Interviewing the Interviewer: A Conversation with Ethan Iverson

If you didn’t know it already, you’ll see that Ethan Iverson has an extremely interesting and idiosyncratic take on new music based on years of serious study and experience from which I think we can all both be entertained and learn quite a bit.

Written By

Patrick Zimmerli

Who will interview the interviewer? I’ve always wondered at the asymmetry in interview situations. As a cussedly un-hierarchical thinker, I find myself asking why one person’s opinion matters more than the other’s. This sense of discrepancy was heightened last summer when I was interviewed for Ethan Iverson’s blog, Do The [email protected]. Ethan is, of course, in addition to his role as writer, interviewer, and general chronicler of the music of our time, a very widely regarded jazz pianist and a composer in his own right, so it felt awkward that my personal history and opinions were receiving such marked emphasis.

Luckily Ethan and I have an ongoing relationship (unfortunately not a feature of most interview situations), so I had plenty of opportunity to ask him if he himself had ever been interrogated in a similarly in-depth fashion. Sure enough, it emerged that he hadn’t. Since I knew I had a guest-blogging run at NewMusicBox in the offing, I thought that a great way to top it off would be to interview the interviewer, to take the occasion to learn some things about Ethan’s history, development, and interests that I hadn’t known before.

As NewMusicBox is geared towards composers, we thought we’d take as our subject Ethan’s passion for classical and contemporary music, from the jazz-eyed perspective. If you didn’t know it already, you’ll see that Ethan has an extremely interesting and idiosyncratic take on new music based on years of serious study and experience from which I think we can all both be entertained and learn quite a bit.

Ethan Iverson walking across a roadblock in the middle of a street. (Photo by Jimmy Katz)

All photos by Jimmy Katz.

PZ: You were raised in the jazz tradition. What was your first contact with classical music? With contemporary music?

EI: These days everything is accessible. But back when I was a teenager in small town Wisconsin, it was so hard to get any information.

I was determined to become a jazz pianist. However I also could sight-read pretty well and played Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart at an amateur level. I didn’t have a piano teacher. I just went for it. There wasn’t much 20th-century music around, but when I could find it I read though the easier things of Bartók, Robert Starer, Kabalevsky, Tcherepnin, Flor Peeters, and Khachaturian.

In jazz I developed a real love of Paul Bley. I didn’t realize it at the time, but his great work of the 60s has the ambience and texture of modernist European classical music. It’s abstract, and his two in-house composers, Carla Bley and Annette Peacock, had a modernist sense of flow.

PZ: It’s amazing that you had no piano teacher at all! Could you mention some specific Paul Bley albums for readers who might not be familiar with his work?

EI: The one I knew best at the time is Ballads. Closer and Mr. Joy are two other classic works.

When I moved to New York in 1991 to go to college, one of my first connections was you! You showed me Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, Arnold Schoenberg. You probably don’t remember this, but I gave a little recital at NYU of the Bach E minor Partita and the easiest atonal music I could find: Schoenberg’s Op. 11 and Op. 19, the Webern Variations, Babbitt’s Duet and Semi-Simple Variations.

PZ: I do of course remember that concert! It’s funny you considered those pieces easy, because in fact it’s a very ambitious program.

EI: Well, you are right, it was certainly too ambitious for me! I definitely didn’t play it well.

The Babbitt piece I really liked was Three Compositions for Piano. As you will remember, Babbitt was at all the new music concerts, especially if his music was programmed, which was all the time. Never lacking for gumption, I introduced myself and told him I had just purchased the score to Three Compositions. He gave me his phone number: the next day I called him and he gave me several corrections to the score. Sadly, it was way too hard for me to really work on back then, although I kind of learned the notes to the first movement at a slow tempo. Sometimes I wonder if I might get back to it someday.

Around that time my girlfriend got me the job of rehearsal pianist for the Gregg Smith Singers. The first day was Stravinsky’s Mass with Robert Craft guest conducting. The Sanctus movement of the Mass has an exposed slow quintuplet that used to be a serious rhythmic challenge to the average oboist. In rehearsal with Craft, I somehow kind of nailed that quintuplet the first time (probably a mistake as much as anything). Craft looked over at me and muttered, “Not bad.”

That tiny exchange was an extremely helpful inspiration: almost an injunction to keep learning about classical music.

PZ: That’s amazing that you worked with Craft! Do you have any other impressions from that experience?

EI: I was the rehearsal pianist for Craft just that one time, and I’d never worked with a conductor before. However the whole Gregg Smith Singers experience was great. Gregg loved all sorts of music, and in addition to a steady diet of modern choral composition he would give masterclasses in the Monteverdi Vespers. I asked a lot of questions, and he was always very kind. Gregg must have liked my enthusiasm for learning; he suggested I play Hindemith’s The Four Temperaments with orchestra at his music festival in Saranac Lake. I refused, thinking (quite rightly) that it was beyond my capabilities.

Through that job I briefly met many composers, including several that have gone on to be important in my more recent studies: Hale Smith, Louise Talma, William Duckworth, and Leo Smit.

PZ: So what direction did your continued investigation of classical music take?

EI: There used to be a dusty and overstuffed music store on Broadway just above Houston called (I think) Lee’s Music. Lee had piles of sheet music at discount prices, and I bought much of the standard piano repertoire there. Stravinsky’s Serenade in A was a key purchase. I vividly remember reading the opening pages and thinking, “This is my future.” Eventually I listened to every Stravinsky work. The other composer that had such an impact was György Ligeti, whose complete work is relatively easy to acquire and listen to.

PZ: Before your career took off with The Bad Plus, you worked for many years as the musical director for Mark Morris. Can you tell me how that came about?

EI: One thing that was clear to me in the 1990s was that I needed to keep working on my ideas. I was still planning on being a jazz pianist, but I was in no rush to try to crack the secret of how to have a career in that music. To make money I did a lot of stuff, especially playing in a tango band with Pablo Aslan and Raul Jaurena and accompanying dance classes at Martha Graham.

The dance class work led to playing for Mark Morris’s company class in about 1995 or so. Eventually Mark asked me to be the rehearsal pianist for a full production of Rameau’s Plateé. At the first rehearsal Mark played everybody the complete opera on the stereo. To my surprise, when I checked something against the piano, the piano’s A was more like an A-flat on the record. I had sort of heard that Baroque performance used a lower tuning than modern A=440, but this was my first time encountering it in a professional situation.

At the end, I went up to ask Mark about the discrepancy between piano and the recording. He was changing, and I accidentally caught him between dance clothes and street clothes. Indeed, he was entirely naked when he got interested in my question and offered a learned and extended disquisition on 440, 415, and the varieties of contemporary interpretation of Baroque pitch.

I listened carefully. When he finally finished I said, “You know, Mark, I’ve never discussed intonation with a naked man before.”

Mark gave me a wicked grin and replied, “Stick around, baby!”

Which I did: Not long after the premiere of Plateé, I became Mark’s music director [and stayed] for over five years. This is when I really learned something about conventional European classical music. Mark Morris has an incandescent mind. I have often said, “I didn’t get to play with Miles or Mingus, but I did work for Mark Morris.”

I didn’t get to play with Miles or Mingus, but I did work for Mark Morris.

In addition to watching his work every night, I got to play in the pit, and sometimes the other musicians were big stars. Somehow the very first chamber music from the standard repertoire I really worked on was Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style with Yo-Yo Ma.

Later I met Mark Padmore through Mark Morris and we performed Schubert’s Winterreise together a few times. To this day I don’t know why I got to have these kinds of profound experiences, but I assure you I took detailed notes while they were happening.

I have several more fun stories about famous classical musicians from that time with Morris.  Simon Rattle came to a gig in Philadelphia, where were touring the marvelous dance V to the Schumann Piano Quintet. Afterward Rattle was standing around waiting to talk to Mark, and there he was, stuck next to the musical director. Rattle smiled at me and said, “Nice rubato in the Schumann!”

Of course he was just being nice, but it’s also true that we had played the piece many times and that I (along with the other musicians in the pit) had shaped a fairly unusual version of the score that really clung to the choreography onstage.

By the way, by this time I had figured out I needed a steady piano teacher and was working intensively with the brilliant Sophia Rosoff. When the [Mark Morris Dance Group] went to Florida that gave me the chance to take a lesson with Sophia’s friend Robert Helps shortly before he died in 2001. I hacked my way through the Roger Sessions Second Sonata in front of him. I thought this was a good idea because Helps was a renowned interpreter of Sessions; indeed, I was at a Merkin Hall concert of “Helps plays Sessions” that was also attended by Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Garrick Ohlsson, and Alfred Brendel. After listening, Helps asked, “How long have you been working on this?”

A couple of months.

“I’ve been working on it since 1946.” He closed the score. “Let’s look at the Chopin études you know instead.”

It went on to be a great lesson and post-lesson discussion. Helps is still an underrated composer. His recording of Quartet (not the more familiar Piano Quartet, but the solo work from a hard to find Desto LP) is one of the finest documents of a composer-pianist that I’ve heard.

PZ: What do you think is the relationship between jazz and contemporary music? Of what value is contemporary music to you as an improviser?

EI: Many major jazz musicians know a lot about European classical music, then and now.  I treasure the liner notes the great Herbie Nichols wrote for his first 1956 Blue Note LP, which begin, “Sometimes I burst into laughter when I think of what the future jazzists will be able to accomplish,” before going on to cite Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Piston, and Bartók as inspirations.

These days I think there can actually be too much “classical” sounding stuff in jazz.

However these days I think there can actually be too much “classical” sounding stuff in jazz. In a master class I heard Paul Bley warn about this. Bley thought it was better for young jazz musicians to study Louis Armstrong than Alban Berg.

Indeed, it is important to remember that any Dexter Gordon record has so much more meaning and validity than most modern nerdy music-school jazz connected to formal composition.

Taking that a step further, in no way do I feel that the greatest jazz is lesser than the greatest 20th-century composition. Indeed, I’d argue the reverse. The best of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman with their most sympathetic collaborators is clearly the greatest 20th-century music.

Back to present day jazz: The Bad Plus recorded a faithful arrangement of The Rite of Spring, which in our rendition sounds like a lot of modern jazz except that the pitches are better. I can’t speak for Reid or Dave, but for me part of that was a little tweak to some of my contemporaries: “Look, if you want to jump in these waters, why don’t you hang out with these kind of masters, too?”

At any rate, Paul Bley’s warning be damned, I am committed to some kind of blend and can’t stop now. I certainly appropriate Stravinsky, Ligeti, Richard Strauss, Alfred Schnittke, and Thomas Adès in my improvisations.

As an American musician, I’ve developed a strong taste for the pillars of American classical music: Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow. It is astonishing how bad some of Copland is, but his best stuff remains essential. (In jazz we mostly reference Copland through the prism of Keith Jarrett’s appropriation.) Ives is kind of a must: he’s also an easy resource for the improviser. Nancarrow is a similarly obvious musician to spend some time emulating. (On YouTube there’s a version of James P. Johnson’s “The Charleston” à la Nancarrow. I thought that made sense because James P. was also a master of the piano roll.)

A more recent American master is Frederic Rzewski, and several years ago I created a series of “improvised” arrangements of folk songs inspired by his North American Ballads. On my recent recording The Purity of the Turf, I improvised a noir-ish “Darn That Dream” that has clear overtones of Adès and Rzewski.

PZ: What excites you the most about written contemporary music?

EI: In all the art I admire, there’s some kind of voyage of discovery. After a first hit of intoxication, you open the door and explore the work or the genre further.

On the other hand, I don’t want to work too hard. Obviousness can be a virtue, not a sin. Perhaps some professional composers regard Ligeti as “too easy,” but he’s just about perfect for my speed.

My tastes in atonal music have evolved. Now I like stuff that is chunky and theatrical. I don’t listen to much Babbitt or Carter any more, but I do listen to a fair amount of Aribert Reimann, Harrison Birtwistle, and Ralph Shapey, all of whom offer more discernible narratives than Babbitt or Carter.

Of course it is still very hard to absorb this music the first time through. It’s best to pick a single piece and listen over and over again. For Reimann, I’ve heard Neun Sonette der Louize Labé many times; for Birtwistle, I know The Triumph of Time very well (and also wrote it up for DTM); for Shapey, my standard is Sonata Profundo. After repeated listens the harmonies become old friends and the story becomes clear. This is a very rewarding process.

A lot of it comes down to piano music. I haven’t heard everything yet, but by the time I’m done I’d like to be aware of all significant 20th-century piano music. The dimensions of this marvelous repertoire are simply extraordinary. If the piece at hand isn’t too hard, I might be able to play through the simpler sections, audit a recording, then sight-read it some more. Of course I don’t understand everything about all the music I survey casually, but for my general output I don’t need to. It just sinks into the subconscious.

In my way I’ve tried to shine light on neglected corners. I produced a concert of three major mid-century women composers—Louise Talma, Miriam Gideon, and Vivian Fine. I have interviewed George Walker and Alvin Singleton, and am working towards making an album of piano music by composers who interacted with jazz on a deep level. That project would include not just great black composers like Walker and Singleton but also Benny Goodman’s pianist Mel Powell and Thelonious Monk’s arranger Hall Overton. Ron Carter told me I had to be aware of Noel Da Costa. I chased down Da Costa’s Extempore: Blue, an obscure piano piece that is like a slower and bluesier Cecil Taylor. I love it!

The point for me, really, is to simply keep learning. Repeatedly playing Talma’s Alleluia in Form of Toccata or Overton’s Piano Sonata in concert has been great for me in every way—great for my chops, great for my focus, great for my imagination. In this category I must put our recent adventure with your new composition Clockworks, certainly a great learning experience!

PZ: What schisms in your mind exist in 2016? Do you hear any music coming from the younger generation of composers that you find striking? What do you think of “alt-classical,” if anything? Of the music that follows on the heels of any of the above trends?

EI: I’ve always wanted to stand out of the crowd, be someone different. Most jazz pianists love French classical music, especially Debussy, Ravel, and Messiaen. I have rejected that influence. I’d rather get my added-tone harmony straight from Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Red Garland, musicians who prioritize the blues.

I don’t listen all that much to many young American composers.

So bear my contrary nature in mind when I say I don’t listen all that much to many young American composers—although recently I was exploring the work of Scott Wollschleger and Jason Eckhardt, two authentic and inspiring American composers who couldn’t be more different.

PZ: I’ve known Jason for years, and I agree his music is very heartfelt, full of passionate immediacy and poetry. I don’t know Wollschleger as well, though I remember being moved by Music Without Metaphor, which you played at your solo set at the IN/TERSECT Festival.

EI: Neither Wollschleger nor Eckhardt is alt-classical or indie-classical though.

Indeed, I’m not entirely convinced that the influence of Philip Glass and Steve Reich—both of whom certainly are geniuses—is always benign. The phrase “alt-classical” suggests to me adding an overt influence of rock to minimalism. These are tricky waters that might end in unconscionable banality.

It’s actually hipper for actual rock musicians to appropriate minimalism. Radiohead and Sigur Rós are perfect examples, not to mention any pop, rock, or hip-hop producer worth their salt these days. For that matter, The Bad Plus album Made Possible has some of those references, especially in the pieces written by Reid Anderson and David King. (Anderson’s “Seven-Minute Mind” offers kind of a Glassian bassline meeting the dance floor, with my piano improv being rather Lisztian.)

Jazz is American. The best jazz has usually been made by Americans. There is great fully notated music everywhere, but those born overseas have the richest heritage to draw from, especially in terms of romantic harmony. I already mentioned Adès, Reimann, and Birtwistle. Among the other living composers I wish I had time to explore thoroughly are Poul Ruders, Lera Auerbach, Hans Abrahamsen, Alexander Goehr, Magnus Lindberg, Wolfgang Rihm, York Höller, George Benjamin, Georg Friedrich Haas, Kaija Saariaho, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Tristan Murail, Benedict Mason…I feel like the more names I add the more I’m going to leave out.

Most of those fabulous composers went through the crucible of high modernism before setting into a mature and comparatively accessible style. They all also operate within their tradition. For the Germans, the ghosts of Brahms and Bruckner are blessedly present. For the Russians, the French, the Nordics, whoever, there’s a connection to an internal tradition of masterful formal scores and at least some kind of general audience attuned to that national language. For example, there’s a superb new album by Gavin Bryars, The Fifth Century, which builds on the heritage of earlier English composers John Dowland, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Herbert Howell.

It is harder for contemporary American composers to navigate personal identity, especially faced with so much indifference and lack of government support.  At this point our general audience “great composer” is John Williams. One step down in popular recognition but one step up among the cognoscenti, John Adams has been awarded keys to the kingdom and status as “our great American composer.” I mean, I like listening to both John Williams and John Adams sometimes—at their best they are awesome—but neither interface with the hopes and dreams of classical music like any of the living European composers on my above list.

The late Peter Lieberson impressed me as someone who found a charismatic voice while remaining true to the highest standard of esoteric compositional craft. After he died, I wrote a survey of his complete recorded work. Getting to know Alvin Singleton’s output was a revelation. Next up for my interview series on DTM is James Newton, whose formal scores are astonishingly beautiful. Singleton and Newton share a deep love for Mahler. I’d usually rather listen to Strauss or Bruckner, so their perspective broadens my worldview. There’s always something to learn!

Through Mark Morris I heard a lot of Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, Colin McPhee, and Harry Partch. Compared to conventional classical music, that’s all outsider art, and it’s great music, too. No one writes a prettier tune than Lou Harrison, although I admit I have seldom used him as a resource for my own purposes. The current composer making the most of that tradition is John Luther Adams, and I support the wide acclaim given to Become Ocean.

PZ: How does all of this relate to your compositional practice—specifically, what is your catalog of compositions written for non-improvising ensembles? What are your future plans as a composer?

EI: I haven’t written much for non-improvising ensembles. Truthfully I doubt it would be a valuable use of my (or anybody else’s) time for me to work on becoming a professional formal composer, although it’s pretty easy for me to sit and write something when there is a good enough reason for the piece to exist.

I doubt it would be a valuable use of my (or anybody else’s) time for me to work on becoming a professional formal composer.

I did write a short string quartet for Brooklyn Rider, Morris Dance, dedicated to my old boss, and there’s a piano suite without improvisation for Dance Heginbotham, Easy Win. A long time ago there was Kolam with Zakir Hussain, Yo-Yo Ma, and the Mark Morris Dance Group. I have a suspicion I’ll be working on something for Mark Morris again soon. Looking ahead to 2018, the American Composers Orchestra has asked me to write some kind of modest piano concerto.

My style in that world is somewhat neoclassical and dance-based. I write at the piano by ear, and only use some mathematical system for generating pitches when a lot of notes are required. A good way to get a classical group to groove is by writing some fun polyrhythms.

My piano technique keeps improving as well. Sophia Rosoff isn’t teaching anymore, so now I am enjoying a continuous stream of revelations from John Bloomfield.  Later in 2018 I will be playing the Schnittke Concerto for Piano and Strings with A Far Cry in Boston. I was reading the piano part last week. While five years ago I would have thought it was too hard, now I think it is perfect for me. At the least I certainly understand the style. Indeed, playing it feels like I’m playing in The Bad Plus.

In my daily piano practice I’m still working on the blues and rhythm changes with a side helping of Bach and Chopin; 43 is a bit old to feel like I’m not settled into a total groove yet, but I’m still taking in what is possible and making up my mind about what really works for my personal aesthetic. Mark Turner told me something once that I found helpful: “It takes us longer to be great now, since there is so much more to learn.”

Anyway, while I won’t rule out writing formal scores for others, I don’t see that process as a requirement to accomplishing my tasks. If a little ways further down the road I achieve some inarguably valid synthesis of jazz and modernist European classical, I’m reasonably certain that my own piano playing will be at the heart of that success.