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The passing of Chris Rouse is an enormous loss. Chris was not only one of the great composers of our time, he was also a great friend and colleague.
I first met Chris in the early 1990s when I programmed his Trombone Concerto. I was first drawn to the piece because of its dedication my mentor and teacher, Leonard Bernstein, but quickly fell under the spell of the brilliant music itself. I decided to program it at the Cabrillo Festival, marking the start of a deep and long lasting relationship between the Cabrillo Festival and Chris Rouse. (I think I remain the only conductor to program an all Chris Rouse concert!)
The Trombone Concerto remains one of the trickiest and most challenging pieces that I ever conducted. But, wow, what a payoff. And that’s how I would describe most of Chris’s music: unbelievably challenging, but worth every second of the work required.
Chris’s music: unbelievably challenging, but worth every second of the work required.
Chris came to Cabrillo almost every summer and the musicians and audiences couldn’t get enough of his crazed creativity. When they saw I programmed a Rouse piece, the musicians immediately bumped up their practice exponentially! His modesty and biting wit were always present, yet his kind heart ever evident.
Marin Alsop and Christopher Rouse during a pre-concert talk at the Cabrillo Music Festival
Little did I know that I would end up Music Director of Chris’s hometown orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony, and that we would live just 2 miles away from each other. What a special treat to be able to run over to his house to grill him about a Prokofiev Symphony or get his programming thoughts on Orff, or bring him Oreos when desperation struck. We developed a deep friendship that would span almost 30 years. I loved his irreverence and his profundity.
Chris was a collector, and a collector of unexpected things: meteorites, records, guns. He started collecting composers’ signatures when he was a kid and amassed what I imagine is the largest private collection of composers’ autographs in the world. He knew how much I loved Brahms (because we argued about Brahms regularly) and gave me his Brahms autograph last week…kind hearted to the end.
His music is not just wild and crazy, it also grabs our hearts at the most fundamental and human core.
Chris had an encyclopedic knowledge of music (and many other things, too!) from rock ‘n’ roll and pop to many overlooked composers of the past. But his music is not just wild and crazy, it also grabs our hearts at the most fundamental and human core and moves us to feel the profundity of our existence. Many listeners have come to me after a Rouse performance to share that they finally feel relief from a tragedy or a trauma. His music captures our souls, expresses our vulnerabilities and gives us comfort.
This is what music is all about – this is the power of music. And this is how I will always remember my dear friend, Chris Rouse.
Christopher Rouse comes on stage to take a bow with Marin Alsop and the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra
If you were a kid growing up in Minnesota in the 1960s and you were a kid with an intense hunger to create your own music, you found yourself growing up in a kind of Coney Island of creativity There was Big Reggie’s Danceland, a big old barn of a place where every weekend you, and as many of your friends as you could pack into your car, would dance to music of the hottest young rock groups like the Beach Boys, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Rolling Stones. Minneapolis was ground zero for the big bands of the Upper Midwest like The Trashmen and the Underbeats. Some of your friends were even in those bands and they were producing big hits like “Surfin’ Bird” and “Foot Stompin’”. It seemed that everyone was creating their own original music.
Every church in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul had at least one choir and everyone sang in at least one of them. If you had season tickets to the performing arts series at the newly opened Guthrie Theater, no matter where you sat you were no further than 52 feet from the stage you were awash in the energy and musical air of Janis Joplin, James Taylor, Mose Allison, and Miles Davis.
When you went to plays at the Guthrie Theater, the music for each play was newly composed and performed live. If you had student season tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra, yes of course you would hear standard repertoire, but your head exploded with new works by Penderecki, Legeti, Skrowaczewski, and Lutosławski.
If you loved opera, you wrangled some tickets for the Center Opera (which you knew always produced new work) where you heard Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All, Carl Orff’s The Story of the King and the Wise Woman (Die Kluge), Eric Stokes’s Horspfal—season after season of newly conceived work.
Dominick Argento’s name was never on the programs at Big Reggie’s Danceland, but at the time it seemed that in the season of every other major performing arts organization, there he was!
Dominick Argento’s name was never on the programs at Big Reggie’s Danceland, but at the time it seemed that in the season of every other major performing arts organization, there he was! He was a founder of the Center Opera company, opening their first season with his Masque of Angels and creating numerous chamber operas for them, including Postcard from Morocco, The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, A Waterbird Talkand many more.
At the Guthrie Theater we heard Dominick Argento’s scores for Shoemaker’s Holiday and House of Atreus. On the Guthrie Theater’s music season we heard Dominick Argento’s Letters from Composers and on the Minnesota Orchestra’s season—Dominick Argento’s Variations for Orchestra and Ring of Time. Not only did we hear his music, but he was always in the audience, listening, talking with people, part of the same world he was addressing with his music.
Being 17 years old then, and certain that I would go to the University of Minnesota, study voice, and become the next, biggest star of the Metropolitan Opera, it didn’t occur to me that Dominick Argento was also on the music faculty there.
At age 19, discovering that I loved to compose and, if I would take myself seriously, I could study composition with the master composers at the University of Minnesota, Dominick became my teacher and I became his student.
Dr. Argento (everyone called him this and nothing else) was a legendary professor.
Dr. Argento (everyone called him this and nothing else) was a legendary professor. He passed us in the halls, smiling (shyly?) but rarely stopping to engage any of us in conversation. We admired his focus, and his devotion to his work. We students jockeyed for coveted positions in his classes, especially his History of Opera class. His lectures were brilliant, funny and fueled by his passion for and love of opera. Class after class he regaled us with stories about each opera, always colored from his composer’s perspective. He loved the human voice and would praise various singers who inspired operatic roles in the works we studied. He loved composers who loved the human voice. Be it Verdi, his hero, or Gounod, not his hero, we were transported into each composer’s world and immersed in the circumstances that influenced the creation of each opera. I learned the operas, of course, but perhaps more importantly I learned that a passion for something can light a powerful fire. Dominick’s passion for opera and the human voice resulted in 14 operas, numerous mono-dramas and song cycles, his Pulitzer Prize, and the Center Opera Company, now the Minnesota Opera.
Such a ferociously quick wit Dominick had! No gathering of Dominick’s students goes by without one of us re-telling the story from his orchestration class on percussion. On one particular day we were immersed in the lecture on metallophones. He held up a vibraslap, looked at it for a moment, looked at us and said “elephant contraceptive.” We were too in awe of him to laugh, but we’ve been laughing ever since, and we all know and orchestrate the vibraslap in original ways. Or the lesson on harp, one of his most beloved instruments. In just one class we learned that the pedals were D-C-B-E-F-G-A, Dominick for “D”, Argento for” A” , plus “your pinky finger is for tea drinking, not harp” and “you never hear the attack of a note, only the decay—what you hear is the air.”
Dominick believed that it wasn’t possible to teach composition. Rather he worked to guide a (student) composer’s natural gift to its best iteration. You couldn’t look to him to tell you what to do or how to compose. You were expected to establish your own practice techniques and work habits and arrive at your lesson with your piece in shape. Individual lessons with him were an adventure in silence. I would bring him my score, which he would lay out on his desk and read to himself before making any comments. He expected me to come ready to spar with his huge intellect, his razor-sharp wit, and his undeniable professional experience. And spar we did—only the conversation between us took place in my head as I perched on the wicker chair with the blown-out seat that he set by the side of his university-issued grey metal desk, and I watched the ash of the newly lit cigarette in his hand burn longer and longer and longer. I thought, “Will that damn ash fall into that glass ashtray? No, no, concentrate on the composition he’s reading!”—which he read to himself, not out loud, not commenting. But then he would zero in on the one, most important issue in the work that day—which I knew already because I sat there questioning everything about my work as I tried to imagine what he would say. It took me a while to understand that his teaching style instilled in each of his students three essential gifts: creative courage, critical evaluation, and self-confidence.
I watched the ash of the newly lit cigarette in his hand burn longer and longer and longer.
The lesson ended always with good humor, his cigarette snuffed out, and a deep sense that we, teacher and student, had met at the cross-roads of respect for the art form we both hoped to serve.
I think the most important lesson Dominick gave to me, and to all of us who were fortunate to have worked with him, is that there is a profession – composing music – and while it poses deep challenges the work itself is not work, it is pleasure. The pleasure lies in the community of musicians, performers, writers, concert producers, and audience who come together in a huge joy-fest around the composers’ work. He modeled this for us every day and continued to model it throughout the years. Many late nights, as I work through a difficult part of my composition, not feeling pleasure in the moment, I invoke his lesson—the work itself is not work, it is pleasure.
As I joined the profession and became a musical citizen contributing to the community by panel work or sitting on a Board of Directors, more often than not during a discussion which begged the advice of people who were not in the room at the time, Dominick’s name would be invoked along with a bit of his advice and wisdom. Always sage and ethical, his advice was remembered, quoted and always welcomed.
Dominick Argento (top right) and Libby Larsen (bottom left) with Dale Warland (top left) and then ACF President & CEO John Neuchterlein (bottom right) at the St. Paul Hotel Grill in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014.
Over the past forty (really…forty?) years I would often run into him during intermission at concerts. These were happy, brief encounters, where our talks were always shaded with his insight and wit. We asked after each other’s health. He always asked what I was “working on” and I always asked him the same, because we both knew that we were always “working on” a new piece – that was our mutual bond. We would exchange thoughts on the latest compositional trends. We would pat each other on the arm and head back into the concert hall. During the last few years, when Dominick’s hearing began to fail, our intermission and lobby encounters were still happy and brief though his verbal witticisms were shorter with their meanings understood through our years of association.
The work itself is not work, it is pleasure.
Now, as I finish a letter of support for the University of Minnesota Archives to document his work on digital technology, I recognize again and permanently Dominick Argento’s mastery of his talent, his times and his culture and his determination to put his music into his world. In doing this he taught each of us who had the good fortune to work with him how a professional classical composer in this country lives and works, how work is pleasure, how pleasure is in community, how community contributes to life, how life is joy, how joy is music. Thank you, Dominick.
André Previn died before completing his final commission and, since his death, I’ve been absorbed in realizing it for the premiere at Tanglewood on August 3 of this year. The work is a monodrama about Homer’s Penelope, with text written by Tom Stoppard and a surprise actor in a speaking role. Commissioned by The Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Ravinia Festival, Aspen Music Festival and School, and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Penelope is to be performed by The Emerson Quartet with pianist Simone Dinnerstein and soprano Renée Fleming. Now that it’s in shape to get to rehearsals, I have time to think and write about André.
André Previn kept his four Oscars on the floor behind chairs at the dining table.
I think of the years I spent with André with great joy. His deep musicianship accrued many accolades, yet he was unassuming, if pleased, about the honors and awards. He kept his four Oscars on the floor behind chairs at the dining table. At Christmastime he’d tie red ribbon bows around their necks; a half-dozen of his Grammys were piled on a high shelf gathering dust and tarnish while his OBE and Presidential Medal of Freedom were sometimes out and other times in a drawer somewhere. If one asked, he would show them with pleasure, but it was conversation about music, and playing it, that most animated him.
He was a musical polymath with great curiosity and knowledge of all manner of music. Some, knowing only the externalities of his musical life, may be surprised at the breadth of his curiosity. Once when I went to see him he opened with, “Do you know the music of Wallingford Riegger?” “Yes,” I said. “Well, it’s devilishly difficult. I’ve been studying it, and I’d never write anything like it but it’s fascinating!” I never heard him disparage any other composers or styles of music; the worst he would say was, “I admit that the very experimental music, I just don’t get it. And I get nervous when it gets played because I don’t know what the point is.” Interestingly, he was much more free in his critique of movie music, especially from the movies he’d watch on TCM during bouts of insomnia. He once recounted to me how he had turned on the channel and watched a movie, becoming enchanted by the music. He wanted to get to the closing credits so he could see who wrote it, and it was he! He got a good laugh out of that.
Commission or no, André was always writing. He was always looking for things to write for Renée Fleming, and he wrote all manner of works for Anne-Sophie Mutter because he loved the way she played. Let him speak to this:
…[I]t was Carnegie Hall. They were doing commissions for an anniversary. And they said they wanted me to get together with Toni Morrison. And I said, ”Wonderful!” And I wrote some songs with Toni Morrison’s words. And I played them for Anne-Sophie and she said, ”Will you write me something?” I said, ”Sure. I’d love it.” And I wrote her a piece called Tango Song and Dance, which has been done a lot, and I never looked back. I’m always writing something for her; always. And she always plays them. It’s very dear of her.
And … with Renée, my recommendation to all composers is, if they write something for voice, write it for Renée.
André hated writing program notes; he always preferred letting the music speak for itself. However, there were times when he felt very pressured to do so by commissioners. One time, he came into the office complaining about needing to write a program note and I fed him a line to start one. He looked askance at me and we continued speaking about his next commission. About five minutes into that, he stopped, looked at me, and gave a second line. From there we were off and running, composing a program note which was fabricated out of whole cloth and which, not surprisingly, figured in the newspaper critic’s [positive] review. That always makes me think of Martha Graham renaming the piece Aaron Copland wrote for her; the myth of the music which her name engendered carries to this day. Years later André would tell the story of that note as if it were the honest truth; who knows, maybe he sublimated it.
On one of his orchestral works the opening tempo is “Tempo I”. In another there’s no opening tempo at all.
He was also extremely sparing with tempi and dynamic markings. I often get phone calls or emails at work telling me there’s been some kind of printing error because these things are missing. On one of his orchestral works the opening tempo is “Tempo I”. In another there’s no opening tempo at all. I had a phone call from a conductor about that latter one while André was in Japan. He wanted to know what the opening tempo was. I told him to hold on a minute while I got the score. I started reading and turned to page 2 where there was a run in the clarinets which made me think, “too fast.” I started again, then told the conductor, “I’d say about q = 108.” When André returned from Japan I called him and asked him what speed he’d opened the piece at when he conducted the premiere. He thought a moment and said, “I think around q = 112.”
I always thought André just trusted that people who were schooled in the same art and discipline as he would be able to infer from his scores what he wanted. I like that idea. But when I asked him specifically about this habit he said:
Well, you see, I learned as a conductor, if you’ve got a good player playing, leave ‘em alone. First. And then if he does something that you don’t like, then you can suggest, not tell him, maybe a different way. But there are so many conductors I know, really good conductors, like [deleted] is a marvelous conductor, but he used to, you know, the first chord, ‘No, no, no!’ Please, let them play, because they’ll fix something long before the conductor will anyway.
André Previn just wrote for the love of writing. He never revised…
He also just wrote for the love of writing. He never revised, and if he didn’t like a piece he’d written he wouldn’t have to hear it again so he’d just go on to the next one. He once told me, “I write music I like; I don’t expect it to last.” But he did admit to liking some of his music: He liked Owls, “And I liked two of the three trios that I wrote. I wrote a trio for oboe, bassoon, and piano, and I like that. That was a long time ago. It was very Poulenc-like. But I enjoyed that very much. I don’t know, I’m so primitive.” André was generally loath to name works of his that he liked, and was generally dismissive of many things he’d done–or, a la Schubert, he’d ask, “I wrote that?” Still, I know from other conversations that besides the Poulenc-like trio, he was quite fond of his Violin Concerto [the Anne-Sophie] and the Nonet (which he also wrote for ASM), as well as Honey and Rue and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. André also very much liked his operas A Streetcar Named Desire and Brief Encounter. I would personally add to my favorites list the Harp Concerto (which he enjoyed at the time), and I think both the Concerto for Orchestra and Penelope, which are yet to be premiered, will be keepers as well.
The other André, of the popular world… I once told him I had found his album, A Touch of Elegance, at a Goodwill store near his apartment. He asked me how much I paid for it. I told him, “a dollar” and he immediately said, “Oh, you paid too much.” And he meant it. There was much schmaltz in those days. Then there was his long relationship with Oscar Peterson, whom he admired greatly:
Oscar Peterson was some kind of really towering pianist. My God.…he liked me and we were friends. And the last time he played at a club in New York was at the Blue Note. And I went to see him. And they gave me a table which was as far away from the piano as I am from you [about three feet]. And Oscar played, played his usual amazing things, and he looked up and he saw me. And he stopped and he pointed me and he said, “I thought I got rid of you.” Nice. Nice compliment.
If you’ve never seen the BBC4 hour-long show with André interviewing, and then jamming with, Peterson you should look it up on YouTube; the complete show is here:
I’m cueing and extracting parts from Penelope now. Soon we’ll start rehearsals for the premiere. It will be a pleasure to “speak” with André once again.
Direct quotes from Previn in Conversation, with David Fetherolf, Editor/Production Manager, G. Schirmer/AMP, original edit.
[Ed Note: For many years, NewMusicBox has published memorial essays honoring significant people in our field, written by people who had an important connection to that person, either as a student, a long-term collaborator, or—in a few cases—as a member of that person’s family. Reaching out to those authors has long been one of the most emotionally difficult aspects of my work here, but I realize it pales compared to what those authors experience while writing these essays. In fact, many of the memorial essay writers have told me this. But now, I feel the weight of this first hand in trying to shape my thoughts about composer and bon vivant Randy Nordschow, who was a key member of NewMusicBox’s editorial team from 2003 to 2008. It was with shock and great sadness that we learned of his passing on February 15, 2019, after a brief illness. There will be a memorial concert honoring Randy on Saturday, September 14, 2019 at Sunny’s Red Hook (253 Conover Street) in Brooklyn featuring pianist Jenny Lin.]
I still remember the first time I met Randy, which was the day that he interviewed for the position of production coordinator at NewMusicBox. From the moment he started talking to NewMusicBox’s then associate editor Amanda MacBlane and I, more a cantankerous conversation we would have with someone in our new music community than a job interview, she and I instantly knew that he was the right fit for our team. Soon after Randy was hired and started working alongside us, he seemed to disagree with just about everything I said or wrote. But that only convinced me further that he was the perfect fit for NewMusicBox because our goal has always been to embrace all perspectives and our challenging of each other on every possible approach—whether aesthetic, journalistic, or organizational—made NewMusicBox even stronger.
Though my primary connection to him was as a co-worker for this very publication, since that is the prism through which I got to know him, he was also a treasured compositional colleague and eventually became a friend. So before describing some of my own personal encounters with him, I’d like to ruminate on Randy the composer.
Score sample: music that has time and the speed of equivalents
for two or three pianos (1999, duration 20 minutes)
Score sample: marks based on windcurrents 5 for four string quartets (2001,
duration 8 minutes)
Though he clearly went down the path of maverick American experimentalism, Randy never lost his connections to and obsessions with popular culture.
Born in Los Angeles on December 28, 1969, Randy was literally a child of 1960s California, even if he actually lived for only four days during that decade. Although he would be horrified that I am recounting his academic pedigree, Randy’s years at Mills College (where he received a master’s in music composition) as well as his private composition studies with Alvin Curran and Pauline Oliveros clearly led him down the path of maverick American experimentalism. But his undergraduate degree, from the Berklee College of Music, was in film scoring and Randy never lost his connections to and obsessions with popular culture. The fact that his two biggest heroes were John Cage and Andy Warhol should give you some idea of his aesthetic orientation, though once again Randy—ever the iconoclast—would be mortified at my claim that he had heroes, even though he talked about both Cage and Warhol all the time, perhaps more than any other artistic figures, except perhaps for Peaches! Before moving to New York City and shortly thereafter joining the NewMusicBox editorial team, Randy was a fixture of the San Francisco Bay Area new music scene, where performers of his music included Fred Frith, John Shiurba, and Matt Ingalls. Although the most dedicated performer of his music was Randy himself, which he did with élan on acoustic and electric guitars, piano, toy piano, trumpet, and a wide range of percussion, as well as amplified cellular phone, integrated email messaging and voice mail system, computer voice synthesis software, CD player, live digital and analog effects processing, space heaters, and beer!
Randy had made some significant inroads into the international new music scene as well, having works of his performed at the 2000 Gaudeamus Music Week in the Netherlands and the 2001 Ostrava New Music Days in the Czech Republic. One of his most provocatively named compositions, This May Not Be Music, which is oddly one of his most conventionally scored works (it’s a quartet for flute, clarinet, cello, and piano, albeit with an added CD of pre-recorded sounds), received its world premiere in London in 2001.
Clever, often snarky, titles are a hallmark of many of Nordschow’s compositions; among his most memorable are John Cage Memorial Barbecue, an electric guitar quintet from 2000, or You Don’t Love Me, You Just Love My Doggie-Style, a transdisciplinary work from that same year. But sometimes his titles are a pathway into understanding his compositional intent (something which Randy who eschewed all analysis and advocated for “just letting the music wash over you” instead, would probably have denied). For Randy’s 1998 Drawing A Line As Far As I Can Reach, a not so subtle reference to La Monte Young’s Fluxus-era conceptual pieces, a wind player is instructed to sustain extremely high tones and extremely low tones in alternation while consuming as much beer as possible. As per his performance note, “Once the performer has reached their limit, the empty beer bottles are arranged into a straight line and candles are inserted. After lighting the candles, the performer attempts to extinguish the flames by blowing through their instrument. The piece ends after this goal is accomplished, or the performer gives up from exhaustion.”
A conceptual process is also at the core of Randy’s most widely performed piece, Detail of Beethoven’s Hair, which exists in two versions—the original for piano and percussion duo that was commissioned by Essential Music and premiered at the 2002 MATA Festival and the dazzling virtuoso solo piano showcase that was recorded by Jenny Lin.
Although this music sounds nothing like Ludwig van, it is derived from mapping actual strands of Beethoven’s hair (from a famous portrait) onto a musical staff and playing the result.
Randy’s compositional output is fascinating and it was a joy to hear him describe his pieces from time to time.
Sometimes I think Randy just liked to play devil’s advocate to shake things up.
Sometimes I think Randy just liked to play devil’s advocate to shake things up, take an opinion that was the exact opposite of everyone else in the room and see how long he could keep the fight going. From the sparks that flew during some of these debates, great ideas emerged for NewMusicBox and, I imagine, that same contrarian spirit inspired much of his music.
Yet, it wasn’t all disagreement. Randy was a joy to hang out with. He made the strongest margaritas I ever had in my life, although his favorite Mexican restaurant had some of the weakest I’d ever ordered. He liked the place because it was dirt cheap and so he carried a flask of tequila in his signature scuffed yellow messenger bag to remedy the situation for himself—and, if you were lucky, his friends.
I’ve held on to an email he wrote me before I took a trip to San Francisco about 15 years ago. Here’s an excerpt from that:
Best crazy ass bartender who will slowly and obsessively create old school cocktails tailored to your individual tastes (read good sazeracs, mint juleps, etc. be sure to ask her if she has any cucumber infused vodka, definitely ask her to concoct you something, anything!):
The Orbit Room
1900 Market St (at Laguna)
Go in the afternoon, or before 8pm when Alberta is there (dark hair, retro glasses, and stains allover her shirt from shaking mean cocktails)
And for the best sushi in the world (and cheap!). Go to Sushi Zone on Peal St—a small one block street between Market, Deboce, Valencia, and Guerrero (I used to leave on Peal and Pink, named after prostitutes!)
venues of interest:
three feet off the ground (probably dead, but check with gregory cowly’s organization :test: www.testsite.org to see where it has been reborn)
No one can tell the story of Randy better than Randy himself, so I’ll conclude this with some of my favorite quotes from the hundreds of essays he wrote while he was part of NewMusicBox. Follow the links and read them in their entirety. I’m so honored and pleased that we have such an important part of him to share here with people for as long as we exist. Life is precious and fragile and fleeting. My heart goes out to Randy’s husband Colin Conroy, all his friends on both coasts and around the world, and the numerous musicians and fellow travelers he touched with his ostentatiousness and wit.
SOME RANDY NORDSCHOW QUOTES
“I decided to give the general public yet another chance to love me.”
“It’s not just my inner child that enjoys annoying people; it’s been my artistic modus operandi for decades. … My approach to composing music is, more than likely, grossly misguided.
“The work I’ve created up to this point spurs from a rather skeptical aesthetic standpoint, fostered by a barrage of things I just don’t buy into, such as: Music has the ability to communicate something ‘meant’ by its creator; music is inherently emotional; yada, yada, yada—you know, stuff like that. For me, music is a byproduct of artistic ideas haphazardly materialized in the form of vibrating air. It’s the artistic impetus behind the will to set those vibrations into motion, and not necessarily the sonic results of whatever is written on the page (or not), that matters more to me. There’s a certain amount of artistic cynicism that I harbor in order to tap into the concepts and materials that I use and the ways in which I use them when throwing together a new composition. Yes, it’s all so self-aware and postmodern, which I actually enjoy.”
“I’ve attended performances where crucial cues were missed, mistakes were made, etc., and I’m usually fine with it, as long as the musicians save face and pretend that the piece is supposed to sound exactly how they’re performing it at that moment. Besides, I’m the only person in the audience with the ability to recognize if my train wreck is sounding too much like a car accident instead.”
“I’ve already entered the eclipsed territory where composers over 35 years of age go to hibernate for a few decades. The classical music machine is predominately interested in the youngins and the octogenarians, which affords us in the middle some time to hone our craft or experiment out of the spotlight, or maybe come to our senses and take the LSAT.”
“I’m not a big believer in inspiration. I write music (and texts) in an inspiration-less state all the time—it’s my job. Commissions have to be delivered on time, funders have follow-up reports that you have to file by a certain date, and magazines have hard and fast deadlines, so no matter what, be it art or life, the show must go on.”
Nineteen seconds of silence are suddenly broken by timpani drums and a dissonant brass fanfare. Like the majesty of Aaron Copland’s Common Man, but with a trenchant angularity which conjures perhaps a different Americana than Copland could have envisioned. Now envisioned through the eyes of my father, the son of a West Indian immigrant, the grandson of a slave.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
The first image in Frank Schramm’s documentary Discovering George Walker is of an old Maxell cassette. Its typed label reads, “George Walker: Sinfonia No. 3.” My father delivered an envelope with this cassette to the filmmaker’s doorstep when they first met in 2004. Audio cassettes were a little archaic even in 2004, but consider my father’s first forays into audio technology dated back to the 78s and cactus phonograph needles of the 1930s.
“George Walker, Pianist and first Black American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1996. A trailblazer who wrote more than 90 works. He is 95 years old.”
With these subtitles, the documentary begins.
Frank Schramm’s 2017 documentary Discovering George Walker
For my father, too, the “pianist” came first. Even his 1937 Dunbar High School yearbook entry audaciously announced the goal: “To be a concert pianist.” Audacious considering that my father’s father, whose name was Artmelle George Theophilus Walker, had emigrated to America from Jamaica with $35 in his pocket, though he himself went on to graduate from the medical school at Temple University and became a prominent northwest Washington, D.C. physician and property owner.
“His silence in a room created an aura of Olympian authority,” my father said. “He seldom initiated a conversation when he was at home, preferring instead to listen to our conversation with critical ears.”
But Sunday evenings when my father would play through dozens of hymns on the upright piano in the parlor, his father, mother, and grandmother would leave whatever they’d been doing, file in, and hum or sing along.
“The poor and middle class had a piano in their home and parents made their children take lessons, and it was always classical music. This is what I’ve always tried to make clear. This taught us what was good, what was proper, what was desirable, what was cultured, and what was not cultured,” my father would say, his voice rising.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
George Walker left Washington, D.C. for Oberlin College on a piano scholarship at age 15. At age 18, he would graduate from Oberlin College with the highest honors in his class. He then went on to graduate from the Curtis Institute with artist diplomas in piano and composition in 1945, and in 1956, he became the first black recipient of a doctoral degree from the Eastman School. He received a Fulbright to study with Nadia Boulanger, famed teacher of Aaron Copland, at the American School at Fontainebleau in Paris. During his first lesson, Mlle. Boulanger looked at the first of his songs. She said, “This is a masterpiece.”
It was at Fontainebleau that my father met a young Canadian pianist named Helen Siemens.
“From my second story window I can hear him practicing and composing in the practice rooms in the basement,” my mother wrote in her diary. “He is writing a new sonata and as he noodles and works out the ideas, I can hear it taking form. I love it! There’s a passage in the first movement variations into which he has inserted a little pattern which he calls ‘sputnik,’ after the space vehicle the Russians have just put into orbit. I hope he lets me play the sonata when it is finished.”
In that spring of 1958 they explored the coast of France and Italy, Monaco, Monte Carlo, the yellow stucco of Pisa, Maria Della Spina, the Basilica of Assisi, and the old fortress town of Lodi, seeing Ingrid Bergman in Tea and Sympathy, Verdi’s Macbeth, and Menotti at the Spoleto Festival. She did premiere his second piano sonata when they returned to Fontainebleau.
Later in New York, amidst sustained protest from both families, the interracial couple married on July 23, 1960. They divorced thirteen years later, and he never publicly mentioned her again.
One minute, twenty-seven seconds into Discovering George Walker, we see his face for the first time. Black plastic glasses slightly askew, as are the bookshelves in the background, heavy with counterpoint and orchestration tomes and his old childhood hymnal, his reedy taut voice is careful, painstaking. It’s critical to state his ideas clearly so no one will confuse them. His thoughts don’t need to be explained because if they’re precisely worded, those words will speak for themselves.
“As a matter of fact, I don’t think in terms of creating beauty,” he once said. “If the effect is such that people get a sense that this is beautiful, that’s fine. I want to create elegant structures.”
Frank Schramm the filmmaker can be seen hard at work in our Montclair, New Jersey home around the five-minute mark. Even as he partitions our living room with a black scrim for the photo session, his second camera captures background details that in retrospect feel iconic to me. The gauzy, translucent curtains throughout the house that I can still smell somehow seemed to veil rather than reflect or refract what little light there was. The heavy brass locks on the front door; the two spun in opposite directions, but which was which?
And his wicker-backed, red velvet chair. By the time my brother, Ian, and I were in elementary school, he’d lost patience with the local churches for one reason or another. Instead of going to church Sunday mornings, he’d call us down from our rooms to his chair, take out the Bible, and give us a single scripture to read. One morning it was Psalm 23.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
He’d tell us what it was all supposed to mean. Then the sermon would veer off into what’s wrong with people today. Then why there’s so much bad music in the world. There were “maudlin melodies” of composers like George Gershwin. From Minimalist composers, it was “tedious repetition.” From renowned performers including Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz, the worst were the “rhythmical distortions.” Then things would spiral back to memories of his parents and their values and he would bring himself to tears.
When my father would play through dozens of hymns on the upright piano, his father, mother, and grandmother would leave whatever they’d been doing and hum or sing along.
Gregory TS Walker, composer/violinist, remembers his father, composer George Walker
His thoughts don’t need to be explained because if they’re precisely worded, those words will speak for themselves.
Gregory TS Walker, composer/violinist, remembers his father, composer George Walker
The sermon would veer off into what’s wrong with people today. Then why there’s so much bad music in the world.
Gregory TS Walker, composer/violinist, remembers his father, composer George Walker
Such belief in a musical aesthetic, vision, and the sheer vehemence of George Walker’s personal drive, was uncommon.
Gregory TS Walker, composer/violinist, remembers his father, composer George Walker
Any musician or music lover who’s willing to challenge themselves can share with us what he was.
Gregory TS Walker, composer/violinist, remembers his father, composer George Walker
Six minutes or so into the documentary, there’s a photograph of what had been the family dining room, now filled with cables, high-end audio equipment, and an enormous Steinway D. We hear a recording of George Walker playing his Piano Sonata No. 2 which he recorded in that very room. It’s the sonata Helen Siemens first performed at Fontainebleau over a half century before, when they were together. The recorded sound is bone dry, an unflinching representation of what a piano sounds like from inches away, to a composer hunched over the music rack. Certainly different from the sounds ringing through the house when he used to practice Liszt and Brahms before one of his European tours, resonating up through the floors of our bedrooms as we fell asleep at night.
“One hates to think in terms of just Western civilization, but this accumulation of techniques has not only been discovered, but has been found to work so well,” he once said. “Although so much has been done, it seems to me that there’s still the possibility that one can find ways of extending what has already been done.”
As George Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Lilacsfor Voice and Orchestra plays, there’s a picture of him in Carnegie Hall. Camel brown fedora firmly atop his head, bulky Brooks Brothers coat and scarf mid-flap, he’s making his way through the backstage labyrinth for an appointment with Sir Simon Rattle, music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, in the Maestro Suite. The opportunity to meet and show compositions to an important soloist or conductor like Sir Rattle was a rare coup, only possible because of, or in spite of, months of unrequited and increasingly impatient emails and phone calls. The unresponsiveness of so many classical music industry gatekeepers could be called simple preoccupation; after all, the world is filled with dazzling musical talents.
This preoccupation could be called racist, if racism is an inability to look at a black man and see genius.
But such belief in a musical aesthetic, vision, and the sheer vehemence of George Walker’s personal drive, was uncommon. Yes, the music, like the man, was challenging. Relentless meter changes that reflected each phrase, complex rhythmic eyefuls that exerted his rubati onto each instrumental line, and Lord help the unprepared masterclass student. But while it’s too bad composers have to rely upon the sustenance of the flawed, prosaic humanity around them, Sir Rattle himself was warmly supportive and my father’s smile in these pictures could not be more genuine.
Frank Schramm is also visible in a second, outdoor shoot in the backyard at the seven-minute mark. My father sits on his red velvet chair, the very picture of old world elegance in his suit and tie, autumn leaves scattered around his shoes. Behind him we see the tall hedges that insulate the home where he has now lived in self-imposed solitude for almost fifty years, and the open wooden gate out to a secluded driveway shared with the neighbor, between their houses.
Then he and the chair are back in the living room, positioned between a pair of stereo speakers that tower over his head. These technological marvels were spoils of his financial success, capable of the most nuanced sonic realism, and also ear-splitting volume. At first, a range of familiar classical records and CDs were on steady rotation: the organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Stravinsky. Anything with violinist Jascha Heifetz. Later he gravitated to his own piano CDs, Chopin and Scarlatti, some of which he’d just recorded. During the last years, it was his own works. He listened back to one after another, listening sessions with any accomplice willing to brave the decibels, cranking up the monoliths in hopes of a new perspective, a new detail within his creations.
Towards the end of the film, we see our old house blanketed with snow at dusk. Uneven foot prints are visible in the white powder.
There had been one night when my father fell in the driveway and discovered he wasn’t strong enough to get back to his feet. He called out for help, but secluded there far from the noisy street, nobody heard him. The temperature was below freezing and it was becoming more and more difficult to even make a sound. But there was a house behind the backyard where an older woman lived. She had left one of her windows open and heard his voice. She called the firemen who took him to the hospital and saved his life.
Many years ago when this woman was young, she’d hosted a party with loud music that was not Chopin or Scarlatti. The police received a neighbor’s anonymous tip, arrived, and my father’s piece of mind had been restored.
George Walker, still dapper in his cardigan and tie, is climbing the long stairway to his bedroom. It always looked like a herculean effort, because just standing without a cane had become difficult for him. We hear the Cantata for Soprano, Tenor, Boys Choir, and Chamber Orchestra, which was recorded by the Boys Choir of Harlem and a conductor he was not impressed with.
“He had them stand for this tedious rehearsal,” my father remembered. “I was horrified that here is an institution for youngsters concentrating in music, but they were treated like convicts. His physical dress was also unprofessional. The boys had nothing to look up to.”
The Cantata contains a desolate setting of Psalm 23.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
In our day and age of dazzling musical talent that’s available at the push of a button or the click of a link, the music and legacy of George Walker may represent possibilities that are more and more difficult to find: The devotion to a personal vision at a time when many composers conform to an extant musical scene. The musical expression of an artist, who like masters of the past, was obviously cut from a different cloth. And a connection to past masters’ seemingly ageless historical tradition that could conceivably outlast us all.
My brother and I will never forget what it was to be loved by our father. But today any musician or music lover who’s willing to challenge themselves can share with us what he was.
Just like flowers, trees, winds, or a puppy. He said, “The Universe is moving right on time with us. So move on.” He was always in the moment. All he dealt with was the here and now.
It sounds wonderful, but it is hard to go through life in that way when everyone else around him wanted more than that moment. People wanted friendship, association, love, a relationship—hoping for a bit of crumbs in any shape or form—which created the need for past and future, for remembering and planning. Roy was not that person. He was always only in the moment, hard and sincerely. In that moment, he meant everything he did; he meant every word he said; he felt everything he felt. There was no lie or deception in that. But because the rest of us don’t know how to deal with that trueness of being, he had to lie and deceive and manipulate, so that he could somewhat sustain a facade of being a human and move through this world in flesh.
Roy’s ability to be completely present made him an incredible artist.
Roy’s ability to be completely present made him an incredible artist. This is what made him shine. This singularity of focus lifted many concert halls and clubs, and we felt our hearts swell with joy and happiness. We were so glad to BE with him. There is such truth in that feeling and the trouble is that the rest of us don’t know how to leave it where it belongs. We all wanted continuity and development and building-up outside of that moment. And that created all kinds of messes. Those of us who were lucky enough to share that space with Roy know how addictive that feeling is and we also knew, deep down, it could not be forced. It was a gift and it was a lesson—for us to remember how to be, for us to know what it feels like to be one with the universe, for us to learn how to carry that being-ness into our lives.
Roy Hargrove, Rio Sakairi, and Ravi Coltrane. (Photo courtesy The Jazz Gallery)
Roy was what Eckhart Tolle called a “Guardian of Being”—reminding us of simple joy.
I am struggling in his passing, knowing that I will no longer experience that joy with Roy. The realization that his horn will never again vibrate my eardrums is tanking me into a hole that knows no depth. I know I sound dramatic. But in all of my life, I can’t remember too many experiences that made me love music so much and made me feel so lucky to be alive right at that moment. If I truly take the lesson Roy left us with, I would cherish the memory while not letting the memory slow down my steps. As Roy said, “The Universe is moving right on time with us. So move on. The Universe is moving right in line with us. So move on.” Yes, Roy was what Eckhart Tolle called a “Guardian of Being”—reminding us of simple joy, reminding us to be here, right now.
on love #5
i wish to love you
the way i love the sun
with casual disregard
totally taking it for granted
with blind faith
that it will always be.
I wrote this piece a long time ago, while thinking of Roy. I think I wrote this because I felt that he is just like the air we breathe, and not quite a human being like rest of us.
From left to right: Pianist Stephen Scott (piano), Cuban trumpeter Yasek Manzano, Roy Hargove, Rio Sakairi, bassist Tarus Mateen, and drummer Greg Hutchinson following one of “The Trumpet Shall Sound” concerts at The Jazz Gallery. (Photo courtesy The Jazz Gallery.)
We were so lucky to have had Roy Hargrove amongst us, with all that good, bad, and ugly. A friend said that the meaning of life is to create meaning for it and to give meaning to it. Roy sure did that and then some. I’m just so mad at you for leaving us so soon. I get it, but I am still mad. But yes, the Universe and you are moving right on time with us, so I will move on.
Rio Sakairi is the Artistic Director and the Director of Programming at The Jazz Gallery.
On September 1, 2018, we lost a true musical giant, innovator, NEA Jazz Master, and a warrior for the elevation of African-American pride and culture. His compositions disseminating the richness and beauty of the African aesthetic are unparalleled.
Randy Weston was born during an era of extreme racism, segregation, and discrimination in the United States. His life’s mission was one of unfolding the curtain that concealed the wonderful greatness and extraordinary accomplishments inherent on the African continent.
I am super blessed and honored to have been a member of Randy’s band for 38 years. Baba Randy was a spiritual father and mentor for myself, and so many people. Our last public performances were in Rome and Nice in July, with Billy Harper on tenor sax, Alex Blake on bass, Neil Clarke on percussion, and myself on alto saxophone and flute.
I will always remember Weston’s extreme kindness and generosity. My first four impressions of him revealed who he was and what he cherished:
The first time I ever heard Randy Weston perform live was at The East in Bed-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, in the early 1970s. His band was a duo with his son Azzedin on African percussion. The communication and symmetry of father and son were beyond belief. This was a clear demonstration of his love for and mentorship of his children. I also remember Randy inviting the great James Spaulding to sit in on flute.
In the late 1970s, I performed with the legendary South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim at Ornette Coleman’s Artist House Loft in Soho, New York City. Randy attended this show with his father Frank Edward Weston and his manager Colette. I witnessed first-hand his profound love, respect, and reverence for the elders and his admiration for other musicians especially from the continent of Africa.
Also in the late 1970s, I had my first opportunity to perform with Randy. It was at a fundraiser in support of the South West African People’s Organization, which fought against apartheid in South Africa. This was yet another demonstration of his commitment to the struggle for civil and human rights worldwide.
Then during the summer of 1980, I was overjoyed by having my first hired performance with Randy and his African Rhythms group at the House Of The Lord Church in Brooklyn, which again displayed his support and commitment to keep jazz alive in the black community and his in-depth love for the African-American church.
Much more recently, when my mom Lois Marie Rhynie passed in 2014, there was a last-minute issue with the church piano. Weston paid for the rental of a beautiful baby grand and performed gratis.
My last visit to Randy’s place in Brooklyn was on August 18, 2018. He was so happy and energetic. Coincidentally when I walked in the room he was listening to a CD of his solo improvisatory piano incursions of the highest level. With each note and phrase, both of us were in a profound state of excitement. I asked, “Hey Chief, where’s this from?” He candidly replied, “The Spirits of Our Ancestors.”
May 20, 1991 marked the first day recording sessions for The Spirit of Our Ancestors, a landmark recording by Randy Weston and African Rhythms at the world-famous BMG studios in New York City. When I arrived at the building lobby, the elevator door opened and standing inside was Dizzy Gillespie with his longtime close friend and associate Jacques Muyal, who was living in Switzerland. On my first trip to Tangiers in 1985, I visited Jacques’s home and met his mother and brother. Mr. Muyal is an extraordinary gentleman and jazz producer with a deep love of our music.
I was quite overwhelmed knowing I would be on the same recording as the great Dizzy Gillespie, responsible for the major evolution in jazz history called bebop. We hit it off right away and Maestro Gillespie greeted me with a warm smile and hug. Once we started the session I handed Dizzy a Bb trumpet lead sheet for “African Sunrise.” He stated his preference for a concert lead sheet. After his perusal of the music he noticed an E minor7(b5) to A7(b9) resolving to D minor7. Dizzy then went to the piano and said, “Look at the E minor7(b5) as a G minor6 with the 6th in the bass.” Then he proceeded to play the most gorgeous chord progression. He was a pure musical genius! When he later did the first and only take of “African Sunrise,” Dizzy never looked at the music.
Soon to arrive in the studio were the leader Randy Weston and his longtime arranger and trombonist Melba Liston. Melba had recently endured a stroke and was confined to a wheel chair. However she taught herself how to compose and arrange on the computer using her left hand only. (Her right hand was incapacitated due to the stroke.) Preceding this recording Randy and I were performing in Los Angeles and we would frequently check on Melba to see how she was doing health wise and how the arrangements were unfolding.
Shortly after their arrival an A list of jazz practitioners blessed the room with their astonishing presence: First Idrees Sulieman, the great trumpet player and who also could burn on alto sax. Next was Benny Powell and we had become really close since our joint performances and tours for African Rhythms dating back to 1985. (I was also featured on his album Why Don’t You Say Yes, Sometimes? which was recorded around the same time as Spirits of Our Ancestors.)
There were three tenor sax legends. Billy Harper—I first heard Billy with his band at Joe Lee Wilson’s jazz loft The Ladies Fort Festival in the mid-1970s. He was on fire and I also heard him later with Max Roach. Dewey Redman—Dewey often spoke very highly about a young upcoming tenor titan that was not yet very well known, but soon to be the unconquerable master tenor sax player Joshua Redman, who also happened to be his son. It was my first time to play with Dewey and he was also featured with Randy’s band for a concert at Lincoln Center not too long before he passed away. He was a gentle man and a giant on the tenor sax! Up next was Pharoah Sanders—I was a huge fan of Mr. Sanders since my high school days in Long Island. During my senior year the early 1970s “The Creator Has A Master Plan” was our anthem. It was quite awe-inspiring to have an opportunity to record with a master and spiritual beacon of improvisation.
On bass, Alex Blake—Alex and I are best friends and his artistry on the bass is quite breathtaking. This was our first recording together, but I had first heard him in duo with Randy at the Village Vanguard in the mid-1970s. Also on bass, Jamil Nasser—Maestro Jamil and Randy were extremely tight. Randy credited Jamil with introducing him to four great pianists: Oscar Dennard, Lucky Roberts, Phineas Newborn, and Ahmad Jamal. (I was blessed to be a member of Benny Powell’s Quintet since the late 1980s and Jamil was one of the bassists. His knowledge was vast and deeply spiritual.)
Idris Muhammad played the drums. It was my first opportunity to perform with Idris. Wow, he always displayed an in-depth sensibility for the second-line New Orleans aesthetic and kept everything modern with melodic underpinnings. Randy loved Idris dearly and they had previously recorded together for Verve Records. Arriving next was Big Black, an outstanding percussionist. Words are inadequate to describe his dexterous rhythmic interplay and soulful drive on the hand drums rooted in the Mississippi delta blues, jazz, and the traditions of Africa and its diaspora. (I was so overjoyed to perform many concerts with Big Black since then; his sense of time and swing was quite astounding!)
Randy’s son Azzedin Weston also played percussion and his rhythmic pulsating groove remained ever present. He was a natural genius who also spoke several languages fluently and his artwork could rival Picasso’s!!! (We were like brothers and I was very sad at his passing.)
Finally, there was Yassir Chadly on genbri and karkaba. Yassir was part of the Gnawa musical tradition from Morocco and he resided on the west coast. Randy’s original plan was to have six Gnawa musicians from Morocco but they were not allowed visas at the last minute. Yassir did a wonderful job as their replacement.
I will always remember Randy’s extreme happiness to have so many heavyweights in the same room. Randy treated all of the musicians as family and our respect for the Chief was quite evident. There was so much history between Randy and Melba, Melba and Dizzy, Idres Sulieman and Jamil Nasser, Big Black and Randy—they already had tremendous musical collaborations during one of the most fruitful and fertile period of jazz’s evolution. But there was an unbelievable bond established among all participants. The first 2 and 1/2 hours of very expensive studio time was dedicated solely to warm greetings, hugs, handshakes, more hugs, more handshakes, etc.
Finally the producer asked me to help him coral the troops so we could start recording. It was physically difficult for Melba to direct, so I was called to the task. I also had to solo after Dizzy on “African Sunrise,” which was a daunting endeavor. Melba wrote some immensely memorable arrangements capturing the spirit of our ancestors. Please check out the three tenor saxophones in battle on “The African Cookbook”!!!
Subsequently I went on to record the following projects with Dr. Weston: Volcano Blues, Saga, Khepera, and Spirit, The Power of Music. And on his last two ensemble recordings—The Storyteller and The African Nubian Suite—my duties included being an associate producer. I was truly fortunate to spend 38 years performing, recording, and touring the world with Randy Weston, a true African Griot.
Randy Weston is the last pianistic link between Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. His forays into improvisation are clearly a manifestation of the highest tier regarding a creative genius with astounding originality. His compositions are in the pantheon of renowned jazz standards.
Words are inadequate to express my love, admiration, appreciation, and gratitude for such an incredible human being. May his spirit rest in paradise for eternity. We will miss you Baba Randy!!!
Ed Note: It has been more than two months since the music community mourned the passing of Glenn Branca, but he still remains very much on the minds of many of us. Among the many composers who have been deeply affected by Branca is Michael Gordon who not only dedicated his seminal 1988 composition Four Kings Fight Five to Branca but who also, in his capacity as one of the three artistic directors of Bang on a Can, was responsible for presenting his work at BoaC’s annual marathon several times over the last 30 years as well as recording it for BoaC’s Cantaloupe Music label. So we asked Michael to share his unique memories of this unique musical creator.—FJO
In the post office on Prince Street that is now an Apple Store, I walk in and there’s a long line. I see Glenn Branca. He’s farther along in the line and he’s in an intense conversation with a woman. It’s Reg Bloor. I know that only later. I hadn’t met her then. I watch. It’s New York. Glenn Branca is in line at the Post Office. How can that be? Hasn’t he been able to commandeer the laws of physics and just get his package there?
Imagine a sound that is the black hole of sounds.
Scientists say that black holes are so dense with matter that light isn’t able to escape. Such fierce density is theorized but not experienced. Imagine a sound that is the black hole of sounds. Every possible location on the sound spectrum has been filled. There is more sound than can be heard. There is so much sound, the sound itself is creating more sound. It is an over-saturation of sound. And all that sound is a by-product of music. You hear the music and you hear imagined musics simultaneously. Perhaps they are choirs of heavenly bodies. You are at a Glenn Branca concert in the 1980s. You are at Symphony #3. I ask around for cigarettes, tear off the filters and stuff them in my ears.
It was actually earlier—the picture says 1979. Is that possible? I was going out every night to hear music. The concert said ‘experimental’ or something like that, but to me it sounded like a bunch of not-so-great bands. I can’t remember anything about it except being trapped. I can’t leave, because maybe the next thing is worth listening to. It was the final thing. It looked like another band. Four guitars? Drums, bass? Is there a keyboard? Was someone conducting? No. Branca is in front of the band, back to the audience, faster, louder. Someone with a sledge hammer starts slamming a metallic object. Dissonance. This is why I’m here! This is why I moved to New York!
Ten years later, I call Branca. Mr. Branca. I know his name is Glenn but when we talk about him, we call him Branca. “I want you to play Symphony #6 on the festival.” Branca starts yelling at me. I love this guy. I know he’s fierce, and I know that all that fierceness is devoted to truth. We do the concert. Branca is unhappy with how it went, and afterwards he locks himself up somewhere backstage. People are waiting after the show to congratulate him. Someone big is there. Was it Bowie? But Branca is miserable and won’t come out. The following night we do it again and things go well. He’s relaxed and he talks to people.
Michael Gordon and Glenn Branca (photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Bang on a Can)
Branca is a sensation. He’s touring and he must be making money because he has a studio to work in. Was it in a basement? I visit him there, and he explains his theories. It must have been a while back because the paper in the printer had little holes on the sides and the numbers, lots of numbers, had that unsmoothed, undigital look. He has charts, he has graphs and more numbers. He fits in with those brainy people in Europe who think a lot. When you are at a performance, you are at a primal scream ritual. People could be throwing themselves into the flames. But in his studio, Branca is thinking about overtones. He is mapping large movements of harmonics.
When you are at a performance, you are at a primal scream ritual.
“We have an orchestra,” I tell him. “It’s called Spit Orchestra. We want to play your orchestra music.” The World Upside Down. Branca is very practical. It’s all written out, it all works, it sounds like Branca, but there are no guitars. The precise markings of overtones have been replaced with conventional signs indicating 1/8th tone or 1/4 tone flat and sharp. He explains: they can’t get any more precise than this and it sounds good. It does sound good.
I’m at LPR to hear Branca. It’s Symphony #15. The lines down the block are a distant memory. There are people seated at tables, ordering drinks. But not enough people. I am embarrassed. But not Glenn. He is as always. There are movements, about seven of them. Not sure. One of them is totally bizarre. They are throwing things through the air that make sound. It’s whimsical. It is funny. I don’t get it. After, Branca says, “Did you get it?” I didn’t get it. Later I get it. Branca has written a Scherzo. Branca must be happy.
The last time I see Branca, it’s 2015. He is playing on the festival again. The Ascension Three. Is Glenn a Catholic? Does he pray? Does he have visions? He is just as extreme as 1979. Thirty-six years later, he is extremely extreme. He has channeled those visions into sound, and the sound is still too big for human consumption. The airwaves are soaked, and there’s so much music that it’s flooding the system. The merchants at the Winter Garden complain about Branca. We’ve been there for ten years, and they’ve never complained. Branca is too much. We get kicked out of the venue for good. Branca was the last act we did there.
Glenn Branca “conducting” an ensemble of electric guitars in a performance of his Ascension at the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden during the 2015 Bang on a Can Marathon (Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Bang on a Can)
Are we going to hear this music again? I thought that then, that night in 2015, and I think that now. The Symphonies were created, and sometimes recorded, in a process that isn’t easily recreatable. Many of the musicians were taught by rote. Were scores left? Is anyone going to take this on? Even if they do, can anyone channel the energy that Branca summoned during a performance? Are these like great buildings, designed, built, destroyed? Is all we have left a picture?
In my tiny corner of the universe, listening to Branca’s music meant that your soul had been purified or purged and had knelt before God in humility and glory. And that by some upending of the laws of nature, you manage to bottle a scent of it and bring it back to earth, and turn that scent into music, and that music, which is just a sound of a scent of something holy, is all that you have and everything that you have.
Symphony #6, sub-titled Devil Choirs At The Gates Of Heaven, is all of it in a nutshell. It’s the dichotomy of Branca’s music: by excessive use of loudness, grungy guitars, microtonal tuning, dark and heavily tuned drums, maniacal energy, and erratic onstage persona, his music manages to alienate almost the entire classical music world. By excessive large scale musical form, lack of vocals, microtonal tuning, abstractness, non-narrative-ness, and complete un-commerciality, it manages to alienate almost the entire popular music world. It is a marriage of Heaven and Hell that repulses all and demands expulsion. About what kind of art can you make a statement like that?
I took comfort knowing that Branca lived a subway ride away.
I wake up and have the feeling that New York City isn’t the same. We build the Glory of Civilization on the backs of our most expansive minds. There is nothing about this city that makes it a Great City except the people who live here. Now there is one less. If I didn’t see Glenn every day, or every year, I took comfort knowing that he lived a subway ride away. It might seem strange to say that, more than anyone I know, Glenn was an uncorrupted soul. How artists hang on as they navigate through the maze of those who buy, criticize, and analyze, applaud, and ignore, is a measure of a life. To me, Glenn was a pious monk and a messenger of holy sounds, and I hope that there was a choir of angels singing for him when he arrived at the gates of heaven.
I met Cecil Taylor in 1958 through Ted Curson, the trumpet player from Philadelphia. It was at a rehearsal in Brooklyn that I was doing with another pianist, one of my colleagues from high school, Leslie Brathwaite. Ted and a saxophone player named Harold Owsley were walking by this place where I was rehearsing and they heard me and Lesley, so they came in to see what was going on. They stayed for a while and after we finished up, Ted said to me that he was going to go to Manhattan for a rehearsal with this pianist named Cecil Taylor. “You’ve never heard anyone play piano like him,” he told me. “So if you want to come, I’ll introduce you.”
So I went with him to the Hartnett School of Music, and he introduced me to Cecil. After the rehearsal Ted had to leave, but before that he asked Cecil if I could play with him and Cecil said, “Yeah, sure.” After Ted left, Cecil and I stayed there together. But then the school closed, so I told Cecil that there was a place up in Harlem called Place Pigalle where I’d go sometimes to do jam sessions. There was a piano there and I knew the bartender, so I thought we could go up there and continue playing. So we took the subway and went uptown to Amsterdam Avenue and 152 Street, and I asked the bartender if we could play and he said okay. So we sat down and started playing again. But I didn’t start playing with Cecil on a professional level until 1965 and, by that time, I had a full palette of music I had been playing with other people.
That happened again at the Hartnett School of Music. I was there studying harmony and theory, and I was also playing in the big band there. One day, while I was playing with the big band, Cecil was rehearsing in another room. At one point, he came over to me and asked me to come to his rehearsal room after I finished with the band. Sonny Murray was supposed to be at that rehearsal because they had a job at Brandeis University, but Sonny didn’t show up. So Cecil asked me if I would want to take the job and I said sure. Jimmy Lyons was in the room and so was Albert Ayler, but Albert didn’t make that job. There was a bass player who went with us whose name I can’t remember right now. But that’s how I started playing with Cecil. From that first job at Brandeis until 1976, I played every single job with him for 11 years straight except for one in the earlier years that Milford Graves did with him in Pittsburgh.
Throughout the years we were together, Cecil never told me what to play.
We would rehearse for hours and then Jimmy and I would pack up, Cecil would still be there at the piano practicing. Sometimes I’d think, “Gee, this guy’s really got a lot of energy.” That was very impressive to me. He was very dedicated. But throughout the years we were together, Cecil never told me what to play. He never said, “Do this. Do that. Don’t do this. Don’t do that.” Both of us came out of the tradition. I never met Charlie Parker, but I met Max Roach when I was 11 years old. I started in the drum and bugle corps in Brooklyn, and people like Willie Jones and Lennie McBrowne would come down and help the kids and would say there are other ways of playing drums other than playing marches. So I started playing the trap set and as a result, in high school, I wanted to get into playing jazz. That’s where I met Eric Gale, the guitar player, and Leslie Brathwaite and we started playing as a trio. You have to begin somewhere, so we learned Cole Porter tunes and Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie tunes.
Cecil didn’t always play the way he did. He was doing stuff with Bill Barron and Ted Curson and Dennis Charles. Cecil loved Duke Ellington. Sometimes, if you listen to the stuff that Cecil played later on, you can hear some Duke Ellington in it. He also liked the drummer Sonny Greer, who worked with Ellington. Eventually Cecil decided that he wanted to do the kinds of things you hear on Unit Structures, which he had already started doing before that when he played with Sonny Murray at Café Montmartre in Denmark. But our direction always came from what had preceded us, because if what preceded us was not what it was, we would not have had those shoulders to stand on. So when we got together to play and he was playing how he played, I had to decide how to play in relation to what he was doing. I could have thought about playing metrical time, but it didn’t work for what he was doing so I had to decide to do something else.
Music has so many different components to it—you bring all that to the table and then you think about what the concept is and you have to deliver it with an emotional connection so that most human beings relate to it with some kind of emotion. It could be, “This stuff is great; I love it!” or “I can’t stand it.” But it gets to people for that reason. I don’t think anybody sits there and tries to analyze what they’re hearing on a scientific level. They like it, or they don’t like it.
After we played at Brandeis and Bennington College, Blue Note wanted Cecil to record for them, although I don’t think he ever said, “Let’s rehearse because I’ve got a Blue Note date.” For Unit Structures, he assembled some more musicians to add other voices, like Eddie Gale Stevens Jr. and Ken McIntyre, and we had two bass players—Henry Grimes and Alan Silva. Cecil’s expectation was that the musicians would play the music the way he gave out notes. Most jazz has a prescription. Somebody writes a composition and they would like the people who they hire to bring their signatures to the composition. With the prescription of the composition, improvisation takes place and how the musicians improvise on what is given denotes their signatures. It’s really a two process thing: people write the compositions and then they get the musicians to interpret it. There’s another way that compositions are made, sometimes it’s just with free improvisation, so then the composition comes after the fact. We rehearsed a lot for Unit Structures, but if I had to write out all those rhythms that I played, I don’t think I could do that. It’s just a feeling.
Blue Note wanted Cecil to record for them, although I don’t think he ever said, “Let’s rehearse because I’ve got a Blue Note date.”
When people listen to recordings, I don’t know how they react because I’m not there. So many writers wrote about it and what some of the writers wrote about it was good and it wound up in the Smithsonian Collection, so it had to have impressed some people! After that, when we recorded Conquistador, also for Blue Note, Bill Dixon played with us. But a lot of people didn’t particular care for the music that we were making. That’s the way it always goes. Not everybody is going to love everything you do and you can’t expect that. A lot of times in the earlier years, Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, and I—and maybe one or two other people on occasion, like Alan Silva—would make maybe only three jobs a year, so it was not really that heavy in terms of quantity of work. More often than not, when a record comes out, it takes a while to circulate and perhaps as it circulates around the world, people begin to be impressed by it, so then we began to get calls. Eventually, as time went on, we began to work more.
The first time I ever went to Europe was with Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, and Alan Silva. It was right after those Blue Note dates. I think it was Alan Silva’s first time in Europe also, but not Cecil’s. It was a lot of fun. The first job we had was in Germany. We did a concert in Stuttgart, which was recorded back stage. And we did an interview for a magazine called Jazz Podium. I remember the woman who was the editor, Gudrun Endress, chaperoned us for a couple of days and then we went to Paris. We were invited over there by a group of young French aficionados; none of them were musicians, but they really appreciated what we were doing so they wanted us to come over to Paris and play the music.
A few years later, we were in St. Paul de Vence at the Maeght Foundation, which has a lot of paintings by Miró and Bacon and sculptures by Calder and Modigliani. It was Sam Rivers, Jimmy Lyons, myself, and Cecil. Alan had left the group some time before that. I don’t recall us doing very much more after that with a bass player. Obviously he felt that he didn’t need one. We played a great concert there, and we all got lithographs from Miró—who lived on the grounds there—because he was so impressed with what we did. After the rehearsals for that, we’d go into Nice and go to the discotheques and have a party and dance to whatever was popular, like James Brown. Cecil loved to dance.
Toward the end of the time I played with him, we went to Japan. It was just Jimmy, Cecil, and myself. We played what we played. We played duets. We played trios. This is my own feeling, but you can make music with anybody. You don’t have to have a set formula like trumpet, saxophone, bass, piano. That’s okay, but you don’t have to have that. As you play, the music becomes so substantial that you don’t even miss the other voice until it gets there and then it adds to the mix. Music comes from the inside out, not from the outside in.
Later that year we played at Town Hall, and Sirone played bass at that concert with us. After that, we kind of separated. Jimmy stayed, but I started to do other stuff. Maybe if I would have stayed, Cecil would have preferred that. I don’t know. I just felt that it was time for me to do something else. But I still played with him a couple of times afterwards. It wasn’t like after that there was nothing else. I played with him at a place called Fat Tuesday’s in Manhattan, and we did something again up at Symphony Space a couple of years after that. The last thing that I did with him was a concert in Berlin. It was after the wall came down. I played timpani some on that and Cecil was also playing timpani. I remember as I was playing drums, he just got up and started playing timpani. Cecil was different.
Having worked with Cecil, I felt like I could make music with anybody on the planet and I do.
Having worked with Cecil, I felt like I could make music with anybody on the planet and I do. I’ve gone to Japan and played with Japanese musicians, I’ve gone to Africa and played with Africans, and I’ve gone to Israel and played with Israelis…Italy, Russia. But I had a lot of opportunities I never would have had if I wasn’t with Cecil.
As time went on and Cecil had gotten older, he had severe arthritis so it was difficult for him to walk. But on occasion, as he was getting older, he would come and listen to the groups I had been working in with Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman, and Geri Allen.
A couple of years ago, they did a big thing for him at the Whitney Museum of Art. They had a whole floor that was dedicated to him. I didn’t even know about the comprehensiveness of the things he had done and the people he had been involved with. But during that week, they asked me to play a solo, so I played a solo and he came. He was right in the front row, and he enjoyed it. And then I did a trio with Enrico Rava and William Parker, and he stayed for that. That’s the last time I saw him dressed and socializing in public.
When I next saw him, he was at a rehabilitation center on York Avenue around 76th Street. We had a good time just reminiscing about the past and what was going on now. He was still Cecil, even though from time to time, he wouldn’t remember things. Then he had to go back to the hospital; he was in a lot of pain. But when I saw him in the funeral parlor, he was laid out like a prince.
[Ed note: On May 11, 2018, the composer, performer, and new music organizer Matt Marks, 38, died unexpectedly in St. Louis. Testimonials from friends and colleagues sharing reflections on his humor, candor, and inspiring work as a music maker have poured in across social media where Matt was a vibrant, pull-no-punches presence. Perhaps illustrating the far reach of his impact, many of these messages were prefaced with variations of “I only met him IRL once, but our friendship here meant so much to me.” Online and off, Matt Marks was a point of community connection, and the absence of his voice—especially in the days leading up to the annual New Music Gathering he helped to found—has been difficult for many. Reflecting on this vital role he played in the field, Will Robin offered to share this interview he conducted with Marks in 2015. Spending a bit more time in the company of Matt’s conversation seemed a perfect way to celebrate him. Acknowledgments to Ted Hearne for the title inspiration.—MS]
As a historian of the recent past, I am in the incredibly fortunate position of being able to speak with the musicians whom I study. Most of the composers and performers I interviewed for my dissertation on the so-called “indie classical” scene were in their late twenties to early forties; I never thought to worry that a subject might pass away before we could talk. That one of them died last week is an unfathomable tragedy, from which the world of new music is still reeling. Matt Marks seemed like the kind of composer who would simply exist forever, whose presence would always be palpable. From his work as a founding member of Alarm Will Sound, to his heartfelt and hilarious compositions, to his organizational efforts with New Music Gathering, to his sardonically prolific Twitter account, it was impossible to overlook Matt or his essential role in the new music community.
In September 2015, I spoke with Matt in the sunny Brooklyn apartment that he shared with Mary Kouyoumdjian, a fellow composer who would become his fiancée, and their menagerie of adorable pets. I was primarily interested in his role in the scene around New Amsterdam Records, the label that released his first album, which was a main subject of my dissertation. The condensed interview transcript that you read below thus focuses primarily on Matt’s life, and less on his music; I hope that the many tributes that we will surely be reading in the coming weeks equally emphasize his compelling artistry. But what I think it does address, importantly, is that community doesn’t just “happen”: it requires the tireless labor of people like Matt to make it happen.
For me, despite—or perhaps because of—the incisive humor and postmodern irony that swirled through his music and writing, at the core of Matt’s work was a willingness to be publicly vulnerable, and to provide his listeners and readers with a sense of his entire self. This is maybe why it’s so hard to feel his absence, especially for those of us who primarily knew him virtually. His sometimes-insightful, sometimes-stupid, always-entertaining tweets are all still there; his music is so insistently written in his own voice, with his own voice. All you have to do is check your timeline and cue up his Soundcloud, and there he is again. On our screens, in our ears, in our presence.
Here is our conversation.
Will Robin: Could you tell me a little bit about your musical background, up until college?
Matt Marks: I don’t come from a musical background. My dad owned an auto place and my mom worked with him. It was very much a car family: my brother was into cars, worked with them, my dad raced cars, all of that. I’m from Downey, California, so like L.A. I started taking piano lessons in second grade and got pretty into that but was never really a pianist-pianist, just played and had a good facility for it. And then in sixth grade I started French horn. When I got into high school I started getting more serious with horn, and actually the first big thing I did was—kind of out of the blue—auditioned for the LA Philharmonic High School Honor Orchestra, the first year they did that. I won first chair French horn. That kind of gave me a big ego boost, to “Oh, maybe this is something serious.” I joined more orchestras around there and did a bunch of playing: it was very much horn, horn, horn, classical music, Mahler, everything like that. In high school, I had my Stravinsky thing; I listened to The Rite of Spring and had my mind blown. That was a big thing for me, hearing The Rite of Spring. At this point, I was still pretty ignorant of new music or new music groups, or whether that could be a thing.
I went to Eastman. I did my undergrad there in horn. Like a lot of classical musicians, I started off trying to be really good at my instrument, and not necessary being like, “I’m going to win a job,” but just like, “I guess that’s what I’m supposed to do.” Practicing horn a lot, playing horn a lot, and trying to win auditions and placements at Eastman, stuff like that. My sophomore or junior year, I played the Ligeti Piano Concerto and that kind of blew my mind, and that was this thing for me of like, “Holy shit, this is a new type of music that I don’t even understand yet.” I did a rare thing for me, which was I took the score to the library and was like, “I’m going to sit down and listen to this because it looks really hard.” And then I got lost on the first page. I was like, “What the fuck is going on?” Which is funny, now, because I listen to it and I’m like, “This is such an easy piece,” [hums and snaps the rhythms] but for some reason there was so much going on in the 12/8 and 4/4 stuff that I couldn’t follow it. I practiced it and learned it: in the horn part there are a lot of microtonal partials and stuff like that, which is something I eventually got kind of into. Within two to three years, I went from “Holy shit. What the fuck is Ligeti? How do I do this?” to then soloing on the Ligeti horn concerto at Miller Theatre for the New York premiere of that, and that was one of Alarm Will Sound’s first gigs. That was my senior year, so that would have been 2002.
WR: What was your involvement at the beginning of Alarm Will Sound, which developed out of Ossia, the student new music ensemble at Eastman?
MM: We came to New York, did that [Miller Theatre concert], and it was a success. I think we got a good review. So that was the first kind of like, “Oh, man, maybe we can actually be a thing.” At that point, there was Kronos Quartet, there was Eighth Blackbird, there was California Ear Unit, and a bunch of string quartets. And from my perspective, all the other chamber groups were people who tried to play CMA [Chamber Music America], and tried to just be a chamber group and play colleges, and play hard music or whatever, or French wind quintets or whatever, or brass quintets—I was very plugged into brass quintets, and that was pretty bro-y. What’s your instrument?
MM: Oh yeah, sax quartets, you know, all that shit. And there’s something really beautiful, but also kinda bro-y about traditional chamber groups—I don’t know, whatever, there’s probably something bro-y about new music groups. When we started, Alan [Pierson] and Gavin [Chuck] were like, “We want to make this a real thing, an actual group with members.” And I was like, “Sure!” But I also had no idea whether that would stick or what. I graduated and then went to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music for a year, so I was like, “Sure, if you want to fly me down to play some gigs, okay,” and they did. And that was our first year where we had somewhat of a season, and it was weird because I was in London the whole time so I would just periodically fly back. I left and moved back to the states, first to New Haven and then to New York. I moved to New York in 2004, and from then on it was kind of like, “Okay, now I’m here” and it was actually a pretty interesting time to be in New York for new music groups and shit like that.
You know, I’m your typical composer narcissist so I can just keep talking about myself: feel free to stop me.
I wasn’t really particularly interested in playing random orchestral gigs, and eventually working my way up to getting a Broadway show and playing Mama Mia or whatever.
WR: What was it like starting out in New York?
MM: It was pretty shitty for a few years. I knew just a few people in the city, and I was like, “I guess what I’m supposed to do is try to hound gigs, just make friends with horn players and brass players and bro out, and try to get gigs.” And I did that to a certain extent, but it was never really my thing. I wasn’t really particularly interested in playing random orchestral gigs, and eventually working my way up to getting a Broadway show and playing Mama Mia or whatever. So I pretty soon off decided that wasn’t the track for me, or at least I tried for a while and was like “I don’t have the heart for this. This is not my thing.” It took me a couple years, but I started meeting more people who were involved in new music. I eventually went to Stony Brook for a master’s in horn. At that time, I was starting to write music more—mainly electronic music and weird noise music on my sampler, and building my confidence for like, “Maybe eventually this will be something that’s not just on my headphones.”
At that point, there were maybe about seven Alarm Will Sounders living in the city. We started playing together and doing our own things. I started playing with Caleb [Burhans] and stuff. [Soprano Mellissa Hughes] was like, “Oh, you’re making music. You should keep doing that, and I’ll sing on some of it.” So we started working together. And after a few years, we had A Little Death, Vol. 1, my weird pop opera. That just came out of my weird sample pieces and pop pieces, and having an actual good singer to sing on it. I had that and recorded it and didn’t really know what I was going to do with all that material. Around that that time I started writing more for instruments—Mellissa, myself, and James Moore started this weird chamber group called Ensemble de Sade. It was basically this S&M-themed chamber ensemble, but it was also kind of satirical and making fun of itself. This was at that time when – I guess we’re still in that time – when classical music was all about tearing down the borders between audience and performers. Performers were trying to dress more casually, inviting people from the audience to join them. And we were generally into the idea, but we had this idea of being this satirical ensemble that was the opposite of that, like “Fuck that, there should be more distance! The audience is beneath us and we’re the top, and they’re lucky to be here!” So we put on a couple performances where we all dressed in tuxes and we were all super slick looking. We came out and we would be mean looking, play shit and finish and just leave, and not even acknowledge the audience. We had this dominatrix who would instruct the audience when to clap, and they weren’t allowed to clap unless she told them. We had all these restrictions on them—they had assigned seating, they couldn’t sit near their friends, they were really far from each other. I had been reading a bunch of Marquis de Sade at the time, and so this idea came from 120 Days of Sodom. The audience was seated, and they were super restricted and couldn’t talk, and if they did she would yell at them—she had a switch and shit. And then we had this separate section that was a VIP section with friends of ours. We let them sit there and we let them talk, and gave them food and wine. Some of the people who came were pissed about it, but some were like, “OK, I’m in a theatrical thing.” We did a few of those and that was pretty fun, and through that, basically, Ensemble de Sade and Newspeak, the two of us formed the New Music Bake Sale.
Marks on stage with Mary Kouyoumdjian (left) and Lainie Fefferman Photo by Tina Tallon
WR: What appealed to you about New Amsterdam Records—which released The Little Death, Vol 1.—and its scene?
I am interested in this idea of classical music that is appealing to people who weren’t bred to appreciate it.
MM: It’s less of a scene as in like, everybody’s going to the same concerts all the time and hanging out, and bro-ing out. It’s more that they tapped into something interesting that was happening in the mid/late 2000s that seemed pretty cool. And it’s funny, because we talk about it in the past tense because maybe it’s not as much of a thing anymore? But I am interested in this idea of classical music that is appealing to people who weren’t bred to appreciate it. I like this idea of classical music, or pop music written by classical musicians, that is a little bit more immediately appealing to people who aren’t trained to understand how classical music works. That doesn’t mean I think that that’s the only music there should be or anything like that, but I think that the people involved in New Amsterdam are all people who are very interested in pop and involve it in their work in some way. Some people more explicitly than others, I think. Some people take ideas from pop music and involve them in music that’s clearly written in a modernist tradition, or in a classical tradition. And some people like me are more explicit with it, where it’s like, “We’re going to make music that’s pretty much like pop, but with influences from outside of pop.” I think that’s interesting, and it was a unique movement or scene or whatever for a while. I think it got pigeonholed by a lot of people outside of New York and also in New York as being like, “Oh, we’re going to make classical music more fun – or more accessible.” I think a lot of people think that it was really focused on accessibility, or trying to be hip.
WR: What were the early New Amsterdam shows you performed in like?
MM: The vibe at that time at a lot of these things was playing for people or going to their shows to support them, but also, “Oh, this will be genuinely good so I’m going to go check this out.” With Little Death, when we did it and I had the small choir, I think I paid them $100 or something like that. I don’t know if that’d be possible now. That was 2010, and those people are now touring all over the world and shit, or teaching at USC. There was something kind of special about that. We got like a hundred bucks for it, but it was a day’s work and it was fine. I do feel a little bit like it’s gotten a bit spread out though: there’s not the same feeling of everybody’s going to come to everybody’s show and everybody’s going to play on everybody’s show.
WR: How has the new music scene changed since you’ve been active in it?
MM: I’ve been in New York eleven years as of September. It’s funny. I feel like I’ve gotten a bit disconnected from it, mainly because I’ve become more involved in my own things, and I’m also kind of a horrible homebody. It’s hard to get me to go out. In the event I have children of my own, I’m a little worried, because I won’t go to any shows. I always find a reason to miss shows. What are the scenes right now that I think are cool? I really dig the vibe of Hotel Elefant, Mary [Kouyoumdjian]’s scene.It’s a good mix. They tend to be younger—late 20s, early 30s. I guess I like that vibe a lot because, similarly to how I was maybe five years ago or whatever, people are just willing to try shit out and do things, and they aren’t necessarily worried about like, “Okay, this many rehearsals means I need to get paid this much and blah blah blah.” There’s a lot of vitality with younger people, because even though they have less economic freedom, they’re just down to do weird shit.
WR: What are the most interesting things you’re seeing these days?
MM: I think San Francisco will be seeing more cool stuff. The fact that we did New Music Gathering there was really interesting. There’s a ton of stuff happening in San Francisco, and when we were there, a lot of it came on our radar and we were like, “Oh wow, this is great.” We’ll see what happens in Baltimore, but I know that there’s a lot happening there. Part of what we’re trying to do with New Music Gathering is to be like, “Hey, there are all these really great scenes. Let’s go to these places.” Rather than just be like, “Let’s do it in New York where we live.” Let’s go to these places that have these interesting scenes and shine the light on them and let them show the world what they’ve got, and also have other people there too.
WR: What do you think is the significance of the entrepreneurship rhetoric that’s become a significant part of the discussion in classical and new music?
MM: It’s a tricky thing, because I do think that it’s really important to think creatively about how you’re going to run the business that is either yourself or your ensemble or your label or whatever it is, and I think people are getting better at doing that. And I think that’s something that sadly hasn’t been really taught at schools at a practical level. Schools have their entrepreneurship program or arts leadership program which, if you’re a horn player and you’re there to play the horn, you just don’t engage with. I would have gladly foregone taking the mandatory humanities class that I didn’t care about at all to take a class on how to put on a show, how to program a concert, how to schedule rehearsals. That could be a fucking semester class, just scheduling rehearsals. The most stress in my life is about scheduling rehearsals, promoting things. That’s terrifying, and I just learned it from being in New York and doing it the wrong way for ten years. That said, I don’t think you can think too capitalistically with it. Classical music, I don’t know how well it would ever survive as something that is purely capitalistic, purely something people just spend money on.
WR: Those are all my questions. Is there anything else you wanted to add?
MM: Who do you want me to talk shit about?
The New Music Gathering Co-Founders: Matt Marks, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Daniel Felsenfeld, Lainie Fefferman, and Jascha Narveson Photo by Tina Tallon