Michael Torke: Life After the Ceremony of Innocence
Before turning 30, Michael Torke had become a towering figure in the new music community. He was signed by a major publisher, had an exclusive record contract on a major label, and was the de-facto composer-in-residence for New York City Ballet. In his early 40s, he went totally DIY both self-publishing and running his own boutique record label. Now in his mid-50s, Torke claims to feel “disconnected from everything” but he remains at the top of his form as a composer.
Composers who are still in their 20s and early 30s have arguably never been as prominent as they are right now. But what will happen to them when they turn 40? Or 50? The future is impossible to predict with any certainty, though there will likely be many different scenarios—some composers will remain very strongly in the public eye, others will remain active though less visibly so, and a few will probably drop off the radar altogether. In, say, the year 2036, many listeners might be more focused on the young composers of their own time, some of whom have not yet been born. (I won’t even venture a guess as to what kind of interface those listeners will employ to hear this music.)
But only a generation ago, most composers were ignored until they turned at least 40—orchestras would not program their music, opera companies would not commission them, publishers refused to sign them, radio stations would not play their recordings (if there were recordings), and on and on. In a field that has long been dominated by tried and true repertoire, taking a chance on someone who had not been sufficiently vetted was long deemed too much of a risk. Of course, the history of Western classical music has had some very famous exceptions to this paradigm and the boy wonder Mozart remains the standard-bearer for many music lovers. But again, what if Mozart had lived beyond the age of 35? Would that have changed the way we think about his music today? This question, of course, is completely unanswerable. (At least, we will know how today’s wunderkind composers will fare twenty years from now—in 2036!)
All of these questions were on my mind when, after many years, I finally had a chance to have a long talk with Michael Torke in his small studio apartment overlooking the United Nations where he spends a little less than half of the year. (The rest of the time he’s based in Las Vegas.) Torke is someone I have known and whose music I have admired for decades. And once upon a time—actually back when we were both in our 20s—he was a towering figure in the new music community. At the age of 21 and while he was still an undergrad at Eastman, Torke’s Ceremony of Innocence—a 22-minute quintet—was performed at Tanglewood. Another one of his undergrad compositions, Vanada, received its premiere at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. Early into his first year of grad school at Yale, a major international publisher—Boosey & Hawkes—began courting him. Then after dropping out of Yale and moving to New York City, a whirlwind of activities occurred in rapid succession. An orchestra piece of his was performed at Carnegie Hall and he ssigned with Boosey. At 25, he became the de facto composer-in-residence for the New York City Ballet, and before he turned 30, he was given an exclusive contract on a major international recording label, London/Decca’s Argo imprint (which was owned by Universal Music Group), and the CDs they issued of his music were in regular rotation on many classical radio stations all over the world. While Torke was still in his early 30s, which was around the time I first met him, an opera of his was televised in the UK and he was even commissioned to write an orchestra piece for the opening of the Olympics in Atlanta.
“There was a lot of attention towards me,” Torke acknowledges at the outset of our free-ranging conversation. “I’m in my 50s. I’m not quite one foot in the grave, but it does kind of feel like it’s all over. I’m glad that the royalties will pay my bills and that I have enough new work, but boy, it sure seems like a different world we’re living in.”
But of course it’s far from all over. About a month ago I heard a new recording featuring David Alan Miller conducting the Albany Symphony Orchestra in two recent Torke concertos. I was floored by the music and was determined to finally have a chat with him about it in front of a video camera. In these works, Torke seamlessly synthesizes the frenetic pop-savvy process-driven post-minimalism of the music for which he first became known (pieces like Vanada, as well as The Yellow Pages, Bright Blue Music, Slate, and—a piece I still treasure more than almost anything—Four Proverbs) with an expansive romanticism that is more akin to standard repertoire classical music. This is the music that had been his first love growing up and he actually first attempted to incorporate such a sound world into his own musical vocabulary back in the 1990s, but was ultimately not satisfied with the results.
“I wrote a piano concerto that I called Bronze,” he remembers. “I performed it myself at Carnegie Hall and then I wrote something that Lincoln Kirstein commissioned, Mass. Both were kind of regressive, because I thought I wanted to write a piece that sounds like it’s in that era. Why not? You know, we live in a post-modern time where history means nothing. And if they’re doing it in the visual arts, we should do it. Those pieces, of course, failed miserably.”
There have been many other transformations for Torke since that time as well. At the dawn of the 21st century, after releasing five all-Torke CDs, Decca/London discontinued Argo. Suddenly all of Torke’s recordings were out of print. It took him a few years, but by 2003 he was eventually able to license and re-issue them all on his own Ecstatic Records label, an outlet that serves as the repository for most of the subsequent recordings of his more recent music. In 2004, he completely severed his ties with Boosey & Hawkes, becoming fully self-published through his own company, Adjustable Music. Torke’s emergence as a completely DIY composer might ultimately prove to be a prescient business decision now that the music business has changed so much.
“All those industries have collapsed,” he claims. “Boosey is a ghost of what it was. If you’re a composer signed by Boosey, the kind of promotion that they would do for you today is a fraction of what they did for me back in the ‘80s. They worked hard on my behalf and I’m so grateful. It was just thrilling what they did. … And at one time, there were the big record labels. They still exist, but thanks to the digital revolution that all has collapsed, too. … There were these big institutions that were gatekeepers and it was highly criticized, because there were the select few and if you were a Boosey & Hawkes composer, you were suddenly promoted around the world. If you had a record contract, people knew of you. If you didn’t, what options did you have? So it seemed really undemocratic. It seemed unfair. It seemed like there were tastemakers making these decisions that could be wrong. It seemed almost corrupt. Now we have the democracy of the digital world. Everyone is on equal footing. The problem with that is that who are the tastemakers?”
These days, Torke maintains a careful balancing act between writing music and getting it out into the world. As he explains:
When I have a new release, I send it with personal letters to the music directors of 250 classical radio stations. And they write back and say, “We loved hearing from you. We’ll take a listen.” And then when it’s on the radio six to twelve months later, I see it on my BMI statements. There still is money there. And that helps also because, who knows, some choreographer’s driving down Highway 1 in California, and they hear it and then that might lead to some dance piece that would have grand rights. So the publishing is still really important in classical music. And I’m still able to monetize it to the extent that I can make a living at it. … I would say it’s probably three-fifths composing and two-fifths doing the business side. I keep a stopwatch so I keep track of all of this.
It’s a sobering wake-up call about the real life of a composer who is still at the top of his form and wants to remain in the game. And while it’s a far cry from what many composers initially experience in the ceremonies of innocence through which they are first welcomed into the music community—that first big award, the initial commission, the early critical raves—it is the future for the overwhelming majority of people who write music. But still, if there’s a way to get it to reach people, like the early works of Michael Torke so convincingly did and like his recent works should, it is totally worth it.
Frank J. Oteri: These days there’s a ton of attention being paid to younger composers—both in terms of how many of them are being commissioned by high-profile institutions and how many are covered in what’s left of the media. Once upon a time, composers never seemed to be paid attention to until after they were 40 years old, more likely 50. Although you were the exception to that rule—you were a super star in your early 20s. But now you’re in your 50s.
Michael Torke: I feel disconnected from everything. That might be partly because of the decisions I’ve made. I don’t have a teaching position. I’m not married. I’m not raising a family. I live in two places. Whenever I’m in Las Vegas, people think I don’t live in New York. And when I’m here, all my Las Vegas friends forget about me. You can be kind of incognito, which serves me well because I like privacy. I like to work on my projects. Promotion is something I find really grating. I don’t really like to do that. Maybe I’m just getting old.
I was unaware of the fact that everyone is heralding young composers. This is news to me, but maybe it helps explain things. When thinking about conductors, I knew that there was this cult of the young. And so maybe that does relate to what you’re saying, the cult of the younger composers. Here I’m in my 50s. I’m not quite one foot in the grave, but it does kind of feel like it’s all over. I’m glad that the royalties will pay my bills and that I have enough new work, but boy, it sure seems like a different world we’re living in. We live in a new century, a new time. Maybe this is one reason that there’s a lot of attention paid to the younger generation, if that is true. I’m not really complaining, it just feels different.
When I was in my 20s, there was a lot of attention towards me. I remember at the time what some people said when Boosey & Hawkes decided to sign a younger composer. This was at a time when they weren’t doing that. They had done some recent signings—it was around the time when they got Leonard Bernstein and Elliott Carter. Steve Reich was maybe the youngest one that they were looking at.
FJO: Aside from it being extremely out of the ordinary that they found you so early, though, what is perhaps even more unusual I think, now decades later, is the actual music you were composing at that time. It is very strong music and of course you still acknowledge it and it still gets performed, but you were still a student when you wrote some of it, like Vanada.
MT: I was an undergraduate at Eastman. Then I went to Yale for one year and I wrote The Yellow Pages and Ecstatic Orange, and then after one year, I came to New York and got out of graduate school. Not that I hated school, although I was tired of it, but there were things that were happening—Boosey & Hawkes, New York City Ballet wanting to do stuff, commissions were coming in. So I thought I could try making a career of it in the city that I wanted to be in.
FJO: So, to step back. There are only two pieces in your catalogue prior to Vanada: the solo piano piece, Laetus, which I’ve studied the score of although I’ve never heard anyone play it; and Ceremony of Innocence, which was played at Tanglewood and won a BMI Student Composer Award. Those couldn’t have been Opus One and Two. What were you doing before that?
MT: I started composing at age five and had private lessons starting from about seven. I was writing pieces all the way through. When I was the bassoonist in our youth orchestra in Milwaukee, I convinced the conductor to have me write a piece for them. And he was like, “O.K., we’ll do it!” That was in my youth of being very pushy with everything. I remember they were doing the Bartók Third Piano Concerto and I said, “So the soloist comes in the week before. I know the piece. How about I come in and rehearse with you?” “Oh, you’d do that for us?” So I got to do it. I was always doing things like that—pushing and pushing and pushing. Maybe that’s the difference today, just being off in another orbit.
So I was writing pieces. Most of them were chamber pieces, but the first orchestra piece was the one for that youth orchestra. They played it and it got a review in The Milwaukee Journal. It was kind of cool. I was in high school. Then I went to the Interlochen Music Festival for two summers, ’77 and ‘78, and wrote pieces there. One composition won all the awards that you could win as a teenager. I would enter and so the name was starting to get around. Then I went to Eastman. But all of those pieces were kind of juvenilia. They were written in a kind of a neo-classic style. I love Stravinsky and Bartók. I remember my first day at Eastman [being asked], “What composers do you like?” Stravinsky and Bartók is what I used to say. And they’re still favorite composers of mine. That hasn’t changed. But the music has changed.
FJO: So you didn’t say Chaka Khan.
MT: No, that came later. I was a classical music nerd and didn’t know a lot about pop music, so when I started listening to it seriously, in about junior to senior year at Eastman, I thought about it in a different way from my classmates who grew up with pop music. That was kind of why it made such an impact.
FJO: But how could you grow up in the United States in the ‘70s and not hear pop music?
MT: I did, obviously. Everyone does. But I didn’t take it seriously. I thought that there was this dichotomy—classical music was the real stuff and popular music was the stuff that you hear on the radio and on TV all the time. I wanted to be a serious guy. That was how I thought as a 14-year old. Then when I was at Eastman, I thought about things like why is it that so much contemporary music, especially touched by modernism, seems to come at the ear at a distance [stretches his hand far away]. It’s way out here and you think about it, and then you enjoy it. And then I said, if you listen to Tchaikovsky, it’s here [moves his hand closer toward him]. You think about it, and you enjoy it. And if you listen to pop music, it’s here [moves hand right up to his face]. That seems to be a quality that is important. So we should embrace whatever that is. That was the thing that got me going.
FJO: It wasn’t also the excitement of the actual sound of the music you were hearing?
MT: Well, yeah. I don’t know quite what makes it here [gestures hand in front of his face again]. It’s very presentational, and it’s short. It doesn’t develop, and it’s disposable. Those were qualities that I admired, but I wasn’t interested in disposability. I wasn’t interested in non-development. Modernism taught us that we have to find new ways to express things, even if they’re difficult to hear. And I was thinking popular music isn’t difficult to hear and yet it seems to resonate with the culture. So, why is difficulty a virtue? I didn’t understand that.
FJO: I’m not sure I know what that word disposable means. I’m not sure that those folks who were doing it would have considered what they’re doing to be disposable. And certainly now, 50 years later, the music of Elvis and The Beatles has probably continued to resonate with people more than any of the other music that was written at that time.
MT: One could say that those are the exceptions, but in classical music, all this stuff that survived from the 19th century were the exceptions, too. So, you can’t make that argument. But I think that if you were a songwriter in the 1970s and you were writing a lot of songs, you wanted to get into the Top 40. You wanted to make a lot of publishing money. Then three years later, if it was never done again, that wouldn’t bother you. That was the nature of the business. Whereas, I don’t think anyone writing a symphony would say, “Oh, I hope I hear it twice, and I hope I never hear it again.” Or let’s say, if you never heard it again, that would bother you. You would say, “Well, maybe that symphony isn’t working.” So I think there was a difference.
FJO: It’s very funny you say that. Lewis Spratlan, who won the Pulitzer Prize in the year 2000, said to me back then that after he got a performance of a piece of his he would move on to the next piece and not worry about the older pieces. He was somebody who really did not push his music, although he has always been extremely dedicated to his craft and is extremely skilled at what he does. Some of these pieces are extraordinary, and people have only started to become aware of them since he won the Pulitzer. There were very few recordings of any of his music before that.
MT: So maybe it didn’t bother him.
FJO: I don’t think it did. In fact, the piece that wound up winning the Pulitzer was something that he wrote in the 1970s for an opera company that folded and so it was never done. A quarter-century later, a concert version of the second act was performed by Dinosaur Annex in Boston and that’s how he won the Pulitzer, but it was due to the advocacy of Scott Wheeler, who had been one of his students, not him.
MT: But here’s the difference. When that guy in the ‘70s was trying to write Top 40 for radio, he was interested in one thing. Not artistic expression. He was interested in money. Lewis Spratlan wasn’t interested in money. He was interested in artistic expression. And those are two big differences.
FJO: Wow, I think there were plenty of songwriters who cared more about artistic expression than money.
MT: Like James Taylor, he’s interested in expression. O.K., you’re right. But I do think all of those guys had a more commercial edge. Even The Beatles, when John Lennon had ten years of doing his solo work, he was like, “Why don’t I have a number one hit?” And I thought, “You don’t need a hit; you’ve accomplished everything.” Then I realized, “Oh, it’s because he’s doing commercial music.”
FJO: Well, did he want the money from the hit or did he want the popularity?
MT: It’s different, but it goes hand in hand. Again, that isn’t something the classical guys are thinking about. Fandom? I mean, maybe the younger composers are today. Maybe Verdi did. But is anyone writing to have millions of people throw themselves at you? That’s a different impulse, isn’t it?
FJO: You don’t think that Stockhausen was all about having fans, and the cult of personality?
MT: I do think that modernism had this great alliance with fashion in a kind of weird way, so yes. But anything post-modern, I don’t know. Maybe I have to think more about it. I do think that there are different impulses going on. I like that you’re challenging me.
FJO: Alright, let’s accept it for what it was in your mind back then. So you have this epiphany. All of a sudden you’re listening to this music that’s here for you and is very immediate. And you think that as a composer, you need to do this, too—not out of an interest in being rich and famous, but simply to write a really good piece that reaches people in an immediate way. So what did that mean to you as a composer? How did that change what you were writing?
MT: It meant that we needed to hear what was going on, rather than think about it. Other composers have said this better than me. I was hugely influenced by minimalist composers like Reich and Glass. They said, “I want to write something with a key signature. I want to write something with rhythms you can understand. I want to write something where the melodic contour could be easily understood.” These are things where the elements of the music are much closer.
FJO: For Glass and Reich, it was essential that the structure of the piece was audible. Back in the so-called classical period, most pieces had very discernible structures. It got very complicated in later generations, but if you grew up with that music and were immersed in it, you could always tell when the themes come back in a Haydn symphony. But I think Glass and Reich took that idea of an audible structure much further by the way they used repetition—a phrase getting longer and longer in Glass’s early music or two voices going out of phase with each other in Reich. You can hear that happening even if you’ve never studied music theory. What you were doing with your early pieces is a fascinating extension of that concept—repeating a phrase and then making one or a few notes in it a half-step sharp or flat by changing keys, which alters where the melody sits in relation to the tonic center. It’s a completely new approach to harmonic modulation.
MT: You can modulate by taking your material and going up a fifth. That’s transposing. But what if you had all the same notes on the staff, but just changed the key signature? That would throw off all the intervals, because you’re introducing differences in the seven steps of the scale. The half-steps are now falling in different places. It’s a small change. If you went through the cycle of fifths by just changing the key signatures rather than changing the notes, you would come up with something that you could hear and that would be something a little bit different—fresh, or whatever you want to say. So that was the idea. Again, it was trying to find a new way to put notes together that didn’t need to be explained. It’s fun to explain it, but it could be heard right away.
FJO: The time when you were writing that stuff, we now look back on it historically and describe it as post-minimalism. But when you were doing this initially, you were still a student and minimalism still wasn’t really looked on favorably in many academic establishments. It was talked about disparagingly, if at all. I wonder how aware you were of other composers who were trying to take the next logical step after minimalism.
MT: Was I aware of it? Well, insofar as I was aware of John Adams’s music. At the time, he was said to be a second generation minimalist. You remember that? I think it’s really funny, because we lump them all together now. Well, maybe we don’t. Anyway, I wasn’t aware of what other people were doing so much. My idea was to invent new ways to put notes together. I didn’t care if anyone else was doing something; I just wanted to do my own thing. That was the point of view.
FJO: So how did your composition professors react to that? I remember reactions to minimalist-inclined music at Columbia when I was an undergrad. It mostly wasn’t friendly.
MT: Well, I went to places that were very open-minded. Remember, at Eastman, you got a different teacher every year. There was a visiting professor who was very resistant and that’s a story we can tell off-camera. But, in my senior year when I was working on Vanada, I had Christopher Rouse as a teacher and he was a huge influence in shaping that piece. I originally had that opening material and then I went into a softer kind of slower second group, and he said, “Why do you go into a new tempo? It should all just be one thing.” One tempo, one idea, monothematic, and I thought, “That is a strong idea. I’m going to do it.” I have Chris to thank for that. It actually has nothing to do with minimalism, even though you might say that it does. It was unifying the focus of what I was trying to say. And so, thank you Chris.
FJO: What’s so interesting about this is his own compositional aesthetics are very different from yours. He writes very expansive music. But I suppose, now that I think about it, his music has an insistency that relates it to what you ultimately did in that piece, at least conceptually if not aurally.
MT: Yeah, our music sounds very different, but you can trace back the similarity of focus and drive. Then at Yale working with Jacob Druckman, he just loved everything that there was. One of the great educators, so open. I had another teacher who said, “Well Michael, let’s concentrate on your weaknesses. I see you haven’t written any vocal music. I see you haven’t written for solo cello. Why don’t you do that?” And I remember thinking, because I was always so arrogant, why would you focus in on your weaknesses? That didn’t make any sense. I thought that if you want to make a career, if you want to get out there, focus in on your strengths. Then I thought, well, as an academic, for education, he is saying a very prudent thing. But as someone who wants to strike out, you can see why I would be resistant. That’s why I only lasted a year at Yale.
FJO: Now, were you there at the same time as—
MT: Julia Wolfe. We were classmates. I didn’t know her that well. She was always friendly. I didn’t really make any friends that year. It was kind of a solitary year. But she was always filled with wide-eyed energy. We never got that close, but I always liked her.
FJO: What’s so interesting is that you, Julia, Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Aaron Kernis are all roughly contemporaneous and you all went to Yale. Even though you all have distinctive compositional voices, you were all responding to similar things.
MT: Maybe some.
FJO: Well, for starters, the idea of taking minimalism somewhere else. And then you all had an openness to popular music and finding ways of incorporating aspects of it into your own music on your own terms.
MT: I think that’s right.
FJO: I think that it was the zeitgeist. But this was obviously before there was a Bang on a Can and there was no codification of this kind of eclecticism.
MT: Right. David, Aaron, and Michael were all just a little bit older. At the time when I graduated from Eastman, I had an offer to go to Columbia. And remember, my dream was to live in New York—that was the end all, be all. So of course I’m going to accept Columbia. And everyone said, “No, you’ve got to go to Yale. That’s where the things are happening.” People like David Lang, who I knew from Aspen and we overlapped at Tanglewood together in 1983.
FJO: When Ceremony of Innocence was performed there.
MT: That’s right. David said, “You’ve got to go to Yale. Are you out of your mind?” So, at the last minute, I called back Yale and said, “Is your offer still standing? And if is it, I’d like to come.”
FJO: Was Martin Bresnick the connector for everybody? Or was it Jacob Druckman?
MT: They were both talked about as being people you should work with. But at the time, Jacob was the king of the new music world. He was writing an opera for the Met. He was the composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic and was running the Horizons concerts there. It seemed like he had his finger on the pulse of everything. What I didn’t know was how open-minded and enthusiastic he was about everything. I thought, “Well, he’s kind of a neo-Berio guy with his music,” but no—his music was one thing; his world view was really wide.
FJO: Just as your music starts getting paid attention to in the so-called real world, you drop out of school and you move to New York, but then it seems like all these significant milestones in your career start happening all at once. The commissions from the New York Youth Symphony and the Brooklyn Philharmonic, so you have a performance of your music at Carnegie Hall and another one under the direction of Lukas Foss, who was extremely influential. You’d already had your music performed at Tanglewood. Soon after that, Boosey & Hawkes approaches you. Then New York City Ballet enters the picture. Things that other people wait decades to have happen in their lives seemed to happen to you in only six months.
MT: The other component, which was a little bit later, was when Decca Records decided to do the imprint of Argo and Andrew Cornall took an interest in me. Imagine a guy coming to New York, taking you out for dinner, and saying, “We’d like to record all your music.” That will never happen again. It never happened before. It’s ridiculous and of course, relatively speaking, that was short lived—from ’89 until maybe you could say ’97—but still it was so crucial for getting the music out. Another thing that happened in 1985 right when I got to New York was the ISCM World Music Days. Do you know that festival? Is it still going on?
FJO: I’m now on their executive committee.
MT: Oh, good. Congratulations. I have to thank them because they picked Vanada to be done at the Kleine Zaal at the Concertgebouw. It was the first trip I ever made to Europe. This was in October of 1985, and what I learned later was that Boosey & Hawkes heard about it and they were there at that concert. That was one of the key things making them interested. It was a real turning point, which I didn’t know. I just was excited. It was a good performance, I was excited to be in Europe; I met a lot of people there. But that was key.
FJO: This is great to hear. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich credits the performance of her String Quartet at the 1976 ISCM World Music Days in Boston, which was the only time it ever happened officially in the United States, with putting her music on the map. It’s very interesting to hear how many people’s careers were established this way. Of course, you know that Boulez’s Le Marteau Sans Maître was premiered at the World Music Days back in the 1950s and so was the Berg Violin Concerto, in 1936, the year after Berg died?
MT: Are you serious? I didn’t know that. That’s huge.
FJO: You’re in illustrious company.
FJO: And it’s interesting that this is what put you on the radar of Boosey & Hawkes.
MT: There’s also another element. I went to the MacDowell Colony for the first time in June of 1984. This is before I started Yale. And who should be there among the composers but David Del Tredici, whose music I admired. To me, he was a superstar. At the time, he was a celebrity in my mind. I just couldn’t imagine I’d be in the same room with David Del Tredici. We played four-handed piano together. And I was like, boy he’s so friendly. What I learned was that David Huntley at Boosey & Hawkes said to David Del Tredici, “Can you secretly get some scores of Michael’s? We want to look at them, but we don’t want to ask him because we don’t want him to know that we’re interested.“ And so David said, “Could I have some scores?” I said, “Sure, why not?” So that was happening behind the scenes. It’s weird, because that would have been before ISCM, so I don’t know how it was that they had first heard my music.
FJO: I imagine someone from Boosey & Hawkes attended the ASCAP Young Composer Awards and BMI Student Composer Awards ceremonies. Reps from the major publishers still attend them. And you won both of these awards. Ceremony of Innocence won. Someone probably also showed up at Tanglewood when Ceremony of Innocence was performed there.
MT: Yeah, that could be. And then Vanada won, too.
FJO: Often pieces win these awards before they ever get performed. Did Vanada win before or after it was played at ISCM?
MT: It won before it was played.
FJO: That’s probably why they showed up at ISCM, to hear it.
MT: Yeah, maybe.
FJO: Very interesting. I want to talk about the recordings, but I want to stay with publishing and with orchestral performances a bit more, because all this happened before you were 25. Nowadays, as I said at the beginning of our conversation, everybody’s programming emerging composers, but back then it was really not the way business was done.
MT: Certainly in classical music, there was so much emphasis on the older people doing it. So that was unusual from the publishing point of view. But then Peter Martins went to Boosey & Hawkes and said, “Who is the young Stravinsky?” That was, I think, what he said. Well, there is no young Stravinsky, but they said, “We’re interested in this person who we are now representing. Take a listen.” So he purposely asked to work with someone young. O.K., that’s outside of music, but there was always interest in youth, because if you have a relationship with someone young that can last, it’s like putting a young judge on the Supreme Court, it’s going to last for a long time. You know, it’s a good investment.
FJO: But maybe part of why that was happening and maybe why a lot of young composers then weren’t being paid attention to is because the whole self-publishing thing hadn’t yet exploded. The internet wasn’t around for most people yet.
FJO: So if you wanted to reach someone like Peter Martins at New York City Ballet—
MT: You couldn’t.
FJO: Unless you were at Boosey & Hawkes or Schirmer, which had established relationships with all these key tastemakers.
MT: And you couldn’t reach Boosey & Hawkes. I had a friend whose dream was to be a Boosey & Hawkes composer. He said, “Michael, don’t even try. If you make a submission, it’s going to go nowhere. I’ve tried a million times. I have the best connections through Ned Rorem and all of that.” I didn’t know there was all this behind-the-scenes stuff. I never wanted to be with a publisher. Steve Reich and Philip Glass said the only way you’re going to make it is to start your own ensemble and work your ass off for 20 years, and if you’re lucky, at age 40, you might get some attention. And that was what I wanted to do. So when Boosey & Hawkes finally came knocking officially, I thought, “Do I even want to talk to them? Because that isn’t the game plan.” But they said, “We can do a lot of stuff for you, and in Europe, too.” And I thought, “How can I say no to that?” So I said O.K.
FJO: But other tastemakers were already paying attention to you as well. The endorsement of Lukas Foss was significant; you were an untested composer and you were given the opportunity to write for an orchestra. What’s even more interesting, though, is when young composers get a break to write a first orchestra piece it rarely sounds like their subsequent music since they’re still finding their way. Yet those early orchestra pieces of yours, Ecstatic Orange and Purple, sound fully formed. They’re remarkably consistent with your compositional language—clearly extending minimalism on the one hand, clearly acknowledging standard repertoire music, while also embracing the immediacy of pop music and unabashed tunefulness. These are qualities that people associate with your music to this day, but you were only 24 years old at the time.
MT: Well, I look at it as not really being fully formed at all. I was just sitting around experimenting. But to the extent that those pieces are still played today, that probably means that they take up some kind of musical real estate. So I’m grateful that those pieces landed so well.
FJO: The other thing that’s so unusual about these pieces is the whole backdrop of associating different types of musical content with color.
MT: Synesthesia is this phenomenon of mixing the senses in some primitive part of the brain. In my case, I experience color when I hear music. I hear it in keys and pitches. So therefore, the prerequisite is having perfect pitch so that when you hear something you know what key you’re in. Whether it is a hyper-association I developed at age four or five when I first started listening to music or whether it truly is a physiological phenomenon of truly mixing up the senses, I don’t know. Did you read Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia? I’m in it.
There’s still a lot of investigation into all of this. Sometimes in my interviews, I put down the whole notion of synesthesia because how it informed my music is very different from what the scientific and musical community who want to talk about synesthesia think. If I think that D major is blue, to me that’s irrelevant to the world. In fact, it’s indulgent. So what. Big fucking deal. When I was in school, someone taught me that the way to create form is to establish some kind of concept of a room. Then you move out of the room, and then you come back in it. Sonata form is that way. You have the exposition, the development moves out, and the recapitulation is coming back to that center. But I said, wait a minute, if you’re at a great party on Saturday night, why would you ever leave the party? So the idea is why do we need modulation? Therefore, if D major is blue, and I want to write a piece in blue that never modulates, then what you’re doing is you’re celebrating the non-modulation, so you can call it Bright Blue Music as a way to say something about the form. That’s what my idea was. But they don’t want to talk about that. They want to talk about what it’s like to experience blue. To me, the actual physiology of it is of no interest at all. To me, it’s the form, whether those pieces work by never modulating. I don’t know. Modulation is one of the great tools we have as composers. I don’t believe that it’s some great virtue to never modulate. I love modulating. At the time, I was just working on something. I can be very self-critical. If you write a piece in D major that never modulates, but the piece is only six or seven minutes long, that isn’t some great accomplishment. Try doing that if it were 55 minutes long.
FJO: But it’s interesting that you were exploring harmonic stasis as well as changing keys without transposing melodies around the same time.
MT: Well, I was thinking about modulation, I guess. Or the lack of it.
FJO: A piece like The Yellow Pages keeps changing keys. It would be a rainbow if you were going to give it color name.
MT: Well, the truth is it’s anchored in G major, which is yellow. It modulates, but it comes back. It clearly in my mind is yellow. Again, these are semantic concepts where I would see if I could make it relate to music. They’re not always consistent. It was just the way that it got me to put notes together.
FJO: Ha, I didn’t realize there was a synesthetic connection with the title. I thought it was a goof on the fact that the Yellow Pages is a phone book that goes through all different kinds of companies in the same way that you’re going through every key.
MT: It’s a musical alphabetical order, so it is like the Yellow Pages. And it’s written in G major, which for me synesthetically is yellow. Also, I had a professor at Yale who said if you go into the pawnshop of tonality, you pay a steep price. Well, I just did. If you went to a pawnshop, all the pages would be yellowed because they would be old. So that was my little quip on that professor. Because what he was saying is don’t write tonal music. I have no patience for that kind of directive, so I was making a joke—an inside joke.
FJO: The other interesting thing about The Yellow Pages is that it is a piece that you kept thinking about ten years after you initially wrote it when you added two additional movements to it: Blue Pages and White Pages, which is weird because The Yellow Pages was a fully formed piece and was already out there getting performed by different ensembles. But the goal was to create something even more significant, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts—The Telephone Book. It’s interesting how seamless those three movements fit together even though in the intervening ten years your compositional language had evolved.
MT: Thank you, but I don’t know if all three work. There was a dance piece made to all three movements, and that’s when I thought maybe it does work. But there was some resistance, since The Yellow Pages does its own thing. Why bring in these other things? It’s almost like when you make a movie sequel—come on, that’s just a cynical thing of trying to cash in on all of that. I think that even my publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, was a little resistant.
FJO: I think this idea of playing out a process three different ways is an innovative way to deal with the structure of a multi-movement piece. So many of your early compositions are single-movement pieces. But there’s another early piece that you originally conceived as a multi-movement piece, Slate, in which you present the exact same material untransposed in four different keys. It takes the concept of The Yellow Pages to yet another level.
MT: There was joke behind it, too. Because while working with City Ballet, what I realized is that choreographers listen to the ictus of everything. They listen to the attacks. I said arrogantly that they’re not really listening to the harmonies or what’s actually going on in any kind of horizontal way. That’s a terrible thing to say, because it’s untrue. They listen to the essence of the music, and they make creative, beautiful pieces for dance. But in my arrogant state, I said, “What if I wrote four movements where all the attacks were exactly the same, all the orchestration was the same, everything was exactly the same, except I changed the harmonies just slightly?” That would force a choreographer to concentrate on the harmonies because everything else is the same. Lincoln Kirstein heard that piece, and he said, “Now that’s an idea.” That’s what led to him wanting to work with me. He commissioned the Mass and also he had commissioned another ballet that didn’t happen—he wanted Puss in Boots to be done, but that fell to the wayside.
FJO: But Slate has lived on as just one of the four movements which is one of the great disappointments for me as a listener since it destroys the whole form of the piece.
MT: Well, that was in ’89 and around that time Decca came calling. And Andrew [Cornall] said, “O.K. Michael, it’s an interesting concept. We’ll record one of the movements. I guess maybe the first movement would be the best one to record.” I said, “Couldn’t you record all of them, and even separate them on an album?” No. That was, you know, God speaking from above. So that’s what we did.
FJO: Well, now you have your own recording label.
MT: I could do it.
FJO: Do it. Please.
MT: Thank you, because I kind of thought that idea really failed big time. I didn’t know whether it was worth doing.
FJO: It’s totally worth doing. I’ve looked at the score. At one point, many years ago, I even convinced you to give me a MIDI-mockup of it and I’ve listened to it. It would be great to hear it with actual musicians.
MT: All right, I’ll work on that.
FJO: Since we’re talking about something you perceived as a failure, even though I don’t think it is, I’d like to get back to this teacher who told you to concentrate on your weaknesses. I’m really glad that teacher told you to write vocal music and that you eventually did since some of my favorite pieces of yours are the vocal ones, especially Four Proverbs. I still hear those tunes in my head more than 20 years later.
MT: Wow. Thank you.
FJO: Part of it is that the melodies are really catchy and they repeat. But another reason I think is that my brain is trying to process how you matched syllables to pitches, which is very peculiar.
MT: The idea was that I have these invented ways to push the notes around that I want people to be aware of; I want them to hear it. So you have a little flag attached to every note with the syllable from a proverb, which has incredible meaning, and then they get all mixed, but then they come back together. I thought that those flags would help the listener’s ears, the reinforcing nature of a word being attached invariantly to a note. I thought that that would be self-reinforcing and help matters. If there’s this notion of an additive process in music, what about adding not from the beginning but adding from the end where it’s the last syllable, the last two syllables, and the last three syllables working up this way, so it gets more and more in focus. That was one thing I played around with. I played around in the second proverb with the notion of something Robert Morris taught me at Eastman of three levels of hierarchy where mathematically you can have something going at its original duration, and have something happen the exact augmentation above it, and then four times the original where there’s this property where the attacks all line up. It’s a mathematical thing that he showed me. And I thought that would work in my music because you could actually hear that.
FJO: Even though there’s all this math behind it, it’s really effective prosody. You can also hear every word, even if they don’t quite make sense when they’re jumbled up.
MT: Another piece, Five Songs of Solomon, is kind of like the Slate idea. I asked Margaret Lloyd, “Which are your two best notes in your range?” And she said, “The E-flat in the top space of the treble staff and the A-flat a fifth below.” So I wrote the same song five times using those intervals. Everything is the same formally, but they’re all in slightly different keys. It’s exactly like Slate. When you hear it, it sounds like French salon music, but then, by the time you’re on the third song, you’re like, “Wait a minute! What’s going on in the meta-thing?” Then you hear the overall architecture, which I hope is satisfying.
FJO: Let’s get back to that record company deal with Decca. How did it happen?
MT: I don’t know exactly, except that this is the story that I always say: The invention of CDs gave a false feeling to the big record companies that they were more successful than they really were—especially in classical music, because everyone replaced their vinyl with CDs. And all of those big companies said, “Wow, we’ve got a great business. Now that we have all this extra cash, let’s do a new music imprint.” And Andrew Cornall, who was one of the big Decca producers at the time, said, “I want to run that.” And so he was given Argo. And he said, “I want to identify some British composers and American composers.” At the time, he identified two Americans—Aaron Kernis and me. And he identified Mark Turnage and now I can’t remember the other guy. You would know him.
FJO: Graham Fitkin.
MT: Yes. And it seemed like at the outset there were only four composers he was interested it. Then it got bigger and bigger. He branched out to people like Michael Daugherty, Julia Wolfe, other people got involved, over in the U.K. even more. But I don’t know how he got interested in it. Did Boosey give him stuff? I had no relationship to Decca or to him. He was a complete stranger to me. Once we started working together, it was fabulous. We’re still friends. The Concerto for Orchestra that I wrote for the Liverpool Philharmonic in 2014 was because of him saying, “We want to do some big commissions, so we’ll go to Michael. I worked with him years ago.” That’s how that came about.
FJO: Wow. The important connections you establish early on are often the ones that help you throughout your career. A lot of these connections developed because you were a house composer with one of the biggest blue chip music publishers in the world and then had this record contract with one of the world’s largest media conglomerates. But the world has changed and these once seemingly all-powerful publishers and record companies have a lot less influence. At the same time, you’re now self-published and run your own record company.
MT: All those industries have collapsed. Boosey is a ghost of what it was. If you’re a composer signed by Boosey, the kind of promotion that they would do for you today is a fraction from what they did for me back in the ‘80s. They worked hard on my behalf and I’m so grateful. It was just thrilling what they did. I didn’t even know all the things they did for me. My arrogance just took it all in stride. And at one time, there were the big record labels. They still exist, but thanks to the digital revolution that all has collapsed.
FJO: But from being on Decca, you got radio airplay all over the United States—and I imagine all over the world. It put you on the map with large audiences even more than the orchestra and ballet commissions did. Now there’s also a shift in how the media works. So reaching an audience requires a completely different strategy, one that hasn’t really been figured out yet despite what some spin doctors claim. Still, some folks today can’t believe the way things used to happen.
MT: That was the way the world worked. There were these big institutions that were gate keepers and it was highly criticized, because there were the elect few and if you were a Boosey & Hawkes composer, you were suddenly promoted around the world. If you had a record contract, people knew of you. If you didn’t, what options did you have? So it seemed really undemocratic. It seemed unfair. It seemed like there were tastemakers making these decisions that could be wrong. It seemed almost corrupt. Now we have the democracy of the digital world. Everyone is on equal footing. The problem with that is that who are the tastemakers? Who are the ones pointing to what you should hear? I miss going into Tower Records and having, just in the pop world, the new releases. I knew what to listen to. How do you follow pop music today? I don’t even know. Maybe that’s because I’m old. Maybe you can just surf around on YouTube. But there are so many billions of people doing billions of things. What’s good? What’s bad? I don’t know. That wonderful democracy that we all speak about, I wonder if that goes hand in hand with art, because we’re always trying to make distinctions in art and we had a lot of help in the old century.
FJO: The other part that we haven’t talked about yet is how to make money in this new environment. You have your own publishing company. You have your own record company. Are you able to sell recordings and scores?
MT: Yeah. I was lucky because I was set up by the old system where the monetization of what I was doing enabled me to concentrate on composing. I could make a living at it. Remember that this digital revolution was gradual. So, as I was learning about the business, I learned how to monetize what I was doing better and better. A simple thing like having works going forward from 1992 be my copyrights—rather than Boosey & Hawkes’s copyrights, but they would administrate them—was huge in terms of turning the money around. But I just didn’t know that. I learned the whole do-it-yourself thing on the job. So I had a publishing company in 1992. That was before any of this stuff we’re talking about, so I was set up for that. But then it occurred to me that I actually could do better than Boosey & Hawkes administrating my copyrights if I had a boutique guy like Bill Holab do it. That happened as late as 2004 when I was saying no to Boosey even being an administrator. And the whole recording thing? What’s great is that everyone can make perfect records. Everyone and their aunt and their aunt’s dog can do that. That’s really great. But no one cares anymore. And there’s certainly no money in it. So why we make recordings today is as a promotional tool.
The one thing that’s left with recorded music is radio. Because BMI pays very well with radio. Better than ASCAP. So when I have a new release, I send it with personal letters to the music directors of 250 classical radio stations. And they write back and say, “We loved hearing from you. We’ll take a listen.” And then when it’s on the radio six to twelve months later, I see it on my BMI statements. There still is money there. And that helps also because, who knows, some choreographer’s driving down Highway 1 in California, and they hear it and then that might lead to some dance piece that would have grand rights. So the publishing is still really important in classical music. And I’m still able to monetize it to the extent that I can make a living at it.
FJO: Now I wonder about the kinds of things that you can do now that you’re on your own and don’t have any gatekeepers telling you what to do, like the kinds of pieces you can write. You wrote this massive piece for ten pianos a couple of years ago, which I imagine is the kind of piece that a publisher would have rejected out of hand. “Are you out of your mind? We’ll never be able to get another performance of that! It’s a one-time deal, so we can’t invest our resources in publishing that.”
MT: Yeah, right. The fact is that you don’t have to worry about things like, “Well, we can’t engrave that because no one’s ever going to do it.” It’s already engraved by the time I put the double bar by virtue of the great programs like Sibelius that I use. But I think even more important than that, which I’m saying in a kind of lopsided way, is that you can do these deals with these funky outfits like this woman who has this zany ten-piano group in Miami and has no money. How did she hear of me? She was the rehearsal pianist at the workshop for my Metropolitan Opera commission. That’s how we met. She called me up a year later and said, “I have this idea for ten pianos.” I said great. She raised a little bit of money, and I said the way to make it work is that we’re going to record it right then and there. We’re going to record the concert, but we’re going to do a patch session, and I want the rights to that recording to put on my label. And so we did a deal. I can do the piece, which I thought would be fun, and I could have the recording. I thought it would an easy piece to monetize. Think about it. Every music school, how many pianos do they own? There’s a piano in every practice room. What would it take to move ten pianos into one room? Nothing. What would it take to get ten pianists? There’s 50 pianists at every music school. It should be played across America in every conservatory. It hasn’t yet, but why couldn’t it?
FJO: Because most pianists are trained to be soloists and they don’t want to play with anybody else.
MT: Yeah, well, that kind of idea is going down a little bit.
FJO: O.K. there are other things. You’ve written a bunch of band pieces and have issued them as a series. The big publishers have now caught up with the band world, but once upon a time they totally ignored it and focused mostly on trying to get performances with big orchestras and opera companies. But the band world offers incredible opportunities for composers in terms of getting multiple performances, multiple recordings, and simply selling lots of sets of scores.
MT: It’s huge and there’s tremendous respect for composers who are doing it well. They’re like heroes, the real great practitioners like Frank Ticheli or John Mackey or Eric Whitacre. But I write these weird pieces that are rhythmically difficult, and band directors say, “Oh, I like the sound of it.” But then they start rehearsing it and then they don’t want to play it. I have a piece called Bliss that just was re-recorded because I revised it. I sent it to 347 band directors across the country. That’s me doing what a publisher used to do. And ten percent wrote back. One percent said that they might like to play it. And I think I got maybe three or four rentals. A friend pointed out that that’s success. But I thought I would write this—okay, somewhat challenging—piece that every university band would want to play. And it didn’t quite work out. So, is that a failure? No. Do I stand by the piece? Yes. But as far as capitalizing the band market as a way to monetize what we’re doing, I think I’ve failed.
FJO: Writing personal letters to 347 band directors takes a long time. That’s a lot of time to be taking away from writing music.
MT: Well, if you don’t, you can’t write music. As my friend Jim Legg once said, you can’t write music 24 hours of the day. If you don’t have a wife who’s demanding time and you don’t have children’s diapers to change and you don’t have a teaching job, there’s no excuse not to do this stuff.
FJO: So what’s the balance?
MT: I would say it’s probably three-fifths composing and two-fifths doing the business side. I keep a stopwatch so I keep track of all of this.
FJO: I just heard the new recording that the Albany Symphony did of two of your recent concertos even though you don’t call them that.
MT: That’s true, but that’s what they are.
FJO: These piece reminded me about a dichotomy that started happening in your music about 25 years ago. Back then it seemed like there were two different Michael Torkes. There was the Michael Torke who did this very-much-part-of-the-zeitgeist, rhythmic, post-minimalist stuff that I personally found very appealing as a composer since it connected to things that I was interested in. But then there was this other Michael Torke who was really interested in the standard repertoire and wanted to write really lush, romantic music. Back then there were these distinct polarities, but I think in these pieces you’ve finally merged these two strands somehow.
MT: If that’s the case, then I’ve finally solved one of the biggest problems of my life, because I think that you’ve identified it. In 1990, I wrote a piano concerto that I called Bronze. I performed it myself at Carnegie Hall and then I wrote something that Lincoln Kirstein commissioned, Mass. Both were kind of regressive, because I thought I wanted to write a piece that sounds like it’s in that era. Why not? You know, we live in a post-modern time where history means nothing. And if they’re doing it in the visual arts, we should do it. Those pieces, of course, failed miserably. They were highly criticized. Boosey & Hawkes did that, too. So, by 1992, when I wrote the first piece after that little period, which was Music on the Floor, I remember Steven Swartz said, “He’s back to his rigorous style.” And I thought, “O.K., you tried something and it doesn’t work. You have the humility to say we all fail, and you move on.”
But look at the industry. There are incredible piano concertos that all the great soloists play in all the cities and with all the orchestras. And yet you know, in the Janet Malcolm piece on Yuja Wang that just appeared The New Yorker, she said that she wants to branch out now and maybe play the Messiaen Turangalîla. Well, that’s not a concerto. It’s good that she’s doing pieces like that, but what she’s really saying—between the lines—is “I’ve run out of pieces to play. What else am I supposed to do?” What if someone could write something that is fresh and well-orchestrated, that audiences can get excited about, pianists want to play, and conductors respect, meaning the notes are well put together? It’s not like you’re going to try to imitate Brahms or Gershwin. All the intellectuals will say, “You can’t just cop another style.” What if you write it in such a way that people say, “That’s his style”? You’re fulfilling this thing. Pianists need repertory. They’ve run out. In the past, composers fulfilled those needs. Now we’re not. We’re off doing other things and we say we can never appeal to them. You write some turgid piano concerto or some experimental thing that everyone respects, but who wants to play it? It may sound cynical, but I’m trying to do a very hopeful thing.
FJO: It’s so funny to hear you say that since, when we began this thing, you said that you’re in this little corner off to the side. It sounds like you’re totally in touch with what’s going on.
MT: I think to have the impulse of trying to write for that industry is out in left field; I don’t know if there’s another composer thinking that way.
FJO: But if it’s not about being that ‘70s pop songwriter that you don’t want to be who is trying to have a few hits and make money, what’s the reason for doing it?
MT: So you’ve connected all the dots, Frank. I’ve even thought of that. What would happen if pianists did play Three Manhattan Bridges and it was circulated in the concert halls around the world? And there was a 15-year phenomenon where I made a lot of royalties. Then after that, it was kind of forgotten because maybe I wrote a new concerto or there are other composers doing even better things. That wouldn’t be so bad. Because after all, 15 years from now, I will be 70. And maybe I’ll have slowed down. That might be a nice run. So maybe I’m thinking exactly like the ‘70s Top 40. And so maybe that’s the way to go.