Margaret Brouwer: Multiple Planes
Margaret Brouwer’s unapologetically polystylistic compositions are a personal response to centuries of music. Read the interview…
I’ve known Margaret Brouwer for over a decade, and her music slightly longer than that. I first became aware of her eclectic chamber music compositions through a disc issued toward the end of the era of Composers Recordings, Inc. (CRI), which was luckily made available again a few years back by New World Records. That disc was a difficult one for me to wrap my brain around stylistically since it featured a sumptuous, almost neo-romantic string quartet, a populist-sounding clarinet concerto, a solid neo-classical horn sonata, and a bizarre solo flute piece involving loops and spoken text. A few years later another disc of chamber music appeared, this time on New World, featuring three more gorgeous quartets including another gem for string quartet, as well as a formidable nearly 20-minute piano solo, plus a fascinating vocal work for solo soprano accompanied by the ubiquitous “Pierrot” ensemble of flute, oboe, violin, cello, percussion and keyboard—only Brouwer’s keyboard was harpsichord. And in 2006, a third disc—this one devoted to her orchestral music and featuring a percussion concerto with Evelyn Glennie—appeared on Naxos American Classics, and it is every bit as heterogenous as its predecessors.
As the years went by, I would frequently see Margaret at concerts all over New York even though she was primarily based in Cleveland. I later learned that she tries to hear as much music as she can wherever she is, which probably ought to have already been clear to me from the broad aesthetic range of the music on those three recordings. A few years ago I visited Cleveland for the first time and had the pleasure of hearing her Violin Concerto in two separate venues—it was being performed by CityMusic Cleveland, a group that presents free orchestra concerts in a wide range of neighborhoods in the Greater Cleveland area. I was curious about how the same piece would sound in different spaces and it offered me a rare opportunity to dig deeper into a new work than hearing a one-off premiere. It was also the first time I’d ever heard a work of hers performed live, and it was a sonic revelation for me and everyone else in those halls whose response was absolutely euphoric.
So when I finally had the opportunity to sit with Margaret and have an extended talk with her about her music, just days after the premiere of her Viola Concerto by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, it wasn’t much of a surprise to hear her talk about music’s emotional power, her love of timbre, her orchestrational strategies that are conceived to have maximum impact in concert halls, or her wide-ranging listening habits. That’s not to say there weren’t some surprises, like how composing became an obsession that made her give up a lucrative career as an orchestral violinist, or that she toured with Johnny Mathis and Tony Bennett, and how she recorded music for radio commercials and some of the rhythms she played in those settings left an indelible impression on her that still surface in her music from time to time, even when she’s juggling twelve-tone rows (she still uses them!) and tonality.
Margaret Brouwer writes music that exists on multiple planes. It is crafted to stir your emotions as well as to provoke your intellect. It is unapologetically polystylistic and an extremely personal response to centuries of music, and in so being is very much music of our own 21st century.
[Conversation transcribed and edited by Frank J. Oteri and John Lydon]
Frank J. Oteri: Usually when we have a conversation with someone for NewMusicBox, we totally immerse ourselves in that person’s work. We listen to everything going all the way back to beginning. We treat it the way a museum does a retrospective exhibition. And from that immersion, a narrative usually emerges that gets fleshed out in the conversation. But when I tried to do the same thing in preparation for talking with you, I soon discovered that there’s nothing by you out there that’s earlier than the 1980s.
Margaret Brouwer: I don’t think there’s anything recorded—certainly not anything people could listen to—that’s any earlier than that. I wrote some things way back in high school and in college. In fact, in the summers when I was in college, I worked at various places where what I did was write music. But it was for amateurs. One summer I still remember, I worked at an inner-city church in the Hough area of Cleveland as a music director. We did different things all summer, different big productions. But the one that I remember that turned out really well was a sort of multimedia extravaganza based on the story of Job. There was a speaking chorus, a singing chorus, and singing soloists. Then God and the Devil were represented by dancers that were behind a scrim, and there was miked voicing coming over for them. It turned out pretty well, but we didn’t record it. Those were the kinds of things I was doing.
But I always thought I’d be a violinist. I was writing music and doing these creative projects, but it was just something to do for fun. My family always thought I’d be a violinist, and I studied violin from a very early age. I was a performance major in college at Oberlin Conservatory, and my undergrad degree was in violin performance. And so when I started out, I was playing the violin, although I was doing some writing. And I was writing quite a bit until two children came along. Shortly after that I was on my own raising the kids. So with making ends meet financially, which I was doing playing the violin, I wrote, but not a whole lot for probably five or six years. First I played in the Fort Worth Symphony and I also played in the Fort Worth Opera Orchestra. It was a terrific opera company. And I was doing a lot of freelancing, playing with visiting pop artists. They would hire string players in Texas. I actually went on tour with Johnny Mathis throughout the whole Southwest; I was his concertmaster. The biggest memory, I suppose, was Tony Bennett. Playing three weeks of shows with him was just wonderful. His charts were terrific, as were Johnny Mathis’s. So then I started getting asked to play in the recording industry in Dallas, which was actually very busy at that time. They were still hiring string players back then. I understand now that that’s completely dried up; they’re just using synthesizers. But at that time they paid really really well for a very small amount of time. You’d go in for an hour session and you’d usually be finished in ten minutes, because it was for sixty-second spots. But I could recognize on a station ID or a commercial when it was the Dallas Strings; we had a special sound.
So [after about four years] I quit Fort Worth [Symphony] and was just doing the freelancing in order to have more time to compose. My children were still really young and I was trying to fit in more time. But then they were short on violins in the Dallas Symphony, so I was hired to play in all the subscription concerts. I even toured with them and played in Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. But more and more it was dragging on me that I didn’t have time to compose. And I did have some things performed, but I don’t think we ever made a recording of any of it. It was done by musician friends of mine. I did write a couple of pieces for Ellen Rose, who just last week premiered my Viola Concerto with the Dallas Symphony. One of the pieces that I wrote for her I actually loved; it has a lot of extended techniques in it, lots of George Crumb-like sounds. It turned out really well but I’d forgotten about it until right now [laughs].
But anyway, it was bothering me so much that I wasn’t getting to write; even though I loved playing the violin, I loved composing more. I loved the creativity of composing. Playing in an orchestra is very gratifying, but what makes a good orchestra is if all the strings completely give up their own individuality and personality and sound [in order] to blend, so you can get this wonderful sound of a whole section with no one sticking out trying to be soloistic. Even in the recording industry, where we’d rewrite things sometimes on the spot when they weren’t working (as a composer I loved that).
So I quit everything and went back to Indiana University to get my doctorate. The musicians were just shocked; they couldn’t believe that I would quit, because I was making a good living. It was kind of crazy, but in the end it has worked out. I’m really happy. It took me about three years to get up my nerve to do it. I saved up money. My kids and I lived on savings the whole time I was getting my doctorate. Then, luckily, I was able to get a job immediately afterwards teaching composition, and that’s my life.
FJO: Your family always thought you’d be a violinist, and you actually had a successful career. But you weren’t satisfied because you wanted to compose music. So where did that desire come from? What was your exposure to other composers? What was your association with being a composer that made you do it the first time and then keep wanting to do it?
MB: That is really difficult to say. I lived a pretty sheltered life when I was growing up. But there was a lot of classical music in my home. My parents were both musicians. My dad was an amateur pianist and my mom a singer. But I didn’t even know when I was growing up that there was such a thing as a woman composer. So it took me a while to even think I could be a composer. I was pretty naïve, I guess; it seems like I should have thought of that sooner, but I didn’t. It was mostly that I just loved doing it and I had opportunities with different amateur groups and summer jobs—another one was at a camp where I was the music director and I put on these things that I wrote with the campers all summer. It was all amateurs and oftentimes young people, but I just loved doing it—creating things and then trying to get everybody to do it the way I had it in my head. And it just gradually evolved.
I don’t think there was an “a-ha!” moment, except for when I was doing all the violin playing and began to realize that I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life, to have my life be three-quarters violin playing and one-quarter composing. At that time, I was thinking one-quarter violin and three-quarters composing. But eventually, I had to give up playing the violin. I actually kept the violin up while I was getting my doctorate. In fact, one of the writers in the recording industry in Dallas gave my name to one of the recording companies in Indianapolis, and they were hiring me to go up and play sessions there, too, although it was a much smaller market. But once I started teaching, I was also getting commissions to compose. So I was trying to compose as well as teach composition and also play the violin. I wasn’t practicing until 11:00 at night. I’m a morning person so you can imagine me sitting with my back hurting trying to make myself practice music, because, at least for me, as a violinist, to have decent chops, I had to practice every day.
FJO: It’s interesting to me that when you decided you wanted to primarily be a composer rather than a violinist, the way you went about it was to get a PhD in composition. Rather than plunging yourself directly into the composing world, you created a life for yourself in academia, which wasn’t 100 percent composing. It was probably 50 percent, or even more than 50 percent, teaching others, which is very different from both composing and performing.
MB: My specific situation was that I was raising two kids. Had I been on my own, I might have tried to be just a freelance composer. And it probably would have worked. Sometimes I wonder. But I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to make ends meet financially. So I knew I had to get a doctorate. (It was a DMA, actually, that I got at IU.) Because I knew I had to teach. I wasn’t at all positive I’d be able to get a teaching job, because lots of composers who want to don’t get teaching jobs. I was really lucky to get one. I was sort of nervous about it the whole time I was getting the degree because the savings were going gradually down.
So I was probably spending as much time teaching composition as I would have been spending playing the violin. The only problem being that the practicing and the composing are so similar in some respects. They both require loads of energy, dedication, and discipline. To be a composer, you have to make yourself go in and write every day, at least I do. Same thing with playing the violin: I had to make myself practice every day. And I only had so much discipline. I’m not really disciplined in any other part of my life, actually. I use up all my discipline in making sure I compose what I need to each day, and before, in making sure I practiced. But I didn’t have enough discipline in my life to do both.
FJO: But it would seem to me that teaching also requires loads of energy, dedication, and discipline—being responsible for others, keeping them interested, preparing materials.
MB: Maybe you’re right. But it’s different because you’re with other people; you’re not all by yourself. That’s a lot of hours to spend in a room by yourself if you’re spending three or four hours composing and a couple of hours practicing every day. The really good thing about teaching was that my students and my colleagues became like my family.
FJO: So maybe it’s not so much about discipline as it is about being in a social milieu versus being isolated. I’m a very social person, so it’s always a struggle for me to do something completely by myself which is usually a necessity for composing. But interestingly enough, I’ve seen you for years on the scene in the whole social milieu of the new music scene, both when you came to New York and the times I’ve visited Cleveland—you’re a voracious concertgoer. You seem to be always listening to music and absorbing it. Even if I didn’t know that from frequently running into you over the years, I could hear that voraciousness in your music; it feeds the music you create. But it’s a double-edged sword. It makes your music more connected to the world we live in, but it also reduces your composing time, because the more time you spend listening to the music of others, the less time you have to create your own music.
MB: But you can’t spend all day long writing music. I guess some people do, but for me I’m completely intensely focused and into it for maybe three hours and then I get sort of burned out. What I can do is write in the mornings. Sometimes I write for four hours, maybe five, but then I really need time off. Sometimes I’ll go back to it late in the day. For some reason, it’s very strange, but it seems like my most creative time is right around dinner time. But I definitely need the time off. When I was going to concerts when I was teaching, I think that part of it was discipline, too. I wanted to be well informed.
One thing that I really did emphasize with my students was that I didn’t expect them to write in one style. I really liked to encourage them to try styles and find a style that was their expression. So at the Cleveland Institute of Music, composers all had extremely different styles, from really atonal to basically tonal, and I liked that. I like that going to a concert, too. I like the variety of hearing a lot of different styles, and I actually think that’s one of the strengths of the 21st century so far. There are quite a few styles that are viable and where people can actually get commissions. They can even teach. There was a time when you had to pretty much write in one or two styles in order to get a teaching job. So I think that’s really positive. And it’s important to stay informed. But of course when I was teaching it probably really did take away from composing time. When I’d come to New York and go to concerts, I did some writing but not as much as I can do now that I’m not trying to fit in teaching, too.
FJO: Your music has been informed by so many spheres of influences. You grew up in a musical household. Then you had a career as an orchestral violinist, which gave you the opportunity to hear music from the inside of it. Then there’s the influence of some very formidable composition teachers, such as Donald Erb and George Crumb. Finally your own experience of teaching, where you’re imparting your knowledge and experience but you’re also constantly hearing what others are doing. Plus you make it a point to attend tons of concerts. So you’ve been exposed to an ocean of information from a variety of sources. And perhaps that is why your own music is so difficult to glibly pin down to a sound-bite description.
MB: Maybe so. I know that some composers really took on the style of their teachers and many composers adhere to one style. My philosophy, now anyway, is as a composer in the 21st century. I’m thinking, “What is the music of the 21st century?” And I know it’s different for many people, which I think is terrific. But one of the things that really strikes me is that we’ve got all these periods of music behind us. When you take Bach or Mozart, they were studying the composers from earlier periods but they didn’t have half as many composers to look at as we do. We’ve got all this music. And you’re right, I played a lot of that music. As a violinist, I played a lot of the solo violin literature, chamber music, and also lots and lots of orchestral music. So I know all of that music well. Maybe better than a lot of composers do who haven’t played an orchestral instrument. But my feeling is that what I need to do as a 21st-century composer is look at all the styles from the past, just like Mozart did, except I’ve got a lot more to look at, and somehow find a way to be influenced or to bring elements from that music into my music.
The 20th century is a period of music now. When laypeople who aren’t composers say “contemporary music,” they mean the music that was being written in the early 20th century. That’s what I find when I delve deeper into what they’re talking about, especially the ones who say they don’t like it. It turns out that it’s something from way, way, way, way back. That music began over a hundred years ago; that’s a long time ago. I’ve even been thinking about what we should be calling the different periods that happened during the 20th century, and as far as I’m concerned the 21st century is up for grabs right now. So my music is not only influenced by Renaissance and Romantic period music, but it has also been influenced by the contemporary period.
FJO: That’s interesting, because I hear more recent things in your music as well—there are vestiges of atonality and even hints of minimalism without the pieces actually being minimalist, perhaps just sharing a similar energy and propulsiveness. I find this particularly interesting because once upon a time, the aesthetics of atonality and minimalism were so opposed to each other. Now it is possible to write music that can go beyond both of those concepts and not be particularly beholden to either aesthetic, but which also could not have existed had those movements not happened. But, if I could make a generalization, especially now that I know that you worked with Johnny Mathis and Tony Bennett, all of what we’re talking about so far has been in the realm of classical music. So while you may not be identifying yourself as belonging to any camp within classical music, you can’t deny that you are in the camp of classical music, vis-à-vis other genres and styles.
MB: I think of myself as an avant-garde composer. But that again is another term that has so many meanings to different people. For me, I use a lot of extended techniques in my music, some pieces more than others. There’s not a load of extended techniques in the Viola Concerto, but there are some, especially in the last movement. And some of my chamber music has a lot of it. I love the sounds. I love traditional sounds, the way each individual instrument sounds playing the normal, classical way, but I also love the unusual combinations of instruments to try to get new colors and I love using the instruments with extended techniques to get entirely new sounds from those instruments. I often get together with musicians when I can to try to make new sounds.
So there’s that, and the idea of combining contemporary sounds with very old sounds. In the Viola Concerto, the first movement has quotes from the Gregorian chant “Ubi Caritas.” I love the way that sounds, to have this very modal chant juxtaposed with very contemporary sounds. There’s actually a twelve-tone row in that concerto, which I made out of the “Ubi Caritas”—it only uses six pitches, four for the most part but a couple of times the fifth and the sixth pitches come in, and then I add the other pitches. And in my Violin Concerto, which probably people would think of as tonal, there’s a twelve-tone row that runs all the way through it. In fact, the violin states the row in the first two and a half measures of the concerto. One of the parts that I like the best in the Violin Concerto is that in the slow movement, which is basically tonal, there’s a place where the violin is playing the twelve-tone row while woodwinds are playing tonal chords. I love the way that sounds. I like mixing. To me, that’s what I love to do as a 21st-century composer. And to me, that seems avant-garde.
FJO: But all these things we’ve been talking about—concertos, twelve-tone rows—these are classical music paradigms. But then you’ve also done this crazy multimedia piece with the video artist Kasumi. That piece seems more avant-garde somehow. You called it an opera, which is also a classical music paradigm, but it in no ways resembles operas as most people perceive the term.
MB: We called it a sample-based opera.
FJO: And the Violin Concerto is actually informed by recent sample-based pop music, even though it doesn’t sound like that music, for the most part, these are sounds that were in your head when you wrote the piece. So I’d like to talk with you a bit about the influences of music from genres outside of classical music. Where do you see your music fitting it with these other kinds of music? You listen to all this music, because you have an open ear, but you identify yourself as being a classical composer.
MB: I’m in the classical music camp. That’s what I know. That’s what I’ve spent my life doing. I played in a string quartet for years, and I played orchestra music. So that is the base of what I’m doing. But my music is definitely influenced by all the other things I’ve done, like playing in those recording sessions. Those were really good writers that we had in Dallas. They did some really terrific stuff. And a lot of it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t just background music. Some of the rhythms that I learned playing in the recording industry, as well as playing with jazz groups, I still use. In fact, shortly after I left there, I wrote a brass quintet called Timespan, and the last movement is miserably difficult—it’s fast and has a lot of sixteenth notes and constant changing meter, but it also has a lot of rhythms that we were playing in the recording industry. It all comes in and is all part of the layers of my music.
FJO: If there’s anything that most listeners associate with a genre of music, more than specific melodies, harmonies, or rhythms, it’s timbres. And the sounds that exist in much of today’s pop music genres are very different from the sounds typically associated with classical music in the past. Some of the same instruments might appear from time to time, but they’re treated in a different way. And the whole advent of electronic music affects not only the creation of new timbres but also the way old timbres are presented through various recording techniques as well as amplification and processing in live performance. In your apartment here you have an electronic keyboard which you’re obviously using to compose music, but you don’t really write music for it.
MB: I think I might have used it in one orchestral piece a long time ago. I do think I’m creating some new sounds, but they’re not the sounds that you’d hear in a rock group.
One of the things that people always comment to me about—and it’s also one of my real interests—is the colors that I get in an orchestra, even in the Viola Concerto, in which I was very careful to make sure you’d be able to hear the viola, and you can, so I’m happy. There was a composer there who told me my orchestration was flawless [laughs], but I’m also combining instruments in unusual ways. Another [composer] was trying to find out how I did one sound. I didn’t tell him, but obviously you can just look in the score and you’ll know. Some of the sounds maybe sound electronic, but I shouldn’t even say that because that’s not the sound that I’m looking for. I like ringing sounds. I like to use the instruments in a way where the sound will really just ring in the hall. That doesn’t always come through as well on recordings. But true, I’m not normally looking for the sounds of rock music, although my piece Sizzle was completely inspired by hearing rap music. It’s an orchestra piece, but when I was starting it I was driving the car a lot—I was living in Cleveland. And when you stop at a stop light, coming from the car next to you, you hear these rhythms. You hear the rhythm of the rap voice, even though you can’t hear the voice, and you can hear the bass rhythm. It’s booming out of the car next to you. It was that whole thing that’s really the whole basis of the piece. It starts very obviously in the beginning, I think anyway, and then everything evolves out of that.
Also, in my Clarinet Quintet, and in a lot of my recent music, there is some world music influence. That’s kind of an angry piece. One of the things that I ended up doing was putting in some quotes of typical American music, quotes from hymns actually, and melodies that were very influenced by Persian and other Muslim music—the intervals, and trying to get the freedom of the rhythm. There’s really no way that you can be exact, because it’s not the same scale, but there are a lot of melodies that are Eastern sounding. There is one place in there where I combined a hymn in three of the voices and the other two—the viola and the clarinet—play low and play a melody which is sort of a rendition of the Muslim Call to Prayer. There’s no way to make it sound exactly the same, but the sound of the viola and clarinet in unison is pretty interesting and sounds a little bit like a nasal singing voice. I love the way the combination came out—the tonal hymn that’s very rhythmical with this Muslim-Persian-sounding melody, that’s totally non-rhythmical. It’s actually a terrible place to put together for the group; they’re playing eighth note quintuplets half the time and things that have nothing to do with the rhythm going on. It’s pretty interesting the way it works.
FJO: I want to get back to those sounds you heard coming out from the car next to you driving in Cleveland. You turned that into Sizzle, but I doubt that anybody who is a listener of rap music would think that your music is in any way related to rap.
MB: Probably not, but I don’t know. It would be interesting.
FJO: It would be. But to take this timbre discussion to yet another place, one of my favorite pieces of yours is Light, which uses a harpsichord, an instrument I really love, but in a completely unexpected way. We’ve started talking about how timbres are signifiers of style.
MB: My style anyway.
FJO: Well, if we’re going to identify you as being in the camp of classical music, you are because of the instruments that you use. That’s the way that most listeners are going to be hearing it. They’ll hear an orchestra or a string quartet and think, “Oh, that’s classical music.” The harpsichord has an association with older classical music, with Baroque music, so when you throw in a harpsichord, you conjure up a sound world that evokes another era, deep in the past. But what you’ve done is create a piece for singer accompanied by one of the most characteristic ensembles of 20th century music, the “Pierrot plus percussion” ensemble of percussion, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and keyboard—with the keyboard player on harpsichord. So you’re throwing an 18th-century monkey wrench into this 20th-century ensemble. And sonically it’s hard to place, because a harpsichord is usually not in the same ensemble with percussion or even a clarinet.
MB: The commission for that was from the Cleveland Museum of Art. They had acquired this wonderful new harpsichord and they wanted to commission a piece that would feature it. They were doing a concert of my chamber music and so wanted to do this piece. Actually the harpsichord has never been one of my favorite instruments—sorry, I know it is yours—because there’s so little color variation. To me, color is the important thing with an instrument. So my initial feeling was: “Harpsichord? I don’t know!” But the harpsichordist they wanted to use was Jeannette Sorel, who is a fabulous player—she conducts Apollo’s Fire, which is a wonderful early music group. And they said I could add whatever other instruments I wanted, and they sort of thought it would be nice to have a soprano, and they wanted to use Sandra Simon, whom I also really love. That was a big plus, so I started thinking about what I could combine with a harpsichord to try some interesting colors that would be interesting because of the instruments I was mixing with it. So I decided on the Pierrot ensemble and definitely mallet instruments, because I was thinking that if I mix the harpsichord and the marimba playing the same material fading in and out, the color change would be interesting. Same with a vibraphone. And so there’s a lot of vibes and marimba in that piece.
In my Viola Concerto, too. A lot of the accompaniment in the places that are intimate, where I didn’t want her to have to play loud, are harp, marimba, and vibraphone. There’s a lot of vibraphone. There’s one place where the only instruments playing are the viola, accompanied by marimba with soft mallets—so you get that great tremolo sound where you don’t hear the attack—and harp. That is not typically orchestral; other viola concertos don’t use those instruments at all. But anyway, that also made it OK with the harpsichord, that challenge to think about sounds.
When I first start writing a piece and I know the instruments I’m going to write for, I spend a lot of time lying around daydreaming about the sounds I want to hear and I make lists of all the things I could do in the soft parts and in the loud parts with different combinations of instruments. And, of course, with the viola in the concerto, one of the crucial issues was what to use so that I wouldn’t cover up the viola. It’s this absolutely gorgeous instrument. And the violas in the string section of an orchestra are the guts, the inner backbone; they’re what gives this wonderful depth of sound. If you didn’t have the violas, you’d just have these thin violins and thin cellos and it wouldn’t be half as nice. But they also completely blend in. That’s their value in the orchestra—most of the time they’re blending. So how do you use a solo violist and get that wonderful gutsy, rich sound and those gorgeous low sounds without completely having it blend with other instruments? So a lot of the time that I spent in my daydream period was imagining how the viola would sound with, say, the harp and the marimba—I knew you’d hear it then—and also with the vibes which have a ringing quality which the viola doesn’t have. The viola has this rich, honey quality. And so they would be contrasting colors. And I use the brass a lot, the whole brass section, in accompaniment, too. And that worked. It didn’t cover up the viola.
FJO: I’m curious to hear more about these daydream periods. Some composers use generative processes. It was a particularly big part of 20th-century compositional activities—twelve-tone pitch matrixes, or the melodic and rhythmic cells from which many minimalist pieces begin, even the strategies determined beforehand for indeterminate pieces. But it sounds to me like the ideas that initiate a piece of music for you begin with timbre and the specific ways instruments combine with each other.
MB: It’s certainly a big part of it. But I don’t just sit down and start writing once I know the colors. I make big lists of the timbres, but I don’t use all of them. The next thing I do is spend a lot of time working on musical material, because usually my pieces start with one little idea that then expands and becomes the entire piece. So next I’ll come up with either a series of sonorities or some melodic material that the piece would go from. Then, at that point, I come up with a lot of different ways to use that material so that I would have all that to look at. I make a lot of graphs, little pictures. So if it’s a melody it would be a wavy line. And if there’s going to be big chords, I’ll have these dark lines. Or a might have a lot of little dots. [And I put it] all on a time line.
I’ve found that it’s good to make a bunch of those with a lot of different possibilities and then I can go through a ten-minute piece in ten seconds. I can see how it evolves. That’s not to say I always stick with my plan. If I’m writing and then I get some idea about how to develop that idea that I didn’t have before, and I think it’s better, I’ll just go in that direction. So there’s a lot of planning that goes in before I start to write a piece. And I plan how I use my materials pretty thoroughly. Lately I’ve been using twelve-tone rows some, although it’s true that I like to use thirds, fourths, and fifths which make it sound tonal. The plan is not tonal at all, occasionally maybe I’ll have a cadence that sounds pretty tonal but oftentimes those cadences are planned in other ways. Usually the way these sonorities go from one to another is some other plan entirely from a traditional tonal plan. I don’t think I’ve ever planned chords according to what one would learn in music theory.
FJO: But I would have thought from hearing the results of your pieces, which are often so emotionally driven, that there was a lot more intuition in your methods than it sounds like there is.
MB: There’s intuition, too, once I actually start writing. One thing that I learned from Don Erb that is absolutely crucial, even though my style is probably not much like his except for some of the big orchestral moments, is the pacing of a piece. When do events change? If you’re having a big build up, how long does that build up last? I’m very much a goal-oriented composer; I’m not Eastern at all. I like to feel like the music is moving forward and going somewhere. And so if you’re going toward this goal, and it’s getting bigger and bigger, how long do you stay there before it goes back down or changes to something else? That’s the kind of thing that Don Erb always stressed a lot. But where the intuition comes in is I go through the piece from the beginning in my head every day. This is why I’m always printing things out, because I’ll sit with the score, going through it in time. Sometimes I’ll even use a metronome to make sure I’m not slowing down, because I learned when I heard things performed that the first part always seemed slow. I realized what I was doing was going faster in the beginning and as I got into music I didn’t know as well I was slowing down a little bit in my head. I do feel that you have to go through it even though it gets a little boring when it is ten minutes long to start at the beginning and go through it. But if you don’t, it may not make sense musically. But I’m using my intuition as to how long a thing should be or when things should change. And when I go through [a score], I’m always changing little things about the rhythm in a melody. I’ve probably got 25 to 30 different versions of most melodies I’ve written. I don’t just write it down and that’s it. I play with the rhythm and I play with the intervals a lot. Even sometimes when I’m ten minutes into a piece and there’s one spot in the beginning that still doesn’t feel like it flows, I’ll x one measure as I’m going in time and then later I go back and fiddle. Maybe I’ll change a quarter [note] to a dotted quarter, or maybe I’ll change a 4/4 bar to a 5/4 bar and then I’ll try that for a couple of days as I’m going through it. I’m kind of anal about all this. I just keep working at it until it suits my intuition.
FJO: To take that then to the people who perform your music, how malleable can your initial notions become once your music is in the hands of someone else? You’re willing to entertain the notion that an initial idea you have might not work and you’ll revise it many times until it feels right to you. But are you willing to be equally flexible about a piece once it’s out of your hands and an ensemble or a conductor feels that something isn’t working. You go through so many possibilities, perhaps others are as a viable as the one you opted to put forward. Is the one you ultimately choose the only one that’s right? How wedded are you to your final score?
MB: The final one is the one I like the best, otherwise I would have stuck with one of the earlier ones. But it is true that in working with performers, if there’s that luxury of working long enough before that you can change something, sometimes I do change something. If it isn’t working for the musicians, there’s no point in leaving it. Usually it’s little changes. It might be a change of adding a beat or slowing something down, or whatever. But I do write in tempo changes. If I’m thinking of a ritard, it’s usually all written out, and musicians have learned that. They’ll say, “I think this should have a ritard, don’t you?” And I’ll say, “Well, actually, it’s already written in the music.” I guess the reason I do that is that sometimes people don’t play the ritard even though I feel like there should be one. I used to write a lot of music that used proportional notation and the problem was I was always saying, “Hold this note a little longer. Play that one a little faster.” And I thought, “This is ridiculous. I might as well write it all out.” I’m usually pretty definite about how I think things should go. But it doesn’t always end up that way in performance.
FJO: This seems a good time to ask you about the intent of your music versus the sonic result. We’ve had several conversations over the past few years about angry music. I’m not sure how much of that translates to listeners unless they read what you’ve written about the music or hear what you have said about it in a pre-concert talk. But I’m curious about what got you interested in wanting to write angry music and what your expectations are for the listener.
MB: When 9/11 happened I was working on a commission. Luckily I was only a couple of minutes into the piece; I couldn’t go on with it. There is very much an emotional and expressive element in my music and I am definitely expressing myself in my music. And I was in a different frame of mind after 9/11 and I couldn’t write the piece I was writing. So I started another piece and it became a very sad piece. It’s called Lament. And it has four movements. The big movement in it is the slow movement, which is also called “Lament.” It’s a downer piece in some respects. But it kept striking me that I wasn’t writing angry music. I tried but I didn’t know how to do it. Then I realized I’d never written angry music. Then I realized that I don’t know how to express anger when speaking, either. It’s just not part of my nature. So I studied a bunch of books about expressing anger.
Then I wrote a piece called Declaration for soprano, violin, and piano. But there I had a text. I picked either sad or angry texts. That worked really well. In fact, that was the first piece I finished that’s serial—twelve-tone. There’s one really angry text by Alice Walker and it worked just perfectly to use twelve-tone. So it was not too difficult to write angry music with a text.
The next piece I was due to write was the Clarinet Quintet. And I really wanted to see if I could add anger to my palette. So in the first movement I wrote really angry music. And the second movement ended up being [based on] one of the sad movements from the [Declaration] songs. I did an instrumental version. It still has a lot of the same sonorities and melodies, but it also has more instrumental stuff. But, anyway, Dan Silver had commissioned this piece and he was going to premiere it in Cleveland with the Cavani String Quartet. The year before that, the Cavani were out in residence where he teaches, at Colorado State, so they decided they’d learn what they had while they were there. And they decided to give a preview of these two movements. So we did it in a classroom with a little audience and I absolutely hated the first movement. It was just these real gritty, dissonant chords grinding your heel into the ground all the way through the movement. So I decided that that wasn’t the way I wanted to express anger. It was kind of a learning process. Luckily, the musicians were willing to throw that away, even though they’d spent a long time on it because it was hard. So I wrote a new first movement for them. And that one I’m much happier with. It’s more assertive, and sometimes kind of aggressive. It has a lot of very atonal music in it, but somehow it works.
FJO: So does atonal equal angry? Do you think that in the 21st century that people will still associate certain intervals with certain moods, like major triads are happy and minor triads are sad?
MB: I’ve written atonal things that weren’t the least bit angry. I think it depends entirely on your row, the pitches that you pick. But it can give you chords that are dissonant and that sound angrier than chords that are consonant. I do think that. I’m a firm believer in music affecting the body. I had one person tell me once that she was always going home physically sick after [attending] concerts of mostly atonal stuff. I think that certain intervals resonate with the body. The Greeks, of course, were dealing in modes, but they had all these rules that there were certain modes that statesmen and athletes couldn’t listen to, and should listen to some others because some would not give them the right frame of mind and others would. That’s putting it very simply. And maybe it’s not true for everyone. You’re looking very skeptical so it must not be true for you. [laughs] But I think it is true for me. I really do have a physical reaction to music, and I think one of the strengths of music is that it speaks at a different level from words. And it affects you in a different way than having a word conversation. And what I love about art music, or classical music—maybe I shouldn’t narrow it down that much—what’s great about a lot of music is that you hear it on two planes: you hear it in your body but it also goes to your brain because it stimulates your intellect. There are a lot of things to think about and understand, but at the same time you’re having a physical reaction, too.
FJO: There have been so many instances of this idea around the world. You mentioned the ancient Greeks. In India, for centuries, certain ragas have only been played at certain times of the day. And in the most basic clichéd way, in the West we delineate between major being happy and minor being sad. But all of these things seem culturally specific rather than inherent in the music itself. How much of this stuff is nature, how much is nurture? Can there really be human universals with this sort of idea?
MB: My goodness. I’m not the right person to answer that. I haven’t studied this scientifically. It would actually make a really interesting study for someone, but I just know for myself and also for other people who’ve basically said the same thing to me that it seems true. It’s an observation more than a scientific study on my part.
FJO: So to ponder the future, the world is a changing place. We talked about audiences for classical music versus audiences for other kinds of music. But nowadays everything is blurring and morphing. Thanks to technology, the world is more interconnected than it has ever been. Once upon a time you might have been able to come up with someone who had never heard a major or minor triad. I remember having a conversation decades ago about whether someone in Indonesia would hear Mozart’s music as consonant or dissonant. What is the context that somebody should have coming to your music the first time? And do you see that context changing for this music in the future?
MB: For people listening to my music for the first time I think they should just let it be an experience that washes over them. I think there is quite a bit of emotion in my music, or expressivity, that I would assume anyone could listen to and get something from. There’s also a lot of rhythm in my music. My slow movements are often hard to find the beat in, but my fast movements are very rhythmical and have a lot of excitement and drama, I think. I like all that, and that’s what I think I’m good at. Some of my music is intellectual, but probably not lots of it in recent years anyway. People who don’t know much about classical music or contemporary music react to it.
The thing that I regret as far as my music goes is that I think my music is heard best in the concert hall. Probably because of all of the years of experience I had playing in concert halls, I think very much about the space and sending the sound all through the space. In the pitches that I work out, I work out the overtone series because I like the way it rings. It’s fine recorded, but it’s the best in a concert hall. And I think we are going more and more toward just listening to things on the internet, which is wonderful because it does give an opportunity for sounds and musical ideas to be passed around more easily.
What is interesting to me, though, is that although you were saying it’s become such a small world and we know what’s going on, the honest truth is that most American composers don’t know that much about what’s going on with European composers and vice versa. I’ve discovered this when I’ve talked with European composers. They’re naming all sorts of names I’ve never heard of and when I ask them who they know among American composers I’m lucky if they know two names, period, for all time in American music. It’s certainly not recent composers. Maybe one. It’s kind of strange, isn’t it that we’re so isolated even though we’ve got all these opportunities not to be isolated? American orchestras who have European conductors will tend to mostly play composers they know from Europe if they haven’t been here a very long time. It seems so provincial and just the opposite of what you said. We don’t know what’s going on. Maybe we know some world music, but I bet that for the most part it’s not because composers have gone there in recent years. We’ll hear recordings of groups that have come over to the United States. And of course that’s getting harder and harder to happen, too. There was a wonderful series of world music at the Cleveland Museum of Art. But in recent years I’ve gone to a couple of their concerts where the musicians didn’t show up because they couldn’t get a visa. So I’m not sure that things are all that small as far as the world goes.
What I really think about, and this is probably every composer’s concern, is that getting living composers’ music performed is so important because we need to go through the weeding out process of audiences and performers wanting to hear or perform pieces again that they like and maybe not the ones they don’t like. And especially for musicians, during the period of learning a piece, do they come to hate it or love it? We need to have more of this going on. If the world is still here in 200 years—maybe it won’t be, I don’t know—and music is still around and acoustic instruments are still around, it would be nice to have something to show from the early 21st century of what was happening artistically. So I love it when certain groups or certain orchestras do make it a part of their mission to perform new music, even though it’s harder. A soloist like Ellen Rose, who learned my concerto, she had never heard it before. Obviously, nobody had because it had never been played. So it was much harder to learn that than to learn Beethoven or Bartók, because she had to not only learn the notes but make musical sense of it. And the last movement was really, really difficult. It’s very fast and has a lot of extended techniques and lots of sounds passing around the orchestra. I know she hated it for a long time. We did all these interviews for it in magazines, and at first she was referring to it as a fiendishly difficult movement. But she kept at it. It’s actually supposed to be fun; it’s supposed to be kind of humorous. You’re supposed to be up there smiling and laughing while you play it, and I kept telling her that. And she came to the point where she could do that. And after the final performance last week we were sitting in the audience listening to the last piece [on the program] and she whispered to me, “I really loved playing that last movement.” That was so great. But it took her some time to get to that by learning it. So my hat is off to the performers who are willing to spend the time to learn a piece well enough to really show what it’s about to an audience. If you just sort of learn it—I’ve had musicians say to me, “I think I gave them the idea of how the piece goes”—that’s not good enough. You need a piece performed beautifully. I’m hoping that can happen in the 21st century more than it is happening so we’ll have some wonderful music to pass down to future generations.