Tag: 1960s

Carman Moore: Curiosity Is the Strongest Engine

A conversation at Moore’s home in New York City
June 13, 2013—3:00 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan

Back in 1994, people started playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” a game in which people try to figure out how anyone who has ever appeared in a Hollywood film connects to the actor Kevin Bacon. If there were a music version of such a game, it could very well be “Six Degrees of Carman Moore” since Moore—in a career spanning decades—connects to everyone from Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen to John Lennon and Aretha Franklin.

As a music critic for The Village Voice (a job he started in the 1960s while still studying composition at Juilliard with Luciano Berio and Vincent Persichetti), Moore was the first in an illustrious line of composers who covered the contemporary music scene for that paper—before Tom Johnson, Greg Sandow, and Kyle Gann. In 1968, together with Kermit Moore and Dorothy Rudd Moore (who were husband and wife but not related to Carman), Noel DaCosta, and Talib Rasul Hakim, he founded the Society of Black Composers (SBC). During its brief three years of existence, SBC produced an eclectic series of concerts and lecture tours which helped to establish the careers of several important African-American composers, including Olly Wilson, Wendell Logan, Adolphus Hailstork, and Alvin Singleton, who has remained Carman Moore’s lifelong friend. (In 2005, Moore wrote the text for Singleton’s choral work TRUTH.) In the early 1970s, Moore wrote lyrics as well as the string arrangements for a solo album by Felix Cavaliere (from the rock band The Young Rascals); a song Moore wrote with Cavaliere, “Rock and Roll Outlaws,” appeared on an album so titled by the British group Foghat. Moore’s own music first received a huge amount of attention in January 1975 when successful premieres of two orchestra commissions were performed by the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic less than 24 hours apart. The following month, Dell published a book by Moore about the iconic blues singer Bessie Smith.

In the 1980s, Moore’s Skymusic Ensemble—a group which evolved out of years of informal improv sessions at the legendary Judson Memorial Church in New York—toured everywhere from Geneva to Hong Kong, including a stint at Milan’s La Scala Opera House to perform Moore’s score for a dance choreographed by Alvin Ailey, Goddess of the Waters. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Moore wrote music for many noted choreographers—including Garth Fagan, Anna Sokolow, Donald Byrd, Elaine Summers, Cleo Parker Robinson, and Ruby Shang—as well as film scores for several PBS documentaries. Moore’s elaborate Mass for the 21st Century, first presented by Lincoln Center Out of Doors in 1994 in a performance featuring Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mother), has since been presented at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa. Among Moore’s most recent pieces is the Concerto for Ornette (inspired by Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics) which the New Juilliard Ensemble premiered, with Coleman in attendance, in September 2011.

Yet despite this broad and impressive range of accomplishments, Carman Moore—unlike Kevin Bacon—is not a household name. In fact, many people are unaware of him even within the contemporary music community. Part of this might have to do with the fact that when Moore was first coming up the ranks, the uptown vs. downtown battlefield was all ablaze and Moore wrote music that was somehow too downtown for uptown as well as too uptown for downtown. He also unapologetically embraced jazz and pop and every possible hybrid musical style. As he explained when we spoke to him in his cramped but homey apartment in an old building smack in the midst of all the high-rises that litter the Lincoln Center area, musical “crossover” does not have to be a by-product of opportunistic marketing, but is an authentic response to the world we now live in:

I think the concept of crossover is key to the American experience. It’s just not only in crossing over the Atlantic and the slave ship, but it’s just happening all the time. Living in New York City, you’re constantly listening to somebody else’s language and looking at somebody else’s face, looking at mixes. And it’s hard not to be amazed about some of the results of that. The only thing I can tell people relative to that is the things that seem to be crossing over, make sure you know where they are crossing over from. So it also takes you back to the study of roots of all kinds. You keep finding yourself plunging back into the beginnings of worlds.

Another reason that Moore might not be better known can be traced to his own reticence to walk down the traditional career paths that composers take. By nature, he’s a non-joiner. He’s never signed a record contract or a publishing arrangement. He has also not been particularly adept at self-publishing and self-releasing his own work. As a result, very little of his music has been publicly available. At the same time, away from the perpetual scrutinizing gaze of official arbiters of taste, as well as fans who sometimes deem every deviation from an established stylistic pattern to be a misstep, Moore’s music has been able to evolve on its own terms.

I don’t have much follow through. I think I must have been avoiding it. At the end of the performance in San Francisco, a Deutsche Grammophon guy showed up backstage and put a contract in front of me. And I swear to god, I didn’t sign it. I’ve thought about that ever since. Maybe it’s because I was a child of the ‘60s, I just didn’t trust being famous in that way. It actually may have helped me to not get locked into whatever it was I was doing at a particular time. … I did have the sense that a lot of the people I was writing about as a critic had gotten trapped in having a fandom that expected them to keep writing the same way. They didn’t seem to be able to dodge that bullet. I just didn’t want that to happen. I could have gotten stuck writing gospel in symphony orchestra pieces or something, I don’t know.

However, Carman Moore has begun making a more conscious effort to get his music out into the world. Downloads of recordings for many of his compositions are now available through his own website. In August 2009, former Maine state politician and jazz bassist Kyle W. Jones presented the first Carman Moore Music Festival on the remote Swan’s Island, located off the coast of Maine. But the latest edition of the festival will take place in New York City at the West Park Arts Center (October 18-19, 2013). Highlights include a repeat performance of The Quiet Piece (which premiered in May 2013) and a brand new dramatic song cycle about the wide-reaching effects of child abuse called Girl of the Diamond Mountain, which Moore composed jointly through improvisation with Danish vocalist/lyricist Lotte Arnsbjerg. Perhaps now that stylistic hybrids and a DIY sensibility have become par for the course for many of today’s most successful composers, Carman Moore will rightly be seen as a true pioneer of 21st-century American music.


Frank J. Oteri: In your autobiography, you say two things about being an artist which are somehow contradictory, yet also complimentary. You assert that an artist is a rebellious individual, someone who strikes out on his or her own path no matter what people think. At the same time, you speak to the importance of an artist being a force for bringing society together.

Carman Moore on the Street

Carman Moore on the Street.
Photo by Lotte Arnsbjerg.

Carman Moore: Beneath the surface, what the creative artist does is bring society together to think in a new way. I have a piece in my Mass for the 21st Century which is called, “I Want to Think in a New Way.” I don’t know if it was sour grapes, but we just came through a period in music composition when many composers were totally happy to chase away an audience that would get and love what they’re doing.
Once I was in my teacher Luciano Berio’s place over in New Jersey and Karlheinz Stockhausen was there, so I interviewed him a little bit. I was writing for the The Village Voice at that point. And I said, “What would you do if people started to really like your music and really understood it and really got behind you?” And he said, “Well, I’d have to rethink myself. I wouldn’t like that at all.” Berio, on the other hand, didn’t have that problem. He was really fascinated with the Beatles and their being popular and what that meant. And that they were writing really good music. I mean, anybody with ears could hear that they were really musical and that something was special happening there. So he did some variations on Beatles pieces for Cathy Berberian, who was then his wife. He thought it was sort of fun. Stockhausen went on to explain that he had sat in stadiums with the Hitler Youth where everybody was singing the same song and enjoying singing together. That really put him off. I think he was really torn.

FJO: Of course Stockhausen witnessed firsthand how popularity and conformity led to one of the worst horrors in human history. Which is why, as you make clear in your book, that it is just as important to be a rebel as it is to bring people together. That reminds me of something else you wrote: “Everything society at the time said I wasn’t supposed to do, I had to try. Everything I thought society had already decided about me because of my race, I had to subvert.”

CM: Well, the whole business of trying things out was just mainly about me trying to gain some self-knowledge. I grew up with a family that totally adored me. My grandma just couldn’t get enough of me. I lived in Elyria, Ohio, and she lived in the next town five miles away—Lorain, Ohio. Somehow I’d get on the bus and go down there to visit her, and I would walk onto her porch, and she’d say, “There he is. I worship the very ground you walk on.” I hadn’t done anything. So I was used to that, to just being appreciated. I didn’t encounter a lot of race prejudice, but I knew it existed and I had read about it. There were fables around, spread by white culture, like black people could not run distances. Obviously before I was born Jesse Owens had already proven that black people could run sprints. And then the Ethiopians and the Kenyans showed up. So I wanted to try some things that are supposedly identified with white people, like tennis, just to see if there was some reason I would not be a good tennis player just because I was black. I was curious about myself relative to the world.

FJO: And you’re still playing tennis, and you’re apparently pretty good at it.

CM: Yes and I have won championships. But I’m not great anymore; I have sore knees after I play for a little while.

FJO: This curiosity about who you are relative to the world ties into your involvement in music as well, because at the time there were also certain assumptions about who played certain kinds of music. There was definitely a supposition, at the time you were first getting involved in music, that if you were African American you would be involved with jazz and not with classical music. And while your music certainly debunks any definition of genre, it is not really jazz.

CM: Right. Truth to tell, my mother was a marvelous classical player, but she also played boogie-woogie and Duke Ellington’s pieces a lot. She just loved them. And she talked about Art Tatum. But she played classical music on the radio. She’d play the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday afternoons. It sounded great. So by the time I was aware that I was supposed to be doing something, I was already doing something else, you know. I was already totally enamored of so-called classical music. But I love jazz.

FJO: But while you immersed yourself in jazz as well as classical music, you never identified as a jazz musician.


Louis Armstrong (left) and Bob Thiele (middle) with Carman Moore (right)

CM: No, because I actually never learned an instrument that I could [play jazz on]. I learned the trumpet a little bit, but they needed a French horn player in high school. So I took up the French horn. And cello. The literature was very specifically classical, so I just followed that where it led. I studied at Oberlin Conservatory, which was a few miles away. I took lessons there in French horn from Martin Morris, who was the second chair in the Cleveland Orchestra, and cello lessons from someone whose name I can’t remember anymore, who was a student there. And I studied conducting with Cecil Isaacs. So I went into that music naturally. It wasn’t an example of my deciding to try classical music because I’m not supposed to. I was already there.

FJO: What about writing music criticism? Back then, and even to this day, most of the people who are writing about music in this country are white. That’s actually true for jazz as well as for classical music.

CM: Yeah.

FJO: I find it fascinating that there was such an “anything goes” attitude in the early days of The Village Voice. What a different publication it has become today! But you became their first new music critic, long before Tom Johnson, Greg Sandow, or Kyle Gann, which I think a lot of people today are not aware of. I’m curious to know how that happened.

CM: My first touch with The Village Voice was entering an annual poetry contest that they had. I was studying at Juilliard. So I entered a couple poems in there, and Marianne Moore was one of the judges. I won second place. At any rate, I went to the Voice, and I said, “You don’t have anybody writing about new music here.” And so they said, “Would you like to?” I mean, they weren’t paying anybody anything serious, so I said, “Sure, I’d really love to start.” And so I started. I found that it was really exciting writing about music because that way I could study music all around town and go to concerts for free. One of the first things I did was write an obit on Henry Cowell who had just died.

FJO: At that point Leighton Kerner was already there.

CM: Right. But he just wrote about opera and the regular fare. So I started with just new music, but I started adding other things. Popular [music] was really happening. So I said I’d like to add that. And jazz. So I started a column called “New Time” in which I’d just write about whatever I wanted to.

FJO: So they weren’t covering pop music at all at that point, or jazz?

CM: Well, not that I knew of. They started covering pop music sort of informally during the time I was there. Richard Goldstein and Robert Christgau had started seriously writing about popular music.

FJO: But that was also after you were already there.

CM: Right.

Carman Moore's Studio

Carman Moore’s studio set up, like most composers nowadays, includes a digital keyboard and a computer. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

FJO: What’s also interesting about your stint at The Village Voice is not only were you the first person to write about new music there, you were a composer of new music who was writing about it. At that time, people like Harold Schonberg at The New York Times said that if you wrote about music not only should you not have a public career as a musician, you also should not be friends with other musicians. There was a strongly held belief that there were too many conflicts of interest. You would somehow taint the objectivity of your criticism, as if criticism could ever be objective. So did you find any conflicts in being on both sides and how did you handle them?

CM: I certainly thought about it a lot. Of course Robert Schumann had done it a hundred and whatever years previously. But I think it held me back a little bit, because I wasn’t as aggressive about pursuing my career as a composer as I might have been if I were hard put to get some things done. But very soon I even reviewed pieces by some of my Juilliard teachers. It was sort of a challenge to just react to a piece, take some notes, be good at writing in the dark, and then just put on the blinders and write and see what comes out. I didn’t pan any of my teachers. But I would choose something in a concert that I liked better or say, “I have a problem with this,” or “I didn’t really get this.” Hugo Weisgall had an opera called The Stronger. I didn’t love the opera, but there were a couple of arias that I liked, and so I spoke about them first, and then trashed the rest.

FJO: I can’t imagine you trashing anything.

CM: Well, I didn’t really.

FJO: But to play a Harold Schoenbergian devil’s advocate here, might you have written bad reviews of pieces by your teachers if they hadn’t been your teachers?

CM: Well, I might have been a little more negative. But truth to tell, my teachers were Luciano Berio, Vincent Persichetti, and Hall Overton, who was my first teacher. And I loved their music. So I didn’t have any problem there.

FJO: What about people who might be potentially performing your music?

CM: I didn’t worry about that much. I wrote for the Voice until about ’75 or ’76 when I really got tired of making the deadlines. I got lots of performances during the ‘70s. I was getting more performances than I really had time for. So I didn’t send things out much. It was many years that passed before I even understood how much composers typically send their stuff around. But as a result of reviewing these people, one of the really great things that happened for me as a composer was I was just able to try out my own sense of my own work against all this stuff I was hearing. I was hearing everybody’s work, not just in contemporary classical music, but in jazz and pop and everything. And I discovered the fascination—which I still have—of getting into somebody else’s mind. In other words, being a listener and turning myself over to the composer and to the musical experience, and letting it have its way with me. I would just take notes on how my listening experience was going. Then once a year, in my column, I would always remind people that I am just a listener who has a lot of experience. I encouraged everybody to go listen to music, to turn themselves over to the experience, and then respond. That is criticism, as far as I’m concerned.

Carman Moore's Piano

Carman Moore’s upright piano is littered with scores of composers he deeply admires such as Haydn and Debussy. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

One of the reasons I enjoyed being a music critic was just that experience of taking that voyage into somebody else’s way of thinking. Now I think it scares a lot of people because they think that they’ll get kidnapped mentally and never come back. But I like the idea of seeing where somebody else is coming from, and how they got to these notes. Now very often, in my criticism of somebody’s work, it’s clear that they got there fraudulently. But fraudulently means that they just were afraid to let me really hear what they would really like to do with this material. Or they just wanted to impress the listener with how much they know and how complicated they can be. And it ended up that their music would sound like a mess, even with some people of talent. It’s like a novelist who has a few obviously really potent and interesting characters that they force to behave a way in which those characters would not behave. So a lot of my criticism was simply judging that.

FJO: But overall it seems that most of the criticism you wrote was positive.

CM: Well, when I decided what I was going to hear, I didn’t go to something that I sort of suspected was going to be a mess and would waste my time. So in that sense, I also was being my own ideal listener. A listener wouldn’t choose to go to hear something that they think is going to be crap. Usually, when I would go to something that I would think I would not like to hear as the result of somebody else saying, “Oh, you gotta hear this thing,” I’d go and be disappointed. Maybe that was their thing and not my thing. But it is quite possible that you could start getting it after a while.

FJO: This brings us to that loaded word—crossover. Nowadays, among most people in the critical community as well as others who are—for lack of a better term—the gatekeepers in the music business, that word is mostly used as an insult. It is pejorative. If something is labeled crossover either it lacks authenticity or it comes out of a really cynical commercialism—a crass attempt at appealing to different markets without really understanding any of them. But for you, the word is all-encompassing and all-embracing. You use it to describe your ethnicity, because your ancestors were Native American and European as well as African. You also use it to describe your own music, and it’s even the name of your own autobiography.

Moore, Sachs, Coleman

Carman Moore, Joel Sachs, and Ornette Coleman at Juilliard following the premiere of Moore’s Concerto for Ornette.
Photo by Pearl Perkins.

CM: I think the concept of crossover is key to the American experience. It’s not only in crossing over the Atlantic and the slave ship, but it’s just happening all the time. Living in New York City, you’re constantly listening to somebody else’s language and looking at somebody else’s face, looking at mixes. And it’s hard not to be amazed about some of the results of that. The only thing I can tell people relative to that is the things that seem to be crossing over, make sure you know where they are crossing over from. So it also takes you back to the study of roots of all kinds. You keep finding yourself plunging back into the beginnings of worlds. For example, tap dancing apparently was a mix of Irish step dancers with ex-slaves laying out railroad track. It was just an African-American rhythmization of things that the Irish guys were doing. It happens all over the place. In the ‘60s, some of my African-American pals were saying white people don’t have a right to be playing this music, they’re not playing this music right, whatever. It’s crazy because if it’s authentically produced, authentically composed, and authentically put out there, it’s fascinating.

The Mystery of Tao

The opening page of Carman Moore’s The Mystery of Tao for string trio and synthesizer.
© 2001 by Carman Moore and reprinted with his permission. Click image to enlarge

FJO: It’s interesting that both your own music, as well as what you wrote about music, has been so concerned with breaking the barriers between styles and labels. Some people claim that it’s basic human nature to put labels on things in order to understand them better. But I would dare say that putting labels on things is a particular trait of people who are in the business of writing criticism—whether it’s music criticism, art criticism, or literary criticism. All these names of movements come from somebody writing about them and giving them names as a kind of shorthand. Then the marketers run with it. If you like this, you’ll like that. But, of course, if you’re writing “new music” or writing about “new music,” all that means is that it’s new. The term doesn’t connote any particular pedigree. But people have always made assumptions about pedigree, especially during the late ‘60s within the realm of what we call—for lack of a better term—contemporary classical music. That was the heyday of uptown vs. downtown.

CM: I covered both sides and I actually wrote in both styles, just to see what it felt like partly. I actually used to live at what was called the Judson Student House, which was connected to Judson Church, which is still on Washington Square. It was a wild time to be there. Among other things, I had the key to the church, and they had a big organ up there. I used to go there and just sort of improvise with people. I started forming my group, the Skymusic Ensemble, from some of those first things. Some people were just banging on bottles and stuff like that. I discovered that you could just take off and you don’t have to have a tune. You don’t have to have chords or anything. You just sort of find the music. I later discovered that it’s better if you write some things down, some guide posts.

Carman Moore Righteous Heroes

The first page of the manuscript score for Carman Moore’s Righteous Heroes: Sacred Spaces.
© 1987 by Carman Moore and reprinted with his permission.
Photo by Pearl Perkins.

Then I was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write Wild Fires and Field Songs which is, in effect, a three-movement symphony. That was after having interviewed Pierre Boulez. We got into discussing improvisation, and he said, “You wouldn’t invite somebody over to watch you take a piss, would you?” That was what he had to say about improvisation as such. But at any rate, I wrote that piece virtually at the same time as I wrote Gospel Fuse, which is a work for gospel quartet. The lead singer was Cissy Houston when we did it with Ozawa and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. I was just finishing that and the Philharmonic wanted to commission me to do this other piece. They’re worlds apart. And I just loved that. That was really exciting. Of course, Gospel Fuse was a crossover piece, because it was a two-movement work for symphony orchestra and gospel quartet.

FJO: That was the piece that was originally supposed to be done by Aretha Franklin

CM: Exactly. But I think there were people around her—I call them goons—who wouldn’t let her pick up the phone. I needed to be able to go back and forth with her. So at any rate, I kept composing, and finally—talk about crossover—Peter Yarrow [of Peter, Paul & Mary] popped up in the class I was teaching at the New School downtown; it was an orchestration class. He didn’t come to it very often, because he was always on the road. But we became good friends, and he was good friends with Seiji Ozawa. So at any rate, that commission came about through that. And then I told you about the Boulez one. It’s not 12-tone, but it invades his world of sound. I just really love the challenge of doing that over here, and doing this over there, and trying to make them wonderful.

It turned out that Gospel Fuse was scheduled for one day in February, and then I was called not long after that and found out that the New York Philharmonic had scheduled Wild Fires and Field Songs for the very next night. Now, the odds against that are infinite. So at any rate, I finished the two pieces and started rehearsing. It suddenly occurred to me that I could bomb on two coasts at the same time! I could just be clearing the tomatoes off my face from San Francisco, and get a fresh batch in New York City. But they both turned out really great.

FJO: Taking into account the time differences, you had only about 19 hours to get back to New York from San Francisco.
CM: I also had to be at that last rehearsal in New York. So that was a red eye flight back to just go to the rehearsal. So I was a mess, but it was beautiful.

FJO: No tomatoes?

CM: No tomatoes. No, no, no, no. Kudos! I had become friends with John Lennon and at the New York performance he showed up in the lobby before the performance with May Pang, who I think he was sort of going with at that time. Then Yoko Ono shows up from the other direction with this guy. I was with my then wife. And there the six of us were, in the lobby downstairs, just before the beginning of this concert. And John said, “Do I look okay? I’ve never been to one of these before.” He had this sort of black suit on. And I said, “You’ve never been to a symphony concert before?” “No.” He had an “Elvis Lives!” button on and I said, “I think you’re gonna enjoy this.”

FJO: You also played music with John Lennon, too, right? But none of it got recorded.

CM: There was one evening I wanted to interview Yoko for I forget which album of hers. So I brought my little cassette recorder in. They were living in the Village at that time; that was just before they moved uptown. At any rate, I put my recording device down on the table. It definitely was not one of these digital items of today; it would run out at a certain point. So she and I were talking and talking and talking, and he would break in every now and then, and say, “Yoko, you know, the man’s trying to help you. You know, don’t turn everything into bloody circuses.” Because she said, “Why don’t you take the page and cut it down the middle and put me on this side and John on the other.” So that went along and, of course, John is passing a joint. I wasn’t paying any attention. I was just trying to be polite. Well, I was more than polite by the end of that thing. I got all my stuff down and the tape recorder ran out. And he said, “Would you like to jam?” I said, “Sure, right.” They had two rooms—it was sort of like a loft space, but it was on the ground floor: a great big room in the front, then a great big bedroom. He had a pump organ there. He got out his acoustic guitar, sat on the bed, cross-legged, and off we went. I remember it was great music. But, obviously, even if I had wanted to record it, I had run out of tape.

FJO: I’ve known you and have known about your music for years, but the thing that keeps amazing me about all these stories—you being the first person to write about new music for The Village Voice, you having premieres by the San Francisco Symphony and New York Phil conducted by Ozawa and Boulez less than 24 hours apart, you jamming with John Lennon—is that despite you having all these connections to people who are household names, you yourself are not a household name. Yet you connect to all these things that are central to the story of music of the past century. You could say, “O.K., people who write contemporary classical music are not household names any more. We’re no longer living in the era where someone like Aaron Copland would be on the cover of Time magazine.” But your music embraces so much more than that, so that’s not it. It’s somewhat provocative to ask why that is, and it’s probably something you can’t answer. But it just seems to me, given all these anecdotes, that you ought to be much more famous.

CM: I’ve thought about this a lot. I don’t have much follow through. I think I must have been avoiding it. At the end of the performance in San Francisco, a Deutsche Grammophon guy showed up backstage and put a contract in front of me. And I swear to god, I didn’t sign it. I’ve thought about that ever since. Maybe it’s because I was a child of the ‘60s, I just didn’t trust being famous in that way. It actually may have helped me to not get locked into whatever it was I was doing at a particular time. But that’s a question I have wrestled with ever since. Then when I started the Skymusic Ensemble, a lot of my work couldn’t be played by anybody else but them.

FJO: But in that era there were many composers who primarily wrote music for their own ensembles to play, and they gained quite a bit of notoriety from it—Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Meredith Monk. Even to some extent Charles Wuorinen and Harvey Sollberger forming the Group for Contemporary Music was a do-it-yourself initiative and actually helped get their music out there. Also self-publishing and releasing your own recordings was definitely an ethos that started in the ’60 and lasted throughout the ‘70s. You were certainly part of that generation, but back then you didn’t really release much of your music. That same ethos is pervasive once again nowadays, and thankfully now you’re actually releasing a lot of your music.


Alvin Singleton (left) with Alex Shapiro (middle) and Carman Moore (right) in 2011.
Photo by Norberto Valle, Jr.

CM: I’m finally getting there. Somebody who’s been helping me a lot is Alvin Singleton. He’s a marvelous composer and a dear friend of mine.

FJO: In the last few years there has even been an annual Carman Moore Music Festival.

CM: There’s a friend of mine who is not only a bass player, but also a lawyer and a state senator from Maine, who is just nuts about my music, so he has been doing everything he can to foster it. He’s the one whose idea it was to have a Carman Moore Music Festival. I would never think of doing a thing like that. But it’s about to happen again and there will be several pieces done on it. This time, two days of this will happen in New York City. At any rate, I’m very excited about the music I’m writing right now. I just did a piece called The Quiet Piece for the Skymusic Ensemble with a guy doing Tibetan singing bowls plus a marvelous dancer.

FJO: I’m very eager to see and hear those live performances. I’m also very excited about the recordings that are finally becoming available of a lot of your earlier pieces. For years the only music of yours that was available commercially was one piece that had been released on a Folkways compilation in the 1970s and another piece on one side of a CRI LP. And Folkways and CRI were hardly commercial labels.

CM: I know. I recognize that this has been my path. My path has been avoiding things, and that’s all I can think of, because fame has avoided me. Over at the Philharmonic, they have portraits of every composer [they’ve worked with] going back to Tchaikovsky. I happen to be in between John Cage and Charles Wuorinen! I’ve gone back to listen to some of that early stuff, and I’ve said, “Wow!” But I do remember having been such a perfectionist at that time that I wouldn’t let anything come out that wasn’t, not only written perfectly, but performed perfectly. It was a big mistake. I could have gotten world famous easily, any time in there. I recognize that now.

Carman Moore String Trio

The opening page of Carman Moore’s String Trio. © 2007 by Carman Moore and reprinted with his permission. Click image to enlarge

FJO: Terry Riley’s story has many parallels with yours, I think. He did sign a contract with a big record company. Columbia Records put out two albums of his music and another one with John Cale. But they wanted another record and then he resisted the career path. He ran off to India to study classical Indian singing, to become a disciple rather than a star. But at that time there seemed to be only two paths. There was either the downtown do-it-yourself path of starting your own ensemble or the uptown path of teaching at a university and making connections to ensembles and larger institutions that way. But you taught also. You had your hands in all these different things, and yet you somehow remained an outsider, which goes back to the very beginning of this conversation—doing it your own way instead of doing things the way others say you should.

Carman Moore in Central Park.

Carman Moore in Central Park.
Photo by Lotte Arnsbjerg.

CM: It may come out of that mindset. Who knows? I mean, I did have the sense that a lot of the people I was writing about as a critic had gotten trapped in having a fandom that expected them to keep writing the same way. They didn’t seem to be able to dodge that bullet. I just didn’t want that to happen. That’s the only sort of conscious thing I can think of relative to that. I could have gotten stuck writing gospel in symphony orchestra pieces or something, I don’t know. I feel I’ve lived a lot of different lives. I’m fascinated with many paths. My curiosity is probably the strongest engine running inside me.

FJO: Well, you know, there’s another part to it, I think, as well. It’s interesting that you didn’t bring this up, but I’m going to. I mentioned Terry Riley because I also see a commonality in terms of his egolessness. There’s a lack of a drive in a way that I think comes from a sense of community, the other part of that original dichotomy between being an individual and then being a part of a community. You also actively collaborate with other composers. You’ve written lyrics for other people’s music. You mentioned Alvin Singleton. You did the libretto for Truth. You did lyrics for a whole album by Felix Cavaliere from The Young Rascals. You’ve been willing to take a more back seat role, not that writing lyrics is a back seat—some people identify with lyrics more than music and there are famous lyricists—but getting famous as a lyricist doesn’t seem to have been your motive in those collaborations.

CM: I’m very sure of myself. It’s the truth of the matter. But I’ve thought about this question a lot. I come from a large family. There are eight children. I’m the oldest. I very often had to just make sure everybody else got fed. I had five sisters. So I may have been taught to make sure that everybody else got their stuff before I come in because I might step on somebody.

FJO: So in terms of paths to take, what to do, what not to do, do you feel you have advice to offer other composers?

CM: No, because it depends upon what you are capable of. The key thing, I think, is to find some way to figure out what you’re capable of relative to what you’re trying to do. There are a series of things people should find out about themselves as they emerge, and therefore they should try out things that they don’t know about, because those are the roads that you need to go down. So there are two roads: One is to go down the road of your strengths, the other is to go down the road of your weaknesses and see what that sounds like. And don’t pretend.

One thing I discovered while composing early on was that there were stretches when I’d be composing, I’d write something and listen to it, and I’d get embarrassed. But I discovered soon after that, that those are the important parts. That’s you. When I would feel embarrassed, I was in a situation in which I was not defended. I was sort of hung out to dry. As I came up, those two schools—the uptown and downtown—were strong. And they sounded and behaved in particular ways. As I was writing my music, I was aware of this. And of course, because of being a critic, I heard everything, so I knew what people were doing. But there were stretches in which I just didn’t sound like either of those things. Those were ones in which I was slightly embarrassed about it. Maybe this is not very professional, but I would go ahead and write it and have it performed, and see what it sounded like. And that was good. So I say to emerging composers and to people who want to compose: When you hit one of those spots, check it out. It may be because you have no business writing that, but it may be that’s your voice.

Making Brownies

Carman Moore at home making brownies in his kitchen. Photo by Pearl Perkins.

Sounds Heard: The Beach Boys—The Smile Sessions

The cover for the Smile Sessions featuring the original cartoon drawing of the entrance to "The Smile Shop"


It might seem somewhat incongruous for the following musings about an album recorded more than 45 years ago by one of the biggest (and most financially lucrative) musical acts of all time to be appearing within this web magazine devoted to new American music that is outside the commercial mainstream. But The Smile Sessions—a total of 144 tracks (in its most complete available form) from the 80 sessions recorded by The Beach Boys between 1966 and 1967 for the never-issued LP SMiLE, finally officially released commercially on November 1, 2011—contains some of the most provocative musical ideas of the last half-century in any genre of music. Although these were recordings for an album by what was—for all intents and purposes—the most successful popular music group of its day, the project morphed into something quite other. Randall Roberts, in one of several pieces on The Smile Sessions that ran recently in The Los Angeles Times, has stated that “every library of American recording history needs this; university composition departments, music professors, budding recording engineers and composers should study it.”

In the extensive hardcover booklet that accompanies the collector’s edition of The Smile Sessions, Beach Boy Bruce Johnston boasts that back in 1967 he was wondering if The Beach Boys’ record label Capitol would realize that the music contained herein should be released on Capitol’s classical division, Angel Records. Of course, it was never issued in 1967 on Capitol, Angel, or anywhere else for a complex web of reasons that are still not completely clear at this late date. But these 144 tracks of music, many of which will be brand new to listeners despite their age, deserve an extensive explication or at least an attempt at one, so here goes.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice…

A photo of master tapes for various songs from SMiLE.

A tantalizing photograph of the original master tapes for SMiLE which is featured on the cover of the LP-sized digipack that holds the 5 CDs contained in The Smile Sessions.

The Beach Boys’ album SMiLE, scheduled for release in 1967 but never issued, has been touted for decades as one of American music’s ultimate what-ifs: the most momentous might-have-been in music history, the musical road not taken which would have irrevocably changed music’s subsequent direction. For decades it has inspired voluminous conjecture comparable to speculative fiction like Philip K. Dick’s classic The Man In The High Castle, a novel not about the future but rather an alternative present which was the result of the Axis powers winning the Second World War. Over the past nearly half-century, knowing about SMiLE’s existence made you part of a cadre of arcane music cognoscenti. There was particular satisfaction in being part of the minority who had been let in on the secret that this group—frequently dismissed even by those who believed that popular music could aspire to a level equal to anything coming from so-called high art—had actually created something that was perhaps even more full of high art aspirations than anything else done at the time.

Like Scott Joplin’s first opera A Guest of Honor, whose performance materials no one saw fit to preserve, or Charles Ives’s Universe Symphony, which some of its champions have vociferously asserted can be completed from his surviving sketches while others (equally vociferous) claim was nothing more than a patchwork of unfinished and unrealizable sketches, SMiLE has become the stuff of legend and its legend has become larger than it or perhaps any work of art can ever be. Its pedigree certainly puts SMiLE in league with those Joplin and Ives pieces, as well as such music history would-that-they-weres as an opera by Giuseppe Verdi based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, which according to some accounts Verdi threw into the flames as soon as he completed it, or Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony, which its composer struggled in vain with for the last thirty years of his life and also ultimately destroyed. (Although some provocative fragments from what might be Sibelius’s 8th finally got their first performance in October 2011). Or closer to home, Charles Mingus’s Epitaph, which its jazz bassist creator was only able to record a portion of in 1962 and whose score was long thought to be lost, but which resurfaced in his papers after his death in 1979 (and only received its first hearing when Gunther Schuller led a performance of it a decade later in 1989).

The legend surrounding SMiLE also includes burning work, the release of less-than-complete portions of work, the music haunting its principal creator (The Beach Boys’ principal songwriter and musical arranger Brian Wilson) for decades, reconstructing a finished product long after that, and lost elements that miraculously resurfaced still later on. So what exactly is the story?

I Know There’s An Answer…

The cover for The Beach Boys LP Pet Sounds showing band members feeding animals.

The somewhat lighthearted cover of Pet Sounds doesn’t really reflect the serious music contained on the album.

In a nutshell (though admittedly one for a rather large nut), by 1966—when the recording sessions for SMiLE began, The Beach Boys were at the top of their game. Their now platinum-selling album, Pet Sounds, which took full advantage of studio recording techniques and was filled with dense contrapuntal layering and elaborate orchestration, was released in May of that year. That album was the first piece of evidence that The Beach Boys, and Brian Wilson as auteur, were capable of a lot more than just churning out teen fare marrying layered vocal harmonies (from low bass to high falsetto) reminiscent of contemporaneous East Coast groups like The Four Seasons to a somewhat less edgy, though way more popular, approach to the regional surf rock subgenre from their native Southern California pioneered by Dick Dale. Pet Sounds earned Brian Wilson respectability and offered concrete evidence that he might actually be—as the band’s acolytes believed and Capitol Records’ marketing department had promulgated—a musical genius. Among its most celebrated fans was Paul McCartney of The Beatles (who had yet to complete the recording sessions for their album Revolver, which was issued in August 1966). By McCartney’s own admission, Pet Sounds heavily influenced him and directly led to the creation of The Beatles’ subsequent LP, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (released on June 1, 1967), the album that has frequently been credited with the birth of the progressive rock genre as well as album-oriented rock overall. Pet Sounds is a clear precedent. Among its tracks are the astonishing songs “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “I Know There’s An Answer,” “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” and (the Brian Wilson solo) “Caroline, No,” whose ending (also the end of the album) is a barrage of sound effects. But despite the sophistication of these songs (whose lyrics also mostly eschewed the Boys’ previous summer fun fare thanks in part to Brian Wilson collaborating with an outside-the-band wordsmith, Tony Asher) and the album’s two equally surprising instrumentals, Pet Sounds was ultimately still a pop album.

Brian Wilson wanted to prove he could create something more significant than that, a fully integrated opus that demands to be listened to as a multi-movement composition containing various permutations of the same thematic material throughout, a project he at one point began describing as “a teenage symphony to God.” To further prove his seriousness, he enlisted the help of even more high-minded librettist—the erudite singer/songwriter Van Dyke Parks—to fashion lyrics for him that would be even further away from the boy-meets-girl and let’s-go-surfing fodder that had dominated the lyrics of most of The Beach Boys’ repertoire. The other members of The Beach Boys—Brian’s two brothers, Carl and Dennis, a cousin, Mike Love, high school classmate Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston, who had just joined the group in 1965—were frequently baffled by the new direction and Love was often openly hostile to it.

Before his collaboration with Parks got underway, in February 1966, Brian began recording an additional song—originally intended for Pet Sounds—that became so elaborate that he was not able to complete it in time for that album’s scheduled release. He ultimately worked on the song, “Good Vibrations” (whose infatuation-themed lyrics were, incidentally, by Mike Love), for more than six months thereafter. To perform his ornate arrangement of the song, Brian assembled an ensemble far larger than any he had put together heretofore which, in addition to the members of The Beach Boys included some of Los Angeles’s most in-demand studio musicians, such as Al De Lory on piano and harpsichord, Jesse Ehrlich on cello, Hal Blaine on timpani and other percussion, and—perhaps most memorably—trombonist Paul Tanner on an electronic musical instrument of his own invention. (Tanner’s instrument, which he had previously played on the Pet Sounds song “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” has alternately been named the tannerin—in his honor—and the electro-theremin. As a result of the similar name and a somewhat similar sound, Tanner’s instrument, which is played by controlling a knob attached to a slider with string, rather than hand movements over antennae, has been frequently misidentified by theremin discographers; “Good Vibrations” does not use a theremin.) Perhaps more importantly, “Good Vibrations” was not performed in its entirely from start to finish during these recording sessions, but rather in modular sections, each with different instrumentation. It was later seamlessly layered and pieced together in the studio from a purported grand total of 90 hours of recordings. As a result, “Good Vibrations,” which was released independently as a Beach Boys single on October 10, 1966, and was slated to also be included on their next full-length album (SMiLE), sounds like no other pop song that had been recorded up to that point.

Brian’s approach to the recording of “Good Vibrations” would serve as the blueprint for how he would record everything that was planned for the SMiLE album. While no other track intended for the album had such an extensive production history, some of his arrangements were even more elaborate, such as “Heroes and Villains,” alternate parts of which were recorded on October 1966 and February 1967. All in all, the remaining sessions for SMiLE (excluding the earlier “Good Vibrations”) occurred over the course of 13 months from May 1966 until May 1967, during which time Brian Wilson grew more and more despondent due to clinical depression and drug abuse.

Smile Cover

The original Frank Holmes cover illustration for SMiLE which has graced the cover of countless bootlegs which attempted to reconstruct SMiLE over the years and which was finally officially released as the album’s cover in November 2011.
Finally, the album was shelved despite heavy advertising and Capitol Records printing over 400,000 LP covers with an image that nevertheless became iconic. (This cover image, of a store selling smiles by Frank Holmes, is also the source of the typographical strangeness of the album’s title; it would have been among the earliest covers by a popular music group to feature original, specifically commissioned artwork rather than a photograph of the performers.)

The illustrated LP cover for The Beach Boys 1967 LP Smiley Smile.

The Smiley Smile cover also does not feature a photograph of the band, but rather a cabin in the middle of a forest that presumably contains the contents of SMiLE.

In order to fulfill their contractual obligation to release something in 1967, the remaining members of the group wrested artistic control from Brian and cobbled together an album containing “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains” (which they truncated somewhat, re-recorded parts for in June 1967, and issued as a single in July 1967), and several other (but not all) intended SMiLE tracks. That LP, officially released on September 18, 1967 under the name Smiley Smile, is still quite fascinating and frequently extremely odd. (One of its most notorious tracks, “She’s Goin’ Bald,” even speeds up The Beach Boys’ voices in a rare example of musique concrète in the band’s oeuvre, a feat which undoubtedly, along with the electro-theremin and the extensive electronic manipulations on the aforementioned “Good Vibrations” which opens Side Two of the LP, earned Smiley Smile a place in the discography of Paul Griffiths’s seminal A Guide to Electronic Music published in 1979.) Yet the end result is far less ambitious than Brian’s original plan and Smiley Smile proved to be their least commercially successful venture up to that point. (Van Dyke Parks, his input rejected by the other members of The Beach Boys, embarked on his own solo debut album, an inter-related collection of his own music as well as words, tellingly called Song Cycle, in November 1967; it’s a very nice record and it launched his successful career, but it never reached the kind of an audience that SMiLE would have.)

Here’s the official version of the story being told now…

God Only Knows…

As the time when Brian Wilson attempted to realize SMiLE and forever change the history of American music—popular or otherwise—recedes further and further into history, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate actual facts from the mythology that has come to surround that era. The 1960s remain a watershed period in the history of music of all genres. In classical music, it was the time when many composers desiring to keep up with the zeitgeist were torn between the rigors of integral serialism and the process-oriented experimentation of indeterminacy and conceptualism, while performing musicians began seriously recreating the sound world of earlier eras (the de-facto birth of the so-called period instrument movement). It was also the decade that spawned minimalism as well as a time when electronic music became a viable performance and compositional possibility—Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach was the most commercially successful classical album of its day, Morton Subonick’s Silver Apples of the Moon, released in 1967, was the first electronic composition created expressly for release on a commercial recording (on Nonesuch, which was then a budget label devoted almost exclusively to contemporary and early music), and Charles Wuorinen’s Time’s Encomium, another Nonesuch release from the end of the decade, was the first all-electronic piece to win the Pulitzer Prize. In jazz, the chord changes that had underpinned musicians’ solos from the earliest recorded manifestations of the music up to bebop and beyond, had already given way to modality inspired by non-Western musical traditions as well as completely free improvisations, but this music grew further and further out as the decade progressed. Rock and roll, ostensibly a music associated with youth culture, grew even more rebellious but also more sophisticated, morphing forever into rock and eventually myriad subgenres. Rhythm and blues, which was basically a racially charged code name given to the rock and roll-type music being made by African Americans, evolved into soul and later funk, also getting more and more experimental in the process. Even composers of film music and Broadway shows somehow seemed to be aesthetically tilting toward the avant-garde, or at least toward a consciousness that went far beyond Western musical traditions. And music from all parts of the globe—from North India and the Far East to Southern Africa—not only profoundly influenced much of music being made in the West but it too became available to the general public in the West through commercially available recordings as well as live performances by some of its greatest practitioners who finally were given opportunities to tour.

We will never know all the music that Brian Wilson had heard up to the point where he began work on SMiLE and how much of it influenced the new music that he was trying to invent. He has acknowledged his indebtedness to Glenn Miller and much has been made over the years about how Paul McCartney’s admiration for Brian Wilson was not only mutual but also competitive. Brian saw himself in a race with The Beatles to create the great rock record. He also fancied himself a latter-day George Gershwin since he, too, as a teenager had become a world famous songwriter but by his mid-20s aspired to be something more—a serious composer, though one working in a thoroughly vernacular American idiom. (In recent years, Brian Wilson even secured the rights to complete some of Gershwin’s unfinished compositional fragments and recorded them in 2010.) Rumored among Brian Wilson’s earlier compositions is a piano sonata that he never completed, another musical holy grail. According to comments made by the late Dennis Wilson, Brian’s brother and the drummer for The Beach Boys, Brian had heard Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 at some point and was completely floored and humbled. But could he have also heard Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 4, a work that finally received its world premiere in 1965, eleven years after the death of its composer, and a work that—all practicality be damned—was trying to redefine the symphony in much the same way that Wilson was attempting to redefine the popular song and the record album?

It would have been impossible for Brian Wilson to escape hearing the theme music for the TV show My Favorite Martian, which also featured Paul Tanner on the electro-theremin. As a Southern California native who knew many session musicians, he was probably also aware of Samuel J. Hoffman, who had recorded on an actual theremin for numerous film soundtracks including Bernard Herrmann’s score for The Day the Earth Stood Still. But could he have possibly also heard Honegger’s 1935 oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher or Olivier Messiaen’s massive 1948 Turangalîla-Symphonie, both of which use the ondes martinot, another early electronic instrument, similarly to the way Brian eventually used the electro-theremin on “Good Vibrations”? What about John Cage, the composer who completely redefined music, making it more inclusive than anyone else had acknowledged it to be previously? At one point during his work on SMiLE, Brian Wilson considered recording an entire album of various sounds to accompany the album of songs that would make up SMiLE, but this idea never got much beyond the conceptual stage.

Listening with 2011 ears, Brian Wilson’s experiments in 1966 and 1967 seem normative of the kinds of things most interesting musicians in any genre were up to at that point and even tamer than some of them. The blurring of boundaries between musical genres was pretty much commonplace at that time, as was the attitude, however real or imagined, that just about any musical undertaking was somehow an expansion beyond anything that had come before it. In October 1966, John Cage mounted performances of his Variations VII, an all-encompassing live electronic music environment which included the amplification of sounds received from ten telephone lines which had been distributed in locations ranging from lost dog holding rooms at the ASPCA to the press room of The New York Times. By 1966, La Monte Young, now acknowledged as the father of musical minimalism, was exploring extended duration drone installations that lasted for months. In 1966, Meredith Monk gave the first public performance of her music, 16 Millimeter Earrings, a work involving her now signature extended vocal techniques as well as tapes. Across the Atlantic, German serialist-turned-electronic music guru Karlheinz Stockhausen (whose face is among those portrayed on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s proving that they knew who he was) created Hymnen, a Wagnerian two-hour magnetic tape composition based on national anthems from all over the world.

Among the jazz community, John Coltrane was in Japan mesmerizing a live audience with an hour-long interpretation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein standard “My Favorite Things” in addition to his own expansive compositions. In Chicago, Roscoe Mitchell was joined by fellow members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians on the first recording of his free-form music, a forerunner of the group that would soon be known as the Art Ensemble of Chicago. On the East Coast, Cecil Taylor assembled his largest group to date to perform his gnarly atonal charts, and Albert Ayler was terrifying the denizens of the Village Vanguard with his otherworldly skronking. Before Miles Davis pioneered the fusion of jazz and rock in New York, another trumpeter, Los Angeles-based Don Ellis, outfitted the entire trumpet section of his latter-day big band with quarter-tone trumpets, fed his own instrument through a ring modulator, and made quintuple, septimal, and even higher prime-based rhythms sound perfectly natural. Around the same time, a seventeen-year-old trombonist Willie Colón went into the studio to record his first album, El Malo, blending Cuban and Puerto Rican music with jazz and soul, a style that would soon be universally described as salsa. For his score for the motion picture Wait Until Dark, released in October 1967 (but to this day never released on a separate audio soundtrack album), even the then dean of Hollywood composers, Henry Mancini, whose scores were tailor-made to please mainstream tastes, included two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart in his orchestration.

At the same time, rock music seemed equally poised to break beyond listener expectations. Almost every other pop song from that time seems to include either a harpsichord or a sitar or some kind of oddball-sounding electronic manipulation. San Francisco-area bands like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane were already crafting musical statements that went on much longer than three-minute songs, as were groups in England as diverse as Pink Floyd and The Who. Hair, the first evening-length rock musical, debuted on Off-Broadway the same month that Wait Until Dark opened in movie theatres across the country and would move to Broadway the following year. Jimi Hendrix proved the electric guitar could be the vehicle for virtuosity as intense as on any classical or jazz instrument. Even rock’s premier poet-songwriter Bob Dylan (who was a role model to many aspiring wordsmiths at the time, undoubtedly including Van Dyke Parks) released a side-long track, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” on his 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. And La Monte Young’s extended drones found their way into rock music via The Velvet Underground, a group whose original line-up included Young’s former musical collaborator John Cale (who several years later recorded a tribute song to Brian Wilson). Groups like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears would soon be crafting rock albums scored for almost symphonic ensembles. (BS&T’s debut album, released in February 1968, is coincidentally titled Child is Father To The Man, after a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, but its title is also eerily similar to “Child is Father Of The Man,” one of the key songs recorded for SMiLE that had never been officially released.)

Bigger, longer, and stranger was all the rage. While Frank Zappa’s band The Mothers of Invention arguably advanced rock music further than anyone else at that time, scores of now-forgotten groups across the country, who sometimes only recorded one single, were making music that sounds even more eccentric. Record collectors to this day scour the bins for these rare, unknown psychedelic rock recordings hoping to track down the ultimate transformative musical experience. What has gone down in history as the breakthrough, however, is The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Soon after its release, everyone seemed to have an artistic response to it, from The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request to even Zappa and The Mothers’ We’re Only in It for the Money. Sgt. Pepper’s—with its eclectic mix of music hall, harpsichord, sitar and tabla, string quartet, and musique concrète—embraced a much larger musical language than most listeners thought possible in rock music. And since they were so famous, it made a statement that everyone heard. The only band that was anywhere near as famous at the time and poised for similar accolades from a broad audience was The Beach Boys. (They, like The Beatles, were even admired by Leonard Bernstein.) Despite how remarkable Sgt. Pepper’s was and still sounds 44 years later, had SMiLE actually been released, that honor probably would have, could have, and should have been accorded to it instead.

Heroes and Villains…

Undeniably the wide proliferation and relatively easy acquisition of a variety of mind-altering substances was part and parcel of the rampant experimentation that seemed ubiquitous in the music of this time. That many of these great ideas could ultimately not be sustained and developed into more substantive efforts is the creative chasm that the abuse of these substances took away from some extremely talented musicians; some fared worse, dying tragically young. Brian Wilson survived but nevertheless was one of drug addiction’s unfortunate casualties.

From Smiley Smile onward, Brian Wilson was no longer the de-facto leader of The Beach Boys. Although he still recorded with them and wrote new songs for them to perform until the early 1980s, he rarely appeared with them in live performance. Some of the subsequent Beach Boys’ albums have some interest, musical or otherwise. (Their 1969 album 20/20 actually includes a song that Brian’s brother Dennis co-wrote with the notorious Charles Manson as a result of Dennis hanging out with the “Family.”) But these efforts overall were rather lackluster compared with the band’s earlier output. Nevertheless, some of these albums occasionally contained a very unusual song which had invariably been intended for SMiLE. The bizarre closer of the December 1967 album Wild Honey, “Mama Said,” was originally created as a break for the SMiLE song “Vege-Tables” (released sans break on Smiley Smile). “Cabin Essence” appeared on 20/20 as “Cabinessence.” A less-than-SMiLE-monumental version of “Surf’s Up,” which Brian Wilson has described as the best song he ever wrote with Van Dyke Parks, served as the title track of a 1971 LP release.

The cover for SMiLE, featuring a cartoon drawing of a "Smile Store."

Many of the SMiLE bootlegs that surfaced from the 1980s onward sported some version of the iconic Frank Holmes cover. The cover above, interestingly, does not call attention to the song “Good Vibrations.”

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, a variety of bootlegs of variable sound quality attempted to re-create Brian Wilson’s original SMiLE (based on the printed materials that had survived, such as ads and track lists) using unfinished masters that had leaked, plus the songs that had been released on Smiley Smile and other later Beach Boys albums. By that point in time, The Beach Boys had become mostly a nostalgia act, playing their famous early ‘60s hits for their aging fan-base, and Brian Wilson’s further degeneration and the exploitation of him by a megalomaniacal psychiatrist would occasionally make newspaper headlines.

The cover for the 2004 Nonesuch CD Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE.

The cover for the 2004 Nonesuch release Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE does not feature Holmes’s artwork, but nevertheless sports a similar font-style to the original.

Eventually Brian Wilson overcame his demons and embarked on a solo career which over the past decade has put him in the headlines for something other than his personal travails. In a live concert in 2002, he performed the entire Pet Sounds album accompanied by a group of ace players from a band called the Wondermints (and no one from The Beach Boys). Then in 2004, nearly 40 years after its original conception, Brian Wilson completed and performed SMiLE with many of the same players in front of a live audience and also recorded it for, of all labels, Nonesuch Records on an album titled Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE. It sold widely and appealed to listeners across generations; iTunes actually describes it as “indie rock,” a genre for which SMiLE indeed is ultimately the progenitor. Mike Love tried to sue Brian Wilson for performing the music without his permission; Love lost. Everyone thought that was the end of the saga, until earlier this year.

I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times…

Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE is a wonderful album, but it is also not quite right. It is not and can never be a substitute for SMiLE, even though it might have originally been intended to be just that. By the time he recorded it in 2004, Brian Wilson was 61 years old and was a completely different person from the seemingly totally possessed (by drug addiction as much as by passion and genius) Brian Wilson who was only 23 years old at the beginning of more than a year of sessions for SMiLE. The young man who attempted to corral his sometimes reluctant brothers, cousin, and other bandmates into going along with his crazy musical ideas got noticeably different results than the Brian Wilson of Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, a revered elder statesman whose assembled session musicians were willing and prepared to do every last iota of his bidding. Whereas Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE was the realization of a dream finally come true that came after decades of hardship and a great deal of hindsight, the original SMiLE was an innocent dream filled with youthful naïveté and vulnerability. Admittedly that original dream ultimately turned into a nightmare, but you can never quite dream the same dream again after you wake up.

Perhaps more importantly, the world into which the album Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE was released was a very different world than that of 1967. True, since the beginning of the 21st century there have been tons of people creating album-oriented music that mines the borders of rock and, for lack of a better term, contemporary classical music idioms—e.g. the music of Sufjan Stevens or Joanna Newsom, groups like Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, The Fiery Furnaces, Flaming Lips, My Brightest Diamond, and just about the entire discography of New Amsterdam Records immediately come to mind. And the LP, a format that requires sequential listening from start to finish, has been resurgent. But the zeitgeist (at least according to the pundits who control the spin) favors quick listening fixes packaged in non-corporeal files that get shuffled at the whim of their listeners. This is the antithesis of listening to an album which commands and demands attention for approximately an hour, sometimes longer. The very idea of an album is considered by some members of the my-laptop-contains-my-whole-life generation as needless clutter, the ultimate anachronism, and—perhaps worst of all—a quasi-fascistic attempt to force listeners to listen to what you want them to listen to rather than to rightfully allow them to determine that for themselves. SMiLE, to quote a lyric from Pet Sounds, just wasn’t made for these times.

But that didn’t stop Capitol Records (a subsidiary of EMI) from one-upping Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE by finally releasing on November 1, 2011 The Beach Boys’ actual recordings from the original SMiLE sessions in a variety of packagings, including what is destined to rank among the most lavish boxed sets in record history. For casual listeners, The Smile Sessions has been issued on a single CD or—for those who want to recreate a more authentically 1967 listening scenario—two LPs. This version attempts once and for all to present the album that would have come out back then, and throws in a few additional bonus tracks of out-takes for good measure. (The 2-LP package, like the 1980s vintage Original Jazz Classics reissues of classic Prestige and Riverside albums from the ‘50s and early ‘60s, attempts to eschew anything that might reveal it to be an artifact of now rather than then; it features Capitol’s originally album cover design and even their intended matrix number for it—T 2580—on the side of the sleeve jacket!) But folks wanting a broader context can get a 2-CD deluxe set containing even more out-takes from those sessions which reveal some of the real-time performances from which this music was assembled.

A wall of vinyl LPs with the Smile Sessions box lying horizontally on top of it.

The unshelvable collector’s edition box of The Smile Sessions stands out even in a large record collection.

For die-hard completists, however, Capitol released a massive collector’s edition that comes in a huge box sporting a three-dimensional simulacrum of the original SMiLE album art on its cover. Inside the box are the two LPs, presented as described above, as well as the single CD, giving listeners both options. Plus there are four additional CDs containing all the fragments released in the deluxe set as well as—they claim—every other sliver of audio that survives from those 1966-67 sessions, some of which are as long as eight and a half minutes, others as short as 24 seconds. (It’s actually not everything; a strange track called “George Fell Into His French Horn” which appears on several widely-circulated SMiLE bootlegs is missing.) The box also includes two vinyl 7″s containing what The Beach Boys had intended to release as singles during the time of The Smile Sessions (the songs “Heroes and Villains” and “Vege-Tables”), a poster, and finally a lavish hardcover booklet filled with discographic annotations, essays, lyrics, and photographs taken during the session. The box is approximately three-inches wide and is slightly more than 13 by 13 inches in length and height. It doesn’t quite fit on standard record shelves and calls attention to itself wherever it winds up being put. Its unabashedly unapologetic thing-ness is an object of wonder in our era of non-corporeal sycophancy. The box is not cheap: it comes with a hefty triple-digit price-tag. But if you weren’t aware of SMiLE before reading this essay thus far and you’re still reading it, you’re probably well on your way to becoming a SMiLE enthusiast (or at least I hope so) and you should therefore at least consider the possibility of acquiring the whole thing. (Admittedly, all 144 tracks contained in the five CDs have also been made available as individual mp3s or bundled together as an album at a significantly lower price than the physical box which is yet another option if you completely can’t bear the thought of owning things.) Even if you already own Smiley Smile, or one of the various SMiLE bootlegs that sometimes surfaces in collector’s shops, or even the Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE CD, there will be something new for your ears herein. While SMiLE did not get to be the first piece of album-oriented rock, The Smile Sessions is perhaps poised to be the last (although I hope not).


The Smile Sessions’ attempt to recreate SMiLE is actually extremely convincing and sounds remarkably fresh, even after having heard all the other versions of this material over the years. The transitions from song to song (and the occasional instrumental interlude) feel completely natural, confirming the veracity of the track order of Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE which served as a roadmap with the original recordings for The Smile Sessions’ version of SMiLE. (The track order on the back cover of the aborted 1967 LP is of no help since it instructs listeners to see the disc’s label for the correct playing order.) While at times the performances are not as polished as those on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, the occasional pitch or timbre gaffes I perceived make this feel all the more like a real 1960s album by a young rock band, rather than a perfected rendering realized by seasoned professionals.

As soon as the needle drops on the first side of SMiLE, however, it sounds nothing like most rock records. The opening track, “Our Prayer,” is an unaccompanied wordless chorale. The music is reminiscent of Bach and even earlier polyphonists, but the voices are The Beach Boys and there’s something about the music that is vaguely reminiscent of the backing vocal tracks of “Good Vibrations,” a song you would have already undoubtedly had heard before, even if this disc came out in 1967 as planned. Here “Good Vibrations” comes at the very end of the album, so the thematic relationships between the two function as bookends for the record. It isn’t actually terribly different from the way an opening chorale prelude and a final chorale are thematically related to one another in many of the Bach cantatas. However, before you have an opportunity to completely absorb the ethereality of “Our Prayer” something very down-to-earth occurs as soon as it ends: an almost scat-like coda (separately tracked herein and called “Gee”) which leads directly to “Heroes and Villains.”

On Smiley Smile, “Heroes and Villains” is a remarkable chain of somewhat unrelated fragments which baffle and amaze for sheer audacity. (“Good Vibrations”—however remarkable—sounds like just a warm up compared to this modular collage of different instrumentations and textures.) Here it also baffles and amazes, but even more so because all the disparate fragments somehow fit together. They actually fit together even more cleanly on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, but perhaps there they fit together too cleanly. “Do You Like Worms” (a.k.a. “Roll Plymouth Rock”) flows directly out of “Heroes and Villains,” continuing and further developing some of the same musical material.

“I’m In Great Shape,” “Barnyard,” and “My Only Sunshine” (a.k.a. “The Old Master Painter” / “You Are My Sunshine”) all come off as somewhat fragmentary, but seamlessly flow into one another and feel like harbingers of the much longer, subsequent “Cabin Essence.” Next up is “Wonderful” which is a truly beautiful song, with some great harpsichord riffs, that deserves to be a standard in its own right. But what follows is perhaps more awe inducing: “Look (for the Children)” and “Child is the Father Of The Man” form a completely integrated two-movement exploration of counterpoint and elaborate orchestration.

“Surf’s Up,” whose title seems a throwback to early Beach Boys fare, turns out to be nothing of the sort. It contains some of the most perplexing lyrics in the entire album, such as “columnated ruins domino,” and the leaps and disjointed rhythms of the melody Brian Wilson created to match Van Dyke Parks’s words is perhaps the most difficult thing he ever composed. In almost every other version I have heard of this song over the years, it never quite comes off. Particularly jarring for me has always been the setting of the following lines:

The glass was raised, the fired-roast,
The fullness of the wine. A dim last toasting.

In the various bootlegs of this I had previously heard, as well as the only official previously released version by The Beach Boys (on the 1971 album Surf’s Up), the group doesn’t quite sound together during those lines. And on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, though the ensemble is spot clean, Brian’s diction is somewhat garbled. Yet on the recording included for these Smile Sessions’ completed SMiLE, it all comes off without a hitch. It’s a musical miracle that alone justifies acquiring this recording. (Test this yourself: on the recordings of “Surf’s Up” that appear on both Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE and the first CD of The Smile Sessions, this line occurs from 2:06 to 2:10.)

Then comes a brief, somewhat jazz-tinged instrumental accompanied by various sounds of hammers and other tools (“I Wanna Be Around” / “Workshop”), another of the album’s more experimental tracks. I wish it would have been longer, but I’ll take what I can get. Then comes the delightfully goofy song “Vege-Tables,” a song about the joys of eating vegetables containing a variety of appropriate sound effects worthy of the Vienna-based Vegetable Orchestra (which would not be founded until 1998). The inclusion of the song’s original break (the aforementioned “Mama Said” found on Wild Honey) is the only immediately discernible difference here from the song as it appeared on Smiley Smile (under the less typographically obtuse title “Vegetables”). The brief track called “Holidays” which follows foreshadows a melodic motif that will later re-appear as a countermelody in “Good Vibrations”; it also serves as a prelude to “Wind Chimes.” The arrangement of “Wind Chimes”—which is much the same as the versions on various SMiLE bootlegs, as well as on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE—features some really nice mallet percussion. But for me it is one of the few instances where I actually prefer the less elaborate arrangement that was released on Smiley Smile. There it’s a sparse and somewhat creepy sounding track featuring vocals by brother Carl Wilson who whispers and at times clearly strains as he attempts to sing the tune Brian had composed for his own voice.

“The Elements: Fire” (a.k.a. “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”) is another peculiar instrumental with occasional wordless vocals. It was supposed to have been one of the movements of a four-movement Elements Suite that Brian eventually abandoned. Again, it shows a level of compositional and performance sophistication that few listeners are aware this group was capable of. Then another short fragment, “Love To Say Dada,” leads into the concluding “Good Vibrations,” a track which admittedly is difficult to listen to with fresh ears. But despite how extraordinary, as well as famous, “Good Vibrations” is and how some of its inner vocal lines parallel SMiLE’s opener, “Our Prayer,” which make it a fitting bookend for the entire album, it doesn’t quite sound right to me as the closing track. Brian Wilson was actually worried back in 1966 that “Good Vibrations” didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the album, even though it was created in much the same way and contains thematic allusions to other SMiLE songs. He asked Van Dyke Parks to write a new set of words for it (perhaps triggering the overall antipathy of Mike Love toward SMiLE), but Parks refused and the version with Love’s lyrics was released as an advance single. At one point, Brian tried to cut it from SMiLE, but it was so popular after it was released that Capitol Records insisted it stay on the album, so he opted to put it at the very end. But perhaps the fact that it doesn’t quite work as a finale to Brian Wilson’s sprawling sonic landscape leaves SMiLE perpetually sounding incomplete, which perhaps makes following it with tons of out-takes from those sessions the best of all possible worlds. The completed SMiLE fills three LP sides and a three-sided record would have been unthinkable in 1967. (Such things inevitably happened later on, perhaps most notably Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s 1975 The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color!) So even the LPs include some out-takes. And, as stated above, the CDs include (almost) every last one of them.

These bonus tracks are admittedly, for the most part, not the kind of things that will wind up in heavy rotation even on my playlist, with the possible exception of a wonderful jazz jam involving some of the session musicians but ironically not Brian Wilson or any other of The Beach Boys, here named “I Wanna Be Around” most likely because some of it, or some other version of it, later was used as one of the ingredients in the aforementioned unusual SMiLE album track “I Wanna Be Around” / “Workshop”. But listening to every one of these fragments is revelatory nevertheless. There’s almost an entire disc devoted to various scraps that became “Heroes and Villains” and another collecting the bits and pieces from which Brian Wilson assembled “Good Vibrations” (though only about an hour’s worth, as opposed to the 80 hours that were said to have been originally recorded). These musical shards offer up many of the secrets of Brian Wilson’s recording processes, his aspirations, and his attempts (not always successful) to realize what he was hearing in his head with physical musicians in real time—there was no written score for any of this music and remember, in 1966 and 1967, there were no computer consoles and no ProTools. That more than 80% of the deluxe collector’s edition of this never-completed album is devoted to unfinished pieces of songs is perhaps the most appropriate way for this record to finally enter the official discography.

I Wanna Be Around…

A close up of a row of LPs on a shelf showing The Beach Boys' Smile alongside albums of Bartok, Basie, The Beatles, and others.

At least in my own home, the faux-1967 SMiLE LPs from The Smile Sessions have taken their rightful place on my wall of vinyl alongside the music of Bartók, Count Basie, The Beatles, and everyone else.

So will the release of The Smile Sessions and its carefully reassembled reconstruction of the lost SMiLE album finally earn Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys the same pride of place in American music history held by other great innovators like, say, Ives, Gershwin, Cage, Coltrane, James Brown, etc.? Sadly, probably not. But this has more to do with the vagaries of reception history than with actual history.

For many people, The Beach Boys will always be perceived as a light-hearted party band that drooled over “California Girls” while on a “Surfing Safari.” That image of the group has not been helped by the endless recycling of their greatest hits on recording compilations, their latter-day cover-band-version-of-their-former-selves concert appearances, and the lasting presence of these early songs as the soundtracks for countless commercials over the years encouraging revelers to have some “Summer Fun.”

I personally can’t remember the first time I had heard The Beach Boys. Their early pop hits were all around since before I was born, seemed ubiquitous when I was growing up, and have remained with us ever since. The first time I seriously thought about The Beach Boys was back in 1983 when a political brouhaha erupted after then-U.S. Secretary of the Interior James Watt cancelled an appearance by them at the National Mall claiming that their music encouraged drug use and alcoholism. Watt subsequently apologized after then Vice President George H.W. Bush claimed that The Beach Boys were his friends and that he liked their music, and then President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan claimed they were also Beach Boys fans. After all, they were the all-American band; what was Watt thinking? Maybe James Watt had heard Smiley Smile or knew about the Manson Family connection. Perhaps he even knew about SMiLE.

I did not, so I couldn’t stop wondering why this wholesome—and to my mind innocuous—music had triggered such a strong reaction from a mainstream social conservative since the music of The Beach Boys seemed to me to be everything that interesting rock music was rebelling against. They were not counterculture rebels; he was picking on the wrong guys, hence the embarrassing apology. Then I read Paul Griffiths’s book, ostensibly to learn more about Stockhausen, and wound up reading about Smiley Smile. I tracked down a then out-of-print LP. It blew my mind. It truly was revolutionary. I gradually picked up their earlier recordings—if they had made something this interesting, the seeds for it had to exist in their earlier work. I became more open to those early songs; there are a lot of interesting voicings in the music that accompanies even the most insipidly worded narrative about meeting pretty girls at the beach. I even fell in love with their 1964 Christmas Album, which I pull off my shelves and spin every December without fail. Eventually I tracked down Pet Sounds, which to this day I think contains some of the most hauntingly beautiful music ever recorded. But then I learned that there was other music that Brian Wilson created in between Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile, music that was supposedly the most advanced music Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys had ever done. In an era before the internet, I scoured libraries and used record shops for more information, tracking down articles, and eventually a couple of bootlegs of attempts at reconstructing SMiLE, both of which sported the album’s planned Frank Holmes illustrated cover. I became one of those arcane musical cognoscenti, talking about the album whenever the subject of 1960s rock came up, or even whenever people talked about stylistic fusions between musical genres. To me, all the latter-day folks who thought that they were creating a new kind of music by fusing all of these disparate elements together were merely going down the path that Brian Wilson tried to take music to. But now, thanks to this ostentatious boxed set (or even one of the less complete manifestations of it now currently available from Capitol Records), you can be taken there as well.