Jeffrey Mumford: Creating a Different World
Jeffrey Mumford started off pursuing a career in the visual arts before music took over his imagination, but his lifelong obsession with clouds translated over from painting into musical composition.
“I like to think that people could walk into one of my pieces, like you can walk into a painting or a video installation,” says Jeffrey Mumford, a composer who started off pursuing a career in the visual arts before music completely took over his imagination.
“I fully thought I was going to be an artist,” he explained during an hour we spent with him when he was visiting New York City for a performance last month. “I did lots of work in high school and I went to college as an art major. Then I got one of my paintings sabotaged. … I was working on it and then one day, there was white paint splattered all over it. Someone obviously didn’t like it. So I kind of ran to the music department for solace, because I was always interested in music anyway. … I came to realize that that was the best way I could express myself.”
Expression and, in particular, expressing himself his way, are paramount to Mumford, who has always rejected such binary polarities as atonality vs. tonality, Uptown vs. Downtown, or gnarly vs. lush. And he is particularly opposed to the belief that someone’s race, gender, or any other social categorization could or should determine the kind of music that person creates. According to him, “Being a black composer is itself a very subversive act because you offend both sides. You offend these people who in the white community think that you’re encroaching on their turf and you offend people within your own community, unfortunately, who think that you’re writing white people’s music. I think I write my music. I write what I hear. I have many influences. … There’s no one such thing as black music. … If you’re a black composer, anything you write will be black music.”
In Mumford’s lexicon, Elliott Carter, with whom he studied for three years, “is a Romantic composer.” Yet at the same time, growing up “hearing Sarah Vaughan singing made a big impression” on him. Mumford’s eclecticism and refusal to be typecast might explain why his music was presented on one of the earliest Bang on a Can marathons.
Being a black composer is itself a very subversive act because you offend both sides.
I think Elliott Carter is a Romantic composer.
I fully thought I was going to be an artist. … Then I got one of my paintings sabotaged.
I like to think that people could walk into one of my pieces, like you can walk into a painting or a video installation.
Increasingly the world we live in is not acceptable. So I want to create a different world.
Eleisha Nelson should be much better known than she is …. She’ll never complain about a note. I can’t say that about everybody.
Elliott Carter … was someone I felt very comfortable with. This legend and this little black kid from D.C.
This Uptown/Downtown thing, when it was happening, I was always annoyed by these distinctions. Music is music.
There are pieces where I’ve had to tear up several versions before I could get to the place where I wanted it.
I really imagined the piece I wrote for Lina as a symphony for solo violin.
I’m just so appreciative that I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the most amazing players.
There’s no one such thing as black music.
It would be nice if maybe you might want to program this piece in March and not February.
With all due respect to “We Shall Overcome” … I wanted to write a piece that asked harder questions.
Part of Mumford’s strong desire not be beholden to any particularly stylistic silo is that he wants “to create a different world” through his music. A through line, however, that connects a lot of his creative work is its evocation of clouds, which has fascinated him since his youth:
I used to look out the window in the summer time. There were thunderstorms all over the place in D.C., and the sky would turn purple and green. And you’d see these masses of clouds splitting off and recombining. That was so inspiring to me. Then still thinking I was going to be a painter, I just wanted to grab them, bring them into my room, and play with them. But those images have never left. So musically I want to recreate this sense that you can create an environment that you can live in among these clouds.
Certainly the beautiful aphoristic titles of Mumford’s compositions—e.g. her eastern light amid a cavernous dusk or of fields unfolding…echoing depths of resonant light—evoke cloud imagery as well as poetry, and in so doing perhaps encourage a different kind of listening approach than if he simply gave his compositions the generic names based on instrumentation that so many other composers do, e.g. for the two examples cited above: Wind Quintet No. 1 and Cello Concerto.
But in addition to all of this ethereal inspiration, Mumford is also deeply rooted in humanism and wants his music to be a galvanizing force for making the world a better place and for people to think beyond simple answers. He was particularly passionate when he recounted the story of the Cleveland Orchestra premiere of the comfort of his voice, a work he wrote in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
An usher who’d been there for a long time came up to me and said, “Thank you for your piece. It wasn’t ‘We Shall Overcome’ again. It was much more complex because the man was so much more complex.” … With all due respect to “We Shall Overcome” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and the numerous other anthems that inspire our community, I wanted to write a piece that asked harder questions. Does that make sense? Then this usher came up to me and said thank you. “This piece for me meant a lot, to hear that you took a different approach than a lot of composers have taken when given this opportunity to do that.”
Read the Full Transcript
Video Presentations and Photography (unless otherwise noted)
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: You’ve said that your music is not and has never been political, but that you think that the very act of creating music, creating art of any kind, is a political act.
Jeffrey Mumford: I do. I think that the idea of trying to put beauty in the world, trying to affect people’s souls—trying to make people think, feel either uncomfortable or ecstatic—is something that’s desperately needed. We’re in a society that increasingly devalues that, I feel. So we need this even more. I was interviewed for a newspaper in Atlanta when I won the National Black Arts Festival Competition there back in 1994. And I said that being a black composer is itself a very subversive act because you offend both sides. You offend these people who in the white community think that you’re encroaching on their turf and you offend people within your own community, unfortunately, who think that you’re writing white people’s music.“Being a black composer is itself a very subversive act because you offend both sides.”
I think I write my music. I write what I hear. I have many influences. I grew up in a house where my father had a Count Basie collection that could fill this room. I grew up in a house with Ray Charles covers of country and western songs. And my first recording memory was hearing Beethoven’s Fifth piano concerto with Clifford Curzon. “Daddy music,” we always called it. He played music a lot. The basement was the music room. The first time I ever heard Kismet was down there. So I think I had a pretty good music education as a kid, just growing up and hearing what was being played in the house.
FJO: And your father was a dentist. He wasn’t a musician.
JM: No, not at all. But he had really good taste. And he just loved music, particularly Count Basie and Ray Charles.
FJO: Now, interestingly, I hear a lot of different influences in your music, but I don’t hear Ray Charles.
FJO: Then again I wasn’t specifically looking for it until I had learned what you grew up listening to in the presentation you gave in Manchester, which we posted on NewMusicBox in 2016.
JM: I leave it for others to discern, but I think one thing that I will say was and has continued to be a large influence are the jazz ballads we heard. People like Gloria Lynne and Dinah Washington with these huge, lush string arrangements. I love those. People were actually being paid to play music, not push buttons and have synthesizers. I love writing for strings, and those had a big influence, with the huge echo chambers. Sunday afternoons drives hearing Sarah Vaughan singing made a big impression on me.
FJO: Well, one thing I can say, especially after just hearing you use the word “lush,” is that “lush” is a word that I often think of when I think of your music. And yet that seems somehow contradictory and counterintuitive considering that you write music that is frequently post-tonal and that veers on being atonal, a sound world that most people think of as spiky or gnarly.
FJO: Indeed. But your music is lush. The first thing you said when we started this talk is that you want to create something that has beauty. That’s another word people don’t often use to describe such music.“I think Elliott Carter is a Romantic composer.”
JM: I think Elliott Carter is a Romantic composer. Another composer friend of mind has a quote: “Accessibility is an inspired performance.” If you feel in goods hands with someone, no matter how thorny, thick, or complex the music is, it will communicate because the performer believes in it. And I think that’s important. We’ve all heard performances where you’re wondering, “Does the performer know this? Does he care about this piece? They’ll play it as written, but have they invested themselves in the music?” And then we’ve been to performances of really complex stuff where these people own it. They kick it out of the park. And those are the performances where, no matter what the harmonic language is, I still think are Romantic music. It’s communicative.
FJO: When we met downstairs before we started recording this conversation we were talking about Schoenberg’s piano music, and I was thinking about Pollini’s record of it. Pollini is known as a Romantic pianist, and he played Schoenberg’s piano music in a totally Romantic way, and I think it rewards the music. It takes the music to another level.
JM: He can play anything. His Webern Variations are incredible. I love his performance of those. And his Prokofiev Seventh Sonata. There’s a CD on Deutsche Grammophon with the Prokofiev Seventh and the Webern Variations. I play them for my classes. He kicks butt.
FJO: But I want to go back to listening to daddy’s music.
FJO: Daddy wasn’t listening to Schoenberg and Webern.
JM: No. Daddy didn’t know about Schoenberg or Webern.
FJO: So how did you wind up getting the bug to be interested in more extended chromatic harmonic language?
JM: It’s a very good question. My instrument was the clarinet. I was in fourth grade and I would practice, and then I’d start improvising and making sounds. I can point to that, but I’ve constantly felt that I’ve heard certain pieces of music in a previous lifetime. This is not atonal music, either, but it’s the Songs of the Auvergne by Canteloube. I love those pieces. I feel like I’ve heard that Vincent d’Indy orchestration with the doublings of harp and clarinet. Gorgeous. To answer your question specifically, I think I could say Continuum came to UC Irvine when I was an undergraduate, as an art major—I was still an art major then. They played En Blanc et Noir by Debussy and the Stravinsky Concerto for Two Solo Pianos, and some other pieces. And something opened up in me. I went back to the practice room and was up all night trying to replicate this music. It spoke to me.
FJO: Tell me a little bit about being an art major, what you were hoping your life would be?“I fully thought I was going to be an artist. … Then I got one of my paintings sabotaged.”
JM: Well, I fully thought I was going to be an artist. I did lots of work in high school and I went to college as an art major. Then I got one of my paintings sabotaged. I was doing style studies. I did a lot of that kind of thing. I was doing a style study of François Boucher, an 18th-century French painter, in a place that was not particularly warm to that. One of the people who’d been there was Chris Burden, a performance artist, and one of his pieces was to live in the locker that I was assigned later on. There was a lot of performance art. There were a lot of other things going on, too, and here comes this black kid wanting to replicate François Bucher. But that’s what I did. I love that work. I also love the French Impressionist school and, where I grew up in Washington, D.C., the huge galleries of Dutch landscapes, which as you know are three-fourths full of clouds. So musically as well as artistically, I felt that working through copying these different styles helped me develop techniques and an understanding of the work. So I did this painting. I was working on it and then one day, there was white paint splattered all over it. Someone obviously didn’t like it. So I kind of ran to the music department for solace, because I was always interested in music anyway. I had a teacher named Peter Odegard who took me under his wing. I started taking composition lessons from him. He was a student of Sessions. I came to realize that that was the best way I could express myself.
FJO: Do you still sometimes want to do paintings and visual art?
JM: Sometimes I do. My wife is a painter, a very, very good painter. Recently we collected a bunch of my paintings from my father’s house. He passed away last August, and so we collected a bunch of my old paintings. I looked at them and said, “I still like some of these. Wouldn’t it be nice some time to do some more of this?” Where I’d find that time, I don’t know. But sure. I think of my work as very visual, so I guess that will have to do for now until I find time to actually put brush to canvas again.
FJO: Well, your pieces are definitely very painterly. People often talk about Morton Feldman’s music as being very painterly. I hear the same kind of qualities in your music. You create these works that are these sorts of auras that exist in linear time as music inevitably does, but that also sort of exist beyond it, too. At least for me, when I listen.“I like to think that people could walk into one of my pieces, like you can walk into a painting or a video installation.”
JM: I like to think that people could walk into one of my pieces, like you can walk into a painting or a video installation. The work surrounds them and then it takes them on a journey somewhere that’s—I like to use the phrase—inevitable but not predictable. I try to take them someplace they’ve never been, but hopefully, once they get there, they could not have gotten there any other way than by how I have taken them. So I do feel it as a physical entity, what I do.
FJO: But of course what’s so interesting about saying that you feel music as a physical entity is that music is the one art form that isn’t a physical entity. It’s amorphous. Which makes it very different from a painting that someone could deface by pouring white paint over it. Of course, one could argue that someone might talk all through a performance of your music, but there’s always the possibility of another performance so they’re not going to actually destroy the piece of music.
FJO: They can only destroy—
JM: That moment.
FJO: A poem or a novel could also be reproduced and you could have tons of copies of them, but they’re also physical things.
FJO: But music isn’t. It’s ethereal, which I definitely think is something you tap into in the titles that you give to your pieces, which often reference clouds.“Increasingly the world we live in is not acceptable. So I want to create a different world.”
JM: Well, the titles to me represent my hope to create an alternate reality. Increasingly the world we live in is not acceptable. So I want to create a different world. I imagine whole worlds in these clouds that inspire me. I remember in high school, I used to look out the window in the summer time. There were thunderstorms all over the place in D.C., and the sky would turn purple and green. And you’d see these masses of clouds splitting off and recombining. That was so inspiring to me. Then still thinking I was going to be a painter, I just wanted to grab them, bring them into my room, and play with them. But those images have never left. So musically I want to recreate this sense that you can create an environment that you can live in among these clouds.
FJO: So then, a deep shop question. How does that work? How do you convey these clouds in sound? What’s the process?
JM: That’s a good question, because I really don’t think about the process so much as just do it. I guess what I would say is my music has lots of layers. I create conversations between instruments. I try to set up scenarios where a group of instruments will try to comment on other groups of instruments. The analogy I often use is you’re at a cocktail party and someone’s holding court, going off, and some people try to get a word in edgewise with varying degrees of success. So in my work, there are scenarios where instruments will try to comment upon an ongoing motive, line, melody, or set of direct activities, with greater or lesser degrees of success. Sometimes, for example, a cello will be just completely uninterested in what the clarinet has to say and just goes off on its own, being completely self-involved, and so others will try to get at it.
I try to create those kinds of scenarios, which I think are real, physical things. So in this cloud world—I hate to use the term cloud world, it seems so simplistic—or alternative world, whatever, these conversations happen between light, intensity, degrees of intensity, and how the light comes through a window in my bedroom, and how when I was a child I’d see the light move from the wall to the floor through to the chair. I find that infinitely fascinating.
FJO: And that’s almost the trajectory of a proportional rhythm. How specific does it correlate when it gets turned into sound?
JM: I can’t be specific so much about it when I’m in the process of writing. For instance, this piece the Mivos Quartet did two days ago, in coaching them, I was saying, “Imagine the Ravel Quartet meets Carter’s Second.” I want the sense of this conversation between lush, warm, and more complex, thorny material, and for it to literally be this physical relationship with each other. I have a piece for piano called a landscape of interior resonances, which I think of as a piece where there’s depth and volume. Or the cello concerto I wrote in memory of Elliott Carter, who taught me for free for three years.
I could not tell you how grateful I was for that. When he died, I literally cried. I had to find a way to express what he meant to me. It took me a while to do it. I realized that the Cello Sonata was one of the first piece of his that I fell in love with when I was working in the listening lab in undergraduate school. I had the keys, so I could go and listen any time I wanted to all the records. They had a great CRI catalog and Nonesuch.
So a piece for cello would be appropriate, and I decided to write a cello concerto built on an earlier piece I had written for cello and piano and expanding it. And I found this amazing cellist, Christine Lamprea, who won the Sphinx Competition in 2013. I looked at her website and I noted that she played Carter. So I contacted her and I said, “I’m introducing myself.” I do that a lot when I see people whose repertoire is interesting. I send them a link to my work and say, “Let’s talk about collaborating to see what we can do together.” She said she’d already heard of me and had actually planned to program some of my work in a forthcoming season. I kept talking and said, “Has anyone ever written you a concerto?” And she said no. “You want one?” She said, “I’d love one.” “Right. It’s gonna happen. I really want to write this piece in memory of Elliot Carter, and I’d love for you to be the soloist.” And so she just went after it. She’s played it with three orchestras already. We’re trying to get more to do it. She plays the hell out of it. She just takes it and makes it her piece. That piece is called, if I can remember, of fields unfolding…echoing depths of resonant light. Again, the idea is to create this volume, this cavern, this space.
FJO: It’s a beautiful aphoristic title, as all of your titles are, but it’s interesting that even you were struggling to remember it. I don’t feel so bad that I don’t always remember these titles even though I really like them.
JM: It’s because I’m writing something else now.
FJO: Of course, but I also think they’re hard to remember because they’re unlike names of any other pieces. They’re like entire lines of poetry.
FJO: I’ve actually never heard a note of vocal music by you. I know you have a few pieces. In one of them you’ve set your own text, which makes sense because you have this great way with words. But even though you mostly compose instrumental pieces, you have a very intimate relationship with language. So I’m curious, does the title come before the piece? Or do you write the piece first and then give it a title? When does the title enter the process of creating the piece?“Eleisha Nelson should be much better known than she is …. She’ll never complain about a note. I can’t say that about everybody.”
JM: Well, it happens both ways. Sometimes as the piece is evolving, the title will suggest itself. Other times… I remember walking out of the house, looking up, and I saw this amazing cloud formation where literally you saw this kind of rainbow-esque light bouncing off of this one cloud form and the sky would open up and you’d see this kind of echoing. So this piece is in soft echoes…a world awaits. The title just suggested itself for string trio. It was commissioned by the Fortnightly Musical Club of Cleveland for members of the Cleveland Orchestra, and particularly for Eleisha Nelson, an amazing African American violist. She should be much better known than she is. She’s one of the best violists I’ve ever heard in my life. You can write anything for her. She’ll never complain about a note. I can’t say that about everybody. So that was the inspiration for that. Another title came when I was lying on the ground with my then one-year-old daughter, looking at the sky, and the image of ringing fields came to mind.
FJO: Now I know you set your own text. Have you written much poetry? Is that something you also do?
JM: Not any more. I did tons in high school—like all of us did, right? But recently I’ve entered into a collaboration with an amazing African American poet, Sonia Sanchez, whose work I love. I’ve set two pieces of hers. The first, two haiku settings: of place and love for soprano, cello, and percussion, was commissioned by a group in Philadelphia, Network for New Music. The singer who sang it had really not done much new music at all, she was part of an opera program at the University Arts in Philadelphia. Elisabeth Stevens is her name. She sang the hell out of it. It’s on my website.
Sonia Sanchez’s work speaks to me very directly. These were haiku. She had a whole series of haiku. And she read them before it was performed. That’s how we were paired. Then I decided she’s someone I want to continue working with. She approached me a few months ago with another project, so we’ll see where that goes.
FJO: Not having heard vocal music by you, I wonder what it’s like because your music is so wonderfully amorphous but when you put words onto music, you sort of give it a specificity and maybe a physical grounding that I feel is almost at cross purposes with what you do in your instrumental compositions because you’re taking us into this other world. It almost makes it too real. Too direct. Too specific. So how do you handle this?
JM: I’m not trying to be obtuse, but I think once you get to know her work, it may become clearer, because her work also exists on this other plane. And the way she uses language, it flies. It floats.
FJO: Okay. The other thing about setting a text is that it also becomes the dominant thing that people are listening to; it’s what people are focused on. So it almost sets up a hierarchical thing where you’ve got this text and the music is sort of hanging on it. In terms of what I hear in your music, as well as how you’ve been describing it, you have these conversation where one gets cuts off and another voice takes control and different people are vying for power. You can’t really do that so much in a vocal setting. The singer has to remain up front and foregrounded.
JM: Right. But timbrally you can do amazing things with changing the way you would hear her voice by having, for instance, the cello enter in simultaneity with her, then expand sul ponticello what she’s already doing and reinforce what she’s played and then take it back in a different direction. Then another instrument will come in in the process of illuminating the text. So the conversations still do happen in their own way, but yes, it’s definitely differently.
FJO: In terms of pieces that really explore this idea of a multilayered conversation, one of my all-time favorite pieces of yours is the first of your wind quintets.
JM: Ah, thank you. We’re in the apartment of the flutist of the quintet for whom I wrote it, The Aspen Wind Quintet.
FJO: What a wonderful coincidence! I bring up this piece because I think you cracked the secret of what makes a wind quintet effective. It can have many different layers and no voice is dominant. But I think when composers have tried to make it a homogenous sound world, to try to replicate the kind of music you would write for, say, a string quartet, it fails.
JM: I was never going to approach that piece that way. I knew ahead of time this motley crew of instruments and how I was going to deal with it. I isolated the one brass instrument and made it a mini-horn concerto. That was my solution. But then in a subsequent wind quintet that I wrote for Imani Winds, each movement was to focus on a specific instrument. There’s an oboe movement, a clarinet movement, a bassoon movement, a horn movement. So for me, I was never going to try to make it homogenous. I just took what was presented; it is a unique group of instruments.
FJO: Which is very different from a string quartet, where these four instruments are a family that spans across the range, so it’s about blending. But curiously, you described telling Mivos to think Ravel and Carter’s Second, the textbook example of how to write a string quartet that functions like a wind quintet. Every voice is in its own unique sound world.
FJO: Carter’s Third does that even more so.
FJO: So did your interest in writing pieces that engage in multiple layers of dialogue start happening before or after you came into contact with Carter? Did he take where you were going and shape it further? Or did he take you in a completely different direction?
JM: Well, I’d finished a sonata for two pianos, which was influenced by Stravinsky’s Concerto for Two Solo Pianos. And also partly Poulenc, too, whose music I love. And I love the medium of two pianos. Then I started this big cello sonata. I was influenced by Carter’s sonata. One of the highlights of my life is that one summer in Aspen, Yo-Yo Ma actually read through part of it. That was the year that I met my wife to-be.
FJO: So you were writing pieces with generic titles at that point.
FJO: I know there’s a recording on CRI of an early string quartet of yours, your String Quartet No. 3.
FJO: Which is tantalizing, because where’s one and two?
JM: Someplace else.
FJO: Early on you were modeling pieces after other composers and creating works that were in standard forms. But then something happened.
JM: Well, that piece [String Quartet No. 3] was already influenced by Carter. It was written for the then New York String Quartet. I was studying with a composer named Lawrence Moss; he was a transition between undergraduate school and graduate school. His music is very elegant. He’s got a very beautiful piece, Scenes for Piano; it’s on CRI played by Seymour Fink, who’s a really wonderful pianist. I took two years off and became a member of this group in D.C. called the Contemporary Music Forum. It’s where I got my first commission for a piece for violin and piano. That piece is also on that disc. Increasingly Larry saw the influence of Carter in my music. Such a teacher! I try to be that same way; I don’t want clones. He wasn’t threatened that I was going in a different direction. He told me when things were working. I brought in the first section of this quartet, and he was insightful enough to see what I was trying to do but wasn’t succeeding at that time. He said, “I know what you want to do, but you’re not getting there. You need to re-think the beginning of this in this way.” That’s how perceptive he was. I realized he was absolutely right.
And he said I should contact Carter. And I said, “You can actually do that? Someone like that?” He said, “Sure. Just contact him and have him look at your work and see what he thinks of it.” At the time, [Carter’s wife] Helen Carter was presented as the dragon lady; she never let anyone get anywhere near him. So of course I think I have to deal with Helen Carter first, but when I called, she couldn’t have been nicer. She said, “Oh Elliott’s going to be at a concert at Carnegie Recital Hall in a couple of weeks. If you’re up in New York, come.” And so I did. At that time, I was going to Aspen every summer and he was going to be the composer-in-residence the forthcoming summer, and so he said, “If you’re going to be in Aspen already, we’ll meet in Aspen. Bring your work, I’ll look at it.” We went to the Pitkin County Library. I showed him my stuff and he said, “Why do you want to study with me? You know so much already?” I said, “Please, I have so much I want to learn from you. I would be so honored if you would take me on as a student.” And he said, “Okay. I will take you on. We’ll meet in my apartment when I’m in town. Bring your work, and we’ll work.” And for three years, ’80 to ’83, I studied with him, and he didn’t charge me a cent.
FJO: Wow.“Elliott Carter … was someone I felt very comfortable with. This legend and this little black kid from D.C.”
JM: When our daughter was born, they sent her a present. He was someone I felt very comfortable with. This legend and this little black kid from D.C., but he believed in me. I’ll never forget that. He believed in my work.
FJO: What do you feel have been the most significant things that you got from him as a teacher?
JM: People ask that a lot. I was working on a violin concerto out of graduate school. It’s the first performance I got, thankfully, with the American Composers Orchestra. That’s another story.
I went to a concert [of the ACO], and Francis Thorne was sitting a couple of chairs away. My philosophy is: all he can say is “no.” So I went to him and I said, “Do you accept unsolicited scores?” And he said, “Well, you should talk to Charles Wuorinen about that. He’s the one who does most of the programming with Nicholas Roussakis.” Charles Wuorinen, again this legend, someone who doesn’t suffer fools easily, a very intense person and a brilliant composer. I said, “Okay. I’ll do that. Thank you.” I made an appointment to see Mr. Wuorinen. We went to his brownstone. We laid the score out on the floor. I remember that to this day. And he gave me the thumbs up. Charles Wuorinen. He liked my music. I was so amazed. So it got played.
But I realized that certain things weren’t being heard. So I took the piece to Mr. Carter in a lesson, and the one thing [he said that] I’ll never forget is, “Always create a window for the soloist.” That may sound so simple, but in the course of the next few lessons, it was a matter of taking things out of the score. In the next performance I had of it, with the Colorado Philharmonic, it was a different piece. You actually heard things differently, because I took things out. It was over orchestrated. It was too thick. I’ll always remember that.
FJO: It sounds like the difference between mid-period Carter and late-period Carter. It’s almost like Carter was giving you a lesson that he learned himself about his music. He wrote these incredibly dense orchestra pieces, like the Piano Concerto, the Concerto for Orchestra, and the Symphony of Three Orchestras. And then you know, from the Violin Concerto onwards, everything gets—
JM: —much more transparent. Yeah.
FJO: And interestingly that happened in his music after he said that to you.
JM: Right, but the piano is not a violin. In a piano concerto, you can still always hear the piano.
FJO: It’s interesting talking about this whole world of composers and you gaining entry into it. Curiously the very first piece of yours I ever heard was at a Bang on a Can Marathon, which was run by an entirely different world of composers. So you were embraced by them early on, too, even though their aesthetic is pretty far away from Wuorinen and Carter.
JM: I met David Lang in Aspen. He was in my class with Charles Jones. At that time, it was Charles Jones and Michael Tchaikovsky were the two composition teachers. And so David was in my class over the years. That’s how we know each other.
FJO: Now, the piece that they performed has a somewhat unusual instrumental combination.
JM: Alto flute, harp, and cello.
FJO: There’s a famous combination of flute, viola, and harp, but you put a cello in it instead of a viola.
JM: I’ve always loved the cello.
FJO: I hate making generalizations about anything, because the minute you do, you have refutations for all of them. I know that the whole mindset of the early years of Bang on a Can was to break the walls between the so-called Uptown and Downtown aesthetics by presenting all this music together. But, still, that trio is definitely not as dense as some of the other pieces you were writing at that time. So to my ears it doesn’t quite fit in an uptown space. It’s also much more intuitive.“This Uptown/Downtown thing, when it was happening, I was always annoyed by these distinctions. Music is music.”
JM: It’s not system driven. But this Uptown/Downtown thing, when it was happening, I was always annoyed by these distinctions. Music is music. If certain kinds of music are being written above 95th Street and other pieces of music are written below Houston Street, I lamented the fact that so much was being made of that. People would create their little fiefdoms, and I was like, “Just listen to the music, for God’s sake.” Personally I was drawn to the music that was more complex and more intricate. That was happening more uptown. But in terms of labeling myself, I just thought, “This is the music I hear, and this is the music I write.”
The piece that you’re talking about, a pond upon the drifting dusk, is a piece that I wrote for a harpist who’s no longer with us, Karin Fuller, a brilliant harpist. I was teaching at the Settlement School in Philadelphia. I learned to write for the harp because the harpist of the National Symphony at the time, Dotian Levalier, let me come to her house and gave me a stack of scores to take home and study. I really wanted to learn to write for the harp. The harp is another instrument I love. I’ve written a lot of music for the harp recently. And in all of my orchestral music, there are large parts for the harp. There’s a group in Iceland called Duo Harpverke that I wrote a piece for, for mallet percussion and harp. It’s just, again, lush—the ringing bell sonorities. I love the combination.
So I studied these scores and one of them was by Robert Capanna—who actually, it turned out, was the dean of the Settlement Music School where I would later become a faculty member. Little did I know. He’d written a lot of music for harp, because he’s married to a harpist. Small world.
FJO: I think it’s important to point out, though, that this idea that systems music is Uptown and Downtown music is more intuitive is not really true, because there’s a lot of theory in downtown music.
JM: There sure is.
FJO: It’s just different theory. At some point, I reached this epiphany. All these people thought they were writing such different kinds of music from each other in the ‘80s. They actually really weren’t. The surface sound world might sound different—
JM: The harmonic language. The chromaticism. Right.
FJO: But, getting back to your music, which is why I use these terms with some trepidation. You write post-tonal or atonal music yet, at the same time, it’s lush and there are also loads of tonal allusions in your music—that trio for example, and I’m also thinking of one of the string quartets which I’m going to fail on the name of, which the Corigliano Quartet recorded.
JM: the promise of the far horizon. Yeah.
FJO: The harmonies clearly reference tonality, at least to my ears.“There are pieces where I’ve had to tear up several versions before I could get to the place where I wanted it.”
JM: You’re right. Absolutely. That’s just how I hear things. I don’t like to pigeonhole myself. The music evolves and goes in directions, sometimes unexpected directions. Sometimes the piece will write itself and I’ll just be holding the pencil and follow the pencil along. That’s the case with this solo violin piece, an expanding distance of multiple voices, which I wrote for this fabulous violinist, Lina Bahn. It wrote itself. It had to be written. It wasn’t a commission. Because I love how Lina played, I had to write it. And it just literally wrote itself. This is also the case with the concerto for Elliott Carter’s memory. That’s when you know you’re plugged into something. But a lot of pieces are more laborious. There are pieces where I’ve had to tear up several versions before I could get to the place where I wanted it. We’ve all been there. Was it Hovhaness who destroyed his first hundred symphonies or something, and then started again? I didn’t go there, but—
FJO: He wrote like 67 symphonies, at least that he let out into the world, among a thousand pieces of music that he kept.
FJO: But since you brought up a solo violin piece, I’d like to talk a bit about the many pieces you’ve written for solo string players. What’s so interesting about those pieces for me is the only thing that’s solo about them is that they’re performed by one musician. They are also conversations and dialogues, largely. I’m thinking of a particular solo cello piece where some phrases are pizzicato, some are arco, and it sounds like it’s at least two instruments, sometimes even more.“I really imagined the piece I wrote for Lina as a symphony for solo violin.”
JM: I want that. I really imagined the piece I wrote for Lina as a symphony for solo violin. There are many, many, many, many layers. I approached the piece registrally, such that I did want to give the impression that more than one person was playing it, that it was for an orchestra of violins.
FJO: I have to admit that I’ve always had a block with most pieces for solo string or wind instruments. They often sound to me like the solo part in a Music Minus One recording, only without the recording. It sounds like: where is the rest of the piece?
JM: Right. Right.
FJO: But you’ve found a very interesting compositional way around that.
JM: Well, thank you. I recently wrote a piece for this fabulous cellist, Mariel Roberts, who was formerly of the Mivos Quartet. We have worked on a number of projects together. I’m writing also a concerto for her and the String Orchestra of Brooklyn; I finished three movements out of the four. We actually recorded the solo piece I wrote for her yesterday at Oktaven up in Mount Vernon. She’s one of the best cellists I’ve ever worked with in my life. She can play anything. And that piece gives her a run for her money; I didn’t spare her during any of that piece. I think it has a lot of the qualities that you spoke of and what I was after. There are some simultaneous pizzes and arcos in many places. And the piece has different trajectories. The opening motive comes back three or four times. It’s a series of chords that I want to sound as if it’s one large rolled chord. She pulls it off very well. I want this piece to be this super cello. I want this piece to be a larger-than-life tribute to her amazing talent.
I have a bucket list of pieces that I want to write in the next few years. There’s a double concerto for her and Lauren Cauley, who is also formerly of the Mivos Quartet. I find them to be two of the most amazing players I’ve ever worked with, which begs for a piece. I’ve always wanted to write a double concerto, and they are all up for it. So we’ve gotten some bites here and there. I don’t want to say yet where, but it’ll get done. It’s something I really want to do. And those two are the ideal soloists for this piece.
FJO: So it’s interesting. When you say bucket list pieces, you think of players first, rather than the instruments.
JM: In this piece, no, I’ve always wanted to write a piece for violin and cello. But these two players, as a function of working with them, made it clear that these were the people that this piece needed to be written for.
FJO: Now of course you know, when you’re writing score-based music that gets disseminated via notation, it is music that theoretically and hopefully will be played by hundreds of people.
FJO: All over the world.
JM: Hopefully. Yes.
FJO: For centuries to come. So you might get inspired to write something that plays to the strengths of certain players, but at the same time you want to write it in such a way that other people will make it their own as well.“I’m just so appreciative that I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the most amazing players.”
JM: Well, I’m just so appreciative that I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the most amazing players. Particularly as I get older, younger players who’ve taken this music on like Christina Lamprea, Miranda Cuckson, and Winston Choi. Or like Deborah Pae, another fantastic cellist for whom I wrote a chamber concerto that recently premiered in Boston in early May. I don’t want to insult anyone by not mentioning their names, but I’m so gratified that younger people are coming to me wanting pieces and wanting to work together. And the level of musicianship, as you well know, has risen astronomically. I mean, there are nine-year-olds playing pieces that 35-year-olds years ago couldn’t play. It’s just incredible.
FJO: I wanted to speak to you a bit about wending, which you originally wrote for the violist Wendy Richman.
JM: Oh yes.
FJO: You actually incorporated the letters of her name into the melodic material of the piece, so that’s really specific.
JM: I did the same thing with the piece I wrote for Deborah Pae, of radiances blossoming in expanding air. I quoted the notes of Deborah into that piece.
FJO: Now obviously when another player takes that on, they can’t have that relationship to the piece.
JM: No, but I hope that other players will play it. Throughout history this has happened and didn’t forestall future performances of those pieces. But when I wrote for specific players it’s because I was particularly inspired by their technique, their sound, and their approach to music. And I wanted to pay tribute to that. You get inspired. Inspiration comes from many different places. These particular players were among many who have inspired me. And the idea of using the letters of their names gave me a foundation upon which to build the language.
FJO: Now of course, some people’s names are more melodically and harmonically interesting than others. So you have to choose those players carefully.
JM: That’s right. It doesn’t always work with every name. You pay tribute to them in other ways.
FJO: I was so honored that we got to post the speech you gave in Manchester called “Who is in the Club?” a few years ago on NewMusicBox. I think you made a lot of really important statements in that. We’ve already talked about the issues you raised in that speech, though perhaps in other ways—like your being annoyed by the Uptown/Downtown diversion when you were younger and wanting to write the music you heard.
FJO: In that talk, you spoke to a very specific issue of perceptions that people have about who creates what kind of music and who listens to what kind of music. Perhaps the most poignant and also most upsetting thing was your description of playing a bunch of pieces of music for students without identifying what they were. You played T.J. Anderson—
JM: And Cecil Taylor.
FJO: And you had students who thought that music was created by a white person.
JM: That was in Bowling Green the year I did a one-year residency. It was the first time I ever taught a course on African American classical composers. I actually have to give my wife credit for this. She suggested that I get them into small groups. Half of the pieces had identifiable grooves and half the pieces were more abstract. One of the pieces that had identifiable grooves was the Billy Jim Layton String Quartet. It has this incredible walking bass and it’s just florid stuff on top. I love that piece. It needs to get played more often. You never hear it. And then this T.J. Anderson piece, Variations on a Theme by M.B. Tolson, which at the end has this blues progression, but it grows out of the 12-tone language that he used before. Then I played the Carter sonata. Again the opening has this ostinato walking bass motive in the piano.
It begged the question: “Which do you think was written by a black composer? And should it matter?” I was curious to see what people’s preconceptions would be. As I suspected, most people got it wrong. In the case of T.J.’s piece, I asked, “What do you think? You think this was written by a black or a white composer?” And this one particular student, who was black, said, “This piece is much too complex to be written by a black composer.” And I said, “Why?” My work has been cut out for me. I know what I need to do now. We don’t give ourselves permission to realize that our thoughts are as complex as anyone else’s thoughts. Growing up, some people are told, “Be careful. Play it safe.” There’s a comedy duo, Key and Peele. They’re hilarious. There’s one routine where they’re talking to the older generation of African Americans and the phrase was “step lightly.”“There’s no one such thing as black music.”
This student obviously had been raised, it seemed to me, in an environment that didn’t give them permission to realize that the spectrum of what we do is as wide as the spectrum of what anybody else does. There’s no one such thing as black music. There’s no one such thing as white music. The Virgil Thomson quote that everyone goes to: “What is American music? Music written by an American.” Well, what is black music? It is written by a black person. What else could it be? Music comes from one’s experience. You can’t write something that isn’t your experience. If you’re a black composer, anything you write will be black music.
FJO: I feel like we had been at a point in our society where we were starting to get past a lot of that stuff, and it feels like we’re right back there again. We’re right back into stereotyping and profiling and kind of coming up with simplistic shortcuts. So how do we get people to think past this nonsense?
JM: That’s a very good question. I had the honor of being commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra to write a piece to honor Martin Luther King’s legacy back in 2007. Cleveland is an interesting city. It has a large African American middle and upper-middle class. All of these concerts are in January. The hall’s full of black people. But there are only two blacks in the orchestra—Eliesha Nelson and Ralph Curry, the cellist. We’re constantly wondering about the demographics and why audience attendance isn’t what it should be. But for these concerts, people come and they hear music written by people who look like them. It would be nice if they came and also heard music played by people who look like them. There are an enormous amount of amazingly talented African American classical musicians who should have gigs in orchestras. Why they do and why they don’t is the stuff of other conversations.“It would be nice if maybe you might want to program this piece in March and not February.”
I’m encouraged by the fact that organizations like the Sphinx organization are making a significant mark in encouraging African American and Latino players to pursue and continue their work. I think that the rest of the year it would be nice if works by African American composers were played. There’s a composer Hale Smith, who is no longer with us, with whom I had the pleasure of serving on many panels for the NEA and others, who would say to people, “Don’t call me in January or February. Don’t even think of it. There are ten other months of the year. You can play my music then.” How much more clear do you have to get? I don’t feel like I’m in the position of turning down performances quite yet. So if someone calls me in January, I’m honored and I’m happy that they called me, but I understand and I say “Well, it would be nice if maybe you might want to program this piece in March and not February, because it isn’t just about black history month, or Martin Luther King. It’s about music.” I’ve been able to do that with one organization. They wanted to program something in February, and I said it would make me happier if you’d could program it in March, or a later month. And they did.
FJO: To get back to that student who had misconceptions about complexity. Were you able to change his or her mind? Where did that classroom experience go?
JM: Well, I was only there for one year. I don’t know what happened to that student. I hope that I was able to open his ears up. I played lots of different kinds of abstract and less abstract music by African American composers. And it seemed to go over well. I also had composers coming in and giving their life stories, like Wendell Logan. William Banfield came in once. Another time I taught it at Oberlin and Dominque-René de Lerma the musicologist came. Tania León came. George Lewis came. I think it was very impactful to these students.
FJO: I think the way we can change the society is showing multiple role models and rejecting simplistic notions.“With all due respect to “We Shall Overcome” … I wanted to write a piece that asked harder questions.”
JM: My piece played by the Cleveland Orchestra is called the comfort of his voice, dedicated to Martin Luther King. That title came quite easily because he gave so much comfort to so many of us. An usher who’d been there for a long time came up to me and said, “Thank you for your piece. It wasn’t We Shall Overcome again. It was much more complex because the man was so much more complex.” And that’s what I said in my notes. In the piece I wanted to reflect the complexity of this man. With all due respect to “We Shall Overcome” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and the numerous other anthems that inspire our community, I wanted to write a piece that asked harder questions. Does that make sense? Then this usher came up to me and said thank you. “This piece for me meant a lot, to hear that you took a different approach than a lot of composers have taken when given this opportunity to do that.”