are musical ones where I was singing and narrating everything in song. I want to communicate with a listener and that’s always been important to me. So even my homework assignments were always probably some of the more overwrought with emotion. It’s just the way that I think musically.

MS: You have orchestral premieres coming up this season in North Carolina and in Detroit. I was thinking about the success of Penelope and the album release of your song cycle Unremembered in September and wondering about how you apply this voice when you now sit down to compose for these more traditional formats. Do you have to change your aesthetic or your approach to create the work? Do you feel like you’re actually shifting gears, or is it more a case of “This is the music I make. I’m simply going to create a piece for this type of ensemble.”?

SKS: I really don’t feel like I’m shifting gears. I think that all of my music is narrative driven—that’s what I’m the most interested in musically—mood and storytelling and atmosphere. So all of that is how I’m thinking when I’m composing. I’m not thinking about genre and style.

In the case of Unremembered, that was a project where the commissions came from two different places and the piece sort of evolved over time. It started out as a Roomful of Teeth commission. I wrote these five songs, based on these poems that I asked my friend Nathaniel [Bellows] to write. These poems felt like a leather-bound book of old stories that I wanted to dive into. I really loved writing those songs, so when we were finished, Nathaniel kept writing more poems and I decided to make it a song cycle. At the same time, I got a commission from the Ecstatic Music Festival, and because the commission was coming from Ecstatic, which is run by my [New Amsterdam Records] co-director Judd [Greenstein], it felt informal and relaxed, and they also are open to music that brings together different influences—in fact, they seek that. So I felt comfortable going into my most interior, honest, musical self. It’s a place that all of my music comes from, but here it had more opportunity to really show that melding of influences because it’s written for voice and you’re hearing non-classical singers. Well, I shouldn’t call them non-classical. They all have classical training. Padma [Newsome] and Shara [Worden] both have degrees in classical music—Shara in opera, Padma in composition—but they sing in a style that brings together lots of different influences. I think to me the music is not really any different from the other music I write, it just sounds different because of these singers.

Yet it’s a really interesting question because I do think that there’s an element of unselfconsciousness that I have writing a piece like Unremembered compared to writing a piece for, say, a piano competition. When you’re thinking about who you’re writing for, for me that definitely winds up influencing the music. If I’m thinking about a classical institution and their values and their history, that’s going to inevitably bring out something different in me than a piece written for my good friends who love all the same bands and the same classical composers that I do, and who understand that love of both worlds. For Unremembered, I felt like I could go even deeper into that because Shara had become my closest friend and we’d had so many conversations about classical versus pop music, and all of the frustrations that we had dealing with the lack of infrastructure to support music written in the cracks between those worlds. She also just so comfortably can inhabit both worlds, which is something that so few singers can do, so I felt like I could really let it rip. Like I can just close my eyes, be in the dark room, summon the most me that always felt a little bit repressed, and just let it say whatever the hell it wants to.

I get very confused by this question because I think about this a lot, and I wonder: How is the music different? I don’t want to think of it as being different, because then it feels like I’m holding back in some pieces. Writing this orchestra piece I’m writing now, I don’t feel like I’m holding back anything. I feel as at home writing this as I did writing Unremembered. But I listened to so much pop and rock music growing up that it felt like a home to me. Classical music did too, but in some ways, pop felt even more like a home because there weren’t things I didn’t know. I’d performed classical music since I was kid, but I was always aware that there was so much history and theory I didn’t know — I felt very intimidated and ignorant, and that stressed me out. Whereas with rock music, I’d communed with that music so deeply that it felt like it didn’t have anything over me.

MS: Well, where you might argue that a decade ago this intermingling was a specific side stream, those delineations continue to disappear by the year. You developed your own voice in the midst of that transition.

SKS: Now it’s normal. It’s almost weird if you don’t do it.

MS: Now, even when it comes to such a tradition-bound ensemble as the orchestra, it seems like the media has been suggesting that there is a swell of interest in new work—perhaps especially by this cohort of composers more comfortable with more mainstream musical idioms. Are you seeing evidence of such a move?

SKS: It’s tough because it gets to this idea of accessibility and no composer wants to talk about this. Because how do you define what’s accessible? And calling something accessible makes it sound dumbed down or not challenging, or like you’re compromising. But at the same time, audiences say things like, “I love this music. I felt like I could get into this music. Other new music, I can’t get into. I don’t understand. It feels like I need a degree to understand it.” There’s something real to that.

I think there’s something about narrative. I think there’s something about people feeling like they have a way in and can follow along—follow a story or that there’s some rhythmic hook or beautiful textures. I think it does have to do with things as basic as melody and narrative and having the form be something that feels grok-able by an average person. Average person? See, it’s so hard to talk about this!

MS: You’ve mentioned narrative a few times now. And a lot of your projects end up with additional elements, whether that’s videos or images, to carry some of that narrative weight, or there are performers on stage singing, using language. That seems like a preference for you.

SKS: I’ve always been very interested in narrative, and I’ve always been very interested in tension and release, which is really all that narrative is. Having problems and conflicts in the music, and then resolving them, all of those things are what drew me to classical music as a child. I was fascinated by the stories that Beethoven would tell, and the stories that Chopin would tell. I thought of them as stories. As a kid, I would want to know, “How was this conflict going to get resolved? And how are these characters going to figure out how to agree or co-exist?”

So I’ve always been really interested in that. This orchestra piece that I’m just finishing now for North Carolina, we created a film component to go with it. I was working with Mark DeChiazza, who works with new music composers and creates film that doesn’t compete too much with the music, but somehow complements it and provides another dimension, or another lens, through which to experience the music. He was saying that he feels like he’s picturing to score, as opposed to scoring to picture. When I’m writing this music, it feels like I’m making a film, or writing novel, or a short story. I really think about it in those kinds of terms. That’s how I get from one note to the next.

I need to have that, but when I was first studying composition, I was fighting that impulse a lot, because that wasn’t in fashion; having climaxes—that’s romantic and not really cool. You’re putting your heart on your sleeve. One of my teachers used to say that my music was too clear, that the audience always knew where they were in my pieces. I thought that was a good thing! There was a lot of new music where I had no idea where I was. The form felt totally random and arbitrary, and that would drive me nuts. I’m not trying to slag on any other kinds of music, but I need order. I think for me it’s because the world is such a chaotic place, and music feels like a place where I can actually take comfort in the order of things. So it’s an interest in telling stories, but I think it’s also a need for things to have purpose and meaning and reason behind them. I think that’s a huge part of what drives me—taking the chaos and the randomness of the universe and putting it into something meaningful to me emotionally.

MS: So if we can come down from the philosophical for a second, how does this actually work? What is your working process?

SKS: I start with tunes. I get a lot of melodies — motives usually, more than melodies, like short little melodic cells — stuck in my head. I sing them into my iPhone, and I have thousands of these. I take walks, and I’ll think about where an idea could go next. But it always starts with these little motivic cells. Then I’ll go to the piano and see what my hands have to say about it, because I find that my hands have other things to say than my brain does—so many years of being a pianist, so I always like to see what comes out of that. But then most of my music I just write directly into the computer. I don’t sit at the piano or a keyboard. I just hear things, and it’s a very intuitive process.

I use a lot of the craft that I was taught, and if I get stuck, that really helps a lot. Steve and I often joke, well, if you’re stuck, did you go through the inversion? Did you go through the retrograde inversion? Did you try—? You know, these tools that you wouldn’t think would be associated with the kind of music that we write, but that sometimes can be very helpful. And all of those things are a part of the toolbox which helps you see what your clay looks like: the shape of it, the feel of it, the texture, the look, and all of that. So I spend a lot of time doing that, trying to intellectually massage my material, but it always comes from a more emotional place initially.

MS: What about the fact that, at least for pieces such as Penelope and Unremembered, you’re writing for some very particular voices? Though it was interesting to me to realize that they had actually been written for several sets of very unique voices throughout a project’s evolution. So was that a conscious part of the compositional creation of the work? Or just a feature—that your work then can showcase that sort of artist?

SKS: After the theater version of Penelope was complete and I decided that I wanted to make a song cycle version out of it, there was this interim period where I worked with Signal and a classical singer— Rachel Calloway, who is an amazing singer, and I loved working with her. But I found that she wasn’t as comfortable singing it in a more pop style—which makes perfect sense. I realized it wasn’t really fair to ask a classical singer to go outside of that persona. It really needed to be sung by somebody who was coming organically from both worlds at the same time.

So I thought of Shara because I knew her music, and I had read that she had studied opera. Judd and I were talking about this one day, and I said, “You know, the only person I can imagine doing this is Shara Worden, but we don’t know her. How do I get her to do this? Why would she want to do this?” And he said, ” Actually, she’s a friend of Padma’s.” So I sent Shara an email out of the blue, and we met at a practice room in Midtown and played through some things. Immediately it was like, “Oh, this is exactly what Penelope needs. I don’t have to articulate anything to Shara about how it should be sung.” She just immediately got it.

So I went back home, opened up the cycle, and I changed a lot of things and tried to make it more relaxed and open to what Shara brings. That was a fun experience, artistically gratifying, but it still ultimately wasn’t something that was conceived from the ground up for Shara. And I wanted to do that. So, after the Roomful of Teeth versions of Unremembered, I then wrote eight more songs—just letting my imagination run wild, knowing Shara’s voice as well as I did at that point in time. It felt very natural; I had lots of ideas. I knew they would work for her, and I knew that she would get it. Working with her is like a mind meld. We don’t really have to talk about anything. She looks at the music, she sings it, and we’re there. You just don’t have that opportunity too many times in life, and that artistic connection we have has brought us closer as friends. It’s all part of the same thing.

MS: It seems that for a lot of these projects, that’s a palpable thing—that the artists have a sense of family or feel a part of a band. Is that an important aspect of music making to you?

SKS: Definitely. Particularly if it’s a piece like Unremembered—and this is why I’m so excited to see lots of young new performers who are bringing different sides of their musical loves together in their performance technique, because I think that that’s something we weren’t seeing for such a long time. But with Penelope and still to a degree with Unremembered, I worry: How will this piece live on after Shara or after I’m gone? Because it’s such a specific kind of voice. It’s really tough to find that. Who knows what the future holds for this kind of music. Understandably, if Shara hasn’t been available to sing it, a lot of institutions and ensembles haven’t wanted to do it because who else were they going to find to sing this music that way?

I want my music to sound like it was written by these other performers. In the case of, say, Penelope and Unremembered, I want it to be performed in a way that sounds like they wrote it. They own it. And yet, I do have this composer control freakiness where I write every single note and every single inflection, and there’s not a thing that they do that I hadn’t asked for. But I want it to look in the end like my hand is invisible in the product; it was just this thing made by this character. Not made by Shara, or David [Stith], or Padma per se, but by the characters who are singing these songs. That’s very important to me.

MS: What is your approach to text setting in that case?

SKS: God, I feel like I sound so emo. But again, it’s just getting back to this emotional center. I’m fascinated by complex emotions—the places where affection crosses over and merges with dread, or regret merges with gratitude. And so I’m always thinking about the emotion and then the ideas come from there. I want the text setting to sound very natural, so I’m very particular about the texts that I set. That’s why I wanted to work with Nathaniel, because we’re old friends and I knew that he would be able to understand that and could write using very direct, concise language that packed a big punch imagistically. That was really important to me, because one problem I have with a lot of new music text setting is that there’s so much language being crammed into a musical phrase, and music really bloats a text. If you have too many words, you can lose some of the punch emotionally or musically. So I start with texts that I really like, and then I really just think about it in terms of storytelling and narrative and the emotion of the characters who are singing these lines.

MS: And Nathaniel helped you out there, right, because he actually sent you illustrations?

SKS: Yeah, that was a wonderful surprise. He sent me the poems, and then he was like, “Oh, by the way, I did some illustrations. I don’t know if you want to see them. Maybe they’d be useful.” And my mind was blown. They really inspired me tremendously, and I got immediate musical ideas upon looking at them, which was really interesting to me because that was the first time that had ever happened. I would see a picture of a girl running in one corner of the illustration, and I would hear one motive. And I would look at another part of the illustration where there were kids around a camp fire, and I would immediately hear something else. It was really great to have that be such an organic part of the writing process because I felt like I was really plugging into his psyche, where these stories came from for him emotionally.

MS: Listening to Unremembered yesterday, I really felt as if with this piece you had reached a certain significant point of arrival as an artist.

SKS: Well, something I’ve never said on record about Penelope is the extent to which it didn’t feel representative of me and all that I’d gone through as a composer in a lot of ways. It was getting back to my teenage me in a way, integrating my love of pop music, but it was leaving out all of this technique that I had worked so hard to bring into my music. That complexity is a big part of who I am as a composer, so it was nice with Unremembered to feel like I could put some of that back in. Everybody got to know me as the writer of Penelope and thought that that was what I did, the only kind of music I’d ever written. Nobody knew about this string quartet that I wrote, which sounds like the Second Viennese School, or this cello piece which was very Kodály, and these other pieces I’d written which were so different sounding from Penelope but which also felt like a really important part of my musical personality. Unremembered is still closer to Penelope than it is to that string quartet, but it was nice to feel like okay, this is 100% my piece, my design. I can make these songs anything I want.

So it’s funny when you say this feels like an arrival. I guess in a way it is because it is the first piece I’ve written where I’ve really brought together these two sides of my personality equally. I’m finding a way to integrate them that feels truer to the hybrid animal I feel like I am.

MS: I also heard in this piece perhaps darker, more aggressive language, and I wondered, since we were speaking about gender and expectations earlier, if the inclusion of male voices in the work had any influence on opening you up there?

SKS: I don’t think that having male voices really allowed me to explore a more aggressive side of myself musically. I mean, you look at The Witch, which is a song Shara sings, and that’s one of the most aggressive performances on the album. But it was really fun for me to get to explore that side of myself in vocal writing. I have a darker personality, I would say, than a lighter one. I felt like my whole life growing up was about putting on a smile and being a good girl and not showing that side of myself, and so when I get to go into the music that I’m writing and let that out, it just feels so great. Because it’s like I can finally say these things I’ve been wanting to say, and I won’t offend anybody. Maybe I will offend them musically, but I won’t be impolite. It’s great to be able to explore that side of myself in a very safe space.

I think being able to authentically access emotion really shows in the music itself. I’ve always felt like my nerves were on the outside. I’m hypersensitive and when I was a kid, I always felt like there was something wrong with me because I seemed to feel things in this outsized way compared to my friends, and I felt like that was weird—but it actually helps my work now. So there are good and bad sides to having—let’s call them—emotionally quirky personalities.

I’m trying to think of some helpful things to say about mental issues, and I’m failing. [Composer and New Amsterdam co-founder] Bill [Brittelle] and I talk about this a lot because we feel like it’s such a huge part of our writing, but we feel like we’re not supposed to talk about it. It’s weird because in pop and rock music, it’s good if you talk about it. It sells more albums and it sells more magazines. There’s something weird about new music where we like to divorce our personal side from the music. As a composer, you’re supposed to represent yourself more as like a good student who is articulate and responsible and intellectually and emotionally in control. This is why I thought it was so great that Nico Muhly came forward to talk about his personal struggles with mental well-being. It would be great for composers to be more comfortable talking about who they really are, and not be afraid to show the full 360 of their personhood.

I think this is related to what I was talking about with regard to the pop and classical bifurcation in the early- to mid-20th century. We’d had World War II and nothing you could say in music could do justice to the horror of the Holocaust. So music became as intellectualized as possible—let’s not even try to comment emotionally, because nothing we could say could address all of this. And also, of course, the rise of science and objectivism, and the prizing of those rational values over irrational ones. As a result, I just feel like, generation after generation, we were taught to tamp down our emotions, both in our music and personally in the way that we relate to audiences. One of my frustrations in grad school was just this, the fact that in seminar we would never talk about the emotional meaning of something. We would never talk about how a piece of music made us feel. It was always about more dispassionate, scientific pursuits—the form, the harmony, the gesture, articulations.

I think we’re still recovering from that, but I feel like we’re coming into this golden age now where there are a lot of composers who are more comfortable incorporating lots of different styles into their music, and being more themselves in the way they relate to the audience, which makes perhaps the music more accessible to audiences. Who knows? But the audiences are enjoying it, and it shows on their faces when they come rushing up to the composers afterwards and are telling them how much they loved it. I mean, when we were down in North Carolina recently, it was like we were rock stars. There was a long receiving line of audience members, and their genuine and enthusiastic expressions of delight were so moving. You know, while there are these dire reports saying that classical music is dying, they’re notably not being written by people who are actually in the field. I see tremendous growth happening in terms of the relationships between the audience and the composers and the administrators, and this sense of excitement about the potential there.

MS: So with your perspective at this point, how does the work of New Amsterdam compare with other similar aesthetic shifts but from earlier times, such as Bang on a Can? Because it seems like there are intersections, but also some strikingly different aspects.

SKS: Bang on a Can—I mean, they’re gods and goddesses. Their influence on composers of my generation is huge. The praises of it can’t really be sung highly enough. But I think the music of the world of Bang on a Can and the music of the world of New Amsterdam are a bit different. I think a lot of it has to do with, of course, the time in which both originated. [For BoaC] there was still this idea that you had to sort of define yourself in the language that was created by your enemy. They were rebelling against modernist strictures, but it was still like, “Okay, we need to write music that is defensible in terms of systems, and practices, and processes.” There were still a lot of shoulds and shouldn’ts, to be honest. And when Judd and Bill and I first started talking about New Amsterdam, we felt like, gosh, there’s still this sense of you can do this, you can’t do that. So let’s do all the things that we’re really not supposed to do. Let’s bring in bad taste. Let’s bring in indecorous musical behavior. Let’s write climaxes. Let’s wear our hearts on our sleeves. Let’s tell stories with clear narrative arcs. Let’s bring in cheesy electric guitar. What is the music that would come out of us if we hadn’t had a single composition lesson, or been exposed to the worlds of who was successful as a composer and who wasn’t? It was really a thought experiment. We all had some anxiety about it to varying degrees.

So that was the ideology, or the philosophy, the ethos, whatever, behind starting New Amsterdam. I think that also is what separates it a bit from Bang on a Can. It is a different time. I don’t really know how they pulled off what they did; it’s so much easier for us. We have the luxury now of living in a freer time and place. We like that New Amsterdam is really hard to describe. We just want it to be a place where composers are exploring all the music that they love, while still using the tools of their training as composers to write it.

MS: With all that freedom, do you feel now that you’ve sort of settled into a voice that you will hone, or are you still exploring.

SKS: I feel like it’s an honest reflection of everything—of my loves as a person on the planet, and my loves as a composer specifically. So I feel really good about it in that sense. But at the same time, I hope that I’m always growing and changing. I think that will keep me interested in the music that I’m writing, and hopefully keep me interesting as a composer. I never want to feel like I’m stuck in a comfort zone. That kind of terrifies me.

In fact, one thing that was troublesome to me about Penelope was that I would get commissions where people would say, “Can you write something like Penelope?” I felt a little bit pigeon holed by that. That’s why I started incorporating more chromaticism immediately after Penelope. I needed to remind myself that that wasn’t the only thing I can do. There’s a whole other world of music that I want to write.

This is a tough thing for a composer. If you get a bunch of good reviews telling you that you did this one thing really well, then you want to keep doing that thing and keep getting that positive feedback. But I think you can get stuck writing the same piece over and over. Composition can start to lose the luster if that happens. So I hope that I’m always able to keep evolving my voice.

Charlie Morrow: Wearing Different Hats

A conversation on the second floor of the historic Ear Inn (est. 1817) in New York City
April 17, 2015—1:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography (unless otherwise stated)
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

The variety of activities that Charlie Morrow has been involved in for more than half a century is staggering even by today’s standards, when the wearing of numerous hats is almost a pre-requisite for being successful as a composer. The almost always Bowler hat-clad Morrow was writing conceptual pieces that predicted Fluxus as a high school student in the 1950s, twelve-tone scores under the tutelage of Stefan Wolpe at Mannes in the 1960s. He went on to develop alternative performance spaces, environmental music (including a widely publicized concert involving performances with fish), and music for multiples of the same instrument in the 1970s. While immersing himself in all those activities, he built one of the first private electronic music studios and wrote hit arrangements for Simon and Garfunkel, as well as The Rascals and Vanilla Fudge. He also penned some of the most earworm-inducing commercial jingles which promoted everything from Diet Coke and Hefty garbage bags to special express subway service to JFK airport.

Although I had never had a lengthy conversation with Morrow until we met up with him for this NewMusicBox presentation, he was a major role model for the choices I have made in my own life: he was a Columbia grad who, during his time there, immersed himself in world music; a musical creator who was never beholden to any particular musical genre or the limitations that adherence to any genre demands; for many years he was also the publisher of EAR Magazine, a seminal publication for new music which was one of the main inspirations for NewMusicBox. So I had tons of questions I wanted to ask him. Some of his answers led in directions I didn’t anticipate. For example, when I asked him about his earliest musical experiences, he actually spoke about events from the first year of his life and even shared a memory he had of being born.

“I always wanted to remember my birth,” Morrow explained. “I spent a number of years working back towards it. Using milestones of memory, you can find your way back to things that are lost in your memory by locating things; you can be very certain. … I remember that the physician who delivered me stank; at least he smelled bad to me as a living creature who had never smelled anything outside of amniotic fluid before. Then I remembered feeling crushed and totally thrashed in the birthing process. Then I remembered floating and hearing voices outside of my mother and having the sense of the world beyond the place where I was as my consciousness evolved.”

When we talked about his 1967 Marilyn Monroe Collage, which he created at the invitation of Andy Warhol to accompany an exhibition of Warhol’s legendary iterative Monroe silkscreens, I thought it would lead to a discussion of his gorgeous Wave Music pieces, which are scored for multiples of the same instrument—a process that seems aurally analogous to filling up a wall with iterations of the same visual image. Instead, he said, his impetus came from attempting to perform concerts with toadfish!

“I had decoded the language of toadfish and did a fish concert,” said Morrow. “In the course of doing that, I would get my audiences to make the sounds and then I decided that I would do a herd of the same instruments. It all grew from having heard the fish … as groups of individuals all signaling and communicating with each other. … Every living creature has evolved being able to receive vibrations from all of their vibratory receptors in a certain bandwidth and a certain sensitivity level and then a certain selectivity level. … We’re in two different parallel universes with different band widths, different perception and reception. But if you do get a message back—it seemed that we were able to understand in both field frogs and toadfish a kind of communication.”

As luck would have it, the fish concert took place right after Richard Nixon resigned from the United States presidency, and it became an international news story since it was a quirky distraction from current events.

“It was a total accident,” Morrow acknowledged. “He resigned the night before. He didn’t send anyone an invitation about his resignation. I mean, it wasn’t like ‘a month from now, would you all like to watch me resign?’ You know what I mean? What had happened was at that time, as part of my jingle business, I discovered PR. There was a guy named Morty Wax, who was my press agent at that time and who was very clever. … Since he was a respected press agent, everybody knew that it was going to happen. And on that morning, it became a world press event because everybody needed some distraction from the horrors of politics. … I heard reports of it from all over the world: Nixon resigned last night and this morning a group of artists in New York gave a concert for fish. It was that kind of ironic spin.”

Although Charlie Morrow is the quintessential DIY composer, he often thinks big—extremely big. Over the past decade, he has developed a revolutionary three-dimensional soundscape design, and his recent projects have included everything from a 72-speaker immersive environment as part of Nokia World in Barcelona to a permanent sound installation at the new display of the Magna Carta at Lincoln Castle in England. For next year’s summer solstice, June 21, 2016, he is mounting an unprecedented 24-hour concert that will take place in 24 different time zones.

“A mass performance should be either a totally composed piece like the Monkey Chant or Berlioz’s Requiem or something that’s created by the people who are doing it,” Morrow opined. “I’m sort of in the middle, but I think the pieces themselves have to achieve an audience. … My job has been to keep people surprised and interested as a sound maker. Whatever I turn my attention to, the idea is to bring something to it that makes it worthy of attention and, at the same time, to find some balance where it doesn’t burn itself out from multiple hearings.”

A Bowler-hat clad Morrow sits at a desk and triggers sound from his laptop.

Morrow demonstrates 3-D sound for us using his laptop.

*
Frank J. Oteri: We usually tend to begin at the beginning, in so far as we can begin at the beginning. There are many beginnings. But where I wanted to start our talk isn’t exactly at the beginning. I wanted to talk with you about your years as an undergraduate at Columbia, because I’ve read in several places that you studied with Colin Turnbull, who wrote a very popular ethnography about the Ituri rainforest pygmies and made some amazing field recordings of their music. So I was curious about how you, as an undergrad, became interested in the music of other cultures.

Charlie Morrow: Well, I’ve always been interested in the music of the world because I’ve been interested in radio. I’m a radio amateur. I started out by being a short wave buff; I would listen on many frequencies to sounds from all over the world. I came quickly to understand that there was a wide variety of music that was—I would say—misunderstood, or marginalized, or made other than mainstream by— at the time—the prejudices that divide anthropology from sociology. It was almost as if there was a racist component to it. If you weren’t white and from Western Europe, or amongst the elite of Asia, that what you did was somehow on a second category.

This impulse has been running through all of my work. A large part of it is because some of the more excellent things that music’s about are actually part of world music and older cultures, and it has been lost by the commodification, commercialization, and conversion to listener-directed product making. I come out of signaling—bugling, music for the time of day and for the location that you’re in, the idea of it being involved in some social structure like the Boy Scouts, the military, or the church calendar. I come from a multi-cultural city, Passaic, New Jersey. We had representatives of practically every religion and many, many countries there. So there was a sense, just walking through Passaic, of a wide variety of people. There were many small communities—Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, many flavors of Judaism, small synagogues the size of this room. But the one thing that characterized most of these groups, I found later on, was the incredible insularity of “we’re right and everybody else is wrong,” which is what I think created an atmosphere, when there finally was a kind of elite majority that controlled the pantheon of Western arts, that they said, “Well, this is ours.” And there were basically too few of everybody else holding onto their own traditions.

That’s a long introduction to the fact that I studied principally with Willard Rhodes at Columbia, because he was my ethnomusicology teacher, and then I met Colin Turnbull informally through the Museum of Natural History. I met him and I would go through the storeroom. Our discussions were based on the functionality of music. Functionality is a huge issue with me. Not just signaling, but ceremonial aspects and particularly the power of materials. A lot of my early writings concerned how, for example, something living has to die in order to become a musical instrument.

It’s a big theme that runs through my work. The relationship of death and life in Western music and, in particular, instruments—that’s what was so fantastic. You know, people play elephant tusk horns, Tibetan thigh horns, and I’m a horn-trumpet-wind person. The idea of blowing the breath of a living person through part of something dead was a connection to a larger world, rather than something morbid for me. I think this is what brought Colin Turnbull and I to our relationship because he felt very much the same. He saw magic everywhere. And he also saw clearly the way people treated each other. I think that he, in his own life—particularly in choosing a male pygmy as his husband—was putting himself on the line. He was a high-risk guy.

FJO: It’s fascinating to hear you say that as a teenager you already had the idea of infusing the past into the present and that it’s been a running theme in all of your creative and theoretical work ever since then.

CM: Yeah, actually it was earlier. I think it came from one particular question which I had had until I answered it, which was that I always wanted to remember my birth, and remember before I was born. I spent a number of years working back towards it. Using milestones of memory, you can find your way back to things that are lost in your memory by locating things; you can be very certain. And I finally went back and was able to remember my own birth. I remember that the physician who delivered me stank; at least he smelled bad to me as a living creature who had never smelled anything outside of amniotic fluid before. Then I remembered feeling crushed and totally thrashed in the birthing process. Then I remembered floating and hearing voices outside of my mother and having the sense of the world beyond the place where I was as my consciousness evolved, so going backwards into that process led inextricably to an explanation of why I thought this way.

FJO: This is amazing! Usually we begin these discussions at the beginning, but we’ve never talked to anyone about the very beginning.

CM: My beginning, anyway.

Charlie Morrow climbing on a Keep Off sign

A maverick from the very beginning. (Photo courtesy Charlie Morrow.)

FJO: So, alright, since you went all the way back there, I’m going to try to go back there with you. Do you remember the first time you heard something that was described as music?

CM: Yes, I do. I remember that my parents had a record. I must have been about three-years old, and they said, in playing the record, that this was music. I remember hearing a recording of Stravinsky, a narrated record about music, and then they said there’s some new and wild things like Stravinsky. And it went on from there. I had limited experience of music making outside of our house. But actually, my first real experience of the power of music was much, much earlier when I was about a year old. I was born in ’42, and my father and mother both were psychiatrists. My dad wanted to practice psychiatry in the military. He had volunteered for the Navy, but he was too short by some tiny amount. So he wound up in the Army. They put him into an army psychiatric hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. And my mom and I took a long train trip down to visit. It must have been the summer after I was born. There was a military parade for the officers. I remember how I could not keep the sound of the drums outside of me. It seemed to penetrate my body. I had never experienced anything that loud or that close. That became the earliest experience for me of music, just that very, very intense military drumming.

FJO: What’s so interesting about that is that one of the instruments you would have heard in that military parade—trumpet—became your first instrument, and also that you wound up doing so many outdoor, environmental pieces. So the seeds of those later developments go all the way back to this initial musical encounter.

CM: I think you’re right. It also came from the intense liberation that I felt as a bugler in the Boy Scouts. The experience of blowing “Reveille” or “Taps” from a hanging metal cone megaphone, and blowing it in three different directions—I think that that completely convinced me of where I was going. It sounded so different in each direction. Having three shots at playing it, having learned and heard the first and then the second, and the third, was an iterative experience that made me well aware of what environments are about.

FJO: That also ties into your whole development of the 3D sound cube and directionality much later on.

CM: You’re absolutely right, because what I wanted to achieve with the 3D sound cube was a natural feeling that you could locate where sound came from. Because it makes you nervous if you can’t, because your life is threatened on a very primordial level if you don’t know where sound is and what’s making it. It could get you, or you might not get it if you needed to eat it or any number of things that are defined by instantly resolving where something is, and instantly making a judgment about what it’s about. You know, is it threatening? Is it appetizing? Is it intriguing?

A diagram showing the speaker alignment to simulate 3-D sound

The schematics for the MorrowSound 8.1 System Single Cube array.

FJO: In that sense, sound is very different from visual information because we’re trained to sense perspective, which enables us to know how far away something is just by seeing where it is. Sound, on the other hand, we perceive as a non-corporeal, disembodied thing. But of course it is physical, too, but it’s not something we can necessarily see.

CM: Also our eyes are frontal, but our ears—divided left and right—resolve sound in a full spherical environment. Your eye is not trying to invent anything for the portion that it doesn’t see, unless you stick it in an oculus or another kind of enhanced, immersive experience. But your ear does that all the time; your ear is resolving x, y, z, w, and t at least—w is where the observer is, t is over time.

FJO: Before we get too theoretical, I want to head back to Columbia. There’s another person whom you studied with there at that time who is one of my heroes because of his incredible open-mindedness—Otto Luening. So I’m curious to learn more about your relationship with him and what his influence was on you.

CM: Well, I had a class in music history with him, which was quite nice because he was able to speak very personally about the materials in music. I think that his most fascinating teaching was the multi-level interpretation of everything. You don’t just hear the music or see it in one way; he always explained what it was for, who did it, and what the environment was at the time. He was also interested in the gestural aspect of the music. And he had a great sense of humor. I remember once he was talking about one of the Scarlattis, about the tight little playing of very delicate and carefully honed keyboard music. And he said, “They did that ‘cause in those days you couldn’t go like this: bang-bang-bang-bang.” He always had little side trips like that. He was constantly riffing on what he taught, which created open doors because he took everything he said with a big grain of salt.

FJO: Did you have any involvement with the electronic music studio that he was developing?

CM: I didn’t work in it, but I became very familiar with it. Being a techie, I was fascinated and I met a number of the people who worked there. I knew Bülent Arel and some of the South American guys who were working there, and I continued to have a connection to the studio. I maintained a steady relationship with Charles Dodge. I stayed connected because they were proactive in creating a world of their own. Early sound studios were very particularly made to the interest of their creators. I had one of the first privately-owned sound studios in New York. When I moved to 365 West End Avenue, we built a studio there and I had a team of people working with me. Our studio was totally different from what Columbia was about; it was concerned with programmability, repeatability, and the accuracy of a lot of the work. All of those issues distinguish what I’ve eventually done with 3D immersive sound from what the entire industry is doing with it.

A long-haired Charlie Morrow leaning at a table and surrounded by a lot of electronic equipment

Charlie Morrow at his NYC studio, circa 1969. (Photo courtesy Charlie Morrow.)

In a way, Columbia’s studio set me off on a path of being a staunch independent, doing more gesturally-based things, working with cheaper equipment, working with approaches that were more connected to the natural world. I always wanted to get closer to electrons as part of nature; my field at Columbia was chemistry. Chemistry’s an extraordinary embodiment of metaphysics.

FJO: So you weren’t a music major?

CM: No, I was a pre-med student.

FJO: So you were trying to follow in the footsteps of your parents?

CM: Yeah.

FJO: Interesting. I didn’t realize that. So you studied music history with Luening, not composition?

CM: Yes, but I had studied composition. My first composition teacher was a guy named Carlo Lombardi, when I was in Newark Academy. Carlo was a student of Dallapiccola, so I got a really interesting education right away—a really Italian take on Viennese 12-note music. Carlo was also a very good keyboard player; he could play anything I could write, so I suddenly started to have good performances of what I was doing. And he encouraged me to go to Interlochen where I was in high school composition and orchestration classes. I worked with a number of teachers there and things got played. What really took my career along was the idea of having the work played, because I’d written for years before that but I didn’t have anybody to play it, except if I wrote it for trumpet, which was my instrument.

FJO: But what interests me is that already, before you went to college, as a high school student, you were writing conceptually based pieces. And this was music that was 180 degrees away from 12-tone music. You were writing downtown music in high school back before the words uptown and downtown took on polemic meanings.

CM: Yes, I was. I did a slow Gabrieli piece.

FJO: That piece [Very Slow Gabrieli] actually reminds me of the music of a younger composer, Jacob Cooper, who—nearly 60 years after you wrote that piece—has created a whole body of fascinating repertoire based on slowing down older music.

CM: Interesting. It’s nice to know that the door, once it was opened, is happening. But my favorite [among my early pieces] is the surprise music where at a pre-arranged time, when an orchestra’s playing, everyone stops and squirms and belches and makes funny little noises, unknown to the conductor. It’s a guerilla event in the middle of an orchestra performance and it really worked out well.

FJO: That’s a very Fluxus idea, but this is pre-Fluxus.

CM: It is. We’re talking the 1950s.

FJO: But it makes me wonder. I went to Columbia in the ‘80s, which was at the tail end of what some people perceived as the period of 12-tone hegemony in many academic institutions. It was a time when many folks still didn’t really look too kindly on alternative compositional approaches. So I could only imagine what the reaction was there to the wilder side of your music at that earlier time.

CM: Well, basically I divorced myself from the non-ethnomusicological part of Columbia. I played with Philip Corner, James Tenney, and Malcolm Goldstein and was part of the Tone Roads concert series. I guess we had our own world. I met Cage through them, and it was like finding my people.

FJO: Yet in the middle of all that, you wound up going to Mannes and studying with Stefan Wolpe, a fascinating composer who was at the other end of the aesthetic spectrum.

A photo of the back of Charlie Morrow's head, wearing a Bowler hat

Charlie Morrow. Photo by Colin Still (courtesy Charlie Morrow).

CM: I was bouncing back and forth. I have works in different styles from that time. I guess what I was discovering was that I could work in a number of styles. It’s how I wound up in the jingle and film scoring business. I could work authentically and non-imitatively in other styles, and that became interesting for me. Having done that for a while as the business became more codified and referential, that stopped being fun. It was fun as long as the door was open. When I first went into that world, I went into it as a combination composer and sound designer, because those were two separate things: two people that got a job. I could get a job, and they could pay me once, instead of paying two people. But once the ’80s came, I began to look for something else to do with myself because it had become pretty much like Columbia and 12-note music. The commercial music scene had become formulaic.

FJO: But we’re jumping ahead here. You weren’t doing commercial jingles when you were studying with Wolpe at Mannes.

CM: No, that hadn’t happened yet. That happened after I did a piece for tenor and orchestra that won a prize and brought me out to San Francisco. When I came back to New York, I had imagined that since I’d met Leonard Bernstein and had suddenly been introduced to the mainstream world that I’d get phone calls and letters and requests for commissions. It was a wild fantasy. It never happened. I think at that point, I wrote an essay called “View from the Bottom of the Heap” which was published in 1966 in the American Music Center’s newsletter. John Duffy encouraged me to put my ideas out there about being an independent composer and earning a living from it. So it was at that time that I began to part company with the concert hall. I did a protest concert called “For the Two Charlies,” with Ives’s music and my own, and that was the end of my life in the concert hall. I just devoted myself to music outside the concert hall.

FJO: At the time you complained about the constricting of sound in the concert hall, that it’s a very artificial idea to create a blank slate for music to fill up, since in every other environment outside of a concert hall music co-exists with many other sounds. So the concert hall environment artificializes the listening experience.

CM: It’s true. Later on, as an outdoor event-maker turned soundscaper, I began to realize the concert hall was just one of many possible environments. When I started to build things in 3D, the idea was that you make a location and then you populate it with sounds and sound scenery. But first you make an environment. Every place is an environment. I think it was a conceit on my part to see the concert hall as being too quiet for what I had in mind.

A photo montage from three different musical events: an event composition involving violins and bathtubs, two people standing under a bell, and an ensemble atop a tractor.

Charlie Morrow’s journey outside the concert hall has led him to create music with bathtubs and tractors as well as experiment with new ways to hear sound. (Photos courtesy Charlie Morrow.)

FJO: So how did you make the transition from writing for tenor and orchestra to creating music for experiences that were outside the concert hall? Building your own studio and production company takes money and time. And to be successful at it also requires connections. I know one of your classmates at Columbia was Art Garfunkel.

CM: Right. I also met people who had studios. I learned how the studio world worked. At the same time, I had a bit of interesting input from my mother who was a psychiatrist and introduced me to a fellow named Andy Mashberg, whom she’d met at a medical convention. After I came back to New York and actually saw Leonard Bernstein sitting at the Bavarian Inn at the next table from me, I met Andy Mashberg whom my mother had talked to. Andy had said to my mother, “I know how he can survive without teaching.” He met me and he said, “You can be a writer of jingles and corporate music and film scores. This is what you have to do.” And he talked me through it. He gave me a list of people. He told me how to make a demo reel. So I was basically walked right to the door of work. And fortunately, within a half a year, I started to have some good opportunities. I did a kind of humorous Cinzano radio commercial. “Please, don’t pinch Cinzano ashtrays. Try Cinzano vermouth instead. Cinzano vermouth is better than ashtrays. Get it into your American head.” These were the lyrics of a mad man named David Altschuler. We became lifelong friends. And fortunately he had work for me. My career has been meeting people who thought that what I did could be useful for what they did. So in terms of being a producer, I quickly learned to do what was needed by people who liked me and thought I could do it.

FJO: So you were already doing commercial work when you started doing production on pop records in the late ‘60s?

CM: No, the other way around. What happened was my then-wife didn’t like me up all night and away, you know, because in the daytime I was also trying to find work and it was stretching our relationship. So what I’d learned from the pop music world was that I wanted to work in the daytime if I was going to keep a home together. So that’s what happened. I more or less started out by getting into the commercial studios through the pop music connection, but then making connections into the advertising world. I already knew good performers from all the worlds that I was in. And that was from a long history of being a producer as well. I had helped Charlotte Moorman produce an avant-garde festival and I had worked in Norman Seaman’s office, who was a promoter—all of this with my mother behind the scenes trying to figure out how I might survive doing what I wanted to do. She was a great admirer of [Sol] Hurok, and she said, “Look at that guy. He finds the talent, he finds the venue, he finds a sponsor, he spends other people’s money, and he makes money for himself.” She was constantly encouraging me to figure out what was on the table and how to move it around.

FJO: So she never tried to get you to go back to med school?

CM: No. My father did, but not my mother. When I was 38, my father, having seen a concert of mine at MoMA, said, “Haven’t you had enough fun now?” I was trying to figure out what he meant. At the time, I was making a very good living, so it couldn’t have been about money. I think he was embarrassed by my eccentricity.

FJO: So getting into the pop world was through Garfunkel?

CM: Yeah, it happened through Garfunkel. And then I had a business partner named Barry Minsky and through him I wound up doing an orchestra piece for The Young Rascals. Then I met other people. Through Atlantic Records, I wound up working for Vanilla Fudge. Then it went kind of back and forth. Studios would put together teams, and so I wound up doing arrangements on various records; the Record Plant studio became a kind of home for me. It evolved from A & R studios where Simon and Garfunkel had recorded originally. I think it was a Columbia studio on lease, or they bought time at A & R. But from A & R, it led to the Record Plant. And everybody hung out there. It was kind of the club house for all different kinds of music production for the pop scene.

FJO: In terms of its production, Simon and Garfunkel’s record Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme was radical at that time; it was the first eight-track record. Considering your ideas about the directionality of sound, which an eight-track recording would have emulated much better than any previous technology, did you have something to do with that?

CM: I created hit charts for them. I talked to Paul Simon about the sounds, using a Renaissance keyboard instrument. None of them read music; it was all about sharing ideas. So I had something to do with it, yes. But I didn’t write a note.

FJO: But did you have anything to do with the multi-tracking? It was a vital step toward the way most pop music recordings were subsequently made. Nowadays, with digital studios, you can theoretically record an infinite number of different tracks and then mix them together however you want to during post-production. But before that album, most recordings were one-track or two-tracks as stereo came in. Then George Martin made the first four-track recordings of The Beatles in 1963. But Simon and Garfunkel beat even The Beatles to eight-track, and from thereon in there was no turning back.

CM: Well, I think it came from the engineering side; that wasn’t my idea. I was just a hired hand. I would come in and do the sessions, or talk on the phone before. For the real artisanal work that was done in the studio, there was as engineer involved. I think his name was Stan Tonkel. He was extremely far thinking. Of course, Columbia Records themselves bought a lot of multi-track machines. They had the money. Commercials lent themselves to multi-track machines also because you wanted to be covered for different versions and be able to do very polished work based on a lot of fragments. Directionality was not such an issue. It was more about layers. Layering is still very important in the work that I do, as you’ll see in the software that I’ll show you later. We layer in 3D. We can create as many layers as we like in order to be able to create a world of sound, and that is similar to what an eight-track machine has to offer.

A concert poster for an all-Morrow concert listing performances of his Marilyn Monroe Collage (1967), Sound Piece for Rock Amplified Piano (1968), and A Little Brigati Music (1969).

A poster for an all-Morrow concert at Town Hall in NYC before he decided to create music outside the concert hall.

FJO: One of the reasons I thought there might have been a connection here was that you used multi-tracking in the multi-layered Marilyn Monroe piece you did around that time [Marilyn Monroe Collage].

CM: Well, actually, I had to do that piece as a series. I remember, I had a classmate, Mike Shapiro from Columbia, and Shapiro had gone to work for a sound library. They had an excellent mono studio. I think we did the Marilyn Monroe piece by creating all of the elements and rolling them in on two-track machines, doing them as very careful sound on sound. So that was because I had a guy who was really good at being my hands and he engineered the whole thing for me. It was such a juggle.

FJO: It certainly doesn’t sound like it’s just two tracks.

CM: No, it doesn’t. But I think that might have been just prior to eight-track recording. I knew about four-track recording.

FJO: That piece opens up doors to all kinds of things, like taking found sounds and using them as sonic objects for your own ends, which is a very post-modern idea and something you’re still doing now with your recent re-compositions. It’s an idea that has a lot of currency right now—sampling something and turning it into a new creation by remixing it and making it your own. Everything in your Marilyn Monroe piece came from something she actually said that was recorded, but you turned it into something that she never said.

CM: That’s right.

FJO: Also since she was so iconic, and was someone that everyone could immediately identify, there was something very populist about your piece, even though it was experimental conceptual music.

CM: It’s true. It had grown out of an invitation by Andy Warhol to create a piece for his Marilyn Monroe show at a gallery on 57th Street. My motivation for it was actually seeing everything and, in terms of ceremony, thinking of the artist as a sacrificial lamb. And I thought, coming back always with this death image, that I was taking Marilyn Monroe and reviving her for my own benefits. She was a beautiful vehicle for the thoughts I had about her, which concerned, in my way, the exploitation that show business does.

FJO: Another interesting aspect about what you did with Marilyn Monroe, which makes more sense now that you’ve referenced an exhibition of Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe silkscreens, is that you’ve taken something very popular and turned it into something much more rarified and abstract, just as Warhol did by silkscreening those images of her. Her image became just a form in which to explore a process, just as he had done earlier by painting sequences of Campbell’s soup cans or Brillo boxes. Which connects to another thing you have done as a composer—all the stuff you’ve composed for multiples of the same instrument. Having 30 harps or 40 cellos, all the same sonority, is the sonic equivalent of a whole room filled with the same visual image.

CM: That’s a very interesting reading. I was on a panel about animal communication. I had decoded the language of toadfish and did a fish concert and had before that done a lot of field work with peepers where I could get into dialogue with them. In the course of doing that, I would get my audiences to make the sounds and then I decided that I would do a herd of the same instruments. It all grew from having heard the fish and the peepers as groups of individuals all signaling and communicating with each other.

Page of a manuscript score showing sequences of numbers shaded in various colors.

From the score of Charlie Morrow’s Book of Numbers. © 1974 by Charlie Morrow / Other Media. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

But then you remind me that when I first went to Mannes School of Music, I met a guy from the neighborhood whose mother had an empty flat. He said, “You’ve got to come over here. My mom let this crazy art director from advertising do a show in one of her empty flats. It’s a block away. Come with me, Charlie.” I walked in and there was Andy Warhol, and it was his first show. And the walls were exactly as you say. And I remember thinking about the simultaneity of duplicates at the time. But until our conversation it had not surfaced that this is a piece of that, because I’d always seen it through the herds and other multiple images from nature, rather than from the manipulation of the artist.

FJO: That fish concert happened during the period between Richard Nixon’s resignation and Gerald Ford being sworn in as president. Was that some sort of an artistic statement?

CM: It was a total accident. He resigned the night before. He didn’t send anyone an invitation about his resignation. I mean, it wasn’t like “a month from now, would you all like to watch me resign?” You know what I mean? What had happened was at that time, as part of my jingle business, I discovered PR. There was a guy named Morty Wax, who was my press agent at that time and who was very clever. Morty himself was the one who said, “You’re working with all these sounds. Why don’t you do a concert for fish?” And I said, “What a great idea, Morty. We’ll do it.” At the time, I had been working for large industrial, multi-media projects with a guy named John Doswell. Doswell just died a month ago, but he’s been significant in my life because he was very active in the harbor life here. And he arranged tugboat races and so forth later, but Doswell said, “Come on out. Let’s do it from my boat.” So I suddenly had a boat, and I knew the technology, and so Morty Wax’s suggestion turned into reality. And since he was a respected press agent, everybody knew that it was going to happen. And on that morning, it became a world press event because everybody needed some distraction from the horrors of politics.

FJO: Although I would imagine in terms of it being a world press event, it was overshadowed by Nixon’s resignation.

CM: Of course.

FJO: So that’s the bad part of it happening the same day.

CM: But it was mentioned worldwide. I heard reports of it from all over the world: Nixon resigned last night and this morning a group of artists in New York gave a concert for fish. It was that kind of ironic spin.

FJO: At that point, you had already done stuff with birds, the Central Park pieces.

CM: Well, I had done the solstice events. Let’s see; let me put it together: ’74 was when Nixon resigned and we did the fish concert. I had already started The New Wilderness Foundation and the New Wilderness Band. We had already been doing solstice events, and we were communicating with birds in those events.

The New Wilderness Band in performance sometime in the mid 1970s.

The New Wilderness Band in performance sometime in the mid 1970s. (Photo courtesy Charlie Morrow.)

FJO: So in terms of how that works, you say communicating with birds or with fish. I’d like to unpack this a bit.

CM: Sure.

FJO: We’re hearing their sounds, but do you have any sense of what they’re hearing from us? Is there really a two-way aspect to this or is it all just our interpretation of what this is?

CM: Well, I would say that it’s both. First of all, I believe in the bandwidth of perception. Every essay in the book I’m working on has to do with the fact that every creature hears and sees vibrations on different wavelengths. Every living creature has evolved being able to receive vibrations from all of their vibratory receptors in a certain bandwidth and a certain sensitivity level and then a certain selectivity level. It’s absolutely true, for example, that a horse and a human might be riding and spending days together, but they’re not getting the same world because their ears are in different positions and the evolution of our sensory systems are different. So going then beyond a fellow warm blooded animal to reptiles, talking to each other through a black hole, so to speak, we’re in two different parallel universes with different band widths, different perception and reception. But if you do get a message back—it seemed that we were able to understand in both field frogs and toadfish a kind of communication. They basically both have a simple language and it was the complexity of such a simple language that turned my interest.

Toadfish make a sound [demonstrates] and they tend to have a lead toadfish that’s making a sound and the others want to reply. So groups follow the leader. And then that toadfish, once he’s got a group, starts to increase the tempo, jumping the beat, and the group follows until another starts over here at a much slower tempo. This goes on every day. That’s an auditory transactional state that those folks are in, or those critters. So if you make those sounds, and they answer you, they play; if you can play in that band, you’re there, at least for the part that you hear and the part that they hear.

FJO: That’s absolutely fascinating. What’s perhaps even more fascinating is that at the same time that you’re doing this really out there stuff like this concert for fish, you’re making a living doing commercial jingles. I’m curious about the spillover. Some of your commercial stuff is quite avant-garde in some ways. Your Hefty garbage bag theme, in particular, is pretty wacky musically; it’s full of really unusual harmonies which never resolve.

CM: My job has been to keep people surprised and interested as a sound maker. Whatever I turn my attention to, the idea is to bring something to it that makes it worthy of attention and, at the same time, to find some balance where it doesn’t burn itself out from multiple hearings. Soundscapes are like that. We build soundscapes that people will hear for a permanent installation. There is this balance that has to be achieved between every element in relation to the other elements.

That’s something you learn from orchestration. This is just a contemporary equivalent of orchestration. Whether it’s a trumpet orchestra in West Africa, or a Western orchestra, or an opera. It functions transactionally. Everybody’s got to have a role in it and have a good time somehow. Like in a good gamelan piece, the social fabric is illuminated when all the pieces come together and the music ticks. A trick with being in the jingle world was always to find that balance. However, I don’t think it’s possible in the same way now. I have a job right now, which shall go nameless. The environmental pieces of it were created and were fine with the client. But all the tiny sound effects that were in it they wanted copied exactly from today’s latest high-tech, game-oriented feature films.

I had an argument with people who were half my age—actually in this room—in which I said to them, “I think that you’re making a terrible mistake. I think that just simply copying that without a reason other than that you think people will identify with that is basically to burn them out faster. What you’re doing will be trivialized faster in my experience.” At which point, I put somebody else from our team on the job. And a note came back. “It’s a problem working with Charlie; we have to listen to philosophy.” From my point of view, I’d given them sound economic advice, and from their point of view, I was wasting their time because they were in a hurry to do something they thought was right. It kind of epitomized what has happened at all stages of my career.

At one point I was asked by an agency guy to write a Pan Am commercial. He said, “Would you make me a commercial? I want you to do this with an original flair. It shouldn’t sound like anything that anyone’s heard before.” I said, “Do you really mean that? He said, “I do.” I said, “Well, it’s opportunities like this that I live for.” And so I wrote two pieces, for the same ensemble. We read through the first one, and the guy came out screaming. He said, “What is this shit? I’ve never heard anything like it in my life.” I said, “Well, did you hear what you just said? Wasn’t that my assignment?” He said, “Don’t fuck with my head.” I said, “Well, I’m just teasing.” We played the other one. He said, “Don’t ever do that again.”

FJO: Do you have a recording of those? I’d love to hear them.

CM: I actually do. I have to dig them out.

FJO: The jingles you created for Hefty and WINS radio were both used for years. Those were really successful.

CM: They still are.

FJO: And they’re both instantly identifiable. So there were—and clearly still are—folks that were accepting of these more unusual kinds of sounds. People obviously liked them, because they’re still popular.

CM: There are tastemakers who do it right. There’s also such a thing as good luck. But my style has always been to create something that’s a little bit on the edge. Generally that seems to work to keep it fresh for as long as it lives. I mean, that’s in my mind and what I’ve learned from composers of the past. The good stuff still sounds fresh and sounds right. So I try to impart that, whether it’s a three-second logo or a ten-day event.

FJO: At that same time, you also wrote a tune that could very well have been a Billboard hit single, if it wasn’t written for a commercial—your “Take the Train to the Plane” jingle for the New York City subway system. It’s actually almost a pop song.

CM: It really is. Well, that was a remarkable situation where I wrote for two very bright marketing guys who were great fans of things that were just like that. They wanted me to write something that’s memorable, that people would sing, and that would possibly have a life outside of the use by the MTA.

FJO: And did it?

CM: Yeah, there were a number of releases of it. It’s been licensed for a number of feature films. It hasn’t been what you call an avalanche of coverage, but it has lived.

FJO: So you worked in all these different genres. You created avant-garde music, and you have this academic music that you’d written earlier, you did pop music production, you did improvisatory stuff with the New Wilderness Group, and then commercial jingle work. Then you were part of the creation of EAR Magazine, which was a publication for new music that embraced it all. It makes sense now, because your background was doing it all. But I’m wondering what made you decide to participate in a publication for this stuff.

CM: Well, it’s just like my mother or Morty Wax suggesting something. I’m not so much an inventor of things, but a selector of good ideas that float past my nose. First of all, Beth Anderson and a guy named Charles Shere from San Francisco developed a community mimeo publication called EAR. And Beth came and lived in this house. R.I.P. Hayman has had many people come and share his roof with him. He’s a very generous guy. And Beth and he put out EAR together, and then Beth wanted to get out. Magazine fever is something people usually have for short periods of time—I mean, a certain number of years. But Rip wanted to keep it going. So Rip asked me, since we were already working together on so many things, whether New Wilderness could be its fiscal agent, its bank account, and its tax status. And I said of course. Then I wound up working with EAR a lot. I took an interest in EAR because I believe in thematic publication. So under my tenure with EAR, we had issues on music of healing, poetry, politics; the EARs were basically anthologies.

I also have to say that I’ve been very much inspired by my long-term relationship with the poet Jerome Rothenberg, who was a master anthologist. Poetry appears in the first person. You print the poem and there it is before you. The idea of EAR was that we’d have essays and actual compositions, a direct communication from the creator to the reader, which is quite different from the way music is generally handled. Music is generally written about—it’s critiqued, it’s promoted, but the actual primary content is very rarely presented other than in books of scores. So I would say that in that way we fell together as people who were interested in what the other was doing and then seeking a community through publication.

FJO: Well, as I’ve told you before, EAR was one of the main inspirations for the creation of NewMusicBox—people who create this work talking and writing about it themselves, rather than there being filters. Initially, for the first few years that NewMusicBox was online, each month was a thematic issue. Ultimately, though, we realized having a monthly thematic format wasn’t the perfect fit for the instantaneous 24/7/365 communication mechanism that the internet was evolving into, so now we post stuff almost every weekday and the pieces don’t all connect to each other in the same way. But I’m curious; you talk about EAR on an aesthetic level. I always thought of it as a socio-political act. We have this world outside of what we do that doesn’t necessarily understand what we do. So the media often gets it wrong in terms of how they describe it. Sometimes they’re dismissive and at times they’re downright hostile toward it. But we can create our own publication. We can create our own world. Let people know about what we do by telling them ourselves. Rather than relying on tastemakers to do it for us, we can be our own tastemakers.

CM: I agree, and program makers, too. Our solstice broadcasts were lengthy compilations of material done in celebration of a holiday, and promoted to the world through broadcast and getting people to physically show up. So I agree with you. The idea of artists curating artists, and artists writing in the first person was definitely in the air and I felt very strongly about it. After all, my whole career has been stepping out, making my own studio, making my own way as a producer, and I thought that in this sense a community is built by people who are able to do that and then sharing the skill sets. Bringing that together, how wonderful EAR became under different editorial leadership and different art direction!

It was quite unusual for a publication within music to take on such great graphic interest. This is where R.I.P. Hayman’s particular inspiration—and all of us, in that way—all feeds back to Philip Corner. Rip and I met through Philip Corner’s sound out of silence spaces. Philip had learned calligraphy in Korea and made calligraphic music; his calligraphic scores had opened the door between graphics and communicating and music and sound. So we were looking to get the word out. At that time, I became the music critic for the Soho News, and I wrote essays about Jackson Mac Low, Alison Knowles, and a number of other people who were important in their thinking to me, because no one knew who they were. They weren’t mainstream artists. They were just doing their work and I think that publishing the work and also writing about it within a framework of the art community is very positive.

A poster for the Ear Magazine benefit concert on April 8, 1983 featuring an illustration of a giant ear and listing the participation of Charlie Morrow, Joan LaBarbara, Robert Ashley and many others as well as the world premiere of John Cage's ear for EAR

Ear magazine was much more than a publication; it served as a central hub for the entire new music community. The April 8, 1983 benefit concert for Ear brought together a widely diverse group of music creators including Laurie Anderson, Derek Bailey, David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir, Nam Jun Paik, and the Gamelan Son of Lion as well as John Cage who especially created the composition ear for EAR for the event.

FJO: The other thing that I found so inspirational about EAR was its definition of what new music was. It was really open-ended. I first became aware of the rock band Sonic Youth through EAR magazine. EAR was a portal into a broad range of genres, not a place that passed judgment on what was “uptown” or “downtown” or what had pedigree or lacked it. It presented everything on an equal footing, which was incredibly mind opening and made for a more inclusive new music community.

CM: I think you’re right, and in that respect, EAR also demonstrated that a community could be supportive of each other. While there had been this weird uptown-downtown split, it was really a tiny fissure in a community of people who otherwise were quite frankly really hungry to be more connected to other people and to know about things. I mean, your own experience shows what we found with EAR, because the readership went up. People were hungry to learn, and it was easier to understand it if you could see the real work, and understand that it had been either an impulse or been thoughtfully put together. It was transparently primary materials. What made it exciting for all of us was that we were constantly amazed by the breadth of the community and the diversity of what was called new music. It didn’t have to be pigeon-holed. Every time anyone would describe it, it would become something else.

FJO: But EAR eventually went away. We were talking before we began recording about finding ways to digitize the EAR archive to make those incredible issues available again, but it’s weird. All of this existed before the internet. It almost predicted the internet in terms of its interactivity and its attempt to join communities. At one point, I know there had even been an EAR Music East, and an EAR Music West on the West Coast. All these things are so much easier to do now that there’s an internet, yet by the time the web became used by the general public, EAR no longer existed, which is a tragic irony.

CM: It was unfortunate. You know, EAR kept evolving, and at a certain point EAR wanted to separate itself from New Wilderness Foundation and I think it was a time of a changing world. In my own case, I became a father in 1989 and producing the big solstice project that year for June 21, I barely was able to attend my daughter’s birth and be there for when she came home. I suddenly had a whole other world. After that, it kind of came to an end. EAR got a board together and then it went bankrupt. One of the differences throughout the whole project was that Rip and I, when there was no money, would put money in. That’s a necessary and magical ingredient; no matter what happened, we would keep it floating. The new board for EAR had a situation. The printer had gone out of business for some reason and EAR was impounded by a creditor. But EAR had already sold substantial advertising like in tens of thousands of dollars. In order to collect it, EAR had to appear. Generally speaking, EAR paid for its printing after it got its advertising money. So, this chicken-egg effect worked out that then the board, who were a lot of nice people, a lot of them with money, when it came time to put their hands in their pockets, they put their hands in the air. And something very wonderful came to an end. I think no project like this can exist unless there’s somebody who’s a tireless fool who will pay the bills.

FJO: The other amazing thing about it is that magazine was created in this space, the Ear Inn—a building that’s been here since the second decade of the 19th century. In a way, it’s a remarkable parallel that connects back to what you were saying earlier about creating new work through a relationship with old things. We’re in this really old place, certainly by New York City standards, that became one of the meccas for really new music. It seems wonderfully contradictory and yet it makes total sense.

CM: True. It’s a nice thought. I think that very much has to do with R.I.P. Hayman and his great generosity, imagination, and tenacity with keeping a space like this from being totally wiped off the face of the earth, which it’s been threatened with so many times. It makes this a very vital location for doing things.

FJO: I know your feelings about the concert hall and what it represents. So you created a musical existence beyond it and I think, to some extent, that idea translated into your idea about recordings as well because for a very long time your music was never available on recordings. Once again, just like a concert hall captures sound and puts it in this one place, a recording does that even more so because it captures time. John Philip Sousa rallied against canned music a century ago, but unfortunately in our world, unless you can your music and commodify it that way, people aren’t aware that it exists. A few years ago, after all these incredible things you did across many decades, XI finally put out a three-CD retrospective so people who weren’t around to hear these things when they happened could actually hear them.

CD cover of Toot! featuring a drawing of a Bowler hat filled with musical notation against a black background.

In June 2011, XI Records finally issued the first-ever album devoted exclusively to the music of Charlie Morrow, Toot! (XI 135), a generous 3-CD retrospective containing works spanning half a century.

CM: I think that I’m not so good at making records. My whole career has been in making soundtracks, making events, and broadcasts. For all of these things I’m an expert, but I was never a good producer for my own work. They say that a lawyer who represents himself in court has a fool for a client. I think there are people who are excellent record producers for themselves, but it just was a skill that I lacked. There was no other reason for there not being recordings of my work. There were small editions of my work along the way, as part of anthologies or some collection or another, but my work was primarily in broadcast and in media and in public spaces, because that’s what I knew how to do. It is a picture of my limitations, about presenting what I do to a wider audience in that medium.

Now I have marvelous spatial systems. I’m quite capable of presenting large spatial events. I do them once, and I have not attempted to publish them and make them repeatable. It’s just simply a limitation that I’ve got. I think that if I had somebody helping me over those years, that side would have been much better handled. Without Phill Niblock saying that he would like to do a triple CD of my work, I would simply have not done it because it’s just a little bit off of what I do well. So I worked on it with a group of people and they helped select things that would be good on CD. I think what makes me a terrible record person is that I’m a terrible A & R guy. I can’t figure out what belongs on a disc, what’s a reasonably good experience and so forth.

Alyssa Hess standing and leaning on a harp with Charlie Morrow, John Cage and R.I.P. Hayman seated in front of her.

Harpist Alyssa Hess with Charlie Morrow, John Cage and R.I.P. Hayman at MoMA in 1984. (Photo courtesy Charlie Morrow.)

FJO: Well there are certainly some pieces on there that work wonderfully as stand-alone sonic experiences, particularly that gorgeous multiple harp piece [Wave Music VII]. But of course it makes me eager to hear more. I read that there are three string quartets that you wrote early on. Are there recordings of those? Might those be released on another recording one day?

CM: Well I’ve assembled an archive now. I’ve started to put together collections on SoundCloud that are private. Jerome Rothenberg and I have done a lot of collaborations, so I’ve put all the Rothenberg ones together. A friend of mine has an online radio station, so we did a Rothenberg celebration for a bunch of months. But radio is a funny medium because people aren’t necessarily going to listen to long works on radio. But everything’s available in the archive. So we have a number of solutions. David Rothenberg thought there should be a retrospective museum. Owen Bush has suggested since I’m working in virtual reality that we create in virtual reality our own virtual museum, and put all the work in there, since it is site specific. It could then be performed in a more or less site-specific way. And we’re building that virtual reality museum right now with the help of the Unity Studio in Denmark. I think that will come along, but if any of the pieces are interesting to you, and you had some idea how they might be best presented to others, I’m totally into it. I just haven’t taken that step.

On the other hand, we’re remastering all the audiographics cassettes. We had 42 of them. It’s probably the seminal series of sound art and anthropological music: Philip Corner’s first recordings, Dick Higgins’s stuff, Alison Knowles’s stuff. I’m going to make all that available, because there’s a French label that’s interested in doing a sampler and then helping to collect orders for it. I have such big chunks of things that making them meaningful and making them available in a way that’s sensible is just slowly coming to me.

FJO: Since you mentioned Denmark and a French label, there’s one last thing I want to ask you about. You’ve spent a considerable amount of time doing projects in Europe. For some of the larger-scale activities that you’ve done there—like that piece of yours that involves 2,000 people—we certainly have the people and the enthusiasm to make it happen here, and yet these kinds of things seem to happen more in Europe these days.

A page of handwritten manuscript score for Charlie Morrow's event composition CityWave

From the score for Charlie Morrow’s CityWave, an event composition involving more than 1000 performers. © 1985 by Charlie Morrow / Other Media. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

CM: I think as always, it has to do with who the organizers are. I’ve been recently talking to Aaron Friedman, who was my successor to Summer Solstice celebrations as large scale music events. But I discovered that one of the biggest differences between the stuff that I did and the stuff that he does is that we paid people. He doesn’t pay anybody anything. So therefore the group that’s going to organize itself as 15 percussionists are going to play their own works because they’re there for free and they’re going to want to organize what they’re doing. So it’s a pinch point in doing a curated performance. We were able to do what we wanted because we paid for it—we went to the music performance trust fund and got half the money from the musicians’ union, and they matched the funds. Nobody got a lot of money, but it made it easier to rehearse, say, with cellists or more or less mainstream performers whose time is very precious and now even more so as it is even harder to live in New York.

But I don’t think it’s any easier to organize these large-scale things in Europe any more. First of all, anything like that tends to bear the aegis that they’re retro, ‘60s events; they’re post-hippie stuff. I mean, there’s a variety of ways in which mass performances are described. And in a way, a mass performance should in fact be either a totally composed piece like the [Balinese Ramayana] Monkey Chant or Berlioz’s Requiem or something that’s created by the people who are doing it. I’m sort of in the middle, but I think the pieces themselves have to achieve an audience. The fact that you and I are sitting here talking about it hopefully will lead people to go to the website. Because now on my website, I have a sample of all of the major works. You can see the piece—not on video, but there are photos—and you can hear a good sample of what they’re like. At this point there’s now a lot of material, so hopefully people will find it useful and want to bring it to life.

A Bowler hat on a speaker mounted on the ceiling

Melinda Wagner: It’s Just Who I Am

A conversation in Melinda Wagner’s home in Ridgewood, New Jersey
March 10, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Although most of the music she composes is completely abstract, Melinda Wagner still crafts her music in such a way that it reflects her personality and she hopes that that comes across.

“I’m not trying to tell a story in terms of being programmatic,” she opined when we visited her at her home in northern New Jersey. “I really do try to tell a purely musical story. I like to think that I carry an idea throughout the course of the piece and that the idea is transformed and there’s some kind of life lived. … I rely on instinct because, for the most part, I just know what notes should come next, even though I often cannot explain exactly why I know. And the resulting music says a lot about who I am—it’s as much a part of me as my brown eyes, my dislike of liver and marzipan, my love of potato chips, etc. So I’d like to think that listeners get to know me through my music because many of the important decisions in my work … are made without relying consciously upon intellectual constructs of some kind, but as a result of going with my gut.”

Though her melodic and harmonic vocabulary is firmly and unmistakably rooted in the sound world of modern music, Wagner’s principal role models have been the iconic classical music composers of the past, particularly Johann Sebastian Bach—from whom her obsession with counterpoint originates—and Beethoven, whose drama and intensity still sounds new. But Wagner also pays a great deal of attention to the music of our own time, particularly the music of younger composers at the start of their careers. An early boost for her own compositional trajectory was receiving three ASCAP Foundation Young Composer Awards. She is now frequently called upon to adjudicate those ASCAP awards, as well as many other panels.

“Every year I listen to literally hundreds of brand new pieces by mainly young composers,” Wagner explained. “It’s actually been wonderful work to do, because I know what’s going on with emerging composers. … When I’m listening, I want to yearn for the future of the music. I want to build up my own expectations of what might happen. I’m happy when those expectations are foiled, if they’re done sensitively or cleverly, and when the expectations are met that’s even better. But in any case, I want to yearn for that future, rather than simply luxuriating in the present of the piece. And I think a lot of listeners simply are happy to luxuriate in the present of the piece. For me, that’s a mistake. If I can’t go beyond that, then the piece probably won’t be a part of my life in the future because it’s not engaging those different ways of thinking. It’s not engaging memory, which informs my expectations of what will happen. … My favorite music, by other composers, is that which carries me away and touches my heart.”

Most fans of contemporary music first became aware of Melinda Wagner when she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1999 for her Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion.

The cover for the CD featuring Melinda Wagner's flute concerto (Bridge 9098) which is just white text against a blue background listing details of the record and the other piece on the disc, a work by Poul Ruders.

The Bridge Records CD release of the world premiere recording of Melinda Wagner’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize winning Flute Concerto was released in 2000.

“I was really unknown beforehand,” Wagner remembered, although she had already received a Guggenheim Fellowship (in 1988) and the young composer awards. Although Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Shulamit Ran both preceded Wagner in winning the Pulitzer, at the time it was still quite unusual for a female composer to receive the award. (While gender parity has admittedly still not occurred with these awards, the balance has improved tremendously in the 21st century; only 15 years in, the number of women who have won the award already matches those from the entire 20th century!) The world has also changed in many other ways since Wagner received that accolade. Nowadays complete recordings of award-winning works often appear online only minutes after the awards are announced. Wagner’s Flute Concerto was thankfully recorded and commercially released by Bridge Records not too long after its win and now, as a result of recent developments in secure online publishing, it was possible for Melinda Wagner’s publisher, the Theodore Presser Company, to make the score available to post to social media networks and embed on other websites. Still most of her success, according to her, has been through building personal relationships with individual musicians who then have spread the word about her music:

I have found—Facebook, social media notwithstanding—that what still works is word of mouth. I got a performance of [my Sextet] back in the day when we were using cassette tapes. I think somebody from that group happened to mention to a person in another group, “We just played this piece that I liked. It’s a new piece. You might like it. Here, try it. Contact Melinda Wagner.” And it’s still true. At least my commissions have come about that way. For instance, years and years ago, American Composers Orchestra played an early orchestra piece of mine called Falling Angels. My friend Kathy Rife happened to be playing viola in the orchestra and she went home and told her husband Joe Alessi, “There’s this piece that I liked a lot. So you might think about commissioning her.” This was many years ago when Kurt Masur was still conducting the orchestra. So it took a while. It has to go through a lot of channels. It actually took years. But finally the commission for the Trombone Concerto did come through. Your professional life is to make human contacts. I, for one, don’t place a lot of value on websites.

Admittedly, Wagner’s rigorous and deeply considered scores are not readily adaptable to the kind of instantaneous consumption that usually makes the rounds on Facebook and Twitter. But they offer significant auditory rewards to attentive listeners.

“I think it’s just who I am,” said Wagner. “My responsibility towards a listener is to be as clear and articulate as possible given my language and my vocabulary.”

*

Photo of a desk with piles of manuscripts, a lamp, and a bookcase.

Melinda Wagner’s composition studio.

Frank J. Oteri: There’s a wonderful quote of yours on the website of your publisher, Theodore Presser: “Ultimately I want listeners to know me. I want them to hear that while I enjoy the cerebral exercise, I am led principally by my ear and my heart.” I’d like to get a sense from you what that means since, after all, we are here to get to know you.

Melinda Wagner: Well, I’m going to give you a lot of very vexing answers because they’re not going to really answer your questions. But I will try to clarify a little bit. When I write music, I always try to take risks. I always go to a place that’s scary for me. It’s almost like making a confession. I’m really pouring my soul out onto the page. It’s wonderful if someone listening to my music could really hear that somehow my music sounds like my personality. On the other hand, it’s so hard to compose music that I don’t do anything a whole lot more than just struggle to get the notes on the page.

When I was a little kid, we did a lot of camping. On long summer car trips with my family, my mother entertained us by playing a musical game. There was no “I Spy” or “20 Questions” for us! She’d sing the first few notes of a made-up tune, and my brother and I would either complete it with our own tunes or continue by adding another antecedent phrase. The trick was to make it go as long as possible, creating a kind of musical exquisite corpse. Although I no longer have my mother to pitch me tunes, I continue to work this way—certainly a big reason why I always start with melody. I continue to make things up as I go along, which is fun and scary.

When my composing is going well, I find myself swept up by the music, outside of real time—I hum and buzz along on a level that can only be described as emotional. The music is leading me by the nose rather than the other way around. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this optimal experience “flow.” I think he was on to something. While this is my favorite way to work—the resulting music feels like me—it is also when I am at my most vulnerable. I am not relying principally upon craft, but upon some other, indescribable prime mover, and there is a certain amount of risk-taking involved.

I can only hope that listeners will be similarly swept up, that they will experience my music—its narrative, me!—on some kind of emotional level, if only momentarily. My favorite music, by other composers, is that which carries me away and touches my heart.

FJO: But how can a listener infer what your narrative is? Music is abstract. It’s not verbal, so it doesn’t have specific meanings. It can only have associative meanings through acculturation. If the desire is to get people to know who you are, how do you do that through instrumental, wordless music?

MW: Recently, I mentored a group of young composers at a week-long festival of concerts, readings, and seminar discussions. While presenting my own work, I described myself as an “intuitive” composer who devotes very little time to pre-composition. Later in the week, one of the young composers commented that using the word “intuitive” when describing one’s process is, in her assessment, lazy and sloppy! I must admit to being amused by this—I sincerely do not know a better way to describe my work.

Here’s the thing: I use my knowledge of craft, and I use reasoning—an intellectual way of manipulating my materials—when I’m having a hard time with the piece, when I’m stuck. When my work is humming along, however, I operate on a purely gut level; important decisions are made instinctively—indeed, sometimes I consciously override the more “reasonable” path in favor of my “gut” choices. And sometimes that doesn’t work out, alas.

So, what does “instinct” mean anyway? It refers to an innate pattern of behavior or decision-making that does not rely upon reasoning. For me, as a composer, I rely on instinct because, for the most part, I just know what notes should come next, even though I often cannot explain exactly why I know. And the resulting music says a lot about who I am—it’s as much a part of me as my brown eyes, my dislike of liver and marzipan, my love of potato chips, etc. So I’d like to think that listeners get to know me through my music because many of the important decisions in my work, while certainly informed by what I’ve learned, are nonetheless made without relying consciously upon intellectual constructs of some kind, but as a result of going with my gut.

I spend a lot of time and care working on the shape of a piece, in particular the building of the climax. In many pieces I try very hard to have restraint and patience, and I care about building the pacing correctly—not having things happen too soon or too late. I think that does say something about me; I’m patient and I care about the timing of things. Also I can be very raucous in my music. There’s a lot of it that’s very noisy. I think that says something about me and my life here across the street from a hospital with sirens going all the time. Plus I’m married to a drummer, my son is also a drummer, and it’s an old rickety house so it’s always quite noisy. I think that does come out in music, and that says something about my life.

a marimba wih a tambourine on a music stand in back of it

Of course, one of the benefits of being married to a percussion is having access to all those instruments!

I like very much that the repose in my music is hard won and also intense because of the music beforehand that’s been so noisy and dense and full of action. It has a lot of peaks and valleys. I like a really dramatic narrative; I’m really a drama queen. I’m a very sensitive person and I react very intensely to everything.

FJO: I love how the pitches of the wind chimes outside your house found their way into your piece Wick, which Harold Meltzer wrote about in his booklet notes for your Bridge CD.

The cover for the all-Melinda Wagner CD (Bridge 9345) featuring a photo of Melinda Wagner holding a score and Joe Alessi holding a trombone.

Bridge’s all-Melinda Wagner CD features her Trombone Concerto along with Wick and her Four Settings for soprano and chamber ensemble.

MW: It did and I wasn’t really aware of it at the time. But once I realized that that’s what was playing on my subconscious, I really listened more carefully and tried to notate some of what was happening. That’s very unusual for me, though, to do something that connected to the real world. I don’t usually try to do that. All of my talk about sirens and so on, I’m not really aware of it. I don’t hear them anymore. It’s only when I go back and hear a recording of a piece that I might say, “My gosh, there’s a lot of stuff going on in there.” Maybe that’s because I have to try so hard to drown it out when I’m upstairs working.

FJO: I’m reminded of that famous anecdote about Verdi writing the comic opera Un Giorno di Regno at the same time his wife and their two children died. It’s impossible to hear what he was going through in that music. Music is weird that way. But if your music is telling your story, then it theoretically might be possible for listeners to get some sense of what you were doing the year you wrote the Trombone Concerto, or at least how you were feeling, by hearing the piece.

MW: No, they wouldn’t. I realize I’m contradicting myself. You know, I have this noisy life, so my music tends to be a little bit noisy. On the other hand, I don’t think someone could know what I’m experiencing at the time. I think they might know more about just my general personality, but not something I’m going through. I’ve composed during very bad times and powered through it and the music doesn’t sound dreadful and dark necessarily. I mean there’s Beethoven and there’s Beethoven’s Eighth; his later symphonies are often very ebullient, but I don’t think he was a happy man at that time. So you can hear what my life is like, but no, you can’t really.

I told you it was vexing. A mentor of mine paid me what I consider to be the highest compliment—he said, look, Mindy, we composers, we’re all sort of crazy. You’re crazy and your music is crazy. It sounds like you. I know that doesn’t sound particularly like a positive comment. But I really took that as a high compliment, because whatever weird quirky stuff is going on with me somehow comes out in the music. I hope. I wouldn’t want my music to sound generic and just skillfully wrought; I like it to be painterly. I want to hear the brush strokes.

A group of framed photos of Melinda Wagner and members of her family

A variety of family photos sit atop the piano in Melinda Wagner’s home.

FJO: That’s a very nice analogy, and it makes me curious to learn more about your process of working on a piece. Despite being intuitive, there isn’t this mad flurry of working on a piece and then, suddenly, there it is. I get the sense that it’s a much longer and more meticulous process.

MW: Absolutely.

FJO: So, what is the working process, the gestation of a piece and how it comes together?

MW: Well, first of all, my process has changed a lot, and I think that’s true for everyone who’s going about it honestly. Your process evolves as your life changes. But generally I will spend a few weeks just listening to a lot of music—of all kinds. I’m not predisposed to any type. I’m just warming my ears up, and also getting ideas. We don’t work in a vacuum. Then I always approach a piece through melody. That’s my gateway. Whether I use it or not, a melody will suggest different paths and ways to go. I might shelve it later, but it gives me a springboard. So my second step is to write some melodies and fool with them, write some counterpoint to sort of get the juices going.

A page of orchestra score manuscript showing some flute and bassoon melodies.

An orchestral work in progress by Melinda Wagner.

The first few weeks I find to be most tortuous. I just don’t know what it is yet. That’s a very scary place to be. It’s a little bit like being blindfolded and feeling your way in the dark. Then hopefully somewhere around maybe a third of the way through the piece, it starts to suggest to me what it might do in its future. That’s always a great moment for me because I make a list of things that are going to happen. Whether I actually get to those things or not is immaterial. But I do have the carrot then at the end of the stick, something to go towards, which I don’t have in the beginning necessarily. When I tell people that I’m an intuitive composer, that’s what that means. I don’t have any kind of form in mind at first, but it comes to me kind of gradually over time.

FJO: So your composition studio is upstairs. The piano is down here. Do you walk back and forth or do you avoid the piano entirely?

MW: Well, I have an electronic piano upstairs with headphones so I don’t bother anybody. But it depends on the type of music I’m writing. If I’m writing for a small group, I use the piano more. But when I’m writing for an orchestra, where I really need to think about big gestures, I have to go in the other room so I’m not even looking at it, because the visual aspect of that keyboard I find very distracting. I’m a pianist, so if I start to get too involved in details in an orchestra piece by sitting at the keyboard, then I won’t see the forest for the trees. So I go into the other room, and I conduct through the piece. I have the pages tacked onto my wall and out on the floor, so I can walk through the piece. I do that for all my music, but mainly for orchestra music. I try to stay away from the keyboard until a later time, to check pitches and so on.

A photo of an electronic keyboard with a chair in front of it.

The electronic keyboard that Melinda Wagner keeps in her studio.

FJO: When you say you have it all out and then you check pitches, is it all hand written?

MW: All pencil and paper.

FJO: Whoa.

MW: Yeah.

FJO: None of that notation software?

MW: No.

FJO: Wow.

MW: I have the software. I have Sibelius. I have notated various things on it. But I don’t like playback. I don’t like the sound of it. And I don’t like the way it crowds me in, so I just don’t prefer to work that way. So yeah, pencil and paper, lots of erasing, very old fashioned, antediluvian.

FJO: No quills though?

MW: No. No ink.

Pages of a manuscript of an orchestral score on a wall.

Pages of a manuscript of a new orchestral score cover one of the walls of Melinda Wagner’s composition studio in her home.

FJO: So, to get back to what you said about listening to lots of music before you begin working on a piece, when you started the Flute Concerto, did you listen to a bunch of other flute concertos or is your listening not ultimately related to what the piece is?

MW: No, I didn’t listen to a lot of flute concertos, mainly because of the instrumentation I had chosen. It’s a smaller orchestra: no winds or brass. It’s the sound that Paul Dunkel wanted. The closest thing I could find was Bernstein’s Serenade, which I did listen to. I listened to Bartók and music that had a little more intimate quality to it. I don’t particularly like the sound of that pairing, flute and big orchestra. And I’m not sure it’s been handled well. It’s a strange kind of pairing, don’t you think? The flute is not a heroic sounding instrument, whereas violin or piano are out there beating the odds.

FJO: That’s probably why there are a lot more piano concertos and violin concertos. In terms of what’s found its way into the repertoire, you can count the flute concertos on the fingers of one hand. Of course, there have been lots of them, but they just haven’t had that longer life. But to get back to your process of listening, do you save lists of things you’ve listened to before you work on a piece? And might knowing what you had listened to be helpful to a listener of the piece you eventually write afterwards?

MW: I don’t think so, because what I’m trying to do is to get the sound of the ensemble, not the sound of their notes, not their melodies, not their harmonies. When I wrote the new Brandenburg piece for Orpheus, of course I went back and listened to Brandenburg Four, because that was the one that had been assigned to me. But also I wanted the sound of that group in my head. I’m trying to get used to the sound so that I feel comfortable in it when I start. It’s not really a style that I’m after. I could go listen to Beethoven or Mozart. It wouldn’t matter. I’m just trying to get warmed up to a particular ensemble.

 

FJO: So it’s for the same reason that you avoid the piano, so that the piano—even looking at it—doesn’t influence where you go. You want the instrumentation to dominate where your mind goes.

MW: Right.

FJO: That makes sense. So then what is ideal for a listener to have going in, in terms of preparation? What do you want the listener to get out of the experience? If you want to express your emotion, who you are and your personality, what can the listener do to work toward getting that from you?

MW: Well, I’m not sure they can prepare themselves and work at it before they come to hear my music. I would say I think my strong suit is narrative. But I’m not trying to tell a story in terms of being programmatic. I really do try to tell a purely musical story. I like to think that I carry an idea throughout the course of the piece and that the idea is transformed and there’s some kind of life lived. As you listen to the piece, you hear a transformation of some kind. I would be happy if a listener can follow the idea through, through its life and through its various dramas and travails, and somehow be excited or saddened, whatever, by the various things that happen to the idea. If that is something that a listener can get, by listening to my music, I will be very, very happy, whether they like it or not. They might not like the piece, but if they were able to stay with it, what I’m aiming for is that narrative.

FJO: Now in terms of the big narrative arc, you have written several major works for soloist and orchestra—concertos. That’s a form that’s gone back hundreds of years at this point, and there have been all these sociological theories about what concertos mean, like the individual versus the society. So does that come into play in terms of the narrative you’re trying to tell?

MW: No, I didn’t think about that at all. I think one thing that makes my concertos a little different is that they really are orchestra pieces. The orchestra is very, very involved; they’re not there to just float the soloist. And likewise, the soloist sometimes is an ensemble player in those pieces, playing along with the orchestra. That was something I had a lot of fun with; it’s not really concerto-like at least in the traditional sense of the word.

This is getting into another topic, but with my trombone piece, I was backstage a lot and the brass guys have their room back there. Brass people are very serious. They all are like that. And they have their refrigerator with their comforts and they hang out there. So I thought it would be really great to have them poke fun at [the trombone soloist] Joe [Alessi], and have a lot of interplay between Joe and his section. That was something I thought about a lot, not so much with the other pieces, but I really wanted them to actually laugh at him musically. So there are some spots where he is echoed a lot. I did think about that kind of human interplay in that piece.

 

FJO: One thing I realized in recently revisiting all three big concertos of yours—the piano concerto Extremity of Sky, the Flute Concerto, and the Trombone Concerto—is that all of them begin with the soloist playing alone, which is atypical. It’s not unprecedented, but it’s not the way concertos were done back in the day.

MW: Right. Earlier I was saying I start a piece with melody, so some of that just has to do with my process in general. I start with a melody. With the Flute Concerto though, I was really stuck for a while on how to start. I started over and over again with some kind of orchestral introduction, and I just couldn’t get started. Then I was walking down the street from the grocery store and I thought, I will start with a fanfare, a flute fanfare all by itself. I knew that was how I was going to start the piece. It just came to me. It was such a relief. I knew it was an unusual thing for a concerto to start that way, but it gave me my gateway. You don’t think of a flutist playing a fanfare.

FJO: It’s also a way to combat this idea that the flute is overpowered by the orchestra.

MW: Right.

 

FJO: Now the other part of this narrative thing in terms of telling a story is that you can perhaps direct a listener to think a certain way about a piece of music through a title, but a lot of your pieces don’t have titles that necessarily offer that window in. Extremity of Sky is a beautiful name and it’s very evocative. I’m not going to comment on the beauty or lack of beauty of the name Trombone Concerto.

MW: I know; it’s pretty generic.

FJO: So what leads to a piece getting a beautiful title versus a title that just tells you musically what it is?

MW: I get asked this a lot, actually. I think all composers get asked about their titles. I don’t come up with the title first. Doesn’t David Lang famously come up with his title first? And they’re very, very clever titles. I don’t come up with titles until the very end. And sometimes it’s like, “Oh shoot, I have to come up with a title.” It’s not something that has led me by the nose.

But somewhere in the middle of composing that piano concerto, 9/11 happened. Joel Connaroe, who at the time was the head of the Guggenheim Foundation, wrote all of the fellows this absolutely beautiful letter and he referred to a line from the third act of King Lear about the extremity of the skies. I had to use that. I remember going into the city two months after 9/11. New Yorkers are famously blasé about skyscrapers; it’s only the tourists who look up at the big buildings. But I found that New Yorkers were looking up constantly; every time a plane went by it was just terrifying. And I thought that this is an extremity of the sky for New Yorkers, the sky has taken on this new meaning. So when I read that phrase, I started getting gooseflesh. This is not to say that it actually describes anything in the piece. But it was just what was happening to all of us at that time. A lot of artists had to deal with it in their creative work at that time, how to digest something so horrible. That’s what I was experiencing at that time.

FJO: But it’s interesting that it doesn’t refer to anything specific.

MW: No. It doesn’t, and I didn’t want to try. I didn’t even want to go there, to try to portray some horrible thing. There is a little spot in it where there is some sort of little girl music. That was more about my daughter. I was thinking of her friend who lost her dad that day. We lost a lot of people here in this area. So that was the only spot where I sort of indulged a little bit. I don’t think I would have been capable of doing anything else.

 

FJO: So deciding whether or not something has a title, if it’s time and there’s no other title, then it’s Trombone Concerto.

MW: I can’t remember so much deciding about Trombone Concerto, but I did spend a lot of time thinking about the names of the movements. Those are very descriptive of the resulting music. But why “Trombone Concerto”? It’s probably not a very meaningful discussion because I frankly don’t remember why I didn’t choose something more interesting.

FJO: Well, I don’t mean to imply that it’s not interesting because the title does something else. And here’s where I want to go with this. When you’re writing for orchestra, it’s very different than writing for a chamber ensemble. You tend to be writing for people who are mostly doing standard repertoire. That’s pretty much the majority of what they do, unless it’s BMOP or the ACO. So you’re writing music that has to cohabitate with much older music. When you call something a concerto, you’re automatically giving the audience an association. You’re saying what kind of a piece it is and, most likely, where it goes on the program—after the first piece, before intermission. There are all these conventions, like if you call a piece a symphony, that’s the second half, although contemporary composers rarely get to be on the second half of the program.

MW: Well, you don’t want people to leave at intermission!

FJO: But that’s the thing. You’re setting up an association for listeners, letting them know that it is part of this tradition. I do think that a lot of people who attend a concert need that frame. They’ll hear, say, a Rossini overture and in the second half maybe Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. And then there’s this new piece that sounds nothing like either of them. But the new piece still has to cohabitate with these older works. What do we do to make it sound like it isn’t the odd thing out? Or maybe we want it to sound like the odd thing out. I don’t know.

MW: I think saying it’s a concerto is helpful, because it’s kind of an aid in a way for the composer. What you’re doing is you’re setting up a bunch of expectations which can either be met or not, and when they’re not, that makes the piece interesting and it’s intriguing to the listeners. So yes, I would in a roundabout way say sure, I think concerto is a useful title the way that a symphony is not these days. I mean, a symphony for some reason is much more general in terms of what to expect when you hear a piece. When you see that it’s called symphony, you don’t know exactly what to expect. You just know you’re going to hear a big piece.

FJO: On the second half of the program.

MW: I don’t think I would ever call any of my music a symphony, but concerto is fine.

FJO: But the other kicker with calling something a symphony is that it’s not only a symphony, it’s like Symphony No. 6. It comes with this number, so it’s not only calling to mind all that music of the past that had that title, it’s also calling to mind your own past, what you’ve done before it. It’s somehow a cumulative group of works. Every time I come across a composer I haven’t heard before and I hear, say, his or her Symphony No. 3, I always think, “Where are the others? I’ve got to hear one and two first.” This gets to a larger question, how people hear this music and finding the right access points for it. With an orchestra, it’s trickier than just about everything else, because new orchestra pieces don’t get redone a lot of the time. They’ll be a commission. If you get lucky, it’s a consortium commission and a group of orchestras do it. But they’re in different cities, so it’s different audiences. So the opportunity for the same audience to hear that piece again, if it’s not recorded, is really hard.

MW: I know. And I’m an idealist. I have to keep hoping that things will change. I sort of miss the old days—the old days I never lived—when people would buy four-hand piano music and learn the symphonies that way, like Haydn and Mozart symphonies. Then they might be lucky enough to actually hear it live. That’s the way I learned Haydn Symphonies. I played four-hand piano music with my mom. That was great fun, but also incredible, because you were actually learning all the inner voices and really getting the piece in your veins. Recording, fortunately and unfortunately, is really the way to go. And it’s been that way for such a long time. But as we all know, recording is frozen. You can still hear the multiple layers of a piece if it’s a really wonderful multi-layered piece. You’ll hear things the second time around that you didn’t hear the first time around and the third time around and so on. But the actual interpretation is frozen. It’s set, and that’s unfortunate. I think it would be great if we could hear many live performances. Because the beauty of writing music is that your piece is completed by the players. It’s not completed when you write your double bar. It’s completed by the players who hopefully rehearse it and they own it, and it’s different every time it’s played. Sometimes when there’s a low pressure system, the tempos will be a little bit slower. If you have a very nervous conductor whose metabolism is very high, it might be a faster tempo. Everything affects the way a performance happens. And I think that’s a very beautiful thing. So it’s really unfortunate that we have to rely on these frozen artifacts. But I’m very happy we have them. And YouTube has been great even though the sound quality is terrible. It’s a great way to get those live performances that you wouldn’t ordinarily get to see.

FJO: Now, the other part to this is that the more times people hear a piece of yours the more they will get from it.

MW: Well, I hope so. It’s been very difficult for me because my music is of a style that is not readily accessible to a great mass of people. So, it doesn’t travel easily; it travels, but it travels sort of in a nice loping pace. We’re not going to hear hundreds of performances of any one of my pieces. Not that I know of, anyway. But, as I said, I’m an idealist, and I keep hoping for what is the perfect world. That’s all I can do because otherwise, what’s the alternative? I am who I am. And I have to write what I write. Otherwise, what’s the point?

FJO: It’s very frustrating, though, because there haven’t been many recordings of your music that are commercially available, and there are so many pieces of yours I’ve never heard that I’d love to hear, like the piece you wrote for Skitch Henderson and The New York Pops.

 

MW: If you email my publisher Theodore Presser, they always send out recordings if you request one.

FJO: But could any ordinary person hear it? I know about perusal materials for someone who expresses an interest in performing a piece or in writing about it, but what about some random person who is just a fan. How do we reach those people?

MW: It’s regrettable that those pieces haven’t been commercially reproduced.

FJO: Of course now, we’re in this weird zone where recordings are still being commercially produced, but they’re not really thought of the same way that they once were even though they are still happening all the time. I think the people who are the prognosticators of doom about this must not get the mail we get every day. There are piles of recordings still coming out. That said, it’s much harder for recordings of new orchestra pieces since they are so expensive to produce.

MW: Oh my goodness, yes. It’s very thorny and, with all due respect, the local unions are decades behind the technology. Whether you can actually get a recording, even an archival recording from orchestras, is in question all the time. Those of us who write orchestral music have all had that experience of being sent home without any recording, or being sent home with a recording that has white noise in it every ten seconds, which is insulting and also makes it unusable even for private use. The composer falls through a crack there.

FJO: Yet what’s weird is that although they’re not willing to give composers a recording, there’s now this whole phenomenon where someone in the general public who has no connection to a performance or a recording will simply grab something and post it to YouTube without clearing the rights for it. And there it is. Once again, the composer who asks for a recording from the orchestra didn’t get it, but the composer was not asked to give his or her consent to a performance that’s on YouTube that may or may not be an accurate rendering of his or her piece.

MW: That’s right. I had that very thing happen to me. I was traveling and I said to some musicians, “I’d like you to hear this piece.” And they said, “We already have; we’ve heard the whole piece.” This was before I even had an edited recording. Someone in the audience had [recorded it with] their cell phone. That’s very common. It happened to have gone all over the internet amongst this one community of players. Yet if I had posted the music, I could have really gotten in trouble. But I see the players’ point of view. Here are all of these free recordings being shared all over the place and they’re not getting compensation either. So I do see that side of it. It’s a very slippery slope.

FJO: It’s weird because on the one hand, we want everybody to be remunerated, but in terms of getting people aware of the new piece, we want to get the sound of this stuff in people’s ears so that it isn’t something shocking that doesn’t fit with the rest of the program. I think it’s more an issue for orchestra music than for chamber ensembles or all these groups that do a lot of new music all the time. Those groups have audiences that know that that’s what it is when they go to hear those pieces. There’s a whole audience for that in a way that there isn’t for new orchestra music.

MW: Orchestra is really tough. And many of them are having hard times now staying afloat and they need the fannies in the seats. They need to sell the tickets. There are all kinds of considerations outside of music that are coming into play, and that makes it even tougher. So yes, orchestra music is tough. Yet ideally you should have pieces that really make the circuit and have it be a part of a repertoire. That’s the other problem of second performances with any group. Ideally an orchestra would commission a new piece, premiere it, and then take it on tour and play it many times again. You would hope that that would happen. Orpheus is one orchestra that’s been extremely supportive of their new pieces. They do everything possible to perform that piece on tour and there were several performances in Carnegie Hall. They really want to get to know the piece and that’s really the way it should happen.

FJO: But of course their structure is completely different. They are a chamber orchestra, so they’re smaller, plus there’s no conductor and their administration is all players. It’s artist-led as opposed to the top-down structure that is the typical orchestra administration paradigm.

MW: And they have a lot of financial support. They have a good endowment and a good board. Orpheus is a great role model, even for larger orchestras.

FJO: Despite all these challenges of writing for orchestra that we’ve been talking about, it’s clearly something you not only excel at but actually want to do.

MW: I love writing for orchestra. The most rewarding kind of project for me is an orchestral project. It’s also the hardest and it takes the longest. It requires a lot of practical work after the piece is done, with preparing the score and the parts and all of that. It’s enormously expensive. It’s funny. When I was a kid, I swam competitively. Anyone in their right mind would choose freestyle as their prime stroke, but I chose butterfly, which I couldn’t even really do at the time. It is the most strenuous stroke and the most difficult to conquer. I’ve always been that way. I choose the hardest sport. I really do prefer writing for orchestra, and I realize it’s the hardest thing for all kinds of reasons. It is what it is. What can I tell you?

FJO: But in terms of recognition, you received a Pulitzer Prize for an orchestra piece.

MW: And the piece has gotten around a bit, which is very nice.

FJO: Do you think that winning that prize opened doors that otherwise would not have been opened?

MW: For chamber pieces, I received some commissions that maybe wouldn’t have come about had it not been for that. But the next large, substantial works that I wrote—my Piano Concerto and then later my Trombone Concerto—were both in the works before the Pulitzer happened.

FJO: In an ideal world, you should have been commissioned by orchestras all over the country to write concertos after winning that.

MW: Again, we’re back to idealism. Yes, I think that should happen to anybody who gets any kind of recognition like that. People should really shore up the composer and ask for new works. Does it happen with the other winners? I don’t know. I think the problem for me was that I was really unknown beforehand. The fact that all of a sudden here’s this name that no one had ever heard of was perhaps a scary thing for some possible commissioners. I really don’t know the answer to the question, although I do agree it would have been nice if a lot of commissions had come in, but it’s not necessarily something I want everybody to be dwelling on. There were some things, a couple of which I had to turn down.

FJO: The Pulitzer, of course, is a special case because, since it is primarily an award for newspaper journalism, every newspaper cares about it and so any composer who wins gets his or her name splattered in every newspaper in the country. And that means there’s this automatic publicity that travels far beyond our own community. Getting recognition through all these other panel-adjudicated awards is often how composers wind up on the radar of folks who make the decisions about who to program and who to commission in the first place—going all the way back to the BMI Student Composer Awards and the ASCAP Young Composer Awards (now called the Morton Gould Awards). The ASCAP Young Composer Award was one of your earliest accolades and you now frequently adjudicate those awards. So I thought your perspective on all of this was particularly relevant.

MW: I do a lot of panel work. So every year I listen to literally hundreds of brand new pieces by mainly young composers. It’s actually been wonderful work to do, because I know what’s going on with emerging composers. It’ a gift to be able to do it.

Cover for the innova CD boxed set American Masters for the 21st Century featuring white and black text overlayed on an abstract painting.

Melinda Wagner’s 1989 Sextet, which appears on the Society for New Music’s 5 CD-set American Masters for the 21st Century, is the earliest of her works available on a commercially released recording.

FJO: And in terms of doors opening, it was not too long after you received an ASCAP Young Composer Award that the Society for New Music performed your Sextet, which is the oldest piece of yours I know. That was really the very beginning of significant recognition for your music. The Society for New Music has been one of the great champions. But how does any composer get a track record where an organization that has a lot of respect has given its seal of approval? How do you reach that point where you go from emerging to “O.K., we know this person. We’re going to commission this person to do something.”

MW: I have found—Facebook, social media notwithstanding—that what still works is word of mouth. You bring up this Sextet. I got a performance of that back in the day when we were using cassette tapes. I think somebody from that group happened to mention to a person in another group, “We just played this piece that I liked. It’s a new piece. You might like it. Here, try it. Contact Melinda Wagner.” And it’s still true. At least my commissions have come about that way, through word of mouth. For instance, years and years ago, American Composers Orchestra played an early orchestra piece of mine called Falling Angels. My friend Kathy Rife happened to be playing viola in the orchestra and she went home and told her husband Joe Alessi, “There’s this piece that I liked a lot. So you might think about commissioning her.” This was many years ago when Kurt Masur was still conducting the orchestra. So it took a while. It has to go through a lot of channels. It actually took years. But finally the commission for the Trombone Concerto did come through. And it was purely through word of mouth. I’ve found that most of those commissions have come to me that way. Your professional life is to make human contacts. I, for one, don’t place a lot of value on websites.

 

FJO: I didn’t know that story about the Trombone Concerto. Of course, my first assumption had been that it had come about because of the Pulitzer. I remember thinking at the time, “That’s great, but they should have played the piece that won the Pulitzer as well.” But after you said it was already in the works, my second guess was that since it’s a trombone concerto, somebody there obviously heard your amazing brass quintet—which is one of my favorite pieces of yours—and thought, “She really knows how to write for those brass instruments. Let’s commission her to write a concerto for a brass instrument.” But that’s not how it happened, either.

MW: That would have been a more expected route you’d think.

Cover of American Brass Quintet CD American Visions featuring a photo of a canyon

One of Melinda Wagner’s most effective works is the Brass Quintet she composed for ABQ in 2000 which they recorded on their 2003 CD American Visions.

FJO: But the fact that it’s ultimately about people, I think, is key. And it harkens back to something you said earlier, which I think is very poignant, about music being completed by the players who bring it to life in performance. We can record one performance and listen to it again and again, but it’s not the same as having tons of performances by different people who each bring something different to it; even the same people performing a piece many times bring something slightly different to it each time. And this is why writing chamber music is so important, I think, because there are so many more opportunities for that to actually happen. Sure, you don’t get as wide a range of colors that you’d get with an orchestra, but I think you get a deeper level of something that is ideally what we all want with all of our pieces.

MW: It’s much more feasible with chamber groups. That’s for sure. Earlier you mentioned Wick, which is certainly in the repertoire of the New York New Music Ensemble who commissioned it. They performed it many times and recorded it. So that’s their piece, they have made it theirs, and they definitely own it when they play it. That’s the ideal.

 

FJO: Writing a solo piece might be the best opportunity to create something that can really have a life, because it’s just one person and if that person puts it in his or her repertoire and really works it, then that’s the sweet spot. I bring this up because I was really smitten with your solo piano piece Noggin after I heard Marc Peloquin perform it at Tenri earlier this season. In fact, it’s what convinced me that it was finally time for us to have this long overdue conversation.

MW: Thank you. That’s a much easier piece to peddle around. There are a lot of pianists who are very good out there. The piece has already taken on a life, and it’s not a very old piece—I think it’s two years old and it’s already gotten quite a few performances —so that’s been a very nice thing. I’m very happy about that. But it’s an easier situation.

FJO: Getting back to what you were saying about the piano earlier—you’re a pianist, and this is a solo piano piece. So did you work on it at the piano?

MW: I did. I can actually play it, very slowly. But I did play. I worked right at the piano when I was doing that, which is a little dangerous actually, because I’m not a professional pianist. I would not be able to go out on stage and play the piece, and one doesn’t want to compose just for one’s own abilities since there are better musicians out there.

FJO: You’ve also written a very nice solo guitar piece. I see a ukulele on one of your shelves, but I don’t think that you play the guitar.

MW: Not at all. But I did work with a guitar in my lap, because I wanted to make sure that some of the chords I was after were actually reachable. So it was very helpful to have the instrument with me. I don’t play the guitar and that was a little scary at first, but I would do it again because I ended up really enjoying it.

FJO: So does that piece have an ongoing performance life?

MW: Yes, it has, although that’s a little more difficult. The guitar is such a subtle instrument. You usually don’t see a solo guitar piece on a program. I don’t anyway. And it’s only three and half minutes long, which makes it kind of a special case. But I have had some lovely performances. One of them, which I like very much, is on YouTube.

FJO: That is a very nice performance. We haven’t yet talked about vocal music, which is interesting given all of our conversation about narrative and meaning. Music with sung words is the one realm in music where you can actually tell a story that people are going to instantly get, because we’re verbal creatures. I know you’ve set some really wonderful poetry—Emily Dickinson, Denise Levertov, and Robert Desnos—in your song cycle Four Settings. But I found it very strange that you gave the piece such an abstract title. Normally a vocal piece will have a very evocative title that comes from a title or maybe a line in one of the poems. It’s almost as if, since you were setting a variety of texts, you didn’t want to give one text weight over the others.

MW: Right. I suppose I could have come up with a more descriptive title, but I think you’re right—I really wanted to give the highlight to the individual poems. I don’t remember thinking about it too long. It would have been really hard to come up with a title for that because the reason I chose that collection of poetry had to do with light and darkness, shade and sunlight, those contrasts which are somewhat poetic sounding, I suppose, but I’m not a poet. So I didn’t think I was up to the task of coming up with a poetic, more personal sounding title. Four Settings is descriptive; it tells the listener what they’re going to hear. I wanted to set these poems. That’s what I did and I just sort of left it at that.

 

FJO: The other thing it implies, I think, is that they are settings, your own interpretations, not the only possible interpretation.

MW: That’s right. It’s certainly not, especially with regard to Emily Dickinson. Composers love to set Emily Dickinson. There are other approaches. So I think that was behind my choosing a title like that.

FJO: So, other kinds of projects involving a narrative—Four Settings is the only vocal piece of yours that I know, although you have also written several pieces for chorus. Would you want to write an opera?

MW: I don’t think so.

FJO: Why not?

MW: I’m comfortable writing for voice and choral groups, but I’m just not—I don’t think I have a very good answer for that. It’s just not been at the forefront of my mind to write an opera. Look, it’s so hard to get orchestra music played. I think an opera is yet another difficult path.

FJO: Even worse because the big opera houses are set up pretty much to do only older repertoire not just in terms of their overall design but also in the whole way they market what they do to audiences. Sometimes we’re lucky and they deign to do a new piece, maybe one a year, or one every five years—look at the Met’s track record which is absolutely horrendous. So if you’ve written an opera, even if you’re lucky enough to get a production of it somewhere, what do you do after that? And it takes years to write an opera, so it’s a huge investment for a composer to make given the likely potential returns.

MW: That’s it. So opera has not been something I’ve lusted after.

FJO: Of course, now we’ve entered what many folks believe is a golden age for smaller-scale operas, black box opera. There are a lot of adventurous people out there who are finding ways to make this work. So I think it’s an exciting time.

MW: I think that’s very exciting, too. And I love heavily-produced chamber pieces where there’s a visual element, or costumes, or some of it is scripted and staged. And there are all these young ensembles out there that are willing to do it. That I’m very intrigued by. I would go there in some future project.

FJO: We’ve talked about all these different idioms—orchestra music, chamber music, vocal, choral, opera. And every piece of yours I know—whether it’s something large like the Trombone Concerto or a smaller-scale piece like the Brass Quintet or Noggin—has been tailor made for its forces. And it’s clear from how you’ve described your creative process that you really make sure that it is. But, at the same time, it’s also really important to you that the music reflects who you are, which can be a difficult balancing act.

MW: Here’s the thing. My music is really difficult. While I think it is idiomatic, it is difficult to put together. There are lots of tempo and meter changes. It’s not music that plays itself or can be easily put together with one and a half rehearsals. But Beethoven is difficult. Brahms is difficult. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to put together [their music] when those pieces were new. I’m sure they had more than one and a half rehearsals in those days. I know that sounds kind of hard-assed or something, but that’s what I hear, and I don’t think that’s indulgent. I think it’s just who I am. Does one consciously go into a new project with the aim of writing easy music? Yes, we’re all asked to do that, for instance when we write for an amateur orchestra, which is fine. It serves no one to be willfully obscure. But to change a style solely for the sake of getting more performances—talk about slippery slopes! You’re really selling your soul to the devil if you start doing that.

FJO: And if you want people to understand who you are from your music, you can’t write anything but who you are.

MW: Exactly. They wouldn’t be hearing who I am and what I’ve worked on all these years. I think my responsibility towards a listener is to be as clear and articulate as possible given my language and my vocabulary. I don’t like it when my point of view is considered self-indulgent, because we all are after voice. When you find a voice, or continue looking for it, it is what it is.

FJO: So to turn this around, I’m curious about the things you admire in other people’s music, both of our time and from the past. But first, the composers from the past. I poked around the house while we were setting up the recording equipment, and I saw all these standard repertoire scores on the piano.

A pile of scores of Schubert, Mozart, Czerny, Beethoven, and J.S. Bach

All those scores…

MW: I’m very respectful of where I came from, and that is definitely from having been brought up with the standard repertoire—Bach and Mozart and Beethoven. That’s how I came to the piano and so it’s really where I started. Take Bach for instance. I have his 48 preludes and fugues on the piano here. Do you remember several years ago when there was that silly contest of who was the best composer on earth?

FJO: Of course the winner of these contests is never anybody alive, never a woman, and never an American. It makes my blood boil.

MW: I know; it was very silly, but sort of entertaining to see it as it unfolded. Bach ended up being the winner. It’s not like I was rooting for him, because I thought the contest was kind of silly, but Bach for me is someone I return to because all of the drama and beauty and excitement and angst in that music is built into the notes. You don’t have to have dynamics. You don’t have to add some kind of contrived interpretation. I think the best performers of Bach are the ones who stay out of the way and are technically accurate and yes, musical, but I think Bach performances where players are adding another element of drama are not the best performances. So I return to Bach because the peaks and valleys and the shape are the bricks and mortar of the music. I’m always going back to Bach to figure out how he does that. It’s fascinating to me. My work is very informed by Bach and Beethoven, too, whose music is so narrative. He uses anticipation and expectation and surprise so much and he’s obviously pushed the envelope formally; I go back to Beethoven all the time.

FJO: I definitely have always heard the Beethoven influence in your music, the shifts, etc., but I remember when your Orpheus commission was first announced. At first I thought it was a very unusual choice, because I didn’t immediately associate your music with Bach and Baroque sensibilities. Your music is very much about color and contrast, which is almost the exact opposite of steady state. However, after I started looking at your scores more in-depth I realized that all of your music is ultimately about counterpoint. But you’ve taken it to very different ends which goes back to the very beginning of our conversation where you said you don’t listen to music for the style but for something else, to get those timbres in your head so that they become second nature. And so I guess it’s the same thing with Bach. You’re getting maybe the—I don’t want to say technique—but maybe the tools.

MW: The tools. Yes. Well, all my music is contrapuntal. That’s the way I work. So it was sort of a no brainer for me to approach the piece that way. That is a major tool in my work.

A Schirmer score of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier sits atop a Steinway baby grand piano.

A score of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier sits atop the Steinway baby grand in Melinda Wagner’s home.

FJO: I wanted to take this into a discussion about mentoring other composers. Obviously Bach and Beethoven is the music that has mentored you. You had mentioned earlier that you look at tons of pieces by young composers. I’m wondering when you go through all this music, what are you listening for—well, actually, what you’re looking for since you’re looking at scores? What are you aiming to find in someone’s compositional voice? This sort of ties into what you want listeners to hear in your music—what do you want to hear and experience in someone else’s music?

MW: Let’s talk about the bigger issue here and that would be what brings me back to a piece of music, let’s say, a second time, a third time, [across a] lifetime? We all know that music is unique in that it is both temporal and completely abstract. I find that fascinating, the fact that music is sounded, it’s evanescent. It completely disappears after it’s sounded. It’s like a puff of smoke; it’s in the air. And yet, it’s really so very, very powerful. I’ve thought a lot about that. I think that when we really listen carefully to music, what’s happening is that we’re bringing into the present of every piece of music both our recollection of the past of that piece as well as our expectation of what’s happening, of what might happen in the future of that piece. So we’re really listening in three tenses at once, if we’re listening carefully.

When I’m listening, I want to yearn for the future of the music. I want to yearn for it. I want to build up my own expectations of what might happen. I’m happy when those expectations are foiled, if they’re done sensitively or cleverly. And when the expectations are met, that’s even better. But in any case, I want to yearn for that future, rather than simply luxuriating in the present of the piece. And I think a lot of listeners simply are happy to luxuriate in the present of the piece. For me, that’s a mistake. If I can’t go beyond that, then the piece probably won’t be a part of my life in the future because it’s not engaging those different ways of thinking. It’s not engaging memory, which informs my expectations of what will happen. So if I’m listening to a piece that is concerned only with wowing me in the moment, I’ll be wowed and I will listen a second time, but it will not likely hook me if that’s it.

I know that’s a huge intangible. It really is. But that’s really my criterion for listening to music. So I like music that takes risks. I like to hear hearts on sleeves. The music I don’t like to listen to is music that has relentless ugliness. I’ve used scratch tones in my music, but to hear it unendingly—almost abusive of the instrument, which I know is de rigueur these days—I don’t care for personally. This is a personal taste. I don’t care to hear that for many moments on end. When it comes to contests, that’s difficult, particularly with the ASCAP contest, because there are so many applicants—800, 900 people apply to that, so you have to have two levels of judging. First just to winnow out those great numbers of pieces that aren’t really eligible. And you don’t get very much time with a piece at all.

I’ve had this discussion with young composers all the time. Teachers used to say in the old days, “Write a piece that has great cymbal crashes and lots of drama and excitement in the beginning.” That’s a big danger because, first of all, how do you make a piece work with that? You can, but to follow up and actually make a whole piece with that kind of opening is really challenging, especially if you’re a little bit inexperienced. There was a while there where we would hear or look at a lot of these pieces that opened with great bravado and you know, drama, and then boom, the bottom would fall out. So that would be something we’d look for, if the bottom didn’t fall out. We’re talking about minutes of sifting through a score so you can see what’s happening. You can see if the composer’s going to back it up. The piece that did back up that big opening would be a piece that would rise to the top.

I think it’s important to grab the judge—or any listener—in some way. I don’t think it’s necessarily with a brake drum or a cymbal crash or a great flourish of sound, but sure, you have to grab the listener in some way. There’s nothing that smacks of pandering in that at all. I mean, what’s the point if you’re not going to grab the listener in some way. I’m glad to say that the ways that composers can do that are very many and varied. It doesn’t have to sound like movie music. If there is a climax, then this is another thing. If we see a big moment in a piece, it’s very important to see that the composer has worked for it. I certainly have heard a lot of music where there are a lot of stops pulled out. But compositionally, I think that it needs to be tended to and earned.

FJO: That really is what distinguishes the first listen from the second listen or the third.

MW: You know, after a while, if you’re an experienced listener, you really do hear through that pretty quickly. The other thing is strings of pretty chords. I’ve heard so many pieces that are lush and beautiful, but they’re chords that have nothing really to do with one another even if they’re I-IV-V-I. There’s some missing element in a lot of that music. That’s very hard to describe, but when it’s done well, it’s absolutely delicious. But not everyone can do it well, to—again—make one yearn for the future of the piece, to yearn for the next chord rather than simply enjoying the one that you’re hearing at the moment.

FJO: You taught composition for a number of years, but you don’t have a regular teaching job anymore.

MW: No, but I do a lot of masterclasses, so I get students for a couple of days, which is lovely.

FJO: Does that work fuel your own creativity or is it just a way of giving back?

MW: I love working with young composers. I really adore it. I always benefit from hearing their ideas and their music. I really am so lucky to be able to do this once in a while. When you’re teaching, you have to know the subject matter so thoroughly, because you have to know it well enough to be able to explain it to someone in very clear, simple terms. That’s a discipline one has to learn when one is teaching—I know what I know or I know what I like, but describing it to someone else, or explaining how you feel, even about your own music, is something that you really have to think about. So I think working with young composers and talking about music, I really have to go inward and think very carefully about what I really mean. So it does cause me to reflect a lot. And hearing their ideas, as I said, is very beneficial to me; it keeps me on the ball.

Manuscript pages on the wall, on a shelf, and scattered over a rug on the floor.

Another view of Melinda Wagner’s studio showing pages of manuscript paper scattered all over the room.

Jen Shyu: No More Sequined Dresses

A conversation in Jen Shyu’s Bronx apartment
February 23, 2015—10:00 a.m.
Video presentation and photography (unless otherwise noted) by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

“The voice has allowed me passage into meeting people from every part of the world,” beamed Jen Shyu when we visited her at her apartment in the Kingsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx. And indeed, she has met people from all over the world—her peregrinations have taken her from Peoria, Illinois (where she was born) to extended stays in San Francisco, Cuba, Brazil, Taiwan, Indonesia, East Timor, China, South Korea—she returned there again for a six-month residency just a couple of days after our talk—and New York City, which has only been her home base since 2004.

Those worldwide travels have also broadened her aesthetic horizons far beyond anything she imagined growing up in the Midwest. It was there where she initially trained to be a concert pianist (she performed the third movement of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra at the age of 13) and then became obsessed with musical theater (where she developed her passion for singing). She even remembers composing what she described as “Rachmaninoff-ish songs.” But she did not really feel a sense of personal ownership over what she was doing musically until she started exploring jazz, which she still considers the core of what she does musically. As she explained:

Once I tasted that, improvising, it was really hard to go back. … I do feel tied to the continuum—or the tradition—of innovation, and I think jazz is very unique in that way. It’s such a large and dangerous word, but I still feel like what Randy Weston said is that he’s a fan of the music. I still feel like I’ll always be a fan of it—the study and the honoring of those giants, the deep looking inside of it and knowing these musicians, seeking out elders. I feel tied to jazz in that way, and that has inspired a lot of what I do and how I go about doing it.

Admittedly Jen Shyu’s definition of jazz is extremely broad at this point. She was deeply influenced to go in her current music direction through formidable interactions with multi-instrumentalist Francis Wong, a pioneer of the Asian-American jazz movement, and her many years of performing with the omnivorous Steve Coleman in his group Five Elements. It’s a direction that took her from performing standards “wearing very sequiny dresses” to writing her own material and becoming proficient on many traditional East Asian instruments and in many different traditional vocal techniques, including Indonesian sindhen and Korean p’ansori. In fact, her monodrama Solo Rites: Seven Breaths–which incorporates many of the techniques she acquired through her immersive Asian travels and synthesizes them into a fluid whole—is a far cry from what you might usually hear in most jazz venues. However, the mesmerizing performance I heard her give of it took place at The Jazz Gallery, a non-profit space that showcases experimental jazz. But is it still jazz?

That’s where I leave it to you. You tell me. … Then you have to define jazz. That’s such an impossible thing. That whole show, there’s a structure, but … there’s improvisation all the time. And I feel like I’m telling stories of struggle. … I see value in everything and in every musician, and I think that inevitably, if someone feels very strongly about something—maybe they think music should be a certain way or that jazz should be a certain way—I would say, “Yeah, well everyone’s entitled to believe what they believe.” I’m looking at what people’s contributions are: what are they giving musically and energetically to our music? That’s what I’m more concerned with. I try to stay away from things like ownership. I feel like I have very little time on this earth relative to the whole scope of things, so I want to figure out what I am going to contribute.

Shyu’s referencing of “stories of struggle” in her explanation of how even her most musically far-ranging work is still connected to jazz is very telling. Jazz has been the soundtrack of social struggle long before the legislative victories of the civil rights movement, and it is something that all three of the vocalists we spoke with addressed in describing their work.

We all have our way to do it that I think has to be—there’s an Indonesian word called sesuai, which means to match your character. I believe in subtlety. … I don’t use sequined dresses anymore. And I’m playing all these instruments, and singing and writing all the music. That in itself is already a statement.

*

Pages of Chinese calligraphy in frames on the floor next to a laptop and a few DVDs on a desk

Jen Shyu’s work area is an amalgam of old and new: framed pages of Chinese calligraphy share space with a laptop and DVDs.

Frank J. Oteri: You do tons of different things as a musician, but in the first sentence of your bio you describe yourself as an experimental jazz vocalist. So I wanted to ask what that means to you.

Jen Shyu: Experimental is the first thing, I think. I always will be trying to break down any preconceived notions of anything that I’m supposedly doing. The word jazz is in there because I do feel tied to the continuum—or the tradition—of innovation, and I think jazz is very unique in that way. It’s such a large and dangerous word, but I still feel like what Randy Weston said is that he’s a fan of the music. I still feel like I’ll always be a fan of it—the study and the honoring of those giants, the deep looking inside of it and knowing these musicians, seeking out elders. I feel tied to jazz in that way, and that has inspired a lot of what I do and how I go about doing it. And vocalist? Voice has become my main instrument, even though I think my first love was dance, and it still is a deep love of mine. But I find that the voice has allowed me passage into meeting people from every part of the world. Even if I don’t speak the language yet, if I explain I’m looking for these older songs, then if I sing a little from another culture, then they’ll understand what I’m looking for, just from hearing that. And then they’ll understand, oh, this isn’t just someone wanting something from our culture. There’s a relationship that’s immediately built. I feel like I’m very lucky to have such a tool that can make that connection with people so quickly.

FJO: So many of the things you just said, both about jazz and about being a vocalist, are about tradition: going and gathering stuff from another culture or dealing with elders. But then there’s that word “experimental,” which is the opposite. Those other words are about yesterday, but experimental is about tomorrow. So there’s a pull.

JS: Yes, very true. You would think that they’re diametrically opposed, but for me I feel like we can learn so much from looking at tradition. A lot of traditions are built on necessity and just looking at what’s the best way, what’s the most efficient way that we can do something, while honoring our ancestors. So it’s a beautiful marriage, being innovative but honoring those who came before us and showed us the way. I think they work together very well. For me, to gather the best of those worlds is how I would reach the full potential of who I am as an artist. Also, when I see those qualities in other people’s work, this kind of nod to the future but with deep rootedness in the past, I’m immediately attracted. Whenever I see that relationship in a deep way where it is something new that I haven’t seen before, then that’s my “ooh, I want to work with that artist.” To me it’s very clear when something is coming from a sincere place as opposed to coming from “we’re just trying to get over” place.

FJO: I think we’re now more in a state of détente than we’ve been in quite a while, but over the last 50 years there have often been great tensions between experimental jazz and more straight-ahead approaches, to the point that they’ve felt like warring camps.

JS: I try not to worry too much about that. I’ve met and had wonderful interactions with people from both camps, from different camps that maybe, if they themselves came together, might have these great tensions. I see value in everything and in every musician, and I think that inevitably, if someone feels very strongly about something—maybe they think music should be a certain way or that jazz should be a certain way—I would say, “Yeah, well everyone’s entitled to believe what they believe.” I’m looking at what people’s contributions are: what are they giving musically and energetically to our music? That’s what I’m more concerned with. I try to stay away from things like ownership. I feel like I have very little time on this earth relative to the whole scope of things, so I want to figure out what I am going to contribute. So I have to know where my parents are from. I was born in America, so what does that mean? I’ve been so lucky to have met people like Francis Wong, Jon Jang, Steve Coleman, and Von Freeman. Each of those meetings meant so much to me, to be able to interact—I feel like, wow, if I were able to have met John Coltrane or Charlie Parker, it’s the same weight of meeting someone with such creativity and vision. What if I could have met Bartók, who’s like this kind of shining idol to me? It’s been humbling along my own journey to intersect with these big geniuses in our time. I feel like I’m so lucky to be here.

I’m just focused on the path. Being able to travel and spend long periods of time in other countries exploring my own ancestry, but also going to Korea because I wanted to go. That’s a gift. So I think there’s a way to find peace in all of these supposedly opposing viewpoints. I think everyone ultimately is searching for their own voice and how they will contribute. Human nature is that way, especially when you have very opinionated people. They’re going to feel like things could be in this direction or could go in that direction. But I hope that as long as everyone’s beliefs and music can be allowed to happen and be heard, I think it’ll be okay.

A page of handwritten manuscript and a Bartók score published by Universal Edition are side by side in front of a Boradman upright piano

Jen Shyu keeps some Bartók sheet music alongside an original score at the upright piano in her apartment.

FJO: To take this back to being a vocalist, specifically being a jazz vocalist, that phrase has a special meaning as opposed to another kind of vocalist. So I was wondering what for you distinguishes a jazz approach to singing versus other kinds of approaches to singing.

JS: The deepest study I did of the tradition of jazz improvisation was with Steve Coleman, just sitting at the piano and then listening on repeat to Art Tatum phrases and Charlie Parker phrases and then singing them and then learning them on the piano. Then looking at those small fractions of a second to look at why they did this. “What do you think, Jen? How are you going to build that in there?” And for a long period of time—years—going that deep with other musicians, making music and performing, being tested on the bandstand and being just terrified. In the first year I was just terrified, but knowing, “Well, I’m a performer, so be cool on stage.” Then after a gig, “I didn’t get this, and I didn’t understand this.” Going back and asking Steve, “What was this one? How did this happen?” That constant dialogue of seeking and growing and messing up all the time, but then getting back up—having come from a classical background, making mistakes and errors was such an issue. It was a very different approach to the right and wrong of things. It wasn’t about right and wrong anymore. It was about, “How are you going to improvise out of this and make the best out of whatever just happened?” It was a complete shift for me. Then with the voice, what was interesting was that Steve really didn’t want me to approach singing jazz or whatever, at least in his band, in a normal—I don’t want to say normal, but I guess in a traditional—way. He’s like, “Jen, we’re not going to be the band playing behind you. You’re going to be part of us. And you’re going to know as much information as we do, and you’re going to be free to do whatever you want and not just be out in front.”

FJO: That’s very interesting because you can instantly recognize the voice of the most iconic jazz singers—people like Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald—and their voice is primarily what people are listening to. But the whole tradition of jazz singing was largely about being the front person, but at the same time usually having less control either of the actual material they sang (in terms of authorship) or how it was arranged. There are gender issues wrapped up with that—the female singer, the male band leader, etc. Somebody who really broke that mold was Abbey Lincoln.

JS: I love Abbey. Again I thank Steve so much for introducing me to Abbey and I’ll never ever forget being at her house. It was me and Steve and then a poet who’s his wife, Patricia. It was just the four of us talking with each other and she was so strong. When we first met, she kissed us all on the lips. She just held me and then kissed me on the lips. I was kind of terrified. But then Steve was like, “Jen, call her. Now you’ve seen her, call her. Just talk to her. It’s not a big deal. Who knows how long she’ll—” and of course, just a few years later, she passed. But I did call her and started to ask her about growing up, what was her time like in Chicago? I’ll never forget—this is a funny anecdote—Steve, when we were at her house, told me to give her my CD. I think I gave her a demo or something of For Now maybe. It was so many years ago. I felt weird about it, but he’s like, “No Jen, give her your CD.” And then Abbey, she’s like, “Oh yeah, I’ll listen to it.” I called her when I was in Chicago, just called her up and we were talking and then I said, “I don’t know if you got to hear my CD or not.” And she’s like, “I’m not listening to your CD. If I were listening to music, I’d be listening to my own music, or just listening to the silence.” I learned a lot from that. The obvious things, you know: here’s a master, don’t be laying your stuff. Of course Steve kind of pushed me, but just to hear her say that was a great lesson for me.

FJO: I think with Abbey, the other layer there is that, whereas I think it would have been really cool to get her reaction to Jade Tongue, the album you gave her is predominantly standards. This is stuff that I think she did incredibly well back when she recorded that stuff in the ‘50s with Max Roach and Julian Priester and those incredible groups. But it’s what she rebelled against. She rejected that material for herself, so why would she listen to you sing it.

JS: Yeah, completely. I got to hear her sing all of her songs at Aaron Davis Hall. I even got to sing one of her songs in an early production of Sekou Sundiata’s 51st Dream State. He wanted me to sing one of her songs. I sang it half in Chinese and half in English. He had me translate it into Mandarin. So she is such a model to me, her phrasing and her technical things also. Steve—because Steve played with her, he was one of her sidemen—was always pointing those out to me. Actually one of the ballads on Jade Tongue, “The Human Color of our Veins,” was totally inspired by Abbey. I was completely channeling her in a way for that song.

CD cover for For Now featuring a picture of Jen Shyu singing into a microphone

Jen Shyu’s first, self-released CD For Now, from 2002 is a collection of eclectically arranged standards.

FJO: There’s a seismic shift between your first album, For Now, and Jade Tongue. Already on For Now, even though you’re doing standards, the arrangements are fascinating and often pretty weird. I was particularly intrigued by what you did with “Lover Man.” It sounds like no other version of that song, but it’s still not your song. And so you went from doing that to doing all your own music. I’m wondering how that transition happened and how gradual it was.

JS: Well, it began before I left for Taiwan and then went to New York. Francis and Steve both really encouraged me to go to Taiwan. I had this instinct that somehow I had to go there, because I was dealing with these folk songs that my dad had given me from my fourth grand auntie. I was already treating them in the Bay Area. I was using sheet music and then just kind of doing arrangements of them, but I knew it wasn’t deep. My own approach to it was just musical; it wasn’t grounded on experience. So Francis was very encouraging when I told him that I needed to go to Taiwan. He’s like, “Yeah, that would be good. I think you should just hang out.” That’s exactly the words he used. Then when I met Steve, he had this project he was doing—the album Lucidarium where he was using a lot of voices. That’s kind of how we met. He was looking for vocalists at the time. I studied at his house for like eight days. Right after that I went to his house in Allentown and starting studying Art Tatum and Charlie Parker. Then he asked me, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to go to Taiwan, but I didn’t get this grant.” It was a grant I’d written, but I didn’t get it, and so I was kind of figuring out what I wanted to do. He said, “Jen, you should just go. Borrow money from your parents and just go. You know, you might get hit by a bus tomorrow. Save up money from whatever jobs you had in San Francisco and just go and you’ll figure it out. If you don’t go, you may as well move to New York, because you’re kind of spinning your wheels here.” He just knew I was. I was kind of still in the jazz singer role. I was wearing the dresses. I had a gig in a restaurant where I was wearing very sequiny dresses. Then Steve told me this story of Abbey Lincoln. She used to wear those dresses, too. She said Max had told her to throw away that dress. So it was like, whoa, that’s so strange that that would parallel what happened.

So I went to Taiwan for two months. I didn’t have keys. I was not homeless, but I didn’t have a place. I had all my stuff. I moved from San Francisco. I dropped everything and went to Taiwan. Then I came back. I did a recording with Steve briefly, and then I went to Cuba, because I was interested in the Chinese diaspora there. Again it was Steve saying, “Yeah, why not. Go to Cuba. Do it.” So I went there, and that is what inspired the piece that ended up on Jade Tongue, the whole suite. I just had a sense that these are stories that needed to be heard. And I wanted to tell them musically and originally.

The cover for Jen Shyu's CD Jade Tongue featuring original abstract art.

Jen Shyu’s 2008 album Jade Tongue is a fascinating synthesis of experimental jazz and traditional Asian music.

But the shift was from working with Steve, starting in 2003. It was like an apprenticeship. It really turned my world upside down, just the work I had to do to sing his music. It changed everything. You can hear a lot of his influence I think in Jade Tongue, in terms of composition. That was 2009, so it was a long period of gestation, taking extra musical things and translating them to music and then using traditional texts. It was all coming together. I think Jade Tongue was this kind of “well, this is all the work I’ve done, let me just put it on a record.” I had started my own band and it was really exciting for me; it felt like a true transformation.

FJO: Now you talk about having the whole world turned upside down, but it was the second time that had happened to you musically, because before you got involved with singing jazz you actually had a classical music background. So you went from performing other people’s music and doing your best never to make a mistake, trying to be totally in control, to doing music where your individual interpretation became the focal point even if it was someone else’s music to, finally, doing your own music.

JS: Oh, and it’s still going Frank. It’s very true. But I’m always thankful for the classical training, starting from ballet, piano, violin—the rigor of practicing four or six hours a day and competing, doing piano competitions and violin competitions. In the classical realm, I think my piano performance excelled the most, so I started to focus on the piano. But at the same, right when I started doing that, I was beginning musical theater. So I was doing shows like A Chorus Line; I was Diana Morales in A Chorus Line.

Right at the time when I was most seriously doing piano, like from eighth grade through junior year of high school, I was with an amazing teacher who was a student of Soulima Stravinsky. My teacher was Roger Shields, this brilliant piano teacher. I was memorizing all the repertoire for the competitions—a Bach toccata and fugue, Chopin barcarolles, Stravinsky etudes. Somehow a year after I started with him, I was playing the third movement of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. I think I was 13. I don’t know how I did it, but I was up there playing. So that kind of focus and training has prepared me for a lot that I don’t even realize because I was young.

But I didn’t improvise at all when I was that age. My only improvising came from singing. When I began musical theater and getting obsessed with musicals, I would sing in the garage. When no one was home, I would sing Natalie Cole, that famous arrangement with her father, “Unforgettable.” I would just imitate it and try to get that voice. I felt there was something magical and fun here that was so different from the rigor of piano and all of that. Being on the stage doing shows was like the liberation for me, so different from performing and competing in this context of I had to get this right. So it was all this stuff happening. Then when I went to college, I started focusing on opera. On opera! So it was like taking the voice and becoming like, let’s train it in the Western classical way, which was what I’d done with ballet and piano and violin. I was just following that track. I trained with Jennifer Lane, an amazing voice teacher at Stanford who was molding me into an opera singer—the breathing and the control, the technique, we really got into the nitty-gritty of that.

But voice was the fun thing. So entering into jazz via the voice was kind of a natural thing. That’s what got me out of the classical realm. Once I tasted that, improvising, it was really hard to go back.

FJO: So all the time you were doing classical music, no one ever suggested or it never occurred to you that you could write your own music?

JS: No one pushed me. My parents weren’t artists. My dad was an engineer. My mom was a librarian. And they loved classical music. That’s kind of all that they knew about. My teacher at the time, and we’ve talked a lot since then, what he feels as a piano teacher is that when he’s training these young artists to do competitions, the pressure is so high on him from the parents. You know, my child has to achieve this and this. So there’s no room or time for pedagogy to develop with improvisation and composition. There’s just no time, if he’s on that pressure to schedule—O.K., now she has to memorize the complete Bach preludes and fugues.

But I did start writing, I think at the end of high school, these romantic, Rachmaninoff-ish songs, art songs in English, but very little. I can really think of only a few pieces. Then I started writing a little more at Stanford when I was in composition class. But I felt like it wasn’t a natural thing for me. I felt like a performer. I was a technician. My training was so much of that, execution and delivering of the song or the material. I kind of regret that I didn’t take a second to really write my own things, but I guess I’m making up for it now.

FJO: You’ve definitely more than made up for it. But the other part of the whole equation for you is that while you said your parents loved classical music even though they didn’t have a musical background, the music you’re talking about is Western classical music.

JS: Yes.

FJO: But such a fundamental part of your mature musical identity has involved incorporating elements of traditional Asian music. Not just music from your own particular background—Taiwanese and Timorese music—but also material from mainland China, Korea, all of this. Did you grow up hearing any Chinese music?

JS: No, very little, and what I heard of it was very commercialized, what you’d hear in, you know, ding ding ding-ding-ding. It was kind of comical what we heard. We’d hear it at gatherings of the few Asian families that were in Peoria. We would gather for Chinese New Year and have dinner, and then they’d play this stuff on the speakers. I couldn’t stand it, and at that age I had no interest. To me it was all about the great Western composers. My interest in that stuff began in the Bay Area with Francis and Jon and all the amazing artists that I met there. They were nudging me to check out some of this music. Then I heard things on recordings that I’d never heard before. I was at Amoeba Records in San Francisco and I found this French label had released this Aboriginal Taiwanese music, the indigenous music from Taiwan. I’d never heard it. And I listened to it and it was like, “Oh my God, it sounds like African music. This sounds like these chants that I had begun to learn of the Santeria. Santeria, which is in the Lucumi language, sounded so much closer to that than any of this “Chinese music” that I’d heard.

So I wanted to understand where that came from. I was determined from that point on. There’s a lot I don’t know about music in Asia. And I naturally was drawn to this stuff that I’d never heard before and that is not played in the States. People don’t know about it, so I’ve been on a mission to not just learn the music on a surface level, but to understand where it came from. What does Taiwanese indigenous music have to do with the Ainu people in Japan? What about Malaysia or the Philippines, or the Austronesian migration? It gets much more difficult to trace. It’s impossible to say Chinese music. You’ve got thousands of different ethnic tribes and you’ve got all these different dialects. And then, okay, let’s go to Indonesia. Oh my God, there are hundreds of different kinds of music in this archipelago. It’s so much bigger and I feel like a mission for me, or it’s my duty having been born here and having that advantage of English as my native tongue. I feel like I have to be that bridge. There are a lot of things that I’ve dealt with, like racism as a child, that I just knew this is because people don’t have exposure to these other people, and I have to break all of that. Every stereotype. I just feel like it’s my job to do that.

Jen Shyu singing and ribbing a brass bowl in an outdoor ceremony .

Jen Shyu performing in Indonesia. (Photo by Ganug Nugroho.)

FJO: In terms of how this mission connects to jazz, jazz has always been this music that combats social injustice, even before the civil rights movement, Ellington, and even Louis Armstrong—Benny Goodman playing with an integrated band, Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” which is about a lynching. And then in the 1960s things like Max Roach’s We Insist, Freedom Now Suite, which Abbey Lincoln was such an important part of. This is extremely visceral music that serves as a powerful reminder of the injustices that were wrought upon the African-American community in the USA. But other groups have stories to tell through this music as well. There have now been two generations of Asian-American jazz musicians—Francis Wong, whom you worked with, and the late Fred Ho, who was based here in New York for many years—making very charged political music that speaks to these issues. How central is the politics to your music?

JS: It’s a question that’s always in the forefront of my mind. I myself am kind of turned off when someone’s yelling at me to do this or think that way. I think there are ways to address these issues in a way that is not—oh, how do I say this? I think even doing what I’m doing oftentimes is already a political statement. But I feel like the power of just doing and being oftentimes does more, and it affects people more and they want to listen. So, for instance, a song that I have recently been writing and performing, part of it is I’m interpreting a traditional song from East Timor, at the beginning and at the end, so they’re kind of the bookends of the piece. Then inside are my own lyrics. It was inspired a little by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and I guess it is kind of a protest song.

I wanted a beautiful melody, then inside is a text that’s quite violent. At the end are actual testimonies of women who were raped by the Indonesian military. These women were reporting back as part of this commission report that was made. But I think it’s beautiful. And so I believe people will want to hear it. It’s a statement. I’m not telling people what to do; it’s more like it’s just their testimony.

Everything that we do should have meaning. Fred had told me, “Jen, your music should be revolutionary.” Fred told me a lot of things and I didn’t agree with everything. I miss him because he was so strong about what he stood for and I loved that. We had a meeting once where it was just like “I’m going to tell you about the music in the street,” things that I’d never talked so openly about before. So I appreciate that. Let me tell you, I’m constantly grappling. I still get mistaken for being some of my Asian colleagues, like Linda Oh. Someone had said, “Oh, your bass playing is so wonderful.” I’m like, “Oh, I’m not Linda Oh.” He’s like, “You’re not?” and just ran away. I get it all the time, I mean all the time, and from people who really should know. Again, I’m not accusing anyone, but it’s just very clear we have a lot more work to do. As a female artist and an Asian artist, it all means something. I don’t talk about it a lot, but it’s in all my work.

We all have our way to do it that I think has to be—there’s an Indonesian word called sesuai, which means to match your character. I believe in subtlety. I think that song is pretty strong and graphic, but I still think it’s beautiful and that it will be something people will want to hear. That’s why I love Joni Mitchell. I think there’s the balance there that is necessary. I mean for me, it’s there. But I also think that just the way I perform or now, you know, I don’t use sequined dresses anymore. And I’m playing all these instruments, and singing and writing all the music. That in itself is already a statement.

A traditional four-string Chinese moon lute

This yueqin, a four-stringed Chinese moon lute, is one of many traditional Asian instruments in Jen Shyu’s apartment.

FJO: There are a couple of other pieces that I heard of yours that went toward that direction like Inner Chapters, but your solo piece in which you play all these instruments—Solo Rites: Seven Breaths—is the furthest away from jazz of anything you’ve done. It’s the furthest away from wearing that sequined dress and singing “Lover Boy” that I can imagine. So is it still jazz?

JS: Well, that’s where I leave it to you. You tell me. Someone asked me, “Are you trying to redefine?” I believe that I’m always trying to redefine anything I do, but it’s not for the sake of just doing it. It’s more like I’m trying to find the fullest expression of me. There are so many stories. It was almost three years that I was out in Indonesia and there’s so much transformation that occurred. Then you have to define jazz. That’s such an impossible thing. I mean you have to start telling the whole story. But I feel like if you’re looking at improvisation, that whole show, I mean there’s a structure, but every moment I’m dealing with the lighting. I’m dealing with the sound. I’m dealing with what I hear from the audience. So there’s improvisation all the time. And I feel like I’m telling stories of struggle. I’m channeling these different characters.

Jen Shyu, wearing a traditional white Asian dress and a red scarf sitting on the stage surrounded by a moon lute and a zither singing and making hand gestures

Jen Shyu performing Solo Rites: Seven Breaths at Roulette in 2014. (Photo by Steven Schreiber.)

Whatever you want to call it, I think the essence of it is not just jazz at all. There are traditions that I’m quoting directly from sometimes. But also in my own compositions, just embedded inside the music and my arrangements, are qualities from these other traditions that I’ve been inside of. So, again, because I wrote Seven Breaths over such a long period of time, when I worked with the director Garin Nugroho to put it all together it was more like a summation. Let’s find an order. He found order very intuitively by looking at all my field work, and that’s where the structure came from.

He’s a wonderful director. He’s a filmmaker primarily. I told you about finding people’s work that magically and beautifully melded the modern and the traditional. When I saw his film Opera Jawa, that’s exactly what I felt. I was like, “I have to find him.” So I asked him to direct this piece and it was the first time he directed a solo show, one performer. When we were sitting there, he said, “Okay, Jen, this is the first structure.” I came up with the breaths part, but he came up with seven.

Starting in East Timor, then Java, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and then Korea, back to Indonesia, but [this time] Kalimanthan, which is where I did some fieldwork. Then East Timor again. Returning home, then kind of having a nowhere world, a nowhere zone. We were trying to lose all culture. Each world had a message: East Timor was departing home. In Java, I was really interested in the oppression of women that I experienced when I was there. Not me, but seeing all my friends who were Javanese women. Overall I felt that a woman is behind the husband; she gives up everything, even if she was a great artist she gives up everything to support the husband. It’s very normal there. But some women were not happy with that arrangement, so I was addressing that.

FJO: In terms of definitions, I didn’t know until this morning that you had studied opera. It’s interesting that you also call the work an opera because that’s another loaded word, maybe even more so than jazz, or—even more complicated—jazz opera. What does that mean?

JS: I know. Well opera, I’m still grappling with this word. Now that I’m starting to tour it, and people are like, “Well, what is it?” Most recently, I called it a solo music drama. But I like opera because the focus is the voice. The voice is what ties everything together. So, that was in my mind. That’s how I think of opera—the voice is the main message giver. But just in this sense. I’m not singing like a Western classical opera singer, which I was trained in, but then you go to Java and it’s their version of classical singing, which is different though in some ways, there’s some overlap. Then in Korea, pansori, you know, actually that’s more folk music to them. But it’s an opera in that it’s dramatic, playing all these roles. In Korea they have fully staged versions of pansori which I’ve seen. Instead of having just one character, they have a whole cast playing all the characters. But again, I’m not so interested in the hard and fast definitions. If I’m concerned with making something new, then that’s fine. Those things will have to somehow be lost anyway. But jazz opera—maybe you can come up with a better word. I just make this stuff, so I’m still experimenting with this label.

Jen Shyu singing and playing a moon lute on an outdoor stage in a park.

Jen Shyu performing in South Korea. (Photo by Thitipol Kanteewong.)

FJO: There’s one other thing that I would hate not to talk about because it’s just such a great album, your duo Synastry with Mark Dresser. What’s so wonderful about it is that it’s just the two of you and it’s really exposed. That’s another thing that’s been an undercurrent tradition in terms of jazz vocal albums where somebody works with one musician. You know, Ella Fitzgerald with Joe Pass, Tony Bennett with Bill Evans, but perhaps more to the point, in terms of its relationship to this record, are all the voice and bass duets that Sheila Jordan has done. Was her work in any way an inspiration for what you and Mark did?

The CD cover for Synastry featuring original abstract artwork

On Synastry, a duo album by Jen Shyu and Mark Dresser released on PI in 2011, the voice and double bass are equal partners.

JS: Not directly with this album, but I love Sheila and the fact that I can email her and we have contact is amazing. It’s a blessing to me. But this project was more an idea that Mark and I just came up with. We were at the International Society of Improvised Music, ISIM, in 2008 when I was singing with Steve Coleman. We met, and then we thought let’s just have a session. Let’s improvise together, and we did. I think we rehearsed at Cornelia Street [Café] for the first time, and then we just kept meeting up. If he was in New York, or if I was in San Diego or L.A., we would do a gig. And we both realized that it was very full, even though it was just two of us. You know, I was always doing movement, and his sound is already a whole world. That was very easy for me to step into. And we had this material that was all our own compositions.

FJO: And I do think you’re again engaging with redefining things. Most people, when they hear a singer and an instrumentalist, will probably hear the singer above whomever the singer’s singing with. You were talking before about Javanese classical singing which is unusual in that singers are often in the background and are just one of many layers; their voices are not supposed to be foregrounded. But in pretty much any other musical tradition I can think of, if there’s a singer, the singer’s out front. So you think, “O.K. Jen Shyu with Mark Dresser.” But it wasn’t singer and accompanist. It really was a duo in the full sense of the word. You were equal partners and that’s what makes it so musically compelling.

JS: Well, he’s a melodicist. I mean, big time. He’s just lower. And then he’s got those harmonics that he uses, so it was this world that I was just dancing around. In terms of melody, I never felt like he was just supporting me. I felt like we were completely just having this conversation and always discovering.

FJO: In terms of your output thus far, it’s sort of a left turn. You had this progression from singing standards to being a sideperson for Steve Coleman to creating music for your own group to doing an immersive solo performance piece that explores other cultures. That path seemed like a linear developmental trajectory, but this duo was something else entirely, at least to my ears. So are there going to be other turns in the road? Two years from now, might you be singing standards again somewhere, or doing another duo with somebody. Are all of these still options on the table or do you have a clear direction of where you want to go and so you’ll just follow that?

JS: Well, it’s funny you say that. There is probably a record coming out that I’m a sidewoman on and there are some standards on it. I feel like it’s all related. The thing with Mark really came out of my relationship with Mark as an artist. I feel it is part of the path. As humans, we have so many different aspects.

My newest album is Sounds and Cries of the World. Right now that’s the title. I think that’s going to end up being the title. It really was a culmination. A lot of material is from Solo Rites, but with the band. It was a whole other thing, and for me such a great joy. Wow, I don’t even know how to define it; it’s just getting into this other realm of sound that I believe exists. A lot of those songs came out of dreams that I had when I was in East Timor, very strange, oftentimes scary dreams. They’re laden with everything I absorbed from my travels, especially the last three years.

I do a lot of things. There’s a duo with Ben Monder as well. We haven’t recorded anything, but we will, I think. It’s about these radiant people that I’m able to share these moments with. I love Mat Maneri, too, so he’s been in a lot of my recent projects. I’m drawn toward certain artists. I’m just following the music and the imagined music—I’m following that as well.

A two-stringed moon lute resting horizontally on the floor next to a rug and a puzzle.

A two-stringed Taiwanese moon lute, another one of the many traditional Asian instruments in Jen Shyu’s apartment.

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Read conversations with two other extraordinary vocalists:
Sheila Jordan: Music Saved My Life
Fay Victor: Opening Other Doors