Tag: composer diaspora

Yiddish Classical Music in America

A Yiddish passport

There is a saying that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. Yiddish, the historic language of Central and East European Jewry, never had either and suffered miscategorization as a jargon and corruption of German. On the contrary, Yiddish is an extraordinarily rich language with a remarkable literary and folk culture. It is a fusion of medieval Germanic dialects with Hebrew and Aramaic, and components drawn from other language families as well. It is written with the Hebrew Alphabet (from right to left), has its own grammar, and a variety of regional dialects.

Despite the incredible richness of this language, for most of its 1,000 year history, it was not a language of high literary or artistic output. Until the late 19th century, most upwardly mobile Jews writing secular poetry and novels did so in the majority languages of the co-territorial cultures within which they lived, like German, Polish, Russian, and English. However, in the late 19th century there was a decisive turn with the intention of elevating Yiddish language and culture, led by writers like Mendele Moykher-Sforim (pen name of Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh), Sholem Aleichem (pen name of Shalom Rabinovitz), and Y. L. Peretz, by actively creating literary works in Yiddish, which was the language that the majority of world Jewry spoke at the time.

In 1908, Jewish students of the St. Petersburg conservatory banded together to create what became known as the The Society for Jewish Folk Music.

In 1908 a musical organization was founded in St. Petersburg with a similar impetus. Students at the conservatory in St. Petersburg were learning about the national Russian music of composers like Glinka, Mussorgsky, and their teachers who included Rimsky-Korsakov, as well as the national music of other countries. Motivated by a mixture of philosemitic encouragement to explore their Jewish identity, as well as antisemitic discouragement that kept them from feeling fully Russian, Jewish students of the St. Petersburg conservatory banded together to create what became known as the The Society for Jewish Folk Music.

The organization was committed to fostering a new national Jewish school of composers. Just as Béla Bartók worked as both an ethnomusicologist and a composer, collecting folksongs and then infusing his music with them, so too did the composers of this organization and a wider community around it. They supported the collection and study of Jewish folksongs and wrote, published, and performed classical music which sought to craft a new style drawing inspiration from Jewish folk melodies, the music of klezmer musicians, nigunim, and Jewish liturgical music. While engaging with Jewish folk music was at the core of their organizational activity, some of their songs and compositions endeavored to be Jewish by telling stories taken from Jewish religious texts, history, and secular literature, or by turning to poems in Jewish languages such as Hebrew and Yiddish.

Lazar Saminsky

Lazar Saminsky

The Society and the international network of sister organizations and publishing houses it created nurtured a group of fascinating composers, some of whom stayed in Russia and elsewhere in Europe, like Mikhail Gnessin (1883-1957), Alexander Krein (1883-1951), Moses Milner (1886-1953), and Alexander Veprik (1899-1958), and many of whom emigrated, primarily to British mandate Palestine, like Joel Engel (1868-1927) and Joachim Stutschewsky (1891-1982), and to the United States, like Solomon Rosowsky (1878-1962), Jacob Weinberg (1879-1956), Joseph Achron (1886-1943), Lazare Saminsky (1882-1959), and Leo Zeitlin (1884-1930).

In Russia, which became the Soviet Union, support for Jewish art briefly flourished but then fell precipitously, and many composers involved in explicitly Jewish work were suppressed and at times persecuted. In Palestine conditions were difficult, and many composers who spent time there–including Achron, Saminsky, Rosowky, and Weinberg–eventually made their way to the U.S.A. The composers who stayed in Palestine primarily (though not entirely) shifted to Hebrew as a language for Jewish culture, contributing to the strand of Jewish national renewal that led to the State of Israel and its musical traditions. More recently Yiddish has enjoyed renewed interest in Israel.

In the U.S. these emigre composers integrated into American musical culture with some notable successes.

In the U.S. these emigre composers integrated into American musical culture with some notable successes. Saminsky co-founded the League of Composers, Mailamm, and the Jewish Music Forum, and was the music director of Temple Emanu-El from 1924-1958. Rosowsky taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary and published a major work on biblical cantillation. Zeitlin arranged compositions for NBC Radio Network’s flagship station. Weinberg produced performances of his Hebrew language opera Hechalutz at Carnegie Hall in 1946 and 1949. Achron, whom Arnold Schoenberg called “one of the most underrated modern composers,” enjoyed career successes including premiering his first violin concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1927 under the baton of Serge Koussevitsky, premiering his second and third violin concertos–the third commissioned by Jascha Heifetz–under the baton of Otto Klemperer conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Joseph Achron

Joseph Achron

Despite all of these successes, the process of immigration and adaptation to the shifting circumstances of the interwar and postwar periods ultimately ruptured the movement that the Society began. There was never again such a centralized and robust support for Jewish art music, and along with it Yiddish song. However, the St. Petersburg Society composers and those of its network were not the only composers who became interested in setting Jewish language poetry to music. Independently of the society, Lazar Weiner (1897-1982, the father of composer and pianist Yehudi Wyner), became interested in Yiddish poetry, writing over 100 Yiddish art songs–all in the United States, after his emigration at age 17. While the Society composers often looked towards folk texts and texts of the early poets of modern Hebrew poetry and Yiddish’s golden age, Weiner set a wide array of the next generation of great Yiddish poets from Yehoash, Joseph Rolnick, Mani Leib, and Moshe Leib Halpern to Jacob Glatstein, Aaron Glanz-Leyeles, and more.

Lazar Weiner wrote over 100 Yiddish art songs–all in the United States.

Though Weiner started in isolation from the Society, he encountered their music when the Zimro ensemble toured the U.S. with works by the Society’s composers in 1919. Weiner subsequently sent songs to Joel Engel for advice and became acquainted with many of those composers. One of the major differences in Weiner’s compositional approach is that he was adamantly not interested in quoting folk music. Engel noted that Weiner’s early songs had little “Jewish” content outside of their Yiddish texts, and though Weiner did incorporate some influences of Jewish traditions in his songs, it was never through quotation. More than Jewish folk music, his style brings to mind classic lieder writing and, as Yehudi Wyner has noted, a style similar to Mussorgsky and Debussy in how closely it cleaves to the inflections, stresses, and durations of the texts he set.

Lazar Weiner

Lazar Weiner

Many other emigre composers unaffiliated with the Society also wrote Yiddish songs including lesser known composers such as Janot Roskin (1884-1946), Solomon Golub (1887-1952), Henech Kon (1890-1970), and Maurice Rauch (1910-1994), writing in a range of musical styles that included quasifolk and musical theater, at times blurring the line between popular song genres and lieder. Beyond the world of “Yiddish composers,” many well known American composers dabbled in Yiddish song from Leonard Bernstein to Stefan Wolpe, and Yehudi Wyner to Ofer Ben-Amots. Most recently Bang on a Can composers David Lang and Julia Wolfe have been turning to Yiddish: Lang in two choral works i lie (2001), a re-setting of a folklorized Joseph Rolnick poem, and a girl (2017), a setting of a folksong text; and Wolfe in a movement of her epic chorus and orchestra work for the New York Philharmonic Fire in her mouth (2019), which includes an inventive and gripping fantasy on a Yiddish folksong about sewing.

Most recently Bang on a Can composers David Lang and Julia Wolfe have been turning to Yiddish.

One of the common threads in all of these composers is that like the writers who kicked off the golden age of Yiddish literature, writing in Yiddish–whether primarily, or occasionally–was for all of them a choice, not a necessity, as every single one of these composers knew/knows a language other than Yiddish, and in most cases numerous other languages. The fact that writing in Yiddish was not a necessity for any of these composers adds a special quality to this body of work. In all of these pieces, the choice of language itself is a compositional one which says something about what the composers were trying to do with their music: connect with Yiddish folk culture, open a window into the Jewish past, or engage with the Jewish literary canon.

Julia Wolfe (photo by Peter Serling, courtesy G. Schirmer, Music Sales)

Julia Wolfe (photo by Peter Serling, courtesy G. Schirmer, Music Sales)

A personal note: I decided to use Yiddish in my song cycle and all the days were purple (which became the centerpiece of my debut album of the same name released by Cantaloupe Music in April) as a way to connect with my heritage and contemplate what it means to me. I found in setting Yiddish poetry to music a variety of ways that history, language, and culture can provide access to a rich lineage of which I’m proud to be a part, and a particularly personal way to contribute to the art song genre.

A page from the sheet music for Lazar Saminsky's song "Under Little Sarahs Cradle," opus 12 no.2, published in 1914.

A page from the sheet music for Lazar Saminsky’s song “Under Little Sarahs Cradle,” opus 12 no.2, published in 1914.


Learn More

Spotify Playlist:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/2jdNcMsoQHfZ32mzVzLw4F

 

Online Resources:

https://www.milkenarchive.org

http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org

http://www.musica-judaica.com/musica_judaica_e.htm

 

Books:

Loeffler, James: The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire

Weisser, Albert: The Modern Renaissance of Jewish Music : Events and Figures, Eastern Europe and America

 

Song Books:

Heskes, Irene: Society for Jewish Music in St. Petersburg: for voice and piano

Weiner, Lazar: The Lazar Weiner Collection. Book 1, Yiddish Art Songs, 1918-1970

 

Recordings:

Schneiderman, Helene / Nemtsov, Jascha: On Wings of Jewish Songs

Leo Zeitlin: Yiddish Songs, Chamber Music, and Declamations

Joel Engel: Chamber Music and Folksongs

Solomon Rosowsky: Chamber Music and Yiddish Songs

Milken Archive: Weiner: The Art of Yiddish Song

Milken Archive Digital Volume 9, Album 1: The Art of Jewish Song – Yiddish and Hebrew

Milken Archive Digital Volume 9, Album 2: The Art of Jewish Song – Yiddish and Hebrew

Milken Archive: Leonard Bernstein – A Jewish Legacy

The Yiddish Art Song

The Yiddish Art Song. Vol. II

Wolpe: Songs (1920-1954)

Melissa Dunphy: Composing Has To Be a Calling

A woman with platinum blonde hair sitting in her home

One of the highlights of my attending the 2019 National Conference of the American Choral Directors Association in Kansas City was encountering Melissa Dunphy during the Composer Fair at the end of the first full day of the conference. Dunphy was full of energy and passionate about what she does and was also incredibly articulate—an ideal candidate for a NewMusicBox Cover! And after I returned home and started exploring her musical output, most of which she has generously made scores and recordings available for on her website, I was even more eager to have a sit down conversation with her about creative work.

What struck me about her music, and what she confirmed when we visited her at the bizarre place in Philadelphia where she lives (more on that later), is how deeply it relates to her ideas about social justice and inclusivity. Primarily a composer of vocal and choral music, Dunphy frequently creates music which is inspired by current events. The Gonzales Cantata, her 2009 gender-reversed faux-Baroque setting of the public US senate testimony that culminated in the resignation of attorney general Alberto Gonzales, landed her on national television while she was still pursuing an undergraduate degree in music composition. Her unaccompanied choral work from the following year, What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?, is also based on public testimony, this time from an 86-year-old Republican World War II veteran and VFW chaplain arguing for marriage equality, an issue that still divides people in this country.

“I had an incredibly emotional reaction to watching the YouTube video of his speech,” Dunphy remembered. “I soaked an entire dishcloth with my tears because I was so touched by the testimony. In 2009, there was such a cultural struggle between people who wanted marriage equality to be on the books and people who were pouring huge amounts of money into stopping it. His testimony gives you hope that the other side might understand that it’s an issue of human rights and freedom. So again—ping—I immediately needed to set this to music.”

Among her most ambitions works to date is her 2018 American DREAMers, a multi-movement choral setting of texts from five young Americans who were brought this country as children. “This is completely up my alley for various reasons,” explained Dunphy, who was born and raised in Australia and is the child of immigrants who fled Greece and Mainland China during the Cultural Revolution.

  • I think that all politicians should have a life-threatening health scare. ... You should be thinking about your legacy.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • The idea of just being an artist and only an artist is, has, is and has always been a bit of myth.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • There’s always going to be a place in the world for people who make art and can also get on that marketing train.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • When I realized what I wanted to do as a composer, I realized that it sounded much more like a political mission than purely an artistic mission.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • One of the reasons I came to composing so late was because I didn’t have any examples to look up to who looked like me.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • Some people are like, “Throw out those old masters.” Like, bull.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • For a little while in my late teens, classical music was really pissing me off with its obsession with technical perfection. So I broke up with classical music for a while...

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • Everybody comes to music school thinking they’re going to be the next John Williams or Danny Elfman.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • Teaching is just as much about learning new things yourself, and your students will teach you just as much as you teach your students.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • There are a lot of similarities between the almost absurd mannerism of a Baroque cantata and the absurd manner of American politics.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • We as composers have the ultimate power in deciding the gender split on stage.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • If you’re not considering the context of the world around you, your art is bullshit.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • I don’t think people who criticize arts entrepreneurship look at grants as being in that category.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • One of the things that art can do is present things that are shades of gray and have you understand those shades of gray emotionally, rather than just intellectually.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • There’s a lot of room for error in an orchestra piece. There is no room for error in an a cappella choir piece.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • I don’t care if my piece becomes irrelevant if my friends can get married.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • Art needs to be grounded in what’s happening around us.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • I understand, because it’s my history, what motivates people to go to a new country and face instability.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • I am happy to accept sacred commissions if the religious organization will give me some leeway on what text I choose.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • Composers should stop worrying about being as intellectual as possible and start thinking about what reaches the next generation.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer
  • I literally make concrete in the other part of my life.

    Melissa Dunphy
    Melissa Dunphy, composer

But creating intense politically-themed music is only part of how Dunphy spends her time. That bizarre place she lives in is an 18th century building that most recently had been the site of an abandoned magic theater. When she and her husband acquired the property, it was in a ruined state. So, on their own, they embarked on a huge construction project that has resulted not only in a viable place to live and artistic studios, but also an AirB&B they rent out. However, more interestingly, in excavating the former theater which they had hoped to eventually turn into a performance space, they discovered a wide range of 18th century artifacts and have become significant archeologists of early Americana. Dunphy gave us a guided tour of the construction work and some of their findings following our extensive conversation about her music, some photos of which appear toward the end of the transcript.

“We tore every room down to the studs,” Dunphy euphorically exclaimed. “I learned how to sweat copper pipe and do dry wall, build a kitchen, and build a bathroom. We just went through and did it. And I loved doing that kind of work. And it’s not only a source of revenue generation or wealth generation, it enables you to buy a really cheap, crappy house, and turn it into something that’s livable. In some ways it’s like this nice corollary to what I do as a composer. Composition is very ethereal. You write something—yes, you have it down on a piece of paper—but when it’s actually presented, it’s in the air and then it’s gone. It’s a memory. It’s not tangible. It’s not concrete. But I literally make concrete in the other part of my life. … This whole theater venture fulfills both a long-term financial idea and also this intellectual hunger for creation. You create ideas, but you can also create stuff. It’s nice to be able to do both.”

Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Melissa Dunphy at her home in Philadelphia, PA
March 13, 2019—3:00 p.m.
Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan

Bright Sheng: My Father’s Letter and Bernstein’s Question

Bright Sheng sitting in front of his grand piano

We’ve been wanting to talk with Bright Sheng for years, but given his teaching schedule at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his commitments to participate in performances of his music either as a pianist or a conductor all over the world, he has been difficult to pin down. But when we finally met with him on Presidents’ Day in his pied-à-terre across the street from Lincoln Center, it proved to be worth the wait.

I have long been eager to talk with him about several of his compositions, particularly his works for the orchestra and the operatic stage which were inspired either by ancient folktales or extremely unsettling contemporary topics or a combination of the two. I wanted to know the back story of the work that put him on the map, H’un (Lacerations), which is a searing orchestral composition inspired by the Cultural Revolution he lived through in the People’s Republic of China. I was very curious about his sympathetic portrait of Madame Mao, one of that tragic epoch’s masterminds, in his opera of the same name, as well as his more recent hyper-romantic Dream of the Red Chamber based on one of the most celebrated classical Chinese novels. I also wanted to know why he claimed that his first opera, The Song of Majnun, which is based on a 12th century Persian love story, was in some way a response to the Tiananmen Square incident and his feelings that he’d never be able to return to his homeland.

  • Music at least expresses one thing if nothing else: the emotions or mood.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • I often like to say that I’m 100% Chinese and 100% American.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • In Shanghai, I had a tutor who came to the house and taught me piano every week. But when I went to Tibet people really didn’t have enough food.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • I really think Boulez destroyed a generation of composers.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • I was extremely lucky because I met Leonard Bernstein when I was a student at Tanglewood.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • I’ve strived through the years to achieve this long phrase... I felt the gesture of that long phrase versus Chinese phrases.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • Your work has to reach the audience.  You have to touch them emotionally.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • I am drawn to ill-fated loved stories. Over the sleeve romanticism is part of me.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • I always wanted to kill Mao, but I can’t kill him in real life. So I want to kill him in my opera.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • Everything we do is autobiographical.

    Bright Sheng, composer

But what I did not anticipate was how deeply Sheng is concerned about directly moving audiences in whatever format or style he is working in and how passionate he would be about sharing what led him to his aesthetic positions. An early epiphany was his being sent to Tibet during the Cultural Revolution years and discovering how important participating in musical performances was to people there even though they didn’t have enough food to eat. Even more impactful on him personally was a ten-page letter from his father, who had relocated to New York City while Sheng was still a student at Shanghai Conservatory, warning him not to assume he’d be able to eke out a musical career if he immigrated to the United States. But, perhaps what was most significant was his tutelage under the legendary Leonard Bernstein who lavished praise and disdain with equal aplomb.

My father was asking: “Why does a society support art, or a musician, or a composer? Why should society? The society needs food and needs people to fix their cars, but they don’t need a composer. Why is this important?” Bernstein asked the other side of question: “What is your responsibility as an artist if you asked the society to support you?” I think the answer is actually very simple. Your work has to reach the audience. You have to touch them emotionally. Touch their nerves. Touch their emotions. Then you did your work and can say, “Hey, support me.”


Bright Sheng in conversation with Frank J. Oteri in Sheng’s New York City apartment
February 18, 2019—12:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Bun-Ching Lam: Home is Where You Park Your Suitcase

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Born in Macau, educated in Hong Kong and California, and now dividing her time between Paris and upstate New York, Bun-Ching Lam has created a fascinating body of music that is shaped by her multicultural life experiences as well as her sensitivity to a wide range of instrumental sonorities and extreme curiosity.

“I’m always curious, and I try anything at least once,” she told us when we visited her at the home of baritone Thomas Buckner, with whom she had been rehearsing in preparation for the New York premiere of her recent song cycle Conversation with My Soul, based on texts by Lebanese-American poet and painter Etel Adnan. (The performance, with the Tana Quartet, will take place at Roulette on November 16 as part of Buckner’s Interpretations series, celebrating its 30th anniversary this season.)

Macau, she acknowledged, was a challenging place for an aspiring concert music composer since, when she was growing up, live performances of classical music were extremely rare. But thanks to her father and some friends who owned classical music recordings, she was able to learn about the repertoire. At the same time, she immersed herself in many other kinds of music, from traditional Cantonese folksongs to the local jazz of Dr. Pedro Lobo to discovering the Beatles on the radio. And she learned how to play many different musical instruments, from the Chinese yangqin to the baritone horn (which she played in a school band) to the accordion. But soon her primary focus was playing the piano, although she admitted that she preferred improvising to practicing: “Maybe that’s the beginning of my composition.” Still, she enrolled as a piano major at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Lam’s composing activities did not officially begin until she came to the United States as an exchange student. She spent a year at the University of Redlands in California, where she was exposed to a wide range of experimental approaches under the tutelage of Barney Childs.  But after she returned to Hong Kong, she won an art song composition competition, which helped pay off her debts and momentarily led her to think that composing was lucrative. When she decided to pursue a graduate degree, she enrolled at the University of California, San Diego, and wound up studying composition with Bernard Rands, Roger Reynolds, and Pauline Oliveros. Unlike her peers, she did not come in with a huge portfolio of works, but within only a few years, Lam began creating music in a distinct, personal style. One of her early works from this time—Bittersweet Music I for solo piccolo—remains one of her most frequently played compositions.

“One of the things that I already had was an idea about what I think music is,” she remembered.  “And I haven’t really changed style. I’m always old fashioned because I like melodies. Even now, writing melodies is not fashionable. I’ve never been with any fashion.  I’m always out of fashion.  When you’re always out of fashion, you’re always in fashion because fashion is a very stupid thing.  … I don’t want to be Mahler.  You cannot be Mahler.  I don’t want to be Respighi, either.  I want to be me.”

Being Bun-Ching Lam means creating music slowly and carefully. She rarely composes more than one work per year. And although she claims that with each piece she’s “starting from scratch,” every gesture is meticulously shaped, with an end result that blurs different aesthetics seamlessly. She frequently juxtaposes instruments as well as texts from East Asia and the West, as well as from the Middle East.

“It’s all available,” she explained.  “Just like nowadays, you don’t just eat Chinese food.  You eat Thai, Afghani, what have you, because everything is available, so why not use it?”


A conversation with Bun-Ching Lam at the home of Thomas Buckner in New York City
October 8, 2018—12:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Frank J. Oteri:  I’ve wanted to talk to you for years, but now seems a particularly apt time since the world is currently going through a very strange period of resurgent nationalism and xenophobia. More than most composers I can think of, you are so polynational, both in terms of your life and your music, to the point that I don’t think what you do could have existed if you did not have this range of experience in so many different places.

“I have a different perspective than someone who has been stationed in one place and stayed there forever.”

Bun-Ching Lam:  Absolutely.  I agree with you. Because I’ve lived in all these places, I’m familiar with so many different cultures.  I speak five languages. None of them well, of course.  But yes, I have a different perspective than someone who has been stationed in one place and stayed there forever.

FJO:  You were born and raised in Macau, which is a very unusual place already.  It, in itself, is a multicultural oasis.  When you were growing up, it was still ruled by Portugal.

BCL:  Yes, until 1999.  My piano teacher was Macanese, so our lessons consisted of Cantonese and English, because I don’t speak Portuguese but she’s speaks very good Cantonese. And then from her, I also learned a lot of English.

FJO:  So Portuguese is not one of your five languages.

BCL:  No, at that time, we had resistance about learning the colonist language.  But I should have learned Portuguese, because then I could read Pessoa in Portuguese.

FJO:  The majority of the population of Macau is Cantonese-speaking Chinese, but the colonial rulers were Portuguese. These are two very different cultures.  But because both the Chinese and the Portuguese there were separated from their motherlands, in some ways they both developed their own cultures.

BC:  The Portuguese who were there they called Macanese.  They don’t really speak the same Portuguese as the people in Portugal; the language has changed.  They have their own subculture and their own patois that the Portuguese don’t know.  And they have poets.  Actually I have a piece where I have used that particular language called Macau Cantata. It uses all the different languages that have passed through Macau.  The famous Chinese poet and playwright Tang Xianzu was in Macau. We all know his Peony Pavilion. He has this description of Macau as the first place where East and West meet. And then [Matteo] Ricci; he went to China and he was stationed in Macau, because that was the only place that you could get access to the mainland. It’s a fascinating place.  In comparison to Hong Kong, Macau actually has its own genuine culture that is very different from any other place.  Of course Hong Kong also has its local culture, but it’s very different.  And, even now, you can go from one place to the other with no problem.

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FJO:  So I’m curious about how you first got exposed to music growing up in Macau.  Before you started studying piano, what were you listening to?  I have this strangely packaged CD that I got years ago that’s a collection of music from Macau that has a recording of your Saudades de Macau on it. But it also includes piano music by Father Aureo Castro and dance music by Pedro Lobo.

BCL: Pedro Lobo! We called him Dr. Lobo.  Every day at 12 o’clock, the radio program had his band on, which played a kind of jazz music. They also had a lot of pop musicians from the ‘50s. And Father Aureo—actually I was just in Macau not too long ago and it was the 55th anniversary of the music school he founded, so they had all kinds of activities and also played his music.  I was invited to do a lecture for the little kids.  It was a lot of fun.

“Listening to classical music was difficult, because there would be one concert a year.”

So I heard all that, and I also heard Cantonese music and The Beatles. Everything. I loved rock music.  But actually listening to classical music was difficult, because there would be one concert a year of classical music.  I had friends, so we borrowed records.  And my father loved music and had records of classical music.  The first concert I heard was Jean-Pierre Rampal playing the flute.  I didn’t hear any real live orchestral music until I was 16, when I went to Hong Kong for the first time.

FJO:  How much traditional Chinese music were you exposed to in Macau?

BCL:  Oh, there were all kinds of things.  And I also played a little on Chinese instruments.  I played the yangqin and the moon-shaped lute, but never very well. Then I played in the school band. I started out as a conductor, and then I learned to play baritone horn, because nobody wanted to play it, so I played it.  And I learned to play accordion in one day; I had to go on stage the next day.  So that was a lot of fun.

FJO:  So you were playing wind band music?

BCL:  Yeah, and we had our own transcriptions.  I actually arranged certain things.  I was 14 or 15. That was interesting because I got to learn various instruments.  I know how to play “Home, Sweet Home” on any instrument, but not very well.

FJO:  There have been at least two other composers with international reputations besides you who are from Macau. A lot of people probably don’t realize that Xian Xinghai was born in Macau, even though he became a very iconic composer in mainland China because of his role in the revolution and his Yellow River Cantata was turned into a piano concerto during the Cultural Revolution. It’s still played all the time.

BCL: He died very young.

FJO:  And then there’s Doming Lam, who I think is a very interesting composer.

BCL:  Absolutely, but he basically lives in Hong Kong.  Then he went to Canada for a while. He never really lived in Macau.

FJO:  I think in order to establish a career for himself, he had to leave Macau and go somewhere that had a larger musical scene.

BCL:  Macau is a very, very small place.  And it’s very hard to stay there forever.

FJO:  So you left Macau to study piano in Hong Kong.  But at that point, you still were not thinking of writing music.

“I just improvised; I never practiced.  Maybe that’s the beginning of my composition.”

BCL:  No. I wrote some little songs, and one time I sent one to a magazine but I never heard from them.  Since I don’t like to practice piano, I improvised.  I didn’t have a piano at home, so I practiced piano at school, right down in the hallway, and people would come and pass by.  My father wanted to make sure that I practiced, so he had a teacher [check in on me] and he had a little book.  Each time after I finished practicing he would say, “Very good” or “It doesn’t seem to be very good today.” But since he didn’t know anything about music, I’d just play some things, I just improvised; I never practiced.  Maybe that’s the beginning of my composition.

Bun-Ching Lam

FJO:  So many different biographies of you state that you didn’t actually start writing music until you arrived in the United States.

BCL:  Right.

FJO:  So I thought, even though you were born and raised in Macau and you studied in Hong Kong and eventually started spending a great deal of your time in France, since you started writing music here, if anyone feels the need to make any kind of nationalistic claims about your identity as a composer, a strong case could be made that you’re an American composer.

BCL: I could be.  I don’t know who I am. Sometimes in one of those ISCM things, they will say I’m a Portuguese composer.

FJO:  Really?

BCL:  Because I was born and raised in Macau. I don’t know what composer I am.  I’m just me.

FJO:  But your serious exposure to contemporary music happened in Hong Kong.  I know that you met Richard Tsang when you were there.

BCL:  Well, we were in the same class.  We were buddies. He started to write music first, and I was just a piano player.  The first time I had contact with contemporary music was when I was in the fourth year.  My piano teacher said, “You should play Schoenberg.” I actually found it quite ugly.  I was doing Opus 11.

In my second year, I went to University of Redlands as an exchange student. I was there only for one year and then I went back to Hong Kong to finish my degree there. But I wanted to learn about contemporary music, so I was playing in the new music ensemble and we were doing Cage and Barney Childs—he was the teacher.  And I learned electronic music. I just wanted to be exposed to different things.  One time, we did this John Cage thing and different music happened at the same time.  I said, “This is fun.”  That was actually in my first composition course. I studied with Barney, and I wrote a piece called Theme and Variations on a Chinese Folksong.  That was my first composition. In each variation, the style changes. Some of it sounds like Hindemith, but it sort of progressively gets more away from the tonal. It [uses] a simple tune [sings melody].  I don’t even know what the name is, but I always liked that tune.

FJO:  Do you still have a manuscript of it somewhere?

BCL:  I don’t think so.

FJO:  Maybe it’ll turn up somewhere.

BCL:  In the Yale Library.  Everything turns up there.

FJO:  Or at the Sacher Foundation.

BCL:  I doubt it very much.

FJO:  So with so many places that have been part of your life, do you consider any place to be home?

“I think home is where you park your suitcase.”

BCL:  Well, I think home is where you park your suitcase.  Your root is somewhere else.  But if I carry my root with me, it’s just dangling. It never goes anywhere; it’s just where I am. Nowadays people always say the DNA.  The DNA’s there.  So it doesn’t matter where I live.  The Chinese say, “When the leaves fall off, it goes back to the root.”  Maybe one of these days I will want to go back to live in Macau, because it’s true, each time I go back there, there’s a certain kind of familiarity.  Or if I go to China. Deep down, I’m certainly Chinese. Therefore, to answer your question, I’m a Chinese composer.  I always say, “You’re once Chinese, you’ll always be Chinese.”  That’s how I think.  Somehow it’s because of how I was brought up.  Certain kinds of Confucian thinking are ingrained in me, even though I like Chuang Zhu and Lao Tzu much better; that part of the philosophical outlook on life is ingrained.

FJO:  Well, if there’s anything that more pieces of yours have in common than anything else, it’s an association with Macau. And even in the last ten years, you’ve written three works that reference Macau. Aside from the Macau Cantata, which you mentioned, there’s also Five Views of Macau and Scenes from Old Macau.

BCL:  Definitely I like Macau, but there’s also a practical reason.  I was a composer-in-residence in Macau.  They wanted me to write Macau this, Macau that.  So I think of myself like the Respighi of Macau. I’m actually tired of it, so I’m no longer composer-in-residence.  Still, the next piece I’m working on is for the Macau Youth Orchestra.  It’s more interesting to see how I can relate to the young people.

FJO:  To get back to your formative years, I’m curious about what happened next after you wrote that first piece of music when you were studying with Barney Childs. You went back to Hong Kong, but you obviously got the composing bug since not long after that you came back here to pursue a graduate degree in composition.

BCL: I had borrowed some money from the school and I was totally broke. Then the last year there was a composition competition for songs and the prize was pretty high.  Richard Tsang was also applying for it, so I thought maybe I should write a song. Then if I win, I guess I can pay back my loan.  That’s how I started.  It was a very short song. I hid in the practice room and I was looking at all the French chansons. I found some harmonies and I made this song up.  Then I entered and I won.  So I said, that’s great.  It’s very lucrative being a composer.

FJO:  That’s very different from most people’s experiences.

BCL:  Well, that was the only time that I really won some money.  I’m still waiting for my MacArthur, but I’m not holding my breath.

FJO:  Yeah, they just announced this year’s winners, so maybe next year.

BCL:  Right, it’s great.  Fantastic.

FJO:  But okay, you won this competition and you paid back the loan.

BCL:  And I went to America.

FJO:  In order to pursue a degree in composition?

BCL:  No. I went to UC San Diego for a master’s and at that time they had a track system where you had to do different things.  I picked piano of course, because I applied as a pianist, and then they had theoretical study, and then there was some sort of extended technique.  But since I don’t like history because I don’t remember anything, I said, “Okay, I’ll try composition.”  At first, I was at the undergraduate composition seminar and Bernard Rands was the teacher.  So I wrote a piece for solo flute.  That was the assignment.  Everybody had to write a piece for solo flute.  And then the next assignment was a duet.  You add another line on top of that piece, so it would be a duet for two flutes.  I said, “Wow, by the time I’m 70, I will be writing a symphony.”  But then in the second quarter, I got promoted into the graduate seminar.  But I really didn’t have a portfolio.  All the people already were composing since they were born.  I was just a beginner.

FJO:  You were a beginner, but you were already studying with Bernard Rands.

BCL:  Well, he was employed to teach there, so he had to teach anybody.

FJO:  But you ultimately wound up studying composition with a lot of other very interesting people as well. We’ve actually done talks with quite a few of the people you studied with—Bernard Rands, Roger Reynolds, and Pauline Oliveros. They are so different from each other.

BCL:  Exactly.  And there was another person I studied with, Robert Erickson, who was totally different [from all of them].  I was in all of their seminars.   For me, it was fantastic that I got to learn from different people.

FJO:  And what’s fascinating is, although you came in without a portfolio of compositions in the beginning, within five years you were writing pieces that clearly have a distinct compositional identity, and which are still receiving performances, like the piccolo solo Bittersweet Music from 1981.  Of course, it helps that there isn’t a lot of solo piccolo repertoire.

BCL:  That’s right.  That’s why I pick those weird things to do.

FJO:  It’s a good idea to write a piece that can have that kind of circulation.  But still, it seems really unusual to me that you were able to create something that is so fully formed so soon after starting to write music.

BCL:  I don’t know.  I have no idea.  I think that one of the things that I already had was an idea about what I think music is.  And I haven’t really changed style. I’m always old fashioned because I like melodies. Even now, writing melodies is not fashionable. I’ve never been with any fashion.  I’m always out of fashion.  When you’re always out of fashion, you’re always in fashion because fashion is a very stupid thing.  Can you imagine now everybody is wearing bell bottom pants. That was in the 1960s. So now you have to get rid of all your skinny pants? Why would you want to do that?  The only people who make money are the people who manufacture it!

“When you’re always out of fashion, you’re always in fashion because fashion is a very stupid thing.”

Music is the same thing.  It was fashionable to write 12-tone music.  Now nobody writes 12-tone music except a few people in California, which used to be anti-12-tone music.  And now it’s all environmental—the cosmos and all those things.  Once it was fashionable to be Chinese, like 10 or 20 years ago. Now it’s fashionable to be Finnish or some other up-north people like Iceland, which is fantastic because everybody has something to offer.  So I like it.  I think it’s a great time.  People are open to different things.  But when you’re open to different things, other things get shut off.

Bun-Ching Lam

FJO:  So, would it be a fair assessment to say that you primarily compose by intuition, or is there some sort of secret system behind the pieces you’ve written? What causes a piece to get formed the way it does?

BCL:  I don’t know.  It’s getting progressively more difficult for me to write.  I’m writing a short piece now.  I love strange combinations, and this piece is for shakuhachi, recorder, an oud, a theorbo, and a kugo, which is a harp.  And I’m just racking my brain about how to make it work.  With each piece I’m just starting from scratch.  When it happens, it happens.  That’s why it takes me a long time to write a piece, because I don’t know what I’m doing.

FJO:  So would you say you come up with the idea of what the combination of the instruments is first, and then it leads you in a certain direction?

BCL:  Yes, but that happened to be the group that commissioned it.  There’s no repertoire; you just have to make it up.

FJO:  Interesting.  One of the things I find so fascinating about your work is how it embraces so many different cultural traditions. You’re Chinese and you’ve written a lot of works that involve Chinese instruments, as well as Chinese instruments in combination with Western instruments.  But you’ve also written works for Japanese instruments.  You mentioned this new piece has shakuhachi.  Plus you’ve written for gamelan, which is Indonesian, and for Middle Eastern instruments.  The entire world’s sounds are fair game.

BCL:  I think so.  It’s all available.  Just like nowadays, you don’t just eat Chinese food.  You eat Thai, Afghani, what have you, because everything is available, so why not use it?  I’m always curious, and I try anything at least once.

FJO:  Yet at the same time, and I guess this strikes to the whole notion of fashion, there’s a huge movement nowadays where people believe if you’re not from a culture, you can’t really understand that culture and what the larger meanings of things are from that culture, and therefore you shouldn’t be appropriating them.

“I’m always curious, and I try anything at least once.”

BCL:  Right.  That’s a big discussion. Like if you’re not black, you shouldn’t write about black culture. I don’t know.  I have no answer.  I’m not stealing; I’m just borrowing. And I’m not appropriating, because if I’m writing for shakuhachi, I’m not trying to be Japanese, or if I write for string quartet, I’m not pretending to be European.  So I don’t see any reason not to do it.  But you have to do it with respect. If as an American, you just write music that sounds like gamelan music and there is nothing really different, then maybe that could be a question.  I could be wrong.

FJO:  One thing that’s so interesting about your approach is the ways things blur together. By combining these different sound worlds, the result is music that would not have been possible from any of those places in isolation. I was listening again this morning to your song cycle Nachtgesänge, which is based on poetry by Friedrich Hölderlin. You use such an unusual combination of instruments.  You included a koto, which is Japanese, and also a saxophone, which though of European origin really came into its own in the USA. Hölderlin has been described as the most German of German poets, but you set his poetry using sonorities from all over the world. And in doing that, his poetry becomes—

BCL:  —something else. Yeah.  But I didn’t choose the instrumentation. It was for the CrossSound Festival in Alaska.  They have those players and so I chose that, but I have to find a rationale for how to combine these instruments, not only because of sound. I live with a German so that makes it work, I think. But actually the thinking is quite Chinese, because of the classification of the instruments by material.  I was thinking there’s wood, there’s brass, there’s metal, and then there’s something that’s neutral to combine them all together.  And the reason is because Hölderlin is a fantastic poet.  I also made a book with that text with some of my etchings. I learned about Hölderlin and this whole German Romantic world—how they expressed words was just fantastic, just the sounds of them. I just love it.

FJO:  So German must be one of your five languages then.

BCL:  Yes.  I understand almost everything, but when I speak everybody laughs because I just don’t say things the same way. But it’s grammatically correct, usually.

FJO:  If the unusual instrumental combinations you write for are the result of the people who are commissioning a work from you, you obviously don’t have a lot of say in that. But what if there was a combination that you felt wouldn’t work for your music?

BCL:  Then I just don’t accept the commission.

FJO:  So there have been times you’ve turned down commissions.

“Since I write slowly, sometimes I just have to say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do that.'”

BCL:  Yes, since I write slowly, sometimes I just have to say, “Sorry, I can’t do that.”  I still haven’t written a woodwind quintet.  It would be kind of fun to do, but that’s also very difficult because you right away think about these bad woodwind quintets that have been written.

FJO:  But the text is something that you usually choose, I imagine, although I know that you wrote a setting of Heinrich Heine for Tom Buckner, whose home we’re in now, because it was something that he wanted, so you chose that text as a gift to him.

BCL:  Everybody loves Heine.  It was a love song.  It was a present for Kamala and Tom for their wedding anniversary.  But I usually choose the text. I’ve written some Dada songs [with texts] by Hugh Ball.  I just love that silly nonsense; you can make anything out of it.  That was written in 1985, before any big commissions.

FJO:  You are interested in so many things, so you probably read more texts than the ones you wind up setting.  What makes a text cry out to you and make you want to set it to music?

BCL:  Well, I don’t read too terribly much, because I really don’t have that much time.  I’ll just see something. But it has to speak to me somehow; I have to see an image.  For instance, I’m learning French, so I’m paying more attention to French poets.  I also still use a lot of Chinese poems.

FJO:  But the thing that I find so fascinating, to take it back again to that Hölderlin setting, is the text that you choose doesn’t necessarily determine the kind of musical sound world that that text is in.  The idea that a Japanese instrument could be used to bring out the words of Hölderlin is quite interesting. I know that you have done some settings of Chinese poetry using Chinese instruments, but then you’ve also done Chinese settings that don’t use any Chinese instruments at all.

BCL:  Right.  I think the texts I do something with are very universal.  Mostly they are poems about love or about isolation.  Human emotion is common to every culture and every language.  Therefore music is a great way to illuminate those feelings and those emotions.  For instance, there’s one piece at the concert on November 16, which is the 30th anniversary for the Interpretation Series, called Conversation with My Soul; [the text is] by the great poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan.  I wanted to write a piece for Tom and she’s Tom’s close friend; that’s a present for her 91st birthday that Tom did for her.  I wanted to write another string quartet, but I thought it might be easier to add a baritone voice to it and, for me, it was to discover the meaning of her language. Sometimes it’s very obscure, because she’s Lebanese and English is her second language, just like me, so her use of language is very different from people like John Ashbery. And the syntax—sometimes you don’t know where you are!  Just like music, it’s ambiguous; you don’t know exactly what the meaning is.

FJO:  So have you ever set a text in a language that you don’t speak to some extent?

BCL:  I try not to.  It would be difficult to set something in Greek, because it’s like Greek to me.

FJO:  Curiously, one of my favorite pieces of yours is one from very early on, your solo percussion piece Lue.

BCL:  Wow, I didn’t know that you knew my music so well.  That makes me feel happy.

FJO:  Well, I thought it would be interesting to talk about since we’re talking about understanding different languages. To me that piece sounds so idiomatic for percussion, but back in 1983, when you wrote it, I can’t imagine that you would have had a ton of background with percussion instruments.

BCL:  Well, I do hit the table with the chopsticks, once in a while.  I don’t know. You just imagine.  You don’t have to draw a picture; you just know you have to reach from here to there in this time. That was a very extravagant piece.  That piece is not played very much because it costs a lot of money to rent the instruments.  But I was at Cornish, and my wonderful colleagues helped me and somehow it all worked.

FJO:  It’s interesting that it doesn’t get performed much because it’s one of the only pieces of yours that there are two different commercial recordings of.

BCL:  Is that right?

FJO:  There’s the first recording that was released on CRI decades ago and then a more recent one on Mutable.

BCL:  Right.  Well, it’s too expensive.  Nobody plays that.  They don’t want to move those things anymore.  There have been other performances in New Jersey because of a percussion teacher there.

FJO:  Raymond DesRoches.

BCL:  He’s great.

FJO:  You wrote a second percussion piece later on called Klang, which I’ve never heard and would love to hear.

BCL:  There was a commercial recording of it in Europe, but I don’t know how commercial it is, with a great percussionist, Fritz Hauser, a Swiss guy.  He just did a big festival in Lucerne and he commissioned that piece. The great thing is that he always had two bass drums.  I love kung fu books [even though] I don’t read too many of them; [in kung fu] human beings have a way to separate the body. You can have your left trying to control your right, so you try to separate yourself.  So that piece [Klang] is very difficult to play because he has to do all these things. So I had fun doing that piece, but very few people play that piece also.  I think he was the only person who played it.

FJO:  I suppose that’s the opposite of the piece you wrote for piccolo, Bittersweet Music, which many people have performed.

BCL:  Yeah.  Maybe.  It’s short.  And it’s bittersweet, more sweet than bitter.

FJO:  You’ve written three pieces with that title.  The third one is for bass flute, which is a lot less common.

BCL:  Yeah, a lot of people don’t have bass flute, so I don’t think that piece has been played very much.

FJO:  There is at least one video of it online which is really nice.  Another piece that I wanted to talk with you a bit about is …Like Water, which has also been recorded twice.  It’s a trio of Western instruments—violin, piano, and percussion—but once again, it’s such a seamless blur of East and West, Asian, European, and American traditions.  If I didn’t know it was your music, I’d be hard-pressed to figure out where this music came from; I’d have no idea.

BCL:  Oh, that’s great.  Thank you.  I’m from Mars!

FJO:  Though it’s seamless, from minute to minute it goes through so many different stylistic sound worlds, so I’m wondering what your roadmap for that piece was.

“The problem with dance music is that you write something and then it’s too short or too long.”

BCL:  Well, that piece was written for dance.  It was a collaboration with the choreographer June Watanabe.  The problem with dance music is that you write something and then it’s too short or too long.  You can’t just add a couple of minutes here or there, except Stravinsky who just adds more repeats!  She wanted a piece that had something to do with water.  So I just wrote pieces for her. Each day, I wrote one, more or less.  I’d just get up in the morning and say, “Okay, today I’ll write one.” Then one after the other, because I had a deadline.  That helps too, once in a while. Instead of just dreaming about a piece, you actually have to work on it and finish it.  So that’s how it all came about.  And then it was for The Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio, and they are wonderful musicians; they can play anything.

FJO:  You’ve mostly written pieces for smaller ensembles, but I wanted to talk with you a bit about the orchestra, because you have written several orchestra pieces and have also conducted them. Earlier in this conversation you were talking about writing a piece when you studied with Bernard Rands that started as a solo and then became a duo, and you imagined that it would eventually become a symphony.

BCL:  Well, I still haven’t written a symphony, so I’m still waiting.

FJO:  Do you want to?

BCL:  I don’t know.  It’s too difficult to write a symphony.

FJO:  You’ve written concertos, though.

BCL:  Yeah.

FJO:  Including two pipa concertos.

BCL:  Actually both of them will be performed in Germany at the end of this month, which is very rare.

FJO:  Together on the same concert?

BCL:  Yes.

FJO:  Wow.

BCL:  They’re going to do it three times.  So this is a great treat for me.

FJO:  That’s fantastic.  So are there a lot of performances of your music in Europe?

BCL:  No, not really.  Once in a while.

FJO:  Does it help to be based there a good deal of the time?

BCL:  I don’t think so.

FJO:  So then what led you to spend so much of your time in Paris?

BCL:  The food is better!

FJO:  There’s some pretty good food in New York, too.

BCL:  It’s true, but I don’t live in New York anymore.  I’m kidding, but in terms of ingredients, it’s still better [in Paris].  But that’s not really the main thing; it’s the culture. Since I left New York, Paris seems to be a good city to be in right now.

FJO:   I’ve enjoyed the times that I’ve been there. And, at this point, I imagine you are probably also able to find musicians there who play pipa and shakuhachi and any other instrument you’d want to write for.

BCL:  Well, these other musicians are in Seattle or New York.  I think for the variety of multicultural things, the United States is still the best.  In Germany, there are some people.  Wu Wei is there.  And I just did a piece for a pipa player in Geneva.  There are so many pipa players everywhere now, and they’re all very, very good.

FJO:  Are they all Chinese?

BCL:  Yes.

FJO:  There’s now all this repertoire for Asian instruments that’s part of Western contemporary music, either in combination with Western instruments or just for those instruments, even pieces that are being composed by people who are not originally from Asia. But most of the players are still Asian, even though there are now some really terrific shakuhachi players who are not Asian. With the other instruments, like pipa, that hasn’t happened so much yet.

BCL:  I think it’s going to change soon.  Hasn’t Manhattan School of Music started a Chinese music program?  And in the Midwest, there are centers.  There are Confucius Institutes all over the world.  They all have music programs.  So it’s changing.  It’s going to take a while, but before too long, it might be very cool to learn to play pipa.  The Silk Road is everywhere, so people may want to learn that.

Bun-Ching Lam

FJO:  Now in terms of big projects, you said writing a symphony is very hard.  But you’ve done two rather large music-theater type pieces.  The one that I’m more familiar with is The Child God.  It’s a big piece.

BCL:  That’s only half an hour.

FJO:  Yeah, but many symphonies are about a half an hour, unless you want to be Mahler.

“I don’t want to be Mahler. I don’t want to be Respighi, either. I want to be me.”

BCL:  No, I don’t want to be Mahler.  You cannot be Mahler.  I don’t want to be Respighi, either.  I want to be me.  But Mahler is such a great composer; I’m not in the same league.

FJO:  So what pieces would you want to write if you were given the opportunity to write them?

BCL:  I don’t really have any goal or wish, just what comes to mind. I have to work on this youth orchestra piece.  That will be 25 minutes.  So that can be a symphony.

FJO:  There you go.  There’s your symphony.

BCL:  Yeah, but I don’t want to call it a symphony.  It just has too much implication somehow.  Symphonies, symphonias, everybody playing together—that’s the original definition.  I want to start with number nine, and I will die right away.

FJO:  Well I hope that doesn’t happen.  So don’t write that one yet.

BCL:  Yeah, I’m postponing it.  Until I’m 95, then it’s about time to go.

Thea Musgrave: Where The Practicality Comes In

One of the most delightful afternoons I’ve had this year was spent visiting Thea Musgrave in her New York apartment, located in a landmarked building on the Upper West Side. That 1899 edifice, once The Ansonia Hotel and now simply the Ansonia, has counted among its tenants Enrico Caruso, Igor Stravinsky, and Serge Rachmaninoff, as well as Babe Ruth, Theodore Dreiser, and Natalie Portman. Though today the building is one of the city’s most glorious architectural marvels, its history is loaded with some incredibly bizarre stories.  That building’s mix of grandeur and narrative intrigue proved to be a very apt setting for a conversation with this distinguished, soon-to-be nonagenarian composer (“Each birthday, I’m going to take a year off”) who turned out to also be one of the greatest raconteurs I’ve ever encountered.

Musgrave had so many stories to tell: almost flunking out of the University of Edinburgh for writing a too “adventurous piece” which Nadia Boulanger subsequently saw promise in; sharing space with electronic music pioneer Daphne Oram who put “recording equipment in the gent’s bathroom”; having a dream in the 1960s about conducting an orchestra in which members started defying her and playing other music, which ultimately turned into her theatrical Clarinet Concerto; including a huge chorus of local children in the Virginia Opera premiere of A Christmas Chorus to ensure that “the parents will all come so you’ll sell out the house”; and never giving a thought to being a “female composer” until she moved to the United States in the early 1970s and people here made such a fuss about it.

Read on for her further elaborations of each of these experiences and many, many more. Better yet, watch and listen to all the video footage of her we’ve included here, since listening to her reminisce is even more entertaining. However, in addition to how pleasurable it is to listen to her various quips, they are also full of tons of take away value for other composers or, for that matter, anyone else dedicated to an artistic pursuit since at the root of all of Musgrave’s anecdotes is a deep sense of practicality.

“If something sounds very easy and is difficult to play, that’s a no-no,” she remembered telling her students at Queens College. “However, if something sounds very difficult and it’s relatively easy to play, that’s great.  So, go for it.  Don’t write unnecessarily difficult things.”

But that doesn’t mean she believes in avoiding risk-taking.

“Sometimes you have to follow your crazy ideas and just go with it to see what happens,” she acknowledged toward the end of our visit with her.  “I used to say to my students that we all have this critic sitting on our shoulder who’s very fierce and rather nasty.  When you’re beginning a work, you take this person—him, it’s always a he—you take him to the door and you say bye-bye.  I don’t want to see you just now.  So when you have an idea, you say, ‘Well, let’s just put it there. Maybe if I did that, then that would happen.  And on the other hand, if I did this then that could happen.’ You don’t say that’s a stupid idea right off.  You leave it, and you get all these ideas and put them down to be looked at.  And eventually you bring him back in and say, ‘Now help me to evaluate what I’ve got here.’”

October 4, 2017 at 1:00 p.m.
Thea Musgrave in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Video by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  As I was listening again to recordings of many of your compositions and studying your scores over the course of the past few weeks in preparation for our conversation today, I was struck by how open-minded and yet practical your music is.

“Don’t write unnecessarily difficult things.”

Thea Musgrave:  Well, I’m Scottish, so that’s where the practicality comes in.  I always used to say to my students when I taught here at Queens College for CUNY for some 15 years: “If something sounds very easy and is difficult to play, that’s a no-no.  However, if something sounds very difficult and it’s relatively easy to play, that’s great.  So, go for it.  Don’t write unnecessarily difficult things.”  So that’s what I’ve been applying for myself.  I also think that when you write, particularly for an orchestra, orchestras don’t have time to mess around with difficult notations and things that are very unnecessarily complicated.  I like to have my orchestral pieces basically sight-readable by a good professional orchestra.  When you come to the rehearsal, you spend the time on making the phrases flow and getting the balances right so they all know to hear each other.  Good orchestras, they’re smart.  So they know what to listen for and they adjust.  That’s where you should spend the time.  Not working out notation.  However, you can do some exciting new things, which I did for certain reasons, which maybe we’ll come to in a moment.

FJO:  We definitely will.  But before we do, I wonder if you’d agree that part of the practicality of your music stems from the fact that you have not been dogmatically beholden to any of the so-called “isms” that were so pervasive in the 20th century.

TM:  Yes, but I explored them.  There was a period when 12-tone-ism was very powerful and very interesting.  There were a lot of wonderful pieces.  And so I explored that for a while, but it wasn’t for me.  My friend Richard [Rodney] Bennett really lived in that world and did some absolutely fabulous things.  I didn’t stay there, but I think the idea of how it worked has influenced me.

Carlisle Floyd, Thea Musgrave and Richard Rodney Bennett standing together.

Thea Musgrave (center) with Carlisle Floyd (left) and Richard Rodney Bennett (right), date unknown.
(Photo courtesy Thea Musgrave.)

FJO:  You might take some aspects from somewhere. You mentioned 12-tone writing. Electronic music is also something that you’ve explored to your own ends and have done some very interesting things with.

TM:  I didn’t have an electronic studio, so the important thing for me was to meet somebody.  And in London, there was Daphne Oram, who started the BBC Radiophonic Workshop way back when.  She said in the early days she used to have to work at night when the place was basically closed, so she would have the recording equipment in the gent’s bathroom, and then would be running down the corridor with the mic to get the distance effect.  All this, of course, you don’t need now.  But I remember working in her studio, and we had loops hanging up all around. Young people now working in this have no idea what it was like when it was all new.

And when I was studying in Paris in the ‘50s, we talked about musique électronique and musique concrète. Electronic music, which was basically sound waves, was very boring to work with; musique concrète, which was from live sounds—that’s what I liked.  I didn’t like the sine waves; they were not interesting in themselves.  But that was really the beginning of things. When I was a kid, we didn’t have television.  You went to the movies to see what was happening in the war.  You didn’t have television at home, let alone not having internet.  People can’t imagine that now.

I wrote this radio opera called An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, which of course is a well-known story here about the American Civil War by Ambrose Bierce.  And, as I had learned by listening to the radio, wonderful plays were done with incredible sound effects, and sometimes with music. I thought, “Okay, we’ll have music and we’ll also have sound effects in this opera.”  So there’s horses galloping, dogs barking, soldiers marching, and stuff like that.  There were two levels in this opera.  One was a real-life level.  So I had spoken voices of certain characters.  But central characters, like Peyton Farquhar who was an Ambrose Bierce character, could speak as he is in the outside world, but in the internal world he sings and he’s accompanied by a chamber orchestra.  He hears what’s in the outside world, but they don’t hear his comments and feelings.  It was wonderful to work on these two levels.

FJO:  You conceived of it for radio, but has it ever been staged?

TM:  It’s difficult to stage because of what it’s about, but it actually has been done. It’s tricky because of the nature of the story.

FJO:  Before we go into greater detail about some of your other pieces, I’m curious about how you first became exposed to various things that were going on in music during your early years, especially since you mentioned that you learned about things from the radio and news reels about the Second World War that would only be something you’d be able to see in a movie theater. You were already studying music before the war and continued to do so afterwards. The way that history is presented to us now, it’s as if there was a sea change in musical composition right after the war. Of course, Schoenberg and other composers of the Second Viennese School were writing 12-tone music and their work was not completely unknown. After the war, however, there was a real flowering of this music but there also seemed to be much more polarization between composers who embraced that approach and composers who didn’t. The neoclassicists and the serialists seemed to be opposing camps that didn’t speak to each other. And the folks who were creating music using chance procedures were in their own separate camp. Or so the story goes. But I wonder how perceptible those animosities really were to people at the time.

“Here there’s no way you can know everybody; this country is so vast.”

TM:  Well, in Britain, we spoke to each other actually.  And music by chance happened a little later.  I knew most of the composers around in Britain at that time.  I’ve lost touch now because I’ve been here for so long.  Here there’s no way you can know everybody; this country is so vast—there are pockets of composers in Chicago, Boston, New York, Houston, whatever.  I like meeting other composers and comparing notes, as Richard [Bennett] and I did all through our adult lives. It was wonderful to have that kind of exchange, because he was a wonderful musician. Not only did he write 12-tone music when he was writing so-called serious music, but of course he wrote all those fabulous music scores for the movies.

A 1965 photo of Malcolm Williamson, Richard Rodney Bennett, Thea Musgrave, and Peter Maxwell Davies at a cafe; Musgrave and Maxwell Davies are drinking from teacups.

(from left to right) Malcolm Williamson, Richard Rodney Bennett, Thea Musgrave, and Peter Maxwell Davies at London’s Cafe Boulevard on April 9, 1965. (Photo courtesy Thea Musgrave.)

FJO:  When you were growing up in Scotland, how connected was the musical life in Scotland to the rest of the United Kingdom?

TM:  Well, I went to university in Edinburgh and then I went straight to Paris from there.  The auld alliance! I lived in Paris for four years.  It’s not true anymore, but in those days you really had to be in London.  So after Paris, I came back and I settled in London.  Things happened from London, even though there was a BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and so on.  I think most decisions seemed to have happened in London.  So people lived there.  I think it’s different now. People live in different places, and with the internet one can be connected in other ways.

What was wonderful about the BBC Scottish was that it had a policy—and I hope it still exists—of helping young composers learn their craft, because although you can learn a lot in school, then comes the practicality of learning how to write for an orchestra and how an orchestra functions.  And in those days, in the late ‘50s, the assistant conductor was Colin Davis.  So one of my early works was conducted by Colin Davis. He was a clarinet player and was married to a singer in those days, and had just started to conduct. That’s where I began to learn how to work with an orchestra, the BBC Scottish—thank you!

FJO: And the reason you went to Paris before that was to study with Nadia Boulanger.

TM:  That was wonderful!  What’s really funny and I think quite influential for me is when I was at university, Donald Francis Tovey had brought over a composer from Vienna—I think realizing something terrible was about to happen—Hans Gál.  So I was studying composition with him.  I wrote some rather staid pieces, and then I started getting more adventurous. For my degree, I wrote a much more adventurous piece and apparently they nearly failed me.  They passed me because they’d seen the conventional pieces before that.  Now when I went to Boulanger, I showed her the old fashioned pieces, and she sort of looked and said, “Qu’est-que c’est que ça?  And I said, “Well, I do have this.” And I showed her the thing that I had tried to do.  “Ah,” she said.  “I understand.  I see that you have ideas; now we have to learn a little bit of technique.”  She understood that there was something there that could be developed, which they had not seen.

“For my degree, I wrote a much more adventurous piece and apparently they nearly failed me.”

So that’s how it started with her.  She was fabulous.  I really knew her very well, because I was there four years.  I saw her absolutely every single week.  I went for my hour’s lesson, and then at the Conservatoire. Because she was not primarily a composer, though her sister had been, she was not allowed to teach composition.  Can you imagine? And she taught Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, and many, many other people.  So instead, she taught the cours d’accompagnement—piano accompaniment—which turned into a composition class: how to arrange things, doing figured bass, sight reading from a score, and all those sorts of things.  It was not normal piano accompaniment.  And so that was really wonderful.

FJO:  So all these people who studied composition with her were studying privately with her.

TM:  Yes.  They had the option to go to Conservatoire—whether they did or not I have no idea—but she had her classes at home in a great big sitting room with an organ right there and, of course, a piano which is where she sat. And I sat to one side.  Then you could talk about what you’d been working on, and she’d go over it.  What to me is very interesting was I had come from Edinburgh. To me, Donald Francis Tovey is a god and one of the most important people in my musical life, though I never met him.  He died in ’40 and I arrived in ’47.  I studied with his assistant, Mary Grierson.  I did piano with her.  But I think I read absolutely every single word he ever wrote.  So what I learned from him was what he called long-term harmonic planning.  In other words, the overall direction of things are mainly from a harmonic point of view.  Whereas, with Nadia, although of course she knew that, it was much more detailed, how a moment goes to the next.  Those two together is what it takes.

Nadia Boulanger (seated in front of a piano) with a large group of students.

Nadia Boulanger’s 1953 class at the Paris Conservatoire; Thea Musgrave is standing in the back row.

FJO:  So tell me more about that piece that almost got you failed in Scotland that Nadia saw the promise in.

TM:  I have no idea what it is.  I’ve lost it. It was probably terrible, but somehow she saw something.

FJO:  Was it an orchestra piece?

TM:  I absolutely don’t remember.

FJO:  That’s a pity, because it seems like that piece was perhaps the earliest example of that very elusive and perhaps inexplicable phenomenon of you finding your own voice as a composer. How this happens and how to develop it is a very important lesson.

Pencils, a pair of glasses, scissors, a box of tissues and a sheet of music manuscript paper on a desk.

Thea Musgrave’s composing desk.

TM:  I’ll tell you one of the main sources which is, again, very extraordinary.  I always tell my students, “Don’t forget about coincidences.”  In the ‘60s, round about ’64, ’65, a long time ago, I had a dream one night.  I had just started conducting, and in my dream I was conducting an orchestra and suddenly one of the players stood up and defied me.  I tried to go on and couldn’t. Then I suddenly said, “Brass, stand up.  And shut him up.”  I woke up and I burst out laughing.  That night, I went out to dinner with some friends which we’d already arranged and I said, “I had the most hilarious dream.” I told them and we all had a good laugh about it.  I swear to you, the very next morning, a letter arrived in the post from Birmingham, England.  Would I write an orchestra piece for the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra?  So guess what?  I wrote a piece, and halfway through, the clarinet player stands up and does something quite different.  Then he/she gets other people to stand up by suggesting tunes that they might like to play.  There are about five or six players standing up. Finally the conductor gets the brass to their feet, and things are resolved and they sit down.  Some years later that work had its premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Ormandy asked me to conduct.  I said, “Yes, that’s wonderful.  How exciting! I’m honored,” and all those things.  So two hours rehearsal.  I told him, “I can do it in two hours if I have half an hour with six players.”  I arrived that morning and there were the six players sort of saying, “The Philadelphia Orchestra is really good.  We don’t do sectional rehearsals with this orchestra.  What’s this?”  So I said to them, “I’ve asked you to come because you defy the conductor, and you’re independent of the conductor.”  “Oh.”  “I want to explain to you what I’m doing, and how you are doing something slightly different.”  So we went through it all, and they did their bit so that they would see what was happening. I was conducting and they couldn’t hear anything because the orchestra wasn’t there, but when the rest of the orchestra came in, they were all set.

FJO:  Now so when you say they defy the conductor and they asked other players to play tunes they like, is this an indeterminate thing?  Can they play any tune they want?

TM:  No, no.  It’s all worked out.  This is one of the things about being practical.  I arranged a way of doing the score which is not in a tempo.  There are big, big long bars, and I always put a big arrow with a big black center.  And that means the conductor gives the downbeat.  At that point, the players continue to play in the same tempo, but they’re not necessarily together.  So it’s like a cadenza, but several people are playing.  They don’t necessarily match.  And then the conductor or the player can give cues.  If the conductor gives cues, there’s a sort of hollow arrow, so I point there to the horn or here to the cello or here to the brass.  Or whatever.  The part of the soloist—in this case a clarinet—will be written on a separate line.  What they are doing is underneath, but they all see the clarinet and so they know, “Okay, now I switch to this.”  That’s how the score works.

FJO:  But that still means that no two performances are ever going to be exactly the same.

TM:  Right.

FJO:  So in that sense, it is indeterminate music.

“Any live performance is never exactly the same, even if it’s with the same players.”

TM:  Well, any live performance is never exactly the same, even if it’s with the same players.  It’s always a little bit different, thank goodness.  But this reminds me of something.  When I was starting out and was very inexperienced and didn’t quite know how to hear my scores, I was very jealous of painters because a painter finishes his painting and invites friends in to look.  And they all say, “Geez, that’s wonderful.  How nice!”  Well, if I put a score of my music up, who’s going to read it?  Very few people.  Even for musicians, it’s difficult to read an orchestral score.  So I was jealous of painters.  But then I discovered performers.  It’s like writing a play.  You can read a play, but you don’t really know what it sounds like until you have great actors.  They transform it.  And the same with music.  You have great performers.  I’ve been lucky to have worked with some of them.  They transform it, and again, it’s not exactly the same every time. They take a little bit more room around this phrase or, if there’s something a little bit improvised, they might do something a little different.  And so on.  So the performers are intrinsic to the whole thing.

FJO:  Even more than it resembles a play, the Clarinet Concerto is almost like choreography in terms of the way the soloist is required to maneuver from section to section. And I imagine that this is something that gets, at least in part, transformed by the personality of the soloist. The person who premiered it was one of the great performers.

TM:  A wonderful performer, Gervase de Peyer.  The Clarinet Concerto is like a concerto grosso.  There are the tutti sections where everybody is together and then there are solo concertante sections, where Gervase played—here to start with, and then he moved through the violas and second violins over there and played in that section.  So he’s controlling the players in that part of the orchestra by this system of cues.  They follow not because he’s conducting, but by the way he played his cues.  And then there are these black arrows I talked about for the conductor to hold the synchronization points together.  Then there’s another tutti section during which Gervase went over to play with the horns and other clarinets and I forget what else.  Oh yes, I brought in a new instrument.  When I was in Paris, I went to a dance company and I heard an accordion played with a clarinet, and I thought, that’s wonderful.  It blends really well.  So I brought in an accordion.  Then there’s that concertante section and again, another tutti section.  Gervase goes far stage right, this being my left hand, but it’s stage right if you’re looking at the orchestra, playing there with the harp and percussion. I think the flute, even though the flute’s over here, joins in, and then finally comes back to the start.  So he made a circle of the orchestra.

FJO: Another piece of yours which involves spatialization and which was also premiered by a very famous soloist, was your equally fascinating Horn Concerto.

TM:  Oh, Barry Tuckwell.  Gervase de Peyer and Barry were actually both in the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Players at a certain point, even though they both came from London.  Well, Barry comes from Australia, but he was living in London.  It’s really funny.  He was coming back, flying over the Atlantic, and he suddenly thought, “You know, a horn can do quartertones.”  Because of our very strange music system, some of the notes are out of tune.  A G-flat and an F-sharp are different pitches.  When you do it on the piano, of course, you can’t change the pitch. But if you’re a singer or a player, you alter pitch a little bit because of the harmonies.  Pianists can’t.  It’s very interesting if you tune up to a C, in octaves.  You get a C to C.  If you tune up in perfect fifths, and they are true, you arrive at a B-sharp, which is not the same note as a C.  There’s a word for that.  I forget what it is.

FJO:  The Pythagorean comma.

TM:  Whatever, yes.  Anyway, it’s not the same note, and that’s why piano tuners have to tune the fifth a tiny bit flat, so that you have a beat in there of like one nanosecond or something like that.  So horn valves are tuned exactly and they adjust; that’s how you can make a quartertone scale because you’re using these out of tune harmonics.  So in the middle of the concerto to have ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba—twelve notes going down—is totally fabulous.  And I did it in some other places.  Horn players have looked at me and said, “What’s this?  This can’t be done.”  I said, “Well, I hope I got the fingerings right.  They’re actually Barry’s fingerings, so you know, it should be okay.”

FJO:  In addition to those wonderful quartertones, the other really unusual aspect of the piece is that at one point the horn section plays in the audience.

TM:  They go out into the hall, and that’s also funny. It’s halfway though the cadenza. I didn’t write the notes in, I just wrote gestures. And then there are real pitches, then it’s another gesture.  When we did it in the Albert Hall, which is a big hall, Barry disappeared and I thought, “What’s happened?” He came back a little bit out of breath, and I said, “Barry, are you okay?”  He said, “Well, I was just checking how long it would take a horn player from the platform to get out into the back of the hall to the new place where they have to stand.  I can always lengthen those little gestures if I need to, to give the horn players time to get there.”

FJO:  There’s a funny story you mentioned to someone you did an interview with some years ago about how in one of the performances of that piece, the horn players were actually blocking the exits.

TM:  That was in Hong Kong.  I didn’t know about it, but one of the Hong Kong people came to Barry and said, “What happens if the people here don’t like it?”  And Barry said, as quick as a flash, “Well, they may not.  But there’s a horn player guarding every exit so they can’t get out.”  I love that.  He didn’t tell me.  I heard about it years later.

FJO:  Now, one thing about all this that I have to confess is that although I know both of these pieces, I have only listened to them on recordings.  I have never witnessed either of them in a live performance.

TM:  It was done with the New York Phil with Sarah Caldwell, but she changed the seating.  She brought them all to the front, which wasn’t the point.  But whatever.

FJO: But the point I want to make here is that they sound fabulous on recordings, but obviously if listeners are not seeing all these thing you’ve been describing, they’re missing a very important aspect of your conception of these pieces.

TM:  Well, we have to have lots of live performances.

FJO:  Ideally, but at least nowadays there are other ways people can watch performances; there are many performances posted to YouTube, Vimeo, and other platforms. Although the sound quality for a lot of them is terrible, at least people could see the visual aspect. There are also DVDs, Blu-ray discs, etc. But all this begs the question: you’re a composer, so the key element for you is still ultimately sound, right? You mentioned artists being able to show their paintings to people, whereas composers can’t show people a score and expect them to appreciate it. But we do have recordings, although if they’re just audio recordings they’ll be missing an important ingredient in several of your works.

TM:  What can I say?  The music has to sound right.  If the sound quality is awful, that’s really off putting. But I think the visual element can add to it.  Recently the Horn Concerto was done in London with Martin Owen, another wonderful player.  I was talking to him beforehand and I said, “Your part is cued into these players. They’re way out in the audience, but you don’t have to worry about it at all.  Just play the way you would play comfortably, dramatically, it’s yours.  You don’t have to worry at all.  However, if you feel you can do a little signal, like you do in chamber music, in the direction of the player who is responding, the audience will hear it better because they’ll see it.”  They’ll see Martin giving the cue over there.  And they’ll look, and then they’ll hear the horn responding.  They’ll hear it better.  It adds to the drama and hopefully to the audience’s enjoyment and appreciation.  But it’s not actually necessary.

A cabinet filled with CD recordings of Thea Musgrave's music.

A cabinet filled with CD recordings of Thea Musgrave’s music.

FJO:  Interesting.  Another divide among composers, beyond all the “isms,” is between composers of instrumental music and composers of vocal music, particularly dramatic vocal music such as opera or musical theater. Years ago we did a talk with Joan Tower and she claimed that although there are a few very notable exceptions, the majority of composers are on one side of the fence or the other. She was about to write her first choral piece at the time, and it turned out that it was quite wonderful, but she thought of herself as an instrumental composer. You’ve been equally in both worlds.

TM:  Oh yes, like Britten was.  And I’ve written a lot of choral music.  But they’re different sound worlds, and they need a different kind of attention.

FJO: Although we have not yet talked about any of your operas, the way that you approach a lot of the instrumental pieces that we have been talking about is in a narrative, almost theatrical way, like what you were just saying about seeing a player respond to a cue adding to the drama.

TM:  That happens in chamber music when there’s no conductor.  In a quartet, the leader with the bow will say now and give an upbeat. There’s nothing new about that.  It’s just that the horn didn’t have to do that, but I said it just helps the audience to hear.

FJO:  Well even though it’s done all the time, it’s mostly taken for granted I think. But you’ve actually foregrounded this phenomenon in your music.

“I decided to call it the dramatization of the orchestra.”

TM:  When I started doing this, I thought, “Oh, I have to have a word.” So I called it “dramatic abstract” because we’ve been talking about the Horn Concerto and the Clarinet Concerto and they’re not programmatic pieces.  They have a form, but it’s abstract.  However, I’ve written other pieces where they’re not abstract; it’s programmatic, like Turbulent Landscapes, which is based on pictures of Turner and so on, and so I decided to call it the dramatization of the orchestra.

FJO:  One of my favorite pieces of yours actually is a concerto you wrote for marimba and wind ensemble.

TM:  Journey Through a Japanese Landscape–a concerto for solo percussion and an orchestra without strings! It was very exciting to work with Evelyn Glennie.  Have you met her?

FJO:  I did an interview with her many years ago.

TM:  You know, she’s really deaf, but she lip reads just extraordinarily.  She heard, I think, until she was about 11 or 12, so she has a nice Scot accent, which you will have heard.  And she’s from Aberdeen, I think.  When I wrote this piece for her, I never talked to her about her deafness.  I thought, that’s it.  I know about it.  So the only thing I did differently was not to give her aural cues.  She takes visual cues, or cues from the conductor, but not aural cues from other members of the orchestra.  She gives them, because they can hear, but she doesn’t take them.

FJO: I love her recording of it and I also recently discovered a great performance of it online by this group based in Portugal. Because it’s scored just for winds, it theoretically could get many more performances than an orchestra piece and certainly more rehearsals, since there are so many wind bands all over the country as well as all over the world and they don’t have the same kind of limitations on rehearsal time that orchestras do.

TM:  I haven’t done very much with the wind band, just a couple of pieces. But it’s always exciting to work on a slightly less familiar medium, for me that is–makes me consider new ideas. I like to work with everything.  You know, just what happens, what comes along.

FJO: You mentioned that you’ve written a lot of choral music. That’s another medium where you can explore more unconventional ideas since, if it’s a school ensemble, you can rehearse the whole semester. And the same is also true with many community choruses.

TM:  I love it. But I did one very unusual piece which I don’t recommend, again for practical reasons. I don’t know if you’ve come across Voices of Power and Protest.  It’s an anti-war piece for which I wrote the words. Part of it’s on YouTube. It’s not complete; for some reason they weren’t allowed to do the whole thing.  Anyway, an opera chorus is used to memorizing and being blocked, and is usually accompanied by an orchestra.  A [stand alone] chorus is not used to being blocked.  They’re usually standing in rows, and they’re on book and are often unaccompanied, or maybe with a piano or organ.  I thought it would be great if they could be off book and would become the set themselves.  It’s a piece about civil wars.  At one point, the chorus comes into two lines and makes a wall between two singers, two brothers who are separated like in the American Civil War.  Then some of these are prisoners, so the singers surround this person.  And so on.  I made a libretto where the chorus could act it out by the way they moved and the shapes that they made.  Harold Rosenbaum did it with his New York Virtuoso Singers and Dottie Danner directed it. It was done right here in the hall at Ethical Culture and was really fabulous.  However, it’s really not practical because they have to have many, many more rehearsals to be off book. It was very expensive to put on, so I can’t get that work going.  Eventually it maybe could be done with a much bigger chorus surrounding on book, and then the soloists would have to be off book, because there are some solo parts, but then the group of singers would do the movement and make the shapes that a big chorus could surround, something like that.  But I was very excited by that work. Harold did a wonderful job, and it was done at the U.N. as well as [at the New York Society for] Ethical Culture.

FJO: You’ve written a lot of imminently practical choral pieces though. I’m quite fond of the series of pieces you wrote based on poems that you read in the subway.

TM: Oh, On the Underground.  I was going out to Richmond in London to meet some viol players, because I didn’t know much about viols and I had to learn about the frets and all this kind of thing. While I was going—in the Tube we call it—they have poetry up on the thing.  There are one or two in New York, but they’re too full of ads.  There’s very few, but in London there were a lot at one time.  I saw this poem, and I thought, “Oh, I want to set that.” So I quickly got started writing it down, and you know, then the Tube got there, and so what am I going to do? Then I found a book in the bookstore called On the Underground with all the poems that were up on the Tubes.  So I did three sets of Undergrounds.  And all the poems came from what actually you can see on the Underground, including one by Edwin Morgan about a seat with a small hole in it and under that there is a tank with piranha fish and the passengers get eaten. There are some absolutely hilarious and gory ones, as well as beautiful ones.

Thea Musgrave sitting across from FJO.

FJO:  Getting back to your idea of dramatizing an orchestra, or any instrumental ensemble for that matter, music obviously can convey emotions even when there are no words.

TM:  Of course.

FJO:  But usually it can only directly communicate what it is, as it were—the sounds of the instruments, the form.  Music communicates music.  You’ve played around with that idea in a dramatic way, too.  One aspect of many of your pieces is that they reference snippets of pre-existing music.  One particularly interesting example of this is Memento Vitae, something you wrote for the Beethoven bicentenary in 1970, which uses passages from the Sixth Symphony and also from the Opus 135 String Quartet.

TM:  Using quotes.

FJO:  I think in doing that you’re able to conjure up a sound world, provided the audience knows the pre-existing music.  That music become a signifier that has a dramatic meaning.  People will think, “Ah, Beethoven.” Whereas if you just had chords that were your own chords exclusively, they would just mean those chords.

TM:  It’s like in a book you read with quotes from other people.  It refers back to another time. Not that you can copy that other time—it is then and relived now—but you can quote and then comment. There’s usually a dramatic reason for doing it.  I’ve done that sometimes.  I think Charles Ives did that.

FJO:  Yes, quite famously. There’s a whole cottage industry among musicologists of trying to figure out what all these quotes are because some of the tunes he referenced didn’t survive.

TM:  You know, something very interesting, Rabbie Burns—Robert Burns as you say it, we say Rabbie Burns. There’s something you perhaps don’t know, and I didn’t know it either, then I found it by chance because I wanted to use some of his tunes when I did Songs for a Winter’s Evening.  I found out there were tunes that existed way back when, and he then wrote the words to preserve the tunes.  He wrote the words to existing tunes.  These tunes were often fiddle tunes, so they had a very wide range which was difficult for ordinary people like me to sing.  So in the 19th century, they kept the words and re-wrote some of the tunes—much more banal.  I went back to the original tunes for Songs for a Winter’s Evening, which are wonderful and sometimes with interesting scales—not just the normal diatonic scale, but the Lydian mode or something like that.  They’re fascinating.  However, I didn’t just set the tunes.  I had the tunes somewhere in the orchestra, sometimes in the voice, but sometimes not in the voice.  Sometimes they’re singing words, not to the tunes but to something else, but the tune is always lurking there.

FJO:  So this begs the question: how important is it that members of an audience hearing a piece of yours that references some pre-existing music know what that music is?

TM:  Well, any Scot would know some of these tunes or they would recognize that there was a tune there even if they didn’t already know it.

FJO:  But an American wouldn’t.

TM:  Ah, they might.  You all sing Auld Lang Syne.

FJO:  Yes.

TM:  Everybody does.

FJO:  Another example, which for me is one of the most effective ways that you used a pre-existing tune, is in your opera based on Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  You used “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen.” That tune becomes sort of an idée fixe throughout the entire opera.  You change the harmonies underneath it, or you use a hunk of it, and then another hunk again.  It becomes a musical commentary on the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge.  And it works so effectively I think because we all know this tune.

TM:  Well, if you don’t know the tune, perhaps you get to know it.

FJO:  You do hear it a lot.

“I decided it would be really nice to have kids involved. The parents will all come so you’ll sell out the house.”

TM:  The other thing was I decided it would be really nice to have kids involved.  My husband, Peter [Mark], who conducted the premiere in Virginia, said, “Wait a minute. That’s a lot of rehearsal time.”  So the next thing I said was, “Don’t worry. This is what I’m planning to do.  They don’t have to be in costume, because they don’t actually go on stage.  They just have to have a very simple something, maybe a head dress of some sort, one or two may carry lanterns.  And all they have to sing is ‘God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen.’”  They come on through the audience at the very end of the opera.  They just come slowly down the aisle, up to where the stage is, and that’s when the opera ends.  And I said, “You know what, the parents will all come so you’ll sell out the house.”  I’m not Scot for nothing.

FJO:  That’s practicality.  Now, in Mary, Queen of Scots, it sounds like you’re also using some Elizabethan music, but I can’t place what it is.

TM:  Well, you know what, at one point I needed a pavanne.  We were in Santa Barbara and I thought I can’t be bothered to get in the car—this was before the internet—and drive out to the university, find a pavanne, and drive back.  So I’ll just invent one.  It’s not a real one.  I mean it’s real, but it’s mine.  I saved myself a trip 20 miles out to the university and back, half an hour there and half an hour back.  I didn’t have an hour to spare.  That’s what happened.

FJO:  Here I was, scratching my head, thinking I should have known what it was since it seemed like it has some real dramatic meaning in the opera.

TM:  It’s just a pavanne.  Just for dancing.

FJO:  But it could have had some additional coded meaning, depending on whether it was an English pavanne or a Scottish pavanne, since the opera is all about events that ultimately led to their unification.

TM:  Nothing like that.  Just laziness.

FJO:  Oh well. Another interesting story I came across related to this opera is that after it premiered in Scotland there was talk of doing the American premiere at the Virginia Opera. This was shortly after your husband Peter became the company’s artistic director. You tried to talk the company out of doing it. This might be the first instance I know of any composer trying to discourage a performance.

TM:  I said to Peter, “You can’t do it.”  This is his company.  A contemporary opera? Norfolk’s not ready for that.  And Walter Chrysler, who made the Chrysler Building, was living in Norfolk with his wife.  She came to Edinburgh to see the premiere, which I was conducting.  She happened to be sitting next to Plácido [Domingo], which she rather liked.  When she came back, she said, “What’s good enough for Edinburgh is good enough for Norfolk.”  She told Walter that and so the president of the board, Edythe Harrison, decided they would do it.  I didn’t encourage it.  I was very nervous.  I wanted Peter not to have problems with bringing in his wife’s opera.  But in Richmond, they said, “Next time we should have a Richmond composer.  Not a Norfolk composer.”  That’s what they said.  You wouldn’t believe it.

FJO:  This unification story is obviously very significant in the history of Scotland, but now with the way the world is going, with various independence movements around the world, it seems more universal as well as very timely.

TM:  It was Mary Queen of Scots’ son who united the two kingdoms in 1603. And now Brexit happened! There was a vote for Scotland about a year before to separate.  I couldn’t vote, because I live here in America, but at that point, I would have stayed together.  Now I don’t know what I would do.

FJO:  Well, I guess why it’s so important is that in many ways King James’s mother was really a catalyst for a lot of these things.  She had her eye on the throne of England. She had been married to the king of France, which almost united France and Scotland. There was all this intrigue.

TM:  It’s a very complicated story.  Somebody else started the libretto, but I took over for a very simple reason.  She was a much better writer than I am, but I said to her, “For this aria, this poetry here is just too long dramatically.  It has to be cut.”  “Oh, those are my best words!”  I said, “I know, but it’s too long.” You need to have moments, but they can’t go on too long.  So, at that moment, I thought I’m going to do my own [libretto].  I’m not a great poet, but I make sure the right word with the right vowel sound is on the high note and so on, move it around so it matches the musical line that I want to do.  The words come first, but then you can alter them.  And when you write about history, you sort of have to be accurate.  You can cheat a little bit because you can’t do everything, but there came the moment when Mary lost her husband and she marries Bothwell. I said to her, “Mary, don’t marry Bothwell. Can’t you see it’s really stupid to do that?”  Well, she didn’t take my advice, and then look what happened!

FJO:  You can’t rewrite history.

TM:  You can’t go back.  You can’t change that now.

FJO:  Well, I suppose you could.  You could have gone in the direction of speculative fiction and alternate reality.

TM:  Whatever.  Yeah, what if such and such had happened?

FJO:  But that would have been a very different opera than the one you wrote, which is really an historical panorama. There are so many characters in it.  It’s called Mary, Queen of Scots, but she’s actually just one of many significant characters.

TM:  It’s really her and her half-brother [James Stuart]. He was a bastard and could not really be king.  Then there’s Morton and Ruthven, who were James’s henchmen, then Bothwell.  Those are the prime characters.  And then Darnley, her husband, and Riccio who’s a musician. But it’s really Mary and James’s struggle.

FJO:  To me it seems more an ensemble piece than it is about Mary, even though you named it after her and she does get that great high note at the end.

TM:  It revolves around her.  Her arrival at Leith in the fog.  Nobody’s there.  It’s her arrival and her departure.  At the end of the opera, her child is just a baby, and she has to get out fast.  A portcullis comes down upstage. Everybody’s left behind and she’s downstage in front of the portcullis.  At the last minute, she reaches back for her baby and she’s separated by this curtain.  She can’t go back.  So there she is in the hands of Elizabeth and the baby who eventually unites the two kingdoms is left in Scotland.

FJO:  That high note she sings towards the end sounds monstrously difficult.  Is that an example of something that is actually easier to do than it sounds, as opposed to something that really is very difficult?

TM: Well, if she hadn’t sung it, I would have changed the note.

FJO:  You would have changed it?

TM:  Yes, of course.  Sometimes I put in ossia.  You need the performers to be comfortable.  Most singers have a top C.  I mean sopranos, dramatic sopranos like Ashley [Putnam].  It’s not a problem.  If it had been a problem, then I’d have said sing an A instead.  What’s the deal?

FJO:  Wow, well the deal for me as a listener was that was the most exciting moment of the entire opera.

“Of course, you want the top C, but if it comes out as a screech, you don’t want it.”

TM:  Sure.  Of course, you want the top C, but if it comes out as a screech, you don’t want it.  You don’t want the singer to be embarrassed.  I’ll tell you a funny story, which is relevant.  When I was studying with Copland—my first visit to the States was to study with Aaron at Tanglewood—during our lessons he said, “When I wrote my Clarinet Concerto, I wrote in this top A way up for Benny Goodman.  And Benny Goodman said to me, ‘I can’t play that.’”  And Aaron said to him, “Well, I’ve heard you play that note.”  He said, “Ah, when I’m improvising. If I’m in the mood, I can play it. But sometimes I’m not in the mood and I don’t play it.”  Several years later, Peter and I were in Santa Barbara.  We happened to meet Benny Goodman.  So I sat him down, and I said, “I have to ask you if this true.”  So I told him the story, I said, “Is it true that Aaron said this and you said that?”  He said, “Of course.”

So it’s the same thing.  When you do a cadenza or something free, you have the freedom for a player— like Barry [Tuckwell] in the cadenza in the Horn Concerto can sometimes go way up high, if he’s in the mood that day.  But he doesn’t have to do it if he’s not in the mood.  So there are moments it’s appropriate.  There are moments it’s not appropriate. Of course I prefer the top C, but if Ashley felt she was not going to sing it beautifully, an A is fine.  Not as good, but it’s okay.  But she never did that; she was right there.  She was wonderful.  It was right at the beginning of her career.  She was in her 20s.

FJO:  I’m very glad it got preserved on a recording, even though now it’s out of print.

TM:  A recording’s different.  If the tape is bad, you can re-do a take.  But you know something, that Mary, Queen of Scots recording that you heard is one single take on one single night.  The musicians’ union allowed us one take—period.  We were not allowed to re-record anything. Actually, there are a couple of errors.  I think the chorus came in wrong once.  I don’t remember.  It doesn’t matter; they corrected it very quickly.

FJO:  Wow. It definitely feels very much like a live recording, which is actually very refreshing and somehow more exciting.

TM:  That’s right. When players know they’re recording, in a recording session, they play just a little bit more carefully.  Because they don’t want to make mistakes.  They don’t go for it.  This was a live performance with a big audience, and they went for it.  Yes, there are some errors, but that’s the excitement, which is wonderful.  That’s why you go to live performances—to hear the real thing.

FJO:  But now if people want to hear Mary, Queen of Scots, the only way is to track down that recording, which is now out of print.

TM:  Well, the trouble is it went from the Virginia Opera to Moss Records, and then it went to Novello. There was a fire and the master was destroyed.  I still have some copies of the LP, because those were the days of the LP, so you can make copies of copies. The CD is actually not quite as good as the LP; the LP is actually slightly better.

FJO:  I hope that the master has survived for A Christmas Carol.

TM:  Yes, that wasn’t in the fire. And there were several takes, so we could choose.

FJO:  That also needs to be reissued.

TM: Yeah.

A toy piano rests on top of files of Musgrave's music

FJO:  And you’ve written many other operas, but none of the other evening-length operas have been recorded commercially.  I wish there was a commercial recording of your Harriet Tubman opera Harriet, the Woman Called Moses. I’ve never heard a note of it, and I’d love to learn more about it.

TM:  Well, what happened was Gordon Davidson, a very famous person in Los Angeles, ran the whole theater world out there.  He was the director and was wonderful.  And he said, “Harriet is a young person who’s going into a new world.  I don’t want an established, wonderful black singer.  I want somebody who’s in the same kind of situation, starting out.”  So Peter auditioned a number of people and finally found Cynthia Heyman, this young singer who was singing in the Santa Fe Young Artists Program.  Very inexperienced, but a wonderful voice.  We flew out to Los Angeles so Gordon could meet her.

In the fall we did it.  She came and lived in Norfolk for several months and studied.  About four or five days before we opened, she slipped on stage and broke her leg.  So she had a crutch, and she went to Gordon and said, “If you don’t let me go on, I’ll sue you.”  So he said, “What are we going to do?” We had a cover, but Cynthia was determined.  So Gordon said, “Tell you what.  We will go to New York and we will find a dancer who will be a kind of alter ego.  She came in and they quickly built her a costume, but we didn’t find the right hat.  So we said, “Okay, they’ll share the hat.”

At the beginning of the second act where Harriet is being chased by slave capturers, Cynthia obviously couldn’t do that with her crutch.  So she stood stage left, gave her hat to this dancer, the dancer did all the action and escaped from the slave capturers.  Then as she went off stage, she handed the hat back to Cynthia.  You know, tears come to my eyes.  It was so moving.  One of the people in the audience came up after and said, “Cynthia really broke her leg?  I thought that her being on crutches was a metaphor for being a slave.”  Can you imagine?  That was a great moment.  Unintended, but a great moment.

FJO:  I wish I could have seen that.

TM:  I did a chamber orchestra version which is called The Story of Harriet Tubman where there’s spoken dialogue and sometimes, like Brecht used to do, the main character will talk about Harriet in the third person. When she sing, it’s “I.”  But when she’s speaking, it’s “she.”  The characters set up the scene by talking about it.  And sometimes members of the chorus say a few words.  The whole thing is in one act.  It’s much shorter.  It was done in Mobile, and now here in New York; Utopia Opera’s going to do that this coming season.

FJO:  Fantastic!

TM:  They want to do the big one, but I don’t know if they really can because it’s got chorus and orchestra and so on, but Will Remmers is extraordinary.  He’s determined to do it, so I don’t know which version they’ll do.  But either one, I’m absolutely thrilled. It’s either this season or the beginning of next season.

FJO:  And Simón Bolívar and Pontalba are two other operas of yours I’ve still yet to hear.

TM:  Thank you for trying. Bolívar is an incredible story. I got all the books and had his own words, and I can read it sort of.  But I don’t speak Spanish, so I wrote the libretto in English.  Then I thought it really should be in Spanish.  So I thought I have to have somebody.  So Gordon Davidson introduced me to Lillian Groag, a playwright and an actress who lives in L.A. She’s actually Argentinian, so she’s a native speaker.  The first time we met was in the late ‘80s, I think.  She came up to Santa Barbara where we were living, and we started working together.  It was very interesting.  At one point, I forget who says it, Bolívar or somebody else, “Decisions made today cast a long shadow.”  There are nice ahh vowels and good consonants.  But Lillian said, “I can’t do that in Spanish.”  So I said, “We’re not going to do a translation word for word.  Let’s make a version which sort of means the same thing, but not exactly word for word.”  So, she looked back at it and said, “Las decisiones de hoy te seguirán mañana.” Decisions of today follow you tomorrow.  “Mañana” for “cast a long shadow.”  The same kinds of vowels and consonants.  It works perfectly.  So that’s how we worked all through the opera.  Sometimes I’d alter the English, so that I could have the right word to match the Spanish word on the right top note.  But I never called it a translation.  I called it a version. I said I want it be wonderful Spanish.  It’s got to sound natural.  It was an absolutely fascinating collaboration.  I loved every moment of it.  And she had directed plays, so she was very experienced in that, but she’d never actually directed an opera.  So Peter brought her in the previous year to do something else, so she’d get her feet wet.  I think she did a Tosca. Then she directed Bolívar at the premiere.  That was wonderful. And then she became a great friend.

FJO:  It’s very nice to hear about this collaboration, especially after learning that you initially had a librettist with Mary, Queen of Scots, but then you went on to write your own libretto because it was too frustrating having that give and take.  You’ve actually written the librettos for all of your operas after that, except in this one instance.

TM:  Yes.  Before that, I had worked with other people.  But then I enjoyed doing it.  I’m not a great writer.  I’m an okay writer.  But for me, the words really had to go with the music. I cheated once in Mary, Queen of Scots.  I have James sing at the end of his big aria “Rule I must.”  So it’s “Ruuuule I Muuusssst.”  Good vowel at the end consonant cut off.  Well, I didn’t want to put “Rule I must” in the libretto.  The written words looked so phony, so I put “I must rule.”  But that’s not what’s in the score.  Don’t tell anybody.

FJO:  You just did.

TM:  Right.  I cheated.

FJO:  You’ve written three large pieces based on stories that are very much American or Pan-American themed: Harriet Tubman, Simón Bolívar, and the Baroness de Pontalba in New Orleans.

TM:  Nah’lins.  I had to learn how to say that.  It’s not New Orleans.  It’s Nah’lins.  One syllable.  I had to be trained by my friends there how to pronounce this word.

FJO:  The current mode of thinking is that we see everything, we create everything, we do everything through the prism of our own identity. I have very mixed feelings about that way of thinking, and it seems like you do, too. Whenever people have asked you if you think of yourself as a Scottish composer or an American composer, you’ve balked at that, which you’ve also done when people ask you about being a female composer. There’s your famous quote, “Yes I am a woman, and yes I am a composer, but rarely at the same time.”

TM:  Apparently I said that to my dear friend Claire Brook, whom I knew for many years. She was also a student of Boulanger and lived in New York with her husband, and worked for Norton as the head of music books.  Apparently I said that to her and we had a good laugh about it.  She quoted me somewhere, so it has become famous.  I feel very strongly that identity is where you are as a kid and where you have grown up.  Those memories and influences are there in your whole formation for life.  However, when you move somewhere different, or you meet other people, that influences that somewhat.  It changes you; you think in different ways.  Since I’ve come to America, I think in slightly different ways.  But nevertheless, the core is still where I grew up, who my parents were, how I lived as a kid.  With all of us, it has to be like that.  You can’t cheat on that.  You can grow, and you develop, and you can develop in different ways, and you have some choice in how you develop.

FJO:  So where does gender fit into that?  Or does it?

TM:  I think it’s nurture or nature.  I think women have to make up their minds what they want to do.  Women bear kids, but they don’t necessarily have to look after them.  In the 19th century in Britain in middle class families, they all had nannies.  They didn’t actually bring up the children themselves.  The children had to behave themselves and appeared at dinner time, and they had to sort of sit quietly and not say too much.  That doesn’t happen now.  Very poor families, that was different.  They didn’t have nannies, but they had to be on their own much more, because the parents probably had to go out and work.  So you make choices.  I think women have the choice, as men can have the choice, of what they do and how they do it.  Why not?

“Only when I came here, people said, ‘Oh, you’re a woman composer.’ I said, ‘Really? I never thought of that.'”

It’s very funny, when I was in Britain I never really thought about that question because I studied with a woman.  My first teacher in Edinburgh was Mary Grierson, who was Tovey’s assistant, and then Nadia in Paris.  And a lot of my friends were women. Priaulx Rainier and Lizzie Lutyens, whose dad was a famous architect who did New Delhi—Edwin Lutyens.  That’s why we had to go to India; I wanted to see Liz’s father’s work.  Excellent.  Of course I knew men composers, too, and we talked about composing.  We never really talked—I’m a woman, so I do something different.  No way.  We were composers.  There are also gay composers.  Where does that fit in?  I think it’s not a very interesting question.  Only when I came here, people said, “Oh, you’re a woman composer.”  I said, “Really?  I never thought of that.”

FJO:  Now one thing that you have to be thinking about and certainly your publishing company is making a big deal about it, is you’re turning 90 next year.

The covers for Novello's two Thea Musgrave at Ninety catalogs--one for instrumental works and one for operas.

The covers for Novello’s two Thea Musgrave at Ninety catalogs–one for her instrumental works and one for her operas.

TM:  Turning 90.  Yeah, that’s another question.  I mean, I think I’m going to go backwards now.  Each birthday, I’m going to take a year off.  But that happens to men too, okay.

FJO:  Yes.  We actually recently did a talk for NewMusicBox with another one-time Boulanger student, George Walker, who’s 95 and just completed his fifth symphony.

TM:  Oh wow.

FJO:  He’s still actively composing and so are you.  It’s wonderful, but it also begs a question. You talked about how your childhood experiences formed who you are. But is there something that you feel—having reached this stage, having composed for decades, and having all this experience—that you can do now as a composer that you couldn’t do before?  Has the passage of time changed you?

TM:  Yes, of course.  But you know something very extraordinary happened recently.  I’m not sure it quite answers your question, but I’ll tell you about it.  In the summer we go to escape the summer heat.  We go out to California. When I just got there in the middle of July, I got an email from somebody I didn’t recognize. I nearly didn’t open the email because there’s all this hacking and so on.  But then I saw it was copied to somebody who is a great friend of mine, so I opened it.  The letter said, “Are you interested in a commission?”  So, I answered, “It all depends.”

Then I got this long email from this person who’s obviously a therapist, because my friend is a therapist. She had been to a performance of one of my works about ten years ago, something to do with light, she said.  She liked it so much that she and her husband had then gone to London to hear it when it was repeated there a year or two later.  Well, she’s lost her husband and she’s dying of lung cancer.  She wants to leave something of beauty in the world, so she wanted to commission me to write something to do with light and something with an important cello part for her friend Josephine Knight.

So, I thought, “What can she be thinking about? Something of beauty in the world?” My thought then went to Journey Into Light, which is the name of the piece that she heard, and I suddenly thought, “What happens if I put a cello in there instead of a singer?”  And I started.  Then I thought, “I can’t do this. Nothing’s been arranged. I haven’t told my publisher.” But I kept saying if the cello did this, then I could do that.  I was writing the piece. So I emailed my publisher and told them what had happened.  “Do you know Josephine Knight?”  “Yes, of course.  She’s wonderful.  Go ahead.”  And I got going.  Well, I still haven’t had a contract.  I finished the piece in six weeks, which I never do, and we have a first performance arranged on February 3 with the BBC Philharmonic with Josephine Knight.  I have never written anything as fast as that, ever.  In part it’s because it’s sort of based on the other piece; some of the material is repeated. But it’s not the same piece.  It has become something different because I didn’t have the words, you know.  There’s no singer.  The words aren’t there.  So there are certain themes, like the Dies Irae. You were talking about themes.  Well, I’ve used that theme in quite a number of works.  It’s for death and for the anger.  God is angered, Dies Irae.  So here it is.  It was already in Journey Into Light.  I decided I’m not going to give it the same title, so I called it From Darkness Into the Light.  And what happens is that certain instruments represent the darkness. The darkness is not necessarily death.  It’s to do with any kind of difficult decision that you’re faced with and how you come to terms with it.  So the cellist is coming to terms and finally comes to terms with the horn player, who’s been leading the darkness.  They end in the light, and I found a wonderful way of doing this light.

Then, next coincidence, I come back here and there’s a pile of mail.  Mostly bullshit, you know, all the fundraising things that you get. And in the middle of it, I see this thing from my friend Nicholas Daniel, who has a festival in Leicester, England.  I open it up to see what Nick’s doing this year, and you know the title of the festival?  “From Darkness to Light.”  So, I write to him, “Darling, you’ve stolen my title.  What’s this?”  And he writes, “Bitch, you stole my title!”  When he was a kid, he had a beautiful soprano voice.  He sang in Salisbury Cathedral at Easter time.  All the lights of the cathedral would be turned off, and there would be one person with a single candle going up in a procession.  And he said, “That was what illuminated my childhood.”  So that’s why he called it that.  Talk about coincidence! I mean, nobody knew about this.  This is a brand new work.  I hadn’t told him about it or anything.  So, there we are.  I don’t think I could have done that earlier.

“I believe in going with crazy ideas and not just rubbing them off the plate right away.”

Also I think sometimes, like when I had this dream I told you about of the player rebelling, sometimes you have to follow your crazy ideas and just go with it to see what happens.  I used to say to my students that we all have this critic sitting on our shoulder who’s very fierce and rather nasty.  When you’re beginning a work, you take this person—him, it’s always a he—you take him to the door and you say bye-bye.  I don’t want to see you just now.  So when you have an idea, you say, “Well, let’s just put it there. Maybe if I did that, then that would happen.  And on the other hand, if I did this then that could happen.” You don’t say that’s a stupid idea right off.  You leave it, and you get all these ideas and put them down to be looked at.  And eventually you bring him back in and say, “Now help me to evaluate what I’ve got here.”

Another thing Boulanger always said to me—you didn’t write on computers in those days; you wrote with pencil and paper, or pen and paper—she said don’t ever erase anything, because sometimes you go back to the very earliest idea, and there’s the nugget of something that’s absolutely essential to the thing.  You don’t say that’s a bad idea.  You put it there and something will come out of it.  So I believe in going with crazy ideas and not just rubbing them off the plate right away.

FJO:  That’s fantastic.

FJO facing Peter Mark and Thea Musgrave who are seated next to each other on a couch.

After we finished recording our conversation, Thea’s husband Peter Mark joined her on their couch and we continued chatting more informally.

Experiencing Influences

It’s difficult to say specifically how living in Thailand has influenced my own music, but I have noticed some significant changes.   I think learning the language has significantly challenged my mind to connect with what I hear in new ways, and in doing so I constantly figure out how to make sounds that communicate and speak clearly.  Beyond the musical content of a moment, this preference for clarity—and experiencing clarity as a necessity—is something that tailored and tempered my music.  Teaching has helped me re-visit some orchestral classics that I’ve now fallen in love with all over again.  Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Haydn, and Beethoven have really piqued my musical interest lately.  Having to re-examine the content of their pieces and explain, in detail, why they are special and meaningful within the repertoire has illuminated a deeper appreciation for the beauty of the ideas.  Since moving here, I’ve even composed two orchestral pieces, both of which have been performed by the local orchestra.

Even though I’m more musically active than I have ever been, I feel more relaxed.

Even though I’m more musically active than I have ever been, I feel more relaxed.  Living in Thailand offers me a simpler way of life than I had in America, and this simplicity has helped my composing and imagination grow into the spaces that used to be exhausted keeping up with a fast-paced life.  The day moves much more slowly and, for many reasons, everything just takes more time to do here.  This unrushed pace is something that has helped me relax and feel time.  Through this relaxation, I have become much more productive.  Happiness is an important cultural concept in Thailand that accompanies ideas about the importance of relaxation for personal and community health.  Tasks that might be considered simple and quick back home require more intricate planning here and are difficult to complete the same way.  So instead of prioritizing a large number of things to accomplish each week, I am more focused on doing fewer tasks and planning ahead more thoroughly.  Being freely able to enjoy and explore what is around me has led my creativity forward very naturally into longer-lasting ideas that seek to continue the experience of that joy.  From this, I’ve also become more interested in trying to create more positive musical experiences and messages than I had thought of before.

Another aspect that has influenced my music is the intensity and complexity of the city. This influenced how I consider harmony and sound.  A palette of disparate sensations—particularly of sounds and colors—that might be felt as a contrast became harmonious in Thailand.  Different sensations collide with each other constantly and the city cannot be described without the idea of interplay and disparate but harmonious juxtapositions: ancient and modern architecture; mismatched sights and smells; rivers, roads, and languages interact and jumble together into an intense blend of sensations that is ever-changing.  In Thai food, there are five main flavors. These flavors are balanced in a dish through their careful interplay with each other and can be made to complement each other in a streamlined way or can be made to have a finished balance by not blending together at all.  I really like this idea.

People eating at tables outside on a street in Bangkok.

Over the course of my time here, several collaborations, with artists back in the United States and elsewhere, have been very meaningful because they built common ground between across great distances.  I make an effort to stay connected and expand the relationships I have while I also build new ones.  Working with visual artists and musicians has opened doors to new performance spaces, particularly when living so far away.  It’s not easy or convenient to connect, but it is not at all insurmountable.  The sensibilities bringing these projects together are often a great place for collaborations to start.  Often, new creative territory becomes real through exploring the dynamics of managing this, and the juxtaposition of the two environments creates a helpful alternative space already rich with an interesting mix of concepts.  Some of my most meaningful experiences here are days when I meet a new person during travel and we link up to better explore the city by combining our skills and what information we know. International collaborations are very much like this, and some of my favorite collaborative projects over the past years have been directly about how to comprehend and express the dynamics of this big space between creative partners.

A recent work for electronic playback and video is one such project.  Created in collaboration with Cynthia Pachikara, Vertical Horizon(tal), directly addresses different experiences of space.  Layers of video images, each representing a different axis (vertical, horizontal) are projected independently onto one picture plane where the images are stacked and their light and colors are combined together.  As the viewer moves through the combined projections they will naturally block the light from one of the three layers of projected images and create a shadow impression of their body on the screen. The other layers of images embedded then begin to appear inside this shadow.  The music is a combination of sounds that were built to be in a direct relationship with the structure of the images—airplane control tower recordings, instrumental sounds, noises from various transportation vehicles, birds, stable objects, and shimmering sounds each contribute towards the representation of a physical location that is difficult to identify because it is often at odds with other layers of images and sound that help reveal location.  The key element is the body of the viewer (as a screen and receiver) moving through and changing the image.

Having been away so long, new music in contemporary concerts is very fresh to my ear.

Teaching and connecting with both the local community and the visiting international artist scene has helped open my mind towards different ways of thinking about music and various details about the instrumental and orchestral repertoire (and music theory) that I had not been exposed to before.  Connecting these ideas together in composing and teaching has influenced my music and the way I think about communicating the musical content of the repertoire.  This has also helped me understand more about how I can help to continue to facilitate opportunities for contemporary performances.  Throughout this journey, staying in contact with America has been very important to me.  I realize many of my ideas about music are strongly connected to American culture and pedagogy.  Each time I come back to the United States, I love to attend concerts and conferences to hear new music and cull more resources.  As I travel back and forth, I rediscover sounds that are distinct to the American musical landscape.  Having been away so long, new music in contemporary concerts is very fresh to my ear.  It’s very invigorating to reencounter my favorite contemporary composers in live performances of their music.

When I reflect back on American music and think about the sounds I heard when I was growing up, I think about rhythm.  The strong surging pulse with clear beats and driving rhythms is something I now see in a new light.  When I was composing one of my orchestra pieces, I tried to align with this feature of American music more freely than I had before.

A monk walking down a street in Bangkok.

Living in a predominantly Buddhist culture has affected my approach to working with other musicians.  One idea of Buddhism is becoming aware of the inner-connections of everyday moments and the gratitude that comes from taking a moment to consider connections to each other.  For example, the desk I’m sitting at is something that has been made by someone.  Someone has given his or her time to do this and thinking about that cultivates gratitude. When I think about how many people have contributed in some way to making what is around me, I really appreciate the act and the object more fully.  As a result, I’ve become more aware of how this idea can appear in music.   Traditionally, it’s historically normal to find examples of composers who have been represented as isolated in their own world, but I find the reality of composing is much different.  The joy of sharing music with people influences the creative experience, too. Being receptive to ideas, absorbing them and acknowledging the community effort that makes contemporary music happen—instead of feeling like the victim of a lonely curse—can be transformative.  Moving away from the uniqueness of individuality and isolation towards becoming part of a larger community is something that has created many access points into contemporary music for both others and myself.  I like helping to make musical events happen so that they can be enjoyed – increasing the health of the participants and community with inclusive opportunities and outlooks.  These access points into music, both inside and outside of the music community, are necessary for musicians to be able to be heard and appreciated, and for the wide variety of perspectives within the field to be nurtured and maintained.

Moving away from individuality and isolation has created many access points into contemporary music for both others and myself.

In conclusion, the influences of moving into a new country with a completely different culture, working as the chair of composition and theory, taking my students and traveling to different countries as a guest of other universities and musical events, the sound of the language and learning to speak it properly, sharing music with guests from abroad and the impact of understanding other histories has enriched me as a person and added depth to my way of writing music.  My outlook has grown so much from embracing these experiences and I wish to share them and continue along this path of exploration and experiences.

An aerial view of Bangkok showing skyscrapers on both sides of a river.

Music at the Root of Language

Because I am in a different culture, I am learning just as much information as I am teaching. I chair the department at Mahidol University’s College of Music in Bangkok where I teach a wide variety of lecture courses—form and analysis, orchestration, 20th century music, electronic music, music theory—as well as private lessons in composition. As a teacher, I want to help people make new music. In Thailand, teachers are very highly respected by students and the relationships between students and teachers are generally more formal than in the United States. All of the courses are taught in English, but coming from an area with a different education system required some careful thought on my part about what information may be needed and how best to communicate it.

In lecture courses, the instructor is the main path to internalizing information and learning more about resources. I typically found that my resources are coming from, and represent, a specific perspective about music—one that is very important and from the United States. As a teacher, I would wonder how (even if) I could balance these perspectives, or tailor them, within the class in order to better accommodate growth within this specific environment. Generally, there is a pattern of favoring Romantic music as well as other music—like rock and jazz—that are openly communicative in content but also have a comfortable and lush sound world. One result from encountering this has been to move closer towards the center of the canon and to try to think about where that might be. If I were teaching in the States, it would be reasonable to rely on that knowledge base and continue to move away from the center. But in this environment, articulating and re-articulating the pathways taken by Western musicians helps create continuity around—and from—a more middle area. I’m able to speak to experiences and the ideas and techniques often found in this music much more clearly than I can speak about other kinds of music.

What has informed my music teaching here the most has been the very gradual process of learning to speak Thai and the cultural awareness that has resulted from that. Beyond this learning process, knowing more about the culture of my students has also helped me become a better teacher. As I mentioned in an earlier post, living outside your home country can result in many challenges. When comprehension is not automatic, everything that needs to be understood is something that has to be assessed as such and then re-acquired. Being able to speak in daily life was important to me from the beginning, so I spent the first two years choosing and learning to say phrases correctly. With each new word or phrase, new doors opened and points of conversational access increased.

Learning the Thai Language

Over the course of the first year, the learning curve for new skills was quite steep. During the second year, I focused on developing a larger vocabulary to increase access to details. Although all courses are taught in English at the university, Thai is more regularly spoken in my life outside the college. The Thai language has had a strong impact on me. Having to learn to speak a different language has helped me re-consider which words to use and has made listening a high priority.

When the understanding of speech is not automatic, one has to rely heavily on the ear to repeat sounds, words, etc., exactly as they are heard. In many ways, I found this process to be very musical, and I have approached the language from a musical point of view. Observing and understanding words helps facilitate communication: What types of words are being used? What words shift to new speaker? What is the tone of the conversation? In the Thai language, words have a very beautiful sound because of the high content of shaped vowels. Words that are not smooth would not be used regularly and the direct words “I” and “you” are often avoided in conversational speaking. The side effect of learning what I do know of the Thai language has also helped me a great deal to be able to develop cultural navigation skills.

Thai is very melodic. It is a tonal language with five tones where the shapes of the tones (mid, low, falling, high, and rising) occur on the vowel sounds, making audible melodies. These five tones are just as important to the meaning and expression of the word as any vowel or consonant. In English, changes in a tone and the sound of a word are used for expression, but in Thai, different tones are different words. Mistakes in pronunciation result in confusion and unintended, but hilariously silly, meanings. Over time, I discovered that as a native English speaker, my speech was very sonically expressive; it was very full of sounds not related to the word. I would emphasize certain words to change their meaning within the context of a sentence. I also discovered that my speech was riddled with and by idioms; the amount of these idioms hidden throughout concepts was genuinely surprising. In learning to speak Thai, I had to be very mindful not to let the meaning of what I was saying result in expressions of sound that could unintentionally distort the tones of my speech and the meaning of my words.

There was a linguistic turning point after about two and half years here. I was in a taxi and had often used the phrase “mai khao jai” or “I don’t understand” to indicate I had reached a vocabulary limit in the conversation and would be unable to continue. (Thinking that “I don’t understand” implied “I don’t understand what you are saying.”) At the time, it was frustrating because it wasn’t true. I comprehended the questions, but just did not have the vocabulary to respond. Because of this taxi ride, I chose to learn the phrase “I understand but I don’t know.” And “I understand but I don’t know how to speak” (thinking that these phrases might clarify a vocabulary limit not a mental limit). Surprisingly, when I began using this phrase instead, people understood I had reached a vocabulary limit and would teach me by continuing to speak or by beginning to explain more words that surrounded the concept of the word where I had gotten lost.

Learning a new word completely changes what you have access to.

One of the things that becomes very clear as new words and skills are learned is the impact new skills can make. Learning a new word completely changes what you have access to. When new ideas are applied, things can really open up. I have learned most of my Thai from the people around me and, in return, teach English words. This experience is very common. I practice using a new word in a sentence and teach the English version of that same word.

Finding Ways to Adapt the English Language

Not all cultural concepts found in English translate outside of English well. Through teaching, particularly in private lessons, I have realized that as a native speaker my speech contains many idioms unique to English that affect the ease of comprehension. There are so many! “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is one of my favorite creative examples of this. I also realized that, as a native speaker, I emphasize certain words to change their meaning within the context of a sentence, resulting in a distorted idea for the listener. Sarcasm, although very common for native speakers, is not effective for transferring information. Spoken humor often experiences a similar fate. So when I teach, in response to becoming aware of these idiosyncrasies of English combined with the melodic, fluid nature of the Thai language, I try to keep an even tone of voice. It sounds simple, but many good things have come from it.

Sarcasm is not effective for transferring information.

English’s strong skeletal grammar tends to hold intent well through many different pronunciations. (If a word is spoken incorrectly, its meaning is often still understood.) Overall English also has a high capacity for precision with various amounts of decorative words. English is very clear. Although English is also a difficult language, especially when written, the precision and clarity of grammar beyond pronunciation is one of the reasons it is relied upon as a common go-to language between multiple speakers. However, it is also common that the clarity of the English language can result in essential losses of sentiment and meaning of expressions from other languages. In written English, letters are used to make words that explain ideas in a row. But in some languages, letters and words have symbols in every direction, much like music. (The poet E.E. Cummings is a great example of someone using English in this way.) This feature makes space for symbols and letters to effect each other in a more nonlinear way.

Student musicians rehearsing at Mahidol University’s College of Music

The Language of Music

My approach to teaching now is more multi-lingual with music at the root. Clarity has become a primary tool for doing this and remaining focused on a practical approach built for clear responses to the ideas and materials found in the class are central to understanding the effectiveness of that clarity. I often focus on cultivating a firm grasp of the fundamental ideas that concern the vocabularies of the music at hand. In both music and language, listening for, seeing, and finding patterns is critical. Some patterns are easier to hear and some are easier to see.

In both music and language, listening for, seeing, and finding patterns is critical.

Although abstract concepts found in music can be difficult to articulate verbally, they can be made more accessible by examples where the abstraction is seen in a clear way—like in a diagram, flow chart, card series, or score. Many times, I will talk about how abstractions are easy to experience by looking through the lens of a camera. When doing this, it’s clear to see many similarities that relate to musical thinking. I can move through the depth of an image by focusing on something very close, something found in the middle, or something that is very far away. I can blur everything, or blur just a little bit. I can put an image in full focus or focus on just a small point. I can let all, or some, of the light into the image and change the colors. In cameras, I can capture one image at a time, but I can choose to combine many images into one image later. Once I capture an image, it lives in the camera even though I leave the place where I took the picture. One picture can be made and remade many times (and so on).

The students here ask such wonderful questions about composition, and I like to give as much information as possible. Beyond focusing on the music created for the week, in response to questions, I have often found that answers are sometimes best articulated through the process of solving a different problem that can help explain and inform the how, why, and what. Notation is great example of this. Notation exercises have been very useful additions to composition lessons. Practicing a wide variety of essential techniques (away from the piece they are composing and not a theory assignment) can inform future choices that will require detail and strengthen mental flexibility.

Beyond practical concerns, another aspect of teaching composition is how to constructively approach creativity. It can be difficult to make space for creative ideas and experiences. This is something I change around from semester to semester, but the general idea is to exit your routine on purpose, “shock the system” and document the experience somehow. A straightforward example of creativity practice is taking a different mode of transportation to the places you need to be for one week. If you drive a car normally, take a bike or a bus or ride with a friend instead. Take photos of what you see during the experience, take a video, or write words while it’s happening. See what happens. A change of pace can also help keep the mind more alert and taking a different path will result in different experiences. There may or may not be clear outcomes here, such as a completed pieces of music, but healthy creativity is a long-term part of being a composer. In returning to the music at hand during the week, I will often recommend a series of reasonable choices for students to consider until they find a good fit.

I teach music and learn about Thailand, and the students teach Thailand and learn about the music.

Being able to experience the clear side effects of learning so many new skills myself—from language to locations—has really encouraged me to develop my teaching towards a focus on responsive results, practice, and expanding chances for experience. I became much more aware of the pace and paths of learning because the learning process requires observations, considerations, implementation, observation of efficacy, and then adjustments. This is an experience my students and I both share even though the topics are different. I teach music and learn about Thailand, and the students teach Thailand and learn about the music.

Making Music in Thailand

In Thailand, it is a very exciting time to be a composer because there is a lot of space for development.  There have been several influential composers here, but contemporary music is still a relatively new idea. For many composers in the younger generation, it is a new career path.  Individual arts entrepreneurship is somewhat more difficult in an environment that so highly values the community.  But there are many avenues for music making here, ranging from organized local contemporary music initiatives to interacting with visiting musicians as well as with practitioners of traditional Thai music—a very rich music scene that is unique to this country.

In Thailand, contemporary music is still a relatively new idea.

Our largest contemporary music event of the year is the Thailand International Composition Festival (TICF).  This festival has been in place for nearly ten years and is the highlight of the season for composers.  Guests have included John Corigliano, Aaron Jay Kernis, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Bright Sheng, Augusta Read Thomas, Mathew Rosenblum, Ken Ueno, Federico Garcia-de Castro, Paul Dooley, and many others.  Each year, the energy of the field is refreshed, reinvigorated, and energized from these visits.  During this week-long event, curious composers, musicians, and students are able to attend lectures as well as a concert series featuring music by the guests performed by both local musicians and visiting chamber groups. Contemporary composers and performers from Thailand are also featured here throughout the week.

Mark Adamo, John Corigliano, Aaron Jay Kernis, Judy Bozone, and others on stage in front of the musicians performing at the 2016 Thailand International Music Festival

Some prominent visiting composers and a few local ones pose for a group photo at last year’s Thailand International Music Festival

Alongside these performance opportunities, a competition for young composers also takes place. As time allows, group lessons are scheduled at the college for both local students and student exchange composers as well as for the competition finalists.  During this time, the young composers are able to learn a great deal from observing and getting to know the visitors and interacting with the faculty at the school.  For the students, the opportunity to learn from these composers is immeasurable.

Much of the music developed for this festival has continued to travel to places outside of Thailand.  Local groups, as well as visiting performers and ensembles, will often peruse the music for future programs that are still in the development stages and often export the music on an international tour. I’ve personally had pieces that had been part of TICF continue on to other conferences in Asia, America, and Europe.

Another opportunity for composers in Thailand is the Young Thai Artist Award, an annual prize for which only Thai citizens are eligible.  This award recognizes young artists in the fields of composition, painting, sculpture, film, literature, and photography.  After the competition portion, the winners of each area of concentration are sent, along with the adjudicators, to a European city known for its contributions to the arts.  Each year, a new theme is chosen to showcase a different creative goal for the project.  Last year, we explored Austria and the paintings of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.  As the organizer for musical composition, I was able to give a lecture to the group about the music of Mozart while we were touring his childhood home (which was really fun).  Each year, a new theme is chosen to showcase a different creative goal for the project.

A group photo of the winners of the 2016 Young Thai Artist Award

In Austria with the winners of the 2016 Young Thai Artist Award

Traveling musicians are very open to participating in local activities.

But Thai composers don’t need to travel abroad to be able to interact with a wide range of international musicians.  Many traveling musicians choose to stop and perform in Bangkok along their way to other countries and often collaborate with local groups here. One of my favorite aspects of this high influx of performances has been being exposed to pieces that are not often performed at home, like the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra and his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra which Martin Jaggi, a cellist and composer from Zurich, performed with the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra.  Our musical activities at Mahidol University’s College of Music, where I teach, are frequently built around these guests. For example, Martin was invited to give a master class demonstrating performing techniques. I additionally asked my students to compose solo cello pieces and he generously read through them.  There are so many instances of this generosity from visiting performers and conductors who make efforts to reach out to composers about different aspects of craft.  Generally, traveling musicians are very open to participating in local activities that allow for much more purposeful outreach, concertizing, and teaching. As visitors come and go, there are a great deal of these opportunities.

But there are also opportunities to work with another group of musicians who perform a repertoire that has survived for centuries—the practitioners of Thai traditional music. The chance to hear this music is a daily event here. Each morning and evening, practice sessions line the boardwalk of the canal near the college. I first became involved with traditional music just through my own curiosity as a listener. I was genuinely in awe of the sounds of the instruments I was hearing and the skill level of the young performers. I then started taking lessons myself. I have since been asked to adjudicate a Thai music competition.

The chance to hear Thai traditional music is a daily event here.

Thai traditional music is often played to celebrate an occasion or highlight a significant event. Performances are coded, both sonically and structurally, with layers of meaning. Generally, Thai performances typically feature melodies that are well known to the audience but, as in jazz and folk, there are expressive changes to those melodies. The way the melody is treated will highlight the skill of the performer.  Changes occur very gradually but there isn’t a strict approach to repetition or cycles beyond maintaining melodic or harmonic phrases.  Through a steady tempo, climaxes are often very rhythmic and the music can be quite subtle.  There are standard formal ensembles for different occasions, but performances on ranad (a wooden xylophone), kong wong yai (a set of 16 gongs on a circular rack), khim (a hammered dulcimer with two bridges), and saw ou (a mellow toned string instrument made from coconut shell and cowhide) are very common.  Thai music is traditionally taught by rote, without the use of music notation, so musicians will spend many hours working to remember the performance techniques given from their teacher.  Nowadays, however, many traditional musicians are college educated and have learned to read musical scores in their music theory courses.

An outdoor rehearsal session of Thai traditional music.

An outdoor rehearsal session of Thai traditional music.

As part of my composition studio, I encourage my students to utilize these Thai traditional instruments and musicians in a contemporary music setting at least once a year.  With the influx of Western instruments, I am also interested in helping students stay connected to the music that is already here and that continues to be played here.  By doing this, we have been able to establish projects that link Thai traditional music, composition, and chamber music into annual concerts (and occasionally international performances).

But composing for this group of instruments does require some special considerations.  They generally take more time and require being immersed into a person to person composing process. There is a formality in learning how to write for and play in these ensembles that is essential to preserving the spirit of the music.  Much of the music remains in the air, hands, and ears until performance dates come closer (which is major aspect of rote technique). Often what gets written on the page is merely a mnemonic for the musician rather than a completely detailed part.  Through working together, we are able to understand what notations are useful, mostly through trial and error.

When combining Thai traditional and Western instruments together in an ensemble, generally string ensembles have been the most suitable for these collaborative projects (for reasons of volume and tuning).  The differences in tuning between the traditional instruments and Western instruments can create fun harmonies for students to work with.  Some composers have also chosen to include Thai shadow puppets or Nang Yai (another traditional art form) into their work.

All in all, the opportunities for composition here are very fruitful. The wide variety of ensembles and guest musicians bring new ways of thinking that are very refreshing. Each of these experiences shines light on contemporary music for the future and the many ways it can develop.

Bozone and a traditional Thai instrumentalists sitting in front of a group of traditional Thai instruments.

Follow the Music

When the phone rang four years ago, I was asked if I would be interested in moving to Bangkok, Thailand to teach music theory and composition.  I said yes. It was one of those moments in life when one embraces the possibilities, even without knowing what will happen.  I can admit that, due to my patchy-at-best understanding of global geography, it was not too long after the phone call ended that I decided to look again, this time more carefully, at my map of the world to find out where exactly I was going before a celebratory trip to the bookstore.  Even though I did not know precisely where I was going, I had to honor the important rule of my life: follow the music.

Following the music had been the story of my life up to that point. Years before the phone rang, in the senior year of my undergraduate studies, this rule helped guide me through a decision to move my concentration away from voice (an area that had previously defined my musicianship) towards composition. While I was transitioning towards becoming a composer, it was tremendously unclear what would happen. I had invested so much time and attention into singing that composition really came to me as a surprise. Thankfully, I had a very supportive group of teachers in both voice and composition who encouraged and inspired the process.  Although it was difficult at the time, this change towards making music in a new-to-me way led to being able to learn more. In order to follow the music, I have moved more times than I can count—along a general path from my home in Texas through Michigan and then on to Bangkok. Through so many changes, music has always been what has held it all together.

Ironically, the steadiness and predictability I sought became available to me only through a great dislocation.

Before the phone call, I had been considering two things. One was the potential to enrich my composing by pursuing new experiences, and the other was my desire to teach and interact with musicians.  After finishing my degrees, I had been teaching private lessons and working a day job while I composed in my free time, but I found that much of my time was actually being used in the drives commuting back and forth from one area to another.  I enjoyed having writing time and teaching students, but did find the day job difficult.  The chance to work abroad would allow me to consolidate my work into one place. I liked the steadiness of the idea. I did not know at that point how long I would be interested in living there or how long I would even be able to last overseas, but a steady life was something I wanted for myself. Ironically, the steadiness and predictability I sought became available to me only through a great dislocation. As I packed my bags, I did feel scared to be leaving but was more excited about the possibilities that might come as a result.

A twilight view of Mahidol University.

With a time zone thirteen hours ahead of my home, the sprawling capital city of Thailand is strategically located on what, geographically and culturally, seems to be the other side of the Earth! Bangkok is an intense collage of colors, sights, and sounds. Downtown the whole city buzzes, temples glitter with mirrored tiles (even in the moonlight!), taxis and tuk-tuks line the street beside outdoor markets and cranes loom overhead. Food stalls are tightly packed with families and friends enjoying fresh meals. Boats chug and swoop along the Chao Praya River, the city’s oldest expressway. I had travelled quite frequently prior to moving to Thailand but had never stayed anywhere internationally longer than a week or two. Life as an expatriate is a completely different experience than just passing through as a tourist. Unlike a temporary visit, successfully living abroad requires a gradual and pragmatic approach towards adaptation. By investing my time and musicianship here, Bangkok has become my home.

Nevertheless, navigating this new terrain demanded focus and dedication. When I arrived, I did not even know how to greet people properly. During the course of my daily walks those first days, I waved and smiled back at every smile I received, something that I only know now was completely inappropriate. (My well-intended waves looked alarming. The smile was okay, though.) In the first weeks, the priorities were very basic: find a place to live, get a telephone, get a handle on what is happening with Wi-Fi, successfully get a taxi, try to go somewhere specific on purpose, see what happens. In the beginning, it took a great deal of patience to observe what needed to be learned and to follow through. Each day required a high level of attention and intention. Research done beforehand had warned of the possibilities of initially experiencing culture shock; this can happen when days (weeks and months) go by without the personal ability to complete a task with accuracy. I did not want this to happen to me.

Soon enough I met with other international colleagues at the College of Music at Mahidol University (where I would soon begin working) and listened carefully to a much-needed flood of instructions regarding the skills I would need to learn. The learning curve was quite steep at first.  When you are moving to a new country, it can be difficult to anticipate some of the side effects that can result from needing to re-learn how to do what in the past have been simple tasks. That said, gradually moving towards a more complete set of geographic and cultural navigation skills is very important. This process has been very revealing for me and is one of my favorite aspects of deciding to come here—I’m so glad I did. The joy that living here brings is something I had never experienced before either. Even though I was quick to pick up the hand technique for a proper wai greeting that normally accompanies a verbal hello, over these past years I’ve still been continuing to develop my wai, making sure to be mindful that my elbows don’t stick out so much.

A frieze of musician playing a baritone saxophone outside the Mahidol University music department.

My activities here are centered around music-making—something which has always felt like home to me.  As chair of the composition and theory department I interact with the creative and administrative aspects of musical teaching and development. My goal here is to make more space for composition and creativity for the next generation to enjoy. I teach a studio of composers as well as a wide variety of lecture courses ranging from music theory, orchestration, form and analysis, electronic music, and 20th century literature, as well as help organize new music events for young composers such as the Young Thai Artist Award and the Thailand International Composition Festival. Most of my free time is spent exploring Bangkok and the surrounding areas.  When I am not composing or teaching, I particularly enjoy walking through the city while I practice using my language skills to find local recommendations.  My favorite activities are touring the many street markets, taking photos, relaxing with a Thai massage and visiting the Buddhist temples in and around the area.

Following the music took me far away, but has also guided me towards the music I was called to discover.

Following the music took me far away, but has also guided me towards the music I was called to discover.  Taking a path open to possibility can lead to enriched depths of craftsmanship, creativity, comprehension, performance, and perspective in deeply meaningful ways. As I will discuss in later posts, the impact of living in the collage of sensations Bangkok has to offer has gradually come to influence my music. Similarly, my own process of learning and the growing awareness of how to cultivate development would come to inform how I approach teaching and learning. In the next article in this series, I will talk more about the variety of options available for musicians abroad, Thai traditional music, and the appetite for contemporary music within the region.


Judy Bozone

Judy Bozone’s music is as eclectic and vivid as the composer herself. She is currently chair of the composition and theory department at Mahidol University’s College of Music and enjoys following her love of music while reaching out for new experiences.

My Musical Life in the United States

It has been exactly ten years since I came back to Hong Kong from the United States, now that I think about it, and the three and a half years I spent there were truly life-changing.

It was in 2003 when I was 18 and first had the ambition to be a composer; this idea totally came from nowhere. I remember it was a normal school day, and during the break I bumped into a schoolmate (who is now a very fine pianist). I told him enthusiastically, “I want to be a composer.” But for an ordinary school kid who had very narrow training in music (singing in choir and playing the violin for almost ten years), the journey to becoming a composer was bumpy.

The three and a half years I spent in the United States were truly life-changing.

Back then I was what we call in Hong Kong a “science” student, taking physics, mathematics, and computer science at school. The main reason why I chose the sciences was because I was told that the better students always study science, but I struggled. Rather than going to lessons, I would instead go to the soccer field, computer room (for gaming), music room, and sometimes to karaoke during school time. I was glad that my high school teachers “allowed” me to do so. Many years after graduation they told me that they knew I’d be better off involved in the arts, so they let me spend my time how I wanted, in order not to waste more time.

An aerial view of Hong Kong at mid-day from Victoria Peak showing a group extremely tall skyscrapers, Photo courtesy of the Information Services Department of HKSARG

Near the end of form 6 (equivalent to grade 12 in the US system), most of my classmates had already planned where and what to study after graduation, and one day a friend of mine told me that he was going to study in the United States, starting from community college. Day after day he kept telling me stories about the “American dream,” and I thought my dream of being a composer could possibly come true. I went home and told my parents about my decision to study abroad—after a few fights with them, I flew to the United States on December 1, 2013, and enrolled in De Anza College, a community college in Cupertino, California.

I was very excited to begin my college life, because I had the chance to select the courses that I was interested in. During my one and a half years of study at De Anza, I had taken almost all the music courses offered. It was the first time in my life I had such an extensive education in music, and more importantly, with very welcoming lecturers. I remember it was Robert Farrington who taught me about jazz, Ronald Dunn taught world music, and Dan Mitchell was my music appreciation instructor. My fundamental knowledge in music theory came from Dr. Paul Setziol, who was crucial in the earliest stage of my composition career. I learned to write counterpoint and four-part harmony, plus I also did a few composition exercises under his guidance. He was kind to offer additional help outside the classroom, and he gave me suggestions on university selections when I was ready to transfer.

Aside from Dr. Setziol, I was glad to meet Loren Tayerle, the conductor of the De Anza Symphony. Not only did he place me in the concertmaster position for a year, he also loaned me his own violin. In the few semesters that I played in the orchestra, I had the chance to premiere new works, which was a brand new experience for me. A similar thing happened with the Vintage Singers, a chamber choir in De Anza, in which the conductor Roger Letson often programmed an interesting mix of old and new works—from Purcell to Lothar Bandermann, a California South Bay-based composer.

Lothar’s wife, Billie Bandermann, was my vocal teacher at De Anza. When I first came to the United States, I originally planned to have my major instrument be violin, but it was Billie who persuaded me to become a tenor. She was very kind to offer me free vocal lessons at her place while I was preparing materials for my transfer application. Sometimes she would even prepare breakfast for me when she found me very hungry during a lesson, and helped me in my audition tape recording.

After a careful consideration of the offers I had, I transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, in 2005 with the Regent and Chancellor’s Scholarship. Before I left De Anza, Dr. Setziol reminded me that the environment and pace in Berkeley would be much quicker than at De Anza, and he urged me to work hard and stay strong.

The learning atmosphere at Berkeley was very different, and the first few lessons were quite disastrous. I could barely understand the materials covered in class, particularly during David Pereira’s harmony lessons. I had to spend extra hours at the library every day to study Bach’s four-part harmony, as well as to read all kinds of music theory reference books. But after a few weeks of struggle, I began to understand harmony in a more thorough way, and the knowledge acquired is still very useful now—not only in terms of composition, but also in terms of how I teach it to others at the university.

As a voice major, there were times when I had to spend four days a week singing in the University Chorus and the Chamber Chorus, and another day for a major lesson with soprano Susan Gundunas. The training in the choir affected me a lot, especially in terms of the mentality of being a musician. Prof. Marika Kuzma, the conductor of the above mentioned choirs, often emphasized the importance of punctuality, preparation, and professionalism. This disciplined way of training later supported me through my down times. When none of my works were performed publicly during the first few years after my graduation, I was still able to keep on composing.

Other than my vocal training, I spent most of my course credits taking composition-related courses. My interest in writing music began with Prof. Cindy Cox’s “Twentieth-Century Harmony” course, in which she introduced many ways of how composers of the 20th century composed. That was also when my interest in set theory began (and even some of my recent works are still based on set theory). I later continued to take her year-long course “Music Composition,” and began to write my own music. During that time, I was still very much affected by the music I heard on the radio. (To improve my English, every day on my way to school I used to listen to the radio and repeat line after line what the broadcasters said.) My earliest works in 2006 strongly resemble cartoon music—or, more precisely, what I now call “Looney Tunes music.” The title of my very first composition was A Chick on a Stick, a solo clarinet work with a duration of roughly two minutes emphasizing some major seventh chords and portamento. After that I wrote another programmatic work for violin and piano, The Mat and the Course, portraying the catching game between a cat and a mouse.

I was nervous to present my works to Prof. Cox during tutorial sessions; she would ask questions about my choice of pitches, structure, and many other musical parameters. One time I told her my musical preference, and she told me that “composers need to be aware of what we listen to.” She encouraged me to listen to more kinds of music, because what we listen to often affects what we write—perhaps she wanted me to move on from the cartoon style to something else. During her course, we were required to keep a listening journal. I still remember one day I was listening to a Takemitsu’s work on an LP (though now I’ve forgotten whether it was Tree Line or Autumn). I was so puzzled by the music and I wrote in my journal, “I don’t understand his music, the notes are all written randomly.” Now it seems like such a naive comment. I am glad that my ears have been improved over the years.

My work gradually evolved into a more avant-garde style, ranging from my only attempt involving twelve-tone techniques to a more Lutosławski-inspired style of writing in 2007. It was always fun to try something new, because at the end of the semester Prof. Cox would invite professional musicians to read our works and give comments. (I still keep those recordings now.) Concurrently, I was also taking Prof. Jorge Liderman’s counterpoint course. Prof. Liderman was one of those “blackboard” teachers who would write anything that came to mind on the board. He strongly emphasized the importance of musicality, and he would either sing or play the lines he wrote on board on the piano—and that is also what I do now while teaching. His way of teaching was very consistent. Every time we were asked to write a fugue, we would need to compose at least three different fugal subjects. He would comment on each of them, and recommend that we work further on one of them. There was one time he blamed me for writing “cliché” subjects, and insisted that I write another three. I was surprised that he found out these three “cliché” subjects were all written in a hurry during Prof. Richard Taruskin’s history class.

It was also my privilege to have studied orchestration with Prof. John Thow, whose lectures were always inspiring. He was a strict teacher who demanded we memorize many pages of information right at the beginning of the semester. I remember that we had a quiz on the French, German, Italian, and English terms for all the orchestral instruments and various instrumental techniques during the second lecture. It was difficult at that time, but the knowledge acquired is still very useful today. Prof. Thow has great understanding in the use of instruments, and he could come up with all kinds of different ways to score even a simple major chord. Sometimes he would bring in professional musicians to demonstrate instrumental techniques, and he allowed us to write simple passages to explore the possibilities of each instrument. What I remember most from him was that he said if one day we can only take two scores with us, we should definitely pick Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and Stravinsky’s Firebird, because one can hardly find better orchestrated works. In fact, Daphnis et Chloé was the very first full score I bought in my life. We were all shocked by the news of Thow’s death in 2007, during the second semester of my final year while we were preparing for the orchestra reading session.

I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2007 and returned to Hong Kong to pursue Master’s and doctorate degrees in composition at the University of Hong Kong, under the supervision of Dr. Joshua Chan. My stay in the United States was short, but it not only equipped me with the fundamental skills I need as a composer, it also provided me chances to witness how the teachers I studied with respect their professions. I could have included many more stories, but they would only tell more of how much I have learnt from these teachers during the early stage of my composition career. Currently I am still working hard for my composition career, and I am sure there will be more interesting stories that I can tell later.


Austin Yip

Austin Yip’s works have been performed worldwide, including at festivals he attended such as ISCM, Asian Composers League Festival & Conference (ACL), and the International Rostrum of Composers. His major commissioners include Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Radio and Television Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong Arts Festival. His works have been published and recorded by ABRSM (UK), Ablaze Records (USA), Navona Records (USA), and Hugo Productions (HK). He holds a Ph.D./ M.Phil. in music composition from the University of Hong Kong, and a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently a lecturer at the Hong Kong Baptist University. Austin Yip’s music will be performed at the DiMenna Center in New York City on April 8, 2017 as part of a concert devoted to recent works by Hong Kong-based composers.