Tag: composer interviews

Lainie Fefferman: Strength In Numbers

Lainie Fefferman is very much the opposite of the solitary, Romantic-era figure that many picture when they think of a composer. Describing herself as a “funny, nerdy, energetic person,” Fefferman freely admits that she doesn’t work well at home alone and is far more productive working in a bustling coffee shop or on a train. In fact, she gathers so much energy from being around other artists that she founded Exapno, a community center for new music in Brooklyn. For a monthly membership fee, musicians are given 24-hour access to the space, where they can compose, rehearse, and perform in a community-oriented environment. While she claims that she started Exapno for purely selfish reasons—so that she could have a place to work in the company of other artists—it continues to generate collaborations and serves as a point of entry into the New York City new music scene for musicians representing a great diversity of backgrounds and influences.

The Pirate's Daughter (sample)

Score sample from The Pirate’s Daughter, written for ETHEL.
© 2012 Lainie Fefferman. Used by permission.

Fefferman’s other great love besides music is math; she teaches a “Math and Music” course at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn and revels in introducing her students to the music of composers such as Steve Reich by revealing the numeric patterns inherent in the pieces. While she doesn’t necessarily use math to create rigorous formal structures in her own work as Xenakis might, she says that “there’s an aesthetic to the math that I like, and I think it’s the same (on a very meta-level) as the aesthetic to the music that I like. I like things that are minimal, unexpectedly simple, and surprisingly powerful… In math and music I think it’s really striking how you can take these tiny little ideas, and they can explain huge reactions.”

This aesthetic can be heard clearly in Here I Am, Fefferman’s most recent large-scale work (not to mention her Princeton Ph.D. thesis). Written for the ensemble Newspeak with Va Vocals (Martha Cluver, Mellissa Hughes, and Caroline Shaw), it features nine settings of what Fefferman considers “the wonkier bits of the Old Testament.” She says she chose the texts that she has been thinking about over and over for years, and that writing pieces is for her a way to dig deeper into the material in an effort to figure it out for herself. She pulled freely from her own varied musical tastes to create Here I Am, and the combination of beautifully uncluttered music with simple yet effective staging and lighting creates a powerful musical—and theatrical—experience.

Befitting her personality, Fefferman’s own music is highly movement-focused, and all of her compositions, whether scored for bagpipe and electronics or string quartet, radiate a sense of joyfulness. “Whenever I start writing, I think I get frustrated with myself if it doesn’t have motion and energy. Even in still passages I like having a sense of tension and release that translates in the ear to a forward-thinking feeling. Someday I’m going to have to write a sad, slow, hopeless passage, but I’m not there yet!”

Bora Yoon: The Weight of Magic

Although composers are always constructing new sonic worlds, Bora Yoon is super-charging that idea through her multimedia and site-specific works. She performs using her voice, her violin, an array of sound-making objects of assorted shapes and sizes, and live electronics, as well as with video projections to create immersive environments that, as she puts it, “transport people somewhere, and return them, hopefully changed from the experience.”

Her latest project, Sunken Cathedral, is not site-specific in the traditional sense, but rather involves the creation of a multi-dimensional artistic structure in a four-part, year-long rollout process from blueprint (audio CD) to finished structure in the form of a fully staged multimedia production that will premiere in January 2015 at the Prototype Festival. In between those two bookends are planned releases of a vinyl double album on the Innova label, created as a limited edition fine art piece, and a trilogy of interactive music videos designed for the iPad in collaboration with the Gralbum Collective. The idea is that each form of media will build upon the previous one, adding additional sensory input and engaging listeners and audience members in a different context, providing specific views of the project that can be experienced individually, or as a whole, in the same way that one might stroll around a space to take in different aspects of a performance. Sonically, Sunken Cathedral references a vast range of musical styles, from early music to industrial electronic to music concrète, speaking both to Yoon’s diverse musical identity and to the quickly shifting time we live in.

Yoon wanted to use the title Sunken Cathedral—already famously employed by Debussy, as well as by graphic artist M. C. Escher—because, like those other works, she says, “It offers the language to speak about the invisible—the architectural context, the idea of reflections in a binary world. That there are the actual things of reality, and there are the things that lie beneath the surface…and the idea of how we separate our worlds in that way, whether it’s day and night, or conscious and subconscious, or the physical world and the metaphysical world…and what happens when you explore the full circle of that.”

Yoon comes by her fascination with architectural sonic experience and cathedrals through direct personal exposure; since 2007 she has been a member of the choir at The Church of Ascension in New York City, and she cites her time spent singing in that space as a primary force of inspiration. “The more I sang at Ascension,” she explains, “the more I started to look up, and to realize that the church really is a metaphor for the body. That the arches are the rib cage, and the swells of the organ are lungs, and the idea that the invisible that we don’t see in the church, the Holy Spirit, is the idea of breath that’s inside us.” The sense of transport created with the combined horizontal and vertical nature of choral music, and the sense of ritual imbued in music intended for particular purposes and/or times of day and night, are concepts that have deeply affected her creative process.

The interdependence of conscious and subconscious is always on Yoon’s mind as she creates her musical worlds. She is entranced by sonic associations and triggers, often questioning why exactly a sound is interesting to her, what associations it might evoke, both for herself and for others, and the effects of layering sonic material from disparate contexts and of varying tempos. Her performances employ a large array of sound-making objects—in addition to violin and keyboard—such as bowls and assorted kitchen utensils, pieces of glass, small drums, glockenspiel, and cell phones. She feels strongly that as part of the performance experience the audience should be able to see where exactly the sound they are hearing is coming from and how it is being made, in order to take in the full sensory impression of the moment at hand. During performances, Yoon moves around the space, triggering sounds that are then sustained by looping electronics; starting a record player, kneeling to strike a metal bowl, reaching for an old flip phone that she amplifies through her vocal mic, all while singing melodies that build upon one another into a layered chorus atop cyclical musical twinkles, scratches, and violin tones.

“It does mean that I carry around the kitchen sink,” she admits, laughing at the image. “But I do feel that for as much as that is a huge pain in the ass, that’s also the same measure of how it will be magical, and why it will be otherworldly, and something people will remember. So I always tell myself when I am dragging around 400 pounds of gear, ‘This is the weight of magic!'”
Indeed, through her insightful working process and captivating performances, Bora Yoon is building a world of her own, one that speaks clearly to her identity, but that also invites others in to discover what they will. She creates an overarching sense of both the personal and the universal through the transformation of a space, and through the sensation of time spent within it.

Juan Orrego-Salas: I’ve Written All I Have to Write

At the home of Juan Orrego-Salas in Bloomington, Indiana
March 1, 2014—5:30 p.m.
Recorded by Trudy Chan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Several years ago while rummaging through the shelves of LPs at the offices of Peermusic Classical, I stumbled upon a record called “The Contemporary Composer in the USA” which featured a Sextet for clarinet, piano and strings by a composer named Juan Orrego-Salas. There was something intriguing about it and thankfully the generous folks at Peer gave me the album. Upon listening to the Sextet, I immediately fell in love with the music and so was eager to hear more. The liner notes were not extensive, so I looked up Orrego-Salas in my paperback copy of the 1980 edition of the Grove Dictionary. The article there stated that he was born in Chile in 1919 and received his early composition training there, but he came to the U.S.A. to study with Aaron Copland and Randall Thompson in the 1940s; in 1961, he founded the Latin American Music Center at the University of Indiana in Bloomington. The most recent event listed therein—apart from a work list that went up to 1976—was his receiving various honorary degrees in Chile in 1971, which made it seem like he had moved back there. Having not heard about him before and not readily finding any more recent information, I was not sure that he was still alive. (At that point in time, Wikipedia was not quite up to its current content and accuracy level.) Later on, a few additional early pieces of his surfaced on old out-of-print recordings; a real find was an RCA “shaded dog” featuring two gorgeous song cycles El Alba del Alheli for soprano and piano and Canciones Castellanas for soprano with an ensemble of eight instruments.

The LP that started my search for Juan Orrego-Salas.

The LP that started my search for Juan Orrego-Salas.

Then in 2009, a music journalist from Santiago, Chile named Álvaro Gallegos, who was traveling around the United States to learn more about American composers, visited the office. We spent quite a bit of time chatting about music and I quickly learned that he was as passionate an advocate for Chilean composers as I attempt to be for composers from the United States. He started naming names of important Chileans whose music I needed to hear such as Leni Alexander and Gustavo Becerra-Schmidt (who was still alive at that time) and I cut in that I knew some music by Juan Orrego-Salas at which point I not only learned that he was still alive but that he was still living in Indiana. I stored that information in the back of my head, hoping to take a trip there to meet him as well as to learn more about the Latin American Music Center.

The cover of SVR's Orrego-Salas release

SVR’s re-issue of historic recordings of Orrego-Salas’s orchestral music.

In 2011, SVR Producciones, a Chilean record label that has done a terrific job documenting the music of national composers, issued a two-CD set of orchestral works by Orrego-Salas from rare decades-old recorded performances. It is an impressive document which includes the formidable First Piano Concerto and three of the symphonies. The Third Symphony was the last thing Orrego-Salas wrote in Chile before permanently moving to the United States and the Fourth Symphony was his first major work composed after relocating here. The similar, yet different sound worlds of those two pieces seemed like an interesting departure point for a conversation with Orrego-Salas about music and national identity if only I could find a way to connect with him. In January 2014, Juan Orrego-Salas turned 95. I learned that he was in good health and would be amenable to a conversation about his music, so I contacted Erick Carballo, the current director of the Latin American Music Center, to coordinate a meeting with Orrego Salas at his home in Bloomington which we planned for Saturday, March 1.

A day before the flight, Orrego-Salas called me, initially concerned that the time I had arranged to visit him was the same time as the Metropolitan Opera’s HD screening of Borodin’s opera Prince Igor which he wanted to see again since he had fond memories of the previous production of it he saw when he was nine-year-old. I did some math in my head as he was talking to me—that would have been in 1928! So I arranged to visit him later in the day and our in-person conversation turned out to be an even more amazing journey back in time. He spoke of his studies with Pedro Humberto Allende, Chile’s most significant early 20th century composer as well as his interactions with other important Chileans such as Pablo Neruda, Claudio Arrau, and Acario Cotapos. He described being invited to Tanglewood in 1946 by Aaron Copland along with a group of Latin American composers which also included Alberto Ginastera, Héctor Tosar, Roque Cordero, and Julián Orbón. He had some great anecdotes about Copland as well as other important compositional mentors such as Randall Thompson and Luigi Dallapiccola, with whom he came into contact when his Canciones Castellanas was performed during the ISCM World Music Days in Italy in 1949. He also mentioned his friendships with Irving Fine, Lukas Foss, Harold Shapero, and William Schuman. Of all of these people, he is the only one who is still alive, but he and his wife recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary and he is overjoyed by his children and grandchildren.

In the 1950s, Orrego-Salas was something of a cause célèbre in the United States even though he spent most of that decade back in Chile teaching composition, conducting a girl’s chorus, and writing music criticism for one of Santiago’s newspapers. Despite all of those distractions from his own composing, he created a series of major works that were premiered by the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., the Louisville Orchestra, and the Juilliard Quartet, among others. Particularly intriguing is the story of how he came to live in Bloomington as a result of representatives from the Rockefeller Foundation repeatedly visiting Santiago in order to convince him to return to the United States to establish a Latin American Music Center here which they would underwrite. Orrego-Salas refused to do so unless the center was based at an American university for fear that without such support it would cease to exist after the initial funding for it evaporated. Now, more than half a century later, LAMC remains an important part of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. The main activity of LAMC has been the amassing of a huge collection of scores (one of the most complete collections of works by Latin American composers in the world) which are housed at IU’s William and Gayle Cook Music Library. But LAMC also presents concerts on campus and runs an annual competition for performers that results in commercially released recordings of Latin American repertoire.

Over the course of the many years that Orrego-Salas has lived in Indiana, much of it spent running LAMC and teaching composition, he continued to compose and his catalog spans some 126 works including six symphonies, seven concertante works, several large-scale cantatas and oratorios, four string quartets and tons of other pieces for various chamber ensembles, chorus, and solo voice. But he decided a few years ago that he said all he needed to say as a composer and is no longer writing music. He has contributed an extraordinary legacy both as a composer and as an advocate for composers from throughout Latin America. He is revered as a major compositional figure to this day in Chile, yet here in the United States he is insufficiently appreciated despite having lived here for more than five decades, having had his music championed by high profile American orchestras and ensembles, and being the last surviving member of a major group of American composers of the mid-20th century. His story is an important story in the annals of American music and one which is finally being told here.

Photo of Orrego-Salas's home

The home of Juan Orrego-Salas in Bloomington, Indiana. Photo by FJO.


Frank J. Oteri: I’m curious about the milieu in which you grew up: the environment, the music you heard, the first things you heard. You intrigued me on the telephone the other day when you said that you heard Prince Igor when you were only nine years old.

Orrego-Salas in 2013

Orrego-Salas in 2013, photo courtesy Lauren Keiser Music.

Juan Orrego-Salas: Yes, I did. A Russian, a Russian company came to Chile at that time. I was born in 1919, so it must have been 1928, let’s say, when I heard this. Not only Prince Igor, I heard Boris Godunov and Tsar Saltan by Rimsky also. And I was very, very deeply impressed. And my wife has heard me talking about that for during our life. So when she saw that they were showing [a Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast of] it today, she said, let’s go to it. She went alone because I was committed to you. But she came back after a while very disappointed, saying that it was a very bad performance. I’m glad that I didn’t go because I don’t want to be disappointed.
FJO: What about some of the other music you heard. I know from the LAMC interview you did a couple of years ago that you were already playing piano when you were four.
JO-S: Yes. My mother played a little piano, and she started teaching me piano. So I started playing a little. I remember Peer Gynt from Grieg, pieces from that I played on the piano. It’s as far as I can go back in my training as a musician.
FJO: I find it interesting though that from the very beginning you said that you really were more interested in creating your own music rather than to play someone else’s music.
JO-S: Yeah, having fun with the keyboard and inventing things. The thing that I remember very well is that my mother was very strict that I should practice every day [for] at least one hour. When she had to go to do something, she asked the maid to follow that I had been practicing for an hour. When she came back, she received from the maid, “Oh, he’s been very good. Over an hour, I think around two hours.” I hadn’t touched anything that I had [on the piano]; I had been improvising all the time. But the maid didn’t know the difference. See?
FJO: Now I’m curious, you knew about all this classical music. Your mother played the piano. You heard these Russian operas. Did you have a sense that this improvising at that piano was being a composer, that you were creating music and that this was new music?
JO-S: I never thought of that. I liked to do it, but I never thought that word composer. I don’t think it came so early into my lingo.
FJO: At that time, did you know of Chilean composers, or were you just hearing European music?
JO-S: No, I knew about Chilean composers because my father and mother were friendly with most of the composers active at that time. When the Chilean pianist [Claudio] Arrau came to Chile, he came to have dinner at [our] home. I met him when I was a baby, really.
FJO: So who were some of the composers you met when you were young?
JO-S: Well, one that became my first composition teacher, Pedro Humberto Allende.
FJO: He wrote some extraordinary piano pieces that are still played today.
JO-S: Yes, right. He was very well known in Chile and respected in Chile.
FJO: How old were you when you were studying with him?
JO-S: When I was studying with him, I was perhaps 12- to 14-years old.
FJO: How did your family feel about your composing original music?
JO-S: I don’t think that they were too opinionated about it. The only person that perhaps would have preferred my playing Chopin rather than my inventions at the piano is my grandmother, the mother of my father, because she played the piano. She played Chopin and whenever I went to visit her, she wanted me to sit at the piano and play something. And I played always the same Chopin prelude that I had learned with my mother and she enjoyed it very much.
FJO: But she didn’t enjoy when you played your own music.
JO-S: I never did try that. I never tried.
FJO: Now, in terms of knowing this word composer, by the time you were in your teens you were studying with Allende, who was probably the most famous composer in Chile then. So at that point did you have a sense that you wanted to spend the rest of your life writing music?
JO-S: I started feeling that very gradually. I think that it didn’t happen very specifically until I was a student at the National Conservatory. I joined Allende’s class and there of course I met other composers, young composers that were studying with him: Alfonso Letelier, René Amengual, and others. Then I started feeling myself sort of associated with the idea of being a composer, of inventing music. Because for me, a composer is the one who invents music.
FJO: At that time in the rest of the world, there were very different kinds of attitudes about what contemporary music should be. There were the experimentalists but there were also many more old fashioned composers who were still actively writing music that was being performed. Also, everywhere there were composers who wanted to re-invent classical music using their own country’s folk music idioms, like Bartók in Hungary, and to some extent Allende in Chile.
JO-S: Yes, yes, that’s right, or Copland in the United States, who became my teacher.
FJO: That’s much later and I definitely want to talk about that with you. But in terms of what music you were exposed to back in the 1930s, I’m wondering if you had much contact with the Chilean composer Acario Cotapos who had a much more experimental orientation.
JO-S: Oh, yes. We were friends. I’ll tell you a very funny thing. Cotapos was very nice and very humorous. One day we were having dinner with him, and my wife asked him, “Acario, how is it that being so nice yourself, you never got married.” “My dear, I forgot it,” he said. That was his answer!
FJO: So, in terms of the music that you wanted to write, did you see yourself more carrying on a tradition from the past, from Europe, trying to invent a music that was for Chile, or being some kind of individual experimenter who was forging your own personal path?
JO-S: I felt closer to Stravinsky. I was interested in the way his music was organized.
FJO: Did you want to study with Stravinsky?
JO-S: I never thought that I could study with Stravinsky.
FJO: So many composers at that time, when they traveled outside of their countries to study music, went to Europe to study. So many composers from the United States studied in France with Nadia Boulanger. But when you left Chile to study music somewhere else, you came to the U.S.A.
JO-S: Well, I came to the U.S.A. because of Copland. Copland had been to Chile and he had seen little things that I had written. So, he said, you should come to the United States. And he was my mentor in the United States.

Robert Shaw, Juan Orrego-Salas, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Irving Fine

Juan Orrego-Salas (second from left) at Tangelwood in 1946 with Robert Shaw (to his left), Aaron Copland (standing), Leonard Bernstein (drinking), and Irving Fine. Photo by Ruth Orkin. From the Irving Fine Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress. Reproduced with the permission of the Library of Congress.

FJO: You were part of that very famous class at Tanglewood together with Alberto Ginastera.
JO-S: With Ginastera and [Héctor] Tosar and [Roque] Cordero…
FJO: You were all from different Latin American countries, so did you actually know each other before you came to Tanglewood?
JO-S: I knew Ginastera; we were friends already. Tosar and Cordero, also.
FJO: It’s quite interesting to me that in addition to studying composition with Copland, you were also studying musicology with Paul Henry Lang at Columbia…
JO-S: Yes.
FJO: You had also studied architecture.
JO-S: Well, the architecture thing is different. When I finished high school, my family said “Well now, which is the profession that you have chosen?” I said, “I don’t think I need to choose a profession because I have it already. It’s music.” “No, no, no,” my grandfather said, especially. “No, my dear. Music is very nice. We like you doing music, but that’s not a profession. You’re not going to live on music. You have to choose a real profession.” “What’s a real profession?” I said. “Well… law, engineering, architecture.” So I chose architecture, because I was interested in painting also. I did lots of watercolors. I was interested, so I entered the School of Architecture, and I wasn’t sorry because I started developing a sense that the relation between music and architecture was very close. So I became very much interested in architecture, and I completed my studies in architecture, and I became an architect, but I never practiced architecture except in designing a window for my house and things like that.
FJO: I heard that you built this whole house we’re in.
JO-S: No, I didn’t build it. This was pre-built, but I changed lots of things in this house.

An original watercolor by Juan Orrego-Salas

One of Juan Orrego-Salas’s original watercolors still hangs in a frame on the wall of the entranceway to his home in Bloomington, Indiana.

FJO: You actually gained notoriety as a composer quite early on. By the time you were 30-years old, you were already writing pieces of music that were published and were available.
JO-S: Yes. I thought I was quite lucky in that respect, you know. I don’t remember names very easily now at 95 years old. But I had met people from Boosey & Hawkes, for example. And they invited me to give them some of my works for them to administer. And there was an Argentinian publisher called Barry who represented by Boosey & Hawkes, and he picked a few things of mine, including my latest piece at that time, that was my First Symphony. Then when I was in England, I was in contact with Boosey & Hawkes, and they published a few of my choral works at that time.
FJO: You wound up having many pieces published with Peer.
JO-S: With Peer. Yes.
FJO: You were also getting significant international performances of your music. Canciones Castellanas was done during the ISCM World Music Days.
JO-S: In 1949 at the festival of ISCM in Italy, in Palermo.
FJO: That was only three years after the festival started again when World War II ended. So I’m curious how that helped your reputation at the time.

Orrego Salas LP on RCA

The first all Orrego-Salas LP, an RCA “shaded dog” with one side featuring Canciones Castellanas (pictured above) and the other featuring El alba del Alhelí.

JO-S: Enormously, because at that time, Dallapiccola was in Palermo where my piece was played and I conducted it, which was really, very audacious because I had never conducted. But the singer that I got was an Italian singer, and she encouraged me to conduct her. It’s a piece for seven instruments and voice. And, well, I did it. I think that Dallapiccola helped me a great deal because he was at the rehearsals. And he said, “Don’t do this when you are pointing. Be very relaxed. Don’t show him that he’s doing it wrong.” Things like that. He helped me a great deal in conducting that piece.
FJO: So in some ways, he was as important a mentor to you as Copland had been earlier, and there was also Randall Thompson.
JO-S: Yes, in many ways he [Thompson] helped me more than Aaron Copland. Copland showed me very useful things along his path of thought in music. But Randall Thompson gave me more freedom in conveying to me to do what you feel, what you think, what you want.
FJO: Nowadays, Copland is an internationally-known composer and a wide range of his music is still played, but Randall Thompson is mostly remembered for his choral music. Initially when I learned that you had studied with Thompson, I assumed that led to your own immersion in choral music. But he wrote so much more than that.
JO-S: Well, he was a teacher of Bernstein, also. And Bernstein I don’t think he wrote very much choral music.
FJO: But you went on to conduct a chorus.
JO-S: Yes, I was a conductor of the Catholic University Chorus [in Santiago].
FJO: The year after that ISCM performance, 1950, seems to have been a watershed year for you as a composer. In that year you composed both a really powerful piano concerto and a strikingly beautiful song cycle for voice and piano, El alba del Alhelí.

El Alba del Alheli score excerpt

An excerpt from the score of Juan Orrego-Salas’s El Alba del Alhelí, Op. 29 (1950)
Copyright © 1958 by Juan Orrego-Salas. All rights reserved. Published by Peermusic Classical and reprinted with permission.

JO-S: The Piano Concerto was a path towards going out of Chile because, at that time, Celibidache was conducting the symphony orchestra. And he got very much interested in my piano concerto, and he did it in Berlin with a pianist Helmut Roloff, whom I met years later.
FJO: So you didn’t hear him do it?
JO-S: No. I wasn’t at that performance.
FJO: For the most of the 1950s you were in Chile, doing so many different things in addition to writing music. You were conducting that girls’ chorus and you were a professor of music at the University. You were also the music critic for the newspaper.
JO-S: For Mercurio. It was a lot. I wish it would have been less, and I would have dedicated more to composition.
FJO: Except the music you were writing at that time was so interesting and was getting noticed internationally. You were doing all these other activities besides composing in Chile, but you were also getting important commissions, including many commissions from the United States. The Louisville Orchestra commissioned you. Your first string quartet was premiered by The Juilliard Quartet. Tanglewood commissioned your Sextet for clarinet, piano and strings, which is a phenomenal piece. I’m curious to hear what you think about all that music now, sixty years later.

Score excerpt from Orrego-Salas's 1st String Quartet

An excerpt from the score of Juan Orrego-Salas’s String Quartet No. 1, Op. 46 (1956). Copyright © 1963 by Peer International Corporation. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

JO-S: Oh, I wouldn’t—I would be very frightened to say that they were great because I always thought that even if I wrote a piece that I enjoyed very much, I could do even better than that.
FJO: So are there any pieces you wrote that you would say are your favorites, that you feel the most proud of?
JO-S: I think the Canciones Castellanas, the one we were speaking of, is a very favorite piece of mine. And there is a later piece for string orchestra called Presencias that I enjoyed very much.
FJO: I’d like us to stay in the 1950s for a little bit longer and talk about these major performances of your music in the United States that were happening while you were in Santiago. You finally wound up moving here. Was that in anyway related?
JO-S: No. It wasn’t my decision. It was a Rockefeller Foundation decision. I had been a Rockefeller Fellow years before. And one day, I was sitting in Chile, doing all the things that I did in Chile, and the American embassy called me and said that Mr. Harrison was coming to Santiago and he wanted to see me and meet me. And I said, “Who’s Mr. Harrison?” He was an historian, a member of the Rockefeller Foundation Board of Directors. So I met him for lunch. And he said, “The Rockefeller Foundation has just helped Maestro Ginastera in establishing the di Tella Institute in Buenos Aires. But that’s to train composers. We want to establish in the United States an institute to promote Latin American music, and to research Latin American music.” In other words, it has something to do with musicology, with performance, with everything. And I said, “But I’m a composer.” “Yes, you are a composer. And we want you to continue being a composer. So, we have to find a way that you do both things. That would be any how less than what you’re doing here in Chile.”
“And so,” I said, “How would it be?” “Well, we thought of establishing this center for Latin American in the United States in Washington as part of the OAS [Organization of American States].” And as soon as he said that I said, “No. I’m not interested. I’m not interested in working anything that had to do with politics, absolutely not! I have nothing against the OAS, but I don’t want the OAS associated with work of Latin nature.” “So what would you suggest?” “Well, if you want to establish an institution that would provide inter-research on Latin American composition and stimulate performances of Latin American music, do it with a school of music in United States, or a university. You have loads of them. You have Juilliard and Eastman, and so forth.” And he said, “You’re absolutely right. I’m going back to the United States and inform the board about your idea.”
So, he came back a week later and said, “Look, Rockefeller approved your idea, and we’re going to do an investigation of several universities who have important music departments, or schools of music, which would be interested in this. And I’ll be back to you.” It didn’t last more than a couple of weeks and he was back in Chile [again]. And he said, “We investigated thirty universities and we have five [possibilities], including Indiana [University].” And I was aware of what was going on at Indiana University because when I was a Guggenheim Fellow in New York, William Schuman had told me of this school and that it was growing and growing. Schuman was the head of Juilliard at that time. And he said, “If you don’t want to go back to Chile, I could write a letter to Mr. [Wilfred Conwell] Bain, who is the Dean, and I am sure he will offer you a position at his school. Do you want me to do that?” “Yes, do it. See what happens.” Well, I received an offer from Dean Bain, offering me a position as a member of the theory department at Indiana University with a salary that was less than what I was receiving in Chile, to the pleasure of my family who said that music didn’t produce more than architecture! So I said to Dean Bain, “Well, I’m sorry, I’m not interested in teaching theory. And the salary is not the one I am aiming to.” “So,” he said, “I’m sorry, but I’ll be back to you.” Well, he was back every year. I received a Christmas letter from him saying I haven’t given up the idea of having you here. So when the Rockefeller [Foundation] came with this idea, Dean Bain jumped and said, “We want him as founder and head of this Latin American Music Center and teacher of composition.” And that was what he offered me, with a salary that was at that time, decent.
FJO: So that first contact with Bain was in 1954.
JO-S: 1955 I think.
FJO: So for seven years you stayed in Chile doing all these different activities but at the same time getting all of these performances of your music in the United States. Were you traveling back and forth all the time?
JO-S: No. I didn’t travel after 1954-55, when I was a Guggenheim Fellow.
FJO: So you were just getting phone calls and letters.
JO-S: Yeah. My next trip to the United States was in 1961 when I established the Latin American Music Center.

Copland and Latin American composers.

Composers of the Americas (back row, left to right): Julián Orbón (1925-1991, Cuba), Juan Orrego-Salas (b. 1919, Chile), Aaron Copland (1900-1990, U.S.A.), Antonio Estevez (1916-1988, Venezuela), Harold Gramatges (1918-1998, Cuba), Roque Cordero (1917-2008, Panama), Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983, Argentina), (front row) Héctor Campos Parsi (1922-1998, Puerto Rico) and Blas Galindo (1910-1993, Mexico). Photo courtesy of the Latin American Music Center.

FJO: We talked earlier about identity and your teacher Allende introducing Chilean elements into classical music. You wrote all these pieces that continue in that tradition, but many of them were commissioned by groups for performance in the United States. Then you came to the United States. How much of your identity as a composer remained Chilean? How much became American?
JO-S: That I don’t know. I don’t know what to answer here. But I’ll tell you something. The Sextet was commissioned by a foundation in New York and that was arranged by Aaron Copland. And Aaron Copland arranged the first performance in Tanglewood. And I was invited to Tanglewood to attend the first performance. And I went there. And I’ll tell you a funny story. Aaron Copland was waiting for me in the station where you come from New York to Tanglewood. And he had reserved for me a room and so on. It was very nice to see him again. And he said to me, “Well, I’ll tell you, this afternoon you have a rehearsal of your Sextet. But I’ll have to pull your ears because you did a very naughty thing with the Sextet.” What did I do? I was very frightened, you know. “You end pianissimo. You should never end pianissimo a work at your age because you need applause, and they never applaud pianissimo endings.” “Well I’m sorry, because it’s written already.” Okay, he sat with me at the premiere, and when it ended, there was a big applause. I said, “I am sorry. You are right, and I’m wrong.” [laughs]

The last page of the score of Orrego-Salas's Sextet

The ending of Juan Orrego-Salas’s Sextet for Bb clarinet, string quartet, and piano, Op. 38 (1954)
Copyright © 1967 by Peer International Corporation. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
(Please note that the clarinet part is notated in C herein.)

FJO: There is something about that Sextet in particular, to my ears anyway that sounds very American, more than it sounds Chilean.
JO-S: I don’t know that. It sounds mine.
FJO: I’m curious to know more about composers in the United States you felt a strong kinship to at that time.
JO-S: I was a good friend of William Schuman. And Lukas Foss; we became very good friends, and I’m very sorry that he has left this world because he had lots of things to say still. Irving Fine was a very honest composer. And very critical with himself. One day he showed me a piece he had written for chamber orchestra which I thought it was wonderful. And he thought it was awful. And I couldn’t convince him. He was that kind of composer. Never sure of what he was. Harold Shapero was a very great composer, that is unknown now in the United States.

Shapero, Fine, Orrego-Salas, Foss, and Copland 1946

Harold Shapero (1920-2013), Irving Fine (1914-1962), Juan Orrego-Salas (b. 1919), Lukas Foss (1922-2009), and Aaron Copland (1900-1990) at Tanglewood in 1946. Photographer unknown. From the Irving Fine Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress. Reproduced with the permission of the Library of Congress.

FJO: The piece that you wrote right before you moved to Bloomington, the Third Symphony, also sounds to me as if it is in some way leaning toward a sound world that is somewhat akin to these composers. Do you feel that you and these composers were working toward a common language?
JO-S: I had never thought on those terms. Never. I wrote the Third Symphony and because I wrote it; there is no other reason to have written it. And the Fourth Symphony I wrote here.

Score excerpt from Orrego-Salas's 4th Symphony

An excerpt from the score of Juan Orrego-Salas’s Symphony No. 4 “De la respuesta lejana”, Op. 59 (1966).
Copyright © 1966 Norruth Music, Inc. Copyright assigned 2008 to Keiser Classical (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: The Fourth Symphony has a similar sound world to your Third, but it’s also the earliest piece that I know of yours that uses 12-tone techniques, albeit in quite a unique way.
JO-S: The Fourth. The Fifth Symphony has never been played.
FJO: Really?
JO-S: I’ve written six symphonies. The Sixth Symphony was premiered last year in Colombia.
FJO: Wow. And the fifth has not been played.
JO-S: Hasn’t been played.
FJO: It was not commissioned? You just wrote it?
JO-S: I just wrote it.

Excerpt from the score of Orrego-Salas' 5th Symphony

An excerpt from the score of Juan Orrego-Salas’s as yet unperformed Symphony No. 5, Op. 109 (1995).
Copyright © 1995 Norruth Music, Inc. Copyright assigned 2008 to Keiser Classical (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Wow. Now the Fourth Symphony, I want to return to the Fourth for a little bit longer, because that’s really the first really major work you wrote as a composer based in the U.S.A. You said that you’re not really thinking in terms of identity, but I wonder if in any way being in Bloomington, which is a very different place from Santiago, if that in any way affected your mind and your thoughts about music, if it opened up another set of ideas for you.
JO-S: I think it must have. But I’m not self conscious of it. Not, not at all.
FJO: So what inspired you to explore 12-tone composition?
JO-S: I’ve used 12-tone music as an experiment, which I am not really deeply associated with. That’s why I have abandoned it, and come back to it.
FJO: But in terms of places, you’ve now spent close to 50 years here in Bloomington.
JO-S: ’61 to ’14…
FJO: By now you’ve spent more time here than you did in Chile where you are considered perhaps the greatest living Chilean composer. You are honored there as a hero. But so much of your music was actually written here in this country and yet you are not often spoken about in the history of music in the United States. To my mind, you are an American composer.

Juan Orrego-Salas with conductor Carmen Helena Tellez. Photo courtesy of the Latin American Music Center.

Juan Orrego-Salas with conductor Carmen Helena Téllez who served as director of the Latin American Music Center from 1992 to 2012. Photo courtesy of the Latin American Music Center.

JO-S: Yes. I don’t mind being an American composer or a Chilean composer, or an Argentinian composer. That’s an argument that we had with Ginastera several times, because Ginastera wanted to be an Argentinian. And he had a purpose of writing music as an Argentinian composer, which I never had in Chile. I think the only work that I wrote very self consciously using Chilean folk elements was a cycle of three songs that I called Canciones en estilo popular, songs in the popular style. Because they were based on Neruda’s poems on popular things.
FJO: So did you know Neruda?
JO-S: Oh yes. Very well.
FJO: And he heard your songs?
JO-S: Yes, he thought that he had no ear for music. He said he didn’t know the difference between the national anthem and the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven.
FJO: So you can’t really say how he responded to your music.
JO-S: No, I cannot. No composer in Chile can say anything about that.
FJO: Still it surprises me—which is why I thought it was very important for me to talk to you for this web magazine about music in the United States—that while you are a national hero in Chile, more people in this country are not aware of your music. And you have also had an influence on composers here, since you taught composers here for so many years.
JO-S: I’ve had American students—United States students—but I’ve also had Venezuelan students and I’ve had Argentinian students during my teaching here. I don’t know if there is a difference, unless they decide to do it. I’ve had a composer who for me is among my very best: a Venezuelan, who now is teaching in Michigan—Ricardo Lorenz. Ricardo Lorenz is a Venezuelan composer that for me it doesn’t sound Venezuelan, or Chilean, or American. He sounds Lorenz.
FJO: So for you that should be the goal for every composer, to sound like him or herself?
JO-S: Right.

Janos Starker, Juan Orrego-Salas and Charles Webb

Juan Orrego-Salas (standing on right) listening to cellist János Starker and pianist Charles Webb rehearse his music. Photo courtesy of the Latin American Music Center.

FJO: I’m curious about the music that you have written in recent years.
JO-S: Which are the recent years? I haven’t written a thing in about the last three years. I think I finished writing music. When I saw Aaron Copland for the last time, it was here. Sitting here. Perhaps in this chair. He had one of my granddaughters sitting in his lap. And I asked him suddenly, “Aaron, what are you writing?” He looked. “Nothing. I’ve written all what I had to write.” And that said a great thing for me. I know that Aaron had written everything that he had to write. And I was starting to feel that I had written also what I had to write. I had nothing more to say in music. I transferred the legacy of all my works, my photographs, my letters and everything to Indiana University. And they possess it now.
FJO: So what would you say now to composers who are on the other side of their careers, just starting to write music and trying to find themselves and to establish a career path?
JO-S: Be always what you are when you’re writing music. That’s perhaps the best advice that I can give.


Ed. Note: For more about Juan Orrego Salas and the founding of the Latin American Music Center, here’s an excellent interview he did with current LAMC director Erick Carballo in 2011…

Jamie Baum: Jazz Diplomacy

For flutist Jamie Baum, the formula for what she calls a “complete musician” consists of three parts: performing, composing, and improvising. In her mind, these three activities combine in an organic way to create a rich, full musical life, and she does it all—and more—in spades. Since the 1990s, she has been composing music for her own ensemble, playing with top-notch musicians such as Paul Motian, Randy Brecker, and Fred Hersch, leading workshops on a number of topics including improvisation for classical musicians, and presenting her music to audiences around the globe.

Much of Baum’s work has been inspired by elements of 20th-century classical, Indian, and Afro-Latin music, worlds between which she nimbly moves as a performer. Her 2004 album Moving Forward Standing Still takes musical cues from Stravinsky, Ives, and Bartok, all composers who were important for her during her early composition training at the New England Conservatory. The music on her most recent release, In This Life, is deeply influenced by a tour through South Asia, and specifically by the music of Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. In both cases she deftly weaves elements from diverse musical sources through her own prodigious artistic imagination to create compositions that sound highly distinct yet perfectly natural at the same time. Her ensemble, the Jamie Baum Septet, is comprised of flute, piano, trumpet, French horn, alto sax doubling bass clarinet, drums, and bass, and expands with the additions of guitar and hand percussion such as congas and tabla to form the Jamie Baum Septet +.

Baum says that one of her musical goals has always been to make the flute a primary ensemble instrument, rather than simply an instrument for doubling or a secondary textural element as it is sometimes viewed within a jazz music context. The somewhat unusual instrumentation of her group is intended to help give the flute more weight within the ensemble texture and to provide different musical coloring options than the standard grouping of trumpet, alto, tenor, and baritone sax or trombone. However, never having been one to save all the big soloing opportunities for the leader of the band, she is happy for the flute to become an inner voice and allow other instruments plenty of creative freedom when it comes time to solo. No doubt this sense of openness and her willingness to collaborate is part of what has kept the membership of her group stable for over 14 years.
In addition to a bustling composing and performing schedule, Baum also leads a variety of intriguing musical workshops centered upon improvisation and fostering creativity, including ones entitled “A fear-free approach to improvisation for the classically trained musician” and “Jazz flute technique is not an oxymoron,” intended to teach classical flute and double reed players techniques appropriate for jazz performance.

Through the practice of her own “complete musicianship” Baum has become an integral player in the jazz tradition, without becoming confined by it; she keeps her ears and mind open to whatever external influences might play a role in expanding her writing, performing, and composing.

On the Road with Mischa Zupko

Mischa at work on the bus

Mischa at work on the bus

For two weeks in June, Chicago composer Mischa Zupko did something that composers don’t often have the opportunity to do: he toured with an orchestra. Camerata Chicago traveled to the Czech Republic, France, and Italy and gave five performances of Zupko’s new Chamber Symphony: Pilatus. Zupko was on every plane and bus, at every soundcheck, in every audience, and an honored guest at every group dinner. I was lucky enough to be there too, serving as acting principal second violin.

During the drive from Marseille to Milan, I headed from my perch in the second row of the bus to Mischa’s seat towards the back. It was my shortest-ever commute to an interview. On those long bus trips, Zupko could usually be found hard at work on a new piece for Jeffrey Zeigler—that, or trading jokes with the wind and brass players. The conversation that follows reveals Zupko to be a humble, energetic, and constantly searching artist, thriving in his role of “embedded” composer-in-residence.


EM: Tell me about the experience of traveling with the orchestra. Have you ever been in such extended proximity to your orchestral collaborators?
MZ: I love it. I feel like one of the orchestra at this point! As a performer, I’m very much in touch with the performance aspects of my music. I feel viscerally involved with the performances of my music, or any other music for that matter. So the opportunity to learn about and understand every one of the individuals in this group is really an exciting process.
I’m getting a better understanding of how the orchestra works, those mechanics. It would have been nice to do this before I wrote the piece, too! But it serves a neat purpose of sculpting how this work grows within the context of each performance. And if we work together again, that will be so much more of an in-depth relationship to explore.

Mischa with orchestra members in Paris

Mischa with orchestra members in Paris

EM: I think the players feel an increased sense of commitment to your work because you are right here with us. You’re one of us, but you’re also special.
MZ: I’m having lots of experiences where people are starting to come up to me and ask about certain things. They’re curious about certain aspects of the piece, or what I meant with something. This is a very natural process with chamber music, but not something we often get to do with orchestral music. I wish that all compositions could be born this way.

I have a program at the Music Institute of Chicago that tries to advocate for this kind of thinking, this kind of collaboration between performers and composers. In this program, the performers really realize what is not on the page that they can do. There are these cliches, like “read between the lines,” or “look beyond the score,” but what the hell does that mean? It can be completely arbitrary, until you start to work with a composer and realize what could not be notated that was still trying to be expressed.
And you can apply that to so many other things. You can apply that to Brahms. All of a sudden, the personal aspect of the creative process becomes illuminated; it’s not such a third-person interpretation anymore.
EM: How does Pilatus, the chamber symphony of yours that we’re playing on this tour, fit into the context of your work overall?
MZ: I think it’s very visual and visceral. A lot of my orchestra pieces, for some reason, are very much visually inspired. Pilatus is inspired by various impressions of the great peak in Lucerne, and the mythology surrounding that.
When I first started writing for orchestra, it was very literally programmatic. But it has evolved so that I’m not trying to do a Berlioz thing anymore—not to create a direct narrative, but to take impressions from visual stimulus or poetic ideas and get in touch with how exactly that makes an impression on me, and how that can be communicated aurally.

As composers, we continually try to express things in the ways that we see them—but we refine that process to the point that the music actually expresses what we were feeling inside, not some thoughts that you can’t articulate in an abstract medium. I think that what makes great music great music is when a composer can literally bring others into an experience. It doesn’t have to be the same experience—that’s the beauty of it—but it guides people into a certain kind of visceral, psychological, emotional experience.

Mischa and Ellen on the tour bus

Mischa and Ellen on the tour bus

EM: You wrote Pilatus while you were traveling; now you’re traveling again. How does traveling connect to your creative process? What does traveling do for your writing?
MZ: The first thing that pops into my mind is actually thinking about my son, and what traveling is for him. We traveled with my son when he was very young—a year and three months old—and we spent most of our time in Tuscany. And watching what happened to his little brain during that time was remarkable. He went there with a couple of words, and he came back babbling. Traveling for children is really important because it stimulates the mind, in terms of being presented with new situations and having to problem-solve more frequently.

So when your environment is unfamiliar, it stimulates creativity. It’s common sense that whenever you go outside of your usual environment, your brain is outside of its routine. I think it’s important for unleashing a certain amount of daring and creativity within your work.

Jake Muzzy, right and Christopher Ferrer

Jake Muzzy, right and Christopher Ferrer

EM: Some of the musicians in the front of the bus have questions for you. This question is from Jake Muzzy, one of our cellists: “Tell us how writing by hand, which is how you work, shapes your composing?”
MZ: Obviously you’re talking in the context of a time when composers don’t necessarily start here [he gestures to the sheets of handwritten music]. They might record a fragment of something, start working electronically, and compose acoustic music around that. Composers might go directly to Finale and use playback to discern where they are in a piece. They’re “using the tools”—quotation marks—to try to get to know their own music.

I’m always encouraging my students to have the experience of doing the initial drafts by hand. Balances, performer dynamics—when you start working at the computer, you might not consider that stuff as deeply. You have to consider the performing logistics, the dynamics of how somebody’s going to react to a certain sound in the orchestra, and how they’ll play from there.

The handwriting process helps build that muscle, that mental representation of your own music, a mental playback where you understand what’s going to happen in an orchestra or a chamber ensemble. It’s really important for me personally to develop that imagination around sound.

Kate Carter

Kate Carter

EM: This last question is from another of our violinists, Kate Carter: “What kind of nonclassical music do you like to listen to?”
MZ: Sting is definitely at the top of my list. That reveals my age. There’s just something so unaffected about him. There’s subtlety and intricacy, but it’s never for show or for a self-conscious need to be more sophisticated. I love the nostalgia and the purity of the messages in his songs.

I’d also have to name Rush. That was what we used to call “hard rock”—it feels funny even saying that anymore. But they had this incredible imagination, and I always felt transported listening to them. Seeing them live, with Neil Pert and pitched percussion—at that time there was hardly anyone [in rock] doing pitched percussion, or thinking melodically about drums. Rush felt like a nice mix between my musical upbringing, with a father who was a serious Germanic composer, and riding to school and hearing bands like Motley Crue.

I love Radiohead. That’s a group where there is no excess—it’s all really concentrated on what they want to say. I love atmospheric kinds of music where it doesn’t break the sound environment you’re listening to, to get in an extra verse. It is authentically what it’s trying to be. When Radiohead sets the stage for a particular song, you’re there from the beginning to the end.That’s what I like about music in general—the concentration that allows you to enter something for the duration.

My kid is listening to Macklemore now, but I just find that entertaining. It’s always more fun to listen to something when you see your kid rapping all the words.

Arlene Sierra: The Evolution of Process

Conducted at The Yale Club in New York City
April 2, 2013—11 a.m.
Filmed, condensed, and edited by Alexandra Gardner
Transcribed by Julia Lu

The music of composer Arlene Sierra is significantly focused on creative forms of process. Whether structures from the natural world such as beehives or flocks of birds, or human-made maps of war game strategy, sturdy foundations ground the musical content of her works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, chorus, and opera. She uses these phenomena as inspirational stepping-stones, not to create a “story” for a composition, but rather as a way to harness raw musical materials and determine their eventual shape and progression. “If you look at the natural world,” Sierra explains, “You have predators, you have prey, you have plants, you have different living things all trying to find and keep their place and survive in relation to all these other things that have other goals. How does that relate to music? Well for me, it was a very interesting way of mapping relationships between different instruments.”

Sierra grew up studying piano, and later discovered how fulfilling composition was through her involvement in the Technology In Music and Related Arts program (TIMARA) at Oberlin College, where she was a student. “Electronic music was a way of getting ideas down, manipulating musical materials without having to worry about notation,” she says. ” For someone who studied piano, and didn’t study composition, that was really a relief and a wonderful opening to ways of manipulating sound and making new things without all the business of getting the notation right.” She very quickly got the notation right and has been composing for varied instrumental ensembles ever since, including the New York Philharmonic, the Seattle Symphony, and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Upon completing her doctorate at the University of Michigan, she spent a two-year stint in Berlin, and after that moved to Britain. She now lives in London with her husband, composer Ken Hesketh, and their baby son, and serves as senior lecturer and director of the MMus program at Cardiff University School of Music in Wales.

During our hour together, Sierra spoke animatedly about a new chamber opera she is creating along with three other composers for soprano Susan Narucki, the differences in working with American and European orchestras, her approach to teaching composition, and her recent return to electronic music. She maintains a dizzyingly busy schedule of composing and teaching activities. As she put it, “Like a fish, you have to keep swimming!”


Alexandra Gardner: You just spent the past week at the Yellow Barn Festival in Vermont, workshopping a very interesting chamber opera project. Shall we talk about that first?

Arlene Sierra: Okay. So I’m part of a collaborative project called Cuatro Corridos, which is a chamber opera inspired by the soprano Susan Narucki. She’s a distinguished contemporary music soprano, currently at UCSD, who I’ve had the privilege of working with before; she recorded some of the settings of Neruda for my first CD. She had the idea of putting together a chamber opera with four composers, each writing a scene for four different characters, all part of the same story. The story is about human trafficking on the Mexican-American border. Each character plays a part in the destruction of a crime ring where young women from Mexico were trafficked into the U.S. and used as prostitutes by the undocumented workers in strawberry fields outside San Diego.

I’m doing the character Dalia. Lei Liang is doing another character, as are the two Mexican composers, Hilda Parades and Hebert Vázquez. So among the four of us, four different points of view on this story are put across. It’s all sung by Susan Narucki. It’s an amazing vehicle for her, as well as an opportunity for us. My character Dalia is the one character who is complicit in this crime ring. She started out as victim, and then married one of the criminals, and became the madam basically—the woman who kept the girls in line and forced them to be prostitutes. She starts off making excuses for herself, saying, “I was like them. You know, I used to be an angel.” And then she says, “But I’m a devil, and I’m going to hell.” All of this is in Spanish; beautifully written by the poet and novelist from Mexico, Jorge Volpi. He really brings out the complexities of the characters. Dalia was forced to be a part of this, but like many victims, when they’re given power, they become abusers, and so she’s acting out things that happened to her. And the way that she psychologically makes peace with this, or doesn’t, is a really interesting part of the scene that I’ve written for her.

I was drawn to this character. She’s the oldest, the most complex, and the most conflicted. She’s like the main character from my grand opera, Faustine; an older woman who is obsessed with what she was when she was younger, which I think taps into so many important issues today in terms of how women see themselves, and how society sees and treats women. So this very rich, very conflicted older character is really interesting to me.

AG: So the monodramas will be presented back-to-back in an evening-length concert?

AS: Yeah, it’s an evening—about an hour-plus of music. And each scene is presented separately, but they are going to be knitted together with video and projection of the text, so it will be fully staged. The ensemble is really interesting. The instruments are piano, guitar, and percussion, plus the soprano. So it’s sort of a mini-percussive orchestra. It makes me think of Boulez’s Marteau Sans Maître, because it’s kind of that alto range with the guitar and the mallet-oriented percussion instruments; it was decided that marimba would be a part of it specifically. It also helps that Steven Schick is the percussionist, so we’re all sort of invited to write as much as we want. Though it’s a limited number of instruments, it’s pretty unlimited in terms of virtuosity. So that’s exciting. Aleck Karis is a Professor of Piano at UCSD and a distinguished contemporary music specialist, . And the guitarist, from Mexico, is Pablo Gomez, an excellent player as well. It’s a very unusual instrumentation, but I think it gives the project a sense of place and a very particular color. To hear what the other three composers have done as well as me, of course, with these instruments is really interesting too, because it’s a very challenging group to write for. I think we all dealt with the challenges in our very own individual ways. Also, we all have a very international point of view on issues of borders, where one’s place is, how one deals with oppression, views of different countries, and things like that. But the power of the story, because it deals with current events and with crimes that nobody really knows what to do about, and something so emotive and so horrific really… it’s just a very powerful piece. I’m really, really excited to be a part of it. We presented a workshop performance at Yellow Barn just this week, and we had a chance—the four composers, the four performers, and our writer—to work together very closely and really try out a lot of things. The premiere will be in San Diego in May.

AG: Did you find any big surprises when you were working out the material? Maybe things that worked better than you thought, or less well than expected?

AS: Oh, yes. Well, it’s a new thing for me; I’m trying to figure out how to make this absolutely gorgeous soprano voice become terrifying and nasty. So, I talked with Susan about different ways that she can alter her voice so that she can translate herself from Dalia’s angel of the past—her remembered self—to her current self who’s this ugly old demon, basically. Of course, Susan will never be those things, but to make her voice have something of that quality, especially when she starts to reveal the awful things that she’s done to keep this crime ring going. It’s poetic language, so it’s not too explicit, thankfully. I don’t think it needs to be, but she just says, “I brought these girls to heel. I discipline them.” And you know, it’s a really shocking thing to hear, especially from a character who says, “They’re so beautiful, and I used to be like them. I was innocent. I had no malice.” It’s the perfect opera aria, because you get a real transformation of character. You get a moment to really look into the soul of a very disturbed person. It says something about the composer, maybe! [Laughs] But you have to admit, writing opera, you want these kinds of characters. You want this kind of drama. And as a composer, it is the richest challenge to what we can do musically to make these layers come out of a character.

AG: So how does the soprano feel about having to alter her voice in that way?

AS: Working with a soprano like Susan—I mean, she can do anything. I thought that being low in her voice would be harsher, but we’re going to think of more mid-range ways to get a kind of nasal, witchy voice. Because the thing is, it’s not just what the voice can do. It’s also what is comfortable and workable over the arc of a big piece, which has a lot of virtuosic stuff in it. So you want to get a sound that is different, but isn’t going to irritate the voice. It’s a learning curve.

AG: Does this piece employ any of the process-oriented things that have inspired you in other works, such as concepts of game theory and natural selection?

AS: Yeah. It’s an interesting thing to consider because when you’re writing a dramatic piece or a vocal piece, something to do with poetry, obviously that’s what the piece is about. And that’s what you’re engaging with. But you also want it to connect with your other work. I think for any composer, once you’ve written a few pieces, you have your technique. You have the way that you write. And as much as you want to change it and make it more versatile—and hopefully you do—that’s a challenge in the interest of keeping writing. You want things to be consistent from piece to piece and to be part of the same language. So what I’d done with the character Dalia in this piece is to focus on a part of the text that has a kind of physical connection. Dalia talks about these young women as flacas potrancas. Potranca wasn’t a word I knew before, because it’s specific to a region I’m not so familiar with. But what the phrase means is “skinny fillies,” which is kind of interesting because she’s this trafficker. She’s seeing young women as animals, you know, she’s trading them. It’s a funny phrase, but it’s also a very harsh phrase. And then also these women, these fillies, are trying to run away. They’ve escaped, and that’s the point of the story. So I thought of this kind of nervous, sort of galloping music that had a physical sense of what that phrase is, and of what these women are. They live in this harsh, horrible, physical world, which is about their bodies, and about trying to escape the abuse of their bodies. So the sense of running, of nervousness, of escape, is a big part of the piece.

Also, the aria that I’ve written is for this criminal woman who’s been caught. So she’s in the situation of extreme nervousness where she’s confessing. She’s making excuses. She’s reflecting. So the music has this very nervous sort of dotted-rhythm kind of energy about it. In that way, it relates to some other music that I’ve written which has been about combat, which has been about the natural world, which has been about physical creatures in environmental space. That had something to do with the way that I was able to construct the instrumental music of this piece. But the vocal music is really all about the text and about the characterization. I think that’s what keeps composition interesting—that we can switch from instrument to vocal, from objective to dramatic, and try to make it part of an individual voice.

AG: So in the case of Cuatro Corridos, the story is obviously the primary point of inspiration. Could you give an example of how the other ideas you’ve focused on in the past—about combat, the natural world, etc.— manifest in a piece?

AS: A big part of how I work is applying extra-musical ideas to musical structures. The extra-musical ideas that I’ve been most interested in in the last few years have been connected to two disparate, but actually quite related things. One is game theory, and the other is natural selection and evolution. Connected to game theory is also military strategy. Basically, what they have in common is the idea of agency—different points of view: different characters potentially, but not necessarily, having different interests and different goals, and having to interact. If you look at the natural world, of course, it’s full of that, too. You have predators, you have prey, you have plants, you have different living things all trying to find and keep their place and survive in relation to all these other things that have other goals. How does that relate to music? Well for me, it was a very interesting way of mapping relationships between different instruments. Sun Tzu’s Art of War is a book of inspiration for me for different pieces. For my piece Surrounded Ground, I read a part of Sun Tzu which describes a situation where a large army is being attacked by guerilla fighters. The idea of Surrounded Ground is where this army is: They are on the ground, and they’re surrounded by agencies that know the ground better than they do.

I was commissioned to write Surrounded Ground for sextet—for piano, clarinet, and string quartet. And interestingly, as a companion to the Aaron Copland Sextet from 1933, which is an interesting piece in terms of mixing his kind of more approachable style with more cerebral aspects of his work. So when reading Sun Tzu, I thought about the string quartet in this ensemble as the large army, and the piano and the clarinet as the guerilla fighters. Not because I needed a story, but because in thinking about instruments and about the way that they relate, obviously you have a mass of four instruments that are homogenous, that sound perfectly together, that we associate as something completely free-standing. And then we have these two outliers. Thinking about how they relate got the piece going for me.

It was a really useful way of tackling this mixed ensemble. It was also a way of adding a layer of drama that wouldn’t exist otherwise. If I had written a piece that was like Copland’s—just a pure sextet—it would be about motifs, rhythms, and colors. But there’s a dramatic edge to thinking about a piece as being about agencies in conflict, about being surrounded and escaping. It gave a sense of urgency, a sense of drama, to the music that I wrote. I wouldn’t say that the piece is about anyone winning or losing, and it doesn’t have a story in the way that Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique has a story.

Mind you, I think you can listen to that piece and enjoy it without knowing the story, and I know a lot of composers from his time up to now have private programs that they don’t reveal. I guess I’m more candid about the process and the inspiration for my pieces, but I have to tell you very honestly, it’s not a program. There isn’t a set ending. There’s no hero. It’s something that helps me write, because I set up a process of different relationships, of conflict with or without resolution and the types of motion that go with those sorts of musical ideas. For me, it is a way of organizing, of mapping, of writing types of music that interact.

AG: I think it’s a really interesting way of dealing with your raw musical materials. It’s a good example of one way to approach composition, and of course it demonstrates that there’s more that can be done to generate material than to just think about pure melody, harmony, and rhythm. I have visions when you talk about this approach to composing that are like, for instance—imagine a comic book scene—the tuba taking down the flute in performance! Ka-POW!

AS: Funnily, I have a piece like that! It’s the horn and the trumpet beating out the woodwinds and the strings. Game of Attrition is my “Darwin” piece. It was written for the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth in 2009. What Darwin describes in The Origins of Species is not just the things that most of us learn in school, about how natural selection means that the best adapted creatures will survive where maladapted ones perhaps won’t. It’s also about different kinds of strength evolving that allow different species to survive. What he makes very clear is that there’s a competition for each tiny strata within every environment. So if you eat only seeds, you have to compete with everything else that eats only seeds. It’s very specific in terms of the levels of competition that go on in the natural world.

I was commissioned to write the piece for chamber orchestra, and I thought, well, you can map that onto instruments by thinking about tessitura. So if you had a viola versus a clarinet, versus a horn, versus a marimba, they all live in that same strata of “alto-ness,” where their strongest ranges are. So who would win? And what does winning mean? Who’s louder versus who’s more agile? Those are interesting things to consider. The piece is a succession of competitive duos where instruments of the same tessitura are kind of battling each other. Finally, the last battle is the strings versus the brass. And of course, you’d think the brass would be the loudest, but they run out of air. The strings don’t run out of air. So it’s a kind of counter-intuitive ending, that the strings get the last word. Setting up these conditions, this way of thinking, got me the structure of the piece. It wasn’t that I decided that the strings had to win because I love the string instruments, or that I really had to finish the piece with a particular chord on the strings. It was something that emerged from my process; by setting up patterned music where there are different gestures with instruments vying against each other, the brass are just not going to last as long as the strings. So that was the ending that evolved from my Darwin piece.

AG: I like the idea of questioning the meaning of “best adapted.” It’s not always the biggest, or the most colorful, or even the strongest. It might be that tiny little brown bird over there…

AS: Right! And what we were from? A little mammal that survived in the undergrowth when the dinosaurs were disappearing… not the most promising start.

AG: Exactly. So okay, this is clearly a very personal approach that you bring to your work, and that has shaped your musical identity. We were chatting before this interview about creative authenticity, and I’d love to know more about what the notion of “authenticity” means to you personally.

AS: It’s interesting how identity is important for a lot of artists. I think there are a lot of different ways to interpret that. For some colleagues, it’s about maybe music that they heard as children. Or about music from a country that they feel connected to, or were born in and then have moved away from. Or feeling that their music needs to fit into a cultural or national idea of identity. For me these issues have always been pretty complicated. Like a lot of Americans, my background is very mixed. I have a Latin American surname. Spanish is my second language, not my first language. I think having a voice as a composer, having a point of view as an artist, is deeper even than that. That thinking of one’s roots, one’s identity in terms of geography or nationality, is perhaps a little stereotyped, or potentially can be. So if I say I’m half Puerto Rican, you know, am I obliged to be using Puerto Rican music, or writing music that is like composers who are from Puerto Rico?

I don’t think so, because my experience is very different from theirs. My connection is to New York, really, not to Puerto Rico. I have really affectionate ties to New York and to Ellis Island even—I know which of my ancestors went through there. And I’ve actually never been to Puerto Rico (though of course I’d love to visit)! As an artist, there are so many other things I’m interested in. I love Latin American culture. I love the Spanish language. I’ve set it a lot of times, including in my most recent project. But I’m also interested in visual art; I’m interested in science; I’m interested in dance; I’m interested in the natural world. I would be interested in these things no matter what country I grew up in, no matter what my first language or second language happened to be. I think what makes us individual is that combination of interests and how that filters through us as individual artists, rather than some external pigeonholing of what it means because you’re from this country or that country, or this state, or that city. I think I’ve had an opportunity to reflect on this, too, because I’ve been living outside the United States for a long time now. I moved to Berlin in ’97, and to London in ’99, so I’ve basically lived my whole professional life as an ex-patriot. That makes me more affectionate toward things from home. Thanks to travel and technology and professional opportunities, I’m really engaged with music in the U.S., and I feel that I’m an American composer. I was born in America. But that’s not the limit of what I am as a composer. And I think it helps my work to stay open and to not think of my identity as being limited to one country.

AG: Since you’ve been living in the U.K. for a long time now, are there differences between the musical worlds of the U.K. and the U.S. that you’ve found surprising? Obviously, the U.K. is a smaller, more condensed scene. Everybody really does know each other, I imagine.

AS: Yeah. And they’ve all known each other since they were twelve, that’s the other thing, because they have music schools for children.

AG: If everybody else has known each other since they were small, how did it feel to enter into that scene as an adult?

AS: Starting off in a new country—and I found this in Germany, as well as in the U.K.—is very interesting. The first thing people identify with is nationality. So as a composer, if you say, “I’m an American composer,” well, that has very clear preconceptions to our European colleagues. So, do you write like Copland, or do you write like Phil Glass, or like Elliott Carter? You know, it’s that limited and that divergent. But then you dig a little bit, and you find that actually a lot of colleagues on the other side of the pond have a very nuanced view of American music. Certain American composers are done a lot in Germany, and others are done a lot in the U.K., and maybe they aren’t done so much here. So it gives you a very open point of view of what American music is. Outside of the U.S., you don’t have the divisions. People don’t really understand that this composer is the exact opposite of that composer. They’re all seen as just more American composers. In a way, it’s easier to forget about the polemics when you’re abroad. You’re not arguing the same issues. But if you want to work abroad as an American composer, I think what you have to convince people of is that you’re going to stick around. There are so many American students who come for a semester and then go back home, or come for a year on a Fulbright or something, and then go back home. It was even articulated in Britain—it was, “Are you sure you’re going to stay?” Yes. I am staying. It’s showing that you have a role to play, that you are engaged with the music and with the community where you live. That’s important for any composer anywhere. For me starting out in London, I went to every new music concert; I got to know people. If I thought a piece was terrific, I introduced myself to the composer—especially as a young composer, getting to know senior composers and seeing if they’re teaching at a festival. If I thought their piece was terrific, well, I’d try to go to that festival. Just getting to know people in a very sincere, simple way. If you like someone’s music, well, talk to them. See what they’re about. If you don’t like someone’s music, no problem. You know, next.

It was a really nice way to get started in London, because I had finished all my studies. I was starting to develop my own voice and have my first opportunities, and I was in a place where I could do so away from the arguments of the places where I studied, and around a lot of other people who were from other places. I think London is maybe even more like that than New York, but it’s certainly similar to New York in that everybody there is from somewhere else. I met a lot of Russian composers, French composers, Polish composers, Czech composers, as well as British composers. We all mixed, and we were all at the same festivals and doing the same master classes and things. Being American was just another point of view. And it was an advantage to have that to talk about and maybe disabuse some people of their preconceptions of American music, too.

AG: Since you are quite focused on large musical forms, what has your experience been like dealing with orchestras and opera companies and big institutions in the U.K. Is there, for instance, more rehearsal time for orchestras? Are they structured very differently, or not so much?

AS: As a composer—as a younger composer, particularly—dealing with big institutions, I think we have a lot to do, treading carefully, to make sure that our work is well represented without losing sight of the fact that institutions are full of people who are working very hard on a billion things. So when I work with orchestral players, anywhere, I’m very respectful of the amount of time they have, and what they have to do to get, you know, nine concerts on in five days—the sorts of things that professional orchestral players do. I think my experience working with large institutions helps me to be as efficient in getting my ideas across as I possibly can be; to be as clear with my notation, articulate in my way of describing what I want, as I can be. Because they don’t have time to learn all the nuances that I may be dreaming of, and they certainly don’t have time to know all the really neat ideas I was thinking about when I came up with that phrase. They might want to know if we have a few drinks afterwards, in a post-concert talk, or whatever, but the players’ business is to execute something as well as possible in the shortest amount of time, because that’s what they’re given. It’s not their fault. It’s just the way that things are scheduled. So, our job as composers, in my experience, is just to get our ideas across in a way that people say, “Oh, I get it.” Play it. And talk about it afterwards. Talk about the nuances and the ideas with the conductor, and with the audience, and put things in your program notes. There’s a big difference between what a big institution can do with their schedule, and what a small chamber group can do with their schedule. You have to be respectful of the circumstances, and tailor what you want and what you can expect of people accordingly.

One of the things I’ve learned about working in Britain is that there’s a kind of national pride in sight reading ability over there. The British are famous for being incredible sight-readers. What this gets you is a fantastic first reading of a piece. Then things can dip a little, and then they get better again. But the thing about working with people who can read like that is you’ve got to make sure your material is absolutely clear, because it really makes them very angry to be tripped up by something silly that you’ve done. So that efficiency, that sense of professionalism, is sort of a sense of pride; this player can look at any number of nested tuplets, any number of quarter tones, special effects, and all sorts of things you can think of, and play it. It’s wonderfully liberating in some ways because a lot of new music techniques are expected there that were not so expected when I was a student working in the U.S.

So there’s a kind of level of expectation that yes, oh, you’re a composer. You write new music. You can do these things. I found that very liberating. At the same time, there’s the expectation from players that if you’re going to ask me to do this, you better get your point across perfectly. If I’m going to read it perfectly, you have to give me something to read perfectly. That gave me a sense of a new level of professional standards. Also, I was very impressed when I first moved to Britain, because students start working professionally much earlier. So while composition students in their early 20s in the U.S. were writing student pieces for student groups, in Britain they’re already expected to write for professional groups. And they are already expected to have that level of technical ability and professionalism. It’s quite intimidating at first, and it really gave me a sense of the reality of professional life. Because I had just finished my last graduate degree, and I was meeting people a few years younger than me who didn’t have as many degrees as I did who were producing absolutely polished new pieces. And they were thoroughly professional.
I think in the U.S. we’ve been catching up the last few years. There’s a sense now that you really want to know who you are and make your way as a composer as soon as you really can, and there are more institutions and competitions and things in place to help you do that. But when I first moved to Britain, I was really amazed at how much those things are a part of the infrastructure there. I think it has some disadvantages, too, because you don’t maybe know as much about your point of view at age 22 as you do at age 32. I do think a composer’s voice needs time to develop. But that level of professionalism in terms of creating legible parts, knowing your notation, understanding the instruments, getting across to players clearly and respectfully what you want them to do, and knowing that they can do the things that you want them to do—those are all things that any composer needs at any age.

AG: I think it’s worth mentioning that a British composer was one of the forces that brought you to the U.K.—your husband, Ken Hesketh. Those of us who are coupled up with people who work in different fields are always curious to know what it’s like being married to another composer. Do you discuss your pieces with one another while you’re working on them? Do you listen to music together?

AS: Sometimes, yeah. We’re almost exact contemporaries. I think our partnership has been helpful in that we grew up in different countries, in different education systems, and in different musical education systems. It’s been very interesting to compare notes and talk about the advantages and disadvantages of things that we were exposed to as we were growing up in music. The British have this incredible choral tradition, for example. But I also learned a lot about jazz and a lot about Latin music, as well as the words to old standards and things like that, which is a kind of American music education that Europeans don’t really have. So, it’s been nice to get a perspective on what is different and what is valuable about what you have compared to a contemporary in another country.

Living with another composer who’s just as busy as I am is very, very helpful because we spur each other on. It’s really about having that implicit encouragement that creative work is serious, and it’s time to do it. It’s been really helpful actually, especially when I was finishing my degrees; I was engaged to somebody who was already getting his first commissions and working on the highest level. It just made me think, you know, I got those degrees for a reason, so I could be as serious, as professional, as this colleague is. It helped me to make a strong start professionally, where I might otherwise have been tempted to slack off for a few years and think, oh, I’m done with all that coursework and it’s time to relax. So as a result, I’ve written a lot of music, and not done a lot of relaxing! It’s also helpful in discussing professional issues, professional problems, but I think this is a larger point—that if you’re writing your first commissions, or in your first teaching job, or talking for the first time with publishers and agents, you really need to talk to colleagues and compare notes on these things, because they’re hard and you want to get things right. You want to develop the good relationships and stay away from the less helpful ones. If you have colleagues that you confide in, who you can be really honest with, that is an immeasurable help.

So if you can’t fall in love with and marry a composer-colleague, I would say stay close to your favorite classmates, the composer-colleagues that you knew coming up. Do that anyway. I mean, I do very much like to stay in touch with people I was in school with, in festivals with, people I got to know through the first steps of professional life. Even if we were only in the same place for one month one summer, and that summer was ten years ago, hey, there’s a lot to reflect on and talk about. Those connections are personally rewarding. Whether or not they lead to more work or whatever, you’ll see, but that’s not the point. The point is the connection and having that common ground, and having that professional advice and encouragement.

AG: Speaking of school, you both hold teaching positions, but at different institutions. You mentioned earlier that a composer’s voice needs time to develop. How do you see your role in guiding that process through teaching composition?

AS: Teaching can be such an important part of how we start to compose. I don’t know how many composers feel like they were taught to compose. I’m not sure it’s something that you can teach—at least in the most important context, which is the creative impetus. You can’t give that to somebody else. But then I find with lots of students, everybody’s got ideas, but it’s how you execute them. If you can’t bring them to fruition, then you’re nowhere. So, I’ve been teaching for about eight years now, and I think teaching has become more interesting to me as I’ve done it longer because I’m trying to help students to make their ideas into pieces and that’s a really hard thing to do the first few hundred times! I mean, it’s so hard for all of us starting pieces, even if we have a lot of experience. But I do feel that teaching is important to me in terms of helping students to realize their ideas—giving them ideas to work with that can become their own. Giving them the space to figure that out, and giving them encouragement without telling them how to do something. I like to give a rather light touch with my advice when I’m teaching. To give a sense of direction, rather than to say, this is the way it must go. Because I feel that my music belongs to me, and students’ music has to belong to them. What is this for if it doesn’t feel owned by the person who creates it?

AG: You say you have a light touch when giving advice. What is that like?

AS: It’s really tricky. I ask a lot of questions about what they want to have happen next. Or at least what sort of affect they’re after overall. Or what they see the piece doing—whether it’s to do with how the instruments are being used, or what the architecture is over time. I like to give options, because when I look at a musical idea, I can always see several different ways that it can go. A student may not see that. That gets easier with experience. I really enjoy giving students a lot of options that they can then manipulate and make their own in a certain way. So I love to say, “Okay, you have this idea, well, if you take it this way, then you can do this. If you take it that way, it will be more like this. Come back next week and show me what you’ve chosen!” Because they’re not my pieces. They’re their pieces. I’m just excited to see what they come up with and, hopefully, how individual it is. I really try to give them technical help to write like themselves—really objective advice on how to use musical materials and how to make them work.

AG: I know that it was the study of electronic music that first started you on the path to composing, but once you got involved in writing for acoustic instruments, the electronic music dropped off.

AS: After a childhood of playing the piano, I actually started composing through electronic music. It was a way of getting ideas down, manipulating musical materials without having to worry about notation. And for someone who studied piano and didn’t study composition, that was really a relief and a wonderful opening to ways of manipulating sound and making new things without all the business of getting the notation right. So my first pieces were musique concrète pieces, as well as pieces for analog synths and digital synths. I was part of a wonderful major at Oberlin called Technology In Music and Related Arts (TIMARA), where basically we were shown a Moog one week and digital programming software the next week. Each week we were shown something new and told to figure out how it worked, or helped to figure out how it worked. Then the assignment would be to make a piece with that thing, whatever it was. It was a fantastic training ground, not just in terms of technical matters, but also as a composer, because this is essentially what we do all the time.

If I’m commissioned to write a piece for an ensemble including a cimbalom, or a piece for two string instruments, or for a singer and guitar and percussion, basically I’m taking those machines, figuring out what to do with them, and making a piece. It’s just a way of being really flexible, using your resources, and making something new with them. So the creative side of how the TIMARA program worked was really useful, basically every week figuring out how to make a new little piece. The one thing that made it stop working for me was when the concerts came around, because the concerts were sitting in the dark and somebody pressing play. While it was interesting to sit around and listen, I had played piano from the age of five, and played in competitions and all sorts of different kinds of ensemble things, and I just missed the excitement and suspense of performance. I realized that the classical music love that I had for all the instruments and orchestral music—that I had to marry these two things. I had to use the manipulation of sound and get that energy of live performance together somehow.

It just meant I had to learn a lot of stuff super fast in order to learn how to notate my ideas: how to deal with sophisticated rhythmic notation, how to orchestrate, and how to handle harmony. I took lots and lots of (hugely useful) counterpoint, which was like getting my teeth drilled, but I did it. These are all the tools that a composer needs if you want to write for classical instruments. And that’s what I’ve basically done for my whole professional life—writing for everything from solo pieces to full orchestral pieces, to grand opera scenes. I’ve written about half an hour now of a grand opera (grand opera just meaning singers plus orchestra), as well as works choral, large chamber, small chamber, including all sorts of instruments that I had never played, that I’d never had any contact with before, just learning what they could do for specific projects as they came along.

So in thinking about a return, I’ve been asked many times, would I consider writing for electronics, but I just couldn’t figure out how. I think I was afraid of the dark room, and pressing play, and sitting there again, and just having that kind of anti-climactic sense of the performance. But now I have a new project coming up which is for three pianos: two pianos plus a digital piano—a Disklavier—and those instruments will be combined with digital processing, samples, and percussion, and so I’ll have three incredible pianists will be also using percussion and electronics to create other sounds that I will have set up for them. Two pianos is already like an orchestra, as far as I’m concerned. Plenty of notes for sure. And with the Diskavier, basically you get three pianos plus, because the Disklavier is basically a player piano that you can also play at the same time. Urban Birds is a piece I’ll be composing to tour in the U.K. and U.S. next year, with Kathleen Supove, Sarah Nicholls and Xenia Pestova—it’s a really great way to bring these international soloists together, and we’re all really excited about the project. For me it’s an ideal way of getting back into electronic music, following on from having written a lot of big acoustic pieces over the last few years. It looks like this will be my orchestral-electronic piece – more news soon!

AG: I’m so glad to hear that.

AS: Thanks. Me, too. It’s all about performance, and about pianos, so it’s kind of a return to my roots in that way, too, you know. And it will be fun to watch. That’s what I’m excited about.

AG: Well, I think that over the years it has become so much easier to integrate electronics into performance, and we don’t really need to worry so much about the dark room, or staring at two (or sixteen) speakers, with no performers in sight.

AS: They’ve become more and more interactive over time. It’s really true.

AG: Do you have very specific long-range goals for yourself as a composer, particular projects that you aspire to? For instance, I assume that you are interested in creating a full-length opera.

AS: I wouldn’t be a composer if I didn’t love all the old forms, you know? I never wanted to be Beethoven or Mozart, but I love the old genres; those collections of instruments, those sounds. But it’s also the appeal of creating really big, monumental works. I think about genres like opera, and large-scale orchestral pieces, as climbing Everest. Why do you want to work in those forms? Because they’re there. Because other composers have done them, and when you find your own voice, you think, yeah, what would my voice and my style look like in this huge wonderful form?

So yeah, it’s a kind of creative ambition, of course, to make larger and larger statements. I’m working on Faustine now—that’s a long-term grand opera project. I’ve had some wonderful support along the way, most recently with New York City Opera. But how that’s going to end up in terms of where it’s produced and by whom is something that has yet to be seen. You need the patience of Job for this stuff. That’s okay. I’ll look forward to writing Faustine and having that staged in the next few years. That’s a big one. The concerto form is something else I really love. I’ve written a piano concerto. I’d like to write a cello concerto as well as a violin concerto.

But this new large-scale electronic project is really something I’m excited about. I would do more with electronics if I could keep doing it on that kind of scale, so maybe ensembles with electronics. I like doing more with the keyboard, with the piano, because that’s where I come from. That’s what I’ve done since the age of five, so writing for amazing pianists is just a thrill. They can do all sorts of stuff I could never do. I love that. I’ve worked a decent amount with choreographers So I’d like to do more of that. And I have a series of new scores for two films by Maya Deren that I’m planning. I made a score for one of her films called Meditation on Violence, which was premiered by Lontano in London last year. It was a beautiful film of a kung fu master doing exercises that turned from something very peaceful that looks like tai chi, to something really combative. It fits very well with my work, obviously. She worked in the ‘40s and ‘50s principally, and is one of the first important American women directors of avant-garde film. She created these beautiful quasi-feminist surrealist films in black and white. What I hope to do is create new scores for a few of her films, using chamber music genres. So a string quartet, a woodwind quintet, various mixed ensembles, all playing live with each film. That’s something I’m planning over the next few years.

AG: It all sounds great.

AS: Thanks! Yeah it’s lots of stuff. Like a fish, you have to keep swimming!

Steve Reich in Conversation with Richard Kessler

[Ed. note: This conversation between Steve Reich and Richard Kessler, then the Executive Director of the American Music Center, was originally published on the American Music Center’s website on July 1, 1998. It was the first of a series of interviews entitled “Music In The First Person” published in the year before the launch of NewMusicBox on May 1, 1999. “In The First Person” served as the model for one of the primary components of NewMusicBox which still continues on the site as “Cover.”]

1. Starting Out

RICHARD KESSLER: How do you feel the music business has changed over the last thirty years?

STEVE REICH: Well, thirty years ago I had just returned to New York City from San Francisco. Basically, John Cage was the most important thing in town; Morton Feldman was active; The younger people were James Tenney and Phil Corner and Malcolm Goldstein, and Charles Wuorinen. At that time, the American composers were either under the “downtown” influence of John Cage or the “uptown” influence of Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio and company. But the sad fact is that musically, everybody was under the influence of music that was not “pulsitile,” [not with a regular beat]. You can’t tap your foot to either Boulez or John Cage, nor could you know where you were tonally. The idea of cadence, any sense of tonal center, melody in any sense of the word — including even some Schoenberg — was pretty hard to put your ear on. So I felt sort of out of it and very much alone.

I had contact with Terry Riley, and LaMonte Young was active, but we weren’t very close at that time. So, there was precious little outside of the individual musicians that I worked with at that time. Arthur Murphy, the pianist and composer out of Juilliard, and Jon Gibson, the reed player (now playing with Philip Glass) who had played with me and Terry Riley back in San Francisco in the early sixties, [were active]. That was really my musical universe. I was working on getting the finished form of “Piano Phase”. I’d done the (tape) piece, “Its Gonna Rain,” out in San Francisco and then had come back [to New York].

I was really just getting my own music together for the first time, and it was very exciting. It was a given that I wasn’t going to get a call from anyone at Carnegie Hall or any other institution asking me to come and perform, so fortunately I began to know some painters and sculptors who later became known as “minimal” artists; people like Sol LeWitt and Robert Smithson, who I didn’t know that well, but who was part of that. Paula Cooper was running The Park Place Gallery, and some artists there invited me to give a concert, first in ’66 with the tape pieces and then again in ’67. I remember the Park Place Gallery concerts were a big success and people like Robert Rauschenberg came. A lot of people that were bound up in the Judson scene were there — painters, sculptors, filmmakers, choreographers. But I can’t think of any composers who were, except Phil Corner and James Tenney who were playing.

At that point I was acquiring an audience, basically of artists. In the long run that’s a good way to begin. I would say this to other composers: if you’re 25, and some dancer is 25, and some filmmaker is 25, or some video artist or painter or sculptor is 25, in some ways you’re going to be “swimming in the same soup” by being contemporary. And I think it’s a good, healthy thing — especially as you’re getting started. By all means, go to galleries; go to dance concerts and so on, as a social activity and as an artistic activity, because there’s no formula for what is going to give you understanding of the culture around you. Those artists are where you’re going to get the clearest messages that to with something inside of you, because you’re all alive at the same time, you’ve gone through the same experiences, you’re a part of the same generation in the same country.

To make a long story short, painters and sculptors helped me get gigs. Sol LeWitt bought a score of four organs and some other scores. I used that money to buy the Glockenspiels for “Drumming.” Bruce Nauman helped me get a concert at the Whitney. Richard Sierra helped with that concert and one at the Guggenheim. Michael Snow, the filmmaker, was part of that whole group. This was an exciting and very stimulating situation.

I think painters and sculptors react to music, more naively, in a sense, because their politics are a lot different from our politics. It’s very hard for one composer to listen to another composer without somehow bringing his own mind-set to the music he’s listening to. It’s not that it’s impossible. And that’s only natural, whereas someone in another art field is going to listen to it very naively, in a sense (you hope), and that’s a worthwhile, unbiased opinion. Ultimately, it’s a naive opinion that rules the roost. Stravinsky used to say that if the audience’s reaction was positive, he knew that that’s okay. We’re not so stupid after all!

Now, the most significant difference [in the past thirty years], and I see this in music schools here or in Europe, is that when I went to school there was one way of writing music that was discussed; today, you can write like Mahler and you can say “I’m like David Del Tredici” or John Corigliano or even John Adams for that matter, or you can write like me and Glass and other people, and you can write even rock and roll or techno. All of these things, and others, and the gradations between them are “grist for the mill,” and fairly so. Whether that’s better or worse, who’s to say? But it’s vastly different.

I also think that in the late fifties and early sixties the ambition of becoming a composer clearly lacked any economic expectations. When I decided to become a composer, I expected to have a hard time financially, and even when I got my MA, I felt that I didn’t want to teach, but that I had to have that insurance policy. If I didn’t survive [as a composer], I would fall back on teaching. In those days an MA was significant . Now you have to get a Doctorate! Fortunately, I was able to do part time jobs.

RK: You drove a cab?

SR: Well, yes I drove a cab in San Francisco, and in New York I worked as a part-time social worker. Phil Glass and I had a moving company for a short period of time. I did all kinds of odd jobs: I taught briefly at the New School and the School of Visual Arts but by 1972 I started making a living as a performer in my own ensemble. I would never have thought that it was how I was going to survive financially. It was a complete wonder.

If I had to give any advice to composers, I would say be involved in the performance of your own music, whether you’re a conductor conducting, or whether you are a musician playing. Or, if you’re not talented enough to do either, program a drum machine, or run the amplification board (which I do and which I’ve written myself out of). Just being involved with the performance of your own music will guarantee, insofar as you can guarantee it, that you’re getting the kind of performances that you don’t have to constantly apologize for when you give your friends the tape. And the more you’re involved in it, the better the performances are, the more reflective they are of what you had in mind, and the more likely they are to convey your musical ideas to other people.

2. Audiences

RK: You started talking about the art world, and what I’ve always noticed is that going to a concert of yours over the years, or, let’s say, to Phil Glass’s 30th Anniversary Concert a couple of weeks ago at Avery Fischer-you see a very different audience than you would for, say, the Vienna Philharmonic, or even the San Francisco Symphony playing new music. A very, very different audience. And that audience to me looks like it’s more connected with the art world: younger people who undoubtedly go to the Guggenheim and who go to the Whitney.

SR: Is the audience so typical to “pigeon-hole”? There are professors and there are students.

RK: But one thing’s for sure: as a group, they’re younger.

SR: Yes. with no doubt, and I’m delighted to see this.

RK: What do you think about this?

SR: I think it’s great but everyone has to write music that, in a sense, is who they are. If they try to do it otherwise, then in the long or the short run they will fail. I could mention names, but I won’t. But there are composers who adopt the “style-of-the-month” (and we know who they are and we could even run down the months and the different styles!) and everyone says “Oh, now he/she is doing this. Tuesday, minimalism…” The bottom line is that it doesn’t work! It doesn’t work because whatever it is that people have inside of themselves that’s really joined to some emotional and intellectual perspective on music — that’s what people want. They want the real you and they know when you’re not giving it. How? I don’t know how it works, but it works.

3. Orchestras and Acoustics

RK: But why would a younger crowd go to hear your music and not necessarily go to hear the London Symphony performing…

SR: My music!

RK: That’s very true.

SR: Well, I think, for my money, The London Symphony Orchestra is the best orchestra around for the music I write. But I’ve stopped writing for the orchestra in 1987 when I was writing the “Four Sections,” which I think is a reasonably successful piece for orchestra. At that time, I realized a number of things. Number one: the orchestra is not my orchestra in a purely acoustical, musical sense. The basic idea of the orchestra is that you will get more volume by doubling, and we’ll make balances between the brass, which are naturally loud, the woodwinds, which are reasonably loud, and the strings, which aren’t, by simply doubling the same parts. So when the little girl says to Mom, “Why are all these people playing the same line?” the answer is “to make it louder.”

Well, there is a price to pay for that, and it is the rhythmic agility: everyone is slightly sharp or slightly flat, because they’re human beings, and the note is literally fatter. If you put it on an oscilloscope you’d see, well, it’s wider. And you feel that. The sound of a string section is drastically different from the sound of a solo violin. I began to realize that what I’d been doing over the years was simply to use the microphone to make balances, not to make the music louder, but so that I could have a singer who’s singing in an early music style or a pop style, which is basically small voice, no vibrato, to be heard over percussion and keyboards). Well, when you amplify, it’s very simple.

But in that simple little fact, what you’re doing is turning over the history of the orchestra: The orchestra begins roughly around the time of Haydn. There are thirty-five or forty musicians, then the clarinets come in, and then Beethoven puts in the trombones, so you’ve got to have more strings to balance that off. Then comes Wagner and huge brass, expanded winds to balance that and then it stops. And basically the Wagner orchestra, the eighteen firsts and sixteen seconds and so on, is still with us. It made perfectly good sense for Haydn to have what he had. It made perfectly good sense for Beethoven to have what he had. And it made perfectly good sense for Wagner to have what he had. But once the microphone was invented, there was a complete other possibility: you could either use an acoustical organization created for an acoustical reality, and if you want it louder, you have more people doing it, [or you can amplify].

The invention of the microphone introduced new possibilities. Besides, I’m sixty-one years old; I grew up listening to more recorded music than I did live music (and I dare say I was the first of a generation where almost all the composers after me would have that precise experience). I realized I was used to the sound of music coming out of a loudspeaker. Now, everyone is quick to tell you that there’s a lot wrong with that, but there are a lot of things that are very interesting, as well: the little details of execution; the slide on the string; the sound of the resin on the bow. The little intimate details of the performance come to us because the microphone is very close to the player. So you create the possibility for a great deal of detail, if you keep the texture clear enough, where that stuff is giving you little bits of energy, if you like. You hear every bow stroke; you hear the articulation in the clarinet reed, etc., and you don’t think about that but it gets to you. So when you use amplification, it just becomes a reality of the performance.

And if you take the same piece, like “Tehillim” which was done by my group with solo strings amplified and then Mehta did it with twelve firsts (violins), it still feels like “what’s this big, heavy thing that we’re trying to pull along with this small ensemble inside of it.” And that’s partly my own fault too, for going for the glory of the New York Philharmonic and realizing that it was subverting the music. It took most of the eighties for me to become clear with that because back then my own ensemble had gotten larger after “Music for Eighteen Musicians,” and I was thinking: “Well, this is ridiculous. I can’t travel around the world with an orchestra or anything like that. If I want to write for the orchestra, write for the orchestra.” I was thinking: “Oh, three oboes interlocking and three clarinets interlocking and three strings” — but each of the three strings was eight people. So “The Desert Music” was to me the most successful piece I did that way. The string orchestra is divided in three and the percussion goes in the center, right in front of the composer, or right in front of the conductor (that’s a slip!). Right in front of the conductor, in a piece where the ictus, the beat, is going all the time. If the strings around the percussion can hear it, then it’s fine. If you put the percussion sixty feet away from the conductor in the back of the hall, and the strings are sitting right next to the conductor, he’s beating what the percussionist is playing but the 60-foot delay in the sound causes the whole orchestra to not be together. It’s impossible. So I rearranged the orchestra this way. The result: well, if you have an enormous amount of rehearsal, you can get a reasonably good result, but it guarantees that no one is ever going to play the piece because they’ve got to completely re-seat the orchestra; they’ve got all the electronic paraphernalia; they’d take one look and say “Well, what else have you got?” So I began to realize that my musical acoustical difficulties were also intimately tied with the sociology and practical realities of stagecraft. Also, if you introduce electronics, they might do it once, on commission, and then you can kiss it good-bye. Then I began to realize that my orchestra is my ensemble and there are all these wonderful European ensembles like it, such as the Ensemble Modern, London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Schoenberg Ensemble, Klang Forum Wien, Ictus Ensemble, Avanti Ensemble, and they’re growing like mushrooms all over Europe.

RK: What are your thoughts about the orchestral repertoire issue? The orchestra industry is certainly of — or will be of-importance to our readers. The orchestra industry is facing many challenges: for all intents and purposes, the repertoire stopped expanding in the fifties. There are a small number of works that have entered the core repertoire in the past 30 years. There are many people in the industry wondering what to do about aging audiences, a repertoire that isn’t growing, and composers like you, who aren’t interested in writing for it the medium. What do you make of all this? You talked a little about the social and cultural context earlier…

SR: I feel that the orchestra is no more important and is just another variation on promusica antiqua. It’s very important that early music, like Perotin, be heard. For me it’s just as important that Perotin be heard as it is that Mozart be heard. As a matter of fact, I personally would much rather hear Perotin than Mozart. But whether you like it or not, these guys are both very, very important composers in their age. They were the top of their historical period. Why should we hear more Brahms than Josquin? Because there’s an organization that plays it that’s absorbing so much money. But if you were to just weigh it on the musical scales, you’d say “Well, it depends on your stylistic preference, but this is great music and that’s great music.” My feeling is, and I know there are others who’ve voiced similar ideas, that it would be interesting if there were fewer orchestras, and other musicians would simply go and form whatever kind of groups they want to form. Those orchestras would be larger and encompass all the history of western music. For example: you’d have a group of about 120 musicians that would include a baroque and early music group directed by music director A, who is not an orchestral romantic specialist. Then you would have the large romantic orchestra, with a few gambists from the early music group who might want to sit in the cello section — that would have one of the name conductors in the classical and romantic field. Then you’d have a new music ensemble with a separate music director, another one of the conductors who we could name, with somewhere between fifteen and forty people, again including some crossover from the early music group and from the other orchestra; This sort of large center, sort of like a medical center, would be able to tour. These three major groups would have a couple of venues: a large two-thousand-seater, and a one-thousand-seater, and would employ 120 or more musicians. They would pool their advertising muscle and their appeal to a much wider musical taste.

We’re now seeing pop record departments selling medieval music — how about that! Who would’ve thought that Gregorian chant was going to be a hot numero in any form! Well, live and learn. I think that’s great. No matter how you look at it, I think it would be a very interesting way to go. If you had a regular opportunity to do Gabrieli and also do some Wagner, what’s wrong? And you could go out in different groups. Everything that players in orchestras complain about, the routine and repetitions, wouldn’t be completely solved, but the people who want to change that would have the possibility in the extended repertoire, the extended number of chamber-sized ensembles that were under one aegis.

One of the most wonderful orchestral events I’ve ever been to was one Michael Tilson Thomas did in June of 1996, where he had a festival including The Grateful Dead (sans Jerry Garcia). On the greatest day, I did “Clapping Music” with one of the percussionists out there and Meredith Monk sang; they did Lou Harrison‘s organ concerto; they did an improvisation on Henry Cowell‘s “Tone Cluster” with Michael Tilson Thomas and members of The Grateful Dead, and half the audience was “deadheads” who were dead quiet and listening to everything, really getting off on it. The orchestra itself never came out and appeared as an orchestra, but all these ensembles were right there. This is what every orchestra has within itself, but somehow it can never find the scheduling and the marketing expertise to present itself that way. Anyway, it’s certainly possible and perhaps it will happen.

Personally, I don’t go to orchestral concerts. I don’t listen to that repertoire — I say it over and over again. Back in 1955, when I studied music history at Cornell University with William Austin, he taught it like this: He started with Gregorian chant, we went up to the death of Bach and Handel in 1750, and jumped to Debussy, Duke Ellington, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Charlie Parker, Bartók, the works. And then we went back in the Spring semester and we did Haydn to Wagner. He used to say that he saw a continuity in the back-to-Bach of Stravinsky and the whole neoclassicism of the earlier part of the twentieth century, and an awareness of earlier music in the fifties. Beginning with the Swingle Singers, there was a neo-baroque revival — a sensitivity to the authentic instrumentation that began then. There was something in the Zeitgeist that people were saying “We’re really tuned in to hearing early music.” Alfred Deller was the first counter-tenor to appear at that time. I loved Ella Fitzgerald and I loved Joan Baez and I loved Alfred Deller and I loved Glenn Gould. So what else is new? That was one mentality, and the other mentality was the growth of German classicism and romanticism. And I think there’s a certain truth to that. The sonata allegro form appears really in the classical period: sonatas are not the same sonatas in the baroque period, so the kind of discursive, developmental thinking that goes on from 1750 anywhere on up to Schoenberg is really a body of thinking quite different from what preceded it, and in a sense, from what followed it.

RK: I thought it was interesting reading other interviews you gave, where you were talking about the French impressionists, Debussy, also talking about Stravinsky, also taking about Charlie Parker.

SR: Right. That’s a communality right there.

RK: And the Parker connection, Parker studied Stravinsky and the French impressionists.

SR: Well, you can hear it. When I was a kid, I realized later, you could go into an elevator and you’d hear something that was sort of a rip-off of Ravel, you know? And you’d hear it in the movies. [Sometimes I hear] really great music like Parker and Miles Davis and realize, well, that dominant 11th with the tonic on top of it that I used in ‘Four Organs,’ is in Thelonious Monk and it’s in Debussy, too. It was a way of loosening up tonality without leading to complete chromaticism. It seems to me there’s a fork in the road: this way Wagner, that way Debussy. And I think that most Americans, consciously or unconsciously, have traveled one of these “roads (for example, Aaron Copland). It’s like saying “I want to stretch tonality but I’m not getting rid of it.” Of course, there are the Americans who did follow the German direction (Charles Ives is probably an exception, because you could probably argue that he was closer to the German tradition than not. But he is an odd case).

RK: Yeah, he sounds very German, particularly in, say, his Second Symphony.

SR: But, nevertheless, what we love about Ives, the quoting of the hymn tunes, the polytonality which is really not at all those techniques.

RK: And he struggled with it.

SR: Yeah, I think he did but I think that most of the other people didn’t, like Gershwin and Copland. If you take a look at “minimal” music — referring to Ravel in particular, you’ll see a lot of repeated material in the middle register with a different bass. It’s just modally re-harmonized. Well, you know, welcome to the club, man, just an offshoot of French impressionism!

RK: Do you still feel indifferent towards Mahler?

SR: Yeah, well, I don’t feel indifferent to him — I really have a hard time, I really want to turn the radio station off and leave the room or not go to the concert. It’s not just Mahler, I’m not interested in Brahms, either. There are pieces of Beethoven’s I really love.

RK: It’s a language that doesn’t speak to you?

SR: Basically, what happens, if you look in simple terms — Haydn has a regularity of beat, and a very clear triadic texture, with a few seasonings here and there, but as the music, particularly after Beethoven, gets more and more chromatic, it also gets less and less rhythmic. The two go together until the rhythm becomes gesture, and therefore the conductor becomes of paramount importance, (which is why in the nineteenth century the conductor became such a colossus). It’s hard to think of a Haydn conductor. With Haydn as your war horse, you don’t go very far! When the gesture of the music rather that its ictus became the dominant thing, you see this floating tonality which reaches its apotheosis somewhere between the end of Wagner and the beginning of Schoenberg.

RK: It’s interesting that Bernstein was a great conductor of Haydn.

SR: Well, I like Haydn. I like Haydn more than Mozart, but what can I say?

4. Music as Language

RK: Would you describe music as a language that requires study or experience in order to decode, in order to enjoy? One person sits down and listens to a slow movement of Bach and finds it to be extraordinarily beautiful and another person sits down and listens to it and hears nothing! Is it a language issue? Is it just a matter of what strikes you?

SR: Well, you’re asking a question that I don’t think anyone has answered satisfactorily since the dawn of…

RK: So then it’s a good question?

SR: It’s a good question. But you know that I’m not going to have an answer. When I was first giving concerts in Germany in the early to middle seventies, people attacked music as mechanical and said it didn’t have a language, in a sense of a discursive language. I remember a letter I wrote to this guy in Stuttgart about it. I said that I don’t think that (Beethoven’s 5th motive) “da da da daaa” is fate knocking at the door, I think that it’s an incredible four-note motive, that what’s remarkable is that it continues through the scherzo and into the last movement. It’s the motive; it’s not really a melody, it’s a beginning of motivic organization, as opposed to introducing an imaginary text into music, and saying “Well, what does it mean?” The opening motive in the Fifth Symphony is four notes followed by four more. That’s what it means. It doesn’t have a verbal translation. Some people would say that it had a philosophical idea which he then translated into music. I think that’s absurd.

There’s language of music in terms of “Do you have perfect pitch? Can you write down what you hear?” Those are very real skills. You have different degrees of it. I’m very moderately skilled in that direction. I don’t have perfect pitch, and I can write down slowly if it’s easy. That’s why I’ve worked all my life as a composer with real sound. I work with the instrument, and once I knew that Stravinsky composed at the piano I said “Okay, whatever my limits, I don’t have to be completely ashamed!” And therefore orchestration and composition are one and the same thing for me because I’ll just try it on this, try it on that. But certainly someone who has perfect pitch like Arthur Murphy — he literally could go to hear Bill Evans and immediately write what he heard down on the napkin. He had an enormous talent, and some people have this.

Vincent Persichetti, whom I studied with, was one of those musicians who you just felt could do anything. He’d look at your piece and immediately improvise in its style. One would like to think that the greatest composers will always have this. And I think in a sense that’s true. I imagine that Bach must’ve been this way and Beethoven must’ve been this way. But I don’t think Eric Satie was that way, and he made a real contribution. I know I’m not that way and I hope I make some small contribution. At the highest level that’s absolutely true that in terms of people perceiving music, well, musicians do hear more than non-musicians. There’s no question about it. And we know exactly what they hear and some people hear more and some people hear less.

RK: Does it lead to feeling?

SR: Well, we go back to Bach again. I have one book of Bach’s letters, “The Bach Reader,” which is probably one of the most boring books ever compiled on Earth. I love it! “This trumpet player is insufferable. I need more firewood. Can we get a new choir? I need more firewood. We need some more money. That trumpet player…” I enjoy this! This feels autobiographical; I can relate to this! And he said “What’s most important? “Das Effekt,” the effect. Now, if Bach can say that, then we can do no better. I think the effect of music on the human being is the most important thing about music, and the thing that is the most difficult to discuss. I think that at a certain point, while they’re mapping the genome, scientists may very well be able to play a piece of music and find out exactly what’s happening in various people’s hearts or minds. Also, there are people who are more sensitive to music and there are people who are less sensitive to music — sometimes it goes with their musicality and sometimes, in a funny way, it doesn’t. So, you’re either musically talented or you’re not. Arthur [Murphy] was very talented in certain ways and then he had certain personal problems which made it impossible for him to function as a musician. Other people, like me, have very minimal talents really, but somehow have an incredible ability to just burn-in, concentration-wise, and do the best with what little they have. It also depends on what you’re doing: I’m not that great a player, so there was no future for me as a performer in music, and some composers I admire are like that. And there are others who are really great musicians — again, people who have been a member of the “style of the month club” — who conduct orchestras and I think have perfect pitch and certainly can write things down rapidly. But they seem like a waste of time.

RK: Another take on the question: can you teach someone to like something?

SR: I don’t think so, no. I think you can teach people in general to understand music better. Copland’s book was a very good book in terms of how to listen to music, how to follow a sonata allegro form. That accomplishes something, but it doesn’t make someone who didn’t like the slow movement in the Bach that you mentioned like it.

5. Music and Technology

RK: How do you feel the new technologies are going to alter the way music is created, performed and accessed?

SR: It’s part of a continuum. First there was the perfection of the organ. And then a vast literature for organ music, then the invention of the piano created a whole new kind of keyboard literature. Electronics have had an enormous effect on popular music, it’s very clear to see. And by now almost every composer I know who’s my age or younger works with a computer in various ways. The possibility of playing back through midi, the possibility of orchestrating with that — I used to play everything on every instrument I was able to or have musicians down and try things out on instruments. Now, I find, with the proper samples of orchestral instruments, that I can actually do solid orchestration by trying it out on midi. My big problem that I could never solve is: does the oboe go over the clarinet or does the clarinet go over the oboe? The answer is “What’s the context?” I used to have a musician, who was a Broadway doubler, play English horn, oboe, all the clarinets, and flutes and we’d just record it multi-track. But now I’ve found that I can in fact go a long way working with some samples that came out of McGill University that are solo instruments well recorded. This is how I did the opening of “City Life”: there’s sort of a poor man’s “Symphony of Winds” in the beginning there. I figured, “If this works out in rehearsal, I’m with this program.” And it did.

RK: It’s very beautiful. It really is.

SR: So, I think the computer makes a difference, but it didn’t make anyone who wasn’t a good composer a good one. People say “Oh, now they’ve got this, they can do so and so.” Yeah, you can now have people churning out a lot of garbage faster and in a prettier looking score. You can definitely produce it quicker, but copy and paste ain’t gonna make you a good composer.

RK: What about the idea of music going directly into the Internet? A composer working in a room with midi or who knows what else, and literally, the performance venue is the Internet itself?

SR: I’m not even on the net because I feel that if I have one more means of communication, I will cease to be a composer and just be corresponding all day. I don’t know, but I think that will absolutely come to pass and would make a profound difference in what we now call the record industry.

6. New Works

RK: What are you currently working on?

SR: I’m working on the next collaboration with Beryl Korot, the video artist, after “The Cave.” And after “The Cave” I did “City Life” and I did “Nagoya Marimbas” and “Proverb.” And now I’m working on a piece called “Three Tales.” Specifically the first act and I’m rather late because of all the time spent with my sixtieth birthday and the 10 CD set and so on and so forth. The “Three Tales” are “Hindenburg,” “Bikini,” and “Dolly,” as in cloned sheep. So it’s a look at technology in the twentieth century from the first third of the century, to the middle of the century to the end.

RK: By “Bikini,” you mean the islands?

SR: I mean Bikini atoll, and the testing of the A-bomb, and maybe the bathing suit, too because it’s named after the island. That’s all anybody knows now. “Oh, you mean underwear.” “No, not entirely.”

RK: It took me a second to get it.

SR: I know. That’s why it’s good. It’s like “Oooh, I see.” Anyway, right now I’m working on “Hindenburg” and it’s quite different than “The Cave.” Musically, it’s different because in “The Cave” and in “Different Trains” I would record interviews with people about the holocaust and about my train trips as a child in the thirties and forties here in the States. And in “The Cave” I asked people about the biblical characters, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael. As these people answered, so I wrote. Their speech melody became, literally, the melody that I wrote. Of course, I chose what I wanted to, but I would never change their speech melody. I felt that, because of the subject matter in “The Cave” being religious subject matter and in the “Different Trains” the piece being an homage to people dead and alive, it just had to be that way. I could pick what I wanted, but I had to leave it the way it was. And I did, and I think it served those pieces very well. In “Hindenburg” and in “Three Tales” in general the basic idea is “Okay, I want to be in three flats. I want to be at quarter note equals 144. And if you’re not there, I’m going to change you”. So, for instance, there’s a very famous radio announcer — when the Hindenburg crashed there was one guy with a microphone: “It flashed and it’s crashing! It’s crashing. Oh, terrible!”

RK: “Oh, the humanity,” was a cry of that radio announcer.

SR: Exactly. He wasn’t speaking in three flats. But I needed him that way! So I made a few little adjustments…The piece opens with a typed out headline in the New York Times: “Hindenberg Burns In Lakehurst Crash, 21 Known Dead Twelve Missing, 64 Escaped.” And then a quote from the German ambassador: ” It could not have been a technical matter.” Which is what the German ambassador said to the New York Times, when asked what had gone wrong.

So, the music is more characteristic of what I do. It sets up a tempo and you get a head of steam going, rhythmically, instead of the constant changes of key, constant changes of tempo in both “Different Trains” and “The Cave.” That’s what I’m working on now. “Hindenburg” is going to be premiered at Spoleto in South Carolina in May 1998, Munich in September 1998, and then it will be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October 1998. The whole three act piece is slated for world premiere in 2001.

RK: This is kind of a weird question but, I figured I’d throw it at you anyway. You’re a giant in new music, there’s no doubt about it. How does it feel? Thirty years ago, you were out there driving a cab and doing social work . Thirty years later…

SR: Well, I feel I’ve been enormously fortunate. I think of Belá Bartók dying penniless in Mt. Sinai hospital. I was fortunate enough to join Boosey & Hawkes when Sylvia Goldstein was still there as their lawyer. And she told me “You know, we sent Bartók a hundred dollars in those days as extra money in the royalties.” And about a month later, they got a check for a hundred dollars back and a letter saying “You’ve made an error.” You hear that and it sends shivers up your spine. We think “Oh, Bart—k, he’s the staple of repertoire,” but he wasn’t in 1945 when he died. I’ve been very fortunate. John Cage was eating mushrooms until he was in his fifties, certainly. I just feel that God has been very good to me, and the musical public and the musical industry have been very, very good to me. I feel enormously fortunate. That’s really all I can say that makes any sense.

RK: I think it’s been music’s fortune.

SR: Thank you.