Eleanor Cory: What I Really Want To Do
Eleanor Cory gets inspiration from listening to a wide variety of music as well as attending poetry readings and her music thrives from creating sonic dialogues between elements that don’t immediately seem to belong together.
Eleanor Cory is one of the most unassuming composers I have ever encountered. I had seen her at new music concerts all around New York City for many years before I made the mental connection that she was the same person whose music I knew from recordings on CRI, Soundspells, and Albany. When I finally started having conversations with her during intermissions at some of these concerts, I was struck by how much she valued listening to other people’s music. This prompted me to revisit her music, mindful of that devotion, and as a result I began to hear the subtle interplays between instruments in her carefully crafted chamber music in an entirely different way. It turns out that it is the way that she hears her own music.
“There is dialogue in my music; the instruments are people in some way,” Cory explained when we finally had a chance to talk to each other in the presence of a video camera in her Upper West Side Manhattan apartment on a mid-July afternoon. And as far as being influenced by other composers goes, she never lets her ego get in the way of where the music needs to go. As she elaborated, “I like to put things that don’t immediately seem to belong together into the same piece. From [listening to] one piece I may get a dramatic shape, and from something else I might just get some great chords. There are many ways of using the same chords.”
One of the biggest inspirations for her has been jazz, even though she has never aspired to be a jazz musician:
I didn’t think that I have a natural ability to do it. I came from a very typical suburban family. … I wasn’t the kind of person that could hear jazz and then reproduce it. Maybe that’s what I thought had to happen. … I heard this music when I was teenager. I lived in New Jersey and my brother would bring me with his friends to all those clubs, like Birdland, so I had all that music in my ear. But you couldn’t do that at Columbia University.
Her years of compositional training—first at Sarah Lawrence College with Meyer Kupferman then with Charles Wuorinen at NEC, and finally at Columbia with Bulent Arel, Chou Wen-chung, and Mario Davidovsky—gave her a very deep immersion in the 12-tone method. But despite this meticulous grounding in sets and combinatoriality, Cory’s phrases echoed bebop. And then she had an epiphany that encouraged her to go deeper in that direction from a seemingly unlikely source: the doyen of 12-tone composers, Milton Babbitt, with whom she had never studied.
“A piece of mine was on a concert at Merkin Hall and a piece by Milton was on the same concert,” she remembered. “At the intermission, we were on stage talking about our pieces. At one point, he looked at me and he said, ‘What I really like in your music is the bebop jazz influence.’ He knows that music so well. And this whole part of me just relaxed. I can do this! … Suddenly I found these kind of overlappings. I could go from one to the other. Then I began just saying to myself, ‘Okay, I’m going to sit at the piano and I’m going to play chords. Chords that I like. Period. I’m just going to play whatever’s in there.’ And so many of them came out. I wasn’t using rows anymore. This was really exciting. Then I realized, if you took them apart, many of them were the same chords that might be 0-1-3-9s—you know, this stupid language—or 0-2-5-8. I could practically play all these chords and they would be the same chords, but in different inversions. My ear was in both places, but they were coming together.”
Last year, Naxos American Classics released a disc featuring some of Cory’s most recent works. Her compositional language has grown even more eclectic. There are suggestions of minimalism in the frenetic conclusion of her Third String Quartet from 2009 and there’s even some effusive neo-romanticism in her 2012 Violin Sonata No. 1. (“I can’t believe I never wrote a violin sonata! I think maybe I was scared to do it because there were so many great ones.”) But the jazziest of the pieces is, fittingly, Things Are, a 2011 duo for flute and piano written in memory of Milton Babbitt.
Frank J. Oteri: You seem to place tremendous value on listening to other people’s music. I’ve seen you in the audience for so many different concerts I’ve attended, for probably nearly 20 years.
Eleanor Cory: Wow, that’s a long time.
FJO: It’s always made me curious about how many performances you attend.
EC: Maybe one or two a week. Occasionally there’ll be some crazy week where there will be more than that. But sometimes there are big spaces where I don’t go to any; there just isn’t anything in particular that I want to hear.
FJO: And yet you seem open to a really wide range of music. I’ve seen you at many performances by the more established new music ensembles uptown, but I’ve also run into you at some more experimental things either downtown or in Brooklyn.
EC: I like getting ideas and just being there.
FJO: I also know that you’re a big fan of jazz. Somehow, I can hear all of that when I listen to your music, even though you’re not composing in those styles. You’ve absorbed these other musical languages and have made aspects of them part of your own vocabulary.
EC: I think that by nature as a composer, I like to put things that don’t immediately seem to belong together into the same piece. From [listening to] one piece I may get a dramatic shape, and from something else I might just get some great chords. There are many ways of using the same chords. But I also just like going and seeing people, then talking to composers right after their pieces are played, just to ask them questions on the spot, or to tell them how much I liked the piece. I’m curious and, by nature, I’m always asking people questions. People say, “You ask too many questions!” Sometimes it’s interpreted as butting in or stepping on someone’s privacy. I just like to be aware and maybe I’ll get some ideas. Maybe I’ll try something that’s out of my box.
FJO: In terms of out of your box, it was interesting seeing you at National Sawdust during the New York City Electronic Music Festival, since as far as I know you don’t compose electronic music.
EC: But my husband [Joel Gressel] does. He wasn’t on that particular concert, but he wanted to go to some of them. Alice Shields was on another concert, and she’s a friend of both of ours. And Tuck [Hubert Howe] is an old friend. They went to Princeton together, so we’ve known him a long time, too. So we figured, let’s go hear his piece. And there aren’t too many purely electronic music concerts these days, I don’t think.
FJO: So has electronic music influenced you as a composer in any way?
EC: I think it has. Back when I was at Columbia, I took one course with Mario Davidovsky and it was so wonderful. He would just dance around. It was the old days where you had to cut little snippets and then tape them. I had no ability. It just wasn’t my thing. And computer music with Charles Dodge—not at all. I had another teacher for a while who’s been dead for a long time named Bülent Arel, and he did a lot of that. There was something about the notelessness of some of it. And I’ve heard a lot of it. Of course a lot of people do it with real notes, but it was mostly those guys that were doing these interesting sounds that I thought was very interesting—that wildness, things really fast that are not playable by human beings. Maybe part of it, for me, is getting that feeling, that energy, trying to get the instruments a little bit out of what they usually do. Maybe that’s analogous to these electronic sounds. Maybe living with my husband. He does all kinds of strange sounds, although he tends to use electronic sounds more orchestrally. That’s another whole story.
FJO: Now, if you’re really deep into working on a piece, do you feel the need to create some kind of separation between you and other people’s music?
EC: I don’t think so. Sometimes if I’m deeply into a piece, it’s really nice to get away from it and go to hear something else and not think about it. I think I compartmentalize like that. And I do a lot of other things to put the piece aside. I may do some reading or some physical activity. I may sit with friends and talk about music or not music. Then I come back to the piece. And a lot of times, I do think that a lot of other things that I do feed into the music. If I’m having a really animated conversation, I might just have an animated conversation with a bunch of instruments. I also go to poetry readings pretty often, and that’s all musical kind of thought—to me a lot of it is. So I think that’s also something that has an effect on what I’m doing.
FJO: That’s clear even in the titles of your pieces. You wrote a really nice piano trio which you called Conversation, and it does in fact sound like one to some extent. So was there an actual specific conversation you had with people that inspired you?
EC: I don’t think so. It was just thinking about how people interact with each other. So I just thought of the instruments as talking to each other, then picking up ideas from each other and giving them back, or talking at once—you get a sort of more chaotic thing. Slowing down and speeding up, little time to think, then getting back into it. A sudden wait. Those kind of moments. It starts maybe as words and then suddenly they’re notes. There is dialogue in my music. The instruments are people in some way. Not for every piece, but I want the people playing those instruments to connect with one another as though they were people in a conversation.
FJO: Of course, there’s a delicate balance between being mindful of the musicians for whom you are initially writing and creating something that could go on to be performed by many other musicians.
EC: If I know the actual players I’m writing for, then of course I do kind of think of them playing it. And I definitely think, “What does this one do really well?” And I think of something I may have heard them do. But I don’t think it goes too far. It’s just a way of getting started with an idea. Then you’re back to notes, rhythms, range, tempos, and the usual stuff of music.
FJO: As to the usual stuff in your music, I certainly hear elements that are clearly tonal or modal and others that seem dodecaphonic. And, in particular, harmonies and phrasings that bear a strong resemblance to jazz even though your music does not incorporate improvisation.
EC: Well, I had such a heavy dose of 12-tone stuff with Charles Wuorinen—rows and retrogrades. So that was in my ear. And Babbitt’s music, but I didn’t study with him. In fact, I’ll tell you one very relevant story. A piece of mine was on a concert at Merkin Hall and a piece by Milton was on the same concert. At the intermission, we were on stage talking about our pieces. At one point, he looked at me and he said, “What I really like in your music is the bebop jazz influence.” He knows that music so well. And this whole part of me just relaxed. I can do this! It’s what I really want to do, because I heard this music when I was teenager. I lived in New Jersey and my brother would bring me with his friends to all those clubs, like Birdland, so I had all that music in my ear. But you couldn’t do that at Columbia University. Suddenly I found these kind of overlappings. I could go from one to the other. Then I began just saying to myself, “Okay, I’m going to sit at the piano and I’m going to play chords. Chords that I like. Period. I’m just going to play whatever’s in there.” And so many of them came out. I wasn’t using rows anymore. This was really exciting. Then I realized, if you took them apart, many of them were the same chords that might be 0-1-3-9s—you know, this stupid language—or 0-2-5-8. I could practically play all these chords and they would be the same chords, but in different inversions.
My ear was in both places, but they were coming together. I was comfortable with using them, and then I could choose my own order. I didn’t have to have the I chord then the IV chord; I could just say, “Well, let’s try this one. I’ll change the range, and I’ll put this note up an octave. Then I’ll scrunch them all together.” I wasn’t writing any melodies, just putting together a progression based on my ear basically to see what would happen. And I liked it. Other people liked it, so that was good. Then I made melodies out of chords, and put things on top of each other. I often write words before I start writing music. I’ll write a story that I want to tell, which isn’t really about people or anything; it’s just the moods that I’m going to have and then interruptions, people arguing, etc. I’ll just have these thoughts of what I want the music to be like.
FJO: These narratives seem so important to your creative process, and sometimes you’ve offered hints of that with titles like, as we spoke of before, Conversation. There are many other pieces of yours whose titles allude to this same line of thinking—Interview, Pas de Quatre, even pieces like Play Within a Play and Chasing Time. But it’s less apparent when you title something, say, String Quartet No. 3, which just tells people it’s the third somewhat long form piece you’ve composed for two violins, a viola, and a cello, or Violin Sonata No. 1 which is pretty recent so I was surprised that it was your first one!
EC: Isn’t that amazing? I can’t believe I never wrote a violin sonata! I’ve done bigger groups, or smaller, just not a violin sonata. I think maybe I was scared to do it because there were so many great ones. If you write a sonata for solo bass, that’s different. So I just decided to do it, and that’s why it was number one.
FJO: So if there is a back story to any of these more abstractly titled pieces, do you feel it’s important for listeners to know about it?
EC: They can read my program notes, but I don’t think it is. I have program notes that are poems, if a piece is written about a poem. But I hope it doesn’t matter whether they get “the” story, whatever it was. I want them to enjoy the piece, and to feel emotional things. So I don’t think I care, although I will sometimes put in a program note something about voices interacting and sometimes I don’t.
FJO: Now, along those same lines, using rows versus not using rows—once upon a time, it was very important for composers to say this is based on such and such a row, and now people tend to shy away from talking about that because that way of thinking about music somehow got vilified. Very few people these days seem to acknowledge that they’re writing 12-tone music. You even said you were happy to escape the row but, from what I can hear at least, these compositional techniques—or at least the melodic and harmonic possibilities that they open up—still inform your language to some extent.
EC: Oh, that’s interesting. I don’t think so. I think of it as being quite separate. I associate it so much with being a student, and being a brand new composer, and being just happy to be a composer and being told what to do by Charles Wuorinen. This is what everybody’s doing now. You better get to it. This is what everyone’s doing, and so I’m going to do this, too. Taking my own chords, using my own ears, and getting jazz in was a big rebellion for me against what I had been given.
FJO: It was interesting for me to read in the autobiographical essay that you shared with me the other day that when you first started writing music at Sarah Lawrence College, Meyer Kupferman told you not to worry about theory or harmony, and that your initial reaction was that you didn’t know what to do. But you had to do something because the piece was due the following week.
EC: Right. Don’t come in here unless you have one. It was very scary. It was really just a “one note, then another note, what am I going to do now” kind of thing. But I think that was wonderful. I somehow wanted to do the class. I didn’t have to take that class. I just thought maybe I’d like to try composing, because we did all this improvising. Everybody had different instruments. There was nothing about “now we’re going to be in G major.” It was just “now we’re going to have a fox going up a tree” or “now we’re going to have a flame.” Then we would have to listen to each other, and if the bass started doing something, then I’d have to do this on the piano to respond to her. And a violin would come in and do a line over it. It’s just as though we were dancing almost.
We were just kind of improvising with our bodies and whatever instruments we played. Some of them were scratching on their instruments, or playing them upside down—people doing funny sounds, some of what now happens all the time, these strange sounds from flutes, and there was no judgement. We just did these things. And then they got more and more specific, and we began to have piano concertos or flute concertos, and the rest of us would be the orchestra. So it got you feeling about how music goes. We’d all heard music, but to have actually tried to write in the style of Mozart or something would not have been possible at that point, especially without knowing theory.
FJO: So you started out as a pianist, and your initial background in composing came out of improvisation. And you also have a deep love of jazz. It’s interesting that you did not pursue being a jazz pianist. You probably could have.
EC: I don’t think so. It would have been so far from my imagination because I don’t think I knew of any women jazz players, not that I was thinking about that too much. I just thought it was something you were born with. I still almost think that. Some people can just sit down and improvise jazz. I don’t have that. Does that make sense?
FJO: Yes and no. Because you also wrote in that essay that you were initially not aware of any women who composed music and that did not stop you from becoming a composer.
EC: But I never gave it a thought. I did with jazz. But maybe that was just another way of saying I didn’t think that I have a natural ability to do it.
FJO: But you do. I think it’s worth talking about this in greater detail because I think it speaks to what leads people down certain paths. Role models are extremely important. In the year 2016, there are tons of prominent female composers—though of course women have been writing music for thousands of years. But most concerts of older classical music still feature music exclusively by men. There’s also a tremendous gender disparity in jazz. As a young person wanting to engage in these kinds of activities, it can be difficult to find a way to identify with it. Yet you still found a way to identify with being a composer but not with being a jazz musician.
EC: I came from a very typical suburban family in New Jersey. Music was in the house all the time because my father loved music, and we went to concerts. So I got reinforcement for playing the piano and for loving music. Then I went to a girls’ school because a lot of people from that culture went to girls’ schools. So I went to a boarding school that was a girls’ school and then I went to Sarah Lawrence. While it didn’t occur to me to write music—because all composers were men—as soon as this was presented to me, I was very happy with it. I mean, I think I was nervous and afraid, but I didn’t think about not doing it. I very much wanted to do it. So why didn’t I want to do jazz? I don’t think that was really anything to do with being a woman. I wasn’t the kind of person that could hear jazz and then reproduce it. Maybe that’s what I thought had to happen. I guess I could have just started studying it or however people start to do it. I don’t know why I thought that I loved it so much but I couldn’t do it.
FJO: But then decades later, that love came out in your music in your own way.
EC: Because it was in there. I knew the words to all the songs. I listened to it all the time. I always had Dave Brubeck and all these people on my machine. And I just loved it. But at that stage in my life I also wasn’t really thinking about being any kind of composer. Maybe I thought I was just going to graduate and not compose anymore. I was going to teach music to kids. That’s what I would do with a music degree. So I was teaching in this school and I wasn’t really composing. Then I started to take other classes in other places, and I started composing again. I had a teacher at the Longy School and then I went to NEC. But I think it was just something that was in my life; I was still more of a pianist.
FJO: So in terms of finding mentors, at some point you learned about Ursula Mamlok and Joan Tower and I know that connecting with them was very important to you.
EC: When I got to Joan and Ursula, I really liked their music. That was the first time that I felt in synch with composers in general, and women composers in particular.
FJO: What was interesting about Meyer Kupferman being your first teacher was that even though he was a 12-tone composer, he was also deeply interested in jazz. Every piece of his was based on the same tone row, which he used because it yielded particular jazz progressions.
EC: That’s what I learned to do, too. I learned to do collections of pitches that would yield these kinds of jazz things.
FJO: So long before Babbitt said that he liked the bebop influence in your music, which you said gave you the license to really explore that direction, you had already been exposed to a model for doing that.
EC: Yes, exactly. And Meyer was part of that, definitely.
FJO: This also brings us back to your whole conceptualization of music as a dialogue between different musicians, which is a common trait both of small combo jazz and classical chamber music. It’s perhaps no surprise that you’re predominantly a chamber music composer. You’ve written a few orchestra pieces, but it seems to be less of a focus for you. I’ve only heard one of them, Canyons.
EC: They just haven’t been recorded. It’s such a big deal to get them [recorded]. There are two others. I should be better at sending them out.
FJO: But certainly the orchestra is less amenable to the kinds of dialogues between equal participants that are so central to your personal aesthetic. The structure is much more hierarchical. It’s almost more like military formation. So maybe your sensibilities are not necessarily there, which might be why you haven’t done more.
EC: I don’t think that would be a reason why I wouldn’t write for orchestra. The orchestra has all the colors and all the interesting doublings, and all that spatial stuff. But how things come along are that people say they want this piece; you have a deadline and you have to finish it. And it’s not as though orchestras are coming along. Although Composers Concordance has an orchestra, and they just asked me write a piece. I had never been asked to write an orchestra piece by anyone. And I would like to have it played.
FJO: But perhaps, dare I say this, much as I like that one orchestral piece of yours I know, Canyons, it sounds very different from the rest of your music.
EC: You think so? That’s interesting. How?
FJO: It’s dealing with massed sonorities so it doesn’t engage in the same kind of interplay that your music usually does.
EC: Oh, I see what you’re saying. But I think of the crux of my music as being so harmonic, and the harmonies are there. And I was thinking of instrumental groups interacting with each other. The violins are going to talk to the horns. I probably was thinking in those ways as well as building up big sounds; it’s always about something kind of dramatic happening. Maybe it’s not always analogous to human beings. But I see what you’re saying. I’m going to listen that way to the orchestra piece and see how that’s different.
FJO: You’ve written a band piece, too, but I’ve never heard it. I’m curious about it.
EC: Well, I was teaching at Kingsborough Community College, and at the point that I got there, they had a huge music program. They had a band and good players. It was amazing. They had a whole orchestra, too, and I wrote for that orchestra, too. So that was why I wrote it. I had to make it easy because there were students playing. It was a fun thing to do. But I don’t think I would say I want to write a band piece now, though I’m sure if I did I could have a better time getting it played than orchestra pieces.
FJO: You’d have a much better time, I think. The band world is much more conducive to doing new pieces than orchestras are, by and large. You managed to get a solid recording of one of your orchestra pieces, but you had to go to Poland for it and, I imagine, to pay for it.
EC: Well, that recording was conducted by Joel Suben. He connected with the orchestra and got a very good price. Then I had faculty grants from the City University of New York, so I could finance it. That really helped a lot. And he knew the piece; it wasn’t some guy just reading it off. That made a huge difference.
FJO: They’re fabulous musicians and it’s great for our music to cross international borders, but this is yet another example of this huge body of orchestral music by American composers that has never been done by an American orchestra. The whole structure of how an orchestra operates makes it so much more complicated to bring new pieces to life—the limited rehearsal time, the budget, the basic things that go into making orchestral music happen at this point in time.
EC: It’s just impossible. We can blame the audiences. That’s what people do. Nobody wants to hear this crazy new music. Orchestra-going people just want to hear the same old, same old. Isn’t that the usual line that you hear?
FJO: But is it really true, or is it something else?
EC: I don’t know, because now we’ve got a lot of European orchestra composers. Kaija Saariaho, for instance. Her music’s just crazy wild, and people love it. She’s very successful. And I’m really happy about that. That gets back to this co-existence of very different kinds of music. People are not saying you have to do this kind or that kind. Everyone’s finding a place for themselves in different places.
FJO: In terms of finding a place in different places, you mentioned that you go to lots of poetry readings. I know that you write poetry as well, and you’ve been working on publishing a book of poetry.
EC: I’ve been doing that for a while. I’ve always had little notebooks and have written in them when I was on the subway. It was not really a diary—like, today I did this—just ideas. And then, I don’t know why, all of a sudden I just decided I’ll take a poetry class at the 92nd Street Y. I was writing more and more poems. Then I went to the MacDowell Colony, and there were some poets and we were all talking about poems. Finally I said, “Well, I’ve written a few poems.” And they said, “I want to see your poems.” And I said, “Well it’s so hard, because I’m already doing one art. How could I possibly be a composer and also write poems?” They said, “That’s ridiculous. I also do something. I’m a painter, but I also whatever.” So they looked at my poems and they said, “These are good. You should keep writing poems.” And I think that’s what did it—them saying, “Don’t worry that you are never going to be as good a poet as you are a composer. Don’t even think about those things. It’s just another side of you.” Then I really had some good teachers. I met all these other people, and we all got to be friends. Most of them had not been poets before, and we just all get together once a month and read our poems to each other. We have little readings and they say, “You’ve got to send your poems out.” So I’ve had a bunch of them published. And now I’ve got this book ready and I’ve got to figure out how I’m going to get that published. But it could happen.
FJO: Now, in terms of your setting other poets to music, you wrote a piece for chorus and brass ensemble with a text by Wallace Stevens, whose poetry can be very tricky to set because of the irregularity of his phrases. You made it very musical. I wonder if the experience of being a poet affects you as a composer when you treat someone else’s words, if perhaps you have a greater sensitivity.
EC: I think so. It was interesting the first time when I was setting my own poem to music. I had to be the subjective outsider. It had to be somebody else over here who wrote this poem. But then I did a piece last year for Ensemble π, where they had this theme. So I set one poem written by a prisoner who had gotten out of prison, and then the other poem was one of my own. I think I was hearing the music a little bit as I was writing the poem. I think I knew my instruments, and I was just hearing a line every now and then as I was writing the poem. You know, the violin would like to do this. I’m much more conscious of doing more metrical poems than I used to. They used to be sort of abstract, because those were the poets that I knew. But now I feel like I should study meter just like I studied key signatures and scales. So I’ve learned more about poetry and now sometimes these musical things are in my head as I’m writing. It’s much easier to mix them. Or I don’t have to worry about it as much.
FJO: It’s funny because we initially were talking about the breaking down of styles and pluralism in today’s music world. Besides this rarified world we find ourselves in, in almost every other musical genre—whether it’s punk rock or bluegrass—there isn’t such a separation between writing words and writing music. People either collaborate on songs together or they write songs by themselves, words and music.
EC: Yeah. I’m going to write a song. That’s what they’re doing. And the words and the music come together for these guys. For me, this is sort of a new thing. But I see it’s kind of ass backwards because I wrote this other stuff for such a long time.
FJO: Now once you have a published book of poetry out there, there’s a possibility that some other composer would set some of your poems to music.
EC: That would be great. I’d love to see it. I’d be really curious to know what they would do with it. This is a fun idea to think about. If there were other composers who wrote poetry and they set each other; I’m setting your poems and you’re setting mine. It could become a whole new thing.
FJO: You’ve got visual art all around this apartment. You don’t paint as well?
EC: Oh, gosh no. I totally could never do that.
FJO: But one of your daughters is a painter.
EC: She paints live at people’s wedding for a living and makes a huge amount of money. But she also does her own art. You knew it the minute she started putting things on paper. Everyone would say, “What? She can do that?” She would make people that looked like people. It’s just like a musician that sits down and plays something and you just know they’ve got it.