Tag: American mavericks

Misfits and Geniuses

The success of my course “Tragedy and Inspiration” spurred me to think of other meaningful ways to group contemporary music in a compelling music appreciation-style class. “Misfits and Geniuses” became my next course. I started with the attractive idea of creative rebels who bucked traditional boundaries and existed on the fringe. Which composers wrote new rules, expanded the space for music, and crossed dividing lines? This course includes Charles Ives, John Cage, George Crumb, John Luther Adams, Philip Glass (focusing on Koyaanisqatsi and Einstein on the Beach), Meredith Monk, Morton Subotnick, Pamela Z, and Frank Zappa. Undergraduates love the idea of a rebel genius. That simple premise invites meaningful discussion of Cage’s ideas on silence, Zappa’s absurd plurality of styles, and Meredith Monk’s use of the human voice as an expressive instrument separate from the restrictions of language. The variety of styles and artistic approaches again makes for a rich menu of great but challenging contemporary music. We get to discuss spatialization, silence, recreating an imagined ancient musical language, the blurred lines between rock and classical music, extended techniques, deep listening, and the Buchla synthesizer.

Which composers wrote new rules, expanded the space for music, and crossed dividing lines?

The course features nine primary composers. The material begins with some introductory lectures I created and continues with video interviews (available for everyone but Charles Ives), articles, and some critical material. We then focus on three important pieces for each composer representing different aspects of their musical language. A trio of pieces gives a solid overview of their work and generates discussion on the many creative threads that make the composer unconventional.

I wanted to increase the level of student engagement as I developed this second music appreciation course. Current ideas about student learning encourage a steady stream of low level “tasks” that should be completed immediately after absorbing material. I created a “listening assessment” that asks each student to answer eight brief questions. They do this for all 27 pieces featured in the course and get full credit for completing the task. The questions ask simple facts about the music (length, instruments), and they require the students to list some descriptive adjectives and offer a short personal response.

Listening Assessment:

  1. List the performing forces used in this piece. What instruments are voices are used? What non-musical elements are included? Include what you think is most essential to the piece.
  2. How long is the piece?
    1. Under 10 minutes
    2. 10-30 minutes
    3. 30-40 minutes
    4. Longer than 60 minutes
    5. The length is variable (not specifically set from performance to performance)
  3. How would you describe the rhythmic language of this piece? Please check all options that apply:
    1. Fast
    2. Slow
    3. Mid tempo
    4. With an active pulse
    5. Without an active pulse
    6. Complex
    7. Simple
    8. Repetitive
    9. Constantly changing or evolving
  4. How would you describe the harmonic language of this piece? Please check all options that apply:
    1. Complex
    2. Simple
    3. Beautiful and consonant
    4. Harshly dissonant
    5. Moderately dissonant
    6. Organically unified
    7. Disjunctive or fragmented
    8. Familiar
    9. Abstract or unfamiliar
    10. Slow to change
    11. Actively changing
  5. Pick three to five good descriptive words for this piece. Avoid weak words or vague words like nice, attractive, good, and ugly. Find strong words that offer your unique and specific observations.
  6. What personal responses do you have to this piece? Offer a few sentences to describe your unique perspective. There is no right or wrong answer, but listen with attentive ears and offer meaningful insight. What emotions does the music elicit? What aspects of the music are most compelling? Least compelling?
  7. Was this an easy or difficult piece to listen to? Why? Get specific with reasons to support your answer.
  8. Offer one other thought in response to this piece. Possible items to address: What was most surprising or unusual? What moment moved you? What other artist or genre of music might you connect with this piece? If you had to convince a friend to listen to this piece, what might you say?

In this new course, I often ask the students for their opinions about the music, their opinions about the ideas of the composers, and then ask them to decide which of the three pieces are more compelling. While I often tell my first-year composition majors that they should be sponges and suspend judgment on important composers till further in their education, I encourage strong opinions in music appreciation courses. When the student has to offer a judgment-style opinion, they will listen more closely and seek out the ideas that support their argument. I make it clear that it is fine to dislike a piece of music, but they must know why and be able to support their opinion with detailed observation. I may gently push back on a poorly formed opinion, but I find that even a strong negative reaction paves the way for a growing appreciation of the music. That is my goal.

A good portion of the class embraces Cage’s ideas. Others dismiss the ideas as nonsense.

John Cage generates intense discussion. His ideas are easy to grasp and challenge presuppositions held by most people in the class. We begin with Living Room Music, which suggests that anything can be used to make music or serve as an instrument. (It’s also great fun.) We continue with Sonatas and Interludes and end with 4’33”. The discussion of silence, noise, and “what is music?” is exciting. A good portion of the class embraces Cage’s ideas and examines their own favorite music in a new light. Others dismiss the ideas as nonsense. I’m happy with this disagreement so long as everyone knows why they arrived at their conclusions.

I teach Meredith Monk and Pamela Z side by side. Their highly developed and unique vocal technique has shaped the fabric of their musical language. They are performing composers who embody their music with powerful visual and dramatic components. But their music is quite different: Pamela Z often uses technology and words as a jumping off point. Meredith Monk finds the meaning of words too limiting and wants to create beyond the cultural baggage found in words. We look at Hocket, Dolmen Music, and Songs of Ascension for Meredith Monk, and Bone Music, Gaijin, and Baggage Allowance for Pamela Z. YouTube offers great live performances that allow the students to absorb the important visual components of these pieces.

Morton Subotnick and his early work pioneering live composition with synthesizers resonates strongly with the students. Most of the students either embrace EDM (Electronic Dance Music) or some other music heavily dependent on electronics and looping. None of them know of Morton Subotnick’s work, and they quickly appreciate his essential innovations, which made all current mainstream electronic music possible. We listen to Silver Apples of the Moon, The Last Dream of the Beast, and watch excerpts from Jacob’s Room.

There will always be excellent composers and pieces that won’t find room in a semester-length class.

There will always be excellent composers and pieces that won’t find room in a semester-length class. For a final project, I require the students to create a short, NPR-style podcast featuring a composer not included in the main lessons. I recommend they consider Pauline Oliveros, Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch, John Coltrane, Joan La Barbara, Wendy Carlos, Alvin Lucier, Terry Riley, Ornette Coleman, Laurie Anderson, or John Zorn, among others. They can also seek permission for a composer of their own choosing. I only require that the composer chosen has a connection to North America and is someone who has worked primarily in the 20th or 21st century. The podcast format allows them to include musical excerpts, which require description and context.

When I talk to my colleagues about “Misfits and Geniuses”, their eyes light up. They each have their own ideas about which great artists could fit into such a class. The pairing of composers and styles is rich with possibilities, and it is exciting to revel in the work of artists who break rules and redefine the musical landscape.


Going it Alone

In my essay last week, the first in a four-part series, I discussed what it means to be a “mid-career” composer in today’s musical landscape. This week I am going to explore the world of “unaffiliated” composers. By unaffiliated, I mean composers who have no particular ties or responsibilities to academia or other cultural institutions that strongly shape musical careers. New music composers have always been a tiny minority within the larger society, but merely a generation ago, the unaffiliated or the “freelance” composer was a more common phenomenon in new music. With a more reasonable cost of living in culturally active cities such as New York City or San Francisco, composers could more easily build their lives around the pursuit of their craft, while earning a modest living doing a part-time side job. Just ask Philip Glass who, reflecting back on his early career in the late ’60s and early ’70s during a 2012 Village Voice interview, said, “You could work three days a week loading a truck or driving a cab, and you’d have enough money to live off of, but that’s not true anymore.”  A look at musical life in the cities of today reveals a considerably different picture. It’s not only the rising cost of living that’s eroding our musical communities, but also the continually diminishing financial support of the arts and the increasing commercialization of all facets of cultural practice.

Much of the now legendary American new music of the previous era was largely the work of unaffiliated freelancers.

Much of the now legendary American new music of the previous era was largely the work of unaffiliated freelancers. Going back even further, one of our culture’s greatest new music traditions is that of the so-called “American Maverick”—those composers whose non-conformist temperaments lead them to shun mainstream and academic pursuits in favor of rugged individualism and often self-imposed exile. Think Conlon Nancarrow hiding away in Mexico City, or Harry Partch living the life of the wandering hobo, or Lou Harrison camped out in the coastal forests of the Santa Cruz mountains. As Harrison himself observed in a 1945 essay titled “Ruggles, Ives, Varèse,” “American music, like so much other American art, is almost completely the product of amateurs. Its finest thinking and finest writing practitioners have for a long time been amateurs. And it is no disgrace to a country that its expression should arise out of a need of the private citizen.” Whether you agree with this assessment or not, the fact remains that new music and the arts overall have become increasingly professionalized in America, to the point where it has become nearly unthinkable that a young composer might forego graduate studies and an eventual Ph.D. and simply go it alone. This is not to disparage academic music or film and theater composers. The problem is that professionalization is becoming the only game in town.

Given where we are today, what options actually are there for a composer with a more independent, unaffiliated profile? Here in New York City, though it is increasingly hard to locate, we do still have some vestiges of an independent new music syndicate. Small arts organizations that host new music still exist, but with ever-diminishing budgets and programming. Beyond that, an informal ecosystem of venues and spaces nurture some vibrant musical activity, though again, without meaningful resources. Nonetheless, a culture persists. But it’s a decidedly different culture than the one of previous generations. Again, here is Philip Glass:

It was very common to find a loft in the East Village . . . empty synagogues and that type of thing…You could find a loft for $150, $200 a month. Now, that’s impossible.

It was this type of environment—one with ample space that was relatively inexpensive to either own, lease, or simply book time in—that allowed Glass and others to form entire ensembles, with an extensive original repertoire, and to rehearse, weekly! Today this is mostly impossible, and thus an entire musical model—a model which incidentally, went on to largely define the new music landscape of the past fifty years—has essentially become extinct. Today’s underground landscape favors simple setups, usually solo, and lots of improvisation. Who has time and space to practice and develop actual compositions?

I’m not advocating here for a broad return to minimalist chamber ensembles in downtown lofts, but some flexibility in our capitalist, consumerist, straitjacketed landscape would surely lead to more musical experimentation and innovation, and that would be good for our musical culture.

Independent composers still form collectives, write new works, and organize concerts.

And yet we persist. Independent composers still form collectives, write new works, and organize concerts. Others delve more deeply into computers and electronic music to satisfy their artistic impulses, avoiding the more difficult challenge of finding a way to get an ensemble work or a string quartet actually performed. Still others give up composing entirely, in favor of the aforementioned freeform underground improv model. For my part, I’ve been recently involved in some of each, with varying degrees of satisfaction. Having reached mid-career, as I wrote in my essay last week, and feeling that many of my long-term compositional projects have run their course, I am desperately seeking a new and productive working model that would allow me to continue to grow as a composer and to realize some of the many latent ideas I carry within me. I’m determined to find it, as the “unaffiliated” composer that I continue to be, but I’d be lying if I told you that I wasn’t feeling dispirited.

Next week I will try to explain why, given all the difficulties, anyone would continue to pursue the path of composing a type of music that is so little heard and even less understood outside of a small circle of friends and colleagues. It’s a question we’ve certainly asked ourselves many times over, possibly even on a daily basis, but it can become an even more poignant question upon reaching mid-career.

John King: It All Becomes Music

John King standing against a wall covered with a few branches.

About a month ago I was surfing through my Facebook news feed. Being afraid of rabbit holes, I tend never to do this very attentively or very frequently, but nevertheless something wound up catching my eye. It was just two lines, not even parsed into a proper sentence, about a recent performance. Even though I see tons of these every day, this one probably stood out because it included an image from the score. I was immediately drawn to it because there were no bar lines and it was just a single vocal part that was almost entirely in monotone. Then I noticed the post was from the eclectic composer John King and it had a link to his website. I loved several string quartets by King that I heard Ethel perform over a decade ago, both live and on recordings, and I also remembered an earlier, rather bizarre “double opera” that he had co-written with Polish composer Krzysztof Knittel which premiered at the Warsaw Autumn in 1999. But I had never before seen any of his scores. So I took a deep breath and clicked on the link to his website.

A screen capture of a John king Facebook post featuring an excerpt from a musical score preceded by the following text: "recent premiere of "The Park" by Loadbang....this excerpt entitled "larry" named after one of the denizens of Tompkins Square Park...]"

What I found there astonished me for a variety of reasons. I knew that he embraced a wide variety of styles—from Cagean indeterminacy and post-minimalism to rock, blues, and free improvisation. But I was hardly prepared for all the other kinds of music I found there: canons for chorus, orchestral pieces, a North Indian classical raga exposition, Baroque imitations, and numerous experimental operas. That was just the tip of the iceberg. Not only could I not believe how much music he had written—for example, 14 pieces totaling some six hours of music just last year—but also how open he was about all of it, including a piccolo concerto he composed when he was in high school. Everything was there with no hierarchy other that chronology. It was one of the most interesting composer websites I had ever visited. I had to talk to him for NewMusicBox!

Normally I prepare for these talks by attempting to listen to every single related scrap of music I can get my hands on. But there was no way I could do this with John King’s work; there was just too much of it. What was the secret to his being so immensely prolific and also so non-judgmental about it all? What could the rest of us learn from his equanimity?

I’m still not sure I got conclusive answers to these particular questions after spending a couple of hours with him at his home in the East Village, right across the street from Tomkins Square Park, which for him is a muse.  In fact, if anything, I walked away with even more questions. But I did leave there feeling inspired and more excited than I have in quite some time about the creative process. Our conversation was periodically drowned out by construction taking place in the neighborhood. Somehow that seemed appropriate though.  Initially Molly and I deliberated about how to proceed and what we might do to minimize the disturbances. King, however, was completely nonplussed by any of these additional unwanted sounds. For him it just added another sonic element, one that could potentially lead somewhere that was interesting. He told us stories about how birds chirping outside his window became part of one of his compositions. Occasionally he’d even point out moments when a hammer hit was synchronous with one of his syllables. Being so open, even to what others would perceive as noise or interruption, is perhaps as open-minded as you can be musically.

A conversation at John King’s apartment in New York City
June 15, 2016—10:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: Might it be too noisy for us to talk?

John King: I think we should just treat it as New York.

FJO:  True, and considering that indeterminate sound is actually an important part of your aesthetic, the random construction sounds might actually be appropriate.

JK:  I remember John Cage speaking about car alarms and store alarms in the ‘70s.  That store alarm always went off on a Friday evening at six, and it would be going all weekend long because the people wouldn’t come back.  I remember Cage saying that for a while it sort of got to him, but then the way he managed it was to imagine where the sound was coming from. He just thought about the spatialization of that alarm—it’s on, say, 17th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  Then the unnervingness of it would just disappear for him.  Sometimes I try to do that.  Sometimes I’m successful.

FJO: For me, when I can hear slight variations over time, it goes from being this constant, annoying thing to being music.

JK:  Right, you can all of a sudden concentrate on the overtones or the inconsistent nature of the pitch.  Yeah.  And it becomes music. We all know and love The Stone, but it’s on a very busy corner and some people want there to be complete silence before the beginning of a piece or before the beginning of a concert.  I had a residency there last year and some of the greatest moments in my own music were when the string quartet faded out and the sound of a car faded up and then the car faded out and the string quartet kept going.  So, for the experience of the music and the environment in that particular moment, I think it’s fine.  For recordings probably not, because you want those to be a little bit more indicative of the piece.  When people listen to that recording and a fire engine goes by, that becomes part of the sound world.  But I don’t think of it as a distraction; I think of it as an addition.

FJO: But since a lot of your scores involve indeterminate elements, there are often elements of surprise to the realization of what you’ve put on the page.  So when you say that you want a recording to be more indicative of the piece, what exactly is the piece?

“I’ve been fortunate to have some pieces done many times, so we can hear many, many versions of the same piece. It’s like looking at a globe or a sphere and just turning it and turning it or pulling it, like it’s taffy; you see it’s still the thing, but you’re seeing all these different possibilities within it.”

JK:  For quite a while at least some elements within almost every single thing that I’ve written have been chance determined.  That to me is opening the door to all kinds of experiences. I’ve been fortunate to have some pieces done many times, so we can hear many, many versions of the same piece. It’s like looking at a globe or a sphere and just turning it and turning it or pulling it, like it’s taffy; you see it’s still the thing, but you’re seeing all these different possibilities within it.  The hammer downstairs just hit on one of my syllables, so that makes it beautiful for that second, that accident, that simultaneity. It’s all beautiful.

FJO: The thing that finally prompted me to talk to you was total serendipity. I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and there was a post mentioning some piece of yours that included an image from the score. It looked interesting, so I followed the link which took me to your website. When I got there, I was floored by how much music there is on it and how much of it was created in a relatively short amount of time.  I’ve followed your work for years, but I had no idea how much stuff you’ve done.  Last year you wrote 14 different pieces which total over six hours of music. That’s an incredible amount of work.

JK:  Well, it was a productive year, I guess. A lot of that music was for dance companies. I have what I consider to be the great fortune and opportunity of working with choreographers, which began in college at CalArts, the California Institute of the Arts, where I graduated in 1976.  Then I moved to New York, but I kept up relationships with some of those people and I also formed new relationships. Then I sent a cassette to John Cage.  He wanted to come over and listen to some of my stuff and that led to a commission from Merce Cunningham, and then that led to an almost 25-year association while I worked with other choreographers, too.  I’ve worked a lot with a choreographer named Kevin O’Day.  Each time someone says, “Do you want to write a piece for this choreography that I’m working on?”—and a lot of them are evening-length pieces—I go, “Well, sure.”  Then I say what I’m interested in. “I want to write something for choir and string quartet.”  “Okay.  Great.  Why don’t you do that? We’ll work with a young people’s choir in Mannheim, Germany, and we’ll get students from the Hochschule and have them be the string quartet.”

Then live electronics. I have a long-evolving electronics scenario that works through chance, but for every piece I can go in and change and manipulate little things, and then it becomes the electronics environment for that particular piece. Then some other piece will come along and I’ll continue the evolution of that particular way of manipulating, processing, and locating sound.

I’ve got these other ideas for this other long series of pieces called Free Palestine that I started in 2013. I’m still writing them.  I get an idea and for some reason the string quartet is the ensemble that I go to for fulfilling an idea.  I’ll have an idea for a compositional structure or a compositional motive or what I sometimes call an epiphany, and it somehow crystallizes into the string quartet.  So I write a lot of string quartets for that reason.

FJO: Part of that I’m sure grows out of your being a string player.

JK: Yeah, I’m sure.  And I use improvisation. I played violin for a while, very poorly, and now I play viola very poorly.  But I play the instruments, so the physicality of working out some things, getting the fingerings, feeling how the bow works—I do have that visceral, physical connection in parts of the creative process so then I can go, “Oh man, this feels great.”  And then it goes right into the piece.

FJO: So pieces evolve from playing around with ideas physically before you get to the page?

JK:  Well, that’s the way it works sometimes. Then other times I’m just walking through Tomkins Square Park, which is a great source of inspiration.  I just walk and often how things are put together comes from free, mindless thinking.  I’ve been working with a way of organizing time, which I call time vectors. I used that in the piece for six pianos that was done last year at Knockdown Center called Piano Vectors—six Steinway Ds in 40,000 square feet of space. I had this idea of how to organize them temporally and that’s where I began. Not a note was written.  I went through the whole thinking process of how it was to work with just time, like how to fill the time, and then from there it got more crystallized and I got to the actual notes for the piano and how it was going to be put onto the page.  Most of that was chance determined, then some of it was also a kind of physicality at the piano, with me playing.

John King leaning on a fence outside Tomkins Square Park.

FJO: This compositional process seems somewhat reminiscent of the micro-macrocosmic rhythmic structures that John Cage was composing with before he started using chance and which, in fact, led him directly to compose using chance: having a larger-scale structure of the piece in place before there are any specific notes.

JK:  Right.  The pre-composition or meta-composition, the composition before the composition, the overriding way things are organized.

FJO: So, maybe this is a silly question, but with a piece that lasts a relatively long amount of time—let’s say an hour—how long does it take to compose it?

JK:  Well, sometimes it doesn’t take very long at all.  It can take a couple of weeks or a month. Piano Vectors was the first piece that I fully realized within these time structures that I call vectors.  Then from there, there was a series of string quartets that were written, and then I also thought, “Well I’m going to write a string orchestra piece.”  Then I wrote a brass ensemble piece, because I was thinking about that, then a piece for percussion quartet. It’s like what Cage used to do with Fontana Mix. It can be done by itself, with Aria, or with Concert for Piano and Orchestra, because the system that he used to create one was the system he used to create all of them, so why can’t those things be played simultaneously?  The piece could be an hour long or 25-minutes long or an hour and a half long.  All those things are able to be accordionated—stretched or compressed—yet the structure, which to me is the overriding thing, is maintained.

FJO: Certainly the most extreme example of this that I can think of is the performance of Cage’s piece Organ2/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) in Halberstadt, Germany.

JK:  They’re still doing it…

FJO: They’re going to be doing it for 639 years.  But obviously he didn’t spend more than six centuries composing it.  Theoretically you could have a structure for something that lasts six hours, but maybe it took you only an hour to work it out.  Is it possible for the process of creating one of your pieces to actually be shorter than the realization of it?

“It’s surprising what happens when the mind has to get ideas together and you have to have something within a deadline. I can’t be like, ‘Is it a b-flat or a c-natural?’ All those things are gone—all those kind of self-doubts, self-criticisms.”

JK:  I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced that.  I taught at Dartmouth.  I took over Larry Polansky’s composition seminar for one semester.  I did these things with the graduate students that I called lightening composition.  If you play chess, you know what lightning chess is—it’s super fast.  You go with what you know, whatever your experience is with chess.  I had them do that with compositions, just as a way to kick start some ideas.  I gave them 15 minutes to come up with a piece.  I did it myself, too.  I never like giving students anything that I don’t participate in myself.  It’s surprising what happens when the mind has to get ideas together and you have to have something within a deadline.  A lot of people say, “Uh oh, I’ve got this deadline.” But I think, “Wow, I’ve got this deadline.”  You know, it’s got to be there.  I’ve got until Monday morning to finish it.  Great.  Because that means that I can’t be like, “Is it a b-flat or a c-natural?” All those things are gone—all those kind of self-doubts, self-criticisms. You just have to go with what you believe is coming from you as purely and as transparently as possible, and just do it.

FJO: So then do pieces ever get revised?

JK:  Sometimes they do.  The more notated the piece is, the more likely it is to be revised.  Some of the Free Palestine pieces were very open in terms of their interpretation. Then when we got into rehearsing them and then finally recording them, I had to do more arranging to make sure that everything worked.  So I took away some of the openness, but that was more pragmatic. I don’t think I’ll edit them.  But sometimes pieces change.

FJO: So, 14 pieces last year.  Six hours of music.  A productive year.  But I was just using 2015 as an example. It seems like you’ve been almost equally prolific every year for at least the past decade. How much time do you spend composing music in a given week?

JK:  Well, if I’m not traveling and don’t have something else going on, if it’s a week that’s just more or less a normal week and I’ve been commissioned to do something, I would guess between six and eight hours a day, sometimes more and sometimes a little bit less.  But I don’t divide the week into five days with two days.  I divide the week into seven days.

The upright piano in John King's apartment which has books of scores by Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus.

FJO: And, in terms of inspiration, you mentioned to me before we were on camera that the piano you have here is a little bit beat up which could be a good thing—it could take you out of pre-conceptions about what a piano is supposed to sound like. I see a laptop over there and I saw some recording equipment in another room. So I imagine that this is your composition studio as well as your home; this is where you create your music.

“I don’t divide the week into five days with two days. I divide the week into seven days.”

JK:  Yeah.  There’s a little, mini-studio that I use, but even that. I remember—I think it was last year or it might have been the year before—I worked on some poetry of Wang Wei, who’s a Tang-era poet, a really beautiful poet, and he was also an artist and a kind of a political consultant to various people.  So I’m in there working on the piece, and it was eventually going to be for soprano and then myself on viola and Robert Dick on flute, and with live electronics.  But I’m in there working on it, I think it was April, and there were all these birds singing back there.  So I just threw out a microphone and grabbed some of the birds singing and tried to bring that into the piece. And that did become part of the piece.  Then when I was editing the piece, I remember wanting to make sure the bird sounds were there, but then the bird sounds were outside, too, and also inside what I was editing, so that was an interesting process of hearing what inspired something and then hearing where it ended up.

FJO: You’re able to create amid construction noise and birds singing—that’s all potential compositional fodder. So do you ever go off to artist colonies?

JK:  Well, I’ve had the good fortune of being at three residencies this past year—in Florida, Venice, and Bellagio, Italy.  That focuses you there for a certain amount of time and focuses the work that you can do there.  But New York is very inspiring, too, in terms of walking through the park.  I hear great things both from the park and what’s buzzing around inside.  I think both are great experiences.

A window in John King's apartment.

FJO: I’d like to take it all the way back to the past. Your website is an incredible time portal and archive of almost everything you’ve ever done.  I couldn’t believe it!

JK:  1972 is, I think, the earliest.

FJO: You included a piccolo concerto that you wrote when you were in high school. You included an image from a page of your manuscript.

JK:  And a very poor recording made on a cassette player.  Remember those cassette players that had one red button? It was my mother’s cassette player. I can still remember the piece. It’s in a very rudimentary baroque style.

FJO: And then there was this six-minute piece for guitar and piano that survives only on the recording from, I think, 1973.  I’m trying to remember.  It was hard for me to keep track of it all.  You might finally be the person who defeated me.  I always like to listen to everything somebody does before I talk to that person.  But with you I couldn’t possibly do it.  I would have wound up spending the rest of my life just listening to your music.

JK:  I’m so grateful and fortunate. Tony Kramer, a friend of mine from Philadelphia, looked at my old website and said, “You’ve got to get this organized and get it together.” And he helped support that new website.  It took many, many months.  I went back to reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes.  I digitized it all.  I remember putting a cassette into the machine.  I hit play and I didn’t know if the whole thing would come off the spindle—that was the age of some of these recordings!

FJO: But to me the most interesting thing about it is that you decided to include all this stuff, even something you wrote in high school.  You still have a sense of it being you and you’re O.K. with it being out in the world representing you. And yet, there are some things that appear to be missing.  You posted a String Quartet No. 2, but there isn’t a No. 1.

JK:  There’s also a String Quartet No. 3.  I stopped numbering after three.

FJO: Right.  But what happened to No. 1?

JK:  I do have the score somewhere.  It was written in what they call a gap year now, between high school and my first year of college.  I was not in school, but I was studying with a composition guy in Minneapolis.  He introduced me to Lutoslawski. I used to take people I liked and treat them as models.  I would write something that was sort of in that style to say this is what I liked and this is what I didn’t like.  Then I’d retain what felt like my own voice.  So that first string quartet was such a piece. It was written on manila manuscript in pencil and I never got a string quartet to play it.  But I still have it.

FJO: But you haven’t put a thing about it on your website. Why did that piece get left out, when you were open to everything else?

JK: I tried to find pieces that had some audio. I don’t think there’s anything there that doesn’t have either audio or video.  But I guess I should maybe scan it or something.

FJO: Now in terms of having it all out there, you include recordings and a page from the score. You don’t put up full scores, which means that people have to contact you to get the materials if they’re interested.

JK: Yeah.

FJO: So do people contact you about some of these older pieces?  Has having this resource given you this opportunity?

JK: Well, to a certain extent.  I do sometimes get string quartets that want to get the score for this piece called HardWood which, again, began as a piece for the Pennsylvania Ballet for Kevin O’Day’s choreography.  That was at the time that ETHEL was forming, and they performed it as a piece for the ballet.  Then they really liked three of the movements, so I said you can treat those like a concert version because it was, I think, a 25- or 30-minute-long piece.  They made it into a 15-minute suite. And that piece is the one that most people contact me about because it’s got this blues movement that’s got some really driving stuff in it.

FJO: What if someone came to you and asked to do that piccolo concerto?

JK: Wow, all that stuff that’s on paper with my pencil looks like I was drawing these big fat notes.  And the pencil is kind of smeared a little bit. I was so into Bach and all this stuff at the time.  I don’t know who would want to play that piccolo concerto. But if somebody did, I’d put it together.  I have the score. I bound it with twine.

FJO: One of the things that I thought was so sweet—it’s not as old as those pieces, but it goes back quite a ways—is a piano sonata after Mozart that you wrote for your mother’s 70th birthday.

JK: Oh yeah.

FJO: Once again, it’s totally unlike any other work of yours that I know.  But you put it up along with everything else anyway.

JK: I also wrote an adagio for my father—I think for his 80th birthday.  He really likes Wagner and the high Romantics. It’s not really Wagnerian, but it’s in that world.  It’s for a string orchestra, but I didn’t have the strings, so it’s just a sampler version of the string orchestra piece.  My mother used to tell me that they would listen to it at top volume.  Yeah.  Why not?

FJO: So you grew up in a household with parents who appreciated classical music.

JK: Yeah, my mother was a pianist, and we usually heard her play just at Christmas time, because she would play Christmas carols.  I played guitar in a rock band and they weren’t too happy about that, for many reasons.  But then I took up violin and started playing rudimentary things.  My mom and I played duets together and that was really fun.  My father loved to listen to music.  They had season tickets to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra, and they were members of the Walker Arts Center and the Guthrie Theater.  So those were the places where I got my initial [exposure]. I remember seeing a Bertholt Brecht play for the first time—I was probably 14 or 15—at the Walker.  And I was just so blown away.  It was The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. It had projections and went slam back and forth between 1930s Chicago and Nazi Germany, and I was this kid going, “Wow.  This is so cool.”  And I saw touring operas at this place at the University of Minnesota called the Northrup Auditorium.  Madame Butterfly was my first opera.

John King's kitchen. A table with flowers and some bananas, a bookcase, and a wall filled with framed photographs.

FJO: Were you writing your own things yet at this point?

JK: I was.  When I first started playing violin, I had a friend in high school who played viola.  And I was studying counterpoint.  I wrote all these canons, because canons were these cool things that if you just kind of did them and followed all the rules—that my teacher was always correcting me about—you had a little composition. So I wrote lots of canons for her and me.  In high school, I was in a free education program where you could choose your own classes.  Those were the days of Summerhill.  It was an educational system out of England where kids were given the opportunity to make their own curriculum.  You decide what you want to do with your time, and so I studied violin, piano, and counterpoint.  And I was in a rock band, so that was part of my curriculum.  I was also reading Plato and studying Chinese history, but all on my own.  I just decided to do those things.

During that time, I also helped organize the talent show. So the rock band played and I played these little funny canons for violin and viola. There were people that were there studying tap dance. And I wrote some stuff for brass ensemble.  I was getting into Stravinsky, too.  I was experimenting with polytonality. The band teacher hated my music.  He would make fun of it in front of the band.  He would come over to the piano and play two chords that were meant to be played together.  And he would bang on them and say, “This is how you’re supposed to sound.  This is how he wants you to sound.  Isn’t that pretty?  Isn’t this nice?”  And of course, he got a laugh from everybody.  But I said, “Yeah, that’s how I wanted this.”

FJO: Good for you.  I love how some of these early crystallizing moments stayed with you. Just a few years ago, you wrote this piece for chorus that’s a three-part canon which was totally breaking rules and, in so doing, you created these wonderful textures. It’s canon your way.  And that can be traced all the way back to those violin-viola duets.

JK:  Yeah.  It’s still hard for me to write parallel fifths.  There’s a big feeling of freedom to have parallel fifths or parallel octaves or things like that, because all that stuff was driven out of me.  It was counterpoint from the 1600s on, all those rules.  But yeah, those structural things like canons or how to unify a piece of music, it’s still there.

FJO: One thing that I find that’s so interesting about your story is that you were immersed in this world of playing violin and viola and in string quartets.  But you also had another foot in this world of the electric guitar and playing in a rock band.  Of course, they’re not really separate worlds.  And in the music you would later come to write, they definitely aren’t separate worlds. There are passages in string quartets of yours that sound like deep Delta blues and even hard rock.  Then there are things with electric guitar that almost sound baroque.  I came across a piece of yours called Dance Piece that sounds like square dance music, but it was done with all electronic instruments—electric guitar and synthesizers. It’s totally out of context for those instruments, yet it totally works.  So there are no walls that compartmentalize music into different genres for you. It’s all one big continuum; even within a piece, it can suddenly go from one thing to another.

“My mother liked me playing violin, but she didn’t like me playing Jimi Hendrix.”

JK: In high school, I was playing in two or three bands simultaneously.  I was getting as much playing as I possibly could.  Chicago blues was what gave me my inspiration.  Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were my big idols, so I was learning their stuff and playing their stuff.  My mother liked me playing violin, but she didn’t like me playing Jimi Hendrix.  She tried to ban Jimi Hendrix in the household, but I said no.  She had heard these things about what he did and what he stood for and all that. But I was not copying that; I was just listening to the music and playing in bands.  Later on I played on and off in blues bands here in New York for years and years.  It was that period in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s when the electric guitar also could become an instrument—as were lots of jazz and rock instruments—for pure improvisation, free noise, and noise that was mixed with all sorts of other elements from the universe.  It was not just about one thing. Let’s put everything together.  Let’s have there be a continuum where there are no walls, no borders. One thing just flows to the next as quickly or as slowly as you want to make them.

Another recent piece that’s on the website that’s just for guitars is Requiem for Eric Garner. I had discovered Erik Satie, probably through Cage.  Then I found these pieces that had no bar lines—Ogives.  So immediately I loved it—1880s and no bar lines!  And then I read that ogives are things in Notre Dame [Cathedral], the kind of arcs that were used.  Satie went in there and just got inspired by l’Ecole de Notre Dame composers and he wrote this thing.  And it’s just so beautiful.  If I transpose it a little bit, I’ve got it all on the guitar.  So I learned those, and incorporated that. It goes from Ogives, then 11th century, then back to root pedals and strangeness with the guitar.  It’s all lots of fun.

The sun reflected in John King's glasses.

FJO: I have a notation question regarding your electric guitar music.  The tradition of writing for string quartets is an old tradition, and it is very clearly and very precisely notated, down to all the articulations and bowings. You can break that down in various ways and open it up, and you get all sorts of other things.  But with electric guitar, there are elements of performance practice that notation really hasn’t caught up with, like settings for amps and pedals that are so individualized. All the great players have a very personalized sound on the instrument. If you want someone to recreate your sound, there is a great deal of information you’d need to convey that isn’t part of standard musical notation.  How much of an issue is that for you?

JK:  Well, I think that if any guitar player were to pick something up, I think they’d just have to have the recording and take it from there.  I have another piece called White Buffalo Calf Woman Blues. I think the recording is up on the website.  I got an email from a guitar player in Italy who said he wanted to play that piece and did I have the music for it?  Well, I didn’t. I didn’t have the sheet music for it because it was kind of an improvised piece.  But then I said, “If somebody wants to play it, I’ll put it together.”  And you know, it can be put together. Some things were written out and then there were some areas that were improvisational.  But something like tone—guitar players are so particular about that, so to notate it would be like telling the guitar player to throw that away. So I wouldn’t want to be too precise with that kind of stuff; I would encourage the player to change the settings.  I have this kind of guitar, I have this kind of amp, and I have these kinds of pedals.  Maybe I’ll try this version of it.  If then out from that someone wants to interpret it various ways, I think that’s just a great thing.

But when I do string quartet music or orchestral music, I try to really go through and make sure that everything is correct about the bowings and things like that.  But then you go to rehearsals, and you hear the string players go, “Let’s take these bowings and let’s not take those bowings.” If they feel like they can get the grit, the beauty, or whatever the musicality is that they find in it with a different bowing, I’m fine with it.  I’m not really into saying, “This is the way it has to be.”  I’m not that kind of guy.

“I’m not really into saying, ‘This is the way it has to be.’ I’m not that kind of guy.”

FJO: With an orchestra, the more precisely something is notated, the less rehearsal time it requires.  As soon as you give people choices, they have to take time to debate what they’re going to do in terms of those choices. Because they’re on a clock, they’re forced into certain kinds of music-making paradigms.

JK: That’s exactly right.

FJO: While you have written for orchestra, it’s not a ton of what you do.  I imagine that’s probably because you prefer for there to be more freedom with the players.

JK: This is again something that is on the composer.  What kind of freedom do you want, and how much time are they going to have to digest it and to be able to understand it and do something with it?  That means the notation has to be really clear.  You can’t waffle at all about things and you have to be maybe like, “I want them to do this, this, and this, but maybe I should just have them do this and this.”  Go into those things, and then they’ll get it more precisely.  With these things that I call time vectors, I’ll try to explain it to the musicians and they’ll play through it once or twice. Then I’d say, “That one thing that you did, you’re not understanding what I meant.”  A clarification comes, and then they get it.  But you’re right, it’s about time.  It’s about being on the clock. If it’s an orchestra, how many orchestras in colleges or conservatories work with a digital clock? How much experience do they have with it and when are they going to use it?  Maybe no orchestras will ever want to do a piece that’s on a digital clock or that has anything but bar lines in it.  How much music do they get that has no bar lines?  How long will it take?  But then what happens if the players come out and they say, “Oh yeah, I’ve done that 50 times before; this is nothing to me.  Let’s go.  Let’s explore this.  It says that I can choose any articulation.  Well great.  Let’s do it”?  If someone were to commission me to do an orchestra piece—and it’s been done, but in Mannheim, Germany—usually what I do is I end up in 4/4, trying to put it into that kind of configuration. I get the sense that things are changing, but I don’t know how fast it’ll change.

FJO: Well, I’d love for you to explain time vectors to me.

JK: Okay, well I’ll explain it by way of where it comes from.  The first piece that I did for the Cunningham company was for a dance called Native Green.  The music was called gliss in sighs, and it was written for an electric prepared violin.  John Cage hooked me up with Max Mathews.  Max was making all these electric violins. The violin that he gave to me was so cool; every string had a separate microphone on it.  The way the Cunningham company works is they have speakers all over the theater.  So by making a broken chord across those four strings, you make the sound go around the auditorium.  It was just so beautiful. Playing a double stop, we had sounds coming from two sides of the auditorium.

“With time vectors, the direction is that you begin after or before a certain time and you end before or after another time.”

That was the first piece where I began to use time as the way things were organized.  I had a grouping of material—what I called a time window: Like from zero to 30 seconds, this can take place.  From 30 seconds to 45, these materials can be improvised or used.  That’s how it worked.  Cage later had those things that he called time brackets, where you had to start within a particular window; that was the way that time was organized.  With time vectors, the direction is that you begin after or before a certain time and you end before or after another time.  So, you can think of it this way: You have to begin after zero and end before 30.  You have to place this material within that.  Then, another kind of vector is you have begin before a certain time and end before a certain time.  Another way is that you have to begin before a certain time, and end after a certain time.  And the last vector, the last possibility, is you have to begin after a certain time and end after a certain time.  So I give you a musical phrase, and I say this has to fit like this, or you can stretch it here, or you can compress it here, or you can place it here, or it could become the entire piece sometimes.  Or it could be that you’d have to stretch those three notes if you wanted to be really extreme with your interpretation of these time vectors.  You can play three notes over the entire duration of the piece.  Or you can place it here, or place it there, stretch it this way, or compress it that way.  Have it fall at this particular point, have it fall within another particular point, but within these chance-determined timing points.

FJO: So you were doing this before Cage’s Number Pieces?

JK: Well, what I call the time windows thing was done before them.  But the idea of how to stretch these vectors was after.  It was maybe four or five years ago.

FJO: So would you say that that grew out of the influence of the Cage Number Pieces?

JK: I’m sure it did. And because of being with Cunningham, we played this pretty famous piece of his called Four3, which is based on chance-determined reworkings of the Erik Satie 24-hour piece Vexations. Cage took the cantus firmus, and he made all these different single lines where the pitches are chance determined, either above or below the cantus firmus. The rhythmic element of the cantus firmus is intact, but it is stretched out over a minute and a half or two minutes.  I used to play it for a while with David Tudor.  The last time I saw Cage was after a performance of that that I’d done with David Tudor at City Center.  When you’re playing that piece, you put yourself in this very interesting mind frame.  You get the piece of music that you’re about to play, but very little. There are maybe 16 or 18 different phrases you can choose, and so you get ready to play and then you look at the clock, and you look at the time score, and you think, “Okay, is this between 35 and 45?  Yes it is, so I can begin now. And then how long do I have play?  Well, I have to make it last until one minute, or until one minute and 20 seconds, and so I have to stretch it out.  I’m going to end at 1:20.  I’m going to go to the very end.” And you make that decision, then you play, and then you end.  So it puts you in a place where you really have to be focused. David Tudor’s doing his version of it and I’m doing my version of it. I’ve also played it with Christian Wolff and with David Behrman. You’re a performer and you’re also completely an audience.  You’re somehow aware of what’s happening around you.  You’re not reacting to it, but you’re aware of it.  That always fascinated me about that piece.  You have to be totally invested in that decision that you make.  “Okay, I’m going to do this one.  I’m going to do it here.  I’m going to do it for this length.”  But then what’s happening?  What else is out there in the world that’s co-existing with this thing, with this decision that I made?  That experience was really fascinating.

A small painting leans against one of the window panes in John King's apartment.

FJO: When you mention being the audience you open up a whole other Pandora’s box full of questions. We talked about how performers respond to the score, but not really about how audiences respond when they’re hearing things. How much concern do you have about audiences knowing how these pieces were put together? What does an audience coming to this music need in terms of advance planning, if anything at all, to really experience what you’re doing?

JK: Well, in those kinds of pieces, I think if an audience understands that they don’t have to understand the particulars of how the time’s being organized, but that the organization of the sounds that they’re hearing, the simultaneities, is chance determined, then what they gain from their experience is unique and totally valid. What do you hear? What is interesting to you? What do you notice? What those things are is completely valid and the best is if someone is sitting next to you and hears a completely different thing. That’s fine. It’s the experience you bring to it, then what you get out of it is valid. But there are also pieces that I’ve written that have more of an emotional or dramatic trajectory.

FJO: Your string quartet AllSteel immediately comes to mind. Once someone reads that you composed half of the movements of the piece before 9/11 and the other half afterwards and that the before and after movements alternate, there’s no way to un-know that information. It becomes a very significant part of the listening experience.

JK: But I don’t how much there are connectivities with the more abstracted time organized pieces. At the performances of Piano Vectors at Knockdown Center, the audience was just wandering.  It was like an installation. People would park themselves in different places. One person fell asleep under one of the pianos. They were constructing their own journey through these expanses of music that were done at different times and different ways. Those kinds of pieces I think are the ones that are the most open to the individual creating their own experience and getting from it what they notice. But there are other pieces that have a program or a beginning inspiration behind them that does impact the way they’re experienced, like Requiem for Eric Garner or the Free Palestine pieces.

FJO: I’d like to continue talking for a bit about AllSteel. It’s interesting to me that before 9/11 you were writing a certain kind of music but that afterwards it was a completely different kind of music. You’ve described it as the point where the 20th century ended and the 21st century began. It somehow changed the music you were writing. So I wanted to explore what exactly you meant by that.

JK: The piece was a commission. Some ideas I was gathering before, but I sat down on September 10 to begin the piece. It was a Monday. I remember going through those four movements and writing a good minute or two into each of those four parts. The beginning was this groove that I had in my head. I knew that there was going to be a very kind of sleazy blues thing from a pizzicato cello. Then I had this other kind of technical thing that I was going to use in the fourth movement. I really had a lot of it planned out. Those four movements were pretty well in place. Then 9/11 happened and I just couldn’t go ahead with it as planned, because it was pretty aggressive. So I wanted those other movements to be reflective and I think it did well for the piece.

FJO: There’s another string quartet of yours that has even a greater variety of musical styles co-existing together, 10 Mysteries, but I don’t have the same kind of window into it that I do with AllSteel because of your comments about that piece. These kinds of back stories are certainly helpful to me as a listener, but I wonder how important they are to you?

JK: Well, I remember 10 Mysteries was one of the pieces that I also wrote when I had this idea of the convergence of composed music, indeterminate music, and improvised music. I wanted those three things to be present, but you couldn’t tell what was what.  I called it the trilogic unity—having these three ways of making music be so connected that it was a unified thing.  I would like an audience to know, to the extent that they are able to understand, something that’s written down is going to be the same thing every time but there’s also something that comes purely spontaneously from improvisation and then other things that were embedded into the music with indeterminacy.

“I had this idea of the convergence of composed music, indeterminate music, and improvised music. I wanted those three things to be present, but you couldn’t tell what was what. It’s like you make a reservation at a steak house. And just before you get in the door, you think, ‘I feel like having a vegetarian burger down the street.’ Then on the way there, you run into a friend whom you haven’t seen in 20 years who just happens to pass by, and he says, ‘Let’s go have a drink.’”

I had this metaphor that I said once in a composition class.  It’s like you make a reservation at a restaurant.  It’s a steak house.  You plan it in advance: Friday I’m going to go to this steakhouse.  And just before you get in the door, you think, “I feel like having a vegetarian burger down the street.”  A spontaneous thought comes in.  I determined to do this, but now I’m going to do that.  Then on the way there, you run into a friend whom you haven’t seen in 20 years who just happens to be in town, who just happens to pass by, and he says, “Let’s go have a drink.”  Three kinds of ways of interacting with the world.  I just wanted to put that in the music somehow, that little compression of possibility.  Let’s put those close together so they’re always present.  That’s what I was trying to do with that piece.

FJO: Now how my brain works is that you messed with my head by calling this piece 10 Mysteries even though it only has nine movements. Where’s the tenth movement?

JK: I know. I threw off everybody with that. At the very end of the piece, it finishes and the quartet just holds—if it’s done live—for 30 to 45 seconds because I wanted there to be a moment where people would just collect all that at the end, all the stuff going on in people’s experience.  So the tenth mystery was what happens in the listener when the piece is finished.  It’s like the seventh direction for Native Americans. There are seven directions: north, south, east, west, up, and down, and then there’s where you are.

FJO: Another piece of yours that has thrown me off somewhat is The HeartPiece, which you co-created with the Polish composer Krzysztof Knittel for the Warsaw Autumn festival at which it was described as a “double opera.” I’m not sure what that means.

JK: There’s this great text by Heiner Müller called Herzstück and it has two characters in it: A and B. I was at the Warsaw Autumn performing with a friend of mine—Krzysztof Zarebski—who is a performance artist. He’s good friends with Krzysztof Knittel, a composer who lives in Warsaw.  I remember speaking to him about this crazy idea I had: “What if we were to write a double opera, kind of like an exquisite corpse. We take this text, and we do different things with it. You do your version, and I do my version, and we just go back and forth. And we’d use a string quartet.” He played electric keyboards, I was playing guitar, and then the singers would be David Moss, who’s a friend of mine, and he knew a well-known Polish soprano, Olga Pasisniek, who was open to doing something really wild and crazy. So that’s how we did it. We had some disagreements; it wasn’t like [John Cage and Lou Harrison’s] Double Music, so we had to come up with some kind of structural agreements, and then we just put it together.  I thought of that A-B text being like the structure for how the piece would be composed: A-B composers. The text is very open and it’s very funny. A could be a man and B a woman.  It could be two men; it could be two women.  It is without any gender, though people have their own thoughts about how that could be.  We put it together very quickly before we played it in a small theater in Warsaw and, fortunately, we did two performances.  And it was done for Polish TV. The set was designed by Krzysztof Zarebski. The string quartet was inside this big tent made out of paper. They start playing, then they poke through the paper and it reveals them as the paper is torn apart. It was an all-female string quartet called Dafo.

FJO: Doing that project seems to have opened up a whole other world of you. Since then you’ve composed a bunch of these weird kinds of operas that are experimenting with texts in a completely different way. Or works that play with narrative or a lack of narrative, like impropera, where the text and the staging also have indeterminate elements. This has now become a central part of what you do.

JK:  It is. For me, that fascinating juncture of staging, lighting, text, and music is what opera is supposed to be. It was done in a certain way in the Baroque period, and different ways as we’ve gone along in history. But both the team of Brecht/Weill and Cunningham/Cage took the idea of staging in kind of similar ways. They wanted to treat the music separately from the text. They wanted to treat the text separately from the stage design. The stage design with a Brecht piece wasn’t meant to be naturalistic: “Oh, we’re really in someone’s room.” Instead, it took the opportunity of staging something and saying, “Let’s put a cow skull on the top of a pole and that will represent what goes on in this room.” The audience wasn’t being told how to think. The audience was encouraged to think about what goes on in that room, not because it’s got chairs and sofas, but because it’s got a cow skull on the top of a stick.  That puts people in a slightly different place.

Another opera that I did was called Dice Thrown. It was based on this Stéphane Mallarmé poem.  Mallarmé was very particular about where the words appeared on the page, what font they were in, whether they were italicized or bold. I found it at the end of a collection of poetry by him.  When I opened the book for the first time, I looked at it and I said, “This is a musical score.”  And when I looked at his notes, his introduction to it, he said that it is like a piece of music.  The space on the page is meant to be like silence.  The way that the words are written is meant to be like how they could be read.

A page from a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé that uses space and various types of typography.

I looked at this and I said I just had to do something with it.  So I took the text apart.  I put all the italicized words together, because that’s a kind of a narrative, even though it stretches from top to bottom.  And then there’s the title—it’s also embedded from the beginning to the end of the poem.  I just used that as this rich inspiration for how the music was done.  I also had video incorporated in ways that exemplified that, and I divided the stage similarly to Cage’s Europeras.  He divided the stage into 64 parts.  I didn’t want to get that complicated, so the stage was divided into 16 squares. Every time the piece is played, there’s a projection behind the audience that shows where the singer is singing from.  They look at the score, which has a time code as well as a stage breakdown.  “I sing Aria One from this place tonight.  Then I’m joined.  There’s a chorus. The three singers can occupy these parts of the stage.”  There was a choreographic element. They had all the negative space—any place the singers weren’t occupying, that’s where a dance movement could be done.  Steve Koplowitz was the choreographer.  He had to do choreography for his six dancers that could exist in one square, or along the strips, or along the back, like he had to have it be mobilized and transformable, so that it fits every night. We did two different performances, and each performance has a kind of an A and a B part.  We’d do a version at the beginning and then a version at the end, so that the audience could experience two passes at this way of organizing material.

The set design people and even the choreographer didn’t think that it was possible in the beginning.  It happened when everyone understood how it was to be organized.  It was beautiful and seamless, and everything about it worked. You just had to make sure that everything’s organized, and people understood.  The singers understood, “I might sing this aria tonight.  I might not.  I might someplace else.  I might sing it from this part of the stage. It might last two minutes, it might last six minutes, but I have to make it go along with all the different variations that are possible.”

John King reading a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé that inspired his opera Dice Thrown.

That was one of those things where all those elements were organized completely separately, but then unified in the performance itself. The audience can notice, “Oh that word was projected on the back wall, and something else was sung, but I made a connection between this appearance that was projected and what the person was singing in French simultaneously with that projection.”  Maybe the dancers were doing something that, again, emphasized something for this person, but the person here didn’t get that, they got something else.  That was how I organized that opera.

“For me, that fascinating juncture of staging, lighting, text, and music is what opera is supposed to be.”

Theatrical work is of great interest to me. With the most recent micro-operas that I did, lighting was also a big element.  Chance-determined lighting. Getting that incorporated into the piece and noticing what happened. Getting reactions from the audience about how they experienced that. I will hopefully do many, many more of these.

FJO: We’re now almost at the halfway point of this year, and you’ve already written three pieces—an hour of music. Maybe you’ve written more, but you haven’t gotten them on your website yet. What are you working on next?  Are there going to be more operas? How far in advance do you plan the next thing you’re doing?  Do you know what the next six months are going to be?

JK: I know that there are certain things that I’m hoping to realize. I’ve had a project in mind for quite a while. I’ve worked with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus a lot. And I’ve made contact with a choir in Ramallah, Palestine. I have contact with people at a place called Culture Hub—that’s the new media part of LaMaMa Theater.  They do multi-site performances, which they call telematic performances. I’ve written a choral piece that’s similar to a lot of the stuff that I’ve written for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus based on a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, who was a great Palestinian poet. I’m hoping that I can get these two choirs to sing together at some point. The idea of a choir in Brooklyn singing a piece or two of theirs for the choir in Palestine and the choir in Palestine singing a piece or two of theirs for the choir in Brooklyn, and then having them sing something together is something that I’m hoping to do in the next six months. The music is finished. It’s now just the technology that we’re waiting on to get everyone to be able to talk to each other. I’m also working on a piece for the Belgrade Philharmonic with my partner Aleksandra Vrebalov. We’re working on the entire piece together without divisions of responsibility, trying to create a work without identifiable “creators” but blended so well that even we won’t be able to tell who wrote what! Plus the recording of the Free Palestine string quartets is another thing that will have to be edited, probably in the fall. Those are the main things right now.

FJO: So never a free moment. I know you drink lots of coffee.

JK:  Café Bustelo.

A can of Cafe Bustelo on the kitchen counter in John King's apartment.

Remembering Tod Dockstader (1932-2015)

Dockstader on floor near bookcase holding a microphone near a cat walking by

Tod Dockstader recording a cat, date unknown.

Q: What do Mr. Magoo, Federico Fellini, and Pete Townshend have in common?

A: Tod Dockstader.

I’ve been connected to Tod Dockstader and his extraordinary music for nearly 40 years. In fact, issuing his classic works for the first time on CD directly inspired me to create my Starkland label, and indeed Starkland’s first two CDs are devoted to Tod’s music.

It’s been a rewarding, moving experience to trace the zigzagging path of his career, see the blossoming recognition for his accomplishments, and work with Tod as he transitioned from the world of analog tape and razor blade to the era of computer and software. What’s striking to me is that Tod’s composing, for most of his life, was always an avocation, something he did part-time, outside of his day job, earning him little income.

Certainly, Tod’s path to becoming a musique concrète composer was circuitous. Born in 1932 in St. Paul, Minnesota, he majored in psychology and art as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. As a graduate student, Tod studied painting and film, paying his way by doing cartoons for local newspapers and magazines.

In 1955, Tod married Beverly Nyberg and moved to Los Angeles, where his drawing skills landed him a job as a film editor, writer, and production designer at UPA studios in Burbank. It turned out that a film editor in a small studio was also expected to cut a lot of sound, as well as create sound effects needed for cartoons, and editing sounds came naturally to Tod. Cartoons he cut sound and picture for included “Mr. Magoo” and “Gerald McBoing-Boing.”

Tod next worked as a recording engineer at New York’s Gotham Recording. At this major commercial studio, he surreptitiously used off-work hours to collect and experiment with interesting sounds. Up to 1960, Tod had not heard much musique concrète. He recalled, “I don’t think I modeled my first work after anyone in particular, not consciously anyway. I just knew how to do it.” Around that time, Tod created Eight Electronic Pieces. (Years later, Fellini used parts of these in his film Fellini Satyricon.)

Dockstader manipulating magnetic tape at a reel-to-reel console

Tod Dockstader at Gotham Recording, circa 1965

Gotham acquired its first stereo Ampex in 1960, and Tod revised the eighth piece from that first set into his first stereo piece, Traveling Music. On May 20, 1961, he received his first world premiere on New York’s WQXR: they aired No. 8 along with Varèse’s Poème électronique. After the broadcast, Varèse called him, commenting how nice it was having their works aired, and suggesting that they work together at some later date. (They didn’t.)

It’s quite bizarre today to learn how flippantly these pieces were aired, with the station engineer tossing in some sounds of his own. Tod wrote, “He treated it as an add-a-part composition, contributing a few tones with his test generator during the broadcast, some boops and beeps of his own. I thought I was going crazy: Wait a minute, that’s not in the piece! But, it was typical of the reaction at that time: this isn’t Music, it’s a joke, let’s have some fun with it. And it wasn’t just my piece; he played over the Poème, too.”

Varèse was important to Tod. “That this new sound-art could be rigorously organized I first learned by hearing Edgar Varèse’s Poème électronique of 1958—a powerfully dramatic work in which the strength and personality of choice among all the possibilities is very evident. My choice of the term ‘Organized Sound’ for my own work was, in part, a tribute to the Poème and Varèse.” Tod also mentioned he was inspired by Varèse’s “seriousness, his attitude toward tape music. It was worth the work, it wasn’t a joke or a momentary blip in the history of music, as most people thought at that time. That attitude sustained me in my own work.”

Tod’s years at Gotham (1958 – 1966) were highly productive. He spent long hours there, when the studio was closed, creating his now classic tape works, including: Luna Park, Apocalypse, Water Music, and Quatermass. His last piece at Gotham was Four Telemetry Tapes in 1965.

In addition, working at a professional studio helped Tod promote his music, being able to dub tapes and cut lacquers that he could send to radio stations. Water Music had its premiere in June 1963 on WQXR as part of a program that also featured Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge. At the end of the show, the presenter announced that since electronic music had no future, this would be the last broadcast of its kind.

Early synthesizers did not appeal to Tod. He recalled that, in 1964, “I got a letter from someone named Robert A. Moog, inviting me to look at his new ‘instruments for electronics music composition’—his words—at the AES convention in New York. How he got my name, I don’t know; this was before my LPs came out. So, I went, I looked, I saw a keyboard and a prototype wall of knobs and wires. I listened, and I got a sinking feeling that my kind of music was ending here. My peculiar skills were going to be obsolete, like a blacksmith looking at his first automobile. That keyboard: that meant the writers were going to take over electronic music. And so, we got Switched-On this-and-that and Dancing Snowflakes and all, in just a few years.”

Dockstader working at a reel-toreel tape console standing up and smoking a cigarette

Another photo of Tod Dockstader at the Gotham Recording Studio.

Tod stopped composing around 1966. Why? There appear to have been several reasons. First, he once wrote, “I just got bone-tired. I’d done quite a lot of music in a relatively short time. I’d almost lived in that studio for six, seven years, engineering by day and doing my music in down-time, nights, and weekends there. Concrète and electronic music was an expensive music to make, then; it cost a lot in time and money—too much money, in those days, for someone working alone. And time: not just composing time, but maintenance and repair.”

Secondly, after Tod left Gotham (to work on the Air Canada Pavilion at Montreal’s Expo ’67), he lost access to Gotham’s equipment and couldn’t find alternative facilities. Being an outsider without academic credentials, Tod was denied grants and access to the major electronic music centers; he received rejection letters from both Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.

Finally, by that time Tod and Beverly had a daughter, Tina, and earning a steady income became a priority. The family moved to Westport, Connecticut, where he formed a company that made award-winning educational films for classroom use, notably a series on American history for the American Heritage series. Tod wrote, directed, and created sound for these films.

My contact with Tod began in the mid-1970s when I started to manage Owl Recording, Inc., which arose from the ashes of Owl Records. The original Owl had released four Dockstader LPs in the mid-1960s, and these records did attract some favorable attention in the national media—notably the widely read, mainstream Saturday Review, as well as Audio and High Fidelity. Still, Tod did not return to composing until about 30 years later.

As I familiarized myself with Owl’s highly eclectic offerings, his music became a revelation, powerful and distinctive. I eventually contacted Tod, and our initial communication was, well, rocky. Understandably, he was annoyed that the old, dormant Owl had ceased communications with him. But we worked things out, and a long friendship ensued.

By 1991, Tod’s Owl LPs had pretty much sold out, and CDs had become the dominant medium. Somehow the next step seemed obvious to me: I’d start a record label, with the initial purpose of reissuing Tod’s classic pieces on CD.

Tod was “astounded” by this idea. But he readily warmed to the plan, and we collaborated intensely on all aspects of the two CDs: art, notes, and, of course, the sound. Reviewing his original masters, he had legitimate concerns. “There was some deterioration of the tapes, drying out, and all those hundred of splices peeling apart. When I played them, little piles of iron oxide would appear beneath the heads and tape-guides, and I thought, there goes the music—rust to dust.” He remarked we’d “have to release them as Historic Recordings, like Edison cylinders.” But he managed to create high-quality dubs of the originals. A side note is that I was working with DATs at that point for CD masters, and I convinced Tod to acquire a DAT for checking the masters, marking his first step into the digital world.

Production of the CDs pleased him: “Thanks for the whole works. Now I can let go of it.” And Tod was gratified as the rave reviews poured in. The Washington Post praised this “highly imaginative pioneer” as “one of the giants in the field,” and Stereophile placed him alongside Varèse, Stockhausen, and Subotnick in the electronic music pantheon. The Wire concluded that “these extraordinary recordings should ensure that Dockstader will be remembered as the innovative, visionary figure he undoubtedly was.” These new reviews were “better by far than anything the music ever got in its day, when it was made… I was stunned; I never thought it would happen.”

Tod added, “I feel lucky: to have lived long enough to see the music come back—to have avoided being in the old joke where the composer walks into the publisher’s office with his music and is told, ‘Come back when you’ve been dead a hundred years.’” He savored the international exposure, too. “I never expected to get reviewed in New Zealand, let along so well-reviewed… To have my CD in a Tokyo Tower seems, to me, miraculous.”

When the prominent audiophile magazine Audio commented that these high-quality CDs, with their frequency extremes, could be used to evaluate playback systems, Tod was floored. “Now, somebody wants them to test equipment with! Holy Cow, as we used to say. Between you and me, with our funny old equipment, we seem to have done pretty well.”

Tod Dockstader wearing headphones

Tod Dockstader listening back to a sound, circa 1969

As our relationship deepened, Tod sought my suggestions for keeping up with the electronic music world. His questions and reactions reveal much about his priorities and how he viewed his career as a composer.

One listening suggestion I passed along was Conlon Nancarrow. Tod splurged for the pricey multi-CD Nancarrow set (from Wergo), writing, “I also got the loan of a few of the ms. scores for the Studies, so I could ‘follow’ the music. This involved turning the score pages so fast that I hardly heard the piano; the thing goes by in a blur. Study No. 40 (a/b) is particularly terrifying (also great)… thanks again for your help; I don’t know if I ever would have heard this music without your clues.”

Tod was always acutely aware of what he perceived as his marginal status and the dubious legitimacy of electronic music. He noted that, in the ’60s, Berio announced, “Tape music is dead.” And that Boulez wrote, “Nothing, absolutely nothing, resulted from that almost incoherent ‘method’ of musique concrète,” calling everyone who had worked in it “wide-eyed dilettantes” and “amateurs, as miserable as they are needy.” Tod also mentioned, “I was turned a bit grey(er) in learning that Pierre [Schaeffer] had ‘renounced’ all his tape work.”

I regularly asked if he had returned to composing (understanding this private person would only reluctantly admit this). Several times I suggested he join the American Music Center, investigate working with computers (Tod and sampling seemed like a natural mix), and apply for grants. These suggestions were considered and then, nearly always, set aside.

A typical response ends with some poignancy: ”Thanks for the information on samplers, MIDI and all. Last year, I spent a day with a musician-engineer of my own age (there are a few), who was trying to learn sampling (on a Kurzweil) and MIDI sequencing (on a Mac) simultaneously. His experience with it caused me to turn away from all that (it seems to have driven him quite far around the bend)… All this has convinced me that I have to go on with the tools and talents I have, at least for this time and this piece. Because I want to do music, not wiring, and I feel Father Time standing behind me, gently poking me in the back.”

Tod was unsure how to deal with his increased media exposure. I’d forward invitations sent to him via Starkland, he seemed to consider them, and then decline. I recall an early invitation to France’s Festival International d’Art Acousmatigue. He was perplexed. “Is there any advantage… in my going to this thing?… And, what is a music festival? What happens?… [If you] can give me any advice on this problem, please let me know.” He didn’t go.

When there was a choice between taking time to develop his career and creating more music, Tod always opted for more time in the studio. “At present, I really only want to do some new work… going on the road in pursuit of a ‘career’ would be, I think, wearing, at best.”

He was not attracted to and uncertain about the internet as it emerged. One time, someone doing a doctoral dissertation on electronic music contacted him. Tod wrote, “He said he’d gotten my address from the Internet—which fills me with dread; how could that happen?” And, later, “I’m in deep waters here, since I don’t even know just what a ‘webpage’ is.”

Even after the impressive reviews for his CDs, he saw slim odds for successful grant applications. “I appreciate your offer to help with letters of recommendation toward my applying for grants. But, I don’t know if I should pursue it… I doubt my qualifications: I have no political affiliations, and if they look me up in most Books, they won’t find me… Grant-chasing takes a lot of time… I want to use my time to better, and more immediate, effect.”

Yet nudges from me and others (such as David Lee Myers) occasionally had some effect, and in Fall 1993 he wrote that he planned to apply for a modest grant from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. He got the grant, commenting, “It seems it was the only award given for music in the two-year grant period. It’s shaken my belief in my innate avant-gardedness.”

The acclaim for his CDs, along with his new grant, seemed to have inspired him to inch towards creating new work. In 1994, he wrote, “I’ve assembled, over the past year, a closet studio, mostly out of salvaged analog equipment. It’s more a museum than a studio, I’m afraid. (I did look into digital—hard-disc, ProTools and all—but I can’t possibly afford it, either in dollars or learning curves.)… if people ask you, you can say, yes, the old guy’s at it again… So, in time, the world will know—and yawn.”

By this time, Tod worried that he no longer had it in him “to make something good,” and felt that “all those Good Reviews have become intimidating.” Still, in 1995 his reports turned positive and included his first mention of a major piece brewing. “The music is starting to go well… The piece, called, at present, Aerial, isn’t growing into what I had thought it would… But then, I never expected to be doing it at all. It looks like it will be a Big Piece.”

The following years presented ups and downs for Tod. Summer’s heat would drive him out of his studio, health issues arose, and deaths of some close friends (including Jim Reichert, who worked with Tod on Omniphony) depressed him.

Jim Reichert standing in back operating one of many reel-to-reel tape machines and Tod Dockstader sitting in front of a console turning a knob.

Tod Dockstader with Jim Reichert and a chain of reel-to-reel tape machines, circa 1965

Over these years, others and I encouraged Tod to get a computer as a new tool to experiment with sounds. The tipping point came from his daughter, Tina, who recalls, “I reserved a computer at the library. I sat down with Tod, who was adamant about NOT getting a computer, and I put his name into the search engine. Voila! He was blown away that so many people knew who he was, that so many people had written about him.” Tod promptly procured a computer in late 2001. (One of Tod’s biggest attractions to DATs and the computer was the absence of transfer losses inherent in working on analog tape, a limitation that had shaped his creative work from the very beginning.)

Soon thereafter, he reviewed the wealth of material he had built up for his Aerial project. “I began selecting mixes and loading them into the computer in late March 2002. Out of the 580, I selected 90 ‘best’ mixes—eventually reduced to 59, the ones on the CDs.” The massive Aerial was released on three CDs by Sub Rosa in 2005-6, with highly favorable reviews from The Wire, All-Music Guide, and Dusted.

Tod grew fond of computers for sound work. “For me it’s lovely that the computer programs came along just at the time I needed them. You have no idea what a luxury it is to sit there quietly and make a calamity in my ears with just minimal movements.”

I had much less contact with Tod over the last ten years or so. Later, I learned that, starting in the late 1990s, Tod’s beloved wife, Beverly, developed health problems that led to Alzheimer’s and the loss of speech. Caregiving took more and more of Tod’s energy. In the mid-2000s, Tod’s own health diminished, but he continued composing until dementia stopped him. Tod died peacefully on February 27, 2015, listening to his music, just 71 days after losing his wife.

In Tod’s final years, interest in his music continued to emerge. After emailing me in 2011, Justin H. Brierley contacted Tod’s daughter and started to visit Tod regularly. They became friends, listened to music together, and Justin hopes to make a documentary about Tod’s life.

In 2013, Tina received an unexpected email—from Pete Townshend. Apparently Pete was inspired by and used some of Tod’s music in a demo of Tommy in 1968. He was planning to re-issue a deluxe edition of the legendary rock opera and wanted to include Tod’s music. And, indeed, Tod’s name now appears in these new credits. Tina learned that Pete “is a big fan of Tod’s and he wants to get word out about him.”

Tod Dockstader (wearing mirrorshades), wife Beverly and daughter Tina all smiling

Tod Dockstader with his wife Beverly and daughter Tina

[Websites that helped me for this article: Chris Cutler’s two interviews here and here; an Unofficial Dockstader website, and the Unlocking Dockstader website.]

Clique You Heels

My ongoing blog on musical cliques left off with a brief description of cliques as “small and exclusive groups of friends and/or associates.” Cliques are also described in Webster as being “held together by a presumed identity of interests, views, or purposes.” As an example: we, the readers and contributors to NewMusicBox.org are part of a clique of individuals “dedicated to the music of American composers and improvisers and their champions”—a music described earlier earlier as “comprised of a multitude of genres, subgenres, cliques, factions, and styles.”

So, in a sense we are a clique of cliques focused on American musicians. In this light, cliques are a good thing. I know I usually consider cliques, per se, as relatively benign entities, groups of folks who share circumscribed interests and goals. The divisions between cliques can be surprisingly subtle. I was exposed to this Wednesday afternoon when I went to visit a high-school friend who was in town playing bass in the San Francisco Symphony at Carnegie Hall. Although I’m primarily self-taught when it comes to bass playing, I did study with Michael Burr, a past principal bass for SFS (when I studied with him, he was last chair, but when Seiji Ozawa took over from Josef Krips, Michael took advantage of an open audition for the vacancy). Since I haven’t been backstage at an SFS event as an observer since that time, I was happy to accept an invitation to come upstairs and hang out in the “mortuary” (a little low and base humor that refers to how flight cases for contrabasses are often referred to as “coffins”). So much had changed since 1969. For one thing, the coffins didn’t look like coffins anymore. Instead of the double-trapezoid I remember (which Burr used for his clothes, and not his bass), the modern SFS bass case is a rectangular box that stands about eight feet tall and is exquisitely form-fitted to the bass it houses. And what basses! My 1832 Ferdinand-Joseph Seitz Mittenwald contrabass with its six strings (see my blog photo) would be an abomination among some of these museum quality instruments.

One of the bassists, the assistant principal, was looking at German bows someone had brought over for him to look at (which was also a surprise because I remember the SFS bass section as exclusively French bow players). I offered to hold the bow(s) he wasn’t trying out, to save the hassle of depositing and retrieving them from the top of one of the cello cases and to just listen to his bass. I soon realized that I was in very exclusive company. Although many, if not most, orchestral bassists can improvise (Michael Burr took lessons from Ray Brown and Doug Watkins and is an exceptional improviser), the thrust of their clique is orchestra repertoire and uniform performance. When these guys go onstage, every note, gesture, and page turn has been carefully orchestrated and rehearsed. When I get together with my fellow improvisers, we might argue about what chords to use in a given piece; but, when the SFS bassists get together, they discuss which direction the bow will go on a given note. While improvisers see technique as somewhat fluid and secondary to the music being created, orchestral musicians focus intensely on technique, the notes have been picked in advance. I was an outsider in their clique, but had a ball listening to and talking about their instruments, although I’m a lightweight in the “gearhead” department. They were polite about my bowing (Yes, they let me play two of the basses–woo-WOO!) and my friend and I had a great time eating pizza at Angelo’s and cruising memory lane.

We talked about the frustrations of teaching in public schools (how working with children can be spiritually rewarding until the standardized testing requirements invade the realm of actual learning), politics (the abominable traffic patterns of Broadway and private armies), and, of course, improvised vs. non-improvised music. Being from San Francisco, we both grew up playing improvised as well as non-improvised music. We also both grew up in a time when improvised music was excluded from nearly every academic institution in the world except as part of the field of ethnomusicology where it falls under the rubric of anthropological research. One of his more promising students, however, is attending one of the prestigious colleges here in New York. He is extremely proficient at both jazz and classical music and had an opportunity to study at one of the big-name conservatories here in New York City. He was told, however, that as a jazz student he would have no access to classical bass instruction. So he rejected conservatory training and is majoring in a non-musical field. Fortunately, the institution he attends now allows him access to all of its excellent music programs, classical or not, and his excellent musical abilities will not be compromised by his academic pursuits. My friend and I were wondering why this kind of academic clique-ing is still acceptable in the 21st century.

That evening my wife Francesca and I went to hear Michael Tilson Thomas and the SFS play a fantastic performance of three compositions I had never heard before by three distinctive American composers: Carl Ruggles, Morton Feldman, and Charles Ives. Because the decision to attend the concert was a last minute one, I had no chance to research the program’s music before I heard it. I’ve never heard any of Ruggles’s work before and knew next to nothing about him, either. His Sun-Treader, the opening piece, made me think of Ralph Vaughn Williams’s Symphony No. 4 and I wonder if there was an influence, considering the quasi-serial treatment of certain pitch-class sets in Symphony No. 4. I have always been enamored of Feldman’s music; I literally wore out an LP copy of Rothko’s Chapel back in 1974. The SFS’s performance of Piano and Orchestra, featuring Emanuel Ax, allowed me to revisit that welcome spiritual experience from my youth. Henry Brant’s orchestral realization of Ives’s Concord Sonata (A Concord Symphony) could well become Tilson Thomas and SFS’s signature piece. The concert made me proud of how far SFS has come since the abysmal days of Enrique Jordá. Still, my conversation with my friend still hung in my head and I noticed few musicians of color on Carnegie’s stage and had to ask myself (again) about how really American was this performance?

Certainly the composers represented in the SFS program were Americans, but is their music? Of course, Ruggles and, especially, Ives are credited with developing textures and sonorities (!) that weren’t in the music of their European contemporaries. But America, as it is understood as a modern geopolitical entity, is ethnically diverse and the music heard in orchestral halls is a mere fraction of what is heard and played here. It’s not very popular among American citizens, which is also the case for jazz or just about any other kind of music. Every type of music heard in America will likely have more detractors than fans (except, possibly, the song “Happy Birthday”). We still have no real national music. The supra-cultural machine tells us what is popular and we develop our cliques accordingly.

To be continued…

The Seemingly Less Elusive Orchestra

Orchestra Hall

An orchestra hall in Zagreb. To many composers, every orchestra hall seems equally far away.

While I listen to music from all time periods on recordings, when I attend a live concert it is almost always because it features contemporary American music, and usually a premiere. After all, time is limited and much as I might want to be able to, I can’t possibly hear everything; a concert featuring a premiere at least contains music I wouldn’t be able to experience without having to travel to an appointed place at a time determined by someone else’s schedule. So it might seem strange that between last Thursday and this coming Friday, I will have attended a total of six orchestra concerts, all of them presented by Carnegie Hall. What’s even stranger about that is that all six programs feature nothing but music by American composers.

Last Thursday, I attended the latest installment of Orchestra Underground, the American Composers Orchestra’s series at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. Of course, it is the mission of the American Composers Orchestra to present concert programs devoted exclusively to music by American composers, so it’s not particularly unusual for them to feature such a program. Although the variety in their latest concert offering was off the charts even by their standards—Michael Daugherty’s Trail of Tears, one of the most substantive flute concertos I’ve ever heard; Aaron Copland’s classic Clarinet Concerto; and composer/singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane’s Crane Palimpsest, a song cycle performed by Kahane (on vocals, guitar, and piano) with the ACO combining stanza’s from early 20th-century American poet Hart Crane’s To Brooklyn Bridge with Kahane’s own lyrics. If that wasn’t variety enough, the concert opened (again, opened!) with a piece by Milton Babbitt—From the Psalter, a relentless setting of Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney’s versions of three Old Testament psalms for soprano and strings. Any concert that opens with Babbitt is making a statement, and this dedicated performance—especially enhanced by the assured singing of Judith Bettina—is hopefully a sign that his extraordinarily thought-provoking and challenging music will remain in the repertoire even though he is no longer with us.

Saturday night was an all-American program by the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in Carnegie’s main hall, though admittedly all was not new. Although it’s a piece I love, I certainly didn’t need to be at Carnegie Hall to hear yet another performance of Copland’s Appalachian Spring; I believe I’ve even heard Orpheus play it live before. And Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti is also not terra incognita, although Orpheus gave the premiere performance of a newly created instrumental suite arranged by Paul Chihara. What was completely new, however, was Clint Needham’s When We Forget, a world premiere that is part of Orpheus’s ongoing Project 440 initiative, and Chris Thile’s mandolin concerto, Ad astra per alas porci (named after John Steinbeck’s personal motto, a corruption from Virgil’s Aeneid meaning “to the stars on the wings of a pig”), a work which Thile has performed with eight orchestras all over the United States but never before in New York City. When Thile played a passage from a J.S. Bach partita as an encore, despite how excitingly he played it, it was old music that sounded like an interloper—quite a change from the usual paradigm of new music at an orchestra concert.

And starting Tuesday, the San Francisco Symphony will be in residence at Carnegie Hall for four concerts devoted exclusively to the music of American mavericks—Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, John Cage, Morton Feldman, plus the New York premieres of new pieces by Meredith Monk, Mason Bates, Morton Subotnick, and John Adams.

Now if only there was this much contemporary American music on orchestra concerts all year round. But then again, if there was, I’d never have time to be at home to work on my own—decidedly non-orchestral—music. Then again, with all this new orchestra music filling my ears, I might eventually find myself wanting to write for this extraordinary ensemble which I’ve loved the sound of for decades but which has always seemed somehow unrelated to my own personal life and times. Of course, if American orchestras featured a work by a living American composer on every single one of their programs, perhaps I and countless other people I know would not think that the orchestra somehow does not belong to us. Then again, given the current business model and infrastructure for orchestras in this country, there’d be no way for them to perform all the music all of us would write if every composer suddenly felt inspired to do so. There’s already so much great contemporary American orchestral music that already exists that rarely if ever gets performed, so why add to that pile? There are currently a staggering amount of new music-oriented chamber groups which offer myriad possibilities for getting one’s music played. Were it possible for there to eventually be a similar flowering of new music oriented orchestras, there just might finally be a golden age for new American orchestral music.

Sincerely, John Cage

If there’s one event that can unite the American new music community, such as it is, in shared admiration, it must be this year’s Cage centennial. I spoke with my continuing-ed class yesterday about Cage, in particular his under-discussed prewar music, and it was difficult for me to convey the magnitude of Cage’s contribution to music and musical thought. One student asked, as listeners freshly exposed to Cage often do, whether Cage really expected us to take his propositions seriously; before I could answer, another student piped up that he had spent some time over the past week Googling Cage’s name in search of video and audio content. Making my heart glad, the second student avowed that, having listened to Cage talk about music, after hearing his voice, he was sure the composer wasn’t winding us up: You have only to listen to him discuss his work to know he had to be sincere.

That same student brought with him to class a concert program from 1967: As it turned out, he had witnessed a concert featuring pieces by Cage, David Tudor, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Alvin Lucier, and Lowell Cross at Hope College in Michigan more than forty years ago! The final piece was the famous 0’00”, which Cage performed by reading a book and smoking a cigarette under (as specified) heavy amplification. What a remarkable coincidence.

I’m not yet sure what Cage performances await me this year—many, I hope. However many it ends up being, I look forward to that very rare feeling that they bring: A special peanut butter cup of familiarity, comfort with the literature I owe to my UMBC education, and the unfamiliarities, the epiphanies, Cage’s music can bring about. There’s never been a better time to hear (or play!) some Cage; I hope America’s musical institutions, old and new, seize the opportunity to give the man’s work its due.

Back to Nature: Tracing the History of an American Classical Tradition

Kyle Gann
Photo by Jordan Rathkopf

READ and watch a conversation with Kyle Gann.

Let us look at two classic anecdotes of American music. The Boston tanner William Billings (1746-1800), described as “a singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without any address, and with an uncommon negligence of person,” was the most active American composer of choral music in the 18th century. His relationship with his Boston neighbors was marked by respect from certain circles and antagonism from others. In response to one of his concerts, local wags tied two cats together by the tails and hung them from the sign of his tannery, presumably to allow them to duplicate the perceived effect of his music. Unversed in European counterpoint, Billings relied more heavily on simple consonances than his Continental counterparts, and was at one point criticized for not using enough dissonance. In response, he wrote a brief but remarkable choral song entirely in dissonances of seconds and sevenths, to a text of his own:

Let horrid jargon split the air
And rive the nerves asunder;
Let hateful discord greet the ear
As terrible as thunder.

Even after more than 200 years, the piece shocks the ear with its joyous disregard for resolution. Zip ahead about a century and a half, and we find composer Henry Cowell dropping in on his friend Carl Ruggles. Cowell’s own words for the scene cannot be bettered:

One morning when I arrived at the abandoned school house in Arlington where he [Ruggles] now lives, he was sitting at the old piano, singing a single tone at the top of his raucous composer’s voice, and banging a single chord at intervals over and over. He refused to be interrupted in this pursuit, and after an hour or so, I insisted on knowing what the idea was. “I’m trying over this damned chord,” said he, “to see whether it still sounds superb after so many hearings.” “Oh,” I said tritely, “time will surely tell whether the chord has lasting value.” “The hell with time!” Carl replied. “I’ll give this chord the test of time right now. If I find I still like it after trying it over several thousand times, it’ll stand the test of time, all right!”

To this pounding of Ruggles’s dissonant chord, let us add two (pardon the double pun) strikingly resonant parallels: the six-year-old (in 1880) Charles Ives looking for a sound on his square piano to imitate the bang of the bass drum in his father’s band, and finding that only clusters played with his fist did the trick; and the twelve-year-old (in 1909) Henry Cowell playing clusters with his entire forearm in his The Tides of Mananaun, relishing the swirl of clashing overtones that resulted.

From such poundings on pianos and yowlings of cats American music began. Specifically, it sprang from a delight in sounds not found in “correct” European music. Such legends, with their delight in rebelliousness and transgression, are a far cry from the origin story of European music, by which Pythagoras heard four hammers hitting an anvil in the perfect concord C, F, G, C.

Americans, having first come to this continent in rejection of Europe’s social structures, turned to nature in their novels and paintings, and continue to do so in their music. For many, many composers, a return to nature means taking acoustics and particularly the harmonic series as source material. A significant number of the seminal American composers have staked their artistic claims on some constructed paradigm of “naturalness”: Cage’s randomness, Oliveros’s breathing, Reich’s natural processes, Partch’s natural scale, Branca’s rock vernacular stripped down to its basic strum. Most natural of all: banging on the piano keyboard, so beloved of Ives, Cowell, Varèse, Young, Garland.

If it is difficult to find the common thread among all these musics, it is because the American classical tradition gives rise to tremendous individuality, which is both its glory and its curse – curse, because audiences and critics have trouble seeing a tradition whose adherents are so remarkably different from each other. Partch’s music sounds nothing like Cage’s, nor Feldman’s like Nancarrow’s, nor Ashley’s like Branca’s. The gulf that separates Chopin from Wagner is dwarfed by America’s musical panorama. Yet what else would you expect from a culture that so deifies individualism? Why would a classical music tradition grow in America that did not reflect the people’s most basic values?

Most troubling of all—now that the American classical tradition is here, in all its multigenerational maturity and multidimensional splendor, and has already shown itself capable of having an impact on other musics of the world—why has its very existence been so difficult to accept?

Inner Pages:

From California to Alaska: Lou Harrison in Conversation with John Luther Adams

[Ed. note: This telephone conversation between composers Lou Harrison and John Luther Adams was originally published on the American Music Center’s website on April 1, 1999. It was the last in a series of interviews entitled “Music In The First Person” that was published before the launch of NewMusicBox on May 1, 1999. “In The First Person” served as the model for one of the primary components of NewMusicBox which still continues on the site as “Cover.”]

1. Overture

JOHN LUTHER ADAMS: In a mesostic written in your honor, John Cage compared your music to a river opening into its delta. He wrote: “Listening to it, we become ocean.” I think John was right, your music is absolutely extraordinary for its breadth, its diversity, its sheer quantity, and its constantly exquisite quality. You’re an American master with a remarkable body of work. Last year, your 80th birthday was celebrated with performances all over the world. Some major new pieces, including the Pi’pa Concerto, were premiered. Moving into your ninth decade, you’re still going strong!

LOU HARRISON: Yes, and we just had two more performances of the concerto. One in Seattle, and one with the California Symphony, in the Bay region. There were 2 different virtuosi, and they both went very well. You know I’m a slowpoke — I have a difficult time with things like bowing, metronome marks, and all sorts of decisions. Fortunately, most musicians are kind to me and help, which is a good thing.

JLA: Well, the collaborative relationship with performers is part of the fun, isn’t it?

LH: I’m dependent on it. . . I absolutely need my musicians to help me, and thank heavens they do.

JLA: What are you working on right now?

LH: Well, right now, I’m attempting a revision of my second opera for a possible performance at a SummerFest in New York in ’99 or 2000. It’s a major revision, because the last time, it jumped from being a puppet opera to a full-stage one, and having done that, I discovered it needed arias! So I’m singing arias to myself at this point. We also have to perk up the orchestra a little bit. . . It needs a little bit stronger bass. So we’re changing a lot, and there are a couple of scenes that need to be revised. It’s really a major project. I’ve started on it, and will continue, because I want to leave that opera in pretty good shape.

JLA: So this is Young Caesar.

LH: Yes. There has been the shocking proposal that both (puppet and full-stage) versions be done in this new revision. That’s going pretty far.

JLA: What a delightful proposition!

LH: Yes, it’s something, and we hope it works. So that’s what I’m working on. In the meantime, we’re building a getaway house in Joshua Tree, so I can take a project such as this and very much concentrate on it. What are you working on?

JLA: I just recently completed a wonderful collaboration with Percussion Group — Cincinnati on a concert-length work called Strange and Sacred Noise. It’s been a real peak experience for me, working with musicians who perform at such a high level. (I know you’ve worked with them before, so you know what I’m talking about.) They’ve now given two performances of the entire work, and have just recorded it for New World Records. At Oberlin, Tim Weiss recently conducted the premiere of In The White Silence — a 75-minute landscape for harp, celesta, two vibraphones, string quartet and string orchestra. JoAnn Falletta will give the second performance, next year. And we’re trying to pull together a recording of that work, too.

LH: I think we ought to write into all of our contracts that as composers, we are entitled to at least archival tape. It seems to be a normal thing that should be written in, because it’s sometimes hard to get them. And it shouldn’t be, it should be a natural thing.

JLA: Yes, it’s so important to all of us (especially younger composers), but also to those of us who are not as young.

LH: Especially to me who is aged! And in fact, it may be more important to me because I get absent-minded as I get older, and a tape reminds me of what directions I should put in.

JLA: It’s absolutely true. After all, we’re involved in an oral and an aural tradition. Yes, it has a literature, we do have notation, and some of us work in that way. But I think recordings are an increasingly vital part of what we do — and not only as a documentation.

LH: It’s oral evidence of what we’ve done.

JLA: Absolutely, it helps us establish a performance practice.

LH: That’s what Carlos Chavez said. You know a long time ago, I had a tizzy before one of my premieres. And Carlos looked at me and said, “Lou, for heavens sake, this is only the first performance. AFTER that, you can get tizzy, if you want to.” And I haven’t had a tizzy since.

JLA: You know, I often remember the story you told me once about your Fugue for Percussion.

LH: Well, having read Henry Cowell’s New Musical Resources and the advertisement for the Overtone Series, and knowing that a traditional fugue has tonal levels, I wanted to write a fugue in which that could be expressed rhythmically. So I wrote a theme, but I didn’t know how to do the “is-to’s” and “as-to’s”. John Cage and I were working in San Francisco at that time. We had gone to the beach where there was a wonderful pie shop. So we sat down and had a splendid apple pie, while he explained how to do the math. And that’s how I was able to write it. Still, percussionists have found my slippage occasionally, when I did it incorrectly, and have helped. It’s mostly a problem of crossing the bars. (Which reminds me of when John and I were rehearsing in Mills College, and there was a problem about that. We both said: “Let there be no moaning when we cross the bars.”)

JLA: You know, one of the things that impressed me so much about that story was that initially Stokowski looked at it and said, “This is all very interesting, but it’s not yet playable.”

LH: Yes, that was the word he used: can’t be done yet. And then, by the next year, Tony Cirrone was doing it at San Jose State and invited me over to hear it. Very shortly afterwards, it became a sort of contest-piece, and now, it’s back into ordinary repertoire. People do develop techniques for doing things (It’s quite astonishing, one can confidently write for the oboe above E now. And instrument builders extend things frequently). So things do change, and it sometimes surprises one — happily.

JLA: And very quickly too, in terms of performance practice, and even our own ability as listeners and composers to hear things-our perceptions, you might say.

LH: Oh yes, we have them in spades in our ears. We are as virtual users: audio-visceral.

2. The Twentieth Century

JLA: We’re in a time of extremely rapid change and growth in music, and I remember you once observed that all good things must come to an end… even the 20th century. We’re almost there, and I wonder if now (from the vantage point of the eve of the millennium), you might offer some observations on what you feel have been some of the most significant musical developments of the 20th century.

LH: Well, it’s been a long century, for one thing. And Bill [Colvig] and I were just thinking the other day (he’s 82 now, and I’m going to be next month) that it’s extraordinary what’s happened during our lifetime. We both remembered hearing the first crystal sets on our block. Now both of our names are on Mars, and that’s quite a trajectory from 82 years. We also figured out that during the past 30 years, the population of the Earth has doubled, and we wondered what had happened in the 50 years before our lifetime. Well, it doubled then. So it has had two big doublings since we were born, and that’s quite a lot. And what that means is there are that many more composers and that many more ideas, which makes a happy riot of a party, making it ever more fascinating.

Because of that, plus advances in technology, we are in communication all around the planet, which means that we have musical facilities and ideas which would not have occurred to us before. And now they’re right here in our laps, which is a very good thing. I think Henry Cowell was right: in order to be a 20th-century composer, or even a future one, you have to know at least one other culture well, other than the one you were raised in. So it’s not enough to know just European tradition, or those raised in that tradition, or the Japanese tradition, or whatever. And I think that’s very good advice.

JLA: Certainly a uniquely 20th-century perspective.

LH: Well, to a degree. One does remember, of course, that there were exchanges between the Ottoman Empire and Europeans. After all, they told the people that Mozart wrote Turkish marches. Why? Because the advanced part of the Ottoman Empire was at the gates of Vienna.

JLA: I guess it’s deep within human nature that we are basically inquisitive and acculturating animals. But it is unprecedented that just in the past 50 years, for the first time, we have had the entire world, and the entire history of human cultures at our fingertips.

LH: Yes, and almost all of it! Of course, new discoveries are happening all the time, and they’re utterly fascinating. Theology and archaeology are showing us so much and I absorb as much as I can. Of course, it has dangers, too. We get more dangerous as we accumulate knowledge, and that’s both a sadness and something to control, try to learn to live with, make terms with.

JLA: So, relativity, quantum physics, the science of ecology, mass media electronic technology, two World Wars, all of these things in the mix in the 20th century…?

LH: They do affect us. And I think one of the major items has been the discovery that we can, and indeed are, destroying the planet. That’s quite a problem. I’m a terrible pessimist… I really don’t think we’re going to make it. But every so often, there’s some little ray of hope. Have you read, for example, about the Colombian village Gaviotas? Isn’t that amazing?

JLA: It is indeed.

LH: It’s just astonishing to realize that in a country that is most difficult in terms of militaries, paramilitaries, governments, deaths and murders, etc., there is a little village which no one will touch because it’s done things right! It’s as though some country (I’ve always thought we could do it) just simply totally disarmed and said: “Here we are, come look!” But there they are, totally disarmed, no one touches them, and they’ve developed all sorts of useful things for us around the planet. It’s astonishing and amazing to realize that some people have got it right. It almost brings tears to my eyes to realize that. Particularly to someone who is so old and grounded in pessimism.

JLA: Well, so perhaps there is hope, after all.

LH: Yes, there is. Let’s hope that there’s hope!

JLA: So what about the future (assuming there is a future for the human race)? Do you have any predictions to offer about the music of the 21st century? Are there any trends or any composers whose work has a particular significance that you feel will have importance in the next 50 years in shaping the future of the art?

LH: Well, I can’t say that, because I think Virgil Thomson was very wise in observing that music changes in movement every 30 years. There’s a new kind of music, at least in Western world. I don’t think that’s true in more stable traditions, such as the Javanese. But it’s like an amoebae: it has moving walls that reach out a little bit, crack here, expand there, and so on. Whereas Western music tends to want to do that awful business of destroying before it creates, which I think is ridiculous. I think the Japanese have it right; instead of tearing down something to put up a skyscraper, just put it here-beside the other thing. Just like we managed to save Walt Whitman‘s birthplace — it was going to be a service station! I’m certainly opposed to the notion that you have to destroy in order to create-that’s ridiculous. Just go about creating.

JLA: And that seems to you to be a particularly Western idea?

LH: I think it is. It’s all mixed up with that love and death Business resurrection, afterlife and all that sort of nonsense at least it seems so to me. I don’t really know where that came from, but you’ll recall that the Romantic period in Europe certainly stressed that sort of thing. And I think we’re growing out of that — (I HOPE SO) — even in the Western world. And that hasn’t even bothered most of the people on the planet, thank heavens.

3. Balancing Two Worlds

JLA: You know, almost as much as your music, your life itself is an inspiration. You’ve been a mentor and a role model for many younger composers — myself included. You’ve done so many different things over the years to support your art, without ever compromising its integrity. I wonder if you have any advice to young composers about that very difficult balance between economic and artistic survival?

LH: Well, I was raised in the era of…let us say, Charles Ives. And that kind of balance when I was growing up was very common. There were practically no foundations in those days. There was no public support. But what you did was to get some sort of job which would support you so that you could do your music. That was the whole point of working! I think that model may survive a little longer than sitting down to write a grant – versus writing a piece. But I do think a certain independence along those lines is a very good thing, and I have no objections to the idea that man is willing to pay for his pleasures. Music is a pleasure, and so is composing and playing it. And anyone ought to have the feeling that they can support that activity rather than insisting that it support them.

JLA: In your Music Primer, you gave a bit of advice which I’ve often come back to over the years, as a sort of touchstone in my own life. The idea was; “Don’t allow yourself to become indebted to the silliness of society. Decide what you can afford to do with your art, and do only that.”

LH: Yes, I think that’s a very sensible notion, even today (and I’m still doing it, by the way). I have many requests, a lot of them are commissions, but I have an increasing need to find new tunings. I would like to build a new gamelan, and I’m having my harps repaired so I can play them more. I don’t necessary have a drive towards doing another symphony, but there are still things I want to do musically and non-musically. I’ve always drawn, painted, and written poetry. I have another book I want to put out, perhaps several of them, and I have some musicological studies that I never finished, which I want very much to do.

And so there’re a lot of things. I don’t feel bound to sit at a desk writing notes all the time (besides, it’s easier to write numbers), so I stick with gamelan for the most part. But I’ll tell you, my hand is getting sufficiently shaky, so I have to use two hands sometimes, to be sure I’m getting it on A instead of G.

JLA: Wow. Are you using larger staff paper?

LH: Yes I am, as a matter of fact. Not quite like Carl Ruggles, who used to have to put it on butcher paper across the room, but I’m getting there.

JLA: Because of the change in your hands, have you changed the computer fonts of your calligraphy?

LH: Yes, because I can’t really do calligraphy anymore. My hand won’t obey me. I do like my letters to look well, so I’ve designed fonts. I just finished another one with Carter Schultz, who is my helper and friend along with these things. We just finished a Roman Rustica which is almost the last of the Roman forms that we hadn’t done. And it looks surprisingly readable. It’s supposed to be the least readable of all Roman fonts, but it isn’t, as it turns out. That was fun to do. I still have a little teasing idea that I want to do another font, and that’ll be my sixth or seventh with Carter. He made a beautiful font out of the letters I used to use when I would address an envelope. A beautiful font called “Lou Casual” out of just those letters. It has the most beautiful letter “U” that I have ever seen; it’s exquisite.

JLA: Well, this is very exciting to those of us who have admired the elegance of your hand over the years to know that it will endure, and that some of us may be able to write in “Lou casual”. How does one get hold of those?

LH: You can get the whole set through Frog Peak, and it’s available for both Mac and IBM.

4. The Future of Music

JLA: I have one more big question that I want to try and ask if I can articulate it, and it has to do with audience and community. My experiences over the last several years have convinced me that there is an audience for new music.

LH: Oh, I agree completely there is.

JLA: I’m glad to hear that I believe that audience is growing in number and sophistication, and that younger people today are especially open to new musical experiences.

LH: I agree with that.

JLA: So that’s cause for hope?

LH: You bet.

JLA: Do you have any thoughts about how we, as composers and performers of new music, can better reach that audience, and strengthen our own sense of community? How do you view the present and future roles of new music ensembles, orchestras, record companies, radios, and the Internet?

LH: Well, I’m not privy to the secrets of the Internet. But certainly the technology is advancing and much can be used from it. I’m sorry that micro-radio stations aren’t yet widely available (unless you have a fast card) through which you could, for example, promulgate your own music. Now you can make CDs for practically nothing (though I don’t prefer them at all over the audiocassette, which I think is an excellent instrument), but those parts of technology are fine. I have never learned Finale, (though people now can do it easily, I never could), and I have no intention of learning it. But that’s another way that people can present the written aspect of music well. It’s not as good as a good hand, but still…

JLA: Because it’s not as sophisticated, is it?

LH: No it isn’t. There’s still a new program called Sibelius, I think? It’s from England and you have to buy a whole lot of machinery to go with it, but apparently it starts from zero, and you can do anything. So that sounds OK, but I myself am much too old to do all this.

JLA: Yes, but the possibilities for self-publishing, for desktop publishing for younger composers are very exciting.

LH: Yes, all that is very good, and the technology is a help. Of course, as for the social aspect of music, I still am old-fashioned enough to think that every community, even the small ones, ought to have a gamelan, because you sit on the floor and play your part, and have a grand time. In fact, you should be able to play every part in the orchestra, which is more than you could say in a Western-style orchestra. I think that’s one of the reasons that the gamelan world is spreading so rapidly everywhere. In fact, not too long ago, I was having coffee with Wen Ten down at CalArts, and he said, “I have to go to Egypt next month.” I said, “Egypt?” He said, “Yes, Cairo.” I asked him why, and he said, “Well, the embassy has got a new gamelan.” And I looked him square in the eye and said, “One more nation falls.” He looks me right back and says, “Yes.” We joke about the cultural imperialism of Indonesia, but who can resist a good gamelan, after all? And the idea that any of us can play it is marvelous!

JLA: I remember with pleasure your coming up here with Bill and several others. You brought the first gamelan to Alaska.

LH: I think so. That was wonderful and we enjoyed that trip so much, John. It was just marvelous.

JLA: This is a bit of a loaded question, but what do you see as the role, in all of this, of an organization such as the American Music Center?

LH: Well, I think of it as a Central information booth. I used to speak of Henry Cowell as American Music’s central information booth; if you had a question, you could ask Henry, and if he didn’t know the answer immediately, he knew who did know it, and a telephone number. I think that sort of role is an important function of the Center. It also serves as a library and a research facility for those trying to find out about what’s new in American composition.

JLA: You know, Cowell was involved in the founding of the Center, and we carry on his tradition of the walking encyclopedia in the form of Eero Richmond, who is truly astounding in terms of the breadth and depth of his knowledge of American music; ask him a question and stand back.

LH: That’s good. I hope it continues with flying colors and lots of success.

JLA: I’m very excited about the future of the organization.

LH: Keep working on those wonderful things you do. And I hope you have many great successes.