Mary Jane Leach: Sonic Confessions
For decades Mary Jane Leach has been composing music that explores and exploits various psychoacoustic “ghost” sounds such as beat tones and combination tones. As a result, she has created numerous works for multiples of the same instrument or voice. She is also drawn to physical spaces where such sonic phenomena are at their most pronounced, such as churches, which is why she lives in one.
November 6, 2015—12:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography (unless otherwise stated)
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
More than 20 years after being in the audience for a concert by the New York Treble Singers devoted to the music of Mary Jane Leach, I still have vivid memories of it. It was one of the most magical performances I’ve ever experienced. While the breadth of a full SATB chorus was missing (all of the singers were sopranos), it was more than compensated for by the depth of focus on a specific segment of the pitch continuum. Perhaps more significantly, although there were only eight singers on the stage it sounded like many, many others. Eager to hear this music again as well as anything else by Leach I could find, I tracked down Celestial Fires, the one CD of her music available at that time (on Phill Niblock’s XI Records) and was delighted when a second disc, Ariadne’s Lament, was issued by New World Records a few years later.
Since then I got to know Leach personally and, as a result, came to understand how her music works. The peculiar acoustic phenomena I witnessed during that first concert were largely the byproduct of beats (a ringing pulse that throbs in your ear when two pitches are only a very small interval apart from one another) and of the additional sum and difference tones that occur when certain combinations of pitches sound together, based on the prominence of particular harmonics in any given timbre. There’s a particular presence when those additional “ghost” tones result from pitches produced by the same instrument or voice, e.g. the eight sopranos of the New York Treble Singers. So, as I came to know more of Leach’s music and chanced upon pieces for four bass clarinets, seven bassoons, or nine oboes, it all started to make sense. But it was only when we went to visit with her at her home, a decommissioned Roman Catholic church in a small town about a 30-minute drive from Albany, that her process became crystal clear.
“How loud it is, the pressure that you use, and moving in a space changes it drastically,” she explained. “It wasn’t until I wrote the piece for bass clarinet, 4BC, that I really started playing around with specific sound phenomena and I did that tediously. I recorded tones on tape, then I just kept over-dubbing and combining them—what do four unisons sound like? What does it sound like when you add this note? What does it sound like when you add that note?”
Multiples pieces (works scored for an ensemble consisting exclusively of the same instrument or for a soloist performing along with previously recorded multitracks of him- or herself) form a considerable percentage of Leach’s compositional output. Leach has also compiled a massive database of multiples pieces written by other composers and has made it publicly accessible via her website. One of Leach’s favorite multiples pieces by another composer is The Holy Presence of Joan of Arc, a 1981 tour-de-force for ten cellos by African-American proto-post-minimalist Julius Eastman (1940-1990). So entranced was she by this piece when she first heard a recording of it, and was subsequently so stymied in her efforts to find a score, that she devoted years of her life to tracking down scores and recordings of as much of Eastman’s music as she could (much is lost forever), shepherded New World’s seminal 3-CD Eastman collection Unjust Malaise, and co-authored (with Renée Levine Packer) Gay Guerrilla, the first book-length study devoted to Eastman which will be published on December 15, 2015. Devoting so much time to the music of someone else took its toll on her own composing and she was forced to put on the back burner one of her most ambitious projects—a multilayered opera based on the original Ariadne myth (in which Ariadne emerges as a feminist hero rather than a somewhat clueless victim). Now that the book is done, she’s wholeheartedly plunged back in. In a strange way, the two projects (Eastman and Ariadne) are somewhat similar in that both are an attempt to right an historical wrong.
As she pointed out, “So much of myth is political—a lot of times justifying why the people who are occupying your country are there, like a lot of political-ness we’re going through with the Middle East and everything like that. This explains how Theseus, who was like a rapist-solider, could be transformed into the hero and how Ariadne could be transformed from a queen-goddess figure into like this girl who gave up everything for the first cute guy who came by.”
As for why she got so deep into salvaging Julius Eastman’s musical legacy, she mused, “I felt like someone who witnesses an accident—you want to move on, but you know you have to stay because you’re not sure if someone else is going to come by and help. I feel like I realized how dire the situation was and that something had to be done before too much more time passed because the more that time passes, the harder it is to track down the music.”
Leach has been a firebrand for social justice since at least the age of 11 when she was labelled a heretic by a minister after pursuing and ultimately winning a debate during her Sunday school class. Given that bit of history, it might seem strange that she’s spent the last decade living in a church, but as she was quick to point out, being able to immerse herself in a church’s extraordinary acoustics on a daily basis has been extremely satisfying.
“Churches always sound good, you know?” she beamed with a slightly mischievous grin. “I was looking for a quiet place to live upstate and I found this the first day I started looking. […] I clapped and sang, and said, ‘Wow, I want this.’ And it was the cheapest thing I’d looked at too, believe it or not. So yeah, I’ve an affinity for spaces like this and there is, I think, a kind of a spiritual thing going on.”
Frank J. Oteri: For years I’ve always felt that much of your music has almost a—for lack of a better word—sacred quality.
Mary Jane Leach: Hmmm, maybe spiritual is a better word.
FJO: Okay, but the reason I specifically used the word sacred is because there’s something about your music that sounds somehow not of this realm. You hear it and it transports you. I certainly feel that way when I listen to your music, and I identify that same feeling with a lot of sacred music traditions from around the world, whether it’s Vedic chanting or polyphonic masses from the Renaissance period. Your music seems to be channeling a similar energy. And, lo and behold, you actually now live in a church.
MJL: Yeah, I have a history with churches. My mother was a church organist for a while and we lived next door to a church when I was in grade school. We’d go in during off hours and I’d lie on the floor and absorb the sounds while she played the organ. That was kind of a start. Then I lived in a church in Cologne for a couple of years. And churches always sound good, you know? So I was looking for a quiet place to live upstate and I found this the first day I started looking. The real estate agent said, “Let’s just check it out.” And I said, “If it has an organ, I really want it.” And so we got here, and we had no idea it was going to be as big as it is. It is pretty big. And we walked inside, and I clapped and sang, and said, “Wow, I want this.” And it was the cheapest thing I’d looked at too, believe it or not. So yeah, I’ve an affinity for spaces like this and there is, I think, a kind of a spiritual thing going on. But it’s not just churches. There’s this same kind of ambience in, say, Grant’s Tomb, which they ruined once they put those central columns in the cylindrical rooms and put in the flag display cases; it took away that sweet spot. Friends and I would always go there and play around with the acoustics, but once they renovated it they spoiled it for that.
FJO: There are also places in Grand Central Station that are that way.
MJL: Yeah, and the tunnels under Central Park. Almost any tunnel is like that.
FJO: But in terms of how it relates to you and the music you write, it was interesting that as soon as I said sacred, you pointed out that you preferred the word spiritual because, at least from what I glean from knowing you all these years, your music is decidedly not religious music.
MJL: No. That’s why it’s so ironic that I’m in a church. I’m pretty anti-religion, or anti-organized religion, for the obvious reasons. I was actually branded a heretic in sixth grade Sunday school. There were a series of debates and I took the anti-Christian side. It was going on for maybe three weeks or more. I began bringing in adults and cross examining them and everything. And the minister gave a sermon about me—how I might have won the debate, but I’d lose in life. I wasn’t really listening to him; I was too busy going through the hymnals singing songs to myself. But when I was about 30, it kind of dawned on me what had happened, and I realized that I’d avoided getting into arguments with people because I subliminally realized I’d been branded as a heretic for getting in an argument and winning it. That’s a pretty heavy thing to lay on an 11-year old.
FJO: But it’s interesting that as an 11-year old you channeled that out by thumbing through the hymnals. Even though you weren’t attracted to the dogma, you were attracted to the music.
MJL: Oh, definitely. I even have a hymnal downstairs. There’s some really good music there. I think a lot of people wouldn’t go to church if they didn’t like the music so much.
FJO: So is church music what first got you interested in music?
MJL: Not really. I mean, I sang in choir and played in band and stuff. But I hadn’t really thought about being in music until my senior year of high school. I had wanted to be an architect, but back then you could openly discriminate against women. I went to interview at Cornell and the guy literally told me that they didn’t accept women because they would just get married and drop out. Now they might have the same policy, but they would never say it to your face. Then he said, “What do you do?” And I realized that I played music all the time. Well, I thought, maybe I should go into music. I started it in college, and I had a very bad teacher, so I became a math major, and then I became a theater major sophomore year. But while working at a summer equity Shakespeare festival doing theater, since I was a musical person, I would be asked to play Elizabethan music. So I got into music through that, which is why it was so interesting for me to do Dowland’s Tears, because Dowland was one of my gateway composers, besides Bach.
I didn’t start writing music until I guess freshman or sophomore year in college. You know how in [music] theory [classes] you get to write examples? Every time my examples got played, everybody kind of perked up. So through music theory class, and then theater, I got into writing music. In theater you do everything, whether you’re qualified or not. Writing music was just something I started doing and I sort of took it from there. I grew up in Vermont and we didn’t know that there was such a thing as composers back then. Seriously.
FJO: Dennis Báthory-Kitsz hadn’t started organizing the Vermont Composers Day yet.
MJL: No. He came to Vermont the year I left, in 1977. The cultural highlights were high school band concerts and things like that. Vermont is very cool now. There’s a lot of good music going on. But there wasn’t when I was a kid.
FJO: But somebody was writing pieces for that high school band.
MJL: Sousa! Actually one of the highlights was the All-State Festival, when we did a band arrangement of a Bach piece. I really liked that. But I wasn’t exposed to much classical music at all. More jazz and pop and folk, stuff like that. I still have a lot of friends in folk music and bluegrass.
FJO: : The earliest piece of your music that you list on your website is Note Passing Note, which is from 1981—four years after you left Vermont. It’s a piece that already clearly has your aesthetic signature as a composer. Was there earlier work from those intervening years that you don’t want to put out there because you feel it doesn’t quite represent who you are? What was the moment when you felt that you had begun writing your music?
MJL: Actually, the way it started was learning from happy accidents. A lot of things that I’ve come to do came about because of accidents. I was in this group with Charlie Morrow, Daniel Goode, and a bunch of other people called the New Wilderness Ensemble. There were also a lot of people who weren’t musicians or composers and there were funky instruments, so we were always having tuning problems; it drove me nuts. I had just started playing bass clarinet. I’d always played clarinet before, but I started bass clarinet. I really wanted to make sure that it wasn’t me who was playing out of tune. I had a tape machine, so I thought I could sing a note in what singers call a straight tone and tape that, then play my bass clarinet and see what happens, see if I can play in tune and stay in tune.
Then I began playing. I’d go off pitch a little bit and it would start beating. I’d never experienced that before. At first, I thought I’d broken my speakers. But then I realized what was going on and that was kind of the beginning of what I’m interested in—working with sound phenomena, which also might be tied into that whole spiritual thing because it’s tied into frequencies and something intrinsic in the physical world. One of the earliest pieces that I did was Note Passing Note. I envisioned it for two taped parts, one coming out of each speaker, and then I’d do a live part. I went into the recording studio and I realized that I had written these parts where I sang a note for three minutes without breathing and I knew exactly what I wanted it to sound like; it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d have to breathe.
Ever since then, I’ve organized my pieces around the breath. A lot of people who’ve heard my early music say it sounds a lot like Phill Niblock. And it does, except that he cuts out all of the breaths and it ends up almost more electronic sounding. That’s big—tying it into something physical like the breath. I always put in breaths now, especially with long pieces, as much for keeping the pulse going. There were times where I could have extended a note for longer, but I want the attack of an entry so that the pulse doesn’t become mushy, which also helps if you have tape pieces and you want to know where you are. If it’s just this long drone, it’s impossible to keep it in synch.
FJO: It’s interesting hearing you say that it all goes back to the breath, which is something that some composers ignore at their peril. Of course, singers are always conscious of their breathing. If singers can’t breathe, they can’t sing.
MJL: And they’ll let you know about it, too.
FJO: But this is also true for instrumental music. Obviously wind instruments have to deal with the same physical reality of needing to breathe between phrases, but I think there’s even a better flow in music for stringed instruments when players are able to synchronize phrases with their breathing. Of course, you don’t need to be conscious of that breath when you are playing a stringed instrument, but I think there’s something transcendent than can happen when you are.
MJL: It keeps it human, for lack of a better, more profound word.
FJO: But you came to this aspect of composing through performing, because it was a physical phenomenon you discovered both in your own voice and, I imagine, also when you played clarinet and bass clarinet.
FJO: I’m curious about how some of things that you started to realize were happening when you were performing wound up becoming so important to you as a composer—the beating, difference tones, and other sounds that occur that are not actually played by the performers.
MJL: I guess the first piece that dealt a lot with beating was Note Passing Note; the way that I performed it was walking through this space, between the speakers, manipulating the sound. I wasn’t trying to get any specific combination of difference tones. I was just bathing in the sound. How loud it is, the pressure that you use, and moving in this space changes it drastically. But it wasn’t until I wrote the piece for bass clarinet, 4BC, that I really started playing around with specific sound phenomena and I did that tediously. I recorded tones on tape, then I just kept over-dubbing and combining them: What do four unisons sound like? What does it sound like when you add this note? What does it sound like when you add that note? I basically built up the piece that way.
Bass clarinet is a little different than almost any other instrument because it has the third partial come out more. So that piece works specifically—there’s a continual combination tone happening on top, then there are sometimes lower ones that are happening. That’s the only one where I had something so continuously happening. But the more I kept working, the more I knew what was going to happen. So I wrote a piece, which is kind of the next piece in that cycle, for alto flute and my voice called Trio for Duo, and I discovered that my voice basically sounded exactly like the alto flute. So I exploited that sound quality of my voice and the alto flute sounding so similar. I can tell because I can hear Barbara [Held]’s breath and her attack on the flute, but otherwise I wouldn’t know who was who.
FJO: What’s interesting about that piece is that you were dealing with another musician. It wasn’t just you anymore.
FJO: One of the peculiar things about music is that even though it is an art form that consists of sounds, it’s transmitted—at least in the Western classical tradition—through visual notation. Aural ideas get communicated visually and the goal is for those ideas to be replicated by somebody else as faithfully as possible to the original conception of the composer. But a lot of what you have been exploring all these years exists beyond the kinds of sounds that notation was designed to convey in a precise way.
MJL: Yeah, I know.
FJO: So how do you convey that information to someone else to get them to do what you want them to do?
MJL: Well, in the case with Barbara, it’s just the nature of the instrument. I originally did a longer version of the piece with Barbara. Then Newband wanted to do it, but when I got ready to perform it with [Newband’s flutist] Stephanie Starin, they said, “We never do pieces over ten minutes.” So I revised the piece a little bit. Stephanie performed it with me and she created the sounds, but she didn’t realize they were happening. She called me one day when she heard it on the radio, and she said, “I’m hearing all of these high pitches. Is it distorting? Is there something wrong with my radio?” Even though she had produced the sound, she didn’t know that that was the point of the piece.
FJO: So you don’t explain it in the score? You just notate it and what happens, happens?
MJL: Yeah, because it does happen. There is a difference, though. I know people who write things by just adding up the frequencies or subtracting them. But I found that that actually doesn’t really work. It works in principle, in theory, but not in actuality. It really takes trial and error. Of course, panning changes things as well. Not so much in those early pieces where the parts had basically the same thing happening, but in pieces where there’s more of a bass part, and each part has its own range of notes.
One thing I did want to mention is that conventional Western notation is kind of like algebra, but the reality is more like calculus, where you have the variables and they’re constantly changing. So even though you think you know what it looks like, a lot of people only hear what they see on the page. There’s actually a lot going on that either people don’t hear or they’re unaware of. For me and for people who write music the way I do, the scores look deceptively simple. But performers find out that there’s a lot more. It doesn’t sound as simple as it looks and it’s not as easy to perform because you have to have spot-on intonation. I’ve had students at Manhattan School and Mannes both perform my piece for trombones. I think at first they thought it was kind of insulting to be playing all these whole notes, but then they found it wasn’t all that easy because you have to have a really good sense of rhythm and you have to have a really good sense of pitch. It’s almost an endurance thing. You know, it’s very difficult.
FJO: But I want to play devil’s advocate a bit here, maybe at the risk of being labeled a heretic. Clearly these are the phenomena that you’re curious about and this is what you want to have happen. You notate them as simply as possible, and these sounds occur which makes your score actually clear to some extent. But shouldn’t you make it a point in the performance materials to tell people that these sounds will occur and that that is what you’re actually after, especially if someone as versed in new music as Stephanie Starin thought that there was something wrong with her radio or with the recording? Or are you also going for an element of surprise with the performers? Is that part of aesthetic?
MJL: No, no, no. I think by now people know what to expect. But Stephanie wasn’t familiar with my work, and I hadn’t done that much work in that realm before.
FJO: But what about those students at the Manhattan School and Mannes? They might not know what to expect because they’re young musicians and they’re probably getting exposed to your music for the first time. They don’t know all of the composers who are out there and they probably never encountered a score like this. They’re making their initial judgments based exclusively on what they’ve experienced before, so all they see is a bunch of whole notes and they have no idea that it’s really so much more than that.
MJL: I can’t remember now, but usually I have some kind of paragraph or instructions with scores that explain what I’m looking for so that people don’t freak out. I’m not trying to put anything by anybody. But I’ve actually found that people don’t even need to be instructed. Stephanie was sort of an outlier, because I think everybody else hears what’s going on.
FJO: I shudder to say this because I obsessively dote on program notes, whether they’re for my own pieces or if I’m asked to write them for other composers’ pieces, but musicians often don’t read the program notes; they just go straight to the score. So if it’s not written directly on the page they’re playing from, they probably won’t see it.
MJL: Well, sometimes I do put it on the page. I’ll put a little asterisk on the bottom of the page. But one thing that kind of evolved from that was that when I finally got a notation program, I was able to write pieces for instruments I didn’t play. The bassoon was the first one that I was able to do that for. I did experiments to make sure certain things were actually happening using MIDI playback. Then I did a little test with multi-tracking, just to make sure that my MIDI playback was being realistic in terms of what to expect. And it worked. What I was able to do with this was that instead of just having one combination note, or difference tone, patterns started happening. I would play certain combinations of notes, and all of a sudden other patterns would be happening naturally. So I thought, “Well, what I’ll do next is notate that and see what that will do with the rest of the notes happening.” I would listen for patterns that would happen and notate them, then go on to the next thing to see what would happen with that.
FJO: It’s somewhat in the same spirit as Alvin Lucier’s experiment in I Am Sitting in a Room but a completely different way of approaching it.
MJL: It’s almost the opposite of that.
FJO: From there it makes sense that you were so attracted to this whole notion of writing for multiples of the same instrument.
MJL: It was also practical because it’s easy. I originally was doing pieces that I could do and I had access to a four-track and then an eight-track machine. That was how that evolved; I could perform it. Bam! It wasn’t until, I think, 1987 when I was talking with Dora Ohrenstein, and she said, “These pieces that you have for eight-track tape, you could get eight singers to perform it.” It never occurred to me. So I became a choral composer after that.
FJO: So all those vocal pieces were conceptualized as pieces for yourself?
MJL: Not all of them. Green Mountain Madrigal I wrote for myself. Ariel’s Song I wrote for myself. Mountain Echoes, I didn’t write for myself because it would have been really complicated to do because it has all these dynamic changes and that would be hard to do one track at a time. But I did Bruckstück for myself, too.
FJO: Wow, is there a recording of that with just you?
MJL: There is, but it’s kind of gotten corrupted; there’s a hum in it. I made an eight-track version at STEIM in Amsterdam, but I was using used tape and I think there’s something that just didn’t quite work. Something over time has intruded on it, so it’s not really useable. I might be able to go some day and try to doctor the tapes, but I’m not sure.
FJO: It would be amazing to hear the difference between that and it being done by a group of singers.
MJL: Well, the really nice thing about working with live singers is that you have the breath and you don’t have that kind of rigidity that you have with tape, especially when you’re doing one part at a time. Sometimes I would just do parts of parts at a time, depending on the range. Green Mountain Madrigal was the first eight-track tape piece that I did for myself. And I learned a couple of things: I learned that I had to tune everything to one pitch and not change halfway through. Originally everything was in C. Then I changed it to F, so I tuned everything to F. People like George Lewis and Jim Tenney would notice those things. And the same thing happened with the bassoon piece when Shannon [Peet] recorded it. We had only three hours to record. I mean, like no time. And she said, “I don’t think I can start playing the low note first. I’m afraid I’ll blow my lip out.” And I was like, “I really think you should.” “No.” So she recorded the octave first. And then bless him, Jim Tenney said to her, “It’s out of tune, Shannon.” So we went back and redid it later, and tuned to the lowest note and then it was okay.
Then there’s one other thing I was going to say about recording, which is really interesting. When Barbara and I recorded Trio for Duo, we did it all in one long take because it’s all overlapping. There was one note that we hit a lot, which was the resonant frequency of the room. It was so disorienting because all of sudden I was singing, and then, when you sing that one note, it felt like the room had just filled with Jello and you were swimming in it. It was the weirdest thing, and it was very disorienting.
FJO: But I imagine that none of these works are really improvisatory.
FJO: If they were, and you found that resonant note during a performance, it could totally change the shape of the piece.
MJL: Well, I had an interesting experience. It’s not quite what you’re talking about, but similar. I was doing this performance at Franklin Furnace. I was doing more experimental performance art things at that time and I was playing my bass clarinet without the mouthpiece, I think, or without the reed, and someone was projecting animation on me. I’m part way through the performance and I hear people chuckling. I’m thinking, “Hmm. I didn’t think I was doing anything very funny.” So I just kind of stopped, and I realized there was a dog in the next building that was howling. So I started playing with the dog. I did a little riff and then he would do a little riff. Then I would do another little riff. At the end, Bill Hellerman came and said, “Where’s the tape?” He didn’t realize it was happening in real time. He thought I arranged this thing and it was part of the piece. [That dog was] one of the most sensitive musicians I’ve ever worked with. He really was! He knew when to stop. Then he would listen, and then he would do something. It was this back and forth thing.
FJO: But you could never recreate it. It was a one-time deal.
MJL: And I thought the concert was recorded, but it wasn’t. I’d give anything to hear that tape.
FJO: You’ve created a lot of pieces of music for multiples of the same instrument. And on your website you also have a list that you have compiled of all the pieces you have been able to find out about that other composers have written for multiples of the same instrument.
MJL: I’m way behind on that list.
FJO: Still, there’s no other resource like it. A multiples piece is actually a very peculiar kind of piece of music.
MJL: Well, there’s more than one type of piece. There’s the type of piece that I write, which is interested in exploring the timbre of the instrument. And then there’s the type of piece that’s written for flute festivals or cello festivals where everybody gets together and plays but they’re not interested in the sound phenomena, per se; they’re just interested in having a piece that ten of them can play together.
FJO: Sure. But the thing that’s even weirder about these pieces is where they fit in terms of scale vis-à-vis solo, chamber, and orchestra pieces. If a multiples piece is done by one player and all the other parts are pre-recorded, then it’s a kind of solo piece. But it’s a solo piece that is much more than just the solo since the one has become many. However, if it’s done, as you described, at a festival with a bunch of people, it’s almost orchestral in that when you get beyond a certain number of folks there will need to be a conductor, and sometimes these pieces are enormous—like Henry Brant’s piece for 80 flutes, Wendy Chambers’s piece for 77 trombones, or Anthony Braxton’s piece for 100 tubas. Yet since it’s all the same timbre, the music is not really orchestral in terms of timbre variance and also there’s always one person to a part. So then, perhaps, it’s a strange kind of chamber music. So multiples pieces share qualities with solo, chamber, and orchestral pieces, but ultimately they really are their own thing. And despite you making a distinction between your pieces and the kind of multiples pieces that get done at festivals and instrument conventions, I imagine a piece like, say, Feu de Joie, which was originally done by a solo bassoonist playing against six pre-recorded bassoon tracks, could be just as easily done by a group of seven bassoonists. It would be a somewhat different phenomenon, since it would involve seven different people and everyone has a slightly different tone. But would that be a fair representation of it? Or does it need to be done by one person over-dubbing multiple times?
MJL: Interesting that you should mention this because I have this piece for nine taped flutes and a live solo part called Dowland’s Tears. It was originally conceived just to be a recording. Manuel Zurria was putting out a CD of pieces around the theme of the Lachrimae of Dowland, and he was asked me if I’d be interested. This struck a chord since Dowland was a gateway composer for me. So I wrote this piece for nine taped flutes and sent it to him. I wrote it pretty quickly for me, and I didn’t hear from him for a couple of days. And I’m thinking he probably hates it. A couple days later, he wrote me, and said, “I love the piece. I’ve recorded it, and I made a video to go with it and I’m performing it three times next month.” So, at that point I really needed to write him a solo part, because I don’t like these music-minus-one things where the live part always sticks out like a sore thumb or doesn’t stick out at all. You know, it’s kind of submerged. So I like to always have the taped parts be uniform and then have a little flexibility in the solo part so it can float over the other parts.
But recently it has been performed by four different groups of ten flutists. It was first performed in Finland at a flute festival. Camilla Hoitenga conducted it. Then it was performed in Amsterdam with Eric Lamb playing the solo, and they repeated it in Cologne in September. Then it was performed in Canberra at the Australian Flute Festival. It worked a lot better than I thought it would actually.
FJO: Were you there for all of those performances?
MJL: Only the one in Cologne. And that was interesting because it was performed in the church that I lived in [previously]. Eric’s a phenomenal player. He was pulling people along with him kind of like that thing you do in tai chi when you harness, you pull along the slow people and you slow down the fast people. There was this interesting kind of ebb and flow going on with him and some of the performers; it was really interesting to watch and sonically it worked pretty well, too.
FJO: Do the exact same acoustic phenomena occur when pieces like this, which you conceived for a single live musician and a speaker system, are performed in real time by a group of live musicians who are separated on stage from one another?
MJL: Yeah. And sometimes things happen that I don’t even expect. For instance, I had written Ariel’s Song to perform myself, and I did make a tape of it. But when the [New York] Treble Singers started performing it, I listened to a tape one time, and there was this part where I thought they came in early. But what happened was that there was an actual sound phenomenon that started happening that I’d never counted on. So sometimes more happens rather than less happens.
FJO: And that’s okay?
MJL: Yeah, it’s fine. I’m not a tyrant. I love having things happen that I didn’t expect. I don’t want things to be controlled enough that nothing happens. You want to make sure something happens. But if more happens, I’m happy with that. Sometimes you can learn a lot from musicians.
FJO: So aside from these extra things happening that you are okay with, could something happen that you wouldn’t think was okay? What would constitute something that would just be a bad performance?
MJL: Okay, I’ll tell you. During Dennis [Báthory-Kitsz]’s festival in 2001 in Vermont, he wanted to have my 4BC. Lots of times when I would perform it, I would usually perform it with slides so that it wasn’t just listening to a tape; there’d be slides and then I would also play a note that was happening to emphasize it. So there was this guy who said he would do it. I said, “Just play what you hear.” You know, the notes that you hear. But he was hearing some kind of jazz thing. It was torture, because he was listening to a different drummer I guess. You have to be really specific with some people. When I said play whatever you’re hearing, I didn’t mean play what you’re imagining you’re hearing. That was a really awful experience.
Then another time—Godfried-Willem Raes has the Logos performing center in Ghent and also teaches at a conservatory in Brussels. In Belgium, it’s kind of weird. They have a conservatory in Brussels and then they have a conservatory in Ghent. But all the clarinetists go to one place and all the tuba players go to another. So they have this imbalance of instruments, and they’re always looking for pieces that can be played by all of their tuba players. So he had my piece for bass clarinet performed by tuba players. And of course it didn’t work because the overtones are totally different on a tuba. Those poor guys. You play for 19 minutes without breathing, I mean without a rest, and nothing was happening. At the end of the tape the last guy went “Boo bwooph.” Their lips were blown. And I’m sure they thought, “Well, what is this all about?” It wasn’t the piece at all. And it was programmed by Godfried, who’s a clarinet player, so he should have known.
FJO: They just went ahead and did this without asking you?
MJL: Yeah. It was just a student performance, though; it wasn’t a concert performance.
FJO: Right, but they somehow got the score.
MJL: I think I had left the score with Godfried when I’d done a concert there one time.
FJO: Well, this seems like a good place to transition to where I’d next like to take our conversation and that’s to pieces for variable instrumentation—which in some ways are the exact opposite of multiples pieces. In a piece for a group of bass clarinets, you can explore certain sonic phenomena that are specific, which won’t occur if the music is played on different instruments instead. But in a piece that could be played by any combination of instruments, you don’t know what you’re going to get. And yet, your piece Lake Eden, which could be played by any combination of instruments, still clearly sounds like your music.
MJL: I wrote it for Relâche. We were doing this summer institute that was at the Charles Ives Center, even though it really had nothing to do with Charles Ives. Anyway, musicians would have maybe an hour or so of rehearsal. Then they would perform it. So I had to write a piece that didn’t need a lot of rehearsing and a couple of the musicians weren’t really great readers. I was intrigued by Terry Riley’s In C, but the thing that I didn’t like about it was it just keeps building and building; I wanted a little bit more of an ebb and flow. So I had different sections; it was kind of a perverted rondo. I had whole notes that could be either three, four, five beats, so things wouldn’t always line up vertically. But—I don’t know if anybody knows this—the phrases that I used were basically the same phrases that I used in 4BC. But they were all over the place—in different ranges, whereas in 4BC all the notes were just within an augmented fifth.
FJO: But to the question of variable instrumentation—it was originally done at Relâche’s summer institute, but it’s been done in different places since then with different combinations of instruments. There’s a wonderful performance of it posted to YouTube that was done in Boston earlier this year. The thing about In C is that no matter what instruments you use to perform it—whether it’s six pianos, a wind band, or a rock band—it’s always the same piece somehow. The same thing seems to be true for Lake Eden. So I wondered, since so much of what your music is about is the specific acoustic phenomena that happen as a result of timbre, how is it still so clearly your music even when you take timbre specificity out of the equation?
MJL: I don’t know why it still sounds like me. I guess because I used the same process. I used the same process that I did for 4BC. The phrases are literally the same. I just plucked them out. So it just kind of shows you that everything can be reduced down to very little in the end. If you look at Beethoven, he uses the same rhythm all the time; he does it in such a way that you don’t even realize that he’s using the same rhythm throughout the entire movement. How can you reduce something down to its bare essence then realize that something that seemed like there was so much there is actually not a lot? I don’t know. It’s a good question, but I don’t know if I have an answer to that.
FJO: In a way, it’s what makes the piece so fascinating. Because even though the bass clarinet piece didn’t work on tubas, Lake Eden is designed to theoretically work for any combination of instruments, arguably even an ensemble of just tubas. So why does it work? And are there ways in which it wouldn’t work?
MJL: I had had certain restrictions in terms of how many times you repeated something in a pattern of going back and forth. I’d say do this four times, or five times. When it doesn’t work is when the performers have ignored the timing restraints. Then it just kind of mushes off into sort of not my piece at that point. The only time it didn’t work the way I like it to work was because it had gone on too long. In the Downtown Ensemble, Phil Corner always loved to extend things beyond what you thought they should be. So the piece became kind of flabby.
FJO: Phil Corner recently released a recording of his performances of Satie all performed at speeds that sound four times slower than anyone else has ever played them.
MJL: Oh my God!
FJO: They’re incredible performances, and they’re fascinating even though they are totally unexpected. That’s Corner’s aesthetic, which is really pure minimalism. But while your pieces share a lot of sonic common ground with minimalism, especially in terms of surface sonorities, perhaps they’re ultimately not minimalist in conception.
MJL: I would say maybe a couple of the early pieces were minimalist in conception, but not since then. Is there such a thing as musical DNA? I don’t know. Maybe you could test all my pieces and they’d have the same DNA. That’s something I’d never really thought about all that much. I should have.
FJO: No, you’re doing stuff that works. Don’t think about it now; keep doing what you’re doing! Even though I’d still like you to describe your process.
MJL: Well, I’m going to sound very flaky because it’s very organic and the pieces kind of create themselves. No matter how much I want to plan them ahead, they kind of write themselves. The way I write is almost like knitting. In knitting, if you drop a stitch, you have to rip everything out to the point where you dropped the stitch. I write very slowly note by note, and I don’t write things in sections and then insert things. If I write too fast, sometimes I will just lose the thread and I’ll have to go back to the point where I lost the musical impetus.
FJO: Since so much of it is rooted in acoustics, how much of it is done by testing at a piano or with your own voice and how much of it is done in the abstract, hearing it all in your head?
MJL: Actually I do it all on computer with MIDI playback.
FJO: That’s how you test things?
MJL: Well, yeah, except that now I’ve tested things so much that I pretty much know what’s going to happen. I’ve done all kinds of studies: What do two of the same instrument sound like when they play in unison? What do three sound like? What do four sound like? What do five sound like? What do six sound like? What happens when one of them plays another note? What happens if it’s in the middle, in terms of panning? I’ve gone through all the permutations. After a while you kind of know what’s going to happen, so you don’t have to keep doing studies. It’s like doing scales. You do them mindfully for a long time, and then after a while you just can do them. It just becomes second nature.
FJO: You’re almost saying the exact opposite of what so many composers have said about MIDI. For you, MIDI actually does replicate the things that you want to hear.
MJL: And it’s pretty reliable, too.
FJO: But tons of folks say stuff like, “Don’t get a false sense of how these instruments behave by using MIDI.”
MJL: Well, the only thing that doesn’t really work are glissandos. I’ve been working with glissandos a lot lately, but that I have to just leave to my imagination. Of course, glissandos are going to vary by performer anyway, so it’s probably good that I’m not wedded to an idea of what it’s exactly going to sound like. But I pretty much know what it’s going to sound like at this stage of the game. Still, MIDI is really valuable to me. I wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of stuff if it hadn’t been for it. The only thing that is frustrating is I wish you could get it to do syllables. They don’t even have really good vocal samples. I know what it’s going to sound like, but I know it’s going to sound better than what it sounds like in the MIDI playback. But with instruments, it’s pretty reliable. Especially the ones that are sampled instruments. When I wrote the piece for bassoon, I had a little Casio thing and I programmed in the sounds so that it would have a certain harmonic profile like the bassoon had. It wasn’t a sampled sound; it was a digitally created sound. But it still worked.
FJO: Some instruments sound better than others. The winds generally sound pretty good.
MJL: Clarinet doesn’t.
FJO: Yeah, but you’re more sensitive to that since you’re a clarinetist.
MJL: But I think most people agree that the clarinet doesn’t sound very good in MIDI.
FJO: Cellos sound dreadful I think.
FJO: But the piano, surprisingly, sounds okay—better than you would think it would, given the complexity of its sonic envelope. Perhaps this would be a good time to talk a little bit about your piano concerto. We’ve been talking about all these pieces for odd one-of-a-kind combinations—seven bassoons, eight treble voices. Most of the time, if you’re writing music that’s done by other people and not by you, you’re reliant on ensembles that have a more standard instrumentation—string quartets, wind quintets, orchestras, SATB choruses. Before we started recording, you were telling me that you came to writing choral music from writing pieces you overdubbed with your voice and that now those pieces are done by choruses quite a lot. But they’re not standard choral pieces, because they were created through this other means.
MJL: Yeah, and it’s very interesting because, for instance, when the Treble Singers perform one of my works on a program of their own, and not on a program that’s all my music, it usually takes them about half a piece to get into gear. If it’s an all-Mary Jane concert, they don’t have any problem with it. But when they have to shift, because it takes a certain kind of intense concentration to sing, it really takes about half a piece for them to get in the groove and sound okay.
FJO: That could be a big problem in a concert. Maybe it always needs to be the first piece on the program so that they’re in that mindset from the onset rather than coming out of singing something else. It’s rare that you have an opportunity to have an all-single-composer concert. If it’s a new music concert, your piece has to co-exist with a bunch of other new pieces that can all be in completely different compositional languages, which could make it harder for both the players and the audience to latch on to any of it. But most of the time, if you’re writing for a standard ensemble, your new piece has to co-exist mostly with old pieces. If you’re writing for, say, orchestra, your piece is almost always going to cohabitate with standard repertoire; your piece will get played alongside Mozart and Beethoven or Brahms and Tchaikovsky. And the musicians will play it and the audience will hear it in the context of that older, much more well-known music. Orchestra music is very different from music for ensembles of all the same instrument and also very different from open scores that any instrument can play. Orchestra music is very much about all the different instruments having specific, often regimented roles. You’ve written a piano concerto. That’s a standard form with a long history behind it. I’ve only heard the MIDI version of your piece, but I found your approach to orchestration very unusual in the way that melodies transfer from instrument to instrument and, as a result, can be perceived differently. There are some other orchestra pieces that do that, but it’s somewhat unusual to use the orchestra as a palette that way.
MJL: Well, Beethoven does, but on a lesser scale. He might have the flute, the oboe, and the clarinet play something, but he doesn’t go through the whole range of the instruments. In the second movement of the Seventh [Symphony], he has that little phrase that goes between the instruments. And I got the idea for that little opening riff from a Mozart concerto because [my piano concerto] was originally going to be performed on a concert with a Mozart concerto. But then I just let all the winds have it. Not the brass or anybody else. It seems like such a natural thing to do.
FJO: But in most concertos, the focus is usually mostly on the soloist.
MJL: Yeah, which I didn’t do very much.
FJO: It’s sort of an anti-concerto.
MJL: That’s because it was such a short piece. I wanted to use the orchestra and the piano doesn’t interest me that much, even though I love playing it. So I didn’t want to have this whole big piano show-off thing and then have the orchestra play for two minutes. I wanted it to be part of the ensemble. Maybe we can do another movement where the pianist gets to do a little bit more. A version of it was done about five years ago.
FJO: It had a different title at that time.
MJL: Yeah. It was just a place holder. And they recorded it, but the engineer erased it before it had been transferred. I was not a happy camper about that. It was supposed to be performed this September in Bari, but it’s been postponed until May. I’m going to get to go, too; since I was already there [when the festival was cancelled], they’re going to pay my transportation.
FJO: That’s nice. That’s like the rainbow at the end of all the clouds with this piece—an accidently erased recording of the premiere, a cancelled performance after you’d made the trek to Italy to hear it.
MJL: I know. And the conductor—I knew that he had conducted at the Met and things like that. So I thought he was just a standard conductor. But it turns out he was the conductor for the premiere of [Morton] Feldman’s Neither. So when he said that it was an intense experience conducting it, now I can say he probably meant that and that it wasn’t because he was such a traditional conductor that this probably was kind of weird for him. And he knows the flute player from Rome that I’ve been working with.
FJO: When you write a big piece, you have to be so dependent on all these other people. There are all these variables. It’s a far cry from the very personal way you developed your compositional language—working by yourself with a tape recorder or working with individual musicians. You have such a wide range of sonorities to choose from, but other aspects are much narrower.
MJL: Not having very much rehearsal time, too. So you can’t write something that’s so complex that it can’t be performed, or performed well.
FJO: But one of your long in-progress projects is extremely ambitious—the Ariadne opera, and I imagine it would have to rely on tons of people.
MJL: Well, actually not tons. A lot of singers and then a string quartet.
FJO: So you’re not going to orchestrate it beyond that?
FJO: I suppose for practical purposes?
MJL: But also I like string quartet and voice; I think it’s a nice combination.
FJO: I agree. I’m curious about what drew you to the various versions of the Ariadne myth and specifically wanting to deal with earlier versions, which is much different than the famous myth we’ve come to know.
MJL: In some of the early pieces, I was dealing with the traditional myth, and then I came across Carolyn Heilbrun, a feminist writer who also wrote mystery novels under the name of Amanda Cross. One mystery book centered on this famous author who, à la James Joyce, had this magnum opus like Ulysses, but his was [based on] Ariadne. So I got really interested in that. Daniel Goode and Ann Snitow knew Heilbrun, so they put me in contact with her and I asked her, “Do you have any recommendations or further information?” She said, “Everything I know, I put in the book.” So I was left on my own to do some research.
I started looking into all the earlier Greek texts about Ariadne, or just even things that would apply to my imagination of what was going on. It was very fascinating because so much of myth is political—a lot of times justifying why the people who are occupying your country are there, like a lot of political-ness we’re going through with the Middle East and everything like that. This explains how Theseus, who was like a rapist-solider, could be transformed into the hero and how Ariadne could be transformed from a queen-goddess figure into like this girl who gave up everything for the first cute guy who came by. It’s been a long, long project.
FJO: What’s the goal for it?
MJL: I hadn’t worked on it for a while. I was realistic enough that I didn’t want to spend years writing a piece and getting one performance of it. So I’d been writing it in discrete sections so each section could be performed on its own. I just kind of got back into it because I had been involved in putting out this CD of Julius Eastman’s music, and then editing a book on him, and that has been very time consuming, so I had gotten sidetracked from the Ariadne project. But when I was in Italy this summer at Civitella Ranieri, I got back into it, so I wrote another piece in the cycle and half of another one. So now I’m kind of gearing up for that. I really like what I wrote, if I might say so myself. I’d kind of forgotten about it, because other things had come up, like the piano concerto, but I’m getting back into it now.
FJO: One of the reasons I’ve always really identified with you is all the advocacy work you’ve done for other composers, so I’m glad you brought up the Julius Eastman project and the difficulty of making time for your own work while you were immersed in that. This has been a strand in your life all along. You were in charge of XI Records where you produced all these extraordinary recordings while at the same time trying to create your own work in that space. To a lesser extent that multiples database you put together is another example of your advocacy.
MJL: That’s how the Julius project started; I was looking for his piece for ten cellos. So that was how I got sucked into finding his music.
FJO: What’s interesting about your advocacy for Julius Eastman is that it has taken him to a whole other level. His music has started to reenter the canon largely through the work that you did to bring this stuff out into the world. You were involved with the 3-CD Julius Eastman set on New World Records that was released ten years ago, and you wrote a huge article for us about him at that time. Since then there have been all these performances and now there’s a book. This person who was literally a footnote in history—not even a footnote—has emerged not only as an icon to several different groups of people but as a major figure of the latter half of the 20th century in America, a groundbreaking proto-post-minimalist composer.
MJL: Post-minimalist before there was minimalist.
FJO: Right. Exactly. And someone with a very unusual life and personality. But part of it is you knew Julius Eastman.
MJL: Yeah, but not very well. I didn’t hang out with him a lot or anything like that.
FJO: So what made you so committed to getting this music out into the world, serving his legacy and doing justice by it?
MJL: Well, I really loved that cello piece. That was the piece that I knew. I was teaching at CalArts. They wanted me to teach a course on real instruments, because so many of the composers there were dealing with computer and electronic music. I thought a good way would be to do pieces for multiples, so you could luxuriate in the sound of ten cellos or seven bassoons. It was fairly easy for me to track down the master of the tape [of Julius’s cello piece] because the cassette that I had been given was part of a radio program. And at the end, it gave the engineer’s name, and the names of all of the performers. And the engineer was an old boyfriend of mine, who recorded Green Mountain Madrigal and 4BC and some other things. So I contacted him and he had the tape, but he didn’t have the score. I thought it can’t be that hard. It turned out that it was very hard, but I was stubborn.
Then, Bryan Rulon made me aware of how Julius’s music had disappeared. It had literally been thrown out on the street. I felt like someone who witnesses an accident—you want to move on, but you know you have to stay because you’re not sure if someone else is going to come by and help. I feel like I realized how dire the situation was and that something had to be done before too much more time passed because the more that time passes, the harder it is to track down the music. I’d also made a commitment to New World [Records] because I mentioned trying to find his music and they were really interested in him. I felt I’d given my word. Then when the CD came out, various people tried to take credit for it, as you know. I kind of bristled at that, but just kept things going and kept waiting for someone to pick up the baton and do the next step, but so far nobody has.
There was just a weekend symposium in Philadelphia by the Bowerbird. Some of us were older, white people who knew Julius and then there were some younger black people—musicians, historians, theater people, and intellectuals. Jace Clayton was there, and he said, “I’m having a real problem with all these white people talking about these pieces.” And I said, “Well, I would love someone to do it. I don’t see anybody picking up the slack. If you want to do it, that would be great.” I was kind of annoyed at that because what’s the alternative—not doing it?
FJO: But I wonder, to bring it back to your work: when you get so involved with another project, when are you able to let go and get back to your own music?
MJL: Well, I pretty much have at this point. People contact for me for various questions, photos, or scores. That’s not so difficult. But I pretty much stopped. It was very interesting because we had a big deadline for the galleys for the book the day that I left for Italy. So it was like a real dividing line. It was like, okay, I’m done with that. Now I’m going to take care of myself and be selfish and write my own music. Let somebody else worry about it. But it’s hard to say no sometimes, because I would hate to have it fall through the cracks again. I want somebody to take over who would just do it and not just six months later be bored and let it slip.
FJO: Throughout our conversation you dropped suggestions about people who were gateway composers for you—John Dowland and Bach. Since your piece Bruckstück was inspired by Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony—
MJL: —Whom I didn’t like until I wrote that piece! There’s this visual artist, Jack Ox, who did a whole series of paintings based on an analysis of Bruckner. I can’t remember if it was just the Bruckner Eighth, but I was commissioned to write a piece to go with a gallery opening of the paintings. I’d never liked Bruckner much because this guy who had really weird musical taste loved Bruckner, so I figured I wouldn’t like him. I know, it’s sad. My musical experiences are contemporary music and early music; I’ve been kind of working my way into the middle. So the kind of music that everybody knows is the music I know the least. So I didn’t start off liking Bruckner. I got to like him. I didn’t dislike him, I just thought I wouldn’t like him.
FJO: It’s interesting that this music was inspired to go with an exhibition of visual art that was created based on Bruckner. The music inspired the art, and then the art inspired this other piece of music that tropes back to that other music. But you mentioning this also gives us the opportunity to talk about something that you hinted at earlier, and that’s the video art that you’ve created to go along with your music. How important is the visual to the perception of the aural for you?
MJL: It’s really not important; it’s just an added element. I think the pieces can stand on their own. When I performed just solo concerts, I think the visuals helped because it just wasn’t one person performing with tape, there was something for people to look at. One thing that ties into my whole process was that I spent a summer working with theater gels. You can cut them in two and they fit perfectly in slide projectors. One summer I mounted all the commercially available gels and I put them in “chromological” order. It was a little like doing the sound studies. Once I’d done it, I knew what combinations of colors and saturations would happen; the same thing that happens in light and in color happens in music; you combine two colors and you get a third color. All the primaries in color have their secondaries in pigment and the secondaries of light are the primaries of pigment and vice versa.
FJO: It’s like visual difference tones!
MJL: Yeah, and saturation and volume change that way, too. It’s interesting, when I first moved to New York, I was working off Broadway as a lighting technician. There was this wonderful lighting designer named Arden Fingerhut and we had lots of talks about how much music and lighting have in common. One of my best friends since junior high school is a lighting designer, too, and the first time he went to one of my concerts where I used handmade, painted slides, he goes, “You’re doing lighting.” Not everything I do with visuals is color based, but I do work with slow dissolves and how things gradually change or transform into something else.
FJO: Will video projects be used for the final composite Ariadne opera?
MJL: I haven’t thought of that all. I’m thinking visually, but more like as a costume designer or a set designer because I have a theater background. But not the lighting or color combinations yet.
FJO: There has to be a production of it first. And, of course, you have to finish writing the piece.
MJL: I also want to direct Measure for Measure. It’s one of my dream bucket list things to do.
FJO: Another project that’s going to take away time from composing.
MJL: Yeah, but it’s creative.