Judith Lang Zaimont: The Music She Has to Write
Judith Lang Zaimont is defiantly unwilling to be typecast for creating music in a particular style, which makes her music always a welcome surprise.
Judith Lang Zaimont has been active as a pianist since she was five. She performed on national television at the age of 11 and began her studies at Juilliard at age 12. But despite her deep love for music from the very beginning, she realized early on that she hated practicing, playing the exact same thing again and again. One day, while sight-reading through some music by Chopin, she had an epiphany. The constant variations in his music meant he also hated playing the same thing again and again. And it suddenly dawned on her that her constant desire to play something new meant that she was a composer.
That endless search for something new still fuels Zaimont’s creativity many decades later. She is defiantly unwilling to be typecast for creating music in a particular style, which makes her music always a welcome surprise. But it has also proved challenging for her in terms of typical opportunities for composers.
“I have very particular ideas or thoughts about commissions,” she explained when we chatted over Zoom in early February. “They open doors. But they always come as a result of knowing past music by the person. And if you are not a one-groove individual artistically, if you have many parts to yourself, then you could open a door you’ve never opened before in a new piece. … We suffer a little bit, if you’ve been at this for a while, from being branded thus or such. And artists are not their brand. If you relax into that groove, beware.”
For Zaimont, composing music is always a work in progress, an ongoing journey of discovery and reinventing oneself. It has also made her very critical of her own work over the years which has led her to take works she no longer thinks are worthy out of circulation.
“The world doesn’t need those pieces,” she exclaimed. “I’m constantly going back and making sure that what I put forward is the best that I can do under the circumstances.”
Thankfully, however, there are quite a few pieces that she does still acknowledge and many performers acknowledge them, too. While so many composers are lucky if a piece they’ve written gets a performance and a recording, several of Zaimont’s works have been recorded multiple times which is, after all, how music becomes repertoire. And that is her goal since her music is deeply informed and inspired by the canon of classical music repertoire. Among the pillars in her catalog are six symphonies, two piano trios, a hefty piano sonata, and two string quartets—at least that she still acknowledges (believing that she only fully grasped the string quartet medium in her 60s). She has also composed a formidable Judaic sacred service, perhaps her most significant choral work although it has yet to be recorded in its entirety.
Yet despite Zaimont’s deep immersion in European musical traditions, her music is very much American. She has composed several rags and the rhythms and harmonies of jazz and various American popular music genres have seeped into her own compositional language, so much so that they’re not influences per se, but rather additional vocabulary that she has mastered and incorporated into her own ever-evolving sound world.
I have a super appreciation of the performer’s entry point...
Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
I think a long time about how the music is going to be notated.
Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
I always want horizons that don’t fence you in.
Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
All of my pieces solve puzzles.
Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
I have tried not to be branded.
Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
I do charts of other people’s periodicities. I did all the development sections of all the Beethoven sonatas.
Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
My father used to come to all my concerts and applaud like crazy. And then he’d get this funny look on his face, like maybe he didn’t understand the music.
Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
Ned Rorem once wrote that a composer has three arrows in his quiver, and he shoots them over and over again. I took that as a challenge.
Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
If each piece isn’t a struggle to do, you’ve got to question how valid it is.
Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
Nobody ever told me that any women wrote music. Did it stop me? No.
Judith Lang Zaimont, composer
Early on in her career, Zaimont was also a major champion of other female composers, both contemporaries and women from earlier times, editing an important series of volumes of critical studies of their music.
“Nobody ever told me that any women wrote music,” she remembered. “Did it stop me? No. I knew I was born to write music. Didn’t matter to me. … But I saw there was a whole cohort of women who were writing music. I started to learn the history of music that had been written in times past by women. … These people were not in the history books. They were not there. Generations of the present moment weren’t knowing about them. The world needs to know about what they have accomplished and appreciate it. I got letters from some of the standing composers whom we profiled in the critical appraisals sections of the books to thank me for finally having been able to engender these really critical articles dealing with the stuff of their music. Not who they were as a person. Whether they were married or had children, how old they were. That they were women in a man’s world. None of that. Deal with their music. That’s why I did that. I set my own creative work aside to do this because somebody needed to step up and do it. … I’m very grateful to the music that these people wrote, that it is now in the world.”
But don’t call Zaimont, as she described it, an “adjective” composer.
“The thing I don’t like is being a column B composer. I don’t want to wait until you get adjective before the world composer. Before you think Judith Lang Zaimont. Think of me right up there. I sit at Chopin’s—just behind Chopin, I can’t sit at his shoulder. I sit back there a ways. But I’m on the stage.”
Read the Full Transcript
(Transcribed by Julia Lu)
Frank J. Oteri: A notated composition is a fixed thing of somebody’s ideas, and they can get very specific and very particular yet despite that, you hand it off to someone else and even when you hand it off to the same people and they do it more than one time, it’s never gonna be exactly the same twice. So many pieces of contemporary music maybe get done once, and if they’re lucky, they get recorded and you have that recording, and it’s a document of it. In the case of your music, there are multiple recordings of several pieces. And it’s just been a joy hearing those different interpretations, and different people bringing stuff to that music because after all that’s what turns this stuff into repertoire.
Judith Lang Zaimont: You bet. And you hit on something that’s really key. Remember, I started age five on the piano. And I have a background as a performer. I perform even into the current day with our local chamber orchestra. So I have a super appreciation of the performer’s entry point into a fixed item. Very often what you get on a first rendition is the skeleton of the piece. People haven’t pulled back to, to view it, performers, to really grab it in three dimensions. To understand its sinews and flexing and how its overall progress is from the beginning to the end. So they can put certain sections in their pacing, in their dynamics, in their expression into proportion for the piece as a whole. So what I do bring to music is a performer’s perspective. And I think that’s quite important. It makes my music not terrifically arcane, although some people have responded as if their first entry to it is a bit opaque. That’s okay with me.
When my first symphony was done by the Philadelphia Orchestra, they had a question and answer period afterwards for audiences members to stand up and ask me questions. One young boy stood up, very self-possessed, and he said, he didn’t always understand the music, but it made him feel things he’d never felt before. And I thought to myself, what a wonderful response. A work of art shouldn’t give itself up on the first hearing anyway. So that’s what I bring to it, and I think that’s embedded in my music and may be why a goodly number of performers have responded to it. It lives in performance, not just in a recorded document.
FJO: That moment of self-awareness for you came quite early on even though you were getting gigs as a performer. You even played on The Lawrence Welk Show. You were 11 at the time…
JLZ: The great thing about that was they took my whole family. They flew us out to California from New York on those old prop planes. This is 1956. My mother insisted that we were going to meet Walt Disney. They had just opened Disney Land. So we went for an afternoon to Disney. And we’re sitting there on a bench by the sidewalk, and this man comes along with a mustache, and he’s looking at things, he’s looking into the waste baskets, and he stopped and asked my mother how we liked the experience. And it was Walt Disney. I have a photograph with him.
JLZ: And my mother was right. We met Walt Disney. That was much more memorable to me than playing Malagueña on The Lawrence Welk Show and having to learn that duet with Pete Fountain, the clarinetist, which I had to practice in the hotel room on the side of bed. We didn’t have a piano.
FJO: Even though you were doing things like that, you already knew that you wanted to compose music more than you wanted to play music.
JLZ: This is easy. I’ve never liked being forward in public. Even this is difficult for me, just talking to you.
JLZ: I prefer to have music talk to me. And then see where I respond to that. But to get to your point, it was really clear. I hated practicing from the time I was eight, I had to, I was required to practice three hours a day. That’s a lot for a young child. And some of it was great, because the music was good. But some of it was boring, like those Hanon exercises.
So after I played those things over 19 times, 20 times, if I could get finished with my requirements for the day early, I gave myself a treat which was sight reading. I’d sight read through the Mozart sonatas, or Chopin mazurkas or waltzes, things that are easy, that fall right into the fingers. One day, the piece I sight read was the Chopin Berceuse which in D-flat major. On a ground. Left hand stays the same all the way through. And the right hand spins these wonderful variants on a very simple musical curve. It was like a light bulb went on over my head. It said to me, aha. Chopin does not like to play the same thing the same way every time. And it was like a door opened to me that I was free also to mess around with the notes. If Chopin could do it, I could do it. And that was it.
FJO: I love that story. But the other thing that I love about that story is Chopin is an early role model. Here’s an example of a composer whose music has been interpreted by so many different people who find their own identities in the notes he put on the page. It takes on this other life in performance. You compare Michelangeli’s recordings of Chopin to Horowitz’s recordings; they’re the same piece, but they’re very different.
JLZ: Oh, and Rubenstein.
JLZ: So that’s music that connects with the performer on the performer’s wavelength. I don’t know how else to say it. And I always hoped that even though my own original music would be a document of some kind, that it would also have enough in it, even though it’s pretty darn specific on the page, so that performers would feel welcomed into this world and want to make it their own. The wonderful validity is you hear over and over again from certain performers who are encountering your music for the first time, to play it. Not hear it. To play it. And they write to me. They say it really fits the fingers.
One of the things I did this last year during pandemic dark, dark, dark times, I wrote a piece for piano. It’s like a sort of a nocturne, but not really, called When Darkness Falls. It’s a sort of impression on me of what it meant to be in absolute lockdown last March. I wrote the piece in March of 2020. And Bradford Gowen asked for a copy of it, and he wrote back to me. He said he looked at it, and then he played it. And he said the thing made sense to him in the playing. And I think that’s a wonderful thing also. It can look all spread apart and different on the page. You want to choose sixteenth notes as your general unit of how you’re going to progress. You want to use quarters and whole notes, whatever you want to use. The piece will look different. There’s a reason that vocal music and educational music look the way they look on the page. We have a whole thing about notation equivalents, inherited from European usages, but modified in this country.
So there are certain things that people seem ready to contend with, without any kind of adjustment. I think a long time about how the music is going to be notated. The first time I realized that slow music was notated tiny was when I learned the Pathétique Sonata at age 10. I looked at the middle of that which has some 32nd [notes] in it, occasionally sprinkled, and a lot of 16ths. And I looked at that beautiful melody, and then I looked at the last movement, which is a rondo, and it’s notated in 8th notes; it’s in cut time essentially. And there was just realization of these conventions and our personal music adopts a different convention. Somehow the preparation, the prefatory note should say that to the player. Just, just enter the performer’s viewpoint. That’s it. So you can connect.
FJO: It’s great for there to be different interpretations. But there are certain core things that you want there. And, as you say, your music is quite specific, but one of the things that it’s very difficult to be specific with in music, since music is so abstract, are the feelings that are undergirding these various pieces. And I find it particularly interesting that most of the time you will give a piece a really evocative title as opposed to say “string quartet number one.”
JLZ: My first string quartet is called String Quartet ‘The Figure.’
FJO: Yes, but you have “The Figure.” You have something else added. There’s something you’re giving people, a little something extra. You know, and I’m thinking now of your first wind quintet When Angels Speak.
JLZ: I forgot about that piece.
FJO: Oh good. Now I can bring it back up. That title is such a magical title because it says a lot, but it also doesn’t say a lot because we have no idea what it means for angels to speak.
JLZ: You got it. So whatever this music is could be the voices of angels. Actually that title and many of my titles came way after the fact. Way after. That piece was quite difficult to write. I had just broken my leg, and I wrote most of it lying on my back on the couch. What was difficult about it was I felt that it was fragmentary. And so I tried to make a virtue out of the fact that it was non- rational in some ways in the way it progressed figuring we have to deal with something outside of our normal, rational sphere. Ah, angels. So when angels speak, they might sound like this. I’m a very practical person.
FJO: It’s interesting that the titles come later because I wouldn’t have always thought that. I want to go back to a very early piece, in fact the first piece of yours I ever heard, which was A Calendar Set. I got the Leonarda LP decades ago.
JLZ: That’s Gary Steigerwalt’s performance. It’s quite good. They’re all good the recordings. It’s amazing. And they’re all different.
FJO: That’s the first music of yours I had ever heard, and what struck me is how it’s 12 different movements, each for a different month of the year. Loads of composers have done pieces based on the seasons. You know, everybody knows the Vivaldi, but there are all these others, like Haydn. Joachim Raff wrote four symphonies, one for each season. The other piece besides your piece that goes month by month, Das Jahr by Fanny Mendelssohn—
JLZ: —Tchaikovsky did it, too. I played June when I was growing up. It was in one of my anthologies by Tchaikovsky. I wrote a calendar set because I wanted to have a piece for myself to play in public, a piece whose music made sense to me—whoever I was then. I’ve been always most responsive not to personal dynamics, but responding to atmosphere, time of year, conditions of light, and all the fascinations of the natural world. I’m a big space buff. I always want horizons that don’t fence you in. I want the horizons, the openness, the idea of quest, finding something that you haven’t yet found that’s out there. So I remain in that direction. And I figured, why not write a piece for myself. The first month I wrote I think was May. Then I wrote August. Those two were written in France. And I came back to the United States and started my university teaching at a four-year school. Previously I’d been at a two-year school, at Queens College.
And I had time, so I figured, I’d take the months, month by month. The last one I wrote was January. I only wrote that because I was obliged to play the piece in public, and I didn’t have the month. So at the end I had to do that and all of the subtitles. I did a research project in the local library to find those quotes. Each piece was written in that month of the year. In a temperate climate zone. Conditions of light and the weather—it was nice enough to go outside or you needed to hunker down and stay in.
FJO: Now it’s interesting that the poetry quotes came later and they’re certainly in the score. So are they there for the players to be inspired by?
JLZ: It helps to clue the performer in. The warmth and ripple of June. The drumbeat of January. The figuration and windiness of September. The starkness of November. That’s my birth month. So I could be private about that, and indeed it is. Then I threw two quodlibets in because when you get to the Fourth of July month and when you get to holiday month, December, you have all this music in the air that’s part of different kinds of celebration. So I did a parade of holiday tunes for July and then for Christmas there’s that little fughetto on God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you talk about space and exploration because another piano cycle of yours that I absolutely treasure is Jupiter’s Moons, which is certainly other worldly. Most people playing your Calendar Set will have an idea in their head about different months, and be able to bring different moods to it. Not a whole lot of people know anything about Callisto and Ganymede as satellites.
JLZ: Well, the great thing about Jupiter’s moons is that they’re named after mythological beings. So you could go straight to the mythology and find out about the fleetness of Ganymede, or Callisto is Ursa Major, the great she bear. And Europa, well you have an idea about what Europe is. Leda, the swan seduced by Zeus, lent itself to a nocturne. And the prelude which is the moons’ swim in orbit. I left out Io. Io is a woman that really interests me. It is written in layers. So that one hand does not necessarily agree with the other hand. You have to really control your dynamics. And each of your hands is doing more than one function at all times.
So that was a musically interesting puzzle to solve. All of my pieces solve puzzles. I don’t want to repeat myself. I figure, I thought I’d written one string quartet—that was enough. One wind quintet—that was enough. One brass quintet—yes, that is enough. I’ve never gone back there. One piano trio—that was enough. No. People requested additional examples. And one thing that we might chat about, Frank, because I know you have experience with this in deep ways is the difference between writing a piece that you feel you have to write and then writing a piece that comes as a commission. I have very particular ideas or thoughts about commissions. They open doors. But they always come as a result of knowing past music by the person. And if you are not a one-groove individual artistically, if you have many parts to yourself, then you could open a door you’ve never opened before in a new piece. And it should be able to be accepted by the commissioner. It’s nice to have limits. Right? We want to know if the piece is going to be a first half closer, or a second half opener. We want to know what the forces are. Approximately what length they’re looking for. But then they should stop right there.
FJO: This is a conversation I’ve not only had with so many other composers, but also with painters who will get represented by a gallery and then the painter’s doing new work that’s totally different and then the gallery person is like, “But this isn’t like your previous work.” Well great, it isn’t. You already have that work, now it’s time to do new work. And it’s the same exact frustration, although I have to say I am so happy that you decided to write a second piano trio, because that’s just about one of my favorite pieces of yours.
FJO: That is such an amazing piece. I like the first trio, too, but there’s something about ZONES structurally. You say you come up with the titles often after—
JLZ: Oh no, these were ahead of time.
FJO: They were. Because I feel it. I feel this whole idea of different weather; and it’s a very unique way of putting together a multi-movement piece—from turbulence to ecstatic resolution somehow. I can’t think of another piece that does that in that way.
JLZ: Well there’s another thing about ZONES. That was a commission. But I really wanted to write another piano trio. The recording of my first piano trio that exists is not the whole piece. It’s only the second and third movements. I always wanted to get back and tinker with the first movement, and never had the opportunity. There’s some stuff in that first movement that warrants a revisit. I sign my pieces. I am not Rachmaninoff. So I don’t have a rhythm. I‘m not David Del Tredici. So I don’t have 13 strokes. What I have is the sound Z. If you notice how many of my pieces are signed as plurals. So the ending sound is Z. And I sign ZONES both in the front and in the back. ZONES. When I moved from Judith Lang to Judith Lang Zaimont, when I got married 53 years ago, something happened. I thought a little bit about what it meant to change that alphabetic positioning. So I signed my pieces.
FJO: You’re in a line for something, whether it’s for voting or attending a conference, and it’s like A to L and then M to Z, and Z is all the way at the end. To go from L to Z is quite a jump.
JLZ: Yup. But I signed it that way because I think of it as a truly representative piece of mine. You alluded before when we were talking about painters and commissions to the fact that people only know who we have been. They don’t know who we will be in our artistic expression. We suffer a little bit, if you’ve been at this for a while, from being branded thus or such. And artists are not their brand. If you relax into that groove, beware. You will be forever Peter Max. You will be one model. So I’m very, very careful to be sure that all aspects of personality can come forward in the music. I also am of the belief that listeners really respond to and hold onto over time their response to what they’ve heard. It’s not even the thing itself. It’s how it made them respond, how they felt. Were they puzzled? Which is a beckon to come into the piece and hear it again.
But also, if they really felt like they loved it, will they love it the next time is the question. I have tried not to be branded. I take the long view being of age. I’ve watched a seasonal change in the music in this country. Sam Adler speaks about this in the forward to one of the later editions of his orchestration book. He speaks to the fact that what he thought was going to be American music in the first part of the 21st century is not what it is now. It has taken a turn. It keeps absorbing all kinds of influences, which means it’s a living thing. But it is also not the analyzed, written from, from head authority out to listener, take me in. It is more communal, and it has turned back toward tonality in really, really big ways. One can only muse about this. And be true to your own artistic personality, of course. But also think about the environment in which your new piece is going to come forward. I found some of my most liberating pieces to be pieces that were not commissions. But pieces written because I needed to scratch a bump of curiosity.
FJO: Ideally, the sweet spot is you convince somebody to commission that.
JLZ: If I only knew how.
FJO: The problem always with a piece that isn’t commissioned is it’s an orphan. So you have to get someone to adopt it. Part of the whole process of having someone commissioning a piece is that, that person, that conductor, that ensemble, that singer, that pianist, whoever it might be, feels a partial sense of: birthright, ownership, midwifery, whatever it may be—to that piece. And if the piece doesn’t have that, I’ve found in my own experience, it’s very hard to convince somebody that it could be theirs. The magic trick of how you make repertoire with multiple interpretations is that somehow you convince the players that that music can speak through them. And it’s theirs somehow.
JLZ: There are some conductors I wish would look in my direction. My Second and my Sixth symphonies were not commissioned pieces. The Second, one movement of it has been done a lot. The Elegy. But the outer movements were only done in Kharkov [Ukraine]. Not in this country. And of my Fourth Symphony, only one movement was played in this country. The Janáček Philharmonic recorded [all of] it. My Sixth Symphony, which is Symphony of Seasons, by the way, going back to that, that’s what you would call an orphan. And I’ve been jotting down ideas for the Seventh.
But I also wrote a piece because I was mystified by the music of two composers—mystified and bored. And I wanted to find out why I was mystified and bored. So I studied the music of these two composers, and used their techniques to write my 19-minute tone poem Stillness for orchestra. And lo and behold, a year after it was written, some conductor out here in the Southwest took it up and played the piece in public. Then it has been recorded by a European orchestra. You never know when somebody will chime to something they stumble over. This last year, I also wrote another piece, not commissioned, that was to do something that I felt was lacking in some of my other music. I consider stepping back. I consider my second string quartet A Strange Magic terrifically representative of my music. It’s frontal. It’s direct. It’s interruptive. It’s bold. But it has tenderness in it around the edges. That’s me in one vein. Then I wanted to write a piece that didn’t do that. I wanted a piece that would be a study in sustained resonance. So I wrote Tendrils for the instruments that are liquid and can combine—for flute, clarinet, and vibraphone. Turns out that piece is going to be premiered this month in Florida. You never know. You never know when following your own pathway is something that somebody else will chime to. You never know.
FJO: That’s true. And, of course, there are these stories of composers in the Soviet Union who wrote music for the trunk as it were. And these pieces were not done and years later, we’ve discovered Galina Ustvolskaya’s music which is amazing.
JLZ: Right. Right. She’s an amazing composer.
FJO: Yeah. Incredible music, it’s terrific that those pieces have been rediscovered. Sad that it didn’t get the kind of notoriety, well it couldn’t, when a lot of those pieces were written. But you described Stillness and wanting to come to terms with two composers; you’ve got to tell us who they were.
JLZ: They are mystifying to me for different reasons. One of them is Frederick Delius, whose innate harmonic rhythm is just too slow for me. The rate at which his chords change is just too slow for me. I’m a fast, fast flapper I guess. The other composer is Morton Feldman. I need some sort of perceivable rhythmic track to follow. I don’t mean thumping. Far from it. But there are things about his music that just leave me to the side. So I wanted to do in places in this piece what these two people did, which was be long and be not far from immediate. Let’s put it that way. I sat down and did a chart. I do charts of other people’s periodicities.
I did all the development sections of all the Beethoven sonatas. All the sonata allegros movements. I wanted to clock how long his developments were proportionally, in relation to the opening and to the close of the sonata movement. This was before I wrote the Piano Concerto. And that was instructive. They change over time certainly. I did a chart of the last section of [Stravinsky’s] Firebird, because what I wanted were the statement lengths of each fragment. That’s what I wanted. And I had to shove that in the middle—something similar to that in the middle of Stillness in order for me to be satisfied that this was a piece of my music and not a piece strictly according to the precepts of those other composers. Does that make sense?
FJO: I love that you’ve done that. I didn’t know that you did that with the Beethoven sonatas. I love going on these listening binges, where I’ll listen sequentially to something over a long period of time. This last month, believe it or not, I finished listening to all the keyboard concertos of C.P.E. Bach. There are like 60 of them.
JLZ: He’s a good composer!
FJO: Yes, I agree.
JLZ: Wilhelm Friedemann is also excellent…
FJO: Yeah, fantastic. But this strikes to what you were saying before about getting typecast in a certain way. You listen to these [C. P. E. Bach] pieces, and they’re really good. But they’re all of a kind. He had a gig working for Frederick the Great, and then when he got to Hamburg, he was able to do other things. But then he stopped writing keyboard concertos.
FJO: He did other things. It’s interesting in light of that, getting back to what we were talking about earlier with titles, and you mentioning your Sixth Symphony, the problem with calling a piece Symphony No. 6 is the only thing it refers to is the fact that you wrote five other ones. So it automatically is referencing your past no matter what you do.
JLZ: Well I have only one sonata for piano.
FJO: I wish you had more. I want you to write more. I love that sonata.
JLZ: My four-hands piece, now there’s a case where the title really helps the listener and the performer. Snazzy Sonata for Four Hands.
FJO: That’s a really fun piece.
JLZ: Right. And I wrote that the year that we lived in France, and I was so homesick for America, and I really wanted to write a piece just for my sister and myself to play in our living room for our father, who was our best listener. He’s the one who took every Saturday and drove us into Juilliard Prep from eastern Queens into Juilliard, so that we could go for our complete Saturday there. Lessons and classes and what not. That’s such devotion. I wanted to give him back some music he would like, a brilliant engineer, and the former Water Commissioner for the City of New York under three different mayors.
JLZ: But his musical taste was big band music of the ‘30s and the ‘40s. That was it. So I wanted to write a piece of music he would understand. He used to come to all my concerts and applaud like crazy. And then he’d get this funny look on his face, like maybe he didn’t understand the music. I wanted to give him some music he’d understand. So I wrote a sonata for my sister and myself, and this piece is played around the world. Who knows?
FJO: Well, big band music of the ‘30s and the ‘40s. There’s a lot of great stuff there—Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, really stunning large-scale pieces, too. Really amazing orchestration. I feel like a lot of that music somehow does seep into your music harmonically. Clearly it’s indebted to European classical music. I know in this recent essay you wrote about being a composer without adjectives. But your music is clearly the work of an American composer who is immersed in many different stylistic idioms. And I think of all the rags you wrote that are so effectives, but the jazz harmonies wind up in places, pop harmonies even. There’s this piano suite of yours that has a movement that’s even called—
JLZ: “Pop Style.” Yeah.
FJO: Yes. And it clearly has that sound world and hey, that’s wonderful. You know, I love those harmonies. What’s wrong with them?
JLZ: I think they’re great. Maybe it’s because I come from playing an instrument that has a harmonic dimension to it. I do gravitate to mediums where there’s coherence up to down and across the entire register. That’s what I love about symphonic strings, or about string quartet. And it’s something that I needed to contend with in the music that I wrote for symphonic wind ensemble or for band. You really have to deal with striated colors and the whole question of differing tone weights for the instruments. My symphony for wind orchestra in three scenes starts with the movement that I called Growler because it’s fierce.
I heard the opening, the first 30 seconds, I heard it in my head in a flash. When I sat down to write it, I said aha. This is gonna be played by wind ensembles. They live in the universities. I want everybody’s attention up front. So I wanted to load the instruments on almost as soon as I could, but in order of their relative tone weights. So the heaviest brass come in at the end. And the whole thing is loaded from the high wind sound. There’s a percussion bed. From the high wind sound, you watch the horns and saxes get added in. Then the lower instruments. The trumpets are the last ones in. So the idea was to deal with this as a presentation of what this first 30 seconds of what wind ensemble offers the composer, but also what we need to be sensitive to. That was an interesting problem to solve. You always want a piece to solve a problem, and then go on from there. Not to repeat yourself. Do something else.
FJO: Now once again with that piece, with the symphony, I noticed with several pieces we were talking about before, we were talking about the Second Symphony, the string orchestra symphony, Elegy has a life on its own, which is great, because it’s so beautiful. It’s such a moving, gorgeous piece, but yeah, it’s frustrating that there’s a recording that has two movements of that symphony, but I still haven’t heard one of the other movements. The last movement of that piece. And the symphony for wind instruments, which I imagine is the Third Symphony, there’s only one movement that’s been recorded.
JLZ: Right. That’s the way it happened. The Third Symphony’s been done both in this country and in England. So it had its life and I happened to be at wonderful live performance of the last movement. The Tarantelle. That’s really tricky. That wind ensemble really pulled it off. It was excellent. Uh, it’s life. Things happen. Things don’t happen. You move onto the next. My job is to make the music. It’s not to flog it, get it out there and flog it in public.
FJO: But it’s great that you constructed these pieces so that parts of them can exist on their own.
JLZ: Oh yeah. I know reality.
FJO: Well, I’m gonna be flogging this repertoire, because there are a lot of these pieces I want to hear that I haven’t heard. And there’s an early piece of yours, your first large-scale work that I’ve only heard six excerpts from, because that’s all that’s available, that’s all that’s been done, your Sacred Service. There’s only the excerpts that were recorded by James Maddalena with Gerry Schwartz.
JLZ: Believe it or not, that’s a bicentennial commission. This piece is, my goodness, 45-years old. I would love to have the [whole] Sacred Service recorded. It has some good music in it. And it is deeply meaningful to me as Jew. This is the third reform service. It’s a Friday night service, not a Saturday morning service and people have really responded to some of the movements.
I could identify the pieces of mine that I think are representative and it’s important for a composer to know oneself. Ned Rorem once wrote that a composer has three arrows in his quiver, and he shoots them over and over again. I took that as a challenge. I think we have a lot more to offer than three veins in which we operate. And I sincerely hope that over time, people will come, those people who know my music might decide to nod to that, that I have a little more to offer than just three things that I do and do them over and over again in different combinations. It’s hard sometimes to tell a composer’s personality. Might we chat a bit about this?
JLZ: You were talking about C.P.E. Bach’s keyboard concerti. He’s writing at a time when form is getting pretty codified. Not finally, but somewhat. It was somewhat easier I think to write at a time when you knew the size of the envelope you were going to fill, and it needed to follow a form that was thus and such. Balanced or unbalanced forms. My affinity is not for people who use received forms. When I’ve used a received form, I’ve always felt limited, like in the first movement of the Piano Concerto. I always felt limited by that. My piano solo Sonata has an opening movement that isn’t sonata allegro; it has three themes, not two. And mostly, I have been drawn to the music of transitional composers who are inventing form along with innovating new sounds. People like Berlioz, or Scriabin, or Stravinsky whose forms are not received forms. And I guess Brahms opened the door to all of us with continuous variation. There’s a beckoning finger if there ever was one. And it’s in line with what I felt from Chopin in that early encounter with the Berceuse that was you don’t have to do it the same way every time. You don’t have to do it anybody else’s way. Do it your own way. And if other people understand that, fine. If they like it. Fine. If they don’t like it, fine. If they don’t understand it, maybe you can help them to understand it a little bit. Or not. Leave it as an enigma. I don’t know. I do know that audiences respond to program notes.
FJO: I think the thing with program notes is it really helps ground people because we might know what lies behind that music, but there’s no chord that means I’m hungry now. There’s no chord that means table. This is something Ned Rorem has talked about actually. Music doesn’t mean anything except a reference back to itself. So getting back to calling something simply symphony number four, to use an example in your music, doesn’t quite cut it. Whereas, what you decided to do instead with all of these references to water I think really is much more meaningful.
JLZ: Well, the title of the symphony is Pure, Cool (Water). That’s the title. Symphony No. 4 is a subtitle. Each movement has its own different state of water. I live now in Arizona. We are very sensitive to water shortages out here. My home is in the middle of a rural county in Arizona, in what is essentially a desert. I live between two Native American reservations in a city that has grown hugely since we came out here in 2005. And we deal with water shortages all the time. So there was that. And this symphony was written in Arizona. It’s a symphony from 2014.
FJO: I think that means so much more to an audience hearing that than: is this a sonata allegro or is this developmental variation? Some people are going to get it, but to really reach everybody, especially that first time around, if there’s a back story to something that you can you share, I think it brings people in, and ideally we want to bring people in. I would hope.
JLZ: I attended the premiere of a composer’s third symphony, a composer whom I will not identify. I was sitting up in the balcony because I came late and had to grab whatever seat I could get. The piece was done to close the first half, and the audience was applauding, greatly applauding, and I had thought to myself as I heard this piece, the slow movement sounded an awful lot like outtakes from Khatchaturian’s Gayanne ballet, the slow movement from that. But you could only have that reference if you knew the earlier piece. So the gentleman seated in front of me stood up and was applauding loudly. And when intermission came, I asked to speak with him, and I asked him what was it about the piece that grabbed him. And what he did was quote the program note to me. And that let me appreciate anew how very important people find what we ourselves say because you have to have a pathway in to listening. We started by talking about the performers’ pathway in. Listeners need a pathway in. And part of that goes back to why I choose programmatic titles. They help to ready you for what the piece might be.
FJO: Exactly. I want to talk a little bit more about that essay you shared with me. There is a quote that I jotted down that I particularly love from the very beginning that I think sets the whole thing up: that you feel your job as a composer is to imagine what might be. Which I think really is about being open to a new thing, a new idea and possibility. That it’s never about resting on your laurels. It’s never about continuing along the same path. It’s about being on this path and discovering something when you’re on that path.
JLZ: Amen. You said it, you said it exactly. Not ever to spin your wheels. Not ever to write out of your hip pocket. The psychologist Rollo May has a book called The Courage to Create. He talks about the creative experience as being like Jacob wrestling with the angel in the Old Testament. It is time out of time. The rest of the world falls away. It is only that activity. If each piece isn’t a struggle to do, you’ve got to question how valid it is when you’ve done part of it. You have to question what’s going on. Being true to yourself, being immersed in the entirety of writing a new piece. Of imagining it, and then grabbing it and putting it on paper. This does take time out of time. That’s one other thing I should say. We’ve had all kinds of television contests, cooking contests, clothes designing contests. There was even one on cable TV, sponsored by a well-known actress that was supposed to be a painter’s contest. They’d set them a task to do, and a time limit in which to do it. And what happens then is that your old grooves come back. Your defaults come in. You do what you know you can do. So it’s not maybe inspired to the nth degree. And if you can’t feel on the far side of the piece when it’s done, and you’re really ready to let it off your desk, when you can’t make it any better, if you can’t feel that that piece is worthy to hold your name, then trash it. I’ve trashed pieces when I came to the far end. I’ve done it.
FJO: One of the things I’ve found so amazing is you mentioned that you finally got your bearing with writing for string quartet in your 60s.
FJO: You’d written a string quartet decades earlier, but you took it out of your catalogue.
JLZ: I took that out of my catalogue. The first Piano Concerto I took out of my catalogue. The world doesn’t need those pieces. Listen. Any world that values repeated listenings to the music of Ditters von Dittersdorf—that’s fine; that’s not my world. Those older pieces don’t cut it as far I’m concerned. I’m constantly going back and making sure that what I put forward is the best that I can do under the circumstances.
FJO: There’s a last area that I want to talk to you a little bit about even though you know we’re resisting labels.
JLZ: Talk about gender?
FJO: Yeah, there’s a reason. Not specifically about you, but I think people need to acknowledge all of the great work that you have done—that you did early on—on behalf of other composers, on behalf of other female composers. You were a catalyst for making people aware of all of this music, and I think that that’s something that a lot of people need to be aware of and remember.
JLZ: Thank you for saying that. It just comes from respecting the entire history of music. That’s really it. What incensed me, what really got me started, I looked around and this was in New York in the ‘70s. I looked around and there were a whole group of women writing music. I thought to myself: Gee, that’s wonderful. I didn’t know the name of any composer who was female when I was growing up. I played Cecile Chaminade’s Scarf Dance. I thought it was a misprint for Cecil Chaminade. I didn’t know. Nobody ever told me that any women wrote music. Did it stop me? No. I knew I was born to write music. Didn’t matter to me.
I could speak to Schubert, and Chopin, and Scriabin in my head. That’s fine. Berg in my head, that’s fine. They spoke to me through their notes on the page. But I saw there was a whole cohort of women who were writing music. Some of it was good, some of it wasn’t. So there are two things that get me. I’m always a huge critic. What I wanted to do was separate the wheat from the chaff. Not to talk about a whole group because you find the details get lost. And I heard from a couple of outstanding female composers. That what they were not getting in the critical press was attention to the actual stuff of the music. There were all of these other issues that cloud around and you want to get past the whole issue of gender, which doesn’t matter. That was one thing.
The second thing was I started to learn the history of music that had been written in times past by women. And I started to play this music. I got to the music of Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, who is a great composer. I got to her music, and I found that nobody knew this, none of the harpsichordists I knew were playing this stuff. They didn’t know her name. They didn’t know when she lived. They didn’t know that she was a favorite in the French court of Louis XV, and a protégé of Madame de Pompadour. They didn’t know any of this. I looked at some of the later work of Fanny Hensel. I got to play a few things by [Louise] Farrenc, a conservative composer, or Lili Boulanger, Rebecca Clarke; these people were not in the history books. They were not there. Generations of the present moment weren’t knowing about them.
So it just seemed right to me to weigh in and take time away from my own music to write all those books, to be the editor-in-chief of all those books for Greenwood Press. So that we would fill in the gaps that still existed. Women have such talents. Such abilities. Such far horizons. The world needs to know about what they have accomplished and appreciate it. I got letters from some of the standing composers whom we profiled in the critical appraisals sections of the books, the Musical Woman books, to thank me for finally having been able to engender these really critical articles dealing with the stuff of their music. Not who they were as a person. Whether they were married or had children, how old they were. That they were women in a man’s world. None of that. Deal with their music. That’s why I did that. I set my own creative work aside to do this because somebody needed to step up and do it. I was semi-outfitted to be able to. I’m very grateful to the music that these people wrote, that it is now in the world. And it is least spoken of once people turn their heads to column B. The thing I don’t like is being a column B composer. I don’t want to wait until you get adjective before the world composer. Before you think Judith Lang Zaimont. Think of me right up there. I sit at Chopin’s—just behind Chopin, I can’t sit at his shoulder. I sit back there a ways. But I’m on the stage.
FJO: But of course, with the letter Z, it’s the end of the alphabet.
JLZ: Yes. Yes. Yes.